Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.

CONTACT by Carl Sagan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/05/2004]

In an attempt to get more people interested, our science fiction discussion group chose Carl Sagan's CONTACT as this month's book. It seemed like a good possibility to get readers who were not normally involved, given the familiarity of Sagan's name outside of the field of science fiction and the success of the film version. We did get three new people, but 1) they came only because they knew of Sagan as a scientist, 2) they said at the beginning they didn't like science fiction and that basically they wouldn't be coming to future meetings, and 3)they thought we would be reading the book at the meeting, rather than having read it beforehand and discussing it at the meeting. The last seems particularly strange--how could one read a 430-page book at a two-hour meeting. In any case, we didn't really build up our attendance and we all pretty much agreed that Sagan was not a very good science fiction writer. Many people found his digressions annoying, and one also pointed out that Sagan never really describes any action. For example, he leads up to the explosion, but then "cuts away" and resumes writing quite a bit after it occurs. This was a bestseller when it was published (1985), but I don't think it was highly regarded by science fiction fans then, and does not stand up well over time.

[And a follow-up]: I got a couple of comments on my comments last week on our book group's discussion of Carl Sagan's CONTACT. Mark Leeper said of the idea that we would be reading it at the meeting, "Perhaps they expected excerpts. We do call it a 'reading group' not a 'discussion group.'" Charlie Harris also said this, as well as saying of the digressions, "I'd distinguish between two types of digression: the science pedagogy--which I did not find annoying--and the routine, non-sf, not-plot-related stories involving non -central characters--which I did."

To order Contact from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2004]

J. D. Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (ISBN 0-316-76948-7) was a book that everyone but I seemed to have read, so I read it. I'm sure that in 1946 the frankness about sexuality, and the opposition to authority was quite new and arresting, especially when being read someone in its apparent target audience, teenage boys. But it's now 2004, everything in the book (and then some) has been on primetime television, and I'm a middle-aged woman. Which is a long way of saying that while I can recognize it was an important work, it did not do much for me.

To order The Catcher in the Rye from, click here.

"The Emperor's Soul" by Brandon Sanderson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/28/2013]

"The Emperor's Soul" by Brandon Sanderson (ISBN 978-1-6169-6092-6) is a very well-written fantasy, with what seems like an original idea, well-executed.

To order "The Emperor's Souls" from, click here.

WRITING EXCUSES by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Jordan Sanderson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/22/2012]

WRITING EXCUSES (SEASON 6) by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Jordan Sanderson is a podcast series. I'm not sure why it is a Related Work rather than a Fancast, or a Dramatic Presentation. Then again, it wasn't clear to me why METATROPOLIS was a Dramatic Presentation rather than a Novel (or a series of Novellas). In fact, I think all this attempt to make sure everything is eligible for a Hugo makes it almost impossible to figure out what Hugo it is eligible for. (See my comment above on WICKED GIRLS.)

INSIDE HAMMER by Jimmy Sangster:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2004]

For fans of Hammer horror films, Jimmy Sangster's INSIDE HAMMER (Reynolds & Hearn, ISBN 1-903111-20-X) is mostly a wonderfully collection of anecdotes of his life at Hammer Studios. Towards the end it does devolve into a listing of "then I worked on this film, and then they made that film", but on the whole, his comments are amusing and entertaining, if not entirely insightful and meaningful about film-making. For example, he recounts how Bray Studios was an old mansion used for storing army coats, but when the roof leaked, the coats on the [British] first floor got so heavy with water, they caused the ground floor ceiling to collapse. He is also more honest about the various folks' negative qualities, without making this a tabloid sort of book. (For those who want a more academic approach, there have been several other books about Hammer Studios.)

To order Inside Hammer from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/21/2007]

THE CASE OF THE MISSING BOOKS by Ian Sansom (ISBN-13 978-0-06-082250-7, ISBN-10 0-06-082250-3) is "A Mobile Library Mystery", which makes it sound like a later book in a series, but in fact it is the first book in a series. It is billed as "expertly comic", and I suppose of you find the notion that people who live in rural Northern Ireland act and talk as though they are brain-damaged comic, you will laugh a lot. It struck me as of the same ilk as Stella Gibbons's COLD COMFORT FARM, but not as funny.

To order The Case of the Missing Books from, click here.

STARRING T. REX! by José Luis Sanz:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/07/2003]

Another import of sorts, though published by Indiana University Press, is José Luis Sanz's STARRING T. REX! Sanz is a professor in Madrid, and the book was first published in Spain, then translated and published here. (The translation is adequate, though occasionally there is an awkward turn of phrase, and I noticed at least one "bare" where "bear" was intended.) The book is a look at how the various theories about dinosaurs reflected the sociological and philosophical climate of their times. (For example, early theories tried to fit dinosaurs into a Biblical universe.) But a large part of the book is devoted to dinosaurs in popular culture--books, movies, and even advertising. Sanz is a lover of categories, categorizing the ways dinosaurs are portrayed in fiction as "The Synchrony of Humans and Dinosaurs", The Myth of the Lost World", "Frozen Dinosaurs", "Time Travels", "Dinosaurs of the Future", and "Exodinosaurs". and in addition to the authentic dinosaurs of more recent films, there have been -paradinosauroids" (a mix of different theropods and sauropods; e.g. the Rhedosaurus in "The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms"), "sauriodinosauroids" (lizards passed off as dinosaurs; e.g., "Journey to the Center of the Earth"), "dragodinosauroids" (a man in a suit; e.g. Godzilla). (One wonders if this was the original word in Spanish, as it seems to come from the English-language phrase "to dress in drag.") It also has a lot of nifty stills and posters from movies, and illustrations from books.

To order Starring T. Rex! from, click here.

INTRODUCING MATHEMATICS by Ziauddin Sardar, Jerry Ravetz and Borin Van Loon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/20/2006]

INTRODUCING MATHEMATICS by Ziauddin Sardar, Jerry Ravetz and Borin Van Loon (ISBN 1-84046-11-3) has the same flaws that Sardar and Van Loon's INTRODUCING SCIENCE (reviewed in the 07/29/05 issue of the MT VOID) had: it spends more time criticizing Western colonialism and imperialism than introducing mathematics. I suppose that Eurocentrism and ethno-mathematics may be interesting topics, but they are not mathematics per se.

To order Introducing Mathematics from, click here.

INTRODUCING SCIENCE by Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/29/2005]

Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon's INTRODUCING SCIENCE (ISBN 1-84066-358-9) is another book in the "Introducing" series that did not live up to expectations, because it didn't introduce science, but instead introduced philosophies of science. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but when one is expecting an overview of science and the scientific method and instead get a comparison of the different philosophical attitudes toward science--what it is, how it is done, what is permissible, and so on--in different cultures, it is a bit jarring. Had it been called INTRODUCING PHILOSOPHIES OF SCIENCE, I might have been more positive towards it. But it is ironic that on one page the authors decry the Western attitude that only Western science is important and on the next say that nothing happened in science between the Greeks and the Renaissance! And when on page 101, they explain that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is "ethnocentric and racist", I decided that even as an explication of different philosophies, it left a lot to be desired. Then again, I suppose that the authors may have an explanation for this when they claim that "both claiming and maximizing cultural neutrality is itself a specific Western cultural value."

To order Introducing Science from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/27/2016]

WHEN GENERAL GRANT EXPELLED THE JEWS by Jonathan D. Sarna (ISBN 978-0-8052-4279-9) is an examination of General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews from the area of Tennessee under Grant's control. Because of poor communication within the area, and Lincoln's contravention of it within a couple of weeks (as soon as he heard of it), it had only limited enforcement.

More interesting is Sarna's discussion of what happened after. There is certainly evidence that Grant regretted his action, often apologizing to Jewish groups even when they had not brought the issue up (although one might argue that it was the six-hundred-pound gorilla in the room in any case). But Sarna cites many occasions when Grant chose Jews for various government positions, spoke out against persecutions of Jews overseas, and in general did more to promote recognition of Jews as full citizens in the United States and protection of Jews from persecution everywhere.

(It is worth noting that until the Civil War, all military chaplains had to be ordained in a Christian faith. And the National Reform Association attempted to introduce language into the Constitution from the time of the Civil War until the early 1900s declaring the United States a Christian nation with "allegiance to Jesus Christ.")

But as proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same, I will quote Abraham Lincoln, "To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners."

To order When General Grant Expelled the Jews from, click here.

