All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.
A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/14/2004]
I had never read Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME (ISBN 0-440-49805-8), but since there is to be a three-hour television movie of it soon, I decided it was time. The fact that I'm way over the target age for the book may have affected my opinion, or the fact that it is so overtly religious, but it isn't something that I personally can recommend. (On the other hand, I'm sure many people will find the religious content of the book just fine, and would happily give it to their children to read. I can't argue with that.)
To order A Wrinkle in Time from amazon.com, click here.
AND LESS THAN KIND by Mercedes Lackey & Roberta Gellis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/15/2010]
I am a fan of alternate history, but when a book about an alternate Tudors has a blurb explaining, "The evil elf-lord Vidal Dhu had no intention of losing the flood of power the misery of Mary's reign would bring the Dark Court" and "And since Oberon and Titania had disappeared, there now was no one except the double pair of twins to stand between the mortals of England and the rule of Evil," that's where it and I part company. So I did not read AND LESS THAN KIND by Mercedes Lackey & Roberta Gellis (ISBN-13 978-1-4165-5533-9); your mileage may vary.
To order And Less Than Kind from amazon.com, click here.
TELL BORGES IF YOU SEE HIM: TALES OF CONTEMPORARY SOMNAMBULISM by Peter La Salle:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/28/2014]
TELL BORGES IF YOU SEE HIM: TALES OF CONTEMPORARY SOMNAMBULISM by Peter LaSalle (ISBN 978-0-8203-2998-7) is a collection of stories that won the "Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction." That sounds impressive, but of the list of over four dozen winners, I have heard of none of them. (I have heard of Flannery O'Connor, though.)
Two of these eleven stories could be termed "Borgesian". The title story is set in Buenos Aires, and Borges is part of the atmosphere, a constant presence even in the form of the New Directions edition of LABYRINTHS. And "The End of Narrative (1-29; or 29-1)", LaSalle examines whether Borges's work was truly "the end of narrative", or whether that was brought about by other causes. Not surprisingly, much of this "story" is non- narrative in nature, and there is even an unreliable narrator in the non-narrative. How Borgesian, indeed.
In keeping with my observation that mainstream authors often write SF (speculative fiction) without it being noticed as such, several of the stories fall into this category. "Where We Last Saw Time" plays either with time or with multiple timelines (it is not clear which). "Brilliant Billy Dubbs on the Ocean Floor" is a story of the after-life. "Nocturne" has multiple world lines, fractured time lines, and enough convenient coincidences to make it fantasy on that basis alone.
"The Spaces Inside Sleep" combines rare book collecting and sleazy underworld figures in a strange mix somewhat reminiscent of the "Thursday Next" novels of Jasper Fforde. "Preseason: The Texas Football Dead" takes a familiar story--that of the football player dying after practice in hundred-degree heat--and pairs it with a less familiar story of another sort of football death. And as I was reading "The Christmas Bus" I knew exactly how it would end--and I was right.
Rounding out the volume are "The Actor's Face", "The Cities He Would Never Be Sure Of", and "French Sleeping Pills".
(And I have no idea what the book's subtitle means.)
To order Tell Borges If You See Him from amazon.com, click here.
"The Stars Do Not Lie" by Jay Lake:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/28/2013]
"The Stars Do Not Lie" by Jay Lake (ASIMOV'S, Oct-Nov 2012) is the only story in a traditional magazine, so it is only fitting that it is a fairly traditional story. Unfortunately, it is hard to follow, with sentences like "The Most Revered Bilious F. Quinx; B.Th. Rhet.; M.Th. Hist. & Rit.; Th.D. Hist. & Rit.; 32nd degree Thalassocrete; and master of the Increate's Consistitory Off ice for Preservation of the Faith Against Error and Heresy, watched carefully as His Holiness Lamboine XXII paged through one of the prohibitora from the Consistitory's most confidential library." And unless I missed something (always a possibility), the story does not seem all that original.
BOOKNOTES: AMERICA'S FINEST AUTHORS ON READING, WRITING, AND THE POWER OF IDEAS by Brian Lamb:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/06/2006]
BOOKNOTES: AMERICA'S FINEST AUTHORS ON READING, WRITING, AND THE POWER OF IDEAS edited by Brian Lamb (ISBN 0-812-93029-0) is a collection of brief extracts from the C-SPAN interview show of the same name. Each is only four to six pages, just enough time to get some information of the author, the subject, and the book. In the interview with Shelby Foote, for example, we learn that he took twenty years to write the three books of his Civil War history. 1,500,000 words in all. By hand. With a dip pen. And African-American Literary and art critic Albert Murray came to New York in 1962 not for Harlem, but for the Strand and the Gotham Book Mart. British historian Simon Schama responds to a review that said, "Schama stoops to low journalistic devices in order to arrest the attention of his readers," by saying, "That was a very wicked thing to do. How dare I? I'm trying to arrest the attention of my readers--it's much better if they fall asleep." And Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer James Thomas Flexner does not believe in word processors: "I think they make books much too long." (Of course, given that Foote wrote 1.5 million words with a dip pen, I'm not sure one can entirely blame word processors for this.)
To order Booknotes from amazon.com, click here.
BOOKNOTES: STORIES FROM AMERICAN HISTORY by Brian Lamb:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/11/2005]
Brian Lamb's BOOKNOTES: STORIES FROM AMERICAN HISTORY (ISBN 0-142-00249-6) is a collection of essays derived from the interviews on Lamb's show from C-SPAN, in specific with those authors who wrote books about American history. (Unfortunately, Lamb has decided to end the show.) Whoever did the editing did a reasonably good job, though at times the bracketed words and phrases used to cover elisions and references to dropped material get a bit obtrusive. Arranged chronologically by history (rather than by interview date), this book provides a way to dip into American history in small, conversational pieces. While it may seem superficial or skimpy at times, don't forget that these were interviews with authors of books about these topics, so the articles should be thought of as "free trials" for the books themselves.
To order Booknotes: Stories from American History from amazon.com, click here.
"Singing My Sister Down" by Margo Lanagan:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2006]
I cannot say very much about "Singing My Sister Down" by Margo Lanagan (BLACK JUICE; also THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY & HORROR [18th]) without giving away the premise, so I'll just say that while the idea showed some creativity, I did not find the story itself particularly engaging.
To order Black Juice from amazon.com, click here.
THE HISTORICAL FILM: HISTORY AND MEMORY IN MEDIA by Marcia Landy:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/23/2018]
THE HISTORICAL FILM: HISTORY AND MEMORY IN MEDIA edited by Marcia Landy (ISBN 978-0-8135-2856-4) is a 2001 collection of articles about the historical film and history as shown in films. While I was reading one article, "How to Look at an 'Historical' Film" by Pierre Sorlin, I came across the following: "We cannot discuss the cinema without bringing up the central question of money. As there is heavy demand, due mainly to the requirements of television, the film companies charge high prices. We have to make do with one film, when for the purposes of comparison we would prefer to use ten. In the book from which this essay is taken [THE FILM IN HISTORY: RESTAGING THE PAST], we are going to discuss a number of films, but if the reader wants to see them all it would prove to be an expensive undertaking." To today's reader (e.g., me) this sounded odd, so I checked the date of the essay. It was written in 1980, right before the home video revolution hit big. These days, while there are still films that are difficult/expensive to find, the vast majority of films discussed in books about the historical film are readily available on DVD, from Netflix or Amazon Prime, or even on YouTube.
To order The Historical Film from amazon.com, click here.
