Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.

LECTURES ON LITERATURE by Vladimir Nabokovv:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/14/2016]

LECTURES ON LITERATURE by Vladimir Nabokovv (ISBN 978-0-156-02775-5) is based on Nabokov's lectures at Cornell University, and the works covered include Jane Austen's MANSFIELD PARK, James Joyce's ULYSSES, Gustave Flaubert's MADAME BOVARY, Marcel Proust's SWANN'S WAY, Charles Dickens's BLEAK HOUSE, Franz Kafka's THE METAMORPHOSIS, and Robert Louis Stevenson's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Each essay must be the concatenation of several lectures, since the length and level of detail could not be covered in a single hour. Given that Nabokov is not your average college professor, his lectures go into far more detail about the construction of the works: the choices the authors made in characters, language, plot structure, and so on. I do recommend, however, that you read (or re-read) each work before reading the essay on it, because Nabokov (rightly) assumes his students will have done so.

To order Lectures on Literature from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/24/2017]

THE MAN FROM MARS: RAY PALMER'S AMAZING PULP JOURNEY by Fred Nadis (ISBN 978-0-399-16054-7) is a biography of one of the important science fiction editors, but one who is usually over-looked. John W. Campbell, Jr., is considered the dominating editor of the late 1930s until the early 1970s, and everyone else seems to end up as a footnote. Other editors from the 1930s and 1940s are almost completely forgotten, and even those of the 1950s are rarely remembered, with Frederik Pohl, H. L. Gold, and Edward Ferman being the few exceptions. (Campbell's dominance was so complete that if one is asked to name an editor of ASTOUNDING/ANALOG, it is inevitably Campbell, even though Stanley Schmidt was editor a year longer than Campbell.) But I digress. Palmer edited AMAZING STORIES from 1938 through 1949, then founded FATE MAGAZINE (which he edited until 1955), and followed this with a series of other magazines dealing with the paranormal. These were a predictable outgrowth of what Palmer is probably best know for: the promotion of the "Shaver Mystery". Nadis cannot seem to decide whether Palmer actually believed Shaver's claims, or any of the myriad other "reports" of flying saucers, telepathy, conspiracy theories, or secret races controlling humans, whether he was just looking for a good yarn, or whether he was just trying to make money. Alas, many of the conspiracy theories and stories of secret races that Palmer "promoted" were basically racist and anti-Semitic. It is not clear whether Palmer realized this, especially given that he tended to be very unprejudiced in what he would publish. He published Ray Bradbury's "Way in the Middle of the Air" (about African-Americans leaving a Southern town en masse to colonize Mars) in his OTHER WORLDS in 1950 when no one else would take it. (It became part of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, but was dropped from 1997, 2001, and 2006 reprints!) He also published Theodore Sturgeon's science fiction portrayal of homosexuality, "A World Well Lost", in UNIVERSE SCIENCE FICTION in 1953 after Campbell not only rejected it, but contacted every other editor to ask them to reject it as well. So Palmer was not in general a narrow-minded bigot. Palmer's history is fascinating, and there is a lot of detail about the era. For example, I was surprised to hear that editors of the 1930s and 1940s apparently gave away the originals of the cover paintings for their magazines. At some point, luckily, artists put their collective foot down and retained the rights to the original paintings. As for Palmer's motivations, you will have to read the book and decide for yourself.

To order The Man from Mars from, click here.


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

The biographical blurb on READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi (ISBN-13 978-0-375-50490-7, ISBN-10 0-375-50490-7) says, "She [Nafisi] was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil...." I am sure most people's reaction is "How outrageous! What a restriction of freedom!" But if you read of a female visiting professor from country X, "She was expelled from the University of Iowa for refusing to wear a top," you would probably have a completely different reaction. (Too unlikely? How about a visiting professor ejected from a public beach for refusing to wear a top?)

That thought aside, I will also warn that the book will be more meaningful if you have read the works characters and authors Nafisi names her chapters for (Lolita, Gatsby, [Henry] James, and Austen). However, her descriptions of life in Iran before and after the Revolution will be meaningful even without knowledge of the works.

To order Reading Lolita in Tehran from, click here.

MALGUDI DAYS by R. K. Narayan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/062015]

MALGUDI DAYS by R. K. Narayan (ISBN 978-81-85986-17-3) is a collection of stories set in Narayan's fictional Indian town of Malgudi. They are apparently extracted from earlier volumes (AN ASTROLOGER'S DAY and LAWLEY ROAD), as well as eight new stories.

The obvious comparison would be with Alexander McCall Smith's "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series set in Gaborone, Botswana. There are, of course, differences: Gaborone is real, Malgudi is fictional. The "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series has a set of continuing characters; the Malgudi stories have only their setting in common (with the exception of "The Talkative Man", a fertilizer salesman). And the continuing characters in Gaborone are, if not middle class, then at least somewhat established in the economic system--they are educated secretaries, mechanics, and so on. Some of the characters in MALGUDI DAYS are educated and middle class; others are itinerant astrologers, blind beggars, and so on. This may be because McCall Smith is writing somewhat from outside the culture of Gaborone, while Narayan is writing from within.

I have notes on all the stories, made for the book discussion group that picked this, but if you have not yet read the book, I would suggest reading no more than a half dozen of them before reading the book. For one thing, they may give away more than you want to know. For another, after a while my comments become repetitive ("this is another such-and-such type story"). I also recommend that you read these sparingly, rather than all in two or three chunks, since there are common themes that will seem more repetitive when read all at once. (Like buying a themed anthology--it is better read with "breathing room" between the stories.)

