Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.


JOHN O'HARA'S HOLLYWOOD by John O'Hara:

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

JOHN O'HARA'S HOLLYWOOD by John O'Hara (ISBN 978-0-786-71872-6) is a collection of O'Hara's stories (and essays?) set in Hollywood. Many of them seem to be vignettes with no point. Others may actually be non-fiction, but I cannot tell. The only one I would really recommend is "In a Grove".

To order John O'Hara's Hollywood from amazon.com, click here.


SHAKESPEARE IS HARD, BUT SO IS LIFE by Fintan O'Toole:

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

Fintan O'Toole's SHAKESPEARE IS HARD, BUT SO IS LIFE seems almost designed as a rebuttal to Harold Bloom's SHAKESPEARE: INVENTING THE HUMAN. O'Toole states this fairly early on, saying, "Characterization in the modern theatrical sense is a word which comes into use in the English language in the mid-nineteenth century. Character, in the sense of a part assumed by an actor, comes in a hundred years earlier, but still a very long time after Shakespeare's death. In Shakespeare's time, the word that would have been used in the place of our notion of 'characterization', was 'personation'--the presentation of a person on stage, with obvious overtones of deliberate pretence. To talk about Shakespeare's characters in isolation from the action, to discuss their psychology and motivation, is to treat Shakespearean tragedies as if they were nineteenth-century naturalistic plays. It is to miss their uniqueness and their power." Instead of characterization, O'Toole sees Shakespeare's plays as being primarily about the transitional state that Elizabethan/Jacobean England was in, a transition between the old feudal order versus the new capitalist one, which he simplifies as between status and power. O'Toole looks specifically at HAMLET, KING LEAR, OTHELLO, and MACBETH in this context, and the fact that Hamlet and and Lear have status (based on their positions but no power), while Othello and Macbeth have power based on their own actions, but no status. One of the fascinating things about Shakespeare is just how many interpretations one can find for his plays.

To order Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life from amazon.com, click here.


THE AUDACITY OF HOPE by Barack Obama:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/05/2008]

So why, you may ask, am I reading LA AUDACIA DE LA ESPERANZA de Barack Obama (translated by Claudia Casanova and Juan Eloy Roca) (ISBN-13 978-0-307-38711-0, ISBN-10 0-307-38711-9) instead of THE AUDACITY OF HOPE by Barack Obama (ISBN-13 978-0-307-45587-1, ISBN-10 0-307-45587-4)? Well, the primary reason (no election pun intended) is that the former was on the shelf in my library while the latter is at the end of a long waiting list. But there is also a secondary benefit, which I will discuss at the end of my comments.

Actually, I am probably not going to comment too much on the content, but on the translation. I found it interesting that there were a few "Translator's Note"s designed to explain certain arcane American features, such as "Father Knows Best" and "Poor Richard's Almanac". (Interestingly, there was apparently no need to explain "The Dick Van Dyke Show".)

The secondary benefit I mentioned is that I cannot read Spanish as fast as English. (Timing myself on a page or so in English gives me a reading speed of about 470 words per minute, in Spanish, about 110 words per minute. Both texts were by Obama, so style, word choice, etc., were as parallel as I could get them for the test.) This means that anything I read in Spanish I have to read slowly and more carefully than if it were in English.

It also gives me a new perspective on functional or marginal illiteracy. I cannot remember a time when I did not read and did not enjoy reading. It's easy enough to decide to read a book when I know I can do it in under four hours--faster if I skim parts--but harder to commit to ten hours or more. And this is a fairly straightforward book; a literary novel could easily take much longer. So when we hear that people no longer read books, we need to take into account that the quality of education is such that for many, reading is a laborious process, and has always been one. If every book I had ever read took this much effort, would I have developed a love of reading?

To order The Audacity of Hope from amazon.com, click here.


LAGOON by Nnedi Okorafor:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/09/2017]

LAGOON by Nnedi Okorafor (ISBN 978-1-4814-4088-2) is a science fiction first contact novel set in Lagos, Nigeria. That I feel that I have to specify the country for the largest city in Africa (with a population of between 18 and 21 million) says something about Americans' geographic knowledge. If asked to name the five most populous African cities, I guarantee that basically no one would get them right. (Feel free to try, and then Google for the answer.) And Okorafor writes in her postscript, "If all you know about one of Africa's most powerful and innovative nations is that there is an abundance of 419 scammers there, that's on you, not me." (Actually, the other thing I know is that the security at Lagos's airport was so bad in the 1990s that the United States banned direct flights from there.)

It is fascinating to read a science fiction novel set somewhere different for a change. That said, it would have been helpful to know there was a glossary for the pidgin in the back of the book sometime before I discovered it halfway through.

To order Lagoon from amazon.com, click here.


THE RELIGIONS NEXT DOOR by Marvin Olasky:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/28/2005]

Marvin Olasky's THE RELIGIONS NEXT DOOR (ISBN 0-805-54314-3) purports to be a book explaining the major non-Christian religions in the world/the United States. (The subtitle is "What We Need to Know about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam"--and What Reporters Are Missing".) It is obviously aimed at a Christian audience, and probably a conservative audience as well. His format is two chapters each for Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, then two chapters on how the media "gets it wrong." But Judaism is not treated the same as the other three religions. For the other three, Olasky spends the second chapter telling in detail what is wrong with them (the caste system, too little consideration of humans as divinely special, etc.). He often does this from a specifically Christian perspective, such as in the following: "Crucially, then, Islam does not acknowledge original sin. Muslims say they revere the whole Bible, but when it and the Quran are in conflict, they go with the Quran. That means Muslims have a tendency to revere strong leaders who put forth an image of perfection; Christians, realizing that all have sinned and fall short of God's glory, tend to be skeptical." The use of the word "realizing" implies that the Christian position is the correct one. Note also that Judaism also does not recognize original sin. But Olasky's second chapter on Judaism is just a history of Judaism, not an examination of where Olasky feels it fails, and I suspect even he would not claim that Jews revere "strong leaders who put forth an image of perfection" any more than Christians. (Olasky says in the Foreword that he was a Jew converted to Christianity, so this may have affected his writing, or Olasky may have decided that he could "get away with" criticizing other religions in a way that he could not with Judaism.) And for that matter, he doesn't note that although Christians say they revere the Old Testament, when the Old Testament and the New Testament are in conflict, they go with the New.

And the complaints about the press are again of two natures. For Judaism, his complaints are that the religious meaning of holidays are ignored in favor of articles on (for example) traditional foods, that liberal branches are given proportionally more coverage than conservative, and that coverage of Messianiac Judaism tends to be negative. For the other three, he also complains about the superficiality of coverage, but in a reversal says that the press is not critical enough of other religions, and that it emphasizes only their positive aspects. (Even Olasky notices this contradiction, and says, "[in] one sense the tough ... coverage of the Messianic Jewish controversy is a good sign--if only reporters would do the same with other groups.") In short, I was both disappointed and annoyed by this book, and not just because I was not the target audience.

To order The Religions Next Door from amazon.com, click here.


GETTING INTO GUINNESS: ONE MAN'S LONGEST, FASTEST, HIGHEST JOURNEY INSIDE THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS RECORD BOOK by Larry Olmsted:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/07/2012]

GETTING INTO GUINNESS: ONE MAN'S LONGEST, FASTEST, HIGHEST JOURNEY INSIDE THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS RECORD BOOK by Larry Olmsted (ISBN 978-0-06-137348-0) is about more than just Olmstead attempts to set records acknowledged by Guinness (the record-keeping company, not the brewery--Olmsted makes the distinction in his introduction). Olmsted covers the history of the book, which has undergone several name changes, ownership changes, and (distressingly) content changes.

THE GUINNESS BOOK OF RECORDS, later GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS, and currently THE GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS, started as a way to settle pub arguments in Britain, answering such questions as "what is the fastest game bird in Europe?" or "what language has the fewest irregular verbs?" Over time, though, it became more and more "commercial" (i.e., pandering), dropping many of the classic superlatives to add such "records" as "largest sports salary" and "fastest time to place six eggs in egg-cups using the feet". As Miles Kington said in "The Independent", "If you want to settle a pub argument in 2004, you'd be crazy to go to GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS. Actually, you'd be crazy to go to it at all, unless you wanted to know who have the largest ice-lolly stick collection in the world, or the most Pepsi cans from around the world. But I have never been in a pub conversation in which someone said, 'I wonder who has got the most yo-yos in a private collection,' or "What's the most Smarties eaten by someone using chopsticks in three minutes?"

There was even a word coined for these sorts of records: Guinnessport (coined by Jerry Kirshenbaum in "Sports Illustrated" in 1979).

Because they needed to make room for all these "records", the classic ones were dropped from the book. So as Miles Kington also said, "I have been through the new, gold-plated GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS 2005 as carefully as I can, and can find no information on who was the first to swim the Channel. Or the fastest. Or the youngest. Or anything about swimming the Channel at all. I have also been unable to find any information on the deepest well in England, or indeed much about that sort of thing at all. ... Nor is there anything about Scotland's highest tree. Or Ireland's oldest church. Or Parliamentary majorities. Or even, I think, rail crashes. With the partial exception of weight-lifting, not a single one of the questions playfully raised by Lord Iveagh in 1956 can be answered by the book known as 'Guinness World Records 2005.'"

Two notes: Lord Iveagh asked the questions that inspired the first GUINNESS BOOK OF RECORDS. And you will not see the youngest person to swim the Channel because Guinness now has banned all athletic records for the "youngest" for health and safety reasons. Actually, they have banned a lot of records for those reasons--but many of them have somehow crept back in. In 1996 they claimed all eating records were removed. In 2000 the book still included most watches eaten. In 2006, they accepted and promoted the fastest time to eat a 12-inch pizza. In 2008 they included a record for most sausages swallowed whole in one minute, after previously ruling speed-eating of pancakes too dangerous to include.

And since he first contacted them about this book, Olmsted himself has had all his requests for record-setting attempts refused, even in pre-existing categories. (To set a "Guinness record", one must get prior approval.)

There may also be a bit of sloppiness in the research. Olmsted recounts the story of someone who transported some flammable material to Manhattan to be used to make the world's largest fondue. The only way legally to carry hazardous material into Manhattan was the George Washington Bridge, but apparently the driver did not know this and (according to Olmsted) tried first the Holland Tunnel and then the Midtown Tunnel, before finally getting (presumably illegally) in via the Lincoln Tunnel. The problem with this is that the Holland Tunnel, Lincoln Tunnel, and George Washington Bridge are the three ways to get to Manhattan from New Jersey (the mainland), while the Midtown Tunnel comes in from Queens and to get to it from the New Jersey end of the Holland Tunnel, the driver would have to drive south to the Goethals Bridge or to the Outerbridge Crossing to Staten Island, then take the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn and then drive past the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (renamed the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel in 2010, but no one uses that name) to get to the Midtown Tunnel (actually the Queens-Midtown Tunnel). (Theoretically, he could also get onto Staten Island via the Bayonne Bridge, but that involves taking local roads for a lot of the way.)

To order Getting into Guinness from amazon.com, click here.


THE DA VINCI HOAX by Carl E. Olsen and Sandra Miesel:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/22/2005]

I reviewed Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE in the 01/07/05 issue of the MT VOID, and Bart D. Ehrmann's TRUTH AND FICTION IN THE DA VINCI CODE in the 07/01/05 issue. (Nice symmetry, that!) And now this week, it's Carl E. Olsen and Sandra Miesel's THE DA VINCI HOAX (ISBN 1-58617-034-1). But I have somewhat less to say about this one, because I found it less convincing that Ehrmann's book. While Ehrmann cites various documents and presents what (to me, at least) is an impartial, objective refutation to Brown's book, Olsen and Miesel alternate between objective statements and statements which boil down to "Brown disagrees with the whole basis of the Catholic Church, so he must be wrong." For example, on page 105 they say, "Not only is there a lack of evidence for a political alliance resulting from Jesus and Mary Magdalene being married, there would have been no reason for such an alliance. Jesus made it known on more than one occasion that he had not come to establish an earthly kingdom or to overthrow the local Roman government. His kingdom was not of this world, and he came to conquer sin and death, not governments and emperors." But this is begging the question, since this refutation is based on the information in the gospels that Brown claims have been tampered with. This recurring problem seriously undercuts their overall credibility with me, though I suspect others might react differently. Olsen and Miesel do point out the very anti-Catholic bias of much of THE DA VINCI CODE, and covers a few errors that Ehrmann missed (particularly in the area of art works), but I think Ehrmann does a better job in detailing the majority of the errors and false claims.

To order The Da Vinci Hoax from amazon.com, click here.


MAPPING HUMAN HISTORY: GENES, RACE, AND OUR COMMON ORIGINS by Steve Olson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/14/2004]

Steve Olson's MAPPING HUMAN HISTORY: GENES, RACE, AND OUR COMMON ORIGINS (ISBN 0-618-35210-4) looks at our notions of race from a genetic standpoint and concludes that there is no basis for how we have traditionally divided people into races. Instead, what he describes is pretty much the viewpoint that if there is such a thing as race, there are four races--three of them are African and the fourth is everyone else. A lot of the book is about how Homo sapiens migrated to cover the globe, what may have happened to earlier intelligent primates, and how all this shows up in genetic traces. It is certainly an interesting companion piece to Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL (or for that matter Edwin H. Colbert's WANDERING LANDS AND ANIMALS).

To order Mapping Human History from amazon.com, click here.


LOST CLASSICS edited by Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding, and Linda Spalding:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/30/2007]

I did not read all of LOST CLASSICS edited by Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding, and Linda Spalding (ISBN-13 978-0-385-72086-1, ISBN-10 0-385-72086-6), but I did read a few selections. This is a collection of several dozen three-page essays by writers on books that they think should be classics but are "Lost, Overlooked, Under-read, Unavailable, Stolen, Extinct, or Otherwise Out of Commission."

Most were unfamiliar to me, but some I recognized. Christian Bok describes the CODEX SERAPHINIANUS of Luigi Seafini "an other-worldly encyclopedia" and compares it to Jorge Luis Borges's "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". (Laird Hunt also references this Borges story in his essay on Lafcadio Hearn.)

Brian Brett writes about CLASSICS REVISITED by Kenneth Rexroth in such a way as to make me want to run out and find a copy somehow. (And in fact, I did, and will write about it in a future column.) For example, he quotes Rexroth on the prose of Tacitus as having "a style like a tray of dental instruments", or of Julius Caesar's style with the sentence "The nouns and verbs carom off each other like billiard balls."

A story that Mark and I have been recommending--"Address Unknown" by Kressman Taylor--is chosen by Nancy Huston. It first appeared in "Story" magazine in 1938, was condensed by Reader's Digest soon after (though who knows why, as it was only about 9000 words to start with), anthologized in Philip Van Doren Stern's POCKET READER in 1941 (with almost continuous re-printings for the new few years, and re-issued in a small hardback in 1995. For all this, it remains difficult to find (although there is a version floating around the Web these days, which coincidentally Mark recommended last week!).

One science fiction novel appears in the list, THE TWILIGHT OF BRIAREUS by Richard Cowper (chosen by Eden Robinson). And my father's favorite book of all time was chosen: LOST HORIZON by James Hilton. I knew it was a classic; I just had not realized it was lost.

In the Afterword, Javier Marias talks about the loss of the old-fashioned bookshops with individual characters. One he described had "more rare and select titles than almost any other" he had seen--signed first editions, etc. But every book he asked the owner about got the response, "This volume is not for sale." Eventually he asked just which books were for sale, and was told that most of them were. "I'm not about to work against the interests of my own business," the owner said. Marias writes, "I later learned . . . that the man was indeed working against the interests of his own business, or, rather, that despite the fact that his shop opened onto the street and there was a sign on the door saying 'Open' or 'Closed' depending on the time of day, he had no business. He was a collector so fanatical, so proud of his possessions, that after having amassed one of the best libraries in the country, he found it unbearable that no one, or only the few acquaintances who came to visit him, ever saw or admired it. So he decided to pass himself off as a book dealer in order to enjoy the astonishment and greed that his exquisite treasures in incautious passersby or aspiring clients."

To order Lost Classics from amazon.com, click here.


THE GREAT IMPERSONATION by E. Phillips Oppenheim:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/09/2007]

THE GREAT IMPERSONATION by E. Phillips Oppenheim (ISBN-13 978-1-6042-4284-3, ISBN-10 1-6042-4284-1) is considered a classic spy thriller. Everard Dominey (and Englishman) and Leopold von Ragastein (a German) were friends at Eton and Oxford who look almost like identical twins. Later (in 1913) they meet in the African jungle, Dominey almost dead after being deserted by his bearers, and just after von Ragastein has been told to return to England and assume an English identity as a cover for espionage and fifth column activity. Though the writing is good, it is alas all too predictable. Of interest only to those who study the history of the spy novel.

To order The Great Impersonation from amazon.com, click here.


THE OLD MAN IN THE CORNER by Baroness Orczy:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/21/2008]

THE OLD MAN IN THE CORNER by Baroness Orczy (ISBN-13 978-0-486-44048-4, ISBN-10 0-486-44048-6) is a collection of twelve of the stories of the man in the corner (the "old" was added for American publication). Several of these were dramatized on the BBC (radio) as "The Teahouse Detective". They definitely lend themselves to easy dramatization, since they are simply dialogues between the man in the corner, and a woman journalist, in which the MitC solves mysterious crimes by cogitation alone. In this regard he is a precursor of Hercule Poirot and his "little grey cells," except that Poirot actually does go out and talk to people as part of his detection. (In fairness, occasionally the MitC recounts what he saw and heard in court or elsewhere.) Baroness Orczy ran into the same problem Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did--she wrote a story which theoretically would end the career of the MitC, but popular demand was such that she had to bring him back. Apparently her approach was to just ignore that terminal story and pretend it had never been written. The Man in the Corner is as classic an early detective as Jacques Futrelle's "Thinking Machine", and I recommend any stories of either of them.

To order The Old Man in the Corner from amazon.com, click here.


PHNOM PENH: A CULTURAL HISTORY by Milton Osborne:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/14/2014]

PHNOM PENH: A CULTURAL HISTORY by Milton Osborne (ISBN 978-0-19-534248-2) is good when he sticks to describing Phnom Penh, but less clear when he describes various books (fiction and non-fiction) dealing with the period he is covering. It is especially confusing when he is describing books which are unavailable in English. Osborne's decision to focus on Phnom Penh has of necessity made it very limited, because most books about Cambodia are either about the entire country, or focus heavily on Angkor Wat. (And in fact, of the books I found, three focused entirely on Angkor.) It is also true that the majority of the books about Cambodia available today are primarily about the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot era rather than a full historical view of the city.

To order Phnom Penh from amazon.com, click here.


LIBRARY WORLD RECORDS by Godfrey Oswald:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/26/2004]

I'll start off with Godfrey Oswald's LIBRARY WORLD RECORDS (McFarland, ISBN 0-7864-1619-X). This is the sort of books that libraries should buy as reference material, but is unlikely to be something an individual would want to acquire permanently. Then again, at least three librarians read this zine, so who knows? Still, the average read may want to know the five largest universities in Italy, or the ten oldest existing written works, but probably does not need the book that has that information. (By the way, the latter is not an entirely accurate heading, since Oswald lists "Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria" as number one, "Egypt" as number two, etc., naming the oldest from each. But the ten oldest existing written works are probably actually Sumerian.

One item of particular interest to those living in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area: The world's oldest existing bookstore is the Moravian Bookstore in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, dating back to November 17, 1745.

To order Library World Records from amazon.com, click here.


BONE SHARPS, COWBOYS, AND THUNDER LIZARDS: EDWARD DRINKER COPE, OTHNIEL CHARLES MARSH, AND THE GILDED AGE OF PALEONTOLOGY by Jim Ottaviani & Big Time Attic:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/13/2008]

BONE SHARPS, COWBOYS, AND THUNDER LIZARDS: EDWARD DRINKER COPE, OTHNIEL CHARLES MARSH, AND THE GILDED AGE OF PALEONTOLOGY by Jim Ottaviani & Big Time Attic (ISBN-13 978-0-9660106-6-4, ISBN-10 0-9660106-6-3) is about ... well, what the title says. At 165 pages, it covers the subject fairly well with a straightforward approach done in sepia tones. It does not deliver the dinosaurs that the cover seems to promise, except as museum skeletons and isolated fossils, but it does give the reader an idea of what paleontology was like in the Gilded Age. Readers should be sure to read the "Fact or Fiction?" section at the back to find out where Ottaviani took liberties with the truth.

To order Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards from amazon.com, click here.


SUSPENDED IN LANGUAGE: NIELS BOHR'S LIFE, DISCOVERIES, AND THE CENTURY HE SHAPED by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/13/2008]

SUSPENDED IN LANGUAGE: NIELS BOHR'S LIFE, DISCOVERIES, AND THE CENTURY HE SHAPED by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis (ISBN-13 978-0-9660106-5-7, ISBN-10 0-9660106-5-5), is 318 densely packed pages of physics. (Indeed, at times Ottaviani and Purvis abandon the graphic style for solid paragraphs of text--and hard-to-read text at that, with closely spaced san serif typeface with normal, bold, and italic fonts, all in the same paragraph. This would be difficult to follow even as a regular biography, but the added graphics make it even more difficult. (Indeed, one of the points it makes is that the "solar system model" of the atom is the last one that people could visualize--and it is wrong. Part of the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle is that one cannot see some things, so there is a certain irony in the graphic format here.

To order Suspended in Language from amazon.com, click here.


THE DIN IN THE HEAD by Cynthia Ozick:

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

There are many essays in THE DIN IN THE HEAD by Cynthia Ozick (ISBN 0-618-47050-6, 978-0-618-47050-1) worth reading; I will comment on only one. "Young Tolstoy: An Apostle of Desire" discusses Tolstoy's short novel THE COSSACKS, and considers the historical reality versus the artistic description. Ozick says that Tolstoy surely knew of "the Cossacks' long trail of pogroms and butcheries." (In a single year between 1648 and 1649 alone the Chmielnicki Cossacks murdered 300,000 Jews.) What Ozick says of Tolstoy's story is that "the Cossacks are meant to carry the romantic magnetism of the noble primitive." So, she says, leaving this out of THE COSSACKS is literary license, just as Jane Austen never talks about the Napoleonic Wars. (Also, she argues, Tolstoy's point-of-view character would not know of these massacres--or care.) Ozick does point out The irony to all this, though--forty years after writing THE COSSACKS Tolstoy declined to sign a manifesto in favor of Dreyfus, and instead focused his energies on relief for the Dukhobors, a sect being persecuted for their pacificist beliefs. And who use the instrument of their persecution? The Cossacks that Tolstoy had so admired.

To order The Din in My Head from amazon.com, click here.


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