FLAMING LONDON by Joe R. Lansdale:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/17/2006]
FLAMING LONDON by Joe R. Lansdale (ISBN 1-59606-025-5) is another pastiche of Wells's WAR OF THE WORLDS. (2005 was definitely the year for WAR OF THE WORLDS: three new movies, and at least two new books.) From Subterranean Press, this is more aimed at the higher end of the market, like the Willis novella INSIDE JOB (which I reviewed in the 02/17/06 issue). There is supposedly a $25 trade hardcover edition in addition to the $40 signed, limited edition, which was not true of the Willis. However, it is also only 177 pages long, about 65,000 words. Considering how few words it has, it is a pity that so many are used to describe anatomical features of the nether regions. (It is not clear to me that we needed to read even once that the Martians generate gas through two posterior orifices. Telling us this four or five times is definitely unnecessary.) The language makes it clear that this is not intended as a young adult novel. And Lansdale's use of Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells is somewhat capricious--there is nothing in the story requiring them as opposed to any other characters. (But if he is going to use Twain, and if he is going to cite "The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper", then he should at least spell it correctly.) Lansdale's writing shows more style--it is just that it is a style I do not like.
To order Flaming London from amazon.com, click here.
"The Sultan of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/08/2011]
If you didn't know that "The Sultan of the Clouds" was written by Geoffrey A. Landis (in ASIMOV'S 09/10) you might guess Charles Stross from the subject matter. It is a story very much based on economics and social class (as determined by wealth and commercial power), with some odd fantasy tropes on the marital arrangements. There is also a hard science element, making it a very motley story indeed. But it all works somehow. Is it Hugo-level? That's hard to say, but it is better than most of its competition.
OUTWITTING HISTORY by Aaron Lansky:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/21/2005]
Aaron Lansky's OUTWITTING HISTORY (ISBN 1-56512-429-4) is the story of the National Yiddish Book Center from its origins in 1977 when he was just trying to collect Yiddish books for his classes in Montreal, through 1997, when the current National Yiddish Book Center opened. As Lansky has repeatedly said, when he started collecting Yiddish books to save them from being thrown out by people who didn't care about them, experts believed that there were no more than 70,000 Yiddish books in the world. So far, Lansky has collected, digitized, and re-distributed a million and a half. (Yiddish is the first language to have been completely digitized. All the NYBC's books are available as print-on-demand books, and will soon be available, free, on the Web.)
Lansky tells about some amazing stories about last-minute rescues, when people called in the middle of the night to say they had just discovered thousands of Yiddish books in a dumpster due to be hauled away the next day unless someone picked them up immediately.. But he tells other stories, such as being called by an old man in Atlantic City to come pick up some books. He arranged a few other stops in the area, then drove from Massachusetts to the high-rise where the man lived. He couldn't just pick up the books, though; the man insisted on serving him tea and telling him the history of each book. After a few hours, they finished and Lansky got ready to leave, but then the man tells him that he can't leave yet, because he told everyone in the twelve-story building about him--and they all have books for him. I'm sure some will see this as a very self-congratulatory book, but since Lansky has received (among other recognitions) a McArthur "Genius Grant", he's entitled. My main complaint is that there is no index.
(Disclaimer: We've been supporters of the National Yiddish Book Center for about fifteen years now, and even served as delivery agents, carrying a parcel of books to Vilnius University in Lithuania in 1994 because the NYBC could not trust the postal service there at that time.)
To order Outwitting History from amazon.com, click here.
THE BIG, BAD BOOK OF BEASTS: THE WORLD'S MOST CURIOUS CREATURES by Michael Largo:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/06/2013]
THE BIG, BAD BOOK OF BEASTS: THE WORLD'S MOST CURIOUS CREATURES by Michael Largo (ISBN 978-0-06-208745-4) has what is to me a fatal flaw--it mixes real and legendary creatures. And the real creatures are not even just exotic creatures that seemed legendary to many people (e.g., elephants)--Largo includes dogs, cats, and eagles.
It is true that medieval bestiaries included both real and imaginary creatures, but the authors of those bestiaries believed the imaginary creatures to be real. Largo knows they are not real (though he does try to guess at how these descriptions came about).
To order The Big, Bad Book of Beasts from amazon.com, click here.
ISAAC'S STORM: A MAN, A TIME, AND THE DEADLIEST HURRICANE IN HISTORY by Erik Larson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/27/2017]
ISAAC'S STORM: A MAN, A TIME, AND THE DEADLIEST HURRICANE IN HISTORY by Erik Larson (ISBN 978-0-375-70827-5) is the story of the Galveston hurricane of September 8, 1900. It is also the story of the U.S. Weather Bureau, and how it was transformed by the hurricane. In that regard it is a cautionary tale, and a depressing one, because it is not the story of how the Weather Bureau rose to the occasion, but rather how the incompetence and hubris of the Weather Bureau led to over 6000 deaths.
In brief, the head of the Weather Bureau was convinced he knew everything there was to know about hurricanes, and to this end he not only refused to listen to other people's theories, he actually forbade the telegraph service to carry any hurricane warnings from anyone in Cuba (which was under U.S. control at that time) except the U.S. Weather Bureau.
Larson also emphasizes the rivalry between Isaac Cline and his younger brother Joseph throughout their careers. While detailing their losses in the storm, Larson also questions Isaac's own account of his actions during the storm. After the storm, Isaac claimed he had personally driven around, warning people to evacuate, and that he was responsible for saving at least 6000 lives. (Later, his number increased to 12,000.) Yet apparently no survivors remember seeing or hearing him giving any warnings, and reports often placed him at locations other than those where he claimed to be.)
Larson also covers the storm, of course. A large part of the description is of the storm itself, almost in the mode of George R. Stewart in STORM, although more scientific. (In this regard, the book is similar to TWELVE DAYS OF TERROR by Richard Fernicola, in which the author makes the shark of the 1916 New Jersey attacks a real character in the story.) The interaction of storm and city, though is more traditional, with descriptions of what people saw, and of what damage the storm caused and how it caused it.
To order Isaac's Storm from amazon.com, click here.
THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/23/2017]
THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle (ISBN 978-0-7653-8786-8); While this story stands on its own, if one realizes it is written as a response to H. P. Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook", one will appreciate it more. For starters, without this connection it looks as though LaValle had decided on his own to set this story of the Old Ones in 1920s New York with all its racism and inequality, rather than the "traditional" rural New England setting associated with Lovecraft. (At the very end LaValle adds another real-world connection, but I won't spoil it here.) But "The Horror at Red Hook" is set in 1920s New York, and indeed, THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM is just a re-telling of the events of "The Horror at Red Hook" from a different point of view (though "just" is more dismissive of LaValle's work than it deserves). One wonders how Lovecraft would have reacted to this addition to the Cthulhu Mythos, written by an African-American, with an African-American hero and quite a few evil white guys--in fact, like the exact reversal of Lovecraft. The result is the best of the vision of Lovecraft, literary writing, and modern sensibilities.
To order The Ballad of Black Tom from amazon.com, click here.
100 GREATEST FILM SCORES by Matt Lawson and Laurence E. MacDonald:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/30/2018]
100 GREATEST FILM SCORES by Matt Lawson and Laurence E. MacDonald (ISBN 978-1-5381-0367-8) would undoubtedly mean more to someone more familiar with music than I am. Lawson and MacDonald are by no means overly technical, but they must sometimes be. My major complaint is with the arrangement: alphabetical rather than chronological, without even a chronological list at the end to help one read in that order if one prefers. And it omits FORBIDDEN PLANET, certainy one of the most original scores of the 1950s.
To order 100 Greatest Film Scores from amazon.com, click here.