"An Astrologer's Day" may have a bit too much reliance on coincidence--but then so do most Agatha Christie stories. Narayan is obviously skeptical of astrologers (and by extension, psychics) since his astrologer uses all the tricks of the trade to make successful predictions.

"The Missing Mail" is an interesting slice of life with an underlying question about the use--or is it abuse--of power?

"The Doctor's Word" presents an ethical dilemma that is seems possible to doctors in all cultures. The patient insists on settling his estate before he dies. The doctor feels this is important, and that there is little hope that the patient can survive, but he also knows that to go along with the settling of the estate will remove any last hope the patient may have, and effectively kill the patient.

The main character in "Gateman's Gift" reminded me of Honore Daumier, a 19th century Paris sculptor who did dozens of caricatures of famous people. Singh's sculptures are not caricatures, but there is the same notion of faithfulness, in one to essence, in the other to appearance. Alas, the ending is a bit predictable.

The phrase that came to mind for "The Blind Dog" was "the humanity of dogs and the inhumanity of man."

"Fellow-Feeling" relies on a gullibility that seems very unlikely. One might accept it in the 18th or even 19th century India, but in a major city in late 20th century India it just seems hard to believe. I guess I am just not ready for a "willing suspension of disbelief"--to use Coleridge's phrase--for this story. I suppose the idea is that brains are more important than brawn, but it does not quite work for me. I do like the presumably authentic touch of the train compartment occupancy sign. I will also note that this story does not take place in Malgudi--maybe in Malgudi I could believe it.

"The Tiger's Claw" is one of that genre of stories where there is an amazing, exciting story, followed by a more mundane explanation, and then the reader is left to choose between the two. Saki's "The Open Window" is an example of a variation of this.)

With "Iswaran" it begins to look like Narayan likes "ironic" endings. Sometimes the protagonist goes through agonies expecting bad news, but gets good news. Sometimes the protagonist is so happy over good news that he does something to destroy it. Sometimes the ending contradicts the story entirely. They are not "gimmick" stories, but they do seem to have "a twist in the tale" (I would credit that term if I could find out who actually invented it).

"Such Perfection" embodies a superstition which, if not universal, is certainly very widespread: that perfection by a human offends the gods (or God) as presuming a human to be capable of their (His) perfection. It can manifest itself into the intentional imperfection found in both Navaho rugs and Persian carpets, and here in the insistence that a "perfect" statue have an imperfection.

"Father's Help" is yet another "twist ending" that is a bit predictable, though well-executed.

"The Snake-Song" verges on fantasy, though whether it is true fantasy or just the imaginings of the Talkative Man is unclear. In this regard it bears some connection to "The Tiger's Claw", though the two have very little in common.

"Engine Trouble" does not have a twist ending (well, maybe a bit), but it is a familiar plot (a la O Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief"). (At the risk of making a really bad pun, I'll note that it has both an elephant and a white elephant--and they are not the same thing.)

Venkat Rao's dilemma is "Forty-Five a Month" is one which transcends culture. The conflict between work and family, the feeling that any improvement is counter-balanced by a negative is as true in corporations here as in Venkat Rao's office. And here too, any raise seems to come with a demand for even more time from you. It is true that Venkat Rao is working for the basics of life and people here may be working for things that are less critical--a larger home, more toys for their children, etc. But the message is that at any level to get what you consider enough, you have to give up what you are getting it for. (I suppose this is an echo of another O Henry story, "The Gift of the Magi".)

"Out of Business" has another universal plot--the man out of work because a chain-reaction financial crash has destroyed the company he worked for. In "Out of Business" he turns to crossword puzzles paying prize money; in the United States, he would be buying lottery tickets. (Do they have lotteries in India? At least the crossword puzzles require some level of knowledge and skill.)

"Attila" is definitely a story for dog people. 'Nuff said.

"The Axe" is less a story and more a meditation on attachments we form in life.

"Lawley Road" is basically "Engine Trouble" with a sub-text of post-colonialism.

"Trail of the Green Blazer" has a bit of the touch of "The Man with the Twisted Lip", though Raju is a slightly less reputable character than a beggar. I'm not sure how believable his actions are, but of course the result is predictable.

Like so many other stories, "The Martyr's Corner" resonates with current problems--in this case, that of the small businessman, who finds his livelihood disrupted by forces beyond his control.

In some of these stories, the protagonist does something disreputable, but then gets rescued by fate. In some, he does something disreputable, but then is punished by fate. By the time you get to "Wife's Holiday", you find yourself playing the game of trying to guess which it will be. (The problem, of course, is that sometimes the punishment extends to the innocent.)

I read the "A Shadow" a couple of days after the Oscars, and while AMERICAN SNIPER is about a real person who is dead, rather than starring an actor who is dead, there is probably a similar dynamic with the families' reactions to movies about/with their deceased member between the two. Some people will want to see their father or sister or other relative on screen; others will find it too painful. Obviously, for career actors, this is an even bigger problem for the families--one wonders if they think about it beforehand.

The question in "A Willing Slave" is not whether Ayah is a willing slave, but whether the title refers to her life at the beginning of the story, or the end of the story, or both, is something to be considered. It is also a reminder of how domestic help is treated all over the world. As with many of these stories, the location may be Malgudi, India, but it could be anywhere. (In the film THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, we discover that the nanny has not been able to visit her family in the Philippines for nineteen years. Meanwhile, the family she has worked for all that time is building the most expensive private home in the United States.)