THE AFRIKA REICH by Guy Saville:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/02/2012]

THE AFRIKA REICH by Guy Saville (ISBN 978-1-444-71065-6) is an alternate history in which Germany won World War II, but unlike most such novels, it is set in Africa rather than Europe or the United States. This is somewhat counteracted by the fact that almost all the characters in it are European or American, with minimal participation by actual Africans.

There are other problems as well. This is the first book of a series (a trilogy? who knows? in his "Author's Note", Saville refers only to "subsequent books"). And though it seems very well researched, the pacing is strictly from Saturday matinee serials. Example (a bit of a spoiler, but it happens early on): our hero is trying to escape in a plane. He is running after it as it taxis. He cannot make it and sees the plane pull away. End of chapter. Beginning of next chapter. The plane slows, turns around, and comes back for him. This sort of thing happens over and over, along with a couple of other tricks from the serials, and it really undercuts the somber tone of the novel.

To order The Afrika Reich from, click here.

LORD PETER by Dorothy L. Sayers:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/14/2005]

Dorothy L. Sayers's LORD PETER (ISBN 0-060-91380-0) is a collection of all Sayers's short stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. I'm not a big Wimsey fan--I guess the whole upper-class thing does not work for me, and she seems to feature less of the puzzle aspect than, say, Agatha Christie. However, I enjoyed the short stories more than her novels, maybe because of necessity they have a higher proportion of puzzle and less of the setting than the novels.

To order Lord Peter from, click here.

THE SONG OF ROLAND translated by Dorothy L. Sayers:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/29/2006]

THE SONG OF ROLAND, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers (ISBN 0-140-44075-5), is a classic, and also a classic example of messing around with history. On 15 August 778 the rear-guard of Charlemagne's army was killed in the Pyrenees by a small party of Basque marauders. There were a couple of contemporary reports of this, then nothing until around the end of the 11th century. At that point, right about the time of the First Crusade (1096), the story re-surfaced, with Charlemagne 200 years old rather than the more accurate 38, and with the Saracens rather than the Basques who attack. Oh, and there are about 100,000 of them rather than just a small party (now against 20,000 French). Regarding this tendency toward "historical adjustment", Sayers writes of one character: "[The] historical prototype [of Richard the Old] is Richard I of Normandy, who lived (943-996) later than Charlemagne's time, but has been attracted into the Carolingian cycle by the natural tendency of epic to accumulate famous names regardless of chronology." The whole story has become the Cross versus the Crescent, with Muslims willing to see their own sons killed as hostages in order to defeat the Christians.

The problem (for me, at least) is that Roland appears to refuse to blow his horn and call for reinforcements out of sheer cussedness. He has decided that it is nobler to fight while out-numbered five-to-one than to call for reinforcements, and besides, being Christians of course they will defeat the "paynims". That does not make him a hero--it makes him a dolt. (The latter attitude--that the French are a match for any foreign force--has gotten France into a lot of trouble since then, of course.)

Even the poem acknowledges this. After most of the battle, when there are sixty Frenchmen left and 96,000 Saracens [Lines 1685-1689], Roland cries, "Why aren't you here, O friend and Emperour?/Oliver, brother, what way is to be found?/How send him news of what is come about?" [Lines 1697-1699] And Oliver suddenly does his own about-face as well, saying, "And how should I know how?/I'd rather die than we should lose renown." [Lines 1700-1701] Oliver then goes on to say, in effect, "Look, if you had blown the horn when it might have done some good, that would have been one thing. But now you've lost the battle and are just trying to save yourself." But the Archbishop convinces Roland to blow his horn anyway so that Charlemagne can exact vengeance on the Saracens. Bleh.

If you are looking for early racial stereotypes, how about this description of Ethiopian warriors: "As black as ink from head to foot their hides are,/With nothing white about them but their grinders." (Note the use of "hides" rather than "skins", in addition to the actual description.) And of course, when the French defeat the SaracensMuslims), "Some thousand French search the whole town [of Saragossa], to spy/Synagogues out and mosques and heathen shrines./With heavy hammers and with mallets of iron/They smash the idols, the images they smite." [Lines 3662-3664] So we learn two things from this. One, even though the Jews were not involved in the battle, they get persecuted afterwards. And, two, whoever wrote the "Song of Roland" was seriously confused--synagogues and mosques are notable for their lack of images and idols; those are found almost entirely in Catholic churches. Oh, and afterward, any "Paynim" who does not convert to Christianity is killed.

I do not know whether it is the translation or the original, by the way, but both the French and the Saracens seem to have a group called the "Twelve Peers". So Line 1308 says, "Of the Twelve Peers ten already are killed," then later Lines 1511-1512 say, They urge on Roland and Oliver likewise/And the Twelve Peers to flee for all their lives." In the first case, the reference is to the Saracens, in the second, to the French. It is somewhat confusing.

By the way, I just ran across a mention of Roland's Horn elsewhere a week or so previous. The 1936 version of THE MALTESE FALCON, titled SATAN MET A LADY, has the characters from THE MALTESE FALCON (with slightly changed names) chasing after Roland's Horn, supposedly stuffed with gems to keep it from ever being sounded again. Why the jewels could not just be poured out was never made clear, and in any case Roland broke the horn at the end of the battle when he killed a Saracen with it.

To order The Song of Roland from, click here.


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

Lord Peter Wimsey is a very popular amateur detective, but reading Dorothy Sayers's THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB still didn't make me put him up with Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. (Sherlock Holmes is clearly above them all, of course.) It could be that the trendy, social set that Wimsey travels in just doesn't fascinate me as it does some others. I'm not saying the book was bad, but I would place Wimsey in the second rank of English sleuths.

To order The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club from, click here.

PAST LIVES, PRESENT TENSE edited by Elizabeth Scarborough (Ace, ISBN 0-441-00649-3, 1999, 336pp, trade paperback):

This is a "shared-world anthology," for which Scarborough has provided the premise (in "Soulmates"): Tsering manages to implant the personality of his dead mate, Chime, into himself without destroying his own, creating "Dr. Chimera." The other authors then develop this idea independently of each other, each choosing a different past life to "resurrect," with Dr. Chimera and his technique running as a thread throughout.

My main problem with this book is that I have difficulty with the premise that all our personality and memories are stored in our DNA. (Jerry Oltion's story says MRNA, but Scarborough specifically says DNA, so Oltion must have gotten it wrong.) First of all, there is a bandwidth problem. Second of all, this smacks too much of Lamarckian genetics.

Given that, some of the stories are mildly entertaining. "A Rose with All Its Thorns" by Lillian Stewart Carl puts the personality of Anne Boleyn in a (female) Tudor historian at an academic conference which reminds one of Connie Willis's academic settings and characters--and performs admirably in that genre.

Not surprisingly, Nina Kiriki Hoffman produces a very strong story in "Voyage of Discovery," in which the personality of Meriwether Lewis is implanted in a young woman who has become completely uncommunicative after an accident. And Carole Nelson Douglas's "Night Owl" treats the idea a bit differently than the others.

There are, naturally, a couple of stories dealing with holy relics. And depending on your interests, you might like the Civil War themed story, or the sports one, or the author one, or one of the others. But on the whole, most of the stories seemed merely repetitive. This, of course, is a problem with commissioned anthologies, but this topic is even more restrictive than most. The best stories would stand alone, and even most of the weaker stories might pass muster if it were the only one of its premise. But putting them all together takes away any claim of originality, and just emphasizes their weaknesses.

To order Past Lives, Present Tense from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/14/2018]

CRAZY SH*T PRESIDENTS SAID: THE MOST SURPRISING, SHOCKING, AND STUPID STATEMENTS FROM GEORGE WASHINGTON TO BARACK OBAMA by Robert Schankenberg (ISBN 978-0-7624-4453-3) [asterisk as a star in original title] has quotes ranging from the familiar ("The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." [TJ]) to the unfamiliar ("[Putting] a man on the moon really is a stunt and it isn't worth that many billions." [JFK]) to the appalling ("I think one man is just as good as another so long as he's honest and decent and not a n----- or a Chinaman." [HST]).

The problem is that none of these quotes are sourced. We don't know when these men said them, or where, and as a result, not even if.

Googling, I find the Kennedy quote was from a taped conversation between Kennedy and James Webb on 09/18/63. The Truman is from a letter to Bess Truman on 06/22/11. So Kennedy's statement was in the midst of the space program, while Truman's was from a time when he had never lived outside of rural Missouri. A collection of statements, with dates, on race relations by Truman would be more informative that a few random undated statements.

