Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.


BIBIOHOLISM: THE LITERARY ADDICTION by Tom Raabe:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/05/2007]

I recently read BIBIOHOLISM: THE LITERARY ADDICTION by Tom Raabe (ISBN 1-55591-080-7). This is more humor book than actual study of the (sometimes extreme) love of books. For example, on page 11 he claims that he once discovered that he had bought three identical sets of Dickens (twenty-one volumes each, hardbound, illustrated, and $185 a set) without realizing the last two were duplicates. And his timeline of the history of the book includes such entries as "Highly publicized diet book published under the title LEVITICUS. Sales flop. 'Too many rules, too depressing, not enough variety, not enough attention to cholesterol,' cry the critics. 'And for crying out loud, give it a decent title.'" Later, he has "LEVITICUS reissued under the title EAT RIGHT OR DIE, but sales still sluggish, limited only to an ethnic corner of the market." But finally, "LEVITICUS reissued as SINAI LITE--LOW-FAT, LOW-CALORIE, LOW-CHOLESTEROL, LOW-SALT, PORK-FREE EATING FOR PEOPLE ON THE MOVE, by Dr. Moses. Sales take off."

Pages 27 through 30 are the famous "test" that has shown up everywhere (including the Web). Some questions seem serious ("Do you ever buy books simply because they were on sale?"), some not ("When you go to a bookstore after work, thus arriving home late at night, do you lie about where you have been, telling your spouse you were a a bar?"), and some just wrong ("At a garage sale, is the first thing you look at the books?" At a garage sale, the only thing I look at is the books!).

Raabe gets even the "serious" stuff wrong. He says, for example (on page 63), "Put two copies of the same book on a table, and the uglier of the two will fetch the higher price." I believe he means something like "put a new copy and an older copy of the same book on a table, ..." but a first edition and the current reprint are not the same book. (Even Raabe acknowledges this in the next section.) I also think he misspells "Euripides" (as "Euripedes") in his Sophocles/Euripides anecdote in Chapter Eight, but it could be that scholars have decided to revise the transliteration for that as that did for Peking/Beijing. He refers to "Cheryl Ames" rather than "Cherry Ames", but I guess since he's a guy, he can be forgiven--a bit. And in Chapter Ten, "K marts" should be "Kmarts".

(A Google search shows 2,390,000 pages for "Euripides" and 617,000 for "Euripedes".)

Raabe does have a few memorable lines. In talking about fights over volumes in bookstores a hundred years ago, he says, "Today, the only place one experiences this sort of intensity is at the martial arts exhibitions that are euphemistically called 'Friends of the Library' sales."

Several years ago, Mark defined various degrees of science fiction fan: "The first-degree fan reads the Hugo-winning novel even before it was nominated for a Hugo. The second-degree fan read it once it is nominated, but before it wins a Hugo. A third-degree fan reads the Hugo-winning novel after it wins, but before the next year's Hugo nominations. A fourth-degree fan, retroactively named, reads the Hugo-winning novel at some point in the future. A fifth-degree fan has seen THE MATRIX. (It used to be STAR WARS but I am told that today's younger fans have decided that STAR WARS is no good and what rules is THE MATRIX. Only us old fogies still prefer STAR WARS.)" [from a revised version, MT VOID, 04/23/04] Raabe has "The Discovery Index (pages 100-101), which includes various levels such as knowing the author after the author's short stories appeared in a regional literary review but before their novel appeared in hardback, or after the movie tie-in paperback but before the appearance of the movie stars on "Good Morning America".

There is a long chapter on the "fantasy bookstore", but since the book as written in 1991 there is nothing on amazon.com, alibris.com, or any other on-line booksellers. (However, I'm reasonably sure that I was ordering books over the Internet from individual stores in Australia and the Netherlands back then. It just had not caught on in a big way.)

One major problem with this book is that the authors and sources he cites just make one want to go out and acquire those. I'm hoping most will be available from my library system, although books such as CARROUSEL FOR BIBLIOPHILES edited by William Targ and published in 1947 is unlikely to be in any library that has done purging of their shelves lately.

[Which proves what I know. When I started looking up the books in the bibliography, I could not find CARROUSEL FOR BIBLIOPHILES in my library, but one library did have the other book edited by Targ that was listed in the bibliography: BOUILLABAISSE FOR BIBLIOPHILES. Of course, so far as I can tell, the Plainfield Library has never gotten rid of anything--they had close to a dozen of the books in the bibliography that I would have sworn would have long since gone. This is the same library from which I got a 1925 book that I described in a previous column that had one of those old octagonal spine labels with the call number hand-lettered by fountain pen.]

To order Biblioholism from amazon.com, click here.


TIME TWISTERS edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/21/2007]

TIME TWISTERS edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg (ISBN-13 978-0-7564-0405-5, ISBN-10 0-7564-0405-3) is an anthology of seventeen stories, about two-thirds alternate histories, the rest time travel or similar. (Some pretend to be alternate history, but I don't count stories that go right up to the change and then stop as true alternate histories. Nor do I count stories where the change is purely local, such as someone marrying a different person, but no other real change.) As with all too many of these theme anthologies, the stories are mostly uninspired, seemingly written more to write a pre-sold story than from any true inspiration on the part of the author. The only stories than seem to rise above this are Harry Turtledove's "Occupation Duty", Robert E. Vardeman's "The Power and the Glory", and Skip and Penny Williams's "One Rainy Day in Paris".

To order Time Twisters from amazon.com, click here.


AMERICAN PULP: HOW PAPERBACKS BROUGHT MODERNISM TO MAIN STREET by Paula Rabinowitz):

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

I only read part of AMERICAN PULP: HOW PAPERBACKS BROUGHT MODERNISM TO MAIN STREET by Paula Rabinowitz (ISBN 978-0-691-15060-4)--specifically, the chapter titled "Senor Borges Wins! Ellery Queen's Garden". A sample of the writing may give you a clue why: "In an enclosed landscape with a 'mythical' city filled with a world of languages rendered into English, the sun never sets on the British Empire, even if in the Palermo neighborhood he lived in, filled with streets named Thames (pronounced Thomas), he gloried in its exuberant sunsets and "a bar, shelter of criminals." She also uses the word "demotic" (meaning popular) twice in consecutive paragraphs and says that the Falklands/Malvinas War "sundered forever whatever Anglophilia lurked among most of Argentina's populace." "To sunder" is to break apart or into two, and while one might sunder a bond or a friendship, one cannot sunder Anglophilia.

While Rabinowitz mentions Brian Aldiss's EARTHWORKS on page xi of the Preface, she says next to nothing about science fiction for the rest of the book, just three mentions in the context of cover art, and Aldiss is not even in the index. Oh, and the term "passim" recurs in the index (e.g. "labyrinths, 161-83 passim"). I had to look it up; it means "here and there"--a useful term, but not one I recall ever seeing in an index before.

To order American Pulp from amazon.com, click here.


PEARL HARBOR IN THE MOVIES by Ed Rampell and Luis J. Reyes:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/26/2006]

While we were on vacation in Hawai`i, we bought a copy of PEARL HARBOR IN THE MOVIES by Ed Rampell and Luis J. Reyes (ISBN 1-56647-506-6). The subject matter is of interest, and the authors' opinions on the accuracy and subtexts of the movies worth reading. But the research and (again) the proofreading is so bad . . . (and the publisher, while not a major, is not a vanity press either).

For example, the book does not mention at all the Takei "Twilight Zone" ("The Encounter"), but does include such peripheral films as RADIO DAYS. They use the term "AJAs" without defining it (I eventually realized it stood for "Americans of Japanese Ancestry"). It has awkward juxtaposition of sentences, which sometimes make no sense at all. Of the filming of WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY, they say, "Filmed mostly on location on Kaua`i, the company then moved to Pearl Harbor for some location scenes, to find the harbor full of the necessary Navy craft. The fleet, which had been there the entire company was on Kauai [sic], had sailed out the night before they arrived in Pearl Harbor." [page 92] Are they saying that the fleet had been in Pearl Harbor, but left the night before the film crew arrived? But then the harbor would not have been full of Navy craft. Are they saying the fleet had been in Kaua`i, but had sailed to Pearl Harbor? But there is no place at Kaua`i for the fleet to be.

They write "American Movies Classic" [pg. xxi] or "American Movies Classics" [pg. 2], when the correct name is "American Movie Classics". They fail to capitalize "Nazi" [pg. 3]. And a particularly irritating gaffe is that the list of video sources at the end is missing all titles starting with 'J' through 'L'.

On page 51, Rampell and Reyes say, "Twenty-plus years after PEARL, there is no Holly Nagata." But it is not until page 103 that one reads about the mini-series PEARL and its character Holly Nagata, meaning one is completely baffled by this sentence for fifty pages.

You can tell this book was written pre-9/11. Rampell and Reyes talk about Pearl Harbor and President Kennedy's assassination as defining moments, and then says, "Perhaps succeeding generations mark their life calendars by the untimely death of rock stars like Elvis or John Lennon. Or might the events be the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, the O. J. Simpson trial or the turn of the century? The immediacy and rapture of a nation gripped in a sense of loss by life-changing events has not happened in several generations." Well, now we know what at least one generation will use to mark their life calendars.

Even with my reservations about the book, however, it is the only source I know of on the subject, and Rampell and Reyes's analyses of the accuracy of the films, and of social attitudes shown in and by the films, makes it worthwhile for those interested in those aspects.

To order Pearl Harbor in the Movies from amazon.com, click here.


ANTHEM by Ayn Rand:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/13/2014]

ANTHEM by Ayn Rand (ISBN 978-1-434-44089-1): Though of novella length, this is always published as a stand-alone book. The edition I have is the version re-edited in 1946 for its first American publication, and the foreword says, "This story was written in 1937. I have edited it for this publication, but have confined the editing to its style; I have reworded some passages and cut out some excessive language." Once again, the difficulty of fairly voting the Retro Hugos, when so many of the works seem to have been re-edited in the interim, is demonstrated. (People are complaining that this year's regular Hugos are a problem because Orbit is allowing only excerpts of their three novels to be included in the Hugo packet, but even with complete works, one has the question, "Complete as of when?"

Ayn Rand talks about "collectivism" in her foreword. I am not clear whether she means what we would call "socialism", or what we would call "Communism" (or whether she would recognize a difference). (For that matter, it is curious that those on the right these days no longer attack "Communism" but rather "socialism".)

Rand's book pre-dates George Orwell's 1984, but this does not mean she invented the concept: Yevgeny Zamiatin's WE, written in 1924, is generally considered to have strongly influenced the many dystopias that came after it.

Is "We are one in all and all in one" supposed to be an only slightly modified version of "E pluribus unum"?

Rand (or her narrator) says, "It is a sin to give men names which distinguish them from other men." But that is what "Equality 7-2521" and "Liberty 5-3000" do, just as much as "The Golden One" and "The Unconquered". And later, he says, "There were men whose famous names we knew," which is surely evidence that there were names which distinguished people.

Rand's use of a modified grammar is interesting, although it does at times make understanding the book a bit tricky. I suppose the dystopia might have seemed new to readers unfamiliar with Zamiatin. And the whole House of Scholars sub-plot may have inspired a similar sub-plot in PLANET OF THE APES. But it is hard to judge this with 1938 eyes, and influential though it might have been, as a science fiction story it does not hold up, particularly with its descent into exhortation at the end. It could be that the problem is that ANTHEM carries its dystopian premises to extremes, undercutting its believability while 1984, for example, maintains a more realistic/believable level and so still holds up as a novel.

To order Anthem from amazon.com, click here.


CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN by Roger L. Ransom:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/24/2006]

CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN by Roger L. Ransom (ISBN 0-393-05967-7) is a counterfactual. It is not an alternate history per se, because first of all, it is not a novel--there are no characters, and no plot outside of recounting the history as it might have been. And second, Ransom never gets into the world of the divergence. Alternate history novels are always written in that world, unless the main character is from our timeline (or some third timeline). Even Robert Sobel's classic FOR WANT OF A NAIL, while not a novel, is written in its timeline, down to alternate bibliographical and publication information. But Ransom keeps pulling back, saying things like, "In our world what happened was X. But what if Y?" It is of interest to history buffs, but does not have the texture to appeal to most people looking for an alternate history novel.

To order Confederate States of America from amazon.com, click here.


CRIMINAL KABALLAH by Lawrence W. Raphael:

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

CRIMINAL KABALLAH edited by Lawrence W. Raphael (ISBN 1-58023-109-8) is the follow-up to his MYSTERY MIDRASH (reviewed in the 09/17/2004 issue). This was not quite as good an anthology, but that was in part because several stories were not mysteries but just stories about crimes or wrong-doing. (It's the problem with the Sherlock Holmes story "The Veiled Lodger"--there is no detection involved.) Not a total miss, but not up to the first.

To order Criminal Kaballah from amazon.com, click here.


MYSTERY MIDRASH by Lawrence W. Raphael:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/17/2004]

Lawrence W. Raphael's MYSTERY MIDRASH (ISBN 1-58023-055-5) is a collection of Jewish mystery stories. It is not just that the characters happen to be Jewish, but also that there is some aspect of Jewish law, or some story from the Jewish written or oral tradition that ties in, or some other more substantive connection. I enjoyed them, but as with the "cat mystery" of a few weeks ago, these seem aimed at a fairly specialized audience. And the not everything was fact-checked. For example, one author makes a reference to "Lee's strategy at Vicksburg." Lee was not at Vicksburg; he was a thousand miles away at Gettysburg at that time. Another author claims there are three laws one may not violate even to save one's own life, and that Sabbath observance is one of them. Actually, it's not.

To order Mystery Midrash from amazon.com, click here.


THE JOYS OF READING: LIFE'S GREATEST PLEASURE by Burton Rascoe:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2008]

Reading old books about books is enlightening. One discovers that authors were considered great and lasting in 1937 are completely forgotten now, and one is perhaps reminded that many authors currently in favor may fade from view in another few decades. THE JOYS OF READING: LIFE'S GREATEST PLEASURE by Burton Rascoe (copyright 1937, and of course there is no ISBN) has chapters on "The Joys of Reading" and "How to Judge Literary Values," but it also has lists. The list of twenty-five favorite authors from 1900 to 1925 includes many that have withstood the tes of time: H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, and Jack London. But it also includes Joseph Hergesheimer, Gamaliel Bradford, May Sinclair, and W. J. Locke, and omits (for example) Arthur Conan Doyle. A list of the twenty-five favorite books lists two by Wells: THE OUTLINE OF HISTORY and MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH. Admittedly, his classic science fiction novels were written before 1900, but this century still saw THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, THE FOOD OF THE GODS, and IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET.

To order The Joys of Reading from amazon.com, click here.


WHAT UNITES US by Dan Rather & Elliot Kirschner:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/30/2018]

A lot of people have been raving about WHAT UNITES US: REFLECTIONS ON PATRIOTISM by Dan Rather & Elliot Kirschner (ISBN 978-1-61620-782-3). I am not going to write a full review, but I will make some observations.

First, though it is by "Dan Rather & Elliot Kirschner", Rather's name is in letters twice as high as Kirschner's, and everyone refers to it as being Dan Rather's book. This is probably accurate, since it is written almost entirely in the first person. Given that Rather was a journalist, I would not have thought he would need a co-author with the writing part.

Rather tells many stories of noble deeds, but they are never his. When he talks about his experiences, it is either neutral, or he relates how embarrassed or even ashamed he is now at his attitude or behavior at the time, towards minorities, or gays, or Jews, or women. The praiseworthy actions are those of others: his father, voting with African-Americans who dared to attend a precinct meeting in 1940s Texas; his mother, who said that gave the poor children across the street toys for Christmas not because they felt sorry for the children, but because they understood how the children felt. In other words, they were not different from the children--they were the same.

But too much of it seems to be more "what united us" than "what unites us." Rather writes of how what was great about us before and even up until recently, but then so often talks about how we seem to have lost that, or forgotten that, or think that is no longer important. He speaks of how we have recovered from low points before (World War I sedition laws, Japanese-American internment, McCarthyism) and how we can again, but the question still remains as to whether we will.

He also mis-attributes at least one important idea. He writes that Warren Buffet talks about the "ovarian lottery": before birth, you can design the political/social/economic system of the world, but your position in that world will be totally random. So you can design the ante-bellum South, but you are more likely to find yourself slave than free, and even if you are free, you could as equally be born a woman as a man. However, Buffet did not invent this. John Rawls wrote about this in 1971, calling it "the veil of ignorance."

To order What Unites Us from amazon.com, click here.


GAY MARRIAGE by Jonathan Rauch:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/04/2004]

Jonathan Rauch's GAY MARRIAGE (ISBN 0-805-07633-6) seems to have been rushed into print following the Massachusetts Supreme Court's ruling last November on same-sex marriage. Rauch gives his arguments as to why gay marriage is a good thing, and why the arguments against it fail. Well, actually, he explains why the arguments against it are contradictory and inconsistent. One example: one argument is that marriage is about procreation and raising children. Yet Rauch notes that laws don't void mixed-sex marriages that fail to produce children, or after the children have left home--in fact, several states allow certain marriages (such as first cousins) only if the couple can not produce children! And, as he notes, when two octogenarians wed, the reaction is usually, "Isn't that romantic!" rather than "How dare they attack traditional marriage!" I won't cover all his points, but will note that a basic one is that those who support ABM ("Anything But Marriage") in the form of civil unions, are actually doing more to destroy marriage than those who support gay marriage. How? By providing options for couples other than marriage, and saying that these other options are just as good, these people are telling mixed-sex couples that they don't need to marry either--that there is nothing special about marriage, and that there is really no reason to marry rather than to cohabit. I somehow doubt that this is what those people really want.

(When the two octogenarians are of the same sex, one sees some people have very conflicted opinions. I know this, because my uncle recently married his partner of sixty years in Canada--and they're both in their 80s. People were truly torn between "romantic" and "unheard of.")

To order Gay Marriage from amazon.com, click here.


A THEORY OF JUSTICE by John Rawls:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2009]

Last week in my review of ORLANDO I wrote about "a philosophical theory proposed in the 20th century--justice is what you would arrange for a society if you were responsible for setting it up before you knew what your position would be in it." Well, I just ran across a reference to it that had all the information about it I couldn't remember. It was proposed by John Rawls in his book A THEORY OF JUSTICE (ISBN-13 978-0-674-01772-6, ISBN-10 0-674-01772-2), which I have not read. However, as I understand it, he hypothesizes a system whereby we all decide before being born what kind of society we want to be born into. "Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their concepts of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance."

There are, of course, a couple of problems with this. One (pointed out in the work where I read this) was that Rawls assumes people would be risk-adverse, thereby choosing a much more egalitarian society, while in reality they might be willing to accept a 3-billion-to-1 chance of ending up in a very negative situation. (Think of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas".) A bigger problem, I think, is that it merely pushes back the problem one level. How does the "pre-society" collective decide on the world to be created? Rawls seems to assume that the best (only?) approach here is a straightforward vote. While that may seem intuitive to people used to voting on things, surely somewhere someone will suggest that perhaps the choice would be better made by some other method, e.g., list all the possibilities, then pray for a sign by God.

Another, more mathematical difficulty, is that Rawls assumes people are more logical than may be the case. Given a society in which either everyone gets $2000 or some get $50,000 and some get $3,000, he assumes people would pick the latter, while it seems quite possible they would choose the former.

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

John Rawls has proposed a theory of justice that says that the just system is what you would pick if you knew you were going to live in it, but did not know who you would be. (His term for this is the "veil of ignorance.") For example, many people see themselves as being happy in ancient Athens, but that is because they assume they would be free men. If you told them that they would be sent back there as a female slave, they would probably decide that it was not a perfect society after all.

Rawls proposed this theory in 1971 in A THEORY OF JUSTICE (ISBN 978-0-674-01772-6). One can see intimations of it in such unlikely works as the film DARK CITY (1998), but I think it first showed up in Jorge Luis Borges's "The Babylonian Lottery". As Borges wrote (in 1941, thirty years before Rawls), "Like all the men of Babylon, I have been a proconsul; like all, a slave; I have also known omnipotence, disgrace, imprisonment." This is the result of the lottery, that regularly "re-deals the cards" and re-assigns new positions in society to everyone. That this does not cause Babylon to become a more just society is not a refutation of Rawls--after all, this is fiction.

(One could argue that term limits is a way of implementing the premise of Rawls's theory--if an elected official knows he will be out of office after N years, he will presumably be less likely to accrue power to the position at the expense of the common citizen that he will again become.)

To order A Theory of Justice from amazon.com, click here.


THE ART OF SOUTHEAST ASIA by Philip Rawson:

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

THE ART OF SOUTHEAST ASIA by Philip Rawson (ISBN 978-0-500-20060-5) is a standard work and a more general overview of all the art of the region, which includes Thailand, Laos, and Burma as well as Cambodia and Vietnam.

To order The Art of Southeast Asia from amazon.com, click here.


THE SHEPHERD'S LIFE by James Rebanks:

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

At the NASFIC this year, Brother Guy Consolmagno recommended some books that look at education, including THE SHEPHERD'S LIFE by James Rebanks (ISBN 978-1-250-06024-2). The jacket flap says, "A James Herriott for Modern Times". Given that Herriott died in 1995, it is not as if he lived back in Edwardian times or anything like that. (Rebanks was born in 1974, so I suppose he is from a slightly newer generation.)

Rebanks describes the life of shepherds and farmers in the fells of the Lake District. From the time he was shunted into a "comprehensive" school (which sounds like what we would call a vocational school) until he left school at the age of fifteen, he had no use for schooling or books, but later he became a voracious reader. (The title, for example, seems to be an homage to A SHEPHERD'S LIFE by W. H. Hudson.) However, he has a very different view of the Lake District than William Wordsworth or Alfred Wainwright (who wrote a series of walking guides in the 1950s and 1960s). Rebanks has little patience for tourists who look only at the scenery and completely ignore the inhabitants. The fells to him are both beautiful and harsh; it is not an easy life there.

Contrary to the implication of Brother Guy, THE SHEPHERD'S LIFE is not about education, but about the life of the sheep farmers in the Lake District. (While much of what he says would be true of small sheep farmers everywhere, much is very specific to the sheep farming in that region.) To a great extent Rebanks is making a plea to maintain a way of life that has existed for thousands of years, though one senses that he realizes that this becomes more difficult as time goes on. A combination of government regulation of livestock, the increasing value of the land for purposes other than farming, and the temptations of the outside world on succeeding generations all work against maintaining small, labor-intensive, marginally profitable farms.

To order The Shepherd's Life from amazon.com, click here.


EGYPT, CANAAN, AND ISRAEL IN ANCIENT TIMES by Donald B. Redford:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/21/2010]

EGYPT, CANAAN, AND ISRAEL IN ANCIENT TIMES by Donald B. Redford (ISBN 0-691-00086-7) covers the history of that area from the Stone Age until 586 B.C.E. While it is very detailed, nonetheless most non-specialist readers will find the second half more interesting in that it is about a period they are familiar with--supposedly--because of the history of it given in the Bible. However, Redford has little use for this Biblical history (or, as he would say, "history").

Redford begins by saying, "The patient and observant reader will have noted that, up to this point in our study, no mention has been made of Israel or its ancestral patriarchs. The reason for this is an empirical one; in our sources, both Egyptian and west Asian, there are virtually no references to Israel, its congeners, or Biblical associates prior to the twelfth century B.C.; and beyond that point for four centuries a mere half dozen allusions can be elicited."

Redford then presents a succinct chronological argument against taking the Biblical history of the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges as accurate. He begins with the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. Adding up the lengths of the reigns of the kings since the dedication of the Temple (in the fourth year of the reign of Solomon), he gets 430 years, which puts the Temple at 1016 B.C.E. According to I Kings 6:1, that was 480 years after the Exodus, putting the Exodus in 1496 B.C.E. Exodus 12:40 says that the Sojourn in Egypt lasted 430 years, so Jacob's family want down to Egypt in 1926 B.C.E. Adding up the lives of Abraham (Genesis 21:9), Isaac (Genesis 25-26), and Jacob (Genesis 47:9), we get another 290 years or 2216 B.C.E. for the birth of Abraham. So Abraham arrived in Canaan in 2141 B.C.E. (Genesis 12:4) and his descent to Egypt between then and 2116 B.C.E. (Genesis 12:10-19).

Now Redford works forward and synchronizes the Biblically-derived dates with the historical Egyptian chronology. The Sojourn in Egypt would have covered "the outgoing 12th Dynasty, the entire 13th Dynasty, the Hyksos occupation, and the early [14th] Dynasty to Hatshepsut's ninth year!" After the 40 years in the desert, the conquest of Canaan must have started in 1456 B.C.E. "or on the morrow of Thutmose III's victorious campaigns when all Canaan belonged to Egypt, and on the eve of Amenophis II's deportation of the local population. Even more astounding are the implications of the resultant placement of the Period of the Judges, namely 1456 to 1080 [B.C.E.]. This is almost exactly coeval with the Egyptian empire in Asia!" Yet, Redford points out, there is no mention of the Patriarchs, the Sojourn, the Exodus, or the Conquest in any Egyptian sources. Q.E.D. (at least according to him).

Redford goes on to note that some "Biblical exegetes" try to get around some of these conflicts be saying, for example, that 480 years must really be 12 generations, but a generation should be considered to be 30 years, and then you have the Exodus in 1255 B.C.E., and then the 430 years of the Sojourn should be thought of as four generations, or 120 years, and so on.

Redford compares the attempt to answer such questions as which Egyptian princess pulled Moses from the river to attempting to do something similar with the Arthurian legend: "Who were the counsels of Rome when Arthur drew the sword from the stone? Where was Merlin born? Where is Avalon to be located?" (The only problem is that there are people who do this.)

Redford ends this analysis by saying that the phrase "Biblical history" ought to be used only to refer to studying the history of the book called the Bible, and "Biblical archaeology" to refer to the unearthing of texts that form part of that book.

For the rest of the book (covering roughly the twelfth century through sixth century B.C.E.), Redford discusses what the Bible says about the time as well as what the (other) historical records say, usually to the detriment of the former. He points out the many anachronisms. For example, Judges 1:19 talks about iron chariots," but iron did not actually replace bronze until much later. Judges 6:5 refers to domesticated camels; camels were not domesticated until several hundred years later. And so on. A full chapter is dedicated to "The Creation Accounts", "The Table of Nations", "The Sojourn", and "The Exodus" and comparisons with other versions and histories of the period.

As I said, most people may find the main thrust of the book a little dry, but the sections discussing the Biblical version of history will interest a lot more people.

To order Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times from amazon.com, click here.


"Hexagons" by Robert Reed:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/09/2004]

"Hexagons" by Robert Reed is an alternate history set in "New Rome" and suffers only from having too much of a similarity to our own world in setting and in some of the characters. (Robert Silverberg gets this right in his "Roma Eterna" stories, by the way.) This is probably why "Hexagons" didn't make the short list of finalists for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, but I still like it quite a bit.


"Truth" by Robert Reed:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/29/2009]

"Truth" by Robert Reed (ASIMOV'S Oct/Nov 2008): A somewhat science fictional take on interrogating prisoners. The fact that the prisoner is a time traveler from the future makes things a bit different, but Reed is clearly looking at the effectiveness of various interrogation techniques rather than the time travel aspects. And ultimately it seems more a commentary on the multiple-worlds hypothesis than on anything in the real world.


PLASTIC FANTASTIC: HOW THE BIGGEST FRAUD IN PHYSICS SHOOK THE SCIENTIFIC WORLD by Eugenie Samuel Reich:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/11/2009]

PLASTIC FANTASTIC: HOW THE BIGGEST FRAUD IN PHYSICS SHOOK THE SCIENTIFIC WORLD by Eugenie Samuel Reich (ISBN-13 978-0-230-22467-4, ISBN-10 0-230-22467-9) is of interest to anyone who worked at Bell Labs, which is an appreciable proportion of the readers of the MT VOID. That said, it is not the most engagingly written book about research I have read.

The book tells the story of Jan Henrik Schon's "discovery" of a way to make plastic transistors, and everyone else's discovery of how it was all a fraud. One problem is that Reich tries to cover both the science and the fraud in a single book. The result is that just as you are getting into the details of how the decreasing oversight in the process of producing technical memoranda at Bell Labs allowed Schon's fraud to continue, Reich switches to something like "Schon said that he had built the prototype laser by sputtering aluminum oxide onto opposing sides of a single crystal of tetracene. He had added gate electrodes, one on each side, to induce negative and positive charges using the field effect." (I picture these gates sort of like the foo dogs flanking Chinese buildings. :-) )

Schon was at Bell Labs in Murray Hill (NJ) from 1997 to 2002. Reich mentions a lot of people and places that readers who were in Murray Hill will probably resonate with, and talks about the changes that came first with divesture, and later with the spin-offs of Lucent Technologies and Agere Microsystems. However, I do not think he will convey much of this to people who were not there experiencing it firsthand, so this gets only a conditional recommendation.

To order Plastic Fantastic from amazon.com, click here.


BLOOD ON THE SADDLE by Rafael Reig (translated by Paul Hammond):

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

BLOOD ON THE SADDLE by Rafael Reig (translated by Paul Hammond) (ISBN-10 1-852-42870-8, ISBN-13 978-1-852-42870-9) is a hard-boiled detective novel set in a near-future Madrid. Actually, it is even more specifically a Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe) pastiche. (One of the missing persons the detective is looking for is a character from a novel, so there may be a dash of Jasper Fforde here as well.) I'm not sure the genre feeling survives the transition in both time (from the 1940s and 1950s to the 21st century) and space (from Los Angeles to Madrid). And having to further be interpreted into Spanish by Reig and then translated back into English (by Hammond) may be more stress than this very stylistic genre can bear.

This is not to say that the book does not have its moments. On listening to some literary critics, our narrator Carlos Clot says, "These were penitential readers. The value they attributed to a book was in direct proportion to the effort it had cost them to finish it." (page 102)

Because this was translated for British publication, Britishisms such as suspenders (for garters) and Inland Revenue and British spellings occur throughout. This seems very odd in a book that is clearly a Raymond Chandler pastiche. One quibble: Walter Benjamin's "Passagen-Werk", which the character Penuelas dismisses as "a work about shopping arcades . . . a work without too much interest, not to say a pure clinker" (pg. 89) is actually much more than that and is considered a major work in 20th Century studies. [-ecl]

To order Blood on the Saddle from amazon.com, click here.


BLOOD LINES by Ruth Rendell:

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

Ruth Rendell's BLOOD LINES (ISBN 0-517-70323-8) is a collection of mystery short stories in a style similar to Patricia Highsmith, though not nearly as edgy and unsettling. The result is that I can actually read these stories, and I recommend them. I have not read any of Rendell's novels, but she has several other collections out as well, and she also writes under the name of Barbara Vine.

To order Blood Lines from amazon.com, click here.


Collected Stories by Ruth Rendell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/07/2005]

Ruth Rendell's COLLECTED STORIES (ISBN 0-345-35995-X) is an omnibus of four earlier collections: THE FALLEN CURTAIN, MEANS OF EVIL, THE FEVER TREE, and THE NEW GIRL FRIEND. MEANS OF EVIL is a collection of Inspector Wexford stories; I earlier reviewed one of Rendell's Inspector Wexford noels, BLOOD LINES (in the 08/13/04 issue). The rest are stories which involve crimes, but they are not necessarily mystery stories per se. They seem to be part of a sub-genre that encompasses John Collier and Jeffrey Archer--stories with a "twist". They are also reminiscent in tone to the works of Patricia Highsmith, though not quite as creepy. (I find it interesting that even though it contains two Edgar-winning stories, this is mentioned only in the back blurb, not on the front cover. Apparently the only genre award that publishers think worth trumpeting on the front cover is the Hugo.)

To order Ruth Rendell's Collected Stories from amazon.com, click here.


THE MAN WHO FOUND TIME: JAMES HUTTON AND THE ANTIQUITY OF THE EARTH by Jack Repcheck:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/09/2004]

And I'll briefly mention Jack Repcheck's THE MAN WHO FOUND TIME: JAMES HUTTON AND THE ANTIQUITY OF THE EARTH as being of interest to those interested in the history of science, and in particular in its interaction with religion.

To order The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Antiquity of the Earth from amazon.com, click here.


CLASSICS REVISITED by Kenneth Rexroth:
MORE CLASSICS REVISITED by Kenneth Rexroth:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/14/2007]

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Michael Ondaajte's LOST CLASSICS made sound very appealing CLASSICS REVISITED by Kenneth Rexroth (ISBN-13 978-0-8112-0988-5, ISBN-10 0-8112-0988-1) and MORE CLASSICS REVISITED by Kenneth Rexroth (ISBN-13 978-0-8112-1083-6, ISBN-10 0-8112-1083-9). And surprisingly for lost classics, they were in my local library. Apparently they are collections of essays about classics written by Rexroth for the SATURDAY REVIEW and other magazines, and so are not intended to form a "Lifetime Reading Plan" or any other consistent whole. Some are interesting, some are not. Some recommend which translation to read, some do not. (For some, one gets the impression that there is only one translation to choose from--or perhaps none. Where does find translations of Tu Fu these days? [Mark suggested Chinese restaurant menus, but I pointed out that was "tofu", not "tu fu".])

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

To order More Classics Revisited from amazon.com, click here.


DIAMOND DOGS, TURQUOISE DAYS by Alastair Reynolds:

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

The first story in DIAMOND DOGS, TURQUOISE DAYS by Alastair Reynolds (ISBN 0-441-01238-8) was recommended to us as having a mathematical content. "Diamond Dogs" is a novella in which a team of explorers tries to conquer/solve the Blood Spire, a structure in which one must solve a mathematical puzzle to go from one room to the next. (A wrong guess results in punishment.) As one progresses, the puzzles become harder, the time limits shorter, the doors smaller, and the punishments more severe. The premise seems to be taken from the movie CUBE, the math (after the first couple of puzzles) is purposely vague (because it is supposed to be comprehensible only if one has special conditioning), and there seem to be any number of rabbits pulled out of hats to solve problems. I know Alastair Reynolds is popular, but from this novella I do not understand why.

To order Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days from amazon.com, click here.


"Troika" by Alastair Reynolds:

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

"Troika" by Alastair Reynolds (published in the anthology GODLIKE MACHINES) is about an alien artifact that appears in a comet-like orbit around our sun. Three attempts are made to investigate, but it is so alien that even trying to study it causes unexpected problems. Reynolds has his characters all part of the Russian space program because in the future they are the main presence in space. There are echoes of Clarke's Rama in this, but while in some sense it goes beyond Rama, it is also less satisfying.


WAGNER, THE WEHR-WOLF by G. W. M. Reynolds (Dover, 1975 (originally published 1846), ISBN 0-486-220005-2):

[From MT VOID, 1988]

Like VARNEY THE VAMPIRE (which I reviewed last year [1987]), this is not your normal horror novel. It's old (almost 150 years) and it's deceptively long (though it's only 150 pages, they are 8-1/2" by 11" with very small print, or about 120,000 words). Unlike VARNEY THE VAMPIRE, however, people are sure who wrote it. E. F. Bleiler, in his introduction, describes Reynolds as being involved in one "cause" after another, including the temperance movement, the early women's liberation movement, and various political causes. Much of his philosophy comes through in this novel, particularly his campaign against the anti-Semitism of his time.

WAGNER, THE WEHR-WOLF is much more readable than VARNEY THE VAMPIRE. It doesn't have the padding that VARNEY has. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is shorter and hence less in need of padding. The second is that Reynolds apparently used every plot thread that occurred to him while he was writing the novel (which, like so many of that time, appeared as a series of installments in magazines). So a plot includes helpless maidens being thrown into brutal convents, shipwrecks on desert islands, the Faust legend, the Rosicrucians, the imperial Turkish court, the Inquisition, and a lot lot more I can't remember. You see, Wagner falls in love with Nisida, the deaf-mute daughter of the Count of Riverola, who dies leaving his estate to his son Francisco, whom he hates, unless Nisida recovers before her thirty-sixth birthday. Francisco loves Flora, Nisida's maid, who was orphaned early in life, as was her brother Alessandro, who got a position in the foreign service and was sent to Turkey, where he became an apostate and rose to become the Grand Vizier. Meanwhile, Nisida has Flora thrown into the Carmelite convent to keep her away from Francisco, and there Flora meets the Countess of Arestino, who had pawned her husband's jewels with the Jewish pawnbroker Issachar ben Solomon to get money for her lover, Manuel d'Orsini, to pay his gambling debts. But The Count of Arestino discovered this and had her thrown into the convent, while Manuel and the bandit Stephano go to Issachar's house, where they fight a duel, so that when the police come they find blood on Issachar's floor and accuse him of sacrificing Christian children children and hand him over to the Inquisition. Meanwhile, Wagner has been thrown into prison and is about to be executed and Nisida has been captured by Stephano, who was carrying her off when their ship was ship-wrecked on a desert island. Just before the execution, Wagner turns into a wolf, scares everyone, and escapes. Then he hears that Nisida has been carried off and then ship-wrecked, so he goes searching for her, runs into a storm, and gets ship-wrecked on--you guessed it--the same island. Of course, this is because the Devil has diverted his ship so that he could tempt him as he did Faust (from whom Wagner got his lycanthropy), but Wagner resists so an angel appears who sends him to the Rosicrucians. You got that? Anyway, Nisida is rescued by the Grand Vizier, who is really Alessandro, and returns to Florence, as does Wagner in a boat conveniently abandoned by the Turks. Meanwhile, at least three of the main characters are in the hands of the Inquisition, Nisida is still plotting against Flora, the Turkish army is at the gates of the city, and things are generally heating up.

Never let it be said that the plot lags. The writing is florid, but not overly so. Many, but not all, of characters are one-dimensional--but then with this many characters, that's hard to avoid. Those who prefer clean-cut "Campbellian" prose will not find this their cup of tea, but for students of the Gothic horror novel, it's a must-read.

To order Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf from amazon.com, click here.


THE ORIENTAL CASEBOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Theodore Riccardi:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/21/2005]

Of the Sherlockian Canon, all are told by Watson except for three stories. "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" and "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" are told with Holmes as the first-person narrator, and "His Last Bow" is told by an anonymous third-person narrator. All three seem awkward because of this; the reader desperately wishes for the "comfort" of the Watsonian narration. Theodore Riccardi's THE ORIENTAL CASEBOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (ISBN 1-4000-6065-6) is a collection of stories set during the Great Hiatus (the three-year period when Holmes was presumed dead, but was actually traveling in the East). So Watson was not present during any of these cases. But Riccardi mostly avoids the problem of Holmes recounting the story as a first-person narrative by having Watson write most of the stories after Holmes tells it to him. It sounds clumsy when one describes it that way, but it is not in execution. The book is weakest when he falls back on first-person Holmesian narrative. There are also more coincidences than I'm entirely comfortable with, and given how many people seem to know that Holmes is still alive, it's amazing that word did not get back to Watson.

To order The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes from amazon.com, click here.


UNTANGLING MY CHOPSTICKS by Victoria Abbott Riccardi:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/10/2004]

Victoria Abbott Riccardi's UNTANGLING MY CHOPSTICKS (ISBN 0-7679-0852-X) is the story of the author's year in Japan learning "tea kaiseki", a very specialized cuisine style served as part of the tea ceremony. Riccardi explains the history and meaning of the tea ceremony, the various foods, the utensils and methods, and just about everything else connected with the tea ceremony, as well as a fair swath of Japanese culture as well. Recipes are included. My only complaint is that it may go into more depth about tea kaiseki than you really want to know.

To order Untangling My Chopsticks from amazon.com, click here.


CHRIST THE LORD: OUT OF EGYPT by Anne Rice:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/05/2008]

The original discussion group read CHRIST THE LORD: OUT OF EGYPT by Anne Rice (ISBN-13 978-0-345-492739, ISBN-10 0-345-49273-0), and that also seemed to have a logic problem. It is the story of Jesus, told from his point of view. This volume covers his childhood, and is written as though by a boy of ten (or so). However, as someone pointed out, it was obviously written much later, when he was older, so it should not have the "voice" of a ten-year-old. But my complaint is deeper. The premise of the book is that the tenets of Christianity are correct. This means, as I understand that Jesus is basically God. And God is omniscient. So why doesn't the young Jesus know he is the Messiah, and what is in store for him? (I'm sure that the answer that Jesus started as fully and solely human and became divine only later is some sort of heresy--possibly adoptionism.)

(In one of the more interesting typos I've seen, this meeting was listed on the library's web page schedule as discussing CHRIS THE LORD: OUT OF EGYPT.)

To order Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt from amazon.com, click here.


MY BOOKSTORE: WRITERS CELEBRATE THEIR FAVORITE PLACES TO BROWSE. READ, AND SHOP edited by Ronald Rice and Booksellers Across America:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/31/2013]

MY BOOKSTORE: WRITERS CELEBRATE THEIR FAVORITE PLACES TO BROWSE. READ, AND SHOP edited by Ronald Rice and Booksellers Across America (ISBN 978-1-57912-910-1) is the sort of book I expected to love. But every author loves their particular bookstore so much that they cannot manage to give a coherent description of it. I read the description of the Odyssey Bookshop (South Hadley, Massachusetts), a bookstore with which I am familiar, and could barely recognize it. I read the description of the Strand (New York) and were I not familiar with it, I could not have pictured it. (Actually, now that they remodeled, I probably am not picturing it anyway.) Most of the descriptions seem to be how wonderful their readings were, or the great signing they had there, not about the actual bookstore aspect of the bookstore. (In fact, other than the Strand, every bookstore description I read talked about readings and signings.) For example, the Odyssey is a wonderful store for what it is, but it is not that much larger than Amherst Books. It doesn't have the serendipitous atmosphere than the Old Book Store (in Northampton) has. What it has is a schedule of book readings and a lot of visibility. I am not criticizing the Odyssey, but I think the criteria used by the authors to choose their favorite bookstore are not the criteria a reader would use to choose their favorite bookstore.

To order My Bookstore from amazon.com, click here.


THE END OF THE ALPHABET by C. S. Richardson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/20/2008]

THE END OF THE ALPHABET by C. S. Richardson (ISBN-13 978-0-385-52255-7, ISBN-10 0-385-52255-X) was recommended to me somewhere. The premise is that Ambrose Zephyr has been told that he has a month to live, and hence decides that he and his wife Zappora Ashkenazi should travel to cities he has always wanted to visit, working his way through the alphabet, one city per letter. Unfortunately, not much comes of this other than that which would have happened with the alphabetical conceit. There is the occasional bon mot (e.g., "He was cinematically familiar with a few biblical stories."). This is also another example of a book that has done away with quotation marks as perhaps being an unnecessary expense of ink.

To order The End of the Alphabet from amazon.com, click here.


CLARA'S GRAND TOUR by Glynis Ridley:

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

CLARA'S GRAND TOUR by Glynis Ridley (ISBN 0-87113-883-2) is about Clara's travels through Europe in the 1740s and 1750s. Travel then was hard in general, but for Clara it was even harder. Clara, you see, was a three-ton rhinoceros. Brought from India by Douwemount Van der Meer, Clara became a media celebrity, the first live rhinoceros exhibited in Europe since Roman times. The discussion of the logistics of moving this creature is likely to appeal to engineers, and the effect that the existence of this fabled creature (believed by some to be the "behemoth" of the Bible) had on the populace. My major complaint about the book would be that Ridley describes a lot of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other works portraying Clara, yet includes only seven in the small section of illustrations. And Ridley repeats the claim that CLARISSA is the longest novel in the English language. At a million words, it was the longest for centuries (although I know VARNEY THE VAMPIRE, at about 900,000 words, is close, and there may well be other "penny dreadful" novels that are longer) but I would claim that Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Fire" is a single, serialized book that is considerably longer. (Ridley mentions CLARISSA because the fourth edition was revised to include a reference to the rhinoceros, which is almost definitely a reaction to Clara's tour.)

To order Clara's Grand Tour from amazon.com, click here.


GENOME by Matt Ridley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/31/2010]

Our science book discussion group chose GENOME by Matt Ridley (ISBN 978-0-060-89408-5) for last month. In it, Ridley looks at each of the human body's chromosomes, chooses one gene from it, and talks about it as a way of talking about bigger topics such as species, immortality, etc. While the various topics are well-chosen, and the approach original, the writing is awkward. For example, Ridley describes something as "rather like one of those irritating magazine articles interrupted by forty-eight advertisements" when he really means "rather like one of those magazine articles interrupted by forty-eight irritating advertisements".

Ridley claims that intelligence is going up three points per decade; is that true or are the tests just getting easier (like the New York school tests)?

Ridley also writes, "It would be absurd to argue that only Germans can understand the concept of taking pleasure at another's misfortune; and that the rest of us, not having a word for Schadenfreude, find the concept entirely foreign." There are two problems with this sentence. One, since we can perfectly clearly define Schadenfreude, we cannot say we "have no word for it"; that would be like saying that since we have no single word for "ripe banana", we "have no word for it." Obviously there are a lot of concepts that require adjectives attached to nouns, or other combinations, and no linguist would claim those concepts were therefore alien because there was no one word. But, two, we do have a word for it: Schadenfreude.

(And regarding proof-reading, why is she "Harris, Judith Rich" in the index, but referred to as "Rich Harris" in the text?)

To order Genome from amazon.com, click here.


ENGLISH GOTHIC: A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA by Jonathan Rigby (Reynolds & Hearn, 2000, 272pp, L17.95)
NIGHTWALKERS: GOTHIC HORROR MOVIES: THE MODERN ERA by Bruce Lanier Wright (Taylor, 1995, 171pp, $17.95)
BRIGHT DARKNESS: THE LOST ART OF THE SUPERNATURAL FILM by Jeremy Dyson (Cassell, 1997, 282pp, price unknown):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/06/2003]

Last year I read Jonathan Rigby's ENGLISH GOTHIC: A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA (Reynolds & Hearn, 2000, 272pp, L17.95). Then a couple of weeks ago, I read NIGHTWALKERS: GOTHIC HORROR MOVIES: THE MODERN ERA by Bruce Lanier Wright (Taylor, 1995, 171pp, $17.95). And when Mark saw me enjoying that, he said I should also read Jeremy Dyson's BRIGHT DARKNESS: THE LOST ART OF THE SUPERNATURAL FILM (Cassell, 1997, 282pp, price unknown).

The first point worth noting is that only one of these are British, which is surprising when one considers that when one talks about "Gothic horror films" or "supernatural horror films," often the studio name that first comes to mind is Hammer Films. Ironically, Dyson doesn't cover the Hammer era at all, but instead concentrates on the Universal/RKO era of the 1930s and 1940s. Wright, on the other hand, focuses on the Hammer period from 1957 to 1976 but covers American and Continental horror films as well as British, while Rigby takes an approach orthogonal to both and covers a century's worth of films, all English.

All three have one thing in common--they concentrate on the "horror film" rather than the "terror film." Their goal is not to write about slasher films, or stalker films, or psycho films, but about "supernatural" horror--horror that is based on something beyond the world we know. (Wright makes the distinction at the end between Gothic and Grand Guignol styles, saying the latter emphasizes our physical existence in this world, while the former postulates a structure of good and evil in which we move.)

On to specifics. Rigby's ENGLISH GOTHIC is a very thorough coverage of its topics, with particular value for the pre-Hammer era which tends to be ignored or skimmed over in works of this kind. Rigby does not cover every film in detail, but at least references and puts in context the films for which he doesn't give detailed plot synopses and analyses.

Wright's NIGHTWALKERS is much less thorough, even for the period it covers, though he spends a bit more time on the films he does cover in depth. And Dyson covers even fewer films, but each again in yet more depth, with entire chapters devoted to "King Kong" and "Cat People", for example.

The real problem with all of these, of course, is that after you have finished reading about a film, you'll want to pull out the DVD (or videotape) and watch it again. After reading about what Wright called "the Cornish horrors" ("The Reptile" and "Plague of the Zombies"), for example, I suggested to Mark that this would make a good Sunday afternoon double feature. Luckily, he agreed, and since it just happened to be Sunday afternoon, that was one problem solved. :-)

All three books are somewhat difficult to find in stores, though on-line booksellers have made it relatively easy on-line. If you are going to get only one of the three, ENGLISH GOTHIC is probably the best choice. BRIGHT DARKNESS is the most academic, with NIGHTWALKERS being the most "pop culture" of the three, though hardly a fluff coffee table book.

To order English Gothic from amazon.com, click here.

To order Nightwalkers from amazon.com, click here.

To order Bright Darkness from amazon.com, click here.


THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY by Amanda Ripley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/18/2014]

THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY by Amanda Ripley (ISBN 978-1-4516-5442-4) follows three exchange students in three countries that out-perform the United States on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Ripley was trying to figure out what they were doing right, and what we were doing wrong. The answer is complex--for example, almost everyone agrees that South Korea has gone overboard in its efforts. But the bottom line seems to be two-fold: 1) make education important, and 2) insist that teachers be highly qualified and trained.

The first part has many aspects. A big one is that schools in the United States spend a lot of times on things other than education--in particular, sports. Youth sports in other countries are organized by community clubs or other organizations, not in the schools. A side effect of our emphasis on sports is that we hire coaches and then have them teach classes almost as a sideline. This impacts the second part. In other countries, teachers have to be in the top of their class, have to be educated (including a full one-year internship) for six years, and have to have a degree in the field they will be teaching.

As for making education important, all these countries require students to pass stringent tests to get into university. And these are important; consider South Korea:

"On the eve of the big test, ... the younger students cleaned the classrooms for the seniors. They purged the walls of posters and even covered the flag so that test takes would be able to focus on the college entrance exam without any distractions. ... The whole country obsessed over the test. Korea Electric Power Corp. sent out crew members to check the power lines serving each of the one thousand text locations. The morning of the test, the stock market opened an hour late to keep the roads free for the more than six hundred thousand students headed to the test. Taxis gave students free rides. ... Police officers patrolled the school perimeter to discourage cars from homing their horns and distracting the students. ... During the English language listening portion of the test, ... airplanes were grounded to reduce unnecessary noise."

Compare this with the SATs in the United States, where students take much shorter tests, and take them multiple times so they can pick and choose the best score for each section to send to the colleges they apply to. The only thing that comes close to getting this sort of attention in the United States is high school football in Texas. (In high school, our chess team won all its matches, but their results were read in the morning announcements only if there was time after announcing that the junior varsity baseball team had lost to the local junior high school.)

The question of exams brings up another issue: the concept of responsibility. In these other countries, students take exams under strict conditions, get graded on them, and that is their grade. There is no "Can I retake this because I had football practice the night before?" or "Can we use the books during the test?"

To order The Smartest Kids in the World from amazon.com, click here.


YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL AND OTHER ENCOURAGEMENTS by David McCullough, Jr.:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/18/2014]

YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL AND OTHER ENCOURAGEMENTS by David McCullough, Jr. (ISBN 978-0-06-225734-5) grew out of a graduation speech given by McCullough (son of the famous author). A lot of what McCullough says addresses this attitude of "I'm special and deserve special treatment." Closely related is, "We should never let any child ever fail at anything, or get a bad grade, or suffer any consequences for mistakes." The result is that often the first time a child (now an adult) encounters negative consequences or even criticism is in college (if they are lucky), or when they hit the real world after college.

In Poland, in South Korea, in Finland, or indeed in almost any other country, students have to excel to get into college. Here they merely have to show up for classes in high school (or maybe not even that). It is not surprising that so many of them drop out of college after a year or so. In other countries, there are vocational schools and other paths for the non-college-bound.

But it is worse than that. High school graduates in other countries have a knowledge of math, of reasoning, of how to analyze problems, of how to organize their thoughts and communicate them. All too often, high school graduates here have none of these. Industries looking for factory workers say that high school graduates are not trained enough in even these skills for the jobs that are now available.

To order You Are Not Special from amazon.com, click here.


THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY by Amanda Ripley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/18/2014]

THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY by Amanda Ripley (ISBN 978-1-4516-5442-4) follows three exchange students in three countries that out-perform the United States on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Ripley was trying to figure out what they were doing right, and what we were doing wrong. The answer is complex--for example, almost everyone agrees that South Korea has gone overboard in its efforts. But the bottom line seems to be two-fold: 1) make education important, and 2) insist that teachers be highly qualified and trained.

The first part has many aspects. A big one is that schools in the United States spend a lot of times on things other than education--in particular, sports. Youth sports in other countries are organized by community clubs or other organizations, not in the schools. A side effect of our emphasis on sports is that we hire coaches and then have them teach classes almost as a sideline. This impacts the second part. In other countries, teachers have to be in the top of their class, have to be educated (including a full one-year internship) for six years, and have to have a degree in the field they will be teaching.

As for making education important, all these countries require students to pass stringent tests to get into university. And these are important; consider South Korea:

"On the eve of the big test, ... the younger students cleaned the classrooms for the seniors. They purged the walls of posters and even covered the flag so that test takes would be able to focus on the college entrance exam without any distractions. ... The whole country obsessed over the test. Korea Electric Power Corp. sent out crew members to check the power lines serving each of the one thousand text locations. The morning of the test, the stock market opened an hour late to keep the roads free for the more than six hundred thousand students headed to the test. Taxis gave students free rides. ... Police officers patrolled the school perimeter to discourage cars from homing their horns and distracting the students. ... During the English language listening portion of the test, ... airplanes were grounded to reduce unnecessary noise."

Compare this with the SATs in the United States, where students take much shorter tests, and take them multiple times so they can pick and choose the best score for each section to send to the colleges they apply to. The only thing that comes close to getting this sort of attention in the United States is high school football in Texas. (In high school, our chess team won all its matches, but their results were read in the morning announcements only if there was time after announcing that the junior varsity baseball team had lost to the local junior high school.)

The question of exams brings up another issue: the concept of responsibility. In these other countries, students take exams under strict conditions, get graded on them, and that is their grade. There is no "Can I retake this because I had football practice the night before?" or "Can we use the books during the test?"

To order The Smartest Kids in the World from amazon.com, click here.


PACKING FOR MARS: THE CURIOUS SCIENCE OF LIFE IN THE VOID by Mary Roach:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/08/2011]

PACKING FOR MARS: THE CURIOUS SCIENCE OF LIFE IN THE VOID by Mary Roach (978-0-393-06847-1) looks at the nitty-gritty details of space travel: space sickness, body odor, elimination, and so on. The most memorable passage is the one in which Roach talks to Jon Clark about the Columbia disaster and what happened to the astronauts in it.

As Roach tells it, "At one point Clark handed me an STS-107 mission patch, like the one the Columbia astronauts had worn on their suits. I thanked him and set it down on the desk. It seemed like a good time to ask about his work on the Columbia investigation. ... 'We had some very unusual injury patterns that were not explainable by anything that we are accustomed to.' Clark said. ... 'We know how people break apart,' Clark continued. 'They break on joint lines. ... But this wasn't like that. It was like they were severed, but it wasn't from some structure cutting them up.' He spoke in a flat, quiet manner that reminded me of Agent Mulder from THE X-FILES. 'And it couldn't have been a blast injury, because you have to have an atmosphere to propagate a blast.' I was looking at the Columbia patch. The seven crew members' last names were stitched around the perimeter: MCCOOL RAMON ANDERSON HUSBAND BROWN CLARK CHAWLA. Clark. Something clicked in my head. When I had first arrived on Devon Island, I'd heard that the spouse of one of the Columbia astronauts would be here. Laurel Clark was Jon's wife, I now realized. I didn't know whether to say something, or what that something would or should be. The moment passed, and Clark kept talking."

To order Packing for Mars from amazon.com, click here.


COUNTERFEIT WORLDS: PHILIP K. DICK ON FILM by Brian J. Robb:

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

COUNTERFEIT WORLDS: PHILIP K. DICK ON FILM by Brian J. Robb (ISBN 978-1-8402-3968-3) covers all the films based on Dick's works, including films that never got all the way through the film-making process. The only problem is that there are a lot of books about Dick's films, and unless you are researching them particularly, you probably do not want to read them all. (And if you are, you are probably looking for primary sources anyway.) I can say it seems more comprehensive than many others I have seen.

To order Counterfeit Worlds from amazon.com, click here.


THE ERASERS by Alain Robbe-Grillet:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/20/2012]

THE ERASERS by Alain Robbe-Grillet (ISBN 978-0-8021-5086-8) was a book I had been seeking for a while. It was on the syllabus for "The International Legacy of Jorge Luis Borges", a course I "took" in 2010 in the sense of reading all the works on the syllabus and writing about them (see ). But there were a few works that I was unable to find easily, and since there was no time limit, I figured I would just wait until I could find them used rather than spend a lot of money ordering them on-line, and so gradually I have filled in the gaps. And finally THE ERASERS showed up. One reason it is hard to find is that it is Robbe-Grillet's first novel and not considered among his best works. (I would not know--I have not read anything else by him.)

But it definitely has Borgesian elements. The main character, Wallas, is trying to find his way to the police station, but the streets of the town seem to be like a labyrinth, or more precisely, but less Borgesian, a maze. (In Spanish, "laberinto" covers both terms, which is not surprising, given that while "labyrinth" is from Greek through Latin, "maze" is from Middle English and would not appear in Spanish.)

For example, on page 43, "the other riders informed him, with some difficulty, of the stop nearest this Rue des Arpenteurs, of whose existence most of them seemed quite unaware; someone even said that it was not in this direction at all." On page 49, he leaves the Boulevard Circulaire, but when he crosses the street to turn right in a new direction, "he reads with even more surprise the words 'Boulevard Circulaire' on the building at the corner. He turns back, disconcerted. He cannot have been walking in a circle, since he had gone straight ahead ever since the Rue des Arpenteurs..." (Of course, in some towns this would not be at all surprising. In Greenwich Village in Manhattan, West 4th Street crosses West 12th Street!)

And on page 80, it is even more explicit: "Wallas has returned to the square and walked around the prefecture on the right side, intending to come out onto the Boulevard Circulaire near the Rue des Arpenteurs; but he has lost his way in a labyrinth of tiny streets where the sudden turns and detours have forced him to walk much longer than was necessary."

On page 208, Robbe-Grillet adds a digression with a long description of items reflected in a mirror (one of Borges's standard tropes)--and one of the items is a statuette of a blind man.

There is a scene where Wallas is supposed to meet someone at the train station "between the telephone booths and the snack bar." He arrives and sees "the chromium-plated stand ... where a man in a white apron was selling sandwiches and soda pop." He waits here, but just as he is going to give up, the other person appears. "He had been waiting at the other end of the hall, where the real snack bar and a whole row of telephone booths [were]." Somehow the telephone booths and snack bar where Wallas had been waiting seemed to me like the "hronir" (copies) in "Tlsöon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"--copies get less and less accurate.

There are also the ambiguities of the premise: Daniel Dupont has been murdered--or was it suicide? But he is dead--or is he? Is the series of murders a terrorist plot or not? This was Robbe-Grillet's first novel, and as his career went on, his novels became more and more enigmatic and cryptic.

To order The Erasers from amazon.com, click here.


THE DRAGON'S NINE SONS by Chris Roberson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/04/2008]

THE DRAGON'S NINE SONS by Chris Roberson (ISBN-13 978-1-84415-404-6, ISBN-10 1-84415-404-X) is set in the same "Celestial Empire" alternate history universe as many of Roberson's other stories (including the Sidewise Award winner, "O One"). This universe supposes that the Chinese did not curtail their exploration in the 15th century, but went on to reach and colonize North America, and eventually expand to control almost the entire world. This story is set after Mexica has successfully broken away from the Han Empire, and during a space race/war between the two. It is sort of a "Dirty Dozen" in space (though with nine rather than twelve soldiers)--a band of misfits under death sentences sent on a suicide mission.

As the first novel Roberson has written in the series, THE DRAGON'S NINE SONS suffers from some problems that one would not have in short stories. For example, there is (to my mind) far too much fore-shadowing at the ends of chapters (e.g., "That was the intention, at any rate. As with so many things, though, the reality fell far short of the ideal."). I also have a quibble with the method required to start the Mexic engines. (Without saying too much, let me just say that while it sounds plausible in theory, the exigencies of battle might cause problems if a ship is understaffed.) Given this method, however, the "practical joke" one Han character plays is so clearly stupid that one is reminded of Damon Knight's term, "idiot plot". Indeed, there seems to be a fair amount of coincidence and contrivance in the story. The most egregious, is how the characters justify the killing of women and children in a Mexic stronghold in their plan. Perhaps the idea is that the reader should not agree with them and should see it as an example of how the military rationalizes all its actions, however immoral they may seem. (On the other hand, one character explicitly condemns an action that directly copies a decision from World War II that most people accept as necessary--and no, it's not the atomic bomb.) And one final minor complaint: the copy editor at Solaris does not seem to know the difference between "flout" and "flaunt".

The story itself has more of straight military science fiction and less of the "Celestial Empire" background than Roberson's short stories, and as such is a reasonably enjoyable read, even if not as "pure" an alternate history.

To order The Dragon's Nine Sons from amazon.com, click here.


HERE, THERE & EVERYWHERE by Chris Roberson:

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

HERE, THERE & EVERYWHERE by Chris Roberson (ISBN 1-59102-310-6) has a very odd structure. It is a series of almost self-contained incidents, but they require that the reader understand the underlying premise. This is that as a child Roxanne Bonaventure found an old woman in the woods, and that this old woman gave Roxanne a bracelet called Sofia and then disappeared. A few years later, Roxanne discovers that this bracelets lets her travel anywhere in space and time, in this timeline and in others. There are apparently some rules about the device existing only once in any given point in space-time, and about how from any present there is only one past but infinite futures. So I am a little confused as to how Roxanne seems to travel to alternate pasts and presents. I must have missed some hand-waving somewhere.

Roxanne writes at one point in her diary about "Survivor's guilt", which in the twentieth century was "said to apply to everyone from those who had lost siblings, who had weathered terrible natural catastrophes while those around them perished, to those who survived atrocities like the death camps of the Nazis and the pogroms of Post-Soviet Eastern Europe and the genocides of Africa." But then she goes on to say is this was common in ancient times--"everyone ... having seen the majority of everyone they knew die before their time." And this, she thinks, is why people in ancient times "to dare great things, ... to dream great dreams." Modern people do not recognize the fragility of life, and so are afraid to risk it. Certainly this is something to think about.

To order Here, There & Everywhere from amazon.com, click here.


"Red Hands, Black Hands" by Chris Roberson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/12/2005]

Chris Roberson, "Red Hands, Black Hands" (Asimov's Dec 04): This is part of an upcoming book of connected stories, THE CELESTIAL EMPIRE: FIRE STAR. Another part won the Sidewise last year. That one took place several hundred years ago; this one is set (probably) in the future, when China has colonized Mars. One can argue this is "less" alternate history than the earlier one, because one could presume some change in the future that would result in a Chinese colonization of Mars. Well, actually, one doesn't have to suppose much change at all from the current trend. However, the China that has colonized Mars here is Imperial China, not the People's Republic of China. (And to emphasize the alternate aspect, there is speculation by characters within the story about alternatives to their history.) I thought it more interesting as a science fiction than as an alternate history, though set in a series of stories in this timeline, it may appear better.


SCIENCE FICTION by Adam Roberts:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/06/2006]

SCIENCE FICTION by Adam Roberts (ISBN 0-415-19205-6) is in Routledge's "The New Critical Idiom" series. It seems to be attempting to be a serious academic study of science fiction, with a ten-page glossary, a six-page bibliography, sentences like "That is what these nova [*] symbolise: the linkage and coherence of intertextuality itself, the web of quotation and illusion in which all texts are located." ([*] "Nova" is Dark Suvin's coined word for "the new things that distinguish the SF tale from a conventional literature.") I would find this pose of seriousness more convincing were it not marred by poor editing (or proofreading): John Campbell is referred to as "Joseph Campbell" at least once (page 75), Isaac Asimov's "Hari Seldon" is spelled "Sheldon" every time after the first mention, and Olaf Stapledon's name is spelled "Stapleton", both in the text and in the index. (Thomas M. Disch also makes the latter error in THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF.) I would be more willing to slog through the academic language if I did not have the nagging feeling that maybe some of it is rendered incorrectly also.

To order Science Fiction from amazon.com, click here.


SWIFTLY by Adam Roberts:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/17/2009]

SWIFTLY by Adam Roberts (ISBN-13 978-0-575-08234-2, ISBN-10 0-575-08234-8) is an expansion of two stories which appeared earlier, one in a book titled "Swiftly: Stories". Alas, the expansion does not serve it well--the middle part seems unnecessarily padded and dragged out. In addition, Roberts draws not only on Swift's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (the premise is that Gulliver's account was true), but also from several other authors for concepts and images.

As one example, consider the following passage: "On the Great North Road, a great worm of humanity pulsed slowly away to the horizon, people walking, trudging, hurrying or staggering, handcarts and horse-carts, men hauling packs stacked yards high with clinking pots and rolled cloth, women carrying children, animals on tight tethers." All that is missing is the phrase "the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind."

Roberts also makes several annoying errors. He writes, "Each patch of dirt was delineated from clear glass by a hyperbolic line running from bottom left to top right, as, Bates thought, x equals y squared." (page 2) First of all, x equals y squared is parabolic, not hyperbolic. Second, it is parabolic in the wrong direction (bulging up rather than down). And third, there is a bottom half of the parabola that Bates (or Roberts) completely ignores.

Again, Roberts labels a diary enter 11 Nov [1848] and then has someone say it was Thursday. No, it was Saturday. On page 37 a character uses the term "zero-sum"; this was not coined until a hundred years later. And on page 315, a character writes, "Whilst a new Nero arose and cried aloud 'If only all Rome had but one neck...'" Sorry, but that was Caligula.

I will note that of Roberts's non-fiction book SCIENCE FICTION, I said that it needed better proofreading: John Campbell was referred to as "Joseph Campbell" at least once (page 75), Isaac Asimov's "Hari Seldon" was spelled "Sheldon" every time after the first mention, and Olaf Stapledon's name was spelled "Stapleton", both in the text and in the index. (I note that MS Word's spell checking seems to think the former is a misspelling, while the latter is not flagged.) Roberts clearly needs to find better proofreaders.

To order Swiftly from amazon.com, click here.


WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: IMAGINARY HISTORY FROM TWELVE LEADING HISTORIANS edited by Andrew Roberts:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/30/2004]

Another British book that if we're lucky will come to the United States is WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: IMAGINARY HISTORY FROM TWELVE LEADING HISTORIANS edited by Andrew Roberts (ISBN 0-297-84877-1). (Of course, there may be a title change--there has already been a series of anthologies with the name "What Might Have Been" edited by Gregory Benford.) Roberts's book is on a somewhat higher level than most, as is clear from his introduction, in which he for example, says, "The Whig and Marxist theories of history should have long ago been replaced by a more believable one, in which What Ifs can play an important role by reminding us that no route is predestined. In this view of the world, Man is a fallen, Originally Sinful being, who strives to do better than previous generations by trying to learn from them, but is ever conscious of the abysses below, and is as familiar with a knowable past as he is suspicious of plans to get to a necessarily unmappable future utopia." (The Marxist theory is the inevitable "withering away of the state" into a workers' commune, and the Whig view is of the inevitability of liberal democracy and the "Brotherhood of Man".)

The stories, alas, cover some of the more common or obvious points of divergence:

Most are well thought-out, if dry, counterfactuals. I use that term rather than "alternate histories" because the latter need to have some plot other than a dry recounting of historical (or ahistorical) events. It's not enough to say Napoleon triumphs in Russia--one must have a Russian character reacting to this, or a French character in Russia, or someone. The most current of the counterfactuals (David Frum's "The Chads Fall Off in Florida"), however, while achieving some level of characterization and hence being an actual alternate history, is either just silly or a satire, neither of which is in keeping with the rest. (Sample: "[Gore] issued an executive order the day after [his] Inaugural requiring that all proposed military operations undergo environmental review.") Upon reading the biography of David Frum, I discover that he is a former speech writer and special assistant to President George W. Bush and a well-known conservative, which explains this. But while as a stand-alone or with other less academic works this story would almost definitely have seemed clever, here it suffers by appearing to be ill thought-out. It's like being the only one in jogging clothes at a formal dinner.

To order What Might Have Been from amazon.com, click here.


THE SEVEN HILLS by John Maddox Roberts:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/10/2006]

THE SEVEN HILLS by John Maddox Roberts (ISBN 0-441-01245-0) is the middle book of a trilogy in which Carthage has defeated Rome in the First Punic War, but Rome has withdrawn to north of the Alps, regrouped, and is now returning to re-take its lands, and Carthage as well. Even though it is a middle book, it reads pretty well by itself, although since I did read the first book (HANNIBAL'S CHILDREN last year I may not be an impartial judge. I do think, though, that there are some problems with Roberts's description of Judea, which he describes as having the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The problem is that the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., the Kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E., and neither was restored in our timeline. The First Punic War was not until 264-241 B.C.E. I suppose one could argue that without a strong Rome, the Maccabee Revolt in 168 B.C.E. might have led to the restorations, but if so, that is left unexplained. Still, it is a minor point, and Roberts has lots of detail on Roman and Carthaginian customs and military matters to keep the reader interested. (Note: There are those who claim that Roberts's descriptions of the Carthaginians are based on what was written in our timeline by the Romans, their enemies, and is not really accurate.)

(Shame on Ace Books for not indicating anywhere that this is indeed a middle book of a series. Yes, it can probably be read on its own, but it is not an entirely self-contained work.)

To order The Seven Hills from amazon.com, click here.


MURDER IN THE PLACE OF ANUBIS by Lynda S. Robinson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/18/2012]

MURDER IN THE PLACE OF ANUBIS by Lynda S. Robinson (ISBN 978-0-345-38922-X) is the first in a series of mystery novels set in ancient Egypt during the reign of Tutankhamun. One might suspect that this period was chosen because Tutankhamun is about the only Pharaoh most Americans are familiar with. (Second place would be held by Rameses II, but that would get you all involved with all those Hebrew slaves.) Tutankhamun's reign was an era that has some inherent interest, though, as Egypt returns to the worship of the old gods after the brief period of monotheism under Akhenaten, and all the intrigues and in-fighting that arise from whipsawing people's religions around are present.

However, Robinson assumes her audience is fairly ignorant of ancient Egypt, and there appears one infodump passage after another. There are descriptions of furniture, descriptions of buildings, explanations of the irrigation plans, explanations how the food supply works, and so on. None is very long, but after a while, they become a bit annoying. And for all the atttempts at authenticity, it seems as though the attitudes of the people are very 20th-century. (The book was written in 1994.)

The mystery is okay, though an attempt to introduce additional suspects very late in the book seems awkward--it is Father Knox's first commandment that "the criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow."

(Yes, I know that Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, among others, have violated several of Father Knox's commandments. Nevertheless, it is not something that should be attempted by authors of lesser skill.)

MURDER IN THE PLACE OF ANUBIS is okay, though I cannot say I am eager to rush out to read any of the others in the series.

To order Murder in the Place of Anubis from amazon.com, click here.


INTRODUCING MODERNISM by Chris Rodrigues and Chris Garratt:

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

And yet another example of synchronicity: One morning I read Jeffrey Ford's Hugo-nominated "The Empire of Ice Cream", which is about synesthesia. I then went home, opened Chris Rodrigues and Chris Garratt's INTRODUCING MODERNISM (ISBN 1-84046-229-9, Totem Books) to where I had left off and two pages later in a section on how the arts relate to each other read, "Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), a proto-modernist poet, experimented with 'synaesthesia', which means translating one sense perception into another." Rodrigues also says that Baudelaire introduced the most important urban figure of Modernism, the "flaneur" or stroller. I wonder if this means that such radio shows as "The Whistler", "The Man in Black" and "The Shadow" are Modernist.

To order Introducing Modernism from amazon.com, click here.


THE MATHEMATICIAN'S SHIVA by Stuart Rojstaczer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/29/2015]

THE MATHEMATICIAN'S SHIVA by Stuart Rojstaczer (ISBN 978-0-14-312631-7) seems aimed at the same audience as David Auburn' PROOF. Both deal with brilliant mathematicians who die, possibly leaving a brilliant proof behind them--or possibly not. Both are filled with mathematicians, and non-mathematicians. THE MATHEMATICIAN'S SHIVA cranks it up a notch by adding the fact that the main characters (and most of the supporting characters) are Russian or Polish, and Jewish, and so all have back stories of oppression either during the Holocaust, or under Stalin.

In PROOF, the father's locked-up notebooks are the key. In THE MATHEMATICIAN'S SHIVA, the shiva is disrupted by people wanting to lift up floorboards to look for Rachela Karnokovitch's hidden papers, and some go so far as to try to analyze the squawks of her parrot. (Rachela spoke to it in Polish, and the mathematicians are hoping that what it learned to repat might contain clues to the proof of the Navier-Stokes Problem.)

In addition to mathematics (and meteorology), Rojstaczer covers family, academia, Stalinism, food, and even politics. For the latter, he notes, "In a country as profoundly anti-intellectual as ours [the United States] it is predictable that our leaders will do whatever they can in order not to appear smart in public. If they graduated summa cum laude from the finest university in they land, they will barely mention this achievement, give an "aw-shucks, I just drank a ton of beer and got lucky" response if asked about it, and even make a concerted effort to drop their ending g's and add a few "ain't"s into their speech as an antidote to their erudition and education." And when one politician makes a reference to a Jewish paternal grandfather, Rojstaczer writes, "Being a governor requires a myriad of skills. While great hair and teeth are a good start to a political career, an ability to pretend at least half convincingly that you have an affinity to all key ethnic groups in your state is a definite plus." (The key is "at least half convincingly"; when Hillary Cliinton claimed all four of her grandparents were immigrants, it was not very long before it was discovered that in fact only one was. Similarly, various candidates' claims to Native American heritage turn out to be considerably less than half convincing.)

To order The Mathematician's Shiva from amazon.com, click here.


YEARS OF MINUTES by Andy Rooney:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/27/2009]

YEARS OF MINUTES by Andy Rooney (ISBN-13 978-1-58648-264-0, ISBN-10 1-58648-264-5) is a selection of Rooney's "60 Minutes" talks from 1982 to 2003. I found myself agreeing with some and disagreeing with others, but every once in a while I would run across a little surprise in the form of a very dated comment.

[Note: Rooney omits what he considers are unnecessary apostrophes. I'm not going to include "[sic]" every time he does this; take this as a general "[sic]".)

For example, in 1985 he said, "Here's [a question in a report card] from the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Question number five: 'Is there something about your room youd like to see changed?' Well, yes, as a matter of fact there is. Your average room costs about $125. You could change that to half if you wanted to." The current (2009) room rate at the Century Plaza is $375.

1988: "We have cable television in our house because we get better reception with it. There are fifty-three channels, not counting the dirty ones. Now, when does anyone watch fifty-three channels? I paid $500 for a videotape recorder." Digital cable now gives you hundreds of channels, and videotape recorders cost about $80 and include a DVD player as well).

1990: "A ticket to a World Series game in the third deck is $40. A ticket in the first or second deck is $50. ... The large hot dog ... is $2.75. The small one ... is $2. A large beer is $4. A small beer is $2.75." Now tickets are $125, $150, and $225, a hot dog is $7.50, and a beer is $8.75.

1991: "My bet is that in a few years, half those Soviet states that left the union will come home." He referred to "fifteen states", which would be Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. The last I checked none of them want back in.

1998: "It looks as if we're going to bomb Iraq. Boy, I dont know about that either. Im not for starting a war but you have to figure the President knows more about what weapons Saddam Hussein's got than he's telling us. ... I still trust the President enough to believe that if we do it, we had to do it."

1999: "The Russians almost took the world out at Chernobyl in 1986. That little part of the world is practically dead." According to a recent report 48 endangered species are "thriving" there. There are 270 species of birds alone in the area.

To order Years of Minutes from amazon.com, click here.


ANGKOR by Dawn Rooney:

ANCIENT ANGKOR by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques:

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

ANGKOR by Dawn Rooney (ISBN 978-962-217-683-6) and ANCIENT ANGKOR by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques (ISBN 978-974-8225-27-5) are 2003 guidebooks to the ruins at Angkor Wat. The latter is a much fancier one and the one that all the vendors try to sell you in Cambodia. What they are selling is a pirated copy, of course, for about $6 instead of $28, but it is printed on the same sort of high-quality paper. One sign of growing prosperity, I suppose, is that the pirated books in Southeast Asia are no longer cheap copies on thin paper with bad reproduction. I got both of these used in the United States, so I could compare the quality and there is not much difference. In fact, the best way to tell is that the ISBN block on the back of the bootleg looks a little blurry.

Both books are good guides to the ruins; if you were going to get one, I think the vendors are right: Freeman and Jacques is nicer.

To order Angkor from amazon.com, click here.

To order Ancient Angkor from amazon.com, click here.


THE YEAR OF READING PROUST by Phyllis Rose:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/07/2003]

I had hoped that Phyllis Rose's THE YEAR OF READING PROUST would be more about reading Proust and less about what happened to the author during that year, but it wasn't. I was earlier disappointed in Alain De Botton's HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE. Proust may be a great author, but the books he seems to inspire are neither useful nor informative (though De Botton's is the better of the two in this regard).

To order The Year of Reading Proust from amazon.com, click here.


ALPHABETICAL by Michael Rosen:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/26/2015]

ALPHABETICAL by Michael Rosen (ISBN 978-1-848-54888-6) covers each letter of the alphabet--the history of its various forms, its pronunciation, which letters it can combine with (e.g., you can have "cl", but not "cj"), and so on, along with a longer discussion of a topic about the alphabet which starts with that letter (e.g., "C Is for Ciphers").

My two favorite topics were "D Is for Disappeared Letters" and "Z Is for Zipcodes" (which covers alphabetical order as well). There are seven letters that have disappeared from Anglo-Saxon as it became English:

Other languages have disappeared letters as well, at least of a sort. In Spanish, for example, 'ch' and 'll' were letters in their own right, recited in the alphabet and all, until 1994, which the Real Academia de Espanol declared that they were now simply sounds formed by placing two separate letters together. The 'enya' (not the singer, but 'n' with a tilde over it) is still around as its own letter (which is a bit ironic, since it was derived from a double 'n' which had been "shortened" by writing one 'n' above the other.) The 'c' with a cedilla was dropped earlier from Spanish, but Catalan and Portuguese retain it. (And apparently 'rr' was considered a separate letter in the Americas, but not in Spain.)

No one knows who invented alphabetical order (in the sense that there was a specific order to the letters), but Zenodotus was the first to use it in a library, in Ephesus in the third century B.C.E. (He also apparently invented the idea of putting the name of the author, the title, and the subject of each scroll on a tag on the end so you would not have to unroll it to find out what it was.) A couple of hundred years later, Marcus Terentius Varro catalogued Rome's public library using alphabetical order.

A couple of millennia later Melvil Dewey came up with a new cataloguing system. Unless the rise of computers and search engines, however, most people still needed to use alphabetical order to navigate the card catalog that told you where to find the particular book, author, or topic you were looking for. (Not always--I memorized early on that math was in the 510s, English literature the 810s, and American literature the 820s. But these vague locations helped only in small libraries, or sparsely populated topics.) Only fiction--and to a lesser extent biography--was left untouched. Even then, libraries started dividing fiction into "Fiction", "Mysteries", "Science Fiction", and so on, making the catalog necessary for those as well. And the Library of Congress classification system treats fiction and non-fiction alike.

Now (as I noted) search engines have made knowing alphabetical order largely unnecessary. Still, if one wishes to organize physical objects--books by author, canned goods by name, DVDs by movie title--alphabetical order seems to be the clear winner (Bill Higgins's "Chromatic Bookshelf" to the contrary notwithstanding). One still has to deal with Ace doubles, whether it is "chick peas" or "garbanzos" or "ceci beans", and those multi-movie DVD packs, but that's a whole other issue.

A quirk Rosen addresses is the two lower-case forms of some letters, in particular 'a' and 'g'. He refers to these as "one-storey" and "two-storey" versions. The lower-case 'a' and 'g' we learn to print (circles with a vertical line on the right side, which in the case of 'g' is elongated below the line and provided with a "hook") are "one-storey"; the ones we often see in print are "two-storey." (The 'g' with its two ovals in particular derives from the Garamond typeface. The 'a' has the vertical line rising above the circle and curving to form an "awning.")

My least favorite chapter might be "X" because he makes two glaring mistakes in it. He says that "x" is used for the vertical axis on a graph. That is just wrong; it is the horizontal axis, and where are all the copy editors these days? And he writes of the cross of St. Andrew (which is X-shaped rather than upright), "You can also make this use of 'X' with your arms and I'm fairly sure that I've seen a terrified gravedigger keep Dracula at bay (as played by Christopher Lee) with this 'hex sign'." Wrong again--in none of the seven films in which Christopher Lee played Dracula did this happen. For starters, Dracula does not hang around cemeteries all that much. He prefers his coffin to be above ground, where it is easier to get in and out of. In fact, I cannot remember ever seeing Christopher Lee's Dracula in a graveyard.

To order Alphabetical from amazon.com, click here.


"Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" by Benjamin Rosenbaum:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2005]

"Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" by Benjamin Rosenbaum (in the anthology ALL-STAR ZEPPELIN ADVENTURE STORIES) has a long, complicated title, and that's just a sign of what is to come. The Benjamin Rosenbaum of the title is a pseudonym for a "Plausible Fable", a.k.a. "PlausFab" (think "SciFi") writer in an alternate universe that is not a Democritan materialist one (as ours is), but one in which the world seems to have its own consciousness and purpose through the Theory of Five Causal Forms. (If I were to compare it to another work, it would be Richard Garfinkle's CELESTIAL MATTERS.) And Rosenbaum (our Rosenbaum, that is) adds another level of difference in the supremacy of the Karaite view of Judaism over the Rabbinical one. You either like this sort or stuff, or you don't, and I can't help feeling that if you don't, the addition of zeppelins won't help it. I liked it--a lot.

To order All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories from amazon.com, click here.


"True Names" by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/29/2009]

"True Names" by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (FAST FORWARD 2): This may be very good, but it is also very hard to read: "Seven star systems, a hundred interstitial brown dwarf stars, and a vast swatch of dark matter in all directions had given up their quarks to fashion the great sphere of strange-computronium around the fervid trinary black hole system at Byzantium's heart."

I will admit that Rosenbaum and Doctorow occasionally have a gem of a sentence: "All across Beebeself, it was a truth universally acknowledged that a singleton daemon in possession of sufficiently massive computation rights must be in want of a spawning filter." But I couldn't manage to read enough of this to be able to say how dense the gems are.


THE CULT OF INFORMATION by Theodore Roszak:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/09/2003]

Theodore Roszak is better known to me as a fiction writer, with his FLICKERS and the Tiptree-Award-winning MEMOIRS OF ELIZABETH FRANKENSTEIN. (He is also known to me as a writer whose name is hard to spell, since he uses "sz", while the composer Miklos Rozsa uses "zs".) Anyway, I ran across a copy of Roszak's 1986 book THE CULT OF INFORMATION, and skimmed through it. A lot of Roszak's fears--the possible misuse of information, the tendency of some to think everything can be solved by computers, and so on--have certainly been borne out. And all the amazing artificial intelligence accomplishments claimed at the time (fifteen years ago) which were touted as five, or at most ten years, away have not yet arrived.

But as with any older predictive book, there are a few statements that catch one up as just wrong (in retrospect, anyway). For example, talking about a plan Apple had to donate a computer to every school in California, Roszak wrote, "As the market for home computers sharply tapers off, . . . ." Well, if so, it was a temporary lull. Also, he talks about various schools that required the ownership of a computer for all students. (This was often a specific one--at Dartmouth, it was a Macintosh, at Clarkson, a Zenith.) Roszak finds this "a bold innovation," asking, "Has there ever been another instance of the universities making the ownership of a piece of equipment mandatory for the pursuit of learning?" Even if one doesn't include textbooks as pieces of equipment, I suspect that engineering schools usually required slide rules, and typewriters were usually de facto required.

To order The Cult of Information from amazon.com, click here.


THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA by Philip Roth:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/22/2004]

My main reading this week was Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA (ISBN 0-618-50928-3). Apparently that has been a lot of people's reading--this is probably the first alternate history to make the best-seller list since Sinclair Lewis's IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE. (If it isn't, I'm sure someone will point it out.)

For those of you who don't follow the best-seller lists, the PLOT's plot is that in 1940 a dead-locked Republican convention nominates Charles Lindbergh as their Presidential candidate, he defeats Roosevelt, and his pro-Nazi sympathies have a devastating effect on the United States. Roth claims he wrote the book in 2000, which makes some of the parallels between Lindbergh's America and that of 2004 particularly startling. (On the other hand, in any time of crisis, there will be some group that the rest of the population will choose as the scapegoat to blame.)

The book is told in the first person by a "Philip Roth" who is seven at the time of Lindbergh's election. (Apparently Roth often uses some version of himself and his family in his novels.) This "Philip Roth" is Jewish, lives in New Jersey, and has a family diverse enough in character to cover all the types Roth (the author) wants to show--the honest, the dishonest, the violent, the peaceful, and so on. Some have said that what the narrator says seems too perceptive for a seven-year-old, but one can argue that it is actually being told several years later by an older boy (or man). My objection is that the ending seems a bit forced, and the reversion to so many similarities with our own timeline seems unlikely.

Yet Roth does capture the essence, by making the reader feel as thought he or she is in that world, that these rabble-rousing speeches have been made, that people have been co-opted in relocation plans, that there are roving gangs attacking people who don't fit their idea of "Americans", and that everything that seemed secure is no longer.

However, I do have a few bones to pick with Frank Rich's review in the "New York Times". Rich describes the book by saying, "The plot of 'The Plot' belongs to a low-rent genre, 'alternate history,' in which novelists of Mr. Roth's stature rarely dwell." Well, yes, if reviewers are going to call it a low-rent genre, it's no wonder that serious novelists shy away from it. Later, however, Roth says, "By sweeping us into an alternative universe, it lets us see the world we actually inhabit from another perspective." Precisely--that is why alternate histories are meaningful, or can be when done well. The fact that many are not done well does not make the good ones any less valuable.

And a couple of weeks ago, Charles S. Harris commented on Rich's review, noting "Mr. Rich doesn't even comment on the most glaring improbability in this supposedly scrupulous alternate history book: The 1-cent Yosemite National Park stamp pictured on the cover was issued in 1934, and therefore would no longer be available to receive the swastika overprint in 1940, the crucial election year in the novel." Well, it turns out the stamp pictured on the cover (with overprint) is one that the main character (a seven-year-old budding philatelist) sees in a dream when the events begin unfolding in 1940. Obviously bothered by all the talk of the Nazis and such, he dreams that when he opens his stamp album he discovers that his George Washington stamps now have Hitler instead, and the National Parks stamps have the swastika on them. No, it isn't logical, but it is the dream of a seven-year-old, and admittedly a striking image for the cover.

To order The Plot Against America from amazon.com, click here.


"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/10/2005]

"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe (scifi.com 5/5/04) is another story I found, for some reason, unreadable. Maybe my age is starting to show or something, but a lot of "cutting-edge" fiction seems more like "the death of a thousand cuts" to me.


EVERYTHING I KNOW I LEARNED FROM TV: PHILOSOPHY FOR THE UNREPENTANT COUCH POTATO by Marc Rowlands:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/22/2011]

EVERYTHING I KNOW I LEARNED FROM TV: PHILOSOPHY FOR THE UNREPENTANT COUCH POTATO by Marc Rowlands (ISBN 978-0-091-89835-9) covers philosophy as expressed in:

My problem was that the only one of these I had watched in its entirety was "The Sopranos". I had seen the first three seasons of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", the Halloween shows of "The Simpsons", and two or three episodes of "Seinfeld" when we were in a hotel room with nothing else to watch. The result was that most of the examples and comparisons that Rowlands makes go right past me. But if you have watched all these shows, maybe you will get more out of this than I did.

To order Everything I Know I Learned from TV from amazon.com, click here.


HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX by J. K. Rowling:

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

I finally got to HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX by J. K. Rowling (ISBN 0-439-35807-8). Each "Harry Potter" book covers one year, starting with Harry at ten years old (if I recall correctly). I'm not sure whether the initial idea was that readers would read the first one at age ten, the next at age eleven, and so on, and I don't remember the earlier books that well, but it does seem that the vocabulary in the fifth book is more advanced than the earlier ones, with words like "frisson" and "acerbity". (amazon.com lists the reading level for all the books at ages 9 through 12, but since that is just a lower threshold, that is not much of a clue.)

Also, I know they claim not to be re-editing the books for American audiences, but in chapter 12, when they are making the potion in Snapes's class, the American edition uses the term "counter-clockwise" rather than "widdershins" (or even "anti-clockwise").

After five books, I am beginning to wonder: if students start when they are ten years old, and we hear about their entire day and class schedule, when do they learn anything like mathematics, reading, or spelling (the orthographic kind, not the hermeneutic)? (I would ask about things like history or geography, but that would be considered "muggle stuff", and a lot of their courses could be considered science.) And why do all the wizards celebrate Christmas and Easter?

For reasons too complicated to go in to, I listened to the first two-thirds or so on CD, then finished the book by reading it. The two provided very different experiences--listening forces one to go at the performer's pace, which makes for a more intense experience than quickly skimming over parts. Or possibly it was the content itself, because a lot of this book is considerably "darker" than the earlier books, or even the final part of this book. Listening to descriptions of humiliation and child abuse provides a very different experience than reading about "spell-o-tape" and Quidditch.

To order Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix from amazon.com, click here.


THE HACKER AND THE ANTS by Rudy Rucker:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/07/2011]

THE HACKER AND THE ANTS by Rudy Rucker (ISBN 978-0-380-71844-3) was the September selection of our science fiction discussion group. This is an example of why I am not keen on more current hard science fiction. Science fiction from the Golden Age may do a lot of hand-waving with the science, but it is not a problem. For example, when in Isaac Asimov's robot stories, he says that the robot has a "positronic brain." He doesn't try to explain what a positronic brain is, or how one builds it, or why it makes the robots so powerful. It is just a given and the story goes on from there. But in THE HACKER AND THE ANTS Rucker feels obliged to provide more detail, presumably for verismilitude. Unfortunately, to me it just sounds like infodump and is something that trips me up rather than enhances the story. It is not just Rucker, of course--a lot of newer science fiction is like this.

To order The Hacker and the Ants from amazon.com, click here.


MAD PROFESSOR: THE UNCOLLECTED SHORT STORIES OF RUDY RUCKER by Rudy Rucker:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/25/2009]

MAD PROFESSOR: THE UNCOLLECTED SHORT STORIES OF RUDY RUCKER by Rudy Rucker (ISBN-13 978-1-56025-974-9, ISBN-10 1-56025-974-4) is a collection of stories that are primarily centered on mathematics. Several of the stories are co-authored with other science fiction writers; all have notes about them by Rucker. The mathematical nature of the stories means they may have a narrower audience that a more general science fiction story, but the mathematics are not overly advanced. One wonders if the subtitle is not a sly paradox: having been collected in this volume, the stories are not longer uncollected. (Or the subtitle "The Previously Uncollected Stories of Rudy Rucker" was just not as catchy.)

And a random thought: who invented alphabetical order? This is not the same as who invented alphabets, because one can have an alphabet without a specific order to it, and one could have an order without the notion of using that as a filing order. (Many early libraries had their books filed chronologically by when they were acquired.

To order Mad Professor from amazon.com, click here.


VAMPYR by David Rudkin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/24/2014]

VAMPYR by David Rudkin (ISBN 978-1-84457-073-8), on the other hand, is what I feared many of this series might be: dry, academic, and hard to read. Where Newman and Rushdie seem to be talking to the reader, Rudkin is lecturing. Following the book while watching the film did enhance our appreciation of the film, but it was more difficult due to Rudkin's use of academic jargon.

To order Vampyr from amazon.com, click here.


DISCONNECTED: HOW SIX PEOPLE FROM AT&T DISCOVERED THE NEW MEANING OF WORK IN A DOWNSIZED CORPORATE AMERICA by Barbara Rudolph:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/23/2012]

DISCONNECTED: HOW SIX PEOPLE FROM AT&T DISCOVERED THE NEW MEANING OF WORK IN A DOWNSIZED CORPORATE AMERICA by Barbara Rudolph (ISBN 978-0-684-84266-0) should have been interesting--after all, we retired in one of the downsizing phases of our spin-offs from AT&T. But although Rudolph found six diverse people who were fired from AT&T (she considers "downsized" a euphemism), she never manages to give the reader a sense of who these people are or what their life was like at AT&T. More specifically, I found her description of Larry, a Bell Labs engineer, to have very little information about what things were like at Bell Labs, or even which locations he worked at. It might be sufficient for someone outside "the Bell System", but for insiders, the data are just too skimpy. Another problem is that the book was written in 1998, before the bursting of the tech bubble, the decline of Lucent Technologies, and all the other ills of the early 21st century.

To order Disconnected from amazon.com, click here.


THE MIRAGE by Matt Ruff:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/01/2013]

THE MIRAGE by Matt Ruff (ISBN 978-0-061-97622-3) is an odd alternate history, more satire than serious. There are far too many specific reversals of the current world situation in our timeline (Baghdad rather than New York having a World Trade Center, the Muslims rather than the United States declaring a "War on Terror", and so on) for it to be taken as a serious counterfactual, and indeed many reviews have criticized it for this reason. However, if one recognizes that it is not supposed to be a completely realistic scenario, it is well-written and engaging.

To order The Mirage from amazon.com, click here.


THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/22/2005]

If you liked Arturo Perez-Reverte's THE CLUB DUMAS, you will definitely want to read Carlos Ruiz Zafón's THE SHADOW OF THE WIND (ISBN 1-59420-010-6). This is another story about the mysteries surrounding a book, set in Barcelona before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War. When Daniel was a child, his father took his to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine repository for books that have been abandoned. "When a library closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here," Daniel's father tells him. The Cemetery itself sounds like a cross between Borges's Library of Babel and the Cairo Genizah. And everyone who knows about the Cemetery chooses one book to "adopt", so there's a possible reference to Ray Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451 as well.

Daniel chooses THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Julian Carax, but he soon discovers that someone else remembers this book, and all of Carax's other books--and seeking them out to destroy all of them. There are hidden family secrets, and vicious policemen (one of whom reminded me of Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert--yet another reference), and uncanny parallels between Carax's plot and Daniel's life, and even similarities to Franz Kafka. I haven't read the original, but as far as I can tell, translator Lucia Graves (daughter of poet Robert Graves) does a very good job of keeping a mysterious atmosphere throughout. Highly recommended.

(Ruiz Zafón now lives in Los Angeles, so maybe his future books will be published here faster. THE SHADOW OF THE WIND took a while, but being on the bestseller list in Spain for over a year probably helped.)

To order The Shadow of the Wind from amazon.com, click here.


GUYS AND DOLLS by Damon Runyon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/24/2006]

Damon Runyon is a much-neglected author. Oh, lots of people have heard of him, but I suspect most of them have not read him. He is probably best known in connection with the film GUYS AND DOLLS, based on his stories. At least that is a good representation of Runyon's style. THE LEMON-DROP KID with Bob Hope is a terrible adaptation of the story of the same name. First of all, the movie has none of Runyon's distinctive cadences. And second, it completely changes the tone of the ending, turning a tear-jerker into a comedy. For a sample of Runyon's style, I'll give you the same excerpt William Kennedy quotes in his introduction to GUYS AND DOLLS (ISBN 0-14-017659-4): "He is a big heavy guy with several chins and very funny feet, which is why he is called Feet. These feet are extra large feet, even for a big guy, and Dave the Dude says Feet wears violin cases for shoes. Of course this is not true, because Feet cannot get either of his feet in a violin case, unless it is a case for a very large violin, such as a cello." If I had to describe what characterizes Runyon's writing, it would be that his narrators 1) talk in the present tense, 2) use the present progressive a lot, and 3) never use contractions. (Mark pointed out the latter when we first started talking about Runyon.) So the narrator would not say, "So we went to the race track, and whom did we see there but Dave the Dude." He would say, "So we are going to the race track, and whom are we seeing there but Dave the Dude." For a while Runyon was mostly out of print, but now he is much more available, with GUYS AND DOLLS being perhaps the best place to start.

To order Guys and Dolls from amazon.com, click here.


"Recovering Apollo 8" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2008]

"Recovering Apollo 8" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (ASIMOV'S Feb) is a finalist for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History as well as for the Hugo. The premise is that, through a slight miscalculation in the trip around the far side of the moon, Apollo 8 missed its window and was unable to return to Earth. Richard was a child at the time, and spends the rest of his life working for space exploration--and to recover the capsule and the bodies of Lovell, Borman, and Anders. (There has been much debate about whether using still-living figures in an alternate history this way is fair to them, but I notice that no one makes the same objections when it is a politician rather than an astronaut.) This is a combination of alternate history and classic space exploration science fiction--sort of the best of both worlds.


THE WIZARD OF OZ by Salman Rushdie:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/24/2014]

I recently discussed CAT PEOPLE by Kim Newman in the "BFI Film Classics" series, and it convinced me to work my way through as many of the series as our local library system had. I started with THE WIZARD OF OZ by Salman Rushdie (ISBN 978-0-85170-300-8). While not the scene-by-scene commentary that Newman's book was, it is certainly worth reading. Rushdie compares THE WIZARD OF OZ to the extravagant Bollywood films he grew up with, suggests that there is something wrong with Dorothy if what she is yearning for is the miserable, drab, poverty-stricken Kansas she started in, and concludes that the Wicked Witches are certainly more interesting than Glinda and may not be all that bad. As he notes, Munchkinland has supposedly been under the thumb of the Wicked Witch of the East, yet everyone looks healthy and happy and prosperous. (He does not treat the main problem of the Wizard: The Wizard sends Dorothy and her friends on a meaningless errand that he must know will almost certainly end in her death, pretty much just to get rid of her because she is annoying him. The argument that she had to learn a lot of platitudes by experience is hardly an excuse--do we let our children stick their hands into a fire just so they can learn from experience that fire burns?)

To order The Wizard of Oz from amazon.com, click here.


THE COLLECTED STORIES OF BERTRAND RUSSELL by Bertrand Russell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/17/2016]

I found THE COLLECTED STORIES OF BERTRAND RUSSELL (ISBN 978-0-671-21673-3) at the Bryn Mawr book sale. Who knew that Bertrand Russell wrote fiction? And even more, who knew that some of it was science fiction, and some fantasy?

Now, one can say that many of these are no more science fiction than GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, that they are satires, or allegories, or something other than science fiction or fantasy. But "The Psychoanalyst's Nightmare" has the flavor of a Robert Bloch story or a "Twilight Zone" episode, and "The Right Will Prevail" (and others) could be by any number of science fiction authors who write about politics.

Are they great science fiction? No, not really. (They are not all science fiction, but the others are not great fiction either.) In spite of Russell's credentials, his skills at writing fiction are not anything special. It seems as though these could have been written by any number of competent but undistinguished authors of the period. (Or what I think is the period--there are no copyright notices given for the individual pieces.)

There are also a few articles/essays, such as "Reading History As It Is Never Written", which is a long essay about how what most people think they know (or knew) about history is wrong. Having just re-listened to Josephine Tey's DAUGHTER OF TIME, this seemed synchronistic, and Russell did not even mention Richard III, the Covenanters, or Tonypandy.

As I say, this is nothing special, but a few are kind of fun (the previously mentioned "Psychoanalyst's Nightmare", for example). One could do worse, many of them are very short, and you can always skip the ones that do not hold your interest.

To order The Collected Stories of Bertrand Russell from amazon.com, click here.


NIGHTMARES OF EMINENT PERSONS by Bertrand Russell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/15/2011]

NIGHTMARES OF EMINENT PERSONS by Bertrand Russell (ISBN 978-0-851-24629-1) is labeled on the dust jacket as "Bertrand Russell's Latest Work of Fiction", and indeed he did have a previous volume of stories, SATAN IN THE SUBURBS. But who knew that Bertrand Russell wrote science fiction? NIGHTMARES OF EMINENT PERSONS consists of ten "nightmares" and two longer pieces. One nightmare, for instance, is "The Metaphysician's Nightmare", in which a tour of Hell includes "a particularly painful chamber inhabited solely by philosophers who have refuted Hume. These philosophers, though in Hell, have not learned wisdom. They continue to be governed by their animal propensity toward induction. But every time that they have made an induction, the next instance falsifies it. This, however, happens only during the first hundred years of their damnation. After that, they learn to expect that an induction will be falsified, and therefore it is not falsified until another century of logical torment has altered their expectation. Throughout all eternity surprise continues, but each time at a higher logical level."

[Hume argued against induction by claiming that there was no way to justify the use of induction without resorting to it in the justification. That is, any justification of induction reduces to, "Induction has always worked in the past," which is basically just using induction to justify induction. See David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, Part 3.]

Charles W. Stuart's pen-and-ink illustrations are quite elegant, and reminiscent of Virgil Finlay, but Stewart makes one major error that no one at Simon and Schuster seems to have caught: he illustration for the far future Inca civilization has a beautiful Meso-American (Aztec or Mayan) pyramid. The Incas had nothing like it.

To order Nightmares of Eminent Persons from amazon.com, click here.


THE GREAT EXPLOSION by Eric Frank Russell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/29/2015]

The science fiction discussion group will be discussing two novellas from the "Science Fiction Hall of Fame" anthologies. The first was "...And Then There Were None" by Eric Frank Russell, but I decided to read the fix-up novel of which this was a part, THE GREAT EXPLOSION (ISBN 978-0-380-00316-7).

After you have read this, you will know where "Star Trek" (the original series) got many of its ideas. Oh, they did not lift them exactly from Russell, but the idea of a sub-culture on Earth going off and settling a colony to put their beliefs into practice (e.g., "A Piece of the Action") seems to have originated with Russell. In THE GREAT EXPLOSION we have the criminal planet, the naturist planet, and so on. (As a side note--the criminal planet seems to have been populated in much the same way as Australia, but with very different results. I suppose the fact that Australia had some oversight from Britain made a difference.)

There are a couple of jarring anachronisms. Although the discovery that made the "Great Explosion" of settlement possible took place a thousand years after rockets were common, and the standard work-week was sixteen hours, that time was still spent in an office behind a desk. While sixteen-hour work-weeks are in some sense happening now (more and more jobs seem to be part-time jobs), they do not happen in an office behind a desk. Anything that can be done in an office behind a desk is outsourced or done from home (or one's local WiFi hot spot). Part-time jobs tend to be retail and service jobs, which pretty much require a presence somewhere other than an office.

And, not surprisingly for a novel written in 1962, Russell completely missed the "women's liberation" movement, so as a result his military, his spaceship crews, and his diplomatic corps are entirely male, and on planet-falls largely focused on finding local women. (He also missed that referring to people as "Asiatics" is rude--or maybe not; maybe his goal is to show the Ambassador as a bigot. One problem with reading older books is that you have a hard time interpreting linguistic clues like this.)

Oh, and everyone is fixated on smoking.

It also seems to have been poorly copy-edited: at the beginning of the book rockets have been around for a thousand years, but then four hundred years later, someone refers to Gandhi being six hundred years in their past.

This book is great fun, and a true classic. (In 1985, it won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award for libertarian science fiction.) One suspects this is the sort of science fiction the "Sad Puppies" yearn for, and one cannot argue against its appeal. (One can argue that it is in its own way as didactic and preachy as the science fiction the Sad Puppies decry, but when a story is entertaining, much is forgiven.)

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


DREAMERS OF THE DAY by Mary Doria Russell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/11/2015]

DREAMERS OF THE DAY by Mary Doria Russell (ISBN 978-0-345-48555-7) is a story set primarily in Cairo during the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. Our narrator (Agnes) is a woman who at the beginning of the novel loses her entire family to the Spanish flu and decides to take the insurance payment she receives and visit Cairo and the Middle East.

The story is part travelogue, part history, and part romance. The travelogue part is very well done--Russell gives a really good feel for Egypt in the 1920s (and for that matter, even in the 1980s when we visited). The history part is a bit too much info dump about World War I, the Spanish flu, the various characters (and politics) of the Middle East, and even dachshunds' eyes. Agnes is an average tourist who somehow manages to fall in with all the famous people who are involved in the Conference. Conveniently, her sister was a friend of T. E. Lawrence, which is part of her entree into that level of society, But her involvement definitely requires some suspension of disbelief.

In addition to info dumps, the characters are all incredibly prescient about where the decisions made at the Conference will lead. This is easy for Russell, who obviously is writing in the 21st century. And she tries to justify some of it by having her character writing from a later time period than the 1920s as well. But having other characters mention all the cities of Iraq that are so much in the news now, or having the various divisions among the Muslims recognized by as many people as they are is a bit jarring.

The last chapter is particularly awkward in this regard (with a lot of explanation of "what happened to X?" in the manner of what one sees in the end credits of historical films). It also becomes far too preachy for the rest of the novel.

Russell knows how to turn a phrase--the problem is that she does it a bit too often. Lines such as, "No one at home knows where I am or what I am doing. No one knows who or what I am, or have been, or shall be," are striking at first, but there are a bit too many such aphorisms. After a while, it seems almost like an Oscar Wilde play, with the writing seeming more crafted to be striking than to be a naturalistic accounting. This is particularly ironic since her main character hears Churchill use the phrase "blood and tears" in regard to painting and observes that clearly Churchill could recognize a good phrase and was not shy about improving and re-using it.

In spite of these flaws, I did enjoy reading DREAMERS OF THE DAY, but though mostly for the travelogue aspects.

To order Dreamers of the Day from amazon.com, click here.


"What We Found" by Geoff Ryman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/29/2012]

"What We Found" by Geoff Ryman (F&SF 09-10/11) has an interesting science fiction idea in it, but there is so much unrelated stuff around it that it seems almost an afterthought. It could be that the whole discussion of the narrator's family life in Nigeria ties into the idea, but if so, I missed it.


WHEN IT CHANGED edited by Heoff Ryman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/05/2015]

WHEN IT CHANGED edited by Geoff Ryman (ISBN 978-1-905-58319-5) is subtitled "Science Into Fiction: An Anthology", which sums up the premise of this original anthology, by which is meant an anthology of stories first published here, not (necessarily) an anthology with a completely new premise. Indeed, someone who remembers the science fiction of the 1930s and 1940s might suggest that the whole idea of science fiction was "science into fiction."

But Ryman took that far more seriously, in that he introduced authors to scientists and had them work together, with the author fashioning a story based on the scientific knowledge the scientist brought to the union.

The participation of scientists would seem to ensure a very hard science feel. But even with that firm a science basis, one can still get a story such as "Moss Witch" which is almost indistinguishable from fantasy. This is not a bad thing, however; one can claim that "Moss Witch" merely demonstrates how magical and wondrous the real world can be.

To order When It Changed from amazon.com, click here.


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