THE 101 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE WHO NEVER LIVED: HOW CHARACTERS OF FICTION, MYTH, LEGENDS, TELEVISION, AND MOVIES HAVE SHAPED OUR SOCIETY, CHANGED OUR BEHAVIOR, AND SET THE COURSE OF HISTORY by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan & Jeremy Salter:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/05/2011]
THE 101 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE WHO NEVER LIVED: HOW CHARACTERS OF FICTION, MYTH, LEGENDS, TELEVISION, AND MOVIES HAVE SHAPED OUR SOCIETY, CHANGED OUR BEHAVIOR, AND SET THE COURSE OF HISTORY by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan & Jeremy Salter (ISBN 978-0-061-13221-6) has an interesting premise, but does not quite follow through. A more accurate title might be "The 101 Most Recognized People Who Never Lived". Helen of Troy is certainly widely known, but how much has she influenced society? Buck is even less influential--and not even a person. (He is the dog in Jack London's CALL OF THE WILD.)
Lazar claims the authors "dropped all of the essays [they] had written about religious characters, and then includes The Wandering Jew, Lilith, and several Greek and Roman gods. He claims to have "cut out all the real people except Siegfried, Saint Nick, and King Arthur," but then includes Saint Valentine and Smokey Bear (another non-person). They also include HAL 9000. In short, it is a very subjective list of 101 entities, most of which are fictional, some of which are real people, and some of which are not even people. This is more accurately a set of essays about cultural icons, and a fairly superficial one at that.
For example, they claim the first series of Godzilla movies ran from 1962 to 1989 and the second series from 1991 to 1995, and that "several Godzilla movies [were] made in the United States in the 1990s. The first series ends in 1975, the second runs from 1984 to 1995, the third series runs from 1999 to 2004, and only one Godzilla movie was made in the United States (in 1998). And the list of cultural influences of The Wandering Jew does not list A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ. (They also comment, "The United States has never had a president or vice-president or secretary of state Joe," but the book was written in 2006, so this is understandable.)
However, Lazar et al's comments on Cinderella are very much in line with Mark's comments in the 07/08/11 issue of the MT VOID. They write, "[A] fairy godmother provides her with elegant clothes so that she can attract the eye of the prince, who happens to be looking for a girl to marry. Decked out in her finery, Cinderella gets his attention at a ball where she is nothing but a clotheshorse. She has earned nothing. She deserves nothing, except perhaps back wages at home. And yet, she gets the prince to marry her. This is not the lesson we should teach our children. There are more important values than good looks, fine clothes, and expensive trappings--intelligence, independence, self-esteem, responsibility, and self-motivation--none of which characterize Cinderella. Let's drop the Cinderella mentality and introduce our children to the genuine values in life--namely, they have to earn their rewards."
To order 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived from amazon.com, click here.
JANE AUSTEN: THE WORLD OF HER NOVELS by Deirdre Le Faye:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/07/2007]
JANE AUSTEN: THE WORLD OF HER NOVELS by Deirdre Le Faye (ISBN-13 978-0-711-22278-6, ISBN-10 0-711-22278-9) is a delightful book that is divided into almost precisely two halves. The first, "The World of Jane Austen", is an overview of the England of the early 19th century: its society, its clothing, its transportation, its housing, and indeed every aspect of life of that time, with frequently references to how something specifically applies to Austen's novels (e.g. which characters drove which kind of carriages). The second half, "The Novels", is a summary of the plots of the novels, with elaborations on the topics discussed in the first half. This is a must-read for all Austen fans.
To order Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels from amazon.com, click here.
ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND LIVES!: A WORLD WITHOUT WORLD WAR I by Richard Ned Lebow:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/26/2014]
ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND LIVES!: A WORLD WITHOUT WORLD WAR I by Richard Ned Lebow (ISBN 978-1-137-27853-1) is a very frustrating book. On the one hand, Lebow is thorough in looking at all aspects of the world: politics, art, literature, social conditions, economics, science, ... everything. Since most authors of alternate history do not do this, this was quite welcome. But this is more a non-fiction book than a novel.
However, Lebow does miss some things, even though they are the obvious next step. For example, his "best world ... avoids two World Wars, the Holocaust, The Russian Civil War, the Soviet Union and communism, and the deaths of almost 100 million people. [But there] is a price: tolerance of all kinds is delayed, as are the scientific and engineering breakthroughs that lead to antibiotics ..." What he doesn't say is that since antibiotics have saved more than 100 million lives in the 20th century, his avoidance of the deaths of 100 million people is more than canceled out. Later he postulates in one of his counterfactual worlds that although their was no influenza epidemic in 1918, there would be one in the 1940s that would kill 100 million people. Again, this also cancels out the numbers in our world, but more, it points out that many of the decisions he is making about his counterfactual worlds are purely arbitrary. There is nothing in that world that would seem to make an epidemic inevitable. Lebow admits this, saying merely that everything he theorizes is possible, and at least reasonably likely.
More worrisome, he also gets some facts wrong. Contrary to what Lebow says, Adolf Hitler was not born Adolf Schickelgruber. His father was born Alois Schickelgruber, but had his name changed to Hitler twelve years before Adolf was born. Lebow also has Isaac Asimov writing science fiction in Odessa and coming up with his laws of robotics there. Since it is now thought that these were heavily influenced, if not actually created, by John W. Campbell, Jr., Asimov's creation of them on his own is not likely. (He also has Asimov writing a series about the decline of a galactic empire, but intertwined with the story of "the survival of a much maligned but creative ethnic group.")
I also have to note that the index is spotty. There are a lot of pages for "anti-Semitism", but none for "Jews". Though Lebow talks about antibiotics several times, you cannot look these references up in the index. He does not address how World War I resulted in greater independence for Canada and other Commonwealth countries, who (according to a Canadian friend of mine) told Britain after the war, "Next time we get to decide if and where we're going to send troops into battle, okay?"
I really wanted to like this book, but without the characters and plot line of a traditional alternate history that uses the historical events as a background and motivating force, this merely gives you three possible backgrounds. (Lebow does try to track the lives of a few famous people from our world, as noted above, but again, this is basically background.) Since the number of backgrounds is effectively infinite, just picking three does not result in a satisfying book.
To order Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! from amazon.com, click here.
ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/12/2014]
ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie (ISBN 978-0-316-24662-0) has won just about every major science fiction award there is. I'd be happier if it weren't the first book of a trilogy, though it does have a sort of resolution. I know that science fiction is supposed to be an open form rather than a closed form, but this tendency towards series is pushing it.(*)
ANCILLARY JUSTICE is good space opera, but what seems to be getting the most comment is the examination of gender. The main character comes from a race whose language does not distinguish gender, and apparently has problems distinguishing it in general. (Compare that to many Westerners' inability to distinguish among Korean, Japanese, or Chinese ethnicities--or even to the fact that we lump several dozen groups into "Chinese".) One problem facing the protagonist having to speak languages that make distinctions she cannot see. Leckie conveys this by using "she/her/herself" as the default pronouns, rather than "he/him/his/himself". I assume that the fact that I picture all the main characters as female is a result of this. Then again, who knows--I see the child in THE ROAD WARRIOR as female, even though it is clear from the narration at the end that the child is male.)
"'But we are sadly changed, captain, from your day. It used to be you could depend on the aptitudes to send the right citizens to the right assignment. I can't fathom some of the decisions they make these days. And atheists given privileges.' She meant Valskaayans, who were, as a rule, not atheists but exclusive monotheists." Actually, it sounds like very little has changed in millennia, except the targeted groups. And even that has not really changed--had the Valskaayans been polytheists, the thought would resonate just as much.
Sentences like "Now I just have to get to the docks before I do" and "The only advantage I have is what might occur to me when I'm apart from myself" are reminiscent of other works, in particular Christopher Priest's THE PRESTIGE. The whole idea of a fractured/multi-body/gestalt intelligence has been used since Theodore Sturgeon's MORE THAN HUMAN, and more recently in Vernor Vinge's A FIRE UPON THE DEEP.
(*) "Open form" means that at the end things have changed, and will continue to change. "Closed form" means that things return to a more or less stable position. For example, a science fiction story may have humanity making first contact, implying continuing change past the end of the story. But a mystery novel results in a solution to the mystery and leaves nothing unresolved to continue. (Yes, this is a gross generalization.)
To order Ancillary Justice from amazon.com, click here.
GREEN TEA AND OTHER GHOST STORIES by J. Sheridan LeFanu:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/03/2017]
GREEN TEA AND OTHER GHOST STORIES by J. Sheridan LeFanu (ISBN 978-0-486-27795-0) has the same problem as all ghost stories: because anything can happen, nothing is really startling. The stories are just bland, and even the one twist in the last one was very predictable. (Maybe it wasn't as overused a hundred and fifty years ago.) Still, stories about specters and inheritances and devils just are not very convincing these days, especially since there are apparently no rules to follow. A vampire story tends to have some rules, e.g., vampires are killed by sunlight and cast no reflection. But ghosts seem to have no rules--truly playing tennis with the net down.
To order Green Tea and Other Stories from amazon.com, click here.
THE FIRST TIME I GOT PAID FOR IT edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/08/2006]
THE FIRST TIME I GOT PAID FOR IT edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro (ISBN 0-306-81097-2) is a collection of short articles by screenwriters writing (mostly) about their first paying jobs (though some drift off-topic). Some are humorous, some depressing, and some merely informative. I found enough worthwhile to recommend the book to film fans, but I suspect that everyone will disagree on which the worthwhile ones are.
To order The First Time I Got Paid for It from amazon.com, click here.
CONJURE WIFE by Fritz Leiber, Jr.:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/03/2019]
CONJURE WIFE by Fritz Leiber, Jr. (ISBN 978-0-765-32406-1) was made into the film BURN, WITCH, BURN, and the 1962 Berkley edition has the latter title in bigger letters on the cover than the book's actual title. (In Britain, it was titled NIGHT OF THE EAGLE.) The idea that witchcraft works, and that basically all women use it, put CONJURE WIFE clearly in the fantasy realm in 1943. Only much later did we start seeing witchcraft in "mainstream" novels such as ROSEMARY'S BABY. As noted below, this is the better-written of Leiber's two finalists in this category, with more attention to prose style than GATHER, DARKNESS!
To order Conjure Wife from amazon.com, click here.
GATHER, DARKNESS! by Fritz Leiber, Jr.:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/03/2019]
GATHER, DARKNESS! by Fritz Leiber, Jr. (ISBN 978-1-497-60808-5) has a lot of familiar tropes: the post-apocalyptic society with a religion and priesthood that is really just a way to sell science to the superstitious masses, an underground movement, mind control, ... The thing to remember, of course, is that 75 years ago these were not the cliches they seem now. Taken as written in its time, this is a fairly decent book, not as manic as THE WEAPON MAKERS, but not as well-written as Leiber other finalist in this category, CONJURE WIFE.
To order Gather, Darkness| from amazon.com, click here.
"The Sunken Land" by Fritz Leiber:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/25/2018]
"The Sunken Land", by Fritz Leiber (Unknown Worlds, February 1942): This is the sort of "sword and sorcery" fiction tat was very popular back in the 1930s and 1940s, had a revival in the 1960s, but which is not seen much of these days, or if so, it is in venues with which I am unfamiliar. This is part of the "Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser" series of stories, re-issued in the 1970s in five volumes from Ace Books, but not readily available in anthologies. It's a pity, because there is a certain atmosphere to them (at least to this one) that is missing from most short stories today. I am sure knowing more of the series would give the characters more depth, but it is perfectly fine on its own.
"Thieves' House" by Fritz Leiber, Jr.:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/31/2019]
"Thieves' House" by Fritz Leiber, Jr., is a typical sword and sorcery tale, one of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray mouser stories, but very well-written.
"A Logic Named Joe" by Murray Leinster:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/06/2006]
"A Logic Named Joe" by Murray Leinster (available in NESFA Press's FIRST CONTACTS: THE ESSENTIAL MURRAY LEINSTER, ISBN 0-915-36867-6) was recommended to Mark as very prescient. A home computer realizes it can tap the network of such computers (which Leinster calls "Logics") to help humanity in ways that had not been realized before. "Announcing new and improved Logics service! Your Logic is now equipped to give you not only consultative but directive service. If you want to do something and don't know how to do it--Ask your Logic!" So people start asking, "How can I get rid of my wife?" and "How can I keep my wife from finding out I've been drinking?" And they get useful answers. I tried these with "Ask Jeeves", the only search engine I know of that claims to take straight English-language questions; it did not give me anything useful. But the idea that someone could query the network for information about how to obtain a poison or build a bomb is very topical, and possible. Given that Leinster wrote "A Logic Named Joe" in 1946, or sixty years ago, that's pretty impressive. (KIRKUS REVIEWS calls it "the first computer-paranoia yarn.")
To order First Contacts: The Essential Murray Leinster from amazon.com, click here.
WORKING IX TO V by Vicki Leon:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/05/2008]
WORKING IX TO V by Vicki Leon (ISBN-13 978-0-8027-556-2, ISBN-10 0-8027-556-7) is about all the various jobs, professions, and occupations in the ancient world (Rome and Greece). The ones touted on the cover and in the advertising are orgy planner and funeral clown, but I found a note in one of the other entries more interesting. For town crier, Leon says, "To enhance his verbal communication in those unamplified times, the crier drew on 'chironomia', the laws of gesticulation also used by actors, orators, and demagogues ... which can be seen on series like HBO's ROME...." This confirms what I had thought while watching ROME, in which I found the system of gestures of the town crier (played by Ian McNeice) absolutely fascinating. There is apparently a standard treatise on this by John Bulwer, "Chirologia or the Natural Language of the Hand" (1644).
To order Working IX to V from amazon.com, click here.
MOVIES THAT MATTER by Richard Leonard, SJ:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/17/2006]
MOVIES THAT MATTER by Richard Leonard, SJ (ISBN 0-8294-2201-3) is not much more than a listing of fifty "inspirational" movies, or at least movies with spiritual and ethical elements. For example, the first film is GROUNDHOG DAY, and the "teachable topics" are "creation, conversion, and Lent." However, Leonard also claims that GROUNDHOG DAY repeated one day thirty-four times--and then he finds significance in this number. We may see only thirty-four different days, Bill Murray learns to play the piano very well in that time, and but it clearly must take him more days than that. Most of the films are set in the current time, with only a few of what we might call "religious" pictures (THE MISSION, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, THE EXORCIST, and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST). And of these, Leonard strongly criticizes two of them (THE EXORCIST and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) on theological grounds. He is ironically much more favorable towards BRUCE ALMIGHTY and GLADIATOR. But the discussion of each film is very brief (really only about 500-600 words of text), and fairly superficial. (I note, however, that the lessons he draws from VERA DRAKE are very different than what I and many others drew.) It is interesting for the list of films covered, though. ("SJ" stands for Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits, and Leonard has a Ph.D. in cinema and theology.)
To order Movies That Matter from amazon.com, click here.
INTRODUCING FRACTAL GEOMETRY by Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon, Will Rood, and Ralph Edney:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/05/2003]
I just read INTRODUCING FRACTAL GEOMETRY by Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon and Will Rood, and Ralph Edney. This is part of a series of introductory books from Totem Publishing which don't have to appeal to dummies or idiots. :-)
I have read several in the past--INTRODUCING KAFKA by David Zane Mairowitz and R. Crumb is probably of the most interest to readers here. But isn't Robert Crumb an artist, you might ask. Yes, and these books are ... well, if they were fiction, they would be called graphic novels, but since they're non-fiction, I'm not sure what to call them. If you are familiar with Scott McCloud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS, it's in that category, although it does not use a series of frames per se, but rather a system where the illustrations occupy a large proportion of the page and are integral to the content.
(Actually, this is somewhat discussed in the July issue of LOCUS, which has a special feature section on "Graphic Novels." An alternative that never caught on was "Drawn Books"; the Comic Relief store has a section labeled "GNF" for "Graphic Non-Fiction.")
These latest books seem to have been inspired by a previous series, "X FOR BEGINNERS." These were less ubiquitous, though David Brizer and Richard Castaneda's PSYCHIATRY FOR BEGINNERS (1993) seems to be number 59 in "Beginners Documentary Comic Books", indicating there were more than a couple of them. I also have Joseph Schwartz and Michael MacGuinness's EINSTEIN FOR BEGINNERS from Pantheon Books (1979). But the granddaddy of them all seems to be CUBA FOR BEGINNERS by "Rius", published in 1970. The "X FOR BEGINNERS" books frequently have a strong political point of view.
Just to show the range of this series, other volumes I have previously read and recommend include INTRODUCING POSTMODERNISM by Richard Appignanesi (who is also the editor of the entire series) and Chris Garratt, INTRODUCING SEMIOTICS by Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz, INTRODUCING HEGEL by Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze, INTRODUCING WITTGENSTEIN by John Heaton and Judy Groves, INTRODUCING KANT by Christopher Want and Andrezey Klimowski, INTRODUCING MACHIAVELLI by Patrick Curry and Oscar Zarate, INTRODUCING JOYCE by David Norris and Carl Flint. and INTRODUCING QUANTUM THEORY by J. P. McEvoy and Oscar Zarate.
Still queued up are a batch I bought recently: INTRODUCING LOGIC by Dan Cryan and Bill Mayblin, INTRODUCING SHAKESPEARE by Nick Groom and Piero, INTRODUCING STEPHEN HAWKING by J. P. McEvoy and Oscar Zarate, and INTRODUCING MODERNISM by Chris Rodrigues and Chris Garratt.
To order Introducing Fractal Geometry from amazon.com, click here.
THE WORLD OF LUCHA LIBRE by Heather Levi:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/01/2016]
THE WORLD OF LUCHA LIBRE by Heather Levi (ISBN 978-0-8223-4232-8) is a look at Mexican wrestling. I am not terribly familiar with the sport, knowing it entirely from the movies of El Santo and Blue Demon (and most of those in unsubtitled Spanish). It's not for want of trying--I had heard there were live matches in San Antonio and had hoped to see it live when we went there, but no such luck. I suppose the fascination with professional wrestling might be hereditary; my grandmother used to watch it back in the days of Gorgeous George. (She would say it gave her heart palpitations, but that did not stop her from watching it.)
Levi trained as a "lucha libre" wrestler (a "luchadora") while researching the book, and has a lot of information about the training and organizational structure of lucha libre in Mexico, including quite a bit about its connections with politics. Unfortunately, there is too much like, "Some academics argue that professional wrestling's message is counterhegemonic and explain it as a dramatic critique of the pretensions of liberal capitalism" and not enough of, say, the appeal of "minis" (a specialized group, wrestlers who are dwarfs or midgets). She does have an entire chapter on masks and their meanings, although she does note that a third to a half of luchadores do not wear masks.
To order The World of Lucha Libre from amazon.com, click here.
"The Tale of the Golden Eagle" by David D. Levine:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/09/2004]
"The Tale of the Golden Eagle" by David D. Levine (about a brain in a spaceship) is another story that left me cold. (Reviewers have compared both this and Jay Lakes's "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" to Cordwainer Smith's writing. I don't particularly like Smith's writing, so I guess it's no surprise I didn't like these two stories either.)
"Tk'tk'tk" by David D. Levine:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2006]
"Tk'tk'tk" by David D. Levine (ASIMOV'S Mar 2005) takes a premise that seems very "Golden Age"--a salesman from Earth in an alien culture--but gives it a very 21st-century sensibility. In the Golden Age, the salesman would have proved the superiority of Earth culture, or would have been shown to be venal and deserving of being bested, or something equally simplistic. Levine adds some layers to the story. (In some ways it reminds me of the film THE BIG KAHUNA, which is a look at three salesmen in which their product is completely irrelevant to the story.)
FREAKONOMICS: A ROGUE ECONOMIST EXPLORES THE HIDDEN SIDE OF EVERYTHING by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/09/2006]
FREAKONOMICS: A ROGUE ECONOMIST EXPLORES THE HIDDEN SIDE OF EVERYTHING by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (ISBN 0-06-073132-X) has been a cause celebre for a long time now, enough that I had to wait this long to get the library's copy. Levitt and Dubner do acknowledge that correlations can be misleading: if A and B are correlated, does A cause B, or vice versa? [Note that commonly you have both in a feedback loop. -mrl] But the other possibilities that they often seem to overlook are that both are caused by C, or that it is just a coincidence. Their conclusions certainly sound reasonable, but I am still skeptical, for example, that they have definitely pinned down the important factors in parenting. After all, everyone who came before them was sure they had the answers also. The chapter on teachers and sumo wrestlers suggesting bias in testing methods does imply that at least some of the accusations derived from the data were admitted to by the perpetrators, but otherwise I suspect the last has not been heard on these subjects. What is true is that if you have been reading all the articles about FREAKONOMICS, you may not get very much additional from the book itself unless you want to try to analyze the data yourself.
To order Freakonomics from amazon.com, click here.
SUPERFREAKONOMICS by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/14/2014]
In SUPERFREAKONOMICS by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (ISBN 978-0-06-088957-9) they claim that winning a Nobel Prize extends your life span--a classic post hoc ergo prompter hoc if ever there was one. More seriously, they spend three pages at the start of one chapter relating the "standard" account of the Kitty Genovese case as if it were factually true. Only twenty pages later do they revisit it and point out all the errors. There are two problems with this. The casual reader could easily come away with the flawed account reinforced in their brain, rather than debunked. And the reader who knows that the standard account is seriously flawed would think that Leavitt and Dubner do not know this, hence that Leavitt and Dubner have not done their research, and so spends twenty pages with a highly skeptical and even dismissive attitude towards Leavitt and Dubner's claims.
On the other hand, their analysis of the economics of prostitution is probably unique in the economics books for the general public. (If that doesn't get people to read the book, nothing will. :-) )
To order Superfreakonomics from amazon.com, click here.
"Your Life in 1977" by Willy Ley:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/07/2017]
I recently read "Your Life in 1977" by Willy Ley (written in 1964). In it, Ley writes, "A device much talked about in the past, the "personal communicator" (Dick Tracy's wrist radio to those who don't write or read engineering reports) breaks down on point two [whether it will bring in a profit]. Of course it can be built but its general introduction would probably lead to general unhappiness. There just aren't enough wavelengths to accommodate personal communications for fifteen million people. The crowding is bad enough as it is. [examples deleted] Personal communicators will be fine in Antarctica and may have a place in Arizona or Alaska, but won't do any good between Boston and Washington D.C. on the East Coast, between San Francisco and San Diego on the West Coast or around the great lakes in the middle of the continent." [Willy Ley, "Your Life in 1977", 1964]
To which one can only put down one's cell phone long enough to respond with Arthur C. Clarke's First Law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." [Arthur C. Clarke, "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination", 1962]
SHE NAILED A STAKE THROUGH HIS HEAD: TALES OF BIBLICAL TERROR edited by Tim Lieder:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/15/2016]
SHE NAILED A STAKE THROUGH HIS HEAD: TALES OF BIBLICAL TERROR edited by Tim Lieder (ISBN 978-0-9766546-7-4) was a book I had been looking for for a long time--and then I found it on the freebie table at Philcon. (Actually, it's more a swap table--while occasionally publishers may put out a few books, it is overwhelmingly books, tapes, DVDs, and general miscellanea that ordinary con-goers put out to get rid of. I highly recommend this as something cons should plan for, in the sense of having some extra table space next to their flyer racks and "official" freebie tables, especially if a lot of people arrive by car. And, yes, occasionally something I put out seems to appear on a dealer's table the next day, but it's very few items, because most of the good stuff gets picked up fairly quickly.)
Anyway, back to SHE NAILED A STAKE THROUGH HIS HEAD. I cannot remember where I read about this, but I am guessing it was in the Locus list of books received, with a very short description, because I was expecting either a straight re-telling of the Biblical stories, or something along the lines of James Morrow's "Bible Stories for Adults". It is neither, but rather a series of stories inspired by various Biblical stories.
"Whither Thou Goest" by Gerri Leen and "As if Favorites of their God" by Christi Krug are the closest to what I was expecting. The first is a , re-telling of the story of Ruth as a horror story. (Who knew?) The second is that of Saul and the Witch of Endor.
"Babylon's Burning" by Daniel Kaysen is an updating of the story of Daniel, but of the prophecy on the wall, not the lions as one might expect in a "terror" anthology.
"Judgment at Naioth" by Elissa Macohn is a re-telling of the story of Tamar and Absalom and Solomon and so on, but with motorcycles and other modern accoutrements. "Jawbone of an Ass" by Lyda Morehouse is the story of Samson set in recent Northern Ireland.
I am not sure what "Judith & Holofernes" by Romie Scott is, unless it is some strange delusion of Judith's, but told in the third person.
"Last Respects" by D. K. Thompson seems more based on the New Testament (maybe the Book of Revelation?), but its closest fictional relative seems to me to be Piers Anthony's "In the Barn".
And a couple are not from the Bible at all, unless there is an extended version of which I am unaware. "Psalm of the Second Body" by Catherynne Valente is from "Gilgamesh", and while "Swallowed!" by Stephen M. Wilson does mention one Biblical character and another character from Hebrew folklore, it is primarily inspired by the Cthulhu mythos.
It is an interesting volume, but I found it disappointing. Oh, and Jael never shows up at all.
To order She Nailed a Stake Through His Head from amazon.com, click here.
ANARQUIA by Brad Linaweaver and J. Kent Hastings:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/14/2005]
ANARQUIA by Brad Linaweaver and J. Kent Hastings (ISBN 0-918736-64-1) is an alternate history set in Spain, Hollywood, and Germany in 1936 and 1937. The idea of an alternate Spanish Civil War is certainly promising, but it gets sabotaged by the heavy-handed approach all too common when authors try to write books with political agendas. (It seems particularly bad among Libertarian authors.) At times the book seems to be almost entirely expository lump, and it has two dozen pages of background material and another page of URLs. So the mistakes are even more annoying than they would be otherwise. For example, on page 9, in July 1936, pulp writer Howard Davidson is talking about Orson Welles's voice as the Shadow. The only problem is that Welles did not become the Shadow until September 1937. (And even the name Howard Davidson is a bit cutesy--a melding of Robert E. Howard, Howard Philips Lovecraft, and Avram Davidson.) When Kim Newman did Hollywood in "Coppola's Dracula", he got all the details right; I agree that Linaweaver and Hastings have a different agenda, but for a media fan, it's still grating. Add to this the authors' unfortunate use more than once of lines from the Tom Lehrer song in discussing Werner Von Braun (e.g., at one point they write, "'That's not my department,' said Werner Von Braun."), and you get a book that's more annoying use of famous characters than thoughtful alternate history.
To order Anarquia from amazon.com, click here.
The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/24/2007]
I want to add something to my comments in the 08/10/07 issue of the MT VOID about J. Rufus Fears's analysis of Abraham Lincoln in Books That Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life". Fears spends a lot of time analyzing the words of the Gettysburg Address, and in particular how certain phrases--"four score and seven", "brought forth", "conceived in liberty", and so on--were purposely phrased to echo the King James Bible's language and to give a religious meaning to his words. But in "Angels and Ages: Lincoln's Language and Its Legacy" (New Yorker, May 28, 2007), Adam Gopnik notes that we are not really sure what Lincoln said. "The Cincinnati Daily Gazette, a Republican paper, made the famous first sentence end 'that all mankind are created free and equal by a good God,' though it's hard to know whether its reporter had deliberately italicized the point or was simply hearing it with his heart. Also in the first sentence, Lincoln's remark that the nation was 'conceived in liberty' was reported in some newspapers as 'consecrated to liberty,' a more religious reading of the intended message, and there are those who believe that Lincoln made an impromptu alteration." Given this, attempting to find deep significance in very specific words and phrases is an interesting exercise, but perhaps not entirely reliable as a way of pinning Lincoln down. Gopnick does agree, however, that Lincoln's speeches tended toward a Biblical basis and style rather than the Classical basis and style favored by some others of that era, notably Edward Everett, who gave the main speech at Gettysburg.
REVISIONING 007: JAMES BOND AND CASINO ROYALE edited by Christopher Lindner:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2014]
REVISIONING 007: JAMES BOND AND CASINO ROYALE edited by Christoph Lindner (ISBN 978-1-906660-19-2) is an academic collection, so unless you are reading this as an assignment, some articles will be more interesting (or coherent) than others. Why more coherent? Well, because some say things like, "However, I want to go beyond a discussion of [Daniel] Craig's body by considering it in terms of and within a spatial dialectic that highlights the relationship between the action and context. The primitive quality of Craig's performance, its lack of polish and hence, peculiar incompatibility with the Bond tradition, emerges through his relationship in space. Indeed, my focus is less on the brute force of Craig's 007 and more on the unstructured and tactical integration of body in space that he makes possible."
On the other hand, Will Schiebel's "The History of CASINO ROYALE On (and Off) Screen" is a great introduction to the topic, and covers not just the original book and both feature films, but also the television play and the comic strip. Douglas L. Howard's "*Do I Look Like I Give a Damn?': What's Right about Getting It Wrong in CASINO ROYALE" appeals to the nit-picker in me, analyzing the changes made to the mythos, what purpose they serve, and how well they work. Monika Gehlawat's analysis of the African chase sequence (in "Improvisation, Action and Architecture in CASINO ROYALE"), comparing Bond's "brute-force" approach with Mollaka's "parkour" style adds so much to the viewer's understanding of the characters. And if you are interested in the treatment of gender issues, even the essays not specifically discussing it all take a shot at it. (Much of this is in somewhat incomprehensible technical jargon, but I get the impression that not everyone agrees on what the latest CASINO ROYALE is trying to say about women or gender issues.)
Most books about the Bond films rely on plot summaries and production anecdotes, with a few paragraphs discussing political, social, or psychological issues (e.g., noting that the freedom fighters that Bond helps in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS later turned into the Taliban in the real world). Here the authors do a much deeper analysis, in part because even if each one has no more pages to work within than would be devoted to a single film in a "James Bond films" book, each author picks one aspect of CASINO ROYALE and spends all of his or her time on that.
To order Revisioning 007 from amazon.com, click here.
THE ART OF THE MOVING PICTURE by Vachel Lindsay:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/16/2014]
THE ART OF THE MOVING PICTURE by Vachel Lindsay (ISBN 978-0-375-75613-9) is said to be the first book of film criticism. The problem is that almost all the films Lindsay discusses are unknown today (and quite possibly lost). One thing that remains is his division of films into three categories, which he says are analogous to painting, sculpture, and architecture. We have the intimate drama, based on characterization--that's painting. We have the action film--that's sculpture. And we have the epic--that's architecture.
Lindsay puts forth the radical notion that films should not have a musical accompaniment, but rather that theaters should promote conversation among the audience during the film! However, he does say that if sound films ever get to a naturalistic level (rather than the very primitive experiments in sound films in 1915, which consisted mostly of playing a record to go along with the film), he would change his mind.
The only other comment I have is that where we say that a character is "played" by an actor, Lindsay says they were "impersonated" by someone. Every time I read this, I think that the actor is somehow claiming to be someone else with malicious intent.
To order The Art of the Moving Picture from amazon.com, click here.
BRANDWASHED by Martin Lindstrom:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/08/2012]
BRANDWASHED by Martin Lindstrom (ISBN 978-0-385-53173-3) is an updating of Vance Packard's THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS. But to some extent Lindstrom has made his job difficult by being unclear about what he is criticizing. If indeed it is the use of brands, then he has interpreted this so widely as to made the term meaningless.
"I decided that I would not buy any new brands for one solid year [but] I would allow myself to continue to use the possessions I already owned.... Under the terms of my detox, I wasn't even allowed to buy a book, a magazine, or a newspaper (yes, I think of all these as brands that tell the world who you are or, in some cases, would like to be perceived as being), and let me tell you, those fourteen-hour transatlantic flights get pretty boring with nothing to read."
Well, he seems to be saying that he didn't actually own any books when this started. And while I understand that a publisher might constitute a brand, I am not sure how a used copy of an old book from a defunct publisher would count as a brand. Lindstrom allowed himself to buy generic orange juice, or an apple, but those also tell the world something about who he is or wants to be perceived as being. Indeed, any choice does that.
(For that matter, has he never heard of public libraries? His rules said he could not buy a book, but one does not buy books from the library, just borrows them.)
And that apple he bought--was it a Granny Smith, or a Gala, or a Fuji? Those are all brands in the sense that they were developed to be marketed a certain way--as sweeter than others, or tarter, or juicier, or something that distinguishes them. He wouldn't buy a meal in a restaurant if it came with Adirondack tomatoes, but apparently this did not extend to apples.
Lindstrom also claims that "jars and containers are deliberately engineered so that when we unscrew [them] at home, we'll hear that comforting "smack" sound, further reassurance that what we've bought is fresh, clean, and safe--never mind that the smacking sound was created and patented in a sound lab to manipulate us into believing that the marmalade [his example] was flown in from Edinburgh just this morning." He does not seem to know that the sound comes from releasing the vacuum seal, or noticing that an unopened jar of (say) spaghetti sauce can sit on the shelf for months with no problem, but once opened (unsealed), will go bad fairly quickly.
Certainly one of Lindstrom's more controversial claims is that one of the tools companies use to sell their product is religion. The example he gives is halal certification; he notes that a Muslim told him that "to make up for his lack of devoutness he'd begun buying more and more halal-certified brands". What these brands are selling, Lindstrom says, is "purity, spirituality, faith, virtue, and in some cases atonement". One can, I suppose, make this argument, but what is interesting is his choice of halal rather than kosher. In the United States, anyway, the notion of "kosher" would be much more familiar to his readers, and one wonders if Lindstrom thought it less likely to attract criticism if he described halal certification as a marketing ploy than if he applied that description to kosher certification. (It could also be that kosher certification is much more widespread, so Lindstrom may not consider it as distinguishing.)
To order Brandwashed from amazon.com, click here.
"The Faery Handbag" by Kelly Link:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2005]
"The Faery Handbag" by Kelly Link (in the anthology THE FAERY REEL) seems like a typical fairy tale translated to an urban setting. As with many of the nominees, my only question is why this was deemed Hugo-worthy.
To order The Faery Reel from amazon.com, click here.
"Magic for Beginners" by Kelly Link:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/12/2006]
Last year Kelly Link won the Hugo for novelette for "The Faery Handbag", a story that I found okay, but nothing special. This year she has a nominated novella, "Magic for Beginners" (in MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS, ISBN 0-1560-3187-6; also F&SF Sep 2005), and my reaction is about the same. Jeremy, Elizabeth, and Karl are friends who watch a mysterious television show which runs at random times on random channels, yet somehow they always know when it is on. Then Jeremy's mother inherits a wedding chapel and a phone booth in Las Vegas, and Jeremy starts getting strange communications from the phone booth which may or may not be connected to the show. It seemed fairly pointless and uninvolving to me.
To order Magic for Beginners from amazon.com, click here.
THE EXPLODING WHALE AND OTHER REMARKABLE STORIES FROM THE EVENING NEWS by Paul Linnman:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2014]
In November 1970 a dead sperm whale was washed up in Florence, Oregon. After considering several ways to dispose of it--too decomposed to drag away, too close to the water to bury effectively, etc.--the state decided the best way would be to blow it up, creating small enough pieces that gulls and other scavengers would finish the clean-up. Reporter Paul Linnman and cameraman Doug Brazil of KATU in Portland were sent out on November 12 to cover the event. What happened that day and for the next quarter century is laid out in great detail in THE EXPLODING WHALE AND OTHER REMARKABLE STORIES FROM THE EVENING NEWS by Paul Linnman (ISBN 978-1-55868-743-1). Even so, there is not enough to fill a book, so Linnman also describes his career and some of the inspirational stories he has covered over the years. (Mobility-impaired race car drivers such as Mark wrote about in his review of DRIVEN are not a new phenomenon, apparently.) Frankly, I skimmed the rest and read mostly about the whale. And in answer to your next question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBgThvB_IDQ with 1,716,825 views so far.
To order The Exploding Whale from amazon.com, click here.
A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER by David Liss:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/23/2004]
Of particular interest to Jewish readers might be a book not read for any group, David Liss's A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER. This is a mystery set in the early eighteenth century in England, during a time after Cromwell had allowed Jews to return to England legally for the first time after their expulsion by Edward I in 1290. The main character is basically a private detective before such a thing existed, who left his family of stock jobbers to become a thief before settling into a somewhat more respectable profession. After complaining about all the economics lectures in Robert A. Heinlein's FOR US, THE LIVING, it may seem odd that I am recommending this, because there is a lot of "expository lump" about the financial situation in England at the time. But proportionally it is considerably less than in Heinlein, and there is actually a plot that goes with it.
To order A Conspiracy of Paper from amazon.com, click here.
THE CHESS MACHINE by Robert Löhr:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2011]
THE CHESS MACHINE by Robert Löhr (ISBN 978-1-59420-126-4) is a novel about Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess-playing "Mechanical Turk". In 2003, I reviewed Tom Standage's THE TURK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE FAMOUS EIGHTEENTH CENTURY CHESS-PLAYING MACHINE. That was a non-fiction account of the Turk; Löhr as written a novel based on the same event. (Löhr does indicate in the author's notes the major liberties he has taken with the story.) It's okay enough, I suppose, but nothing special, and Standage's book is a better introduction to the subject.
To order The Chess Machine from amazon.com, click here.
THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/01/2016]
And speaking of outdated attitudes, THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London (ISBN 978-0-451-52703-5) exhibits some of the same: wonderful nature descriptions and characterization of Buck, but also multiple uses of the "N-word" (both in abbreviated form as a dog's name, and it compound form describing a geologic formation). Oh, and the Native Americans (or since it is in Canada, First Peoples) don't come off very well either. My guess is that not too many schools have this on their required reading list any more.
To order The Call of the Wild from amazon.com, click here.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SHADWELL SHADOWS by James Lovegrove:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/13/2017]
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SHADWELL SHADOWS by James Lovegrove (ISBN 978-1-785-65291-2) crosses Sherlock Holmes with H. P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu" world. It is also the first of a trilogy, though it does stand on its own. One thing that I find a bit off-puttng is that Watson changes a lot of the original canon, with pretty much the same explanation that he used for not writing about the Giant Rat of Sumatra: the world is not yet ready for the true story. (I hear Jack Nicholson in the background yelling, "You can't handle the truth!") By the time you change as much of the background story as Watson/Lovegrove does, it is questionable whether you still have Sherlock Holmes. And Lovegrove seems to go a bit overboard on the writing styles, both Victorian and Lovecraftian. Still, it's enjoyable in a pulpish sort of way.
To order Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows from amazon.com, click here.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES by James Lovegrove:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/23/2016]
In 2010, Titan Books started a line of Sherlock Holmes books by reprinting some of the classic pastiches. These included DR JEKYLL AND MR HOLMES by Loren D. Estleman, SEANCE FOR A VAMPIRE by Fred Saberhagen, SHERLOCK HOLMES VS DRACULA by Loren D. Estleman, THE ECTOPLASMIC MAN by Daniel Stashower, THE PEERLESS PEER by Philip Jose Farmer, and WAR OF THE WORLDS by Manly Wade Wellman and Wade Wellman. But when they had down all of these, they realized there was still a market for Holmes books, so they started publishing new ones, and I decided to try some of them, starting with the ones available in my library.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES by James Lovegrove (ISBN 978-1-7811-6541-6) is a steampunk Sherlock Holmes story. I suppose it's okay as steampunk, but as a Sherlock Holmes story, there is too much action and fighting, too much back story and side story, and not enough ratiocination. In fact, there is very little ratiocination at all. Lovegrove has written another Sherlock Holmes book, THE CTHULHU CASEBOOKS: SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SHADWELL SHADOWS. I might read it for the Lovecraft connection, but I'm not really expecting much in the way of Holmes in it.
To order Sherlock Holmes and the Stuff of Nightmares from amazon.com, click here.
"Bambi Steaks" by Richard A. Lovett:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/01/2007]
"Bambi Steaks" by Richard A. Lovett (ANALOG, May 2007) is the sort of story that makes me yearn for the days of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth. It is set in the future (sometime after 2017) and apparently the Red states and the Blue states split apart (actually there seemed to be six different splinter countries at one point) which eventually re-formed into a confederacy. And someone has developed mind transference, so there is a draft where Reds swap minds/bodies with Blues for a week or a month or whatever. (This is the best use they have for mind transference?!) Our narrator is a Blue and has to live as a Red for a month. Oh, and people are supposed to try to conceal their identity during the swap. The word "predictable" is far too understated for this story. The narrator has his brain full of stereotypes of Reds, but as written, is just a mass of stereotypes about Blues. And just in case even this is too subtle, the tagline reads: "The trouble with the real world is that it too often refuses to fit our nest pictures of it. . . ." And the fact that the exchange is symmetrical provides no balance--when he returns, his Blue buddies talk about what a great guy his Red "mind guest" was. The Golden Age of social satire science fiction is indeed passed.
DUST BOWL DIARY by Anne Marie Low:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/19/2010]
DUST BOWL DIARY by Anne Marie Low (ISBN-10 0-8032-2854-3) is the diary of the author from being a sophomore in high school in 1928 to becoming a teacher and then up through 1937, all during the Depression and Dust Bowl in North Dakota. Low has filled in some of the gaps and made some general comments as well, so its half diary and half autobiography.
Low is fairly critical of the Roosevelt administration and most of its programs (such as the CCC). Yet ironically, she writes of a handyman on the farm, "Poor old Joe, still trying but increasingly useless, helped with the barnyard chores. He was not worth what he cost us in board, clothing, and tobacco money. Now a man like him would have social security [sic] or some pension system. Joe had nothing." She does not mention that Social Security was one of Roosevelt's programs. (Then again, many of those people protesting "socialism" in government are still perfectly happy to cash their Social Security checks and have Medicare pay their medical bills.)
To order Dust Bowl Diary from amazon.com, click here.
SMOKIN' ROCKETS by Patrick Lucanio and Gary Coville:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/29/2006]
SMOKIN' ROCKETS by Patrick Lucanio and Gary Coville (ISBN 0-7764-1233-X) is subtitled "The Romance of Technology in American Film, Radio and Television, 1945-1962". What sets this apart from most other books about technology (and science fiction) in that era is that most other books concentrate on film and television, and almost completely ignore radio. Lucanio and Coville, on the other hand, spend a lot of time on radio, recognizing its centrality to American life leading up to and during much of that period. They do spend a bit too much time, I thought, detailing the plots of some of the films discussed (particularly THE TWONKY).
To order Smokin' Rockets from amazon.com, click here.
MAKING MOVIES by Sidney Lumet:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/20/2018]
MAKING MOVIES by Sidney Lumet (ISBN 978-0-679-75660-4) is the perfect book if you want to know just how a movie is made. Lumet traces the production from the "where do you get your ideas" state through the director, the writer, the style, the actors, and so on, up to the answer print and the studio. Along the way, he explains how different camera techniques give different looks, how to read a daily call sheet, and why he is not keen on the teamsters. He illustrates the various stages, choices, etc., with anecdotes about his own films. For example, he explains how he managed to shoot 12 ANGRY MEN on a truly shoestring budget by shooting it totally out of order: first everything with one wall as a background, then rotate the camera 90 degrees for everything against wall two, and so on. Arguments that took place across the table had their covering shots done one day, participant one's close-ups another day, and participant two's close-ups yet a third day. Amazing!
Needless to say, some familiarity with at least some of Lumet's films is helpful. Luckily, people who are interested in all this detail probably have seen most of the ones he references.
To order Making Movies from amazon.com, click here.
THE MIND OF A MNEMONIST by A. R. Luria:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/01/2006]
When our book discussion group read Jorge Luis Borges's "Funes the Memorious", someone recommended THE MIND OF A MNEMONIST by A. R. Luria (ISBN 0-674-57622-5), an account of a real-life example of phenomenal memory. The subject (called only "S.") remembered things through synesthesia--a "crossing" of the senses. So, for example, he may remember a certain word as not just the word, but also a puff of smoke, or a certain smell, or a particular sound. Of particular interest was the way S. solved mathematical problems, using visualizations which often seem to have only tenuous connections to the problem itself.
To order The Mind of the Mnemonist from amazon.com, click here.
YOU CAN LOOK IT UP: THE REFERENCE SHELF FROM ANCIENT BABYLON TO WIKIPEDIA by Jack Lynch:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/04/2016]
YOU CAN LOOK IT UP: THE REFERENCE SHELF FROM ANCIENT BABYLON TO WIKIPEDIA by Jack Lynch (ISBN 978-0-8027-7752-2) has 25 chapters, arranged chronologically, each discussing two paired reference works, and 24 interstitial essays. On the whole the interstitials are more interesting than the actual chapters, covering such topic as the rise (and fall) of alphabetical order, the invention of the codex, methods of organizing books, and so on. Given the chapters are chronological starting with Hammurabi, they cover a lot of ancient and medieval works that frankly are not very interesting to most people today, while the topical interstitials cover subjects that still affect us.
To order You Can Look It Up from amazon.com, click here.