To order Crazy Sh*t Presidents Said from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/05/2003]

Per Schelde's ANDROIDS, HUMANOIDS, AND OTHER SCIENCE FICTION MONSTERS is the sort of book one wants to fling against the wall--often. Schelde sees himself as a pioneer in studying science fiction film, but he gets so much wrong that one cannot really trust the rest.

(Page numbers are in brackets.)

As for his being a pioneer, Schelde claims, "There still is not a book-length study of sf movies that is not a picture book or a picture-book history." [1] (As of 1993, the date of this book, one presumes.) This just isn't so: a quick scan of our shelves shows Michael Benson's VINTAGE SF FILMS, 1896-1949; Carlos Clarens's AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM, Donald Glut's CLASSIC MOVIE MONSTERS and THE FRANKENSTEIN LEGEND, Douglas Menville's THE HISTORY OF THE SCIENCE FICTION FILM, and Bill Warren's KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES. (In spite of the title, Clarens is not a picture-book history, and covers many of the same films that Schelde covers as science fiction.) While it's true that most such books have focuses on subsets of science fiction, one can fairly claim the Schelde does the same.

When Schelde attempts to define "sf" ("Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"), he says, "Movies about the future are by definition sf because they more often than not focus on science and technology." [27] "More often than not" does not justify including the entire range as science fiction.

He also gets movie plot details wrong--or in the case when he claims ON THE BEACH has a tidal wave [58], more than just a detail wrong. He seems to think that the Creature in Frankenstein rapes the little girl [46] when it's clear from the uncut version--and much discussed in the literature--that he does not. He calls the town where INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS takes place "Santa Mara" instead of "Santa Mira" [98]; he calls the character "Harry Jekyll" instead of "Henry Jekyll" [47]. He refers to THE THING as being directed by "Christian Nyby, alias Howard Hawks" [92] but Howard Hawks was not an alias for Christian Nyby. (Maybe this was intended flippantly, but it didn't come across that way. and he repeats the claim in the index.) He quotes Zellerby in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED as saying, "They are one mind to the 12th pi." [108] It should be "They are one mind to the 12th power."

Schelde notes that "sf science is almost invariably disastrous" [43]. Well, if it weren't, there wouldn't be much of a plot, would there? That's the inherent problem with all fictional portrayals--there must be conflict. So there are no films about happy families in suburbia without problems, inventors whose inventions work perfectly and cause no distress, or explorers who climb a lost plateau and find nothing special.

To order Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters from, click here.


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

The most fascinating part of Bob Schieffer's THIS JUST IN: WHAT I COULDN'T TELL YOU ON TV (ISBN 0-399-14971-6) are his stories of how the Nixon White House brought pressure on the news media (especially television) to present a more favorable view. His comments on the evolution of party conventions is also particularly timely, but a lot is autobiographical information that is not of general interest.

To order This Just In from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/18/2006]

Along similar lines is CHEATS, CHARLATANS, AND CHICANERY by Andreas Schroeder (ISBN 0-7710-7953-2), a sequel to SCAMS, SCANDALS, AND SKULDUGGERY. I have not seen the first book, but CHEATS, CHARLATANS, AND CHICANERY covers such capers as the "discovery" of the Tasaday tribe in Philippines, the question of just who actually got to the North Pole first, a nineteenth century plan to rotate Manhattan Island to keep it from sinking, and the writing of NAKED CAME THE STRANGER. (Whether you remember the latter scam will definitely give people a clue as to your age. I do.) This is a much more light-hearted look at scams than such books as Charles Mackay's EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS & THE MADNESS OF CROWDS (see below). It is true that much of what Mackay covers, such as the Great Tulip Craze, could not be considered a scam, but there is a similar psychology between that and many of the scams in CHEATS, CHARLATANS, AND CHICANERY. I would recommend either of Schroeder's books, but also Mackay's.

(As proof that hoaxes are notoriously difficult to pin down, For example, Boese claims that the story of the "Manhattan Island rotation hoax" is itself a hoax, and that someone who investigated it found no mention of it until over forty years after it supposedly happened. Both he and Schroeder agree that the Tasady were a hoax, but the Columbia Encyclopedia and Wikipedia seem to think they were real.)

To order Cheats, Charlatans, and Chicanery from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/04/2005]

While I was looked for MATH CURSE, I ran across the "Time Warp Trio" books by the same duo. Most of them have the trio traveling into the past or future, but IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith (ISBN 0-670-88596-7, eighth in the series) has them ending up in Greek mythology. (They do realize it's not history, at least.) SAM SAMURAI (ISBN 0-670-89915-1, tenth in the series) goes back to the Japanese Shogunate. All this is accomplished with "The Book", which is somewhat explained in SAM SAMURAI, but not very much in IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME. I assume it was explained in the first book (KNIGHTS OF THE KITCHEN TABLE, I think), so start with that one. While the "Auto-Translator" solves the language problems, the trio also has the good luck not to get killed by any of their faux pas. I was surprised at the amount of time spent explaining and giving examples of Japanese poetry, which means these books are not just lightweight adventures a la "Time Tunnel". A lot of time is spent on riddles and puzzles. but these are still a way to give children some knowledge of history and mythology.

To order It's All Greek to Me from, click here.
To order Sam Samurai from, click here.

MATH CURSE by Jon Scieszka:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/04/2005]

I saw a poster for MATH CURSE by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith (ISBN 0-670-86194-4) in a room at the Monmouth County Library. I decided I had to read it, if only to see if it was yet another attack on mathematics, a la Barbie's "Math class is hard." It's not; the "curse" is that the narrator suddenly sees everything as a math problem. For example, one page says that even physical education has math: In 1919, Babe Ruth hit 29 home runs, batted .322, and made $40,000. In 1991, the average major league baseball player hit 15 home runs, batted .275, and made $840,000. Then it asks whether Babe Ruth is <, >, or = the average modern baseball player. It even includes a variation of Russell's Paradox. Described on the cover flap as "For ages > 6 and < 99", it is probably aimed more at the lower end of that range, although not the very lowest. It doesn't strike me as a book a child would read over and over, so at $16.99, it seems more like a book one would check out of the library rather than purchase for a child, but it is a painless way to introduce math concepts.

To order Math Curse from, click here.

POEMS OF NEW YORK by Elizabeth Schmidt:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/30/2004]

Elizabeth Schmidt's POEMS OF NEW YORK sounded appealing, but suffered from a couple of problems. One, the poems' connections with New York were at times tenuous, as some seemed more about people who just happened to be in New York than about New York itself. The other problem was a bit stranger--the poems were arranged chronologically, but by the author's birth date, rather than by the date of the poem. The result is that when one reads them, one is jerked back and forward in time. (This is particularly notable when one reads a poem written in response to 9/11, and then the next one takes place years earlier.) Still, I have no complaint with the poems per se.

To order Poems of New York from, click here.

BLACK NO MORE by George S. Schuyler:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/26/2008]

BLACK NO MORE by George S. Schuyler (ISBN-13 978-0-375-75380-0, ISBN-10 0-375-75380-X) is a 1931 science fiction novel. In his introduction, Schuyler says his work is based on the researches of Dr. Yusoburo Noguchi and Bela Cati (fictitious characters, I should note). And the premise? That someone has invented a process to turn black people into white people. For some reason, the cataloging data provided does not label it science fiction, but just "Afro-Americans--Fiction" and "Human skin color--Fiction". (I never even realized that there was a separate category for "Human skin color--Fiction"!) (Schuyler was apparently a fan of science fiction--if not a science fiction fan in the "fannish" sense--and particularly liked the work of H. G. Wells. One can certainly see similarities to THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, but even more perhaps to THE INVISIBLE MAN.)

There is no little irony, I think, that in the novel Dr. Junius Crookman develops his technique in Berlin, or that Crookman explains that the (supposedly) thick lips and broad noses of Africans are merely figments of our imagination brought about by cartoonists and minstrel shows, and "on the other hand, many so-called Caucasians, particularly the Latins, Jews and South Irish, and frequently the most Nordic of peoples like the Swedes, show almost Negroid lips and noses." The novel was written a couple of years before Hitler took power, and four years before the Nuremberg Racial Laws, but one suspects that the groundwork for them was already being laid.

Schuyler is very clear on what he believes the issues are. The first questions the reporters ask Max Disher/Matthew Fisher (the first "converso") are what is his name, how did he feel, what was he going to do, and would he marry a white woman? I use the term "converso" because it seems particularly apt--the "conversos" were those Jews who converted to Christianity after the Reconquest of Spain in 1492. Even though they converted, the other Catholics decided they did not trust them or consider them true Catholics, so the concept of "Limpieza de Sangre" was invented, where everyone's genealogy was carefully examined for any trace of Jewish blood, especially when a marriage was contemplated. And in BLACK NO MORE, this idea of tracing one's ancestry also appears (although with somewhat different results).

Schuyler has his own set of prejudices, of course. (Or he is using other people's prejudices for ironic effect? But I am somewhat skeptical of this latter explanation because of the casual way they appear, as opposed to the fairly overt way he expresses white prejudices about blacks.)

For example, "He was not finding life as a white man the rosy existence he had anticipated. He was forced to conclude that it was pretty dull and that he was bored. As a boy he had been taught to look up to white folks as just a little less than gods; now he found them little different from the Negroes, except that they were uniformly less courteous and less interesting. ... There was nothing left for him except the hard, materialistic, grasping, inbred society of the whites." (pages 42-43)

And while decrying the economic loss to Negro businesses, he says regarding those providing hair straighteners or skin whiteners that while some were Negro-owned, "[they] were largely controlled by canny Hebrews." (page 62)

Schuyler is very clear on his opinion of the "separate but equal" doctrine expressed in the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson: "The economic loss to the south by the ethnic migration was considerable. Hundreds of wooden railroad coaches, long since condemned as death traps in all other parts of the country, had to be scrapped by the railroads when there were no longer any Negroes to jim crow. Thousands of railroad waiting rooms remained unused because, having been set aside for the use of Negroes, they were generally too dingy and unattractive for white folk or were no longer necessary. Thousands of miles of streets located in the former Black Belts, and thus without sewers or pavement, were having to be improved at the insistent behest of the rapidly increased white population, real and imitation. Real-estate owners who had never dreamed of making repairs on their tumble-down property when it was occupied by the docile Negroes, were having to tear down, re build and alter to suit white tenants. Shacks and drygoods boxes that had once sufficed as schools for Negro children, had now to be condemned and abandoned as unsuitable for occupation by white youth. Whereas thousands of school teachers had received thirty or forty dollars a month because of their Negro ancestry, the various cities and countries of the Southland were now forced to pay the standard salaries prevailing elsewhere." (pages 102-103)

At times, one has to remember when BLACK NO MORE was written. When a characters says that something would happen "before you could say Jack Robinson," I found myself thinking that this was also really a word play on Jackie Robinson--until I remembered that Jackie Robinson was still sixteen years in the future!

However, some lines seem prophetic. When the narrator says of Max/Matthew's thoughts, "At last he felt like an American citizen," this sounded a lot like what many blacks were saying after Barack Obama's election as President.

This novel is similar in some ways to Ray Bradbury's "Way in the Middle of the Air" from 1950 (collected as part of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES) or Douglas Turner Ward's 1960 play "Day of Absence", in which one day all the blacks disappear from a Southern town. Maybe there should be a category for "Ethnic group disappearances?-Fiction"!

To order Black No More from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/23/2016]

SHERLOCK HOLMES AMD THE PATCHWORK DEVIL by Cavan Scott (ISBN 978-1-7832-9714-6) has slightly more ratiocination than SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES, but again, is more action than Doyle's stories. I suppose this is what today's readers want, or at least what authors think today's readers want. While not steampunk, this too has a science fiction element (another common trope in current Holmes pastiches). Again, it is okay, but I think I will read the new books from this series from the library rather than purchasing them.

To order Sherlock Holmes and the Patchwork Devil from, click here.

"The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse" by John R. Searle:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/19/2014]

In "The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse", John R. Searle claims, "[We] all have no difficulty in recognizing and understanding works of fiction." In some sense this is true. For most novels, for example, we can pick up the book, read a bit, and know (somehow) that it is fiction. And we understand it in the sense that we realize that the main characters do not exist in reality, but places such as New York and people such as President Nixon do exist in reality.

But there is even more to it than that. Barring fantasy or alternate history, the New York of a novel will mostly, but not entirely, match the New York of reality. We expect St. Patrick's Cathedral, for example, to be a Neo-Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. But if the author mentions the West Lake Chinese Restaurant on 4th Street, we do not expect to go to 4th Street and actually find the West Lake Chinese Restaurant. The protagonist's apartment is another fictional location within a real setting. And we understand this.

This relates to the idea behind China Mieville's THE CITY & THE CITY, but with one city being the real New York, and the other being the fictional elements of the story. The big difference is that the inhabitants of the story (and hence the fictional New York) are aware of both the fiction and the real New York, but the inhabitants of the real New York are not aware of the fictional New York.

Except sometimes they are. Why else would hordes of tourists visit 221B Baker Street in London every year? Searle postulates another level of truth/falsity: if one says that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street, that is not true in reality, but is true in the fictional world in which Sherlock Holmes "exists." If one says, however, that Sherlock Holmes was an American, this is false. To a great extent, the idea that statements about fictional characters, locations, etc., can have a truth value is only meaningful if one specifies the fictional universe. For Sherlock Holmes it is relatively straightforward--there is a recognized canon. But if one says, "Cinderella wore a glass slipper," that is true in English-speaking countries, but not in France, because the French original talks about a fur slipper. And if one says something about "John Watson", its truth value may depend on whether one is talking about the character in the Sherlock Holmes stories, or in SO LONG, AND THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH by Douglas Adams.

But I said that for most novels, we can pick up the book, read a bit, and know (somehow) that it is fiction. Of course, one need only look at the Howard Hughes "autobiography", FORBIDDEN LOVE (HONOUR LOST), or any number of columns by Stephen Glass to realize that we can often pick up fiction and not recognize it as fiction. And even when we recognize fiction it is not necessarily because of the "illocutionary acts" in it. Some of the clues to recognizing fiction are external, for example, a certain type of book cover illustration. Others are internal, but traditional, for example, a lot of dialogue probably indicates fiction, since non-fiction cannot normally accurately recount large amounts of dialogue. One would be hard-pressed to read an individual sentence and decide whether it was in a fiction or a non-fiction work.

Searle also dismisses the notion of it being wrong to try to judge the author's intent in writing something (the intentional fallacy) by observing that the writing of fiction requires the intent to write fiction, and someone who writes something that they believe to be true, which in fact isn't, has not produced fiction. (As far as defining alternate history, there is a definite requirement that the author intended to write alternate history, not just that he gets things wrong, or that he writes a story set in his future, which future does not come to pass.)


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

I ran across the problem of induction (and other quandaries) in MIND: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION by John R. Searle (ISBN 978-0-19-515733-8), in which Searle lists ten basic conundrums about the mind (and then analyzes and discusses them):

I don't always agree with Searle's conclusions, but I find his logic fascinating. For example, in trying to justify a belief in free will, he says, "That we should have these massive experiences of freedom if there is no biological cash value to the experience seems an absurd result from an evolutionary point of view. The gap involves a major biological investment by such organisms as humans and higher animals. An enormous amount of the higher biological economy of the organism is devoted to conscious rational decision making." We spend a lot of time not just in training ourselves, but also in training our young to make good decisions, and where would all this have come from if everything is predetermined?

(Searle gives a much more detailed analysis, of course.)

To order Mind: An Introduction from, click here.

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/25/2008]

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold (ISBN-13 978-0-316-16668-3, ISBN-10 0-316-16668-5) is a fantasy, but one of those fantasies that shows up on book club and high school reading lists. The narrator is a girl who has been murdered by a serial killer; because she is dead and in heaven (?), she is an omniscient narrator. It has a sort of New Age feel to it--if the narrator is in heaven, there is no sense of God (or Jesus) in it, and the various contacts between the living and the dead are more spiritualism than religion. I wouldn't have read this had it not been picked for our book discussion group (not the science fiction one), and I cannot recommend it. (Oh, and whoever copy-edited it did not catch that the name of the Confederate diarist is "Mary Chesnut", not "Mary Chestnut".)

To order The Lovely Bones from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/05/2007]

I cannot call MASTERS OF DECEPTION by Al Seckel (ISBN-13 978-1-402-70577-9, ISBN-10 1-402-70577-8) a "must-read"--it is more of a "must-see". (Well, what else would you expect of an art book?) Seckel covers all sorts of deceptive art. There are the optical illusions (e.g. the patterns that make straight lines appear to be curved). There is anamorphic art, in which the picture can only be seen from an angle or with a curved mirror. There are metamorphoses (e.g. a long row of birds which gradually change into lizards). There are impossible objects, such as the Penrose triangle. M. C. Escher is often thought of when discussing the latter, but in fact did only three drawings along those lines: "Ascending/Descending", "Belvedere", and "Waterfall". And there are other forms, too complicated to describe. Many are three-dimensional and there is a web site <> which has videos of them viewed from various angles. But while the art is the heart of the book, the text describing and discussing them is very informative and well worth the time as well.

I will say that some of Shigeo Fukuda's work is based on a principle that we would see in our mechanical drawing class in high school: that just seeing the three "elevations" of an object (front, side, top) did not mean it was instantly understandable. For example, one can have a solid that is a circle from the front, a triangle from the side, and a square from the top. Fukuda uses this principle to create, for example, a sculpture that is a pianist when seen from the front, but a violinist when seen from the side.

(As an aside, I have often thought that this could be used as a way to make the Trinity seem less incomprehensible: three different appearances depending on one's position/situation. Somehow the Vatican has not picked up on this. Or maybe it is three different representations because they are the intersection of a single four-dimensional entity with our three-space in three different ways.)

To order Masters of Deception from, click here.

HEARTS OF IRON by Ekaterina Sedia:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/27/2012]

HEARTS OF IRON by Ekaterina Sedia (ISBN 978-1-60701-257-3) is an alternate history novel that has actual plot (i.e., something other than troop movements); actual characters; a society that exists several years after a definable change in history; a beginning, a middle, and an end, all in one volume; ... excuse me, this has me so flustered I have to go lie down for a moment.

Well, I suppose that is an exaggeration but, truly, so many alternate history novels these days either are part of a trilogy (or even longer series) rather than a self-contained story, or focus so heavily on military planning and troop movements that they completely ignore the society as a whole. Even the portrayal of civilians is mostly in terms of interacting with the military. The rest seem to be societies (usually steampunk) that have some similarity to our own, but no well-defined point of divergence from our time stream. Rather, there is a sort of hand-waving "society developed along more steampunk lines" explanation, which is to say no explanation at all. (The same is true of "everything is the same except Queen Victoria is a vampire" or "everything is the same except there is a zombie invasion.") Ironically, one finds more classical alternate histories in short fiction.

Anyway, in HEARTS OF IRON, the Decembrists succeeded in 1825, and Russia is now more advanced than it was in our time stream. The plot concerns the power struggle among Eurasia's great powers: England, Russia, and China. That Sedia chose a point of divergence not usually used (the only other example I know of is a Russian story), and that her publisher was willing to publish an alternate history not only not focused on World War II or the American Civil War, but not even on the United States, is a bright light in an often-dark landscape of alternate history.

(I do have a minor quibble. The plot involves a woman disguising herself as a man for a period of time at least a few weeks long. Sedia does the same thing every author who uses this device does--completely ignores how the woman deals with menstruation. It would be difficult enough now, with disposable hygiene products, but in 19th century Russia--even an advanced 19th century Russia--trying to conceal this from traveling companions (given the less than private accommodations of the time) would be extremely problematic. I have come to expect this from male authors, but to see it from a female author is surprising.)

To order Hearts of Iron from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/14/2008]

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Linda See (ISBN-13 978-0-812-96806-4, ISBN-10 0-812-96806-9) is yet another book that is provided with discussion questions at the back (in the trade paperback edition, anyway). It is a story told in the first person of a Chinese girl (and later woman) in the 1850s (based on the occurrence of the Taiping Rebellion as a plot element). The narrator, Lily, is joined with another girl as "old sames", a bond in some ways closer than marriage. The book follows their relationship over the years and all the changes in their lives. Not surprisingly, a lot of the book is devoted to how badly women were treated in traditional Chinese society.

There is also a lot of discussion of nu shu, an actual written Chinese language that was a secret women's language. And oddly, it was this aspect that annoyed me the most. First, See has her character say that "many nu shu characters are only italicized versions of men's characters." This is like having Julius Caesar say something was as red as a tomato. Just as Caesar never saw a tomato, the narrator of this book never saw an italic letter, or would know what the word "italicized" means.

And second, the attitude of many of the women in the book that I think we are meant to admire is anti-intellectual and anti-rational:

"Snow Flower and I had often asked how Yuziu's mother and sisters had been able to read the secret code.... Perhaps a sympathetic eunuch slipped out a letter from Yuxiu that explained everything. Or perhaps her sisters didn't know what the note said, and tossed it aside, and in its skewed state they saw and interpreted the italicized characters. ... But these are the kinds of particulars that men should care about. ... What we should carry away from Yuxiu's life is that she found a way to share what was happening beneath her happy surface life and that the gift has been passed down through countless generations to us."

One can argue that the narrator was a product of her times and all that, but I still find this attitude of "facts don't matter; what matters is how we feel about them" is a bad one to encourage. There is far too much of this today (in my opinion). Everything is subjective. What matters (we are told) is how we feel about things.

And unfortunately, this sort of thing seems to suffuse the books frequently chosen for book discussion groups. Our science fiction group avoids this, because this is not a theme that goes well with science fiction. And our general group's selections are broad enough that only a small percent are this sort of modern fiction. One hates to generalize on the basis of gender, but I will observe that the vast majority of book discussion groups are all-female, and these books seem aimed at that audience. For example, they have female narrators, female protagonists, and so on. If you did get one of these groups to do classic nineteenth century British fiction, they would choose MIDDLEMARCH over DANIEL DERONDA.

To order Snow Flower and the Secret Fan from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/28/2005]

If you think that democracy and equality has come to Afghanistan, THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL by Asne Seierstad (ISBN 0-316-73450-0) may convince you otherwise. Asne Seierstad is a journalist who spent time with an Afghani family, and in this book tells of what she saw. While the head of the family, Sultan Khan ("Sultan" is a name, not a title), is finally able to sell all sorts of books without fear of the Communists, the Taliban, or any other government group, he still rules his house as a despot. His first wife is relegated to maintaining his house in Pakistan while Khan spends his time with his young second wife--when he's not badgering the rest of his family. And he is not atypical. Afghani women may officially be freed of the burkha, but whether or not a woman wears one is still the decision of her father or husband rather than her own. They can not work as teachers or nurses--but again, only when their male "controller" allows it. (The book is copyright 2002, so presumably the experiences are from shortly before that.)

To order The Bookseller of Kabul from, click here.

DARK CITY: THE FILM NOIR by Spencer Selby:

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

I picked up DARK CITY: THE FILM NOIR by Spencer Selby (ISBN 0-89950-103-6) at a Friends of the Library book sale, mostly because it was a McFarland book and most of the McFarland books I have bought have been really well-done specialty books, focusing on subjects such as Universal horror films, Japanese science fiction films, or interviews with actors and crew from 1950s science fiction films. This one, though, was a bit of a disappointment. Half of its 250 pages are an "annotated filmography" which is really just a list with credits and plot summary such as one could easily find in the IMDB. The other half is devoted to what Selby considers the top twenty-five films noirs. I cannot really argue with his choices, but some of his analysis is either superficial or just plain wrong. (For example, in one film something turns out to be a dream sequence and Selby writes, "The psychological function which [the] dream performs is symbolic of mass functions that all subjective thrillers perform." The problem with this is that it was only at the last minute that this became a dream sequence, due to the requirements of Production Code. (This is evident even in the film itself--the dream sequence has POV shots of things the dreamer could not have seen.)

This did not completely surprise or shock me. I had always had a high opinion of McFarland, but a year or two ago I heard more about their business model. Far from being a high-class publisher of niche-market books, they are a way for people who have written books about various aspects of popular culture that would have a limited audience to reach that audience. However, they provide limited editorial assistance and pay lower royalties than most mainstream publishers. There is nothing underhanded about this--the niche market means a bigger risk and a smaller print run--but they seem less concerned in copy editing than others do.

Hey, it cost me only $2, so I cannot complain too much. And some of their publications (e.g., Tom Weaver's books of interviews, or Bill Warren's KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!) are true gems. But one cannot buy McFarland books blindly and expect all of them to have that high quality.

To order Dark City from, click here.

A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway:

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

A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway (ISBN 0-02-051960-5) is Hemingway's reminiscence of Paris in the 1920s. However, as Errol Selkirk noted in HEMINGWAY FOR BEGINNERS (ISBN 0-863-16128-6), it was not written until shortly before his death in 1961, and indeed the final editing was after his death. (The book was finally published in 1964.) So a lot of the memories are colored by intervening events: fallings-out with friends, literary successes or failures, and so on. Still, it does give a picture of what Paris was like in that era, and unlike George Orwell in DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON, Hemingway was not stuck in a restaurant kitchen washing dishes, but was hob-nobbing with the literary lights of that time. (HEMINGWAY FOR BEGINNERS gives a good summary of his life, but the artwork in it does not do as much to amplify the contents as the artwork in the books in the "Introducing" series.)

To order A Moveable Feast from, click here.

To order Hemingway for Beginners from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/17/2003]

Jai Sen's THE GOLDEN VINE is a graphic novel that assumes that Alexander the Great didn't die in trying to conquer India, but spent some time consolidating and securing his empire before heading that way. This isn't a premise that has been over-used, but there isn't enough development here for my tastes. Many people have remarked on how beautiful the gold ink is that was used, but I found it more of a distraction--between that and the shiny black, I had to keep shifting the book to avoid glare.

To order Golden Vine from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/12/2009]

I recently picked up THE LAST COW ON THE WHITE HOUSE LAWN & OTHER LITTLE-KNOWN FACTS ABOUT THE PRESIDENCY by Barbara Seuling (ISBN-10 0-385-12724-3). This was written in 1978, and falls into a category of books that might be thought of as "disposable," not because they are bad, but because they are transient, in the way an almanac is.

For example:

On the other hand, it is still true that no President has been born on the third of a month, and no president was an only child (though Franklin Roosevelt, Ford, and Clinton had no full siblings). And Obama has a number of firsts: first black President, first President whose name ends in a non-silent vowel other than 'y', first President born in Hawaii. He's also one of only three Presidents whose name starts with a vowel.

It is clear that some "little-known facts" are more permanent than others. Being the first at something is permanent, and some "last"s are (e.g., the last President who became President because he became an American citizen when the United States was created). But any book that had things like "the only Presidents to live to be 90," when life expectancies are growing each year, is destined to become outdate fairly soon.

To order The Last Cow on the White House Lawn from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/17/2012]

Going in a different direction from the Melville is IN SEARCH OF MOBY DICK: THE QUEST FOR THE WHITE WHALE by Tim Severin (ISBN 978-0-306-81045-9). Severin seems to be a latter-day Thor Heyerdahl, attempting to re-create mythic journeys such as those of Sinbad, Ulysses, Jason, the Crusaders, Marco Polo, and Genghis Khan. Where Philbrick attempts to make the human connection between Melville's novel and the real world by looking at the people whose experience heavily inspired the novel, Severin looks for the zoological connection: he is searching for a giant white whale.

To do this, Severin travels to the South Seas to interview and observe whale (and shark and manta) hunters--observing how they do what they do, and asking if they have ever seen anything like a giant white whale. Severin does cover the story of the Essex in the first two sections, and also covers Melville's own story of his time on the island of Nuku Hiva. The latter leads Severin to conclude that Melville "embellished" his own story, because he could not have spent as much time or traveled as far on the island as he claimed.

The production standards of IN SEARCH OF MOBY DICK are not up to those of IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. Severin has no index, and has various glitches (e.g., a name is asterisked on page 144, but the footnote for it does not appear until the bottom of page 147).

IN SEARCH OF MOBY DICK is more a picture of modern whaling in the South Seas than a search for Moby Dick, which actually forms a very small part of the book. It is of interest more to ethnographers and naturalists than to fans of MOBY DICK.

To order In Search of Moby Dick: The Quest for the White Whale from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/22/2008]

KLEZMER: BOOK ONE--TALES FROM THE WILD EAST by Joann Sfar (ISBN-13 978-1-59643-198-0, ISBN-10 1-59643-198-9) has the same problem (for me) that Sfar's previous book, THE RABBI'S CAT, did. Of that, I wrote, "I am beginning to think that the audience for graphic novels must be people with good eyesight--I found the cursive font large enough, but a bit ornate, and the sans-serif font a bit small." In this one, I also found that the artwork did not add much to the story for me. It appears to be done in water colors, and in a style reminiscent of Chagall. I'm not saying I dislike Chagall--I think the problem is that Chagall's style works in a full-sized painting, but not in a one-inch by three-inch panel with a speech balloon.

There is also the problem that when the characters are singing klezmer songs it only works if you know the song. (Even having enough Yiddish to understand what is being said is not enough--you need the tune as well.) In this regard, KLEZMER is similar to Azar Nafisi's READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN--if you don't have the background, you lose a lot.

What I did like about the book was the fifteen pages of notes about the book, klezmer, Israel, Judaism, and Jewishness. Some of Sfar's ideas come through in the graphic novel, but his straightforward writing about them conveys them much better.

To order Klezmer: Book One from, click here.

THE RABBI'S CAT by Joann Sfar:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/01/2006]

THE RABBI'S CAT by Joann Sfar (ISBN 0-375-42281-1) is a graphic novel about Jews in Algeria in the 1930s, told from the point of view of the rabbi's cat. I am beginning to think that the audience for graphic novels must be people with good eyesight--I found the cursive font large enough, but a bit ornate, and the sans-serif font a bit small. I am not sure who the target audience is for this, though I suspect that my library's apparent decision to file all graphic novels as "YA" is not necessarily always the right choice. This has a fair amount of religious philosophy, and also what are often referred to as "adult themes and language". In any case, I certainly would expect that its target audience would be mostly Jewish. (Joann Sfar, by the way, is a man--it is probably pronounced something like "yo-han".)

To order The Rabbi's Cat from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/15/2013]

I was watching GODS AND GENERALS the other day and noticed that among the many other advantages the Confederates had at Fredericksburg, they seemed to have used an "assembly line" approach to firing.

Earlier the film showed the nine steps involved in reloading:

At Marye's Heights, we see the front row of the Confederates firing, then handing back their rifles to the two rows behind them for reloading, and being passed a loaded rifle in return. This let the Confederates use their best marksman for all the shooting, not just a third of it, but in addition, each of the two back rows only has to go through four steps.

But my question is, am I right in that they saved even more time by not restoring the ramrod to the rifle each time? In the film they do not seem to, and that would speed reloading considerably. The back row would half-cock, handle, tear, and charge the cartridge, while the middle row would ram the cartridge, prime the rifle, and pass the rifle forward to the front row. Because the shooter was not handling the ramrod, it did not have to be "stowed" before firing.

To order the film Gods and Generals from, click here.

KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara:

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

Michael Shaara's THE KILLER ANGELS was a big hit with the "original" book discussion group--everyone thought it was wonderful. We ended up with a discussion split between the book and the Civil War itself, especially its causes.

To order The Killer Angels from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/20/2009]

The "high concept" description for THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (ISBN-13 978-0-385-34100-4) would be "84 CHARING CROSS ROAD meets FOYLE'S WAR". It is an epistolary novel between a writer in England and the members of a literary society on Guernsey shortly after World War II, with the Guernesias in the Helene Hanff role, talking about the books they have read and loved (or not), and asking her to send books they have been unable to get, and writer Juliet Ashton in the role of book dealer Frank Doel.

Shaffer and Barrows have combined all this with the Guernesias' stories of the German occupation of Guernsey during the war, as related to Ashton, and later as re-told by Ashton to her publisher and her friends. There is also a romantic sub-plot which I though completely unnecessary--aren't books and the German occupation enough?

But more of a problem with the book was that while it was good, I kept hitting spots where I found myself thinking, "This character is writing something that sounds great. In fact, it sounds just like Helene Hanff might write." And then I realized that it was reading too much like a copy of Helene Hanff. It all made me think of Hanff's comment (after reading Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES) about how she prefers non-fiction to fiction: "Wasn't anything else that intrigued me much, it was just stories. I don't like stories. ... I'm a great lover of i-was-there books." (11/09/63) It's not that any of the characters say it--it's how I felt reading this. Unlike Hanff, I do like stories, but when I was reading 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD, I felt like 'i-was-there', while with THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY I was reading a character's made-up feelings. I wanted to like this, and I did like parts of it, but I also felt I was being manipulated into it.

To order The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society from, click here.

ARROWDREAMS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF ALTERNATE CANADAS edited by Mark Shainblum and John Dupuis (Nuage Editions, ISBN 0-921-833-51-2, 1997, 191pp, trade paperback):

This is a book for a fairly small audience, but one reason I'm reviewing it is because even that audience might not hear about it. (When I looked for it in the Toronto branch of Chapters, a Canadian superstore, no one there could find it. I eventually found it in short story collections, having checked the "Canadian Interest," "Canadian Fiction," and science fiction sections.)

It is, as the subtitle suggests, an anthology of alternate history stories whose focus is on Canada: Canadian history, Canadian personalities, Canadian sensibilities. I am (I hasten to point out) not Canadian, so several of them simply went over my head.

Anthologies usually start out with their strongest story, so I can only conclude that hockey is vastly more important in Canada than any sport is in the United States, because Edo van Belkom's "Hockey's Night in Canada" did nothing for me. Nancy Kilpatrick's "Gross Island--The Movie" is not even what I would call alternate history--a movie company is filming a historical drama about an epidemic and being very inaccurate about it. There is no historical speculation going on here. (Had this appeared as a straight story somewhere else I would say it was an interesting look at the film industry, so it's not badly written, just not alternate history.)

"Health in Us" by Paula Johanson is also about an epidemic, but it is alternate history and at least competently done, if a bit short. Paul Scott's "On the Edge" is a post-apocalyptic story with the "apocalypse" being the secession of Quebec in 1995. It's barely alternate history, the more so because a secession tomorrow could result in much the same story.

Michael Skeet's "Near Enough to Home" is set in a different United States Civil War, the result of us having lost Louisiana to the British and making Canada much more a force to be reckoned with. The main game here seems to be "spot the stars," but it's not too bad.

Derryl Murphy's "Cold Ground" has Louis Riel escaping execution through black magic. If I actually knew who Louis Riel was, it might have meant more.

"Misfire" by Shane Simmons has Richthofen surviving World War I and leading Germany to greater air power than in our timeline, and this survival is attributed to a jammed gun on an airplane flown by a Canadian. This is a tenuous connection to Canada at best, and the fact is that we have no idea who shot down Richthofen in our timeline anyway. In spite of this, the speculation on the effect of Richthofen's survival makes this worth reading.

My prediction is that Jews will enjoy "The Last of the Maccabees" by Allan Weiss and Gentiles won't. It seems in many ways a sort of in-joke which reminded me of the tribe in "Joe Versus the Volcano." Not that "The Last of the Maccabees" is a humorous story, but having "Indians" wearing tzitzit and payes, and speaking Hebrew is by its very nature somewhat risible. The fact that their discoverers are from the Roman Commonwealth, and the French seem to be Buddhists just adds to the mix, and there's even more I won't tell you. (Weiss does slip at least once and have the Indians speak Yiddish instead of Hebrew.) I enjoyed this more than most of the other stories, but then it really is more an "alternate Judaism" story than an "alternate Canada" one.

"The Coming of the Jet" by Eric Choi assumes Canadian supremacy in the aerospace industry. I suppose techno-types will appreciate it, but it was only slightly above the hockey story for me. Dave Duncan's "For Want of a Nail" assumes a French victory on the Plains of Abraham an is not related to Robert Sobel's novel of the same name (which dealt with a British victory at Burgoyne).

Glenn Grant's "Thermometers Melting" takes the familiar approach of taking well-known people and looking at them in an alternate timeline. In this case Grant uses Hemingway and Trotsky, and adds an additional bonus at the end. It's a bit hard to follow at times, since it is supposedly excerpts from a longer work, but one of the better stories nonetheless.

And finally is "The Case of the Serial 'De Quebec a la Lune' by Veritatus" by Laurent McAllister (pen name for Yves Meynard and Jean-Louis Trudel). I think it is a (fake) academic article on a (non-existent) serial patterned after Jules Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" but written by a Canadian and possibly set in its own past. Are you sufficiently confused? If not, read the story and you will be. Some people like this sort of thing, which is why Connie Willis won a Hugo for "The Soul Selects Her Own Society ...," but this is so dry as to rive away all but the most confirmed academic.

Interestingly, though the final story is about a (fictional) French-language story, none of the stories in this Canadian anthology appear to have been written in French. (At any rate, I saw no translator credits.) This in itself seems to imply an alternate Canada, one in which there is no French-language science fiction. (I note that the one Quebec secession story implies a negative result.)

If you are Canadian and enjoy alternate histories, you probably want to seek out this book. For those of us south of the border (or over the seas, or for that matter west of the border in Alaska), this is probably not going to appeal to you unless you are a student of Canadian history or culture.

To order Arrowdreams from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/28/2011]

ADVENTURES IN YIDDISHLAND: POSTVERNACULAR LANGUAGE & CULTURE by Jeffrey Shandler (ISBN 0-520-24416-8) has been mentioned by Michael Chabon in an essay or two, because it takes him to task over his comments about Uriel Weinrich's SAY IT IN YIDDISH. This is a complicated chain of references, so let me explain.

In the 1950s, Dover Books published a series of phrase books for a couple of dozen languages. These were the usual travelers' phrase books, with sentences like "Where is the ticket office?" and "I would like a double room, please." In 1958, they published SAY IT IN YIDDISH edited by Uriel Weinrich (ISBN 978-0-486-20815-2), which had the same sentences as all the others. In 1997 Michael Chabon wrote about it in an essay titled "Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts". Basically, Chabon saw no practical value for the book, while many others (including Dover's president and Shandler) disagree. Shandler says that "Yiddish was widely spoken in Israel in the late 1950s, and there were substantial Yiddish-speaking communities in Paris, Montreal, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and other places."

I am in the middle here. Like Tevye, I say to Chabon, "You're right," and to Shandler, "and you're right." Yes, there were/are Yiddish-speaking communities, but if someone were visiting these communities specifically, he probably already knew Yiddish, and if he did not, the "national" language (Hebrew, French, or Spanish) would probably be more useful overall, and widely understood in these communities. That is, one can probably manage in the Yiddish-speaking section of Buenos Aires with Spanish, which would also be useful in the rest of Buenos Aires, while Yiddish would not be useful outside that community.

That said, I own a copy of SAY IT IN YIDDISH, and I did take it with me on my trip to Eastern Europe, where I found it to be of no practical use. Our conversations in synagogues and Jewish museums were in English, extremely broken Hebrew, and even in Spanish!

All this is by way of background. The main thesis of ADVENTURES IN YIDDISHLAND seems to be that Yiddish is still a living language (in the sense of having thousands of people who speak it as their first language and teach it to their children as their first language), but that it is treated by the non-Yiddish world as a dead or dying language, interesting only as flavoring for English, or as performance art, or otherwise fragmented. For example, Shandler observes that revivals of Yiddish plays are invariably advertised, introduced, and reviewed in English. This seems to be part of the definition of "postvernacularity", so in a sense Shandler seems to be doing the same thing he criticizes in others.

One "criticism" Shandler has is of the National Yiddish Book Center, of which he says, "What, after all, is the nation that the National Yiddish Book Center serves?" He continues, "the naming of the NYBC as a "national" institution breaks with a precedent set by older Yiddishist organizations, which more frequently name themselves as ... international, when they wish to articulate broadness of scope." However, I observe that the latest web pages, etc., of the National Yiddish Book Center list it as just the Yiddish Book Center.

To order Adventures in Yiddishland from, click here.

SUDDEN FICTION: AMERICAN SHORT SHORT STORIES edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/30/2009]

SUDDEN FICTION: AMERICAN SHORT SHORT STORIES edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas (ISBN-10 0-87095-265-2) is both a good idea and a bad idea. I like having a book of very short stories, because they are great for reading when I have only a few minutes. (One suspects this book has ended up in more bathrooms, proportionally, than most any other.) But it is also a book that "jumps around" so much that it is difficult for the reader to decide that their time might be better spent elsewhere. I had the constant feeling that while the story I just finished was not that good, the next one would be better. After a while, though, I decided that modern literary fiction was not my thing, and read only the authors I was interested in (e.g., Ray Bradbury, Tennessee Williams). I think that I prefer this sort of collection within the speculative fiction field.

To order Sudden Fiction from, click here.

DON JUAN IN HELL by George Bernard Shaw:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/27/2005]

DON JUAN IN HELL by George Bernard Shaw was this month's book discussion group choice. This is the middle part of Act III of MAN AND SUPERMAN (ISBN 0-140-43788-6), and is often performed as a stand-alone play. (Conversely, when MAN AND SUPERMAN is produced, this section is often left out.) Charles Harris (a member of the group as well as a correspondent to the MT VOID) said that having read Oscar Wilde's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY, he had probably had enough of the sort of aphorism that both Wilde and Shaw peppered their works with. I wondered if being an Irishman in England makes one write that sort of aphorism. We couldn't quite define what make them similar--Mark suggested that there must be axioms of metamaximetics waiting to be discovered. I also discovered that while Shaw may be a great dramatist, he is no paleontologist. On page 144 of the 1964 Penguin printing, one character says, "The megatherium, the ichthyosaurus have paced the earth with seven-league steps and hidden the day with cloud fast wings." The ichthyosaurus was more like to swim the sea with seven-league strokes. I did like the writing, aphoristic as it is at times and even though towards the end it starts to bog down.

I'll give an example of what I like, so you can judge your reaction. Don Juan tells the Devil, "Your friends are all the dullest dogs I know. They are not beautiful: they are only decorated. They are not clean: they are only shaved and starched. They are not dignified: they are only fashionably dressed. They are not educated: they are only college passmen. They are not religious: they are only pewrenters. They are not moral: they are only conventional. They are not virtuous: they are only cowardly. They are not even vicious: they are only "frail." They are not artistic: they are only lascivious. They are not prosperous: they are only rich. They are not loyal, they are only servile; not dutiful, only sheepish; not public spirited, only patriotic; not courageous, only quarrelsome; not determined, only obstinate; not masterful, only domineering; not self-controlled, only obtuse; not self-respecting, only vain; not kind, only sentimental; not social, only gregarious; not considerate, only polite; not intelligent, only opinionated; not progressive, only factious; not imaginative, only superstitious; not just, only vindictive; not generous, only propitiatory; not disciplined, only cowed; and not truthful at all: liars every one of them, to the very backbone of their souls." (This is also an example of why theater acting is much harder than film acting. The actor needs to learn this line, word for word--because on the stage, actors are not permitted to change the script at all without the writer's permission--and get it right the first time, performance after performance. No retakes, no editing, no "Can we change 'factious' to 'contrary'?")

To order Don Juan in Hell (Man and Superman) from, click here.

BLUE-EYED CHILD OF FORTUNE by Col. Robert Gould Shaw:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/12/2004]

After I saw the film GLORY fifteen years ago, I decided I wanted to read the book of Robert Gould Shaw's letters, BLUE-EYED CHILD OF FORTUNE. But because I didn't want to spend the price charged by the specialty publisher who had it in print, I started looking for a used copy. I somehow managed to miss the trade paperback edition when it came out, but I did eventually run across a used copy a year ago. (This gives you some idea how large my backlog is!) I think I'm glad I didn't buy this new. The letters are certainly of interest, but I was not happy with the footnoting. It was extensive, but was almost entirely identifying the people named in the letters (e.g., the full name of someone Shaw refers to as "Aunt Jane"), and very little commenting on events mentioned by Shaw, or giving a wider perspective when he talks about what he hopes will happen or such. I realize that was the decision of editor Russell Duncan, not to "intrude" on Shaw, but given that close to a third of the book is the footnotes I felt it could have helped. My other regret is that Shaw spent so little time writing about the 54th Massachusetts--most of the letters are before he takes command of the regiment. However, for those who want more, I recommend Luis E. Emilio's A BRAVE BLACK REGIMENT--Emilio was the highest ranking officer to survive the attack on Battery Wagner. (Contrary to what you might think from the name, Emilio was not from the American Southwest or Mexico--his parents were immigrants from Spain and he was born in Salem, Massachusetts.)

To order Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune from, click here.


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

My first question about READING THE OED: ONE MAN, ONE YEAR, 21,730 PAGES by Ammon Shea (ISBN-13 978-0-399-53398-3) is, "Just what is Shea living on while he does this?" He apparently spent eight hours a day on the reading, and there is no mention of even a part-time job. I suppose it could be that Shea's girlfriend was so inspired by his project that she agreed to support him through it, but I'm not putting money on it.

One problem with the book was that the parts about the reading of the dictionary were fairly skimpy, so Shea needed to pad it out with a sampling of words from the OED. He has previously written two books about obscure words, so it was an obvious thing to do, but it makes this more just another book about obscure words and less distinctive in its subject. (The book is about half narrative and half words.)

To order Reading the OED from, click here.

SHELF LIFE by Suzanne Strempek Shea:

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

I ran across SHELF LIFE by Suzanne Strempek Shea (ISBN 0-8070-7258-3) while I was looking for another book about life in a bookstore. I'm somewhat surprised none of my western Massachusetts friends mentioned it, because it is about the author's first year working in Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts. Shea talks not only about that bookstore, but about other notable independent bookstores, such as The Tattered Cover in Denver or the Odyssey in South Hadley. (The latter is less world-famous, but is certainly notable in the western Massachusetts area.) This book is of some interest to fans of bookstores, but of particular interest to Massachusans.

To order Shelf Life from, click here.

THE AMAZING DR. DARWIN by Charles Sheffield:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/18/2003]

Remember a few weeks ago I was talking about von Kempelen's chess-playing "Turk"? Well, Charles Sheffield's THE AMAZING DR. DARWIN talks about it in one of the six stories contained in it. These stories, which are effectively Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but with Erasmus Darwin and his friend Jacob Pool as the Holmes and Watson characters. A mystery is presented, inplying some supernatural agency, and rationalist Darwin investigates it and proves how it's all natural and rational after all--think "Adventure of the Sussex Vampire". (This isn't a real spoiler if you know anything about Darwin, or Sheffield.) The book looks padded out, with fairly large type and wide margins, but is actually about 100,000 words long. Even so, though the stories are enjoyable enough as puzzles, it's hard to justify paying a hardcover price for this. (I got my copy from the library.)

To order The Amazing Dr. Darwin from, click here.

HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD edited by Charles Sheffield:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/03/2011]

HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD edited by Charles Sheffield (ISBN 0-312-85577-X) was well-intentioned, I suppose, but the stories are disappointing. The themes seem pretty familiar. For example, consider the first three stories. Things are not what they seem ("Zap Thy Neighbor" by James P. Hogan, which at first glance seems similar to Robert Sheckley's "A Ticket to Tranai", but isn't). Power corrupts ("The Meetings of the Secret World Masters" by Geoffrey A. Landis)--though the solution seems a bit inspired by Hogan's story. (I'm sure it is a coincidence.) And changes have unexpected consequences ("Choice" by Lawrence Watt-Evans), though I am not convinced this would be the effect, since it does not seem to be going in that direction now. Unfortunately, these are the best stories. The others tend to be even more unlikely, or preachy, or both.

To order How to Save the World from, click here.

TOMORROW & TOMORROW by Charles Sheffield (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-37808-2, 1996, 368pp, trade paperback):

This is an expansion of Sheffield's novella "At the Eschaton," and deals with the life of a man and of the universe. It does this by setting up a situation in which our protagonist Drake Merlin (catchy name, that) is cryogenically preserved along with his wife, who has just died of a rare disease. The plan is that they will be revived when science has progressed enough to resurrect and cure her. However, Drake finds himself revived ahead of time to solve first one problem, then another that only he can solve, while science still has not found a cure. It's almost as if we are reading something like Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, but with a single observer throughout. There is a real sense of wonder, and of the sweep of history, and Sheffield on the whole does a good job of making this all convincing, although some events are just downright unbelievable. (For example, at one point Drake is rebuilt by creatures with no previous knowledge of human physiology.)

On the downside, Sheffield's writing tends toward the straightforward rather than the poetic, and occasionally make odd missteps. At one point he offers the following: "'Hubris,' he said, in English." I suppose "hubris" is an honorary English word, but still.... On page 183, Tom says to Drake, "Our Galaxy is being invaded by something from outside." On page 187, Drake says to Tom, "This galaxy is being--" and then stops. According to Sheffield, "Now Drake had to pause. He wanted to say 'invaded,' but that word had apparently vanished from the language." In four pages?

These are, I suppose, minor quibbles. For those who love Stapledon and such other works as John Brunner's Crