Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.

JEFFERSON by Saul K. Padover:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/27/2015]

JEFFERSON by Saul K. Padover (ISBN 978-0-451-62797-1) was originally written in 1942 and published in this abridged form in 1952. It has many of the same issues that Malone's biography has; for example, early on it talks about "gay Hanover," "even gayer Williamsburg," and how "life was gay," all in three paragraphs. It also skips Sally Hemings entirely (there is a passing reference to John Hemings, half-brother to Sally).

I don't know whether it was the times, but it seems unlikely that today Padover would refer to "dry-humored little Madison," "wise little James Madison," or "the homely little Secretary of State." It's almost as bad as if he were calling Madison "Jefferson's little friend." (It is not helped later when Padover, talking about someone else, says, "Moore [was] hyper-sensitive as very short men are apt to be...")

Padover also mentions Jefferson's love for Ossian's poetry. It was not until 1952 (when this abridgement was first published) that there seemed to be general agreement that Ossian was a hoax.

Writing in 1942. Padover said, "Since 1792, the South and Tammany Hall, regardless of differences and despite occasional separations, have been the two mainstays of the Democratic party." When he was abridging it in 1952 this may still have been true, but the South left the Democratic party fold in the 1960s and has not been back since. Coincidentally, this is also about the time that Tammany Hall disappeared as well. One might almost wonder if Padover jinxed these...

Padover talks about Justice Samuel Chase's impeachment, where the House impeached him 73-32, but the Senate failed to convict him. However, he describes this as "the failure of the Senate to impeach Chase"--a common error, but one depressing to find in an historian's writings.

I find it interesting that in the Federalist-Democrat battle, one side had a major player name Frenno and the other had one named Freneau. (Maybe it's also that Freneau supposedly lived about a mile from where we live now.)

Jefferson quoted Benjamin Franklin as having said that "when he was young and had time to read he had not books; and now that he had become old and had books, he had no time." Maybe the memory of his youth is why Franklin founded the first public lending library in the United States.

To order Jefferson from, click here.

Mark Twain by Albert Bigelow Paine:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/20/2007]

MARK TWAIN by Albert Bigelow Paine (ISBN-10 0-877-54170-1, ISBN-13: 978-0-877-54170-7) was the first biography of Twain (published in 1912), and the most hagiographic. In his introduction to the three-volume 1980 Chelsea House edition I have, James Cox gives a brief overview of the major biographies of Twain and the approaches they have taken. Paine relied a lot on his own conversations with Twain (as well as those close to him), and people are notoriously unreliable in remembering their early years (as well as often desirous of portraying themselves well). And Twain, as a storyteller, was probably more prone to "elaborate" than most. So it is not surprising that Paine paints only a favorable picture of Twain--it is left for the later biographers to do more research and discover a more balanced picture. (Paine himself wrote an introduction in 1935 correcting some of the more noted errors.) But as long as that is kept in mind, Paine's work is a joy to read.

Other noted Twain biographers include Van Wyck Brooks (1925), Bernard DeVoto (1932), Dixon Wecter (1952), Justin Kaplan (1966), and Hamlin Hill (1973). The last three cover three different eras in Twain's life, so complement rather than directly dispute each other. (Works by Susy Clemens and William Dean Howells are too brief and anecdotal to be considered true biographies.) The Kaplan is on my to-read shelf, so expect comments on that eventually.

To order Mark Twain from, click here.

A PEOPLE'S CONTEST: THE UNION AND CIVIL WAR 1861-1865 by Philip Shaw Paludan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/05/2013]

A PEOPLE'S CONTEST: THE UNION AND CIVIL WAR 1861-1865 (ISBN 978-0-700-60812-6) by Philip Shaw Paludan was a book I happened to purchase just before reading THE CIVIL WAR BOOKSHELF, which chose it as one of its fifty "basic books." Reading it, I was struck by how similar the times were then and now:

At some point, all the important votes in Congress start diving strictly along party lines.

One political party wants a return to traditional ways and principles; the other is pushing for change.

One political party wants to maintain a very small Federal government; the other wants an expanded role for the Federal government.

One political party is concerned about immigration (both internal and external) displacing current low-wage earners; the other wants more immigration.

One political party wants to maintain the military as it always has been; the other wants to integrate a group which has always been barred from service.

The only dissonant chord in all this is that the traditionalist, small government, anti-immigration, anti-integrated military is the Democrats; the activist, big-government, pro-immigration, pro-integration party is the Republicans.

There is also a discussion of McClellan and Grant.

McClellan was everything Grant was not: "[a] young professional, successful in civilian life, a leader in his West Point class, author, linguist, adored by his men." But Grant was one thing McClellan was not: a winning general. And no incident summarizes it as well as the troop movements after the Wilderness. Grant's troops reached a junction. To the left were the fords of the Rapidan and the Rappahonnack: a withdrawal. To the right was Richmond. Grant pointed right, and the soldiers cheered.

But Grant was not boastful. Joe Hooker said, "My plans are perfect, and when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on Bobby Lee, for I shall have none." Then his first encounter with Lee was the Battle of Chancellorsville, where Hooker went down to stunning defeat.

On the other hand, when after the first day of Shiloh (a disaster for the Union), Sherman said to Grant, "Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" all Grant responded was, "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though." And he did.

To order A People's Contest from, click here.

SCREEN SIRENS SCREAM! by Paul Parla and Charles P. Mitchell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/31/2006]

Tom Weaver has spent his time interviewing mostly people who had substantial careers in science fiction, fantasy, or horror (in such books as "Attack of the Monster Movie Makers", "They Fought in the Creature Features", "Interview with B Science Fiction and Horror Moviemakers", and "Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes"). In SCREEN SIRENS SCREAM! (ISBN 0-7864-0701-8), Paul Parla and Charles P. Mitchell have focused on a much narrower field--women who have appeared in one or two science fiction films, often as young girls, and then been for the most part forgotten as having a connection with that genre. They do include a few well-known actresses (such as Faith Domergue), but who remembers Ramsay Ames, Sandy Descher, Mimi Gibson, or Marilyn Harris (*). Many of these actresses have never been interviewed before, and their stories of being contract players or free-lance minor actresses provide an interesting balance to stories of grand careers and stardom.

Note: McFarland used to produce all their books in staid monotone cloth library bindings. Lately, they've taken to trying to appeal to the individual film fan by using illustrated board covers and re-issuing some of their works in trade paperback. This book has an eye-catching purple and green cover with a screaming woman whose face is covered in a regular pattern of pink dots. It is supposed to look like Pop Art, but it makes her look as though she has a case of measles.

(*) Amina Mansouri in THE MUMMY'S GHOST, catatonic girl in THEM!, Sandy in THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, Maria in FRANKENSTEIN

To order Screen Sirens Scream! from, click here.

BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/12/2003]

Ann Patchett's BEL CANTO was chosen for our library book discussion group. It's not something I would normally read, and I can't really recommend it either. The basic plot is that a group of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective) storm a house in an unnamed South American country. (Unnamed, but it is clearly Peru.) They hope to take the President of the country hostage, but he isn't there, and they end up with dozens of hostages--far more than they expected or can deal with. The situation reminded me very much of Luis Bunuel's EXTERMINATING ANGEL, with the same sort of surreal atmosphere settling over the house, but it lacked the spark Bunuel had.

To order Bel Canto from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/16/2007]

THE LITTLE BOOK OF HINDU DEITIES by Sanjay Patel (ISBN-10 0-452-28775-8 ISBN-13 978-0-452-28775-4) is a quite charming introduction to Hinduism. Why charming? Because the illustrations (also done by Sanjay Patel) are delightful; they were inspired, as he says, by Sanrio's "Hello Kitty" designs. [See examples of the illustrations at and -mrl] The book covers the Hindu Trinity, the manifestations of Shiva, the Mother Goddess, the Ten Avatars of Vishnu, as well as the Hindu epics, the demigods, the nine planets, the animal gods, and the creation story. My only complaint is that Patel is often a bit too cutesy for his own good. For example, of Shiva and his family he writes, "The constant companion and vehicle of Lord Shiva and his family is the snow-white bull known as Nandi, on whom, it is thought, only those who have conquered their desires through yoga are fit to ride. Who needs a dog as a companion when you can ride a bull? That is, if you've done your yoga." I suppose this is because the book is somewhat aimed at a young adult audience, although the vocabulary used would put it at the upper end of that range. Still, for adults who have had no real exposure to the basic information about Hindu theology, this is a good introduction.

To order The Little Book of Hindu Deities from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/21/2009]

I watched PATHFINDER, a film which purports to be about the conflict between the Vikings and the Native Americans, though clearly it is more inspired by Conan the Barbarian and by Peter Jackson's images of Minas Tirith than by any historical accuracy. It starts by placing this conflict 600 years before Columbus; in actuality it was less than 500 years. The Native Americans would not have seen horses as omens, and even if the Viking had brought horses on their rather small ships, they would look more like Icelandic ponies and less like giant steeds. The Viking clothing, armor, and helmets are all wrong. (Blame Richard Wagner--apparently he was the first to insist on horns on helmets.) The scenery looks nothing like the eastern coast of Canada. The Native Americans are peaceful and happy. The Vikings are vicious brutes whose only purpose seems to be to kill--they don't take any loot, don't claim any land, and don't seem to do anything but fight. Bleh.


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

TRUTH, KNOWLEDGE, OR JUST PLAIN BULL: HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE (ISBN 1-59102-246-0) deals with logical fallacies, groupthink, and other obstacles to clear thinking. The problem is that there have been a lot of books covering this ground already, and this does not add anything new (except adding more recent examples, I suppose). And although I am probably somewhat to the left of center politically, I found the extreme left-wing bias in Patten's writing and examples to be very annoying. If he is trying to convince a wide audience, he probably should have avoided such obvious political bias.

To order Truth, Knowledge, or Just Plain Bull from, click here.


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

LIVING WITH A DEAD LANGUAGE by Ann Patty (ISBN 978-1-101-98022-4) recounts Patty's experience returning to college after a career as a book editor for the sole purpose of learning Latin.

When I was in college, I took three years of Greek and was sorry I had no time for Latin. So when I retired, I had this idea of teaching myself Latin. Somehow this never happened, and reading this has convinced me it never will: the ablative absolute, perfect passive participle, gerundive, active and passive periphrastics, the dative of advantage and disadvantage, the dative of the possessor, the dative of purpose, the dative of reference, the dative of agent with the passive periphrastic, ... It is clear (to me, anyway) that trying to do this on my own would be hopeless. And while Patty had a college nearby that offered Latin that she could audit, the same is not true here.

However, the most interesting part was actually just a brief aside. Patty describes a "Living Latin weekend" (run by Paideia), where for two days people spoke nothing but Latin from 9AM to 5PM. Patty writes (at the bottom of page 203), "I imagined it would be something like a science-fiction convention, with all the eccentric enthusiasts enjoying one another's company." Well, that was an interesting comment, I thought, and figured that was it, but I turn the page and Patty continues, "Over the past two years, I've become more and more aware of the similarities between classicists and science-fiction enthusiasts; in truth, classicists seemed like a kind of subset of the science-fiction world." At least three of her fellow students were science-fiction fans, and she concludes, "As David Hartwell, the top science-fiction editor of my era, once explained, "The reason for all the conventions is because science fiction attracts people who don't fit in anywhere, so they like to imagine their own worlds. They can choose their own reality and find others equally passionate about it, and the only requirement for entry is enthusiasm.' Wasn't that a fairly accurate description of Latinists?"

To order Living with a Dead Language from, click here.

A NUMERATE LIFE by John Allen Paulos:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/23/1804]

A NUMERATE LIFE by John Allen Paulos (ISBN 978-1-63388-118-1) is more about the writing of autobiographies than an autobiography per se. For example, Paulos uses Benford's Law to explain (sort of) why autobiographies tend to cover childhood and recent adulthood more thoroughly than, say, college or early adulthood. To a great extent, this makes the book more interesting than a straight autobiography would have been.

To order A Numerate Life from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/24/2004]

John Allen Paulos wrote A MATHEMATICIAN PLAYS THE STOCK MARKET (ISBN 0-465-05481-1) after he lost a lot of money (he never says exactly how much) on WorldCom stock. Paulos talks about various "philosophies" about how the stock market works, and what strategies (if any) would be used in support of the various philosophies. These strategies are based on statistics and probability, so expect equations and calculations. His overall conclusion, not surprisingly, is that one's plans should always provide insurance against losing more than one can afford to. This struck me as a good explanation of a lot of the basic workings of stocks and the stock market, but then, I was a math major.

To order A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market from, click here.

EYE OF THE CROW by Shane Peacock:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/15/2010]

I started EYE OF THE CROW by Shane Peacock (ISBN-13 978-0-88776-877-4), the first in a series of books about the teenage Sherlock Holmes. Telling it in the present tense was an interesting stylistic choice, but for me it made it just too different from the original stories' style. Add to that a completely different tone, and it completely failed to engage me the way an "authentic" Holmes story would.

To order Eye of the Crow from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/17/2015]

THE NEW WILD: WHY INVASIVE SPECIES WILL BE NATURE'S SALVATION by Fred Pearce (ISBN 978-0-8070-3368-5) is a look at whether our attitudes towards conservation, and in particular towards "invasive" species, makes sense. ("Invasive" is a bit of a loaded word, but I cannot put it in quotation marks through this article. I was tempted to call them "immigrant" species, but I will just settle for removing the quotation marks.)

Pearce has four stories:

1) An invasive species comes in and takes over, but it turns out that the native species were already being devastated by pollution, which the new species then cleans up, leading to a resurgence of the native species.

2) An invasive species comes in and takes over, but ends up providing food, shelter, etc., for many existing native species that had been having problems.

3) An invasive species comes in and appears to take over, but after a brief period, the native species make a come-back and the new species decreases to a more "reasonable" level of co-existence.

4) Species we think of as native are not really native. For example, earthworms were brought to the New World by the European settlers, as were honeybees. (No one at this point thinks we should get rid of honeybees as an invasive species. Indeed, the recent colony collapse of honeybees has everyone panicked, because they have become a necessary part of our ecology.)

The problem is that once you have read each of these a couple of times, with different locales and species, they start to get repetitious. And all the invasive species seem to be introduced (either intentionally or accidentally) by humans. Species whose habitats are shifting because of global climate change get only about ten pages of discussion, and even that is combined with other "natural" species drifts. For example, there is nothing about how polar bears are moving south in Canada and interbreeding with grizzly bears there. Undoubtedly there are, and will be, many more examples of such drift. If removing artificially introduced species is controversial, removing naturally invasive species is even more so. And if they are invading new areas because they can no longer exist in the old, one either has to accept the invasion or doom the species to extinction.

To order The New Wild from, click here.

BOOK LUST by Nancy Pearl:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/27/2004]

For people looking for where to start on a particular topic or in a particular genre, Nancy Pearl's BOOK LUST is probably a useful resource. (Of course, these days, people are more likely to google for something like this.) Pearl's book is a list of categories and topics, each with a brief starter bibliography. For example, for science fiction, she recommends (in this order) Mary Doria Russell's THE SPARROW, Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series (particularly the first book), Frederik Pohl's GATEWAY, Clifford Simak's works (particularly SHAKESPEARE'S PLANET, WAY STATION, CITY, and DESTINY DOLL), Sir Arthur C. Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END, Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, Roger Zelazny's NINE PRINCES IN AMBER, Frank Herbert's "Dune" series (though she didn't say how many of them), and Ursula K. LeGuin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and THE DISPOSSESSED.

Pearl gives separate lists for fantasy and horror, but she also has a separate cyberpunk list as well: William Gibson's NEUROMANCER; Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH and CRYPTONOMICON; Eric S Nylund's SIGNAL TO NOISE; Pat Cadigan's TEA FROM AN EMPTY CUP and DERVISH IS DIGITAL; Rudy Rucker's SOFTWARE and WETWARE; John Brunner's THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER; Bruce Sterling's ZEITGEIST, HEAVY WEATHER, and HOLY FIRE; William Gibson's PATTERN RECOGNITION; and the anthology HACKERS (edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois).

To order Book Lust from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/27/2004]

Ian Pears's THE RAPHAEL AFFAIR is a better mystery, but it definitely requires at least some knowledge of art to appreciate it. It (and his other art mysteries) are a lot shorter than his book AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, so they are good books to start with to get an idea of his style.

To order The Raphael Affair from, click here.

WHOSE BIBLE IS IT? by Jaroslav Pelikan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/25/2005]

WHOSE BIBLE IS IT? by Jaroslav Pelikan (ISBN 0-670-03385-5) is a look at the history of the Bible, its translations, and the attitudes of various religions towards it. One interesting point that Pelikan makes is that the Catholic Church insisted for centuries that the Bible should not be translated into the vernacular, but the Latin Vulgate they supported was itself a translation into the vernacular from the Greek Septuagint (as well as from Hebrew and Aramaic sources). Unfortunately, this book lacks a very important feature: an index. So when I wanted to see how the Douai-Rheims translation came about, or what the Latin version might be that Helene Hanff referred so negatively to as "black Anglican Bible," I was out of luck.

To order Whose Bible Is It? from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/25/2008]

I had heard good things about THE REMARKABLE MILLARD FILLMORE by George Pendle (ISBN-13 978-0-307-33962-1, ISBN-10 0-307-33962-9). It was supposedly very funny, but it just fell flat with me. It's possible that "For the first ten years of his life, Fillmore did not attend school, education not being encouraged by his parents, who, due to a misunderstanding, believed it to be a cause of goiter" might seem humorous to some, but I am not one of them. And while there is an index, it is largely fictitious. For example, one entry is "Hun: Attila the, 76-78; unless you've got buns, 4". Needless to say, pages 76-78 and 4 have no such references. The only real truth in the book is in the notes at the end, explaining how the bare facts of the narrative, stripped of their silliness, are true. The description on the back says "Humor", but the Library of Congress classification is American history. I suppose it is history, in some sense, but I doubt I would shelve it there--or anywhere else in my collection.

To order The Remarkable Millard Fillmore from, click here.


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

STRANGE ANGEL: THE OTHERWORLDLY LIFE OF ROCKET SCIENTIST JOHN WHITESIDE PARSONS by George Pendle (ISBN 0-15-100997-X) is a biography of the man who developed solid rocket fuel, then got involved in Aleister Crowley's religious cult, and eventually blew himself up under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Along the way he was heavily involved in science fiction fandom and LASFL/LASFS. In fact, he seems to have taken some ideas for rockets from early Jack Williamson stories, introduced L. Ron Hubbard to Aleister Crowley's cult (gee, I wonder what effect that had :-) ), and known most of the major science fiction authors of that time. Interestingly, of all the authors he knew, it is one of the oldest who is still around to provide information to Pendle: Jack Williamson (born 1908). Forrest J. Ackerman (born 1916) and Ray Bradbury (born 1920) are also still with us, but so many other authors died much younger: Asimov (1920-1992), L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000), Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986), Willy Ley (1906-1969), and Alva Rogers (1923-1982).

To order Strange Amgel from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/11/2016]

Well, I finally finished THE BIG BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES STORIES edited by Otto Penzler (ISBN 978-1-101-87261-1)--789 pages of Sherlock Holmes (and Sherlock Holmes-ish) stories. (The "Sherlock Holmes-ish)" addition is because some of these stories are humorous parodies with Herlock Shomes, Sheerluck Coombs, and so on. I probably enjoyed these at one point, but now I usually just find them irritating and here I just skipped over them.)

Even without these, however, there are more than enough stories included here to keep a Sherlock Holmes fan occupied for a long time. Unfortunately, one of the things keeping one occupied with the trade paperback edition is trying to figure out how to hold it open. At over two pounds, and with over-wide dimensions about seven by nine inches, the softcover edition has a tendency to flop around if held at the spine (as I tend to do), and to just be too heavy to hold even when held at the outer edges. I ended up reading this lying on my stomach in bed with the book lying on the bed.

I also found the page headers (with the current story title) to be done in a typeface that was extremely difficult to read when the book was at the right distance for me to read the text.

These complaints about the physical book aside, though, I have to say that the reader gets a lot of bang for the buck in this volume: 82 stories covering over a hundred years of writing. Some may be familiar to the average reader but most will not. This is highly recommended for Sherlock Holmes fans.

To order The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories from, click here.


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

THE BLACK LIZARD BOOK OF LOCKED ROOM MYSTERIES edited by Otto Penzler (ISBN 978-0-307-74396-1) does not have quite as many pages as the Hawthorne, but they are bigger pages. In any case, this is one of the new breed of anthologies, which aims to rival in size the fantasy trilogy that has come to be so prevalent. (Interestingly, at the other end of the scale, the novella, and particularly the stand-alone novella, seems to be on the rise. "Stand-alone" in this context does not mean "not part of a series" but rather "published on its own rather than in a magazine or an anthology with other works.")

At any rate, this volume has 68 stories, divided into specialized categories ("Footprints in the Sands of Time", "Shoot If You Must", etc.). This makes it even more important to read this a bit at a time, and possibly to read the stories out of order to give one a better variety. But it is recommended for mystery fans.

To order The Black Lizard Book of Locked Room Mysteries from, click here.


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

PHYSICS FOR ENTERTAINMENT by Yakov Perelman (ISBN-13 978-1-4013-0921-3, ISBN-10 1-4013-0921-3) is a reprint of the 1936 edition of a book originally written in 1925 in Russia. (Perelman died in the Siege of Leningrad in 1942.) It consists of short articles about various aspects of physics, often tied in to science fiction. For example, Perelman discusses why Wells's Invisible Man would be blind, and why the occupants of Verne's space capsule would have problems cooking dinner. Others are straightforward looks at things like neat tricks with refraction, and why various "perpetual motion" machines aren't. This would be a great gift for a science-minded teenager. (It is also kind of cool-looking in a retro sort of way, because it uses the same plates as the 1975 Mir (Moscow) edition.)

To order Physics for Entertainment from, click here.

THE CLUB DUMAS by Arturo Perez-Reverte:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/17/2003]

I re-read THE CLUB DUMAS by Arturo Perez-Reverte for our library discussion group. Much as I like the film THE NINTH GATE, it's still annoying in that the film drops the entire Dumas plot and pumps up the other sub-plot and makes it much more overt.

To order The Club Dumas from, click here.

INTERN NATION by Ross Perlin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/20/2015]

INTERN NATION by Ross Perlin (ISBN 978-1-84467-686-6) is an expose of the internship system, including the (illegal) use of unpaid interns to replace paid workers, the lack of training for interns, the total disregard for labor laws covering interns, and the use of green cards to intimidate foreign interns. This book is now three years old, though, and a lot of these abuses have been covered in the media since then. (However, it is not clear that anything has improved.)

The book could have used a better proofreader (possibly a job for an intern? :-) ). One book title cited spans a page break and only the part on the first page is italicized. Another time, there is a reference to the "Wage and House Division" (rather than the Wage and Hours Division) of the Department of Labor.

To order Intern Nation from, click here.

ROUTE 66 A.D. by Tony Perrottet:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/28/2003]

I want to mention another book I found at the library, Tony Perrottet's ROUTE 66 A.D. Perrottet retraced the steps of the Roman tourists of two thousand years ago around the Mediterranean, interspersing descriptions of their travel conditions and experiences with his own. As a way to see the area it is certainly interesting, though I wouldn't recommend it to someone making it their only venture to that region, since he skips anything less than two thousand years old--which includes all of Istanbul. (Well, that's not quite true. He does visit King Tut's tomb, which while over two thousand years old, was unknown to the Roman tourists.) It's certainly an interesting (and accidental) companion piece to Edward Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, the first third of which I hope to finish this week.

To order Route 66 A.D. from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/14/2006]

THOU SHALT NOT KILL: BIBLICAL MYSTERY STORIES edited by Anne Perry (ISBN 0-786-71575-8) is an anthology of "Biblical mysteries"--some set in Biblical times, some in modern times but paralleling Biblical themes, and some with even more tenuous Biblical connections. It is a mixed bag, with a couple of good stories, but also several predictable ones. The best if the first (as is usually the case): Simon Brett's "Cain Was Innocent", which is set neither in Biblical times nor the present. There is Gillian Linscott's "A Blessing of Frogs", in which the plague in Egypt helps solve a murder. And there are a Sister Fidelma story from Peter Tremayne and a Father Dowling story from Ralph McInerny, which will certainly interest fans of those series. I'm not sure I can recommend buying the trade paperback new, but it is certainly worth reading.

To order Thou Shalt Not Kill from, click here.

UNUSUALLY STUPID AMERICANS by Kathryn and Ross Petras:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/06/2004]

Kathryn and Ross Petras's UNUSUALLY STUPID AMERICANS (ISBN 0-8129-7082-9) is a collection of the sorts of stories one finds these days at the Obscure News Store ( Categories in the book include "How to Lose an Election" (e.g., "Urinate in a voter's yard"), "Top Food-Related Crimes" (e.g., "Selling Counterfeit Veal"), "Heart-Warming Examples of the IRS in Action" (e.g., "IRS Tries to Dig Up Dead Taxpayer's Body"), and many others. I do dispute one entry though: the Petrases find the New Mexico Official State Motto ("Red or green?") stupid--I find it charming.

To order Unusually Stupid Americans from, click here.

THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR by Arthur Phillips:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/06/2012]

THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR by Arthur Phillips (ISBN 978-1-4000-6647-6) is the most extreme example of the "unreliable narrator" that I have seen. Arthur Phillips the author of THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR has written a novel in the first person about Arthur Phillips the character, a writer whose biographical details match the author's to a high degree. In the novel, the character has two objects of interest: a 1904 edition of the play "The Tragedy of Arthur" by William Shakespeare, and a 17th century folio of the same play with Shakespeare's name as author on the frontispiece. However, the character's father is a consummate forger of art and documents, and he is the person who has given the character both the book and the folio. So the question is, are these objects real or are they forgeries?

One key argument made in the book is that it does not matter whether the play is real or a forgery: if it is good, it is good in itself. But our attitudes toward Shakespeare have blinded us to this. For example, we say that Shakespeare is great, and his contemporaries are mostly mediocre, but the narrator writes, "We now find it hard to enjoy any of his contemporaries very much, but at the time, the same people who liked his plays liked the other guys'. We've lost the ability to appreciate those others, because we've been too obsessively appreciating him." [pg 226]

This adulation ("Bardolatry", as it has been called) also leads us to spend a lot of time and effort coming up with reasons why Shakespeare wrote this or that bad line, or had this or that awkwardness. As the narrator say to a group staging HAMLET, "Shakespeare was the greatest creator of Rorschach tests in history. That's why we keep going back to him for the ten billionth production of this lame play. Look, look: you have a weak spot where Will's not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will Sticks in a joke that he likes about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn't belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we'd say, 'Whoops. Not buying it, Will.' If I wrote it they'd send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you've done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment." [page 94]

And another character points out what now seems obvious: "Okay, so all your Shylock has to tell that little bitch is, 'Hey, it's Antonio's debt to pay me, so he can cut his own flesh without me and give me my pound, and if he spill his own blood or cuts out too much, that is his problem. Now pay me, Christian bastards!' Am I not right?" [pg 100]

The basic problem with the novel, of course, is that had there really been such a book and folio as it claims, they would have been all over the news. So in spite of all attempts to make the question of attribution ambiguous, it is hard not to feel that we know the solution/answer to it. The good news is that there is enough substance independent of the attribution issue to make this worth reading.

Oh, and it also includes the entire text of THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR by William Shakespeare. It is certainly an impressive effort, but I found it unconvincing as being a play by Shakespeare for four reasons:

1) It is too short--at only 2808 lines it is shorter than most of Shakespeare's other tragedies. This would make sense if it was written by Arthur Phillips--it cannot be easy for a modern author to write a play in iambic pentameter using Tudor language and references, so one would expect such a play to be as short as possible. But this is not conclusive--it is about the same length as JULIUS CAESAR and longer than MACBETH or TIMON OF ATHENS.

2) There is a higher proportion of prose to iambic pentameter in THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR than in Shakespeare's other plays. Shakespeare used prose when "low characters" talked to each other or made speeches (e.g. the cobblers at the beginning of JULIUS CAESAR). Arguably, prose is easier to write than iambic pentameter, so it is not surprising that a modern author imitating Shakespeare would try to write as much prose as possible. Stylometrics would probably be able to analyze this better than just my feeling about it though.

3) The word choice is more obscure than in other Shakespeare plays. I realize that this sounds like the opposite of the first two, but it is much easier to decide to change "bundle" to "fardle" than to write another few lines in meter. One need only have a list of unfamiliar words from Shakespeare as one is composing and try to throw one in whenever possible. In an attempt to sound authentic, I think Phillips overdoes it. It is similar to the problem of trying to generate random patterns manually--we tend to over-randomize.

4) I do not believe that Shakespeare would use the word "pregnant" in his stage directions (e.g., "Enter King, Queen [pregnant], ..."). In fact, while Shakespeare used the word several times, it was never as meaning "with child" except when a double entendre, and I wonder if it was considered somewhat improper at the time.

(I will admit that I am not a Shakespeare scholar [nor do I play one on television :-) ], but I have read all of Shakespeare's plays, including the "Apocrypha"--plays that have been at times attributed at least in part to Shakespeare, but now generally are believed not to have been written by him. So I can claim to be at least as familiar with Shakspeare as most other amateurs.)

To order The Tragedy of Arthur from, click here.

THE DIM SUM FIELD GUIDE by Carolyn Phillips:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/20/2017]

THE DIM SUM FIELD GUIDE by Carolyn Phillips (ISBN 978-1-60774-956-1) presents itself as a guide to authentic dim sum, including etiquette, customs, etc. However, for some reason the dim sum listed seem like a small subset of what I see at dim sum, while including a lot of items that we never see.

For example, there are no listings for any fried dishes. There are no "Mexican Buns" (unless that is what Phillips calls "Snow-Topped Char Siu Buns"). There are no Leek Dumplings. And so on. It is possible that all those things are "inauthentic", but I am not convinced of that. It is possible that Phillips is looking at a very small subset of dim sum, limited by geography (either in China, or in the United States (The publisher is based in Berkeley; the author gives no indication of her source of knowledge.)

And deciding to use pencil sketches of the various dim sum instead of photographs is completely inexplicable. For one thing, the sketches give the reader no clue as to the colors. (And it is not just me--more than half the reviewers on Amazon complained about the lack of photographs.) I guess it is supposed to seem more "natural" or traditional. Or maybe the cost of printing full-color photographs would have boosted the price above the point of profitability for the publisher.

What is covered is interesting enough, but do not be fooled into thinking this is a comprehensive guide.

To order The Dim Sum Field Guide from, click here.

SECOND GLANCE by Jodi Picoult:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/15/2008]

The newly formed afternoon discussion group at the library chose SECOND GLANCE by Jodi Picoult (ISBN-13 978-0-743-45451-3, ISBN-10 0-743-45451-0) for February. This is apparently popular with discussion groups, since the trade paperback has thirteen "questions and topics for discussion" at the back. And for me, the assumptions behind these were far more interesting and thought-provoking that the book itself. WARNING--spoilers ahead.

The first question says, in part, "In what ways does this title help us to understand that this book is not only about revisiting the past, but also exploring what we thought we knew, what we may have been mistaken about, and how things look different in hindsight?" While it is true that one might claim certain themes are obvious in a book, this seems to be a bit too specific. It's one thing to ask how a book is about perceptions, but this is really leading the witness.

"Ethan [a nine-year-old child in the book] struggles with the painful knowledge that he will probably die young. But despite this fact, Ethan seems to be very well adjusted--he has a sense of wisdom that certainly transcends his age." Yes, Ethan is a really remarkable kid--but he is not real. He is a character that Picoult wrote that way, so the real discussion point to me is whether Ethan seems believable as a character. (I am reminded of Robert A. Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS. The society in that novel has flogging for traffic offenses and a variety of other societal changes. When one character asks another whether these are a good idea, the second says, well of course--the society works well, doesn't it? Well, yes, but that is because Heinlein wrote it that way.)

"Were you surprised to find this [the actual existence of the Vermont eugenics project] out? As you were reading the book, did you ever suspect that this was, indeed a chapter in Vermont's history? How does it change your view of this story to know that thirty-three states actually enacted sterilization laws?" This to me is the key question: it tells me who the target audience is (and is not). Clearly, the phrasing indicates that it is assumed that the reader did not know about the Vermont eugenics project or the sterilization laws, and probably thought Picoult made it up until they read the author's note at the end.

To order Second Glance from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/20/2007]

PESACH FOR THE REST OF US: MAKING THE PASSOVER SEDER YOUR OWN by Marge Piercy (ISBN-10 0-805-24242-2, ISBN-13 978-0-805-24242-3) is a bit too radical for me. Piercy and her family and friends do a lot to make the Seder relevant: putting an orange on the Seder plate to represent women, emphasizing all the springtime/fertility images, changing the Four Questions to ones they find more relevant, and so on. If she were more aware of the basics, I might be more accepting of her changes, but she does not seem to be. For example, she discusses why we bless the wine for the Seder, and claims we don't bless wine any other time. This is just flat-out wrong. The observant bless it whenever they drink it; even the less observant bless it for Kiddush on Friday night. And she pads the book out with recipes, including some that are not even kosher! Maybe I am just too much of a traditionalist, but I found this too unstructured, too "New-Agey/pagan symbolism/do-your-own-thing" to be worthwhile.

To order Pesach for the Rest of Us from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/15/2013]

The book discussion group chose THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT by Steven Pinker (ISBN 978-0-688-12141-9) for this month, and I'll include my notes for each chapter.

"An Instinct to Acquire an Art": Language is an instinct.

"Chatterboxes": All tribes have languages. Language--or at least grammar--is innate, not just learned from parents and others. (Children are able to interpret and use more complicated sentences than their parents speak to them. Children learning ASL do not make the grammatical mistakes that their parents--who learned it as adults--do.)

"Mentalese": Sapir-Whorf is wrong, mostly because we do not think in a language, but in thoughts that we convert into language. Non-human apes seem to understand familial relationships without having a language to express them in.

"How Language Works": Grammar, syntax, and deep structures.

"Words, Words, Words": How we build new words from old, or "I dictionaried that word, but they didn't verb it." And why you say "they ringed the city with artillery" rather than "they rang the city with artillery."

"The Sounds of Silence": Speech perception works as much on the persistence of hearing as motion perception does on the persistence of vision--although perhaps it is really the mirror-image, and how we manage to divide what we hear into words and why a nation that could put a man on the moon could not build a computer that could take dictation--at least not twenty years ago.

"Talking Heads": Why the difficulty in creating a program to parse sentences is just one reason computers cannot pass the Turing Test.

"The Tower of Babel": There are multiple languages because of learning, innovation, and migration.

"Baby Born Talking--Describes Heaven": Well, no he wasn't. The rest of the chapter is a descrtion/chronology of how children learn a language.

"Language Organs and Grammar Genes": A lot of details about how the brain processes language, which I gave up on after a few pages.

"The Big Bang": Only humans have language, and how it might have evolved. Again, I'll note that the statement "only humans have language" is true only because the speaker has defined language such that any other possible example is ruled out. For example, Hockett's "13 Design Features of Language" starts with the use of a "Vocal-Auditory Channel". If strictly enforced, this would rule out American Sign Language as a language, yet I suspect few people would agree with this. (The same applies to the second item, "Broadcast Transmission and Directional Reception", and indeed many of the others as well.) For that matter, how do we know that dolphins or whales do not have a language that we just do not recognize?

"The Language Mavens": Why Pinker does not believe in prescriptive grammar. Why Pinker really, really, really does not believe in prescriptive grammar. ("There is no English Language Academy, and this is just as well; the purpose of the Academie Francaise is to amuse journalists from other countries with bitterly argued decisions that the French gaily ignore.") He debunks (more or less, depending on your perspective) nine myths of grammar and then attacks the various sorts of mavens. The only ones he has any use for for what he calls the sages, among whom he includes Theodore Bernstein and William Safire, but then spends a dozen pages complaining about Safire.

"Mind Design": More technical detail that failed to engage me.

In the chapter on mavens, by the way, Pinker takes a shot at philatelists when he writes, "For me, wordwatching for its own sake has all the intellectual excitement of stamp collecting, with the added twist that an undetermined number of your stamps are counterfeit."

To order The Language Instinct from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/13/2007]

A JEW AMONG EVANGELICALS by Mark I. Pinsky (ISBN-10 0-664-23012-1, ISBN-13 978-0-664-23012-1) is more about evangelicals and their various sub-groups than about being a Jew among them. It's worth reading, but the title is a bit misleading.

To order A Jew among Evangelicals from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/21/2005]

THE CASE OF THE PATIENT'S EYES (ISBN 0-312-29095-0) by David Pirie is yet another Sherlockian book, but one step removed. The main character is Arthur Conan Doyle, with Dr. Joseph Bell as the major second character. It takes place in the late 1870s, and purports to explain how Doyle learned detection from Bell, and also where he got some of his stories. That is, in this novel Doyle gets a patient who has been invited to a Senor Garcia's house for dinner, but then Garcia disappears, or he has another patient being followed by a cyclist. This means that Pirie has a lot of his work already done for him, and also that the reader keeps thinking, "I've read this before." It is true that some of details and explanations are changed from the Holmes stories, but this makes it seem more like an annotation of alternate explanations, instead of an original novel, and also more like a sequence of incidents rather than a single story. It is interesting, but not great.

To order The Case of the Patient's Eyes from, click here.


Dover Books has been publishing inexpensive, well-bound trade paperbacks of classic mysteries from the 1880-1950 range (give or take). Most are English, that being the "Golden Age" of English detective stories. However, it turns out that pretty much all of the ones I bought have also gone out of print, even from Dover, which keeps a lot of older works in print. (For example, they have kept Olaf Stapledon's four major novels in print for at least thirty years now.) Luckily, most of these mysteries are available relatively cheaply as used books.

THE EXPERIENCES OF LOVEDAY BROOKE by Catherine Louisa Pirkis is one of the more peculiar. It is also one of the more difficult to shelve, being 6-1/8" by 9-1/4", rather than the standard 5-3/8"x8". This is because, like all the Dover mysteries, it is a reproduction of the original publication, including illustrations, and since that was in a large-format magazine, making it any smaller would make the print unreadable. Written in 1893, it is one of the earliest series to feature a woman detective. While a bit limited by what a lady could do in those days, that is also part of its appeal. (And, yes, Loveday Brooke is a lady, not just a woman.) Unfortunately, not only is this now out of print, it is going for inflated prices as a used book ($27 and up).

To order The Experiences of Loveday Brooke from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/29/2003]

A few months ago, I claimed, "Plutarch ... is not chock-a-block with humor." Some people claimed that he did have humorous passages, but I had missed them. However, Pliny the Elder is definitely full of humor, albeit unintentional. Like Herodotus, Pliny seems to have believed everything he heard--or at least he included it in his "Natural History".

(I'm doing my readings from Penguin's NATURAL HISTORY: A SELECTION, translated by John F. Healy. The blurb describes the full work by saying, "It certainly includes more than 20,000 facts derived from over 2,000 earlier texts, which makes it the major source for ancient beliefs about every form of useful knowledge....")

Some of what Pliny says is certainly true. And some of what he says may be true; for example, it may be true that babies don't smile until they are forty days old (VII:2). However, he also claims that Man has to be taught how to walk and how to eat (VII:4). I'm skeptical of the former, and flat-out disbelieve the latter. He also claims "Man alone of all living creatures has been given grief" and that only Man fights with his own kind (VII:5). The latter is known to be false (and probably was then as well). The former is typical anthropocentrism--Pliny has no real evidence of this, but it seem true to him.

Sometimes he is clear that he is just reporting other people's claims. For example, he says, "Megasthenes records that on Mount Nulus there are men with their feet reversed and with eight toes on each foot.... Ctesias writes that in a certain Indian tribe women bear children only once in their lifetime...." (VII:22). (Apparently he doesn't note that Ctesias's observation doesn't make sense arithmetically.) But often he doesn't give an attribution at all.

I can remember my mother saying that if you measure a child's height on their third birthday, their adult height will be twice this. I don't think she read Pliny, but that's what he says (VII:73).

This is all a bit unfair to Pliny, who did the best he could with the science (and reportage) of his time. And he was certainly an early martyr to science--he died overcome by fumes when he tried to get too close to Vesuvius to report on its eruption in 79 C.E.

To order Pliny's Natural History: A Selection from, click here.


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

I read Plutarch's FALL OF THE ROMAN REPUBLIC, but as I noted in my article on acquisitions, I have just gotten the complete Plutarch, with the parallelisms intact, so I will end up re-reading all these at some point. Well, they are some of the most interesting: Pompey, Crassus (and the Servile Wars), Julius Caesar, and so on. It will be interesting to see to whom he compares them.

To order Plutarch's Lives: Fall of the Roman Republic from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/31/2003]

Plutarch, on the other hand, is not chock-a-block with humor. I'm currently reading the Penguin edition subtitled "The Rise and Fall of Athens," but have gotten only as far as Theseus, Solon, and Themistocles. The first two seem to be based more on legend than on history, but the last moves more into history. Themistocles also has the distinction of being quoted in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA: "I cannot fiddle but I can make a great state of a small city." Bartlett renders the quote as "Tuning the lyre and handling the harp are no accomplishments of mine, but rather taking in hand a city that was small and making it glorious and great." This seems closer to what Plutrach paraphrases, but not as "snappy."

To order Plutarch's Lives: The Rise and Fall of Athens from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/06/2004]

Katy Podagrosi's EYE OF THE STORM: CHANUTE CLOSES is such a small-press book that I don't expect anyone to be interested, but I will comment that it is a good history of one of the base closings in the 1990s, and lays out just how badly the United States government handled it. The book may be a bit over-board in lauding how well the town handled it all and how it recovered and how it is thriving (the author was the mayor at the time), but its recounting of the inaccurate information on which the closing was based (e.g., the committee was told that the base hospital had only twenty beds, when it had 350) resonated for me with current discussions of just how accurate the information is upon which Congress is basing its decisions these days.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/03/2016]

AROUND THE WORLD IN 50 YEARS: MY ADVENTURE TO EVERY COUNTRY ON EARTH by Albert Podell (ISBN 978-1-250-05198-1) covers the high points (or in some cases, the low points) of his travels to "every country on earth." But what does that mean? It is not until a hundred pages into the book that he addresses the question, "What is a country?" His rules were a bit stricter than ours (or most people's I suspect). For example, he says, "... it had to be a country when I visited it, and remain a country." So he had to re-visit the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the seven new countries formed from Yugoslavia, and "all i5 of the newly separated suckers [formed from the USSR]." He also had to drop East Germany and South Vietnam. He ended up using membership in the United Nations (1903), supplemented by the 1933 Montevideo Convention (which added Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo).

He also had to define what it means to "visit" a country. He said he had spent at least a day in each capital city (except for Tajikistan) and traveled across 90% of countries. But then he mentions only spending about five minutes in Equatorial Guinea until he returned in 2014, and seemed to want to count the first visit even while acknowledging it barely counted as a visit.

Not surprisingly, he includes more about his trips to Chad and Peru than to Italy and Canada (though the latter, being his first trip to another country, does get some coverage).

I read with interest (and some disgust) a list of foods he had eaten, but then he wrote, "The only foreign staple I loathe is injera, the ubiquitous "bread" of Ethiopia and Eritrea, a foul concoction of teff, barley, wheat, corn, and sorghum having the consistency of a kitchen sponge, the look of a lunar landscape, and the taste of a week-old pancake gone sour." Well, I love injera, and I am not the only one--lots of people on Chowhound and now Hungry Onion talk about where one can find Ethiopian restaurants in New Jersey that serve injera. So not only do I question some of the ethical choices he made, I also think his tastes and mine are wildly divergent.

However, there are still useful tips in the book. After Podell wrote about how the airport security in the Cormoros "questioned [him] intently as to why [he] had pointy chopsticks in his bag (to avoid using their germ-laden cutlery, although [he] didn't say it]," I immediately made a note on my packing list not to take as carry-on the travel chopsticks a friend gave us.

At times, though, for all his traveling Podell gets it wrong. He claims that the fact that in North Korea "restaurants used miniature napkins and stainless steel chopsticks to conserve trees" it is an indication of poverty. But stainless steel chopsticks are also used in South Korea, and in Korean restaurants in the United States. It seems to be clearly a Korean thing, possibly because of deforestation of the peninsula in the past, but in any case apparently not just a North Korean choice based on poverty.

And for those who are contemplating duplicating his feat, let me point out that it is not just expensive, but unexpectedly expensive. Podell had to pay $6000 extra for new tickets when a 14-leg trip got derailed early on, and $9000 another time. not to mention almost $1000 a day for a personal security team in Somalia.

In addition, while visiting every country counts romantic, the bottom line is the bottom line--those last countries no one really wants to visit, but you have to in order to meet your goal. For Podell, it was the "Nasty Nine": Chad, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea. These are places where Podell took his life in his hands just so he could check them off on his list.

This is true (perhaps on a lesser scale) of most goals. It is basically the Pareto principle: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In this case, the last 20% of the countries probably accounted for 80% of the cost and the risk. Alas, they do not contribute 80% of the enjoyment. Maybe it is better to set a round-number goal (100 countries, or even 150) and not spend an inordinate amount of time and money in one's later years figuring out how to visit a war-torn country without getting killed. (Podell was 77 when he completed his goal--and as soon as a new country forms, he loses his claim.)

To order Around the World in 50 Years from, click here.

ESSAYS AND REVIEWS by Edgar Allan Poe:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/02/2018]

ESSAYS AND REVIEWS by Edgar Allan Poe (Library of America, ISBN 0-094050-19-4 consists of Poe's reviews and non-fictional writing about various subjects. I was looking forward to it, but when I got it I discovered that the reason most of Poe's reviews were unknown is that most of what he is reviewing is unknown today.

Nevertheless, there are a few choice items. In "The Philosophy of Composition" Poe describes the process of writing "The Raven", with details such as why he chose a single-word refrain and how he came to select "nevermore" as that word.

Other essays of interest include "Maelzel's Chess-Player" and "A Few Words on Secret Writing" (on ciphers and codes). These two show a scientific point of view of Poe that one does not normally associate with him.

To order Essays and Reviews from, click here.

stories by Edgar Allan Poe:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/23/2009]

In honor of Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday this year, our book discussion groups both read several Poe stories. The non-SF group read "Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Gold Bug", "The Purloined Letter", "The Masque of the Red Death", "Hop-Frog", "A Predicament", and "The Philosophy of Composition". Conveniently, I had also just read Hillary Waugh's GUIDE TO MYSTERIES & MYSTERY WRITING, which was more the former than the latter and devoted a full quarter of the book to Poe and his creation of the detective story.

Waugh analyzes the various elements that Poe brought together. These include "the transcendent and eccentric detective"; "the admiring and slightly stupid foil"; "the well-intentioned, blundering officials"; "the locked-room convention"; "the pointing finger of unjust suspicion"; "the solution by surprise", "solution by putting one's self in another's position"; "concealment by means of the ultra-obvious"; "the staged ruse to force the culprit's hand"; and "even the expansive and condescending explanation when the chase is done."

Not every detective story has all of these, of course. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" has the first six elements; "The Purloined Letter" has the first two and the last four. True, Holmes had his Watson for all but one story (and that is considered the weakest of the batch). But Poirot did not have his Hastings for many of his stories, and Jane Marple had no "admiring and slightly stupid foil" at all. Not every story uses a locked-room, and so on. But all these are standard tropes of detective fiction, and all were invented by Poe. Well, one could argue that "the transcendent and eccentric detective" and "the admiring and slightly stupid foil" are really just variants on the hero and his sidekick, a pair of characters who have been around considerably longer. In fact, one could argue that they were so stock by the 17th century that Cervantes could satirize them by making the sidekick the smarter of the two. (And P. G. Wodehouse followed in his footsteps.)

And Dupin's reconstruction of the narrator's train of thought at the beginning seems incredibly forced and makes the narrator seem somewhat more than "slightly stupid." If indeed, walking on a pavement of "overlapping and riveted blocks" must bring to the narrator's mind the term "stereotomy", and that in turn forces him to "atomies", hence Epicurus, hence nebulae, hence Orion, then the narrator is a very dim fellow indeed, to have such a constrained mind.

That Poe at least somewhat identified himself with his detective Dupin is fairly clear from the following exchange in "The Purloined Letter":

"You might have spared yourself this trouble," said Dupin. "D--, I presume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have anticipated these waylayings, as a matter of course."

"Not altogether a fool," said G., "but then he's a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool."

"True," said Dupin, after a long and thoughtful whiff from his meerschaum, "although I have been guilty of certain doggerel myself."

In "Murders in the Rue Morgue", the detective draws an important conclusion based on a series of statements in which five witnesses each say it was not their native language, but think it was another (named) language--which they are actually unfamiliar with. For example, the Englishman says it was not English, but he thought it was German (although he understood no German). And so on. (When done in the 1932 Universal film, this was reduced to three languages and a shouting match among the witnesses added, which just seemed foolish, but in the story it was much more straightforward.) But I have to take exception with Dupin's conclusion, correct though it may be. He says, "You will say it might have been the voice of an Asiatic--of an African. Neither Asiatics nor Africans abound in Paris...." And orangutans do?

John T. Irwin (in A MYSTERY TO A SOLUTION) writes that mathematics was one of Poe's best subjects and that surely he knew that the "merely general reader" is indeed correct in this scenario and the narrator wrong, and that therefore Poe is creating an ignorant or unreliable narrator rather than actually making this claim. I am not sure I am convinced of this. Consider this from "The Purloined Letter":

"I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who would be trusted out of equal roots, or who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x**2 In addition, one has to say that Irwin's knowledge of mathematics is shaky, since he also says, "By definition a number is odd if, when the number is divided by two, there is a remainder of one. And by that definition the first odd number is three." No, the first odd [natural] number is one. Firstly, one has to assume that by "number" Irwin means "positive integer". There is no "first" odd number if one includes negative integers, and the terms "odd" and "even" are meaningless when applied to non-integers. But even when restricted to positive integers, Irwin has ignored the plain fact that one is odd. One suspects that he confused being an odd number with being a prime number, a category from which one is excluded.

In "The Purloined Letter", I would say that one big problem is the time the Prefect says he spent to search for letter. Even though he says he spent an entire week of nights searching each room (minus any nights the thief was actually home), the degree of thoroughness seems hard to accept. (For example, he says that his men turned every page of every book.) I was reminded of the many stories where robbers steal a huge amount of gold in fifteen minutes and a Volkswagen that in reality would take several days and a fleet of trucks.

"The Gold Bug" seems the obvious inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Dancing Men", though it suffers from being related pretty much after the fact rather than revealed as the story progresses. (The question of whether the gold bug is a live bug or an artifact seems strangely inconsistent as well.)

Of course, for critics (and everyone else) hindsight is easy. It's foresight that is hard. For example, H. Douglas Thomson (in MASTERS OF MYSTERY: A STUDY OF THE DETECTIVE STORY [1930]) is very convincing in his analysis of stories already written. But then you read this: "Miss Marple is an incorrigible Cranfordian, a spinster and a gossip. The neighbors disliked her because 'she knew everything,' and because 'she always thought the worst.' ... In a mild way we are prejudiced against Miss Marple on her first appearance, and one cannot help thinking that she is not the stuff of great detectives. Inquisitiveness will not always come off, and intuitions are cheap in these days. Moreover, Miss Marple can only hope to solve murder problems on her native heath. If Mrs. Christie is planning a future for Miss Marple, as is very likely, she will be bound to find this an exasperating limitation."

Well, I guess we know how that turned out.


Our discussion chose THE BEST OF FREDERIK POHL (ISBN-13 978-0-345-24507-6, ISBN-10 0-345-24507-5) for the August meeting. This book was published in 1975, but as someone observed, if a "Best of Frederik Pohl" were published today, it would still have most of the same stories.

I don't normally comment on every story in a collection, but doing so will help me remember my impressions for the discussion, so here goes.

"The Tunnel Under the World": Classic Pohl story that everyone remembers--"Buy a Feckle Freezer!" It seems to have been the precursor to several films and stories: DARK CITY, GROUNDHOG DAY, perhaps even BLADERUNNER in part. (Someone at the meeting mentioned THE TRUMAN SHOW, an even better parallel.) Pohl had worked in the advertising field, so the basic premise probably came from that. The structure is interesting--you follow the protagonist through some very confusing events, wondering what is going on. Then you find out the big secret. Then you find out that is not the big secret, something else is. No, wait, there's an even bigger secret. No, wait, .... through five revelations.

"Punch": This seems very similar to another story with a time traveler who arrives right before an atomic war in which everyone is going to die, or one in which it turns out that the time traveler has destroyed the world when he jumps back in time (because of the energy use)--and he's jumped back from five minutes in the future. The traveler here isn't a time traveler, though.

"Three Portraits and a Prayer": This made no impression on me; I have no idea why not.

"Day Million": At the time (forty years ago) it was daring. Now it is topical. In another forty years it will be quaint, relegated to the same museum as "South Pacific" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner".

"Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus": If "Day Million" seems to have a lot of its ideas fixed in the past, "Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus" seems depressingly prescient, with the commercialization of Christmas gone amuck. All those people who keep telling us that everyone should have the Christmas spirit and love all the store decorations et al should read this. I mentioned this a few years ago in conjunction with China Miéville's "'Tis the Season". In the latter, I wrote, "The worst fears of the Religious Right have come to pass, and the celebration of Christmas is prohibited. No parties, no holly, no mistletoe, no trees, .... But it is not political correctness gone wild. And it has nothing to do with the First Amendment and the separation of church and state (in part because Miéville is British, writing for a British audience). No, it's because all of these things have been trademarked and so you can't have a Christmas tree, you must have a Christmas Tree(tm) and pay a license fee for it. The same with Holly(tm), Mistletoe(tm), and so on. 'It felt so forlorn, putting my newspaper-wrapped presents next to the aspidistra, but ever since YuleCo bought the right to coloured paper and under-tree storage, the inspectors had clamped down on Subarboreal Giftery.' Frankly, Miéville's 'nightmare future' seems far more likely to me than the nightmare future of Christmas being forbidden because of political correctness. After all, one cannot now sing 'Happy Birthday to You' in public without owing royalties on it! The Miéville and the Pohl get added to 'Newton's Mass' by Timothy Esaias in my mental list of stories that I would put in a Christmas anthology, were I ever to undertake such an unlikely task.

"We Never Mention Aunt Nora": This reads like a typical "Twilight Zone" story, though written a year before that show went on the air.

"Father of the Stars": Is this 1964 story the first instance of the idea that technology overtakes itself? In this case, the interstellar colonists who went out in cold sleep and relativistic speeds are met near the end of their voyage by earthmen in a faster-than-light ship that had been invented after they left. We actually live this now in a way--many people put off buying a new electronic gadget because in six months there will be a better, cheaper one.

"The Day the Martians Came": It may be true that supposed antagonists will unite against a common threat, but whether that would apply to aliens who are not threats is unclear. Then again, as someone says in LONE STAR, "It's always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice."

"The Midas Plague": It is a clever idea and all, but of course it makes no sense. I cannot help but feel, though, that it at least somewhat the inspiration for David Brin's THE PRACTICE EFFECT. And both of them seem to have their roots in the notion that we must have an ever-increasing gross product, that the only way to maintain a healthy economy is to produce more and more, to build more houses, to manufacture more cars. The "Planet Money" podcast had a show about the problems of the car manufacturers, and one problem is that there are about a third more cars being manufactured worldwide than are actually needed. So either people have to keep buying new cars when they do not need them, or the automobile companies have to close a quarter of their factories.

(According to the notes by Pohl at the end, this idea was suggested by Horace Gold, it is Pohl's most reprinted piece of short fiction, and it has even shown up in economics courses.)

"The Snowmen": I suppose that this is interesting in the context of global climate change, but it spends too much time on characters that seem very outdated and not enough time on the idea. There's something about these stock characters of the era--the gold-digging night-club-singer type, the small-time con-artist, and so on--that make so many stories or movies from the 1950s and earlier seem very dated. (Consider the Phil Foster character and his girlfriend in THE CONQUEST OF SPACE.)

"How to Count on Your Fingers": This is an article, not a story, and included primarily because Lester Del Rey (the editor of the book) wanted to give an example of Pohl's science writing.

"Grandy Devil": Okay, it did not quite go where I thought it was going, but it ending was one of those surprise endings that seems utterly predictable after you hear it.

"Speed Trap": "I honestly think we can do four times as much work as we do. And I honestly think that this means we can land on Mars in five years instead of twenty, cure leukemia in twelve years instead of fifty, and so on." Yeah, and have a baby in a little over two months instead of nine.

"The Richest Man in Levittown": This is one of those humorous science fiction stories that were popular in the 1950s. The characters have the same sort of mannerisms that make them seem dated as the ones in "The Snowmen". It is not that it couldn't be written with a more current feel, but it does seem as though humor often relies on stereotypes for the jokes, and stereotypes are more prone to becoming outdated.

Okay, I lied. I ran out of steam and either did not read, or had nothing to say about "The Day the Icicle Works Closed", "The Hated" (close-quarters space travel), "The Martian in the Attic", "The Census Takers", or "The Children of Night"

To order The Best of Frederik Pohl from, click here.

THE SPACE MERCHANTS by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth


THE MERCHANTS' WAR by Frederik Pohl:

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

Our science fiction discussion group read THE SPACE MERCHANTS by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (ISBN-13 978-0-575-07528-3, ISBN-10 0-575-07528-7) for October. Though written over a half a century ago, much of Pohl and Kornbluth projected is distressingly true today (particularly the aspects of big corporations' control of government). The book does not appear dated, except perhaps in the relations between the sexes, and even there it does have a woman doctor, written when this was not a commonplace. I can even offer as evidence the agreement of a high schooler in our group that the book still read well and understandably as a science fiction book, even though written so long ago.

The original publication of THE SPACE MERCHANTS was as GRAVY PLANET serialized in three parts in GALAXY magazine in 1952. This included a couple of chapters at the end set on Venus, which seemed to me out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the novel, and were dropped when the book was published. Also, the Conservationists were called "Connies" in the serialization, but "Consies" in the novel, which perhaps make the parallel to "Commies" a tiny bit more subtle and also makes more sense in terms of how these nicknames are formed.

THE MERCHANTS' WAR by Frederik Pohl (ISBN-13 978-0-312-90240-7, ISBN-10 0-312-90240-9) is a 1984 sequel to THE SPACE MERCHANTS by Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (and not to be confused with the fourth book of the Charles Stross series). This takes place initially on Venus, a world populated (at the end of THE SPACE MERCHANTS) by "Consies" and hence extremely negative towards advertising in any form. Consider the lengths to which Venerians will go to avoid the sin of advertising, as evidenced by this sign at Russian Hills:

"If for any reason you do not want to bring your own refreshments while visiting Russian Hills, some items like hamburgers, hot dogs and soy sandwiches are available in the Venera Lounge. They're inspected by the Planetary Health Service, but the quality is mediocre. Beer and other drinks can also be purchased, at about twice the cost of the same things in town."

Compare this to what one finds in James Morrow's 1990 novella CITY OF TRUTH (ISBN-13 978-0-156-18042-9, ISBN-10 0-156-18042-1):


Whether there is a direct influence, or just two independent instances of taking "truth in advertising" to its logical conclusion, I cannot say.

THE SPACE MERCHANTS and THE MERCHANTS' WAR were also issued in an omnibus volume by the Science Fiction Book Club called "VENUS, INC."

To order The Space Merchants from, click here.

To order The Merchants' War from, click here.

To order City of Truth from, click here.


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

FOOD RULES: AN EATER'S MANUAL by Michael Pollan (ISBN-13 978-0-14-311638-7) is basically a condensation/reworking of his previous IN DEFENSE OF FOOD. In that he proposed the following basic guideline: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." This is so succinct that one would have to get even a haiku, such as:

	"Eat food.  Mostly plants.
	Not too much."  And this advice
	Is what Pollan writes.

Anyway, in FOOD RULES Pollan expands this into 64 rules, many of which were in the earlier book, e.g. "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." (One problem with this rule is portrayed in MATEWAN, where one of the Appalachian miners' wives is talking about the Italian miners' wives and complains that when they are given corn meal, they "ruin" it by turning it into polenta instead of cornbread.)

Many of the rules in this book seem repetitive or redundant. "Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry" would seem to encompass "Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup." "Avoid food products that contain ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce" is only as valid as the quality of education in our schools? (For that matter, how many third-graders can correctly pronounce "thyme"? My father used to tell of when he had first arrived in New York from Puerto Rico and was working in a grocery when a woman asked him for the thyme. He told her the time, but somehow this did not satisfy her. :-) )

Even Pollan admits that "Eat only foods that will eventually rot" has a few exceptions (e.g., honey). "Buy your snacks at the farmers' market" assumes you have access to a farmers' market. "Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans," "Don't ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap," and "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't" all seem very similar.

This seems like a "gimmick" book--a condensation of his previous book in a mass-market size (but at a trade paperback price).

To order Food Rules from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2008]

IN DEFENSE OF FOOD: AN EATER'S MANIFESTO by Michael Pollan (ISBN-13 978-1-594-20145-5, ISBN-10 1-594-20145-5) is a plan for an intelligent diet and is in some ways a continuation of his OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA. Pollan again talks about "nutritionism"--the change from emphasis on foods themselves to an emphasis of components of foods (e.g., vitamins, Omega-3 oils). It all builds to Pollan's final section, devoted to the mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Pollan has several "rules of thumb" for determining what "food" is:

The rationale for the third one is that only the big food companies can manage to get the FDA or American Heart Association to approve their claims; it's difficult for the local potato grower to get FDA or AHA approval for health claims for potatoes (and harder still to figure out how to put them on each potato!).

The last rule is meant to encourage people to buy from farmers' markets. I'm all for this, but it just doesn't not seem very practical around here. There are produce stores called "Farmers Market" and such, but they are not true farmers' markets in the sense of selling locally grown produce directly from the farmer to the consumer(*). In the summer, one can find some stands with very limited supplies, but if one is supposed to eat "mostly plants," this is not a shopping plan that will achieve that goal in New Jersey.

(*) At my local produce store, I saw some tomatoes once where the sign above them said "Jersey tomatoes", the printed weight label said "Israeli tomatoes", and the sticker on the tomatoes themselves said "Canada"! [-ecl]

To order In Defense of Food from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/02/2007]

THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS by Michael Pollan (ISBN-10 1-59420-082-3, ISBN-13 978-1-594-20082-3) started with an interesting idea. Pollan was going to trace four different meals from their origins to his mouth. The meals were a fast-food meal, two different "organic" meals, and a hunter-gatherer meal. The problem I had with most of the book was that it jumped around a lot, and introduced too many people to keep track of. (For example, Pollan would talk about Joe Smith's small farm, and then fifty pages later say something like, "Smith would not have agreed.")

The part that I do recommend is the middle section. Yes, a book about four meals has a middle section, because it started as three meals. Then Pollan discovered that "organic" was too broad a term. There are what people think of when they hear the word "organic": a small farm that doesn't use any chemical fertilizer or insecticides and lets its chickens roam around the farm yard. However, the government's definition of "organic" means that 1) there are a lot of mega-farms that can call their product "organic", and 2) there are a lot of small farms that the average consumer would consider "organic" that aren't. The mega-farm can claim its chickens are "free-range" if they "have access to the outdoors," which could be a small door at the end of a large chicken coop that is unlatched an hour a week, and then only for the last two weeks of the chicken's life. The small farm may be ecologically sound and humanely run, but if the feed they buy for the chickens is not certified as organic, they cannot call their products organic either.

Pollan uses Whole Foods Market as an example of the "mega-organic" food chain. He points out that a large chain cannot survive buying small amounts from a lot of small farmers, and so drives the mega-farm production. The mega-farms, in turn, have lobbied the government to define "organic", "free-range", etc., in terms that are most favorable to them. Pollan says if you want "traditionally organic" (my term, not his), you need to shop at local farms or farmers' markets. This is nice in theory, but since the "farmers' markets" around here seem to carry all sorts of packaged goods as well as produce clearly grown elsewhere (New Jersey is not known for its oranges), this is not always practical.

And in addition to the food itself, one must consider the cost to the environment in getting it to market. Pollan gives examples of how much petroleum is used to transport a steer, for example, from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the store. Which brings me to my Whole Foods Market experience. A few days after reading the book, I stopped in a Whole Foods Market to buy two habanero peppers. (No one else around here carries them.) First of all, they are clearly not a local New Jersey product, especially in February. (There is not enough market to operate a hothouse for them.) And to buy them, first I needed to put them in a plastic produce bag designed to hold a half dozen apples, rather than a smaller, less wasteful bag. And after I paid for them (all of twenty cents!) the cashier asked if I wanted a bag to put them in. I suppose they have to ask, but talk about how wasteful!

Oh, and what is the omnivore's dilemma? Well, as Pollan notes, the koala has no dilemma about food--if it looks and smells like a eucalyptus leaf, it's food; if it doesn't, it's not. But an omnivore has so many choices for food, what to eat becomes a dilemma.

[And after I wrote this column, the "New York Times" ran an article, "Is Whole Foods Straying From Its Roots?", which can be found at, registration necessary, but you can usually find passwords at]

To order The Omnivore's Dilemma from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/19/2007]

THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES by Karl R. Popper is in two volumes (ISBN-13 978-0-691-01968-0, ISBN-10 0-691-01968-1 and ISBN-13 978-0-691-01972-7, ISBN-10 0-691-01972-X). The first volume is devoted to "debunking" Plato, particularly his "Republic", while the second concentrates on Hegel and Marx. In his introduction, Popper takes aim at what he calls "historicism", which seems to be very similar to Hari Selden's "psychohistory". Popper describes "historicism" as the belief that, just as science has laws and can make predictions, "the task of the social sciences [is] to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies. They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events."

Popper also uses the terms "open society" and "closed society". Briefly, an open society is one in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, while a closed society is one which is "magical or tribal or collectivist."

I talked about Popper at length in my review of WITTGENSTEIN'S POKER by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Briefly, Wittgenstein may or may not have threatened Popper with a fireplace poker as part of a philosophical argument over whether there are true philosophical arguments, or only problems of language. Popper also gave the coup-de-grace to the statement of "the Vienna Circle" that only two kinds of statements were meaningful: those "inherently" true (either by definition or as syllogisms), and those which are empirical and verifiable. All other statements were meaningless. Popper pointed out that the claim of the Vienna Circle was neither inherently true, nor empirical and verifiable. Hence it was meaningless, so why were they wasting their time on it?!

One of the great things about retirement is that while reading Popper, I can decide to re-read Plato's "Republic"--and have the time to do it. Which in turn means that I can say things like, "When I was re-reading Plato's "Republic" the other day...." And when I was re-reading Plato's "Republic", I was struck with how at least one 20th century author used "The Republic" as inspiration--Aldous Huxley. BRAVE NEW WORLD implements so many of Plato's ideas--strict division between classes, use of education, sexual partners in common, children raised collectively without knowledge of who their parents are--that it cannot be mere coincidence.

Popper also comments on Plato's suggestion that, for the duration of a war, no one may reject the advances of a soldier (cited as "468c", but more easily found by noting it is in Book 5). I knew that there was a science fiction story that used this premise (ending with an ordinary young soldier walking into his neighbor's home and up the stairs to the room of their thirteen-year-old daughter, and they cannot do anything to stop him), but for the life of me I could remember neither title nor author. So at 12:25 PM I posted a "YASID" ("Yet Another Story Identification [Request]") to rec.arts.sf.written; by 14:35 PM the same day I had an answer: "The Survivor" by Walter F. Moudy.

I have finished just volume one; I may have more to say after I read volume two.

To order The Open Society and Its Enemies from, click here.


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

MAGNIFICENT MISTAKES IN MATHEMATICS by Alfred S. Posamentier (ISBN 978-1-61614-747-1) consists primarily of demonstrating various errors people (mostly students, one suspects) might make in algebra and geometry. But it does have a discussion on pages 222-225 of what I think of as a drafting problem (because that was the context in which I first encountered it). Is there a figure which when viewed from the front is a circle with radius 1 unit, when viewed from the side is an isosceles triangle of radius and height 1 unit, and when viewed from above is a square with a side of 1 unit? The authors claim most people would get this wrong, though frankly, just the asking of the question seems a signal that there is. Take a cylinder of height and diameter 1 unit, draw a diameter on the top, then slice diagonally on each side from the diameter to a single point on the base directly below the midpoint of the semi-circle on each side of the diameter.

Why I particularly like this figure is that it seems to me a mathematical analogy to the Trinity: one figure, but three very different appearances, depending on where you are standing. (Then again, what do I know?)

To order Magnificent Mistakes in Mathematics from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/01/2004]

Melville Davisson Post's UNCLE ABNER: MASTER OF MYSTERIES (ISBN 0-486-23202-6) is yet another in Dover's reprints of classic mysteries. And like most of the rest, it is now out of print. Apparently the line did not appeal to enough readers, though given some of what Dover publishes, it's hard to imagine that at least some of the works included didn't reach the same level of interest/sales as an obscure tract by Leon Trotsky on why Communism was failing in Russia, or a book on the physics of soap bubbles. However, I can see why this particular volume might be discontinued. The "Uncle Abner" stories were written in the 1910s and are set in the Appalachian frontier in the 1840s and 1850s, and the setting and characters are the main appeal of the stories, rather than the mysteries themselves, which turn out to be fairly mundane.

To order (a used copy of) Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries from, click here.


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

I also read GAMING THE VOTE: WHY ELECTIONS AREN'T FAIR (AND WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT) by William Poundstone (ISBN 978-0-809-04892-2). Many people know about Arrow's Theorem, which proves that given a set of "self-evident" rules, it is impossible to devise a ranked voting system (a.k.a. preferential voting system) that follows all the rules. Briefly, it states:

General Possibility Theorem: It is impossible to formulate a social preference ordering that satisfies all of the following conditions:

  1. Nondictatorship: The preferences of an individual should not become the group ranking without considering the preferences of others.
  2. Individual Sovereignty: each individual should be able to order the choices in any way and indicate ties
  3. Unanimity: If every individual prefers one choice to another, then the group ranking should do the same
  4. Freedom From Irrelevant Alternatives: If a choice is removed, then the others order should not change
  5. Uniqueness of Group Rank: The method should yield the same result whenever applied to a set of preferences. The group ranking should be transitive.

In GAMING THE VOTE, Poundstone details all of the major variants of ranked voting, and gives examples in each one of how this is true. He also proposes a solution that does not have any of these flaws--and not a brand-new one, but one that has been used on the Internet in many applications for years now--range voting. (It does not violate Arrow's Theorem, because it is not ranked voting.)

To order Gaming the Vote from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/13/2012]

LABYRINTHS OF REASON: PARADOX, PUZZLES AND THE FRAILITY OF KNOWLEDGE by William Poundstone (ISBN 978-0-385-24261-5) is a reasonable overview of epistemology, paradoxes, and the quest for knowledge. The problem is that if you have read anything on the topic, most of what is in it will be very familiar. Poundstone covers Hempel's Raven, grue and bleen, liars and truth-tellers, and "last Tuesday-ism" (though not by that name), among others.

The one new tweak that Poundstone provides is an explanation for why grue and bleen are not concepts as justifiable as blue and green. Briefly, grue is anything green until December 31, 1999, and blue afterwards. (It's an old paradox; you should probably substitute another future date.) Bleen is blue until that date, and green afterwards.

The paradox of why these terms seem less valid than blue and green is that one could just as easily define blue as something that is bleen until December 31, 1999, and grue afterwards, and similarly for green. So why does blue/green seem more valid than bleen/grue? Poundstone goes through several other false arguments, but the convincing one is that children learning the Gruebleen language will not learn these colors as easily as blue and green. We can point to the sky and tell a child it is blue, and point to the grass and say it is green, and the child understands. But if we point to the sky and say it is bleen, the child will not understand that this means it will (supposedly) change color on a specific future date. This asymmetry is what makes blue-green more basic than bleen-grue.

Other than this (which may well have appeared elsewhere), there is nothing new here, but if you're looking for a good book to start someone out on the topic, you could do worse.

As an aside, I find it interesting that of all the authors--not philosophers or scientists--that Poundstone references, Jorge Luis Borges gets the most mentions, six. They are:

To order Labyrinths of Reason from, click here.

A PASSION FOR BOOKS by Lawrence Clark Powell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/16/2007]

A PASSION FOR BOOKS by Lawrence Clark Powell (ISBN-10 0-837-16783-3 ISBN-13 978-0-837-16783-1) is one of Powell's several collections of essays and speeches on books, book collecting, and libraries. Powell was an early critic of the displacement of books as the focus of libraries: "Thus I view with alarm the invasion of the book world by barbarians who neither believe in books for their totality of being, their fusion and content, nor have any sentimental feelings toward the book as a thing-in-itself. ... [When] library school prospectuses are issued which run to thousands of words without once mentioning the word 'book', then the bounds of propriety have been exceeded. The appeal is to would-be housekeepers, analysts, probers, and planners, to unsocial scientists who can be led to literature but not made to read and who long to de-emphasize books, mechanize the library, and the name to 'materials center,' a term more properly applied by anatomists to the dissecting room." (from a 1956 article)

Powell is definitely a bookaholic. He writes, "On trips to New York my time is usually divided between bookshops and libraries. Only once was I foolish enough to go to a musical comedy. Halfway through the production--which I found neither musical nor comic--I came to my senses and asked myself, What am I wasting my time here for, when New York is stacked with millions of books for sale? I rushed out the theater and made a 'bookline' for the shops of Fourth Avenue."

Yet another example of synchronicity: Powell mentioned a "17th century treatise on human engineering, a manual for conduct for public people written by a Spanish Jesuit." Even before he named it, I immediately knew that Powell was talking about Balthasar Gracian's A TRUTHTELLING MANUAL AND THE ART OF WORLDLY WISDOM--a book I am currently reading.

To order A Passion for Books from, click here.


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

Tim Powers's THE ANUBIS GATES (ISBN 0-441-00401-6) is a classic that I had never gotten around to reading. Its macguffin is a poet named William Ashbless, who does not exist in the (our) real world. I mention this because, like FARGO, this story has convinced many people of the reality of something which is not real. ("William Ashbless" was a pen name used by Tim Powers and James Blaylock for their jointly written poetry in college. Both authors now use the character.) Powers's style reminds me of Ray Bradbury's. I have no idea why, and I'm sure everyone now thinks I'm nuts for saying so. But there you have it. Maybe it is just a highly poetic style with the sort of imagery that Bradbury might use.

This book was a reprint by Orb, and one quibble I have is that what I assume were errors in the original printing were not corrected. For example, on page 47, the characters talk about October 1, 1810, as a Saturday; it was a Monday. (Earlier on page 29, they spoke of September 1 of that year as a Saturday, and on page 132 they are only up to September 11, so the typo is obvious--and should have been fixed.)

To order The Anubis Gates from, click here.

"Impossible Dreams" by Tim Pratt:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/16/2006]

One more thing: If you are a film fan, run, do not walk, to read Tim Pratt's "Impossible Dreams" in the July 2006 issue of ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE.

GOD IS NOT ONE by Stephen Prothero:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/22/2011]

GOD IS NOT ONE: THE EIGHT RIVAL RELIGIONS THAT RUN THE WORLD--AND WHY THEIR DIFFERENCES MATTER by Stephen Prothero (ISBN 978-0-06-157127-5) gives you the premise--that contrary to popular talk these days, all religions are not the same underneath--in the introduction, then spends eight chapters giving the reader the basics of what Prothero has decided are the eight religions Prothero thinks are most important, either because of influence or because of number of adherents: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, and Daoism. (Prothero bases the order on contemporary impact.)

For some of the religions, I cannot say whether Prothero got all the details right, but he did make at least one error on Judaism. He writes, "Like the term Torah in Judaism, which refers in a narrow sense to the five books of Moses ... and in a more expansive to the entire Hebrew Bible..." The "entire Hebrew Bible" is not called the Torah, it is called the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah, Nviim (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings). (It is an acronym because most vowels are not written in Hebrew.) And in addition to the Tanakh, there are also the Mishnah and the Talmud(s), which Prothero later also includes in the Torah.

Overall what is missing, I think, is a table highlighting the key differences among the religions: whether they believe in a God or gods (or no god), whether the god(s) have a body, whether humans have souls, whether sin exists, whether there is a self, whether existence is circular or linear, and so on.

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/09/2015]

A SHERLOCK HOLMES DEVOTIONAL by Trisha White Priebe (ISBN 978-1-63058-912-7) consists of 60 "devotions," one for each story in the Sherlock Holmes canon, of which the first half is about the story and the second half about applying some idea from it to Christianity. I did not find in the second halves particularly new ideas, and the first halves were full of errors (and typos). For example, for "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" Priebe talks about "the evidence of a grizzly crime." However, there are no bears in this story--she means a "grisly" crime. She claims "The Adventure of the Empty House" was "the first story published after Sherlock Holmes' death in "The Final Problem". It was the second; THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES was published between the two (though its internal chronology is before "The Final Problem"). But I completely gave up when she claimed that "in only two stories involving Sherlock Holmes is no murder committed." Even if one calls the deaths in "The Lion's Mane" and "Silver Blaze" murders, in addition to "The Adventure of the Yellow Face" there are "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League", "The Man with the Twisted Lip", "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor", and "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"--and that is just in the first volume of stories! Even if she means those in which no crime was committed, there are definitely more than two.

To order A Sherlock Holmes Devotional from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/14/2007]

While I agree with the basic premise of RELIGIOUS LITERACY: WHAT EVERY AMERICAN NEEDS TO KNOW--AND DOESN'T by Stephen Prothero (ISBN-13 978-0-06-084670-1, ISBN-10 0-06-084670-4), I have several complaints about his claims.

First, while I agree Americans are not as religiously literate as they should be, I question the statistics he quotes. I find it hard to believe, for example, that ten percent of Americans think that Joan of Arc is Noah's wife; I think it more likely that ten percent of the responders thought they would have a joke at the surveyor's expense. And if less than half of Americans can name even one of the four gospels, how does that sync up with the claim that 75% to 85% of Americans claim to be Christian?

I also think that Prothero's coverage is spotty. He talks about some of the differences between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but does not mention the calendar differences (which result in Easter and Christmas falling on different days for the two groups). Nor does he say that the Islamic calendar is a strictly lunar calendar, so that the holidays cycle through all the seasons. He does not even mention Wicca or Jews for Jesus.

Prothero spends a lot of time on different versions of the Ten Commandments, but none on the differences in the Lord's Prayer, which is at least as important when it comes to the notion of a non-sectarian prayer.

He defines polytheism as "Belief in multiple gods. Hinduism is typically described as polytheistic, though many Hindus insist that behind the myriad manifestations of divinity is one Absolute Reality.". Why doesn't he add, "Sort of like the Trinity"? :-) (Admittedly, in his definition of the Trinity, he does say that "some outsiders see at least a hint of polytheism in this belief.")

Of fundamentalism, he says, "Some scholars have tried to apply this term to other modes of religiously inspired antimodernism... But fundamentalism proper is a Protestant impulse that bears only superficial similarities to such movements." Well, maybe in his opinion, but his definition does not require that.

Second, while I agree that Americans should be better educated in world religions, I think Prothero underestimates the difficulty of finding someone to teach an unbiased course in world religions at the high school level. His examples of where this has been successful are all from multi-ethnic urban areas; he does not explain where in a small town where every belongs to the same church, or possibly two or three different Christian churches, one will find someone who can teach his proposed course effectively.

And lastly, when asked where the time for this course on world religions will come from, Prothero quotes Warren Nord as saying, "Why require the study of trigonometry or calculus, which the great majority of students will never use or need, and ignore religion, a matter of profound and universal significance?" Well, overlooking the question of why mathematics is always what people propose cutting back, this will only provide time for students in a college-preparatory program. I suspect that a lot of students are already not taking trigonometry or calculus, so unless Prothero thinks religion is of importance only to the college-bound, he needs to come up with something else.

One of Prothero's targets is Karen Armstrong, and in particular, her book THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION, of which he says, "To the Buddha, Confucius, and other founders of these faiths, Armstrong writes, 'what matters was not what you believed but how you behaved. ... 'For them, religion was the Golden Rule.' What we have here is yet another effort to turn religion into a water boy for morality." I suppose he would have said the same of Hillel, who was asked to summarize the Torah while standing on one leg and said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it." And Prothero even cites this story in his dictionary of religious literacy.

And of course, many religions emphasize orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, for example, the ancient Roman religion, or (arguably) Orthodox Judaism.

(Coincidentally, at the same time I had checked out RELIGIOUS LITERACY, I had also checked out THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION. I did not get very far in it though--either Armstrong's writing has gotten more dense since her book THE HISTORY OF GOD, or I have. What I did read seemed to indicate that she believes that the very early Aryans lived in a very idyllic society, at one with nature and all that. I am not sure I believe that.

Here's the religious literacy test Prothero gives his religion classes at the beginning of the term. Add up your points and double the result to get a 100-point-based score. The answer will appear next week.

  1. Name the Four Gospels. (1 point each)
  2. Name a sacred text of Hinduism. (1 point)
  3. What is the name of the holy book of Islam? (1 point)
  4. Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born? (1 point)
  5. President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road. What Bible story was he invoking?
  6. What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament? (1 point each)
  7. What is the Golden Rule? (1 point)
  8. "God helps those who help themselves." Is this in the Bible? If so, where? (2 points)
  9. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven." Does this appear in the Bible? (2 points)
  10. Name the Ten Commandments. (1 point each)
  11. Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. (1 point each)
  12. What are the Seven Sacraments of Catholicism? (1 point each)
  13. The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own "clause." What are its two religion clauses? (1 point each)
  14. What is Ramadan? In what religion is it celebrated? (1 point each)
  15. Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear. Some characters may be matched with more than one story or vice versa.
    Characters: Adam and Eve, Noah, Paul, Moses, Jesus, Abraham, Serpent.
    Stories: Exodus, Binding of Isaac, Olive Branch, Garden of Eden, Parting of the Red Sea, Road to Damascus, Garden of Gethsemane. (1 point each)


  1. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
  2. Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Yoga Sutras, Laws of Manu, or Kama Sutra
  3. Quran
  4. Bethlehem
  5. Good Samaritan
  6. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  7. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Matthew 7:12), or a similar statement from Rabbi Hillel or Confucius. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is not the Golden Rule.
  8. No, this is not in the Bible. In fact, it is contradicted in Proverbs 28:26. "He who trusts in himself is a fool." The words are Ben Franklin's.
  9. Yes, in the Beatitudes of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3).
  10. No other gods before me; you shall not make yourself a graven image; you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain; remember the Sabbath and keep it holy; honor your father and mother; you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; you shall not covet.
  11. Life is suffering; suffering has an origin; suffering can be overcome (nirvana); the path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.
  12. baptism, eucharist/mass, reconciliation/confession/penance, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, anointing of the sick/last rites
  13. "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"; the words before the comma are the Establishment Clause, the words that follow are the Free Exercise Clause.
  14. Ramadan is a Muslim holiday characterized by a month of fasting.
  15. Adam and Eve < Garden of Eden; Serpent < Garden of Eden; Abraham < Binding of Isaac; Moses < Exodus/Parting of the Red Sea; Noah < Olive Branch; Jesus < Garden of Gethsemane; Paul < Road to Damascus.

To order Religious Literacy from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/21/2014]

FOURTEEN BYZANTINE RULERS by Michael Psellus (translated by E. R. A. Sewter) (ISBN 0-14-004-169-7) covers the period 976-1078 and indeed covers fourteen Byzantine rulers, though it seems like a lot more because Psellus has a habit of referring to a single emperor by a variety of names, or if not that, by a different name that the editors of the book. So Romanus IV, for example, is called Diogenes by Psellus but Romanus IV in the page headings, footnotes, and index!

This book seems to offer some excellent examples of historical bias, or at least disagreement. Psellus writes:

"As I write these words, I feel myself overcome by the same emotions as I often feel when I am in his presence: the same wonder thrills me. Indeed, it is impossible for me not to admire him. And I would ask my readers not to distrust my account, nor to regard with suspicion the words that I shall presently write here, because they are penned during the emperor's lifetime. The very reason why I undertook to write this history was, in fact, none other than this, that men might know there exists a human nature of such divinity, one that far surpasses all others that we have ever known before."

Then Sewter's footnote says:

"The truth is that Michael Parapinaces was a despicable person and some of the blame for his inefficiency must fall on Psellus."

Again, Psellus writes what a great writer Michael was, in all forms, and then the footnote Scylitzes is quoted as saying, "While [the emperor] spent his time in the useless pursuit of eloquence and wasted his energy on the composition of iambic and anapaestic verse (and they were poor efforts indeed) he brought his Empire to ruin, led astray by his mentor, the philosopher Psellus."

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/24/2008]

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH by Philip Pullman (ISBN-13 978-0-375-84510-9, ISBN-10 0-375-84510-0) is a "sort of" alternate history. It is set in Pullman's "His Dark Materials" universe, which has a fairly substantial alternate history basis, but ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH itself uses very little of that. It is basically a Wild West (or perhaps Northwest) story, with some fantasy elements added (e.g., armored talking bears, balloons), and tells an early story in the life of Lee Scoresby. It is mostly notable, I think, for the engravings by John Lawrence, and the letters, book extracts, newspaper clippings, bills of lading, and so forth, reproduced as informational illustrations, and also for the general quality of the physical book itself. Though issued as a book, it is really only novella-length (I estimate about 20,000 words). As such, it is similar to the previously published LYRA'S OXFORD. Either of these would be a nice present for a teenager who enjoyed the trilogy; I'm not sure there is enough depth for adult readers.

To order Once Upon a Time in the North from, click here.

THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/23/2005]

The good thing about THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon (ISBN 0-060-93167-1) is that it is short. The bad thing is that it is incomprehensible, and does not even have a real ending. Having slogged my way through this for our reading group, I now know I can skip all the rest of Pynchon's works. Oh, there is one other good thing--according to Charles Harris, Pynchon got all the philately correct, or at least wrong in an explainable way. (For example, the ink on some of the stamps seems to react to chemicals incorrectly--but since the stamps are forgeries, that is excusable.)

To order The Crying of Lot 49 from, click here.

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