"Leela's Friend" is another story of an ayah (a nanny, male this time) who elicits different reactions from different members of the family. It is also a cautionary tale for our own times, but I will not say how.

In "Mother and Son" American readers may feel a bit of culture shock when it turns out that the prospective bride is fourteen years old )and some also that she is the prospective groom's cousin, though royalty and even ordinary people marry cousins--Charles Darwin, Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, and Albert Einstein, for example.)

The preceding stories all appeared elsewhere and were all very short, averaging five pages each. The remainder are new for this volume, and average twelve pages each.

In "Naga" we find what seems to be the devotion of a snake, but is more likely just its conditioning. The description of the monkey's training would seem to reinforce the notion that it is not a conscious emotional decision for either.

"Selvi" is almost the reverse, about how a singer conditioned to obey her manager in everything eventually diverges from this path.

"Second Opinion" leaves the reader wondering whether the mother knows what the doctor tells the son, or whether she has conspired in what the doctor tells the son, or whether the doctor is perhaps making it all up based on what he knows the mother wants. (There are probably other options I have missed.)

"Cat Within" is another tale of a less than completely genuine "psychic," similar to the astrologer in the first story.

"The Edge" is actually a bit of a horror story, which at first might seem merely urban legend--but I am sure is not.

"God and the Cobbler" is probably the most serious of the stories, with its examination of the notions of evil and penance and forgiveness and karma, and of real and representational and imagined gods. It reminded me, oddly, of some of the Hasidic tales from Europe, which again speaks of the universality of many of Narayan's ideas.

Mark asked about "Hungry Child" and whether it was really that easy for someone to claim a lost child in India (and also whether someone would take a child knowing the parents were around somewhere). I suspect that up until, say, seventy-five years ago, it might have been that easy here. Face it, most carnivals run in the 1930s were not overly concerned about the things that generate fear of lawsuits today--ride safety, food safety, child safety, honest games, etc. If there was a lost child cluttering up the manager's office and someone showed up saying he would take him, I doubt the manager would ask a lot of questions. (And what could he have asked? Most people in the 1930s did not carry a lot of identification with them.)

"Emden" is a fitting story to end with: a tale of ageing and memory, of loss and regret, and after everything else, the possibility of re-incarnation.

All in all, this is a highly recommended collection.

To order Malgudi Days from, click here.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND by Sylvia Nasar:

In the case of Sylvia Nasar's biography of John Nash, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, I think the movie, although it takes many liberties with the events in Nash's life, actually may do a better job of conveying both Nash's genius and his illness in ways the book doesn't. The book requires more technical expertise on the part of the reader and is at times somewhat unclear, while the movie uses images to convey some of the ideas more strongly. However, what is most interesting in the book is following the various treatments tried over the years, because that tells the reader as much about the development of psychiatry as Nash's work does about the development of economics.

To order A Beautiful Mind from, click here.

THE HIGHER SPACE by Jamil Nasir (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-56887-6, 1996, 256pp, mass market paperback):

This book is an odd combination of mysticism and mathematics, with some horror touches thrown in. The story centers around a teenage girl who is trying to escape from her abusive foster father, and avoid her equally threatening birth mother, by studying Thaumatomathematics. Parts of this book seem to be descendants of Dennis Wheatley and Fritz Leiber, with covens and witchcraft. But just when you think you now what's happening, Nasir pulls the rug out from under you with a complete change of direction.

The very fact that this book doesn't fit into a definite category means that it will have difficulty finding its audience. In fact, I'm not sure I can even describe who that audience would be, and certainly not without revealing more of the plot than I want to. I did find that the child-abuse/custody case part proceeded a bit too conveniently for the plot to be completely convincing, which may seem an odd complaint about a book that has so many hard-to-believe concepts. On the other hand, one requirement that I have for a speculative fiction book is that unless something is intentionally and clearly a variation from our world, it should be true to reality as we know it. On the other hand, maybe this is how these cases go--I have no first-hand experience (thank goodness).

In any case, this is certainly an interesting book. While all the individual elements have been used before, this is an original and unique blending of them. It may not be to everyone's taste--unusual blends often are not--but if the thought intrigues you, give this a try.

To order The Higher Space from, click here.

CITY OF TINY LIGHTS by Patrick Neate:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/24/2012]

CITY OF TINY LIGHTS by Patrick Neate (ISBN 978-1-59448-186-4) is described as "Chandleresque noir". And to prove it, here is a sample: "Problem is, the door of my shoebox flat opens right into the waiting room of my matchbox office and I wasn't going to sit in all day like some retired middle management with the complete works of Gilbert and Sullivan on leatherette boxed set. Problem is, I always leave the waiting room unlocked because mine's a shy kind of business and you got to cajole clients in like you would a forkful of Alphabetti Spaghetti into a reluctant Kid's mouth. Problem is, my bedroom stank like a pub ashtray at chucking-out time and the living room was just as bad so I needed to get out. It didn't occur to me that this stink was oozing out of my pores like butter through the holes in a cheese cracker."

Most of this is familiar to American readers, but add to it the Cockney rhyming slang that Neate throws in ("Would you Adam and Eve it?" for "Would you believe it?") and it becomes something that takes a little longer to parse. (Actually, not all the British slang is rhyming; for example, "a pony" is twenty-five pounds, and a "tom" is a prostitute.) And our first person narrator is Tommy Akhtar, a Ugandan-Indian-Muslim private eye, not quite the Philip Marlowe type. The mystery is also patterned after those in Chandler's novels, with twists and turns and interconnections.

Written for a British audience, this book had far more references to, and long discussions of, cricket for my taste. Neate also may have overdone the Chandleresque similes, and at times the lectures from Farzad to Tommy, and Tommy's own philosophizing, are a bit too much like hitting the reader over the head with Neate's message. On the other hand, the combination of a foreign (to American readers) setting with a genuine love of the English language is likely to appeal to those who pick up this book.

To order City of Tiny Lights from, click here.


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

CIVIL WAR POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY edited by Paul Negri (ISBN 978-0-486-29883-2) is a typical "Dover Thrift Edition": everything is in the public domain, and the paper and binding are fairly basic (though I think all Dover Books are on acid-free paper). It is not as good an anthology as WORLD WAR ONE BRITISH POETS (ISBN 978-0-486-29568-8), probably because the 19th century style often seems more trite and less sophisticated than the 20th century one. It certainly seems as though 19th century poets "cheated" more on rhyme and scansion, although the fact that by the 20th century many poets abandoned them altogether saved the latter from the necessity of cheating. (Walt Whitman abandoned them even earlier.) In "Boston Hymn", Ralph Waldo Emerson attempts to rhyme "seas" and "fleece". In "Barbara Frietchie", John Greenleaf Whittier has the verse:

	Fair as the garden of the Lord
	To the eyes of the famished rebel horde.
These don't even have the same number of syllables, let alone the same meter.

To order Civil War Poetry from, click here.


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

This previous Saturday I did one of my "library marathon afternoons." Mark has a bi-monthly origami meeting at the Monmouth County Library, and since we don't have borrowing privileges at this library, I use the time as an opportunity to read all the books I want to read that it has that our own library doesn't have. (Well, maybe not all.)

I had hoped to get to Jane Jensen's DANTE'S EQUATION, but its length was rather daunting for the four-hour block I had, so I stuck to non-fiction instead. First was Sara Nelson's SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME, which was the diary of her attempt to read a book a week throughout 2002 and write about it. (I suppose what I'm doing here is similar, though I'm reading more and writing less.) Her attitudes and observations about reading in general seemed more interesting than what she had to say about specific books, probably because if one hasn't read the book, her comments don't resonate. But, for example, she talks about "junk reading," saying, "Woody Allen once said that the advantage of bisexuality is that it doubles your chances of finding a date on Saturday night. Having a bifurcated reading brain--one part that likes 'junk' and one that reveres 'literature'--is the same kind of satisfying. You don't have to be any one thing and you don't have to think any one way. And should you happen upon different kinds of people in different situations, your pool of conversation topics is twice as deep." She also admits to the relief of learning to be able to "give up" on a book if she's not enjoying it. I didn't give up on this, but I will admit to merely skimming the last quarter or so.

To order So Many Books, So Little Time from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/06/2015]

LA NOVIA DE CORINTO Y OTROS CUENTOS DE ANGELES Y HECHOS SOBRENATURALES by Amado Nervo (ISBN 978-84-8211-246-6) is a collection of fantasy stories by an author who is known for his poetry even though his prose works outnumber his poems three-to-one. (One is reminded of Isaac Newton, who wrote much more about alchemy than about what we consider science.)

Nervo lived from 1870 to 1919 and was the first Mexican science fiction writer. However, only one of his thirteen science fiction works is available in book form in my library system, so I decided to try this volume of some of his fantasy works instead, since it does contain that one science fiction story.

(Two notes: Manuel Antonio de Rivas was a Franciscan friar who wrote science fiction in Merida in the 18th century, but he was Spanish, not Mexican in the way that appellation if used today. And many of Nervo's science fiction works are available on-line, because by now they are in public domain.)

LA NOVIA DE CORINTO Y OTROS CUENTOS DE ANGELES Y HECHOS SOBRENATURALES ("The Bride of Corinth and Other Stories of Angels and Supernatural Beings") is a fifty-page book comprising an introduction, ten stories, and a glossary. The latter makes me think this was aimed at what we would call a "young adult" (or younger) audience. (It is published by Letra Celeste-Minuscula, which from the name one assumes specializes in these very short books.)

The stories are actually fairly insubstantial, and seem more focused on a "twist" ending than any depth of plot or even characterization. The title story ("La novia de corinto") is just a variation on the urban legend of a visitation of a dead girl who leaves a token to prove her presence. In the song it is a sweater; here it is a ring.

"El heroe" ("The Hero") is about a fearless soldier in World War I who receives all sorts of commendations for heroism. After he is finally killed in battle, a letter from his wife is found in his kit, telling him she does not love him, but loves another with all her heart and soul. Apparently, he enlisted the day after receiving it, insisted upon being sent to the front lines, and was just trying to commit suicide.

There is one story in this volume that J. Patrick Duffey in his essay in LATIN AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS considers science fiction: "El pais en que la lluvia era luminosa" ("The Country in Which the Rain Was Luminous"). In some sense, it has a Wellsian feel to it, but with more poetry than H. G. Wells included in his stories, and less plot. The luminosity is entirely scientific, due to the same micro-organisms that create bioluminescent bays today. (However, I cannot swear that it is possible to have these organisms sucked up when the water they lived in evaporated, so that they descended in the rain.) But when Nervo says, "From the thousand gargoyles of the Cathedral fell tenuous milky filaments," or, "The monstruous medieval [gargoyles], crouching in grotesque postures, seemed to cry starry tears," one has to acknowledge that Nervo is the poet that Wells is not.

I say that "El pais en que la lluvia era luminosa" has less plot than an H. G. Wells story. This is also true of "El obstaculo" ("The Obstacle"); in fact, "El obstaculo" has a very Borgesian feel to it, reminding me of "Las ruinas circulares" ("The Circular Ruins").

To order La novia de Corinto y otros cuentos de angeles y los sobrenaturales from, click here.

"The New York Review of Science Fiction":

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/24/2011]

In the April 2011 issue of "The New York Review of Science Fiction", Jari Käkelä writes (in "Robots, Foundations and Endless Growth: The Role of Frontier Expansionism in Asimov's FOUNDATION Future"): "The Turnerian component is an even more crucial factor in Asimov's later novels. His 1980s novels ROBOTS OF DAWN, ROBOTS AND EMPIRE, FOUNDATION'S EDGE, and FOUNDATION AND EARTH continue and connect the Robot and the Foundation series into one massive grand narrative. These novels turn Asimov's 20,000 years of future history into a series of cycles of stagnation and revitalization of civilization through constant reinventions of the frontier." Ironically, of course, what was happening at the meta-level was that Asimov was attempting to revitalize his series the same way, by constantly reinventing them, or at least the history behind them. Alas, the consensus seems to be that the result was more stagnation than revitalization. After reading Käkelä's article, one wonders whether the replacement of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire with the expansionist/Manifest Destiny themes of Frederick Jackson Turner may have had something to do with that.

I did catch one error Käkelä made. He talks about the "hymning of 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me'" in Bob Fosse's CABARET, implying it was a pre-existing German song. It wasn't--Ralph Burns and John Kander wrote it specifically for CABARET. It is perhaps the most familiar example of a composer (or a composing team) being able to write so perfectly in a period style that everyone believes the work is from that period.

In that same issue, Chris n. Brown [sic] writes (in "Some Monster Manuals for the Evasion of Capitalist Networks" about how Borges took an after-dinner walk, "setting out with proto-psychogeographical intent." One thing is for sure: Borges would never have written a phrase that looked like that. Nor would he have written, "Borges precociously reveals the ways in which the Situationist dérive prefigures Network culture's labyrinth of detours. And, just as a peculiar stance is required to evade the commercial slipstream of the city, Borgesian transcendence is hard to find while navigating the fruits of the operating system's self-expression." (Or that sentence, I might add.)

CAT PEOPLE by Kim Newman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/10/2014]

CAT PEOPLE by Kim Newman (ISBN 0-85170-741-6) is a seventy-page essay on the making, content, and effect of the 1943 film CAT PEOPLE. Though directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by DeWitt Bodeen, it is always referred to as "Val Lewton's CAT PEOPLE," and part of what Newman examines--as indeed does anyone talking about the film--is exactly how much creative input Lewton had.

The majority of the book (46 pages) is devoted to a shot-by-shot analysis of the film--basically a commentary of the sort Criterion or other high-class company would include on a DVD release. I'm a commentary junkie--at least of those commentaries that add to one's appreciation or understanding of a film. I have little use for the director commentary consisting of "He was great. She was great. The dog was great. The tree was great." Rather, I lean to commentaries by film critics (e.g., Roger Ebert), or historians or the actual people in historical or based-on-fact films (e.g. James McPherson for GETTYSBURG, Homer Hickam for OCTOBER SKY, James Lovell for APOLLO 13 and--in the best of both worlds--Sergei Khrushchev for THIRTEEN DAYS). Kim Newman's "commentary" ranks among the best.

(I found it odd that Newman describes Irena as "lightly teasing" Oliver when she says, "Perhaps you have a picture in your room of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln." This would no doubt strike most people today as a bizarre idea, though it may have been more common seventy years ago. What it reminded me of, though, was a documentary about Gertrude Berg in which the documentarian comments on how the television show "The Goldbergs" really emphasized the "American-ness" of the Goldbergs: the wallpaper in their apartment had a motif of red, white, and blue bunting, there was a portrait of George Washington hanging on the wall, on so on. Molly Goldberg may have had a portrait of Washington on her wall, but most people did not.)

(The BFI has published similar books about several other films that I would love to read: Alberto Manguel on BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Christopher Frayling on THINGS TO COME, and Salman Rushdie on THE WIZARD OF OZ. Whether they are available in the United States for reasonable prices is the question. (I found this volume in my favorite used book store in Northampton, Massachusetts--The Old Book Store, which we have been going to for forty-five years.)

To order Cat People from, click here.


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

THE MAN FROM THE DIOGENES CLUB by Kim Newman (ISBN-13 978-1-932265-17-0, ISBN-10 1-932265-17-1) are stories centering around Richard Jeperson, a detective specializing in the supernatural in 1970s Britain. (I wondered if Newman had been inspired by Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin, but in an afterword Newman lists the authors who had influenced him and Quinn is not one of them.) "Tomorrow Town" is probably of the most interest to science fiction fans, since it takes place in a utopian community and involves science fiction writers, Hugo awards, and so on. (The writers and even some of the Hugo categories are fictional, making this an alternate history of sorts.) The best story, though, may be "Egyptian Avenue"; it is also the shortest. Some of the longer ones seem to drag a bit, something I never thought I would say about Newman's writing.

Oh, yes, and synchronicity seems to be omnipresent: I read the glossary for THE MAN FROM THE DIOGENES CLUB, which explained (among other terms) "Heath Robinson" (the British equivalent of Rube Goldberg), and two days later I was watching an episode of the BBC's "Planet Earth" in which they used the term. And watching a documentary on American photography, we saw a high-speed photograph of a bullet going through an apple that we had just seen in a display in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron six days earlier.

To order The Man from the Diogenes Club from, click here.


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

I haven't read many of Kim Newman's novels, but I find his short fiction excellent, and UNFORGIVEABLE STORIES has several that are first-rate. But while most of my favorites are not stand-alone", it's not in the usual way of being part of an author's series. Rather, they build and develop on classics or common tropes. So, for example, in order to appreciate "Further Developments in the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," some familiarity with the original story is a prerequisite. (The movie versions are not enough, because they change the events around considerably, and none is at all accurate to the book. For example, in the book Hyde is introduced before Jekyll, and you don't actually find out what is going on until after Jekyll is dead.)

Another story I liked was "Completist Heaven." You have a much better chance of liking this story if you recognize that "Frankenstein Meets the She-Wolf of the SS" is 1) not a real movie, and 2) a conflation of two titles for movies that are real. A knowledge of all the character actors in the 1940s Universal horror films also helps. "Quetzelcon" requires a familiarity with both Aztec mythology and science fiction conventions. There are other stories which require little if any arcane knowledge; they're good too.

To order Unforgiveable Stories from, click here.

STARLIGHT 1 edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor, ISBN 0-312-86215-6, 1996, 316pp, trade paperback):

Two Hugo nominees out of twelve stories--not a bad percentage for an original anthology. (And this anthology undoubtedly contributed to Nielsen Hayden's own Hugo nomination as Best Professional Editor.) And it's not a theme anthology. This is not "Science Fiction Stories Set in the Interior of Stars" or "Fantasy Stories About Light." It's just good science fiction and fantasy. Everyone seems to be comparing this to such series as Terry Carr's "Universe" or Damon Knight's "Orbit," but in my opinion it's too soon to tell. I will say that this is a very auspicious start.

The first story in Starlight 1 is "The Dead" by Michael Swanwick; the last is "The Cost to Be Wise" by Maureen McHugh. Traditional anthology wisdom is to start with your strongest story, and end with your second strongest. Nielsen Hayden is certainly in agreement with the readers here--these were the two stories nominated for the Hugo Award. But don't ignore the stories in the middle, or you'll miss some excellent works.

For example, "Mengele's Jew" by Carter Scholz is a unique combination of quantum mechanics and the Holocaust. "The Weighing of Ayre" by Gregory Feeley is a science fiction story of the seventeenth century. Jane Yolen has "Sister Emily's Lightship," the second "Emily-Dickinson-and-the-space-aliens" story of the year (and in my opinion, the better of the two). John M. Ford's "Erase/Record/Play" is written in the rather unusual form of a playscript, and reminds me in some ways of the plays of Vaclav Havel. It is subtitled "A Drama for Print," though it wouldn't surprise me to see this performed at some point. In fact, I wouldn't object if the folks at Boskone who do theatrical performances each year decided to do this one. (Consider that a hint.)

I won't list every story, but I will recommend that you go out and get this book and discover them for yourself. I'm looking forward to the second volume.

To order Starlight 1 from, click here.

THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS by Friedrich Nietzsche (translated by Horace B. Samuel):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/24/2012]

I bought THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS by Friedrich Nietzsche (translated by Horace B. Samuel) (ISBN 978-0-486-42691-4) in a "Dover Thrift Edition" from, because I was buying something for $23 and it was cheaper to buy this and get free shipping than to pay for shipping. The good news is that they have provided additional footnotes, probably those translating the Greek and Latin that had been left un-translated in 1913. After all, anyone reading Nietzsche then would be presumed to have an education that included Greek and Latin.

Nietzsche has a reputation for anti-Semitism, which is accurate in the sense that he blamed the Jews for the characteristics that he felt had diminished European culture from the high level of the Greeks and Romans. But almost all the characteristics are Christian rather than Jewish: meekness, poverty, turning the other cheek, forgiveness of one's enemies, etc. Nietzsche seems to see "the Church" as the continuation of the Jewish moral code, when in fact it was a major shift in direction. Another major difference that Nietzsche does not seem to recognize is that the emphasis on the afterlife is a Christian one--while Jews may speak of "the world to come" it is not a major part of their theology. There is no Jewish Dante writing up a detailed description of "the world to come".

Nietzsche does point up a major philosophical issue that the afterlife creates. No, not the idea that if one does good in this life in hopes of heaven in the next, one is not being altruistic, but rather is doing it for selfish reasons. Nietzsche's point is that all the things people say are evil in this work--riches, power, gloating over punishing one's enemies--are precisely those that one will be given in heaven.

To order The Genealogy of Morals from, click here.

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger:

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

Another book marketed as mainstream is Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE (ISBN=1-931-56164-8), but this is science fiction. (It's so mainstream-marketed, in fact, that the book is a selection of the "Today Show Book Club".) Henry has "Chrono-Displacement Disorder--he spontaneously time-travels, both backwards and forwards. He first meets Clare in 1997; she first meets him in 1968. (She does not time-travel.) So in 1991, she has many years of memories of him, and he doesn't know her at all. But because he has been time-traveling since 1968, he doesn't have a major problem accepting this. Niffenegger seems to take a lot of time working out all the variations. For example, Henry time-travels back to 1981 before he time-travels back to 1977, so this is why in 1981 Clare remembers him [again] while he doesn't know her. Or Henry time-travels back and meets an older version of himself, also time-traveling back. Niffenegger doesn't consider this a paradox, though interestingly she does limit the time-traveling to just Henry's body--no clothes or even (we discover later) tooth fillings. (She does gloss over the problems inherent in finding yourself somewhere with no clothes--there seems to be a convenient clothesline, locker, or even trash bin with clothing in it more frequently than one would find in real life.)

Of course, the reason I say all this is that I am reading this with the protocols of a hard science fiction novel rather than with those of a mainstream novel about the relationship between a couple, which is what it is. The problem is that I find it more interesting as a hard science fiction novel, even if it is going over somewhat familiar ground, than as a mainstream romance novel. (Robert A. Heinlein would have loved it--take "All You Zombies" and "By His Bootstraps", add some explicit sex, and bingo!)

If you are a fan of time travel novels, I recommend this just for all the convolutions. If you're not, I can't say it did much for me on any other level.

To order The Time Traveler's Wife from, click here.

WORLD OF PTAVVS by Larry Niven:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/25/2015]

WORLD OF PTAVVS by Larry Niven (ISBN 978-0-345-24591-5) was this month's choice for our science fiction discussion group. If you want short stand-alone science fiction novels, sometimes you have to go back fifty years. And when you do, you see trends that were big then, but not so much now.

Now, for example, the "unpronounceable alien words" trend has faded. (Even in fantasy, one usually sees an excess of apostrophes rather than unpronounceable words. This may actually have a practical motivation behind it--with so many novels now being issued as audiobooks, that the narrator be able to pronounce all the words is fairly important. (Lord only knows what text-to-speech would do with some of them|) So while one might get away with "ptavv" being pronounced, one presumes, as "tav" since other initial "pt" sounds are pronounced as just "t" (e.g., ptarmigan, Ptolemy). But "Kzanol" and "gnal" are less clear (I would guess "ka-zan-ol" and "ga-nal", and "tnuctip" is hopeless (I suppose it could be "te-nuc-tip"). (I am convinced that Niven concocted "tnuctip" as a way to sneak an obscenity past the censors, because the tendency when one sees a word with bizarre consonant combinations is to read it backwards.) By the time Niven has gotten to the end of the book, he is flinging around "prtuuvl" and "kpitlithtulm" with wild abandon, if little likelihood of correct pronunciation.

The book's age is also showing when Niven writes, "That was why Luke always carried paperbacks in the glove compartment of his chair. His career involved a lot of waiting." Oddly, it is not "glove compartment" that seems anachronistic, though it has probably been decades since anyone used a glove compartment primarily for gloves, but "paperbacks", which have been largely supplanted by electronic readers, especially for people who travel a lot.

It is not age, but (one assumes) incomplete knowledge that has Niven writing, "An intelligent food animal! Hitler would have fled, retching." First of all, Hitler was a vegetarian, so the intelligence would not have made as much difference as Niven seems to think. And second, we have a lot of people on this planet who do eat intelligent animals. Where on the intelligence scale the various animals are (even assuming it is a one-dimensional scale) may be debated, but people do eat whale meat and gorilla meat.

"The Jayhawk Building was the third tallest building in Topeka and the rooftop bar had a magnificent view," reminded me of a line from the film THE BIG KAHUNA. On being told by Phil that he got a high floor for the hospitality suite, Larry says, "Phil ... man, we're in Wichita, Kansas. What does it matter whether we're on the 1st floor or the 500th floor? It all looks the same|" (Currently the only building in Topeka taller than 65 meters is the 17-story Bank of America Building (72 meters, built in 1970).)

"His parents were Orthodox, but they weren't millionaires, they couldn't afford a fully kosher diet." I find it extremely unlikely that his parents would identify as Orthodox and yet not keep kosher. Most of the Orthodox in the United States today keep kosher without being millionaires. In fact, the percentage of American Orthodox Jews living below the poverty level is surprising, and the city with the highest percentage of people living below the poverty level (more than two-thirds of the population) is Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave outside New York City.

"Already Luke had the air translucent with cigarette smoke." People say that cigarette smoking is ubiquitous in 1950s science fiction, but it is still hanging on here, in the late 1960s.

I do not know if a statement such as "A mile-high skyscraper would have saved millions in land, even surrounded by the vitally necessary landscaping; but many woman patients would have run screaming from the sexual problems represented by such a single, reaching tower" was intended to show solidarity with some of the more extreme feminist claims or what, but now it just reads as bizarre. Similarly, writing that a character who should have been a pawnbroker because he had three ... [the sentence broke off in the original) seems a crude locker room joke which would have been better had they left it as merely suggested, without explicitly explaining it later. (Such a medical condition is possible, but extremely rare.) A space ship named the "Heinlein" is another joke.

But the real question about aging I found myself asking about WORLD OF PTAVVS was whether the fact that I enjoyed it back then and not now due to the book not aging well, or my aging in general. Was there still an audience for a book like this, and I just wasn't it, or would this book fail to appeal to readers of any age in 2015?

To order World of Ptavvs from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/14/2008]

A POCKETFUL OF HISTORY: FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OF AMERICA--ONE STATE QUARTER AT A TIME by Jim Noles (ISBN-13 978-0-306-81578-2, ISBN-10 0-306-81578-8) is, among other things, an example of subtitling gone wild. The book itself is a historical grab-bag, telling the history behind each state's design, starting with Caesar Rodney and ending with King Kamehameha. Sometimes Noles is hard-pressed to write his chapter; of South Carolina's design, he says, "South Carolina is another state that ... relied on an amalgamation of symbols for its quarter design--and created a difficult task for an author left to craft a chapter about a bird, a flower, and a palm tree." He is not always positive: "At the risk of irritating Michigan's nearly 10 million citizens, it is difficult to ignore the obvious: Michigan's state quarter ... is perhaps the most boring of the bunch." Depicting the outline of the state and the Great Lakes system, it is described by Noles as a "cupro-nickel-plated hydrogeography lesson."

Since a lot of the history or meanings on the quarters was familiar to me, I found some of the stories about how the choices were made more interesting. Iowa had to reject the suggestion of the Sullivan brothers when it was decided that a row of their heads was too close to the "busts or portraits of any person, living or dead." Full-figure images such as Cesar Rodney and George Washington were allowed, but I would think Mount Rushmore on the South Dakota quarter violates the "no-busts" rule. And there is still some dispute on whether the astronaut suit for Ohio violates the rule against portraying living persons, since arguably it is supposed to be either John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. The bison appears on three coins (though only as a skull on one of them). Lincoln and Washington each appear twice. Only one Native American appears, and only two actual woman (i.e., not Lady Liberty or the Spirit of the Commonwealth). Two states claim the Wright Brothers' achievement, and two the space program. And as Noles said, "[It] is difficult to find a more bitter piece of irony than New Hampshire's decision to depict the fabled Old Man of the Mountain" in its design--within three years of the quarters' issuance, the rock formation had collapsed into a pile of rubble.

As I said, how the choices were made and why is at times more interesting and revealing than the straight history behind what is being depicted. (And I can't help but feel that there will not be a similar book about the Presidential dollars--there is nothing notable about them. The portraits of the Presidents are not particularly notable, and the reverse does not have anything representing something distinctive to that particular President.)

To order A Pocketful of Quarters from, click here.

AUTOMATED ALICE by Jeff Noon (Crown, ISBN 0-517-70490-0, 1996, 223pp, hardback):

Like Lewis Carroll, Jeff Noon fills his story with puns and word play. Unlike Lewis Carroll, he tries to work in computers and industrial development. This is not entirely successful, and at times the conceit of computers giving their answers by having termites spell them out gets to be a bit annoying.

Noon is writing from a very different perspective than Carroll, and there is no chance of mistaking Noon's prose for Carroll's. In a sense this works against the novel, just as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche not done in Doyle's style seems to be missing something. And Noon is not as deft or as free with his logical puzzles and riddles as Carroll--but then, Carroll was a logician by trade.

If you're willing to accept this as a modern homage instead of a copy, and if you enjoy word play, you might find this worth a look. Whether it's worth buying in hardcover is questionable though.

To order Automated Alice from, click here.

12 YEARS A SLAVE by Solomon Northup:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/02/2016]

12 YEARS A SLAVE by Solomon Northup (ISBN 978-1-631-68002-1) was chosen for this month by our book discussion. A lot of the discussion focused on whether Northup himself wrote it, or whether it was written by the editor (sort of "as told to"). The editor's preface seems to hint at the latter, and if so, that affects what conclusions one can draw from some of the characterizations of slaves and African-Americans in general that might otherwise be attributed to Northup. Northup does say that he received far more education than others in his position did (he was the son of a freed slave), so he might have written it, and then there was editing after that.

In any case we agreed that it was well worth reading, no matter what the actual writing process was.

To order 12 Years a Slave from, click here.

"Sail to Success" by Norwegian Sky:

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

Another unusual "anthology" I picked up at Chicon 7 was the promotional booklet to "Sail to Success", a writers' workshop to be held on a cruise of the Bahamas. It contained previously published stories by three of the workshop faculty (Mike Resnick, Paul Cook, and Nancy Kress) and a preview of an upcoming novel by a fourth (Kevin J. Anderson). I haven't seen anything like this since Lands End including a Ray Bradbury story in one of their catalogs.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2014]

TIME TRAVELER: IN SEARCH OF DINOSAURS AND ANCIENT MAMMALS FROM MONTANA TO MONGOLIA by Michael Novacek (ISBN 978-0-374-52876-8) is a combination of autobiography, travelogue and paleontology textbook. Novacek describes his life leading to, and at, the American Museum of Natural History. The bulk of his description is of his field trips in the United States, Baja California, Chile, and Mongolia. This is heavily interleaved with information about ancient life forms and geology, but because this information is introduced as warranted by the various locations and discoveries, it is very disorganized. As a result, I found that I never really got a coherent view from the science lessons, and the only interesting parts were his accounts of the field trips, full of anecdotes of bandits, rattlesnakes, near-fatal accidents with horses, and so on.

To order Time Traveler from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/12/2007]

HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON by Naomi Novik (ISBN 0-345-48128-3) has been described as "Hornblower with dragons", and that is reasonably accurate. The only difference is that Novik seems to be aiming at a slightly younger audience--there is more emphasis on the younger characters (though not making them the main characters). The main character starts out as a naval captain and becomes an aviator. However, the training and battle scenes (of which there are several) seem like a cross between nautical and aerial battles, so in some sense he is still a Hornblower stand-in. What there is not is any substantive change for our world's history. The American colonies apparently got tired of taxation without representation, threw tea in the harbor, and gained independence; Napoleon did pretty much what he did in our world, and so on. Somehow you expect more change to the world than that. This book and its sequels (THRONE OF JADE and BLACK POWDER WAR) are recommended if you are looking for "Hornblower with dragons", but not as an alternate history.

To order His Majesty's Dragon from, click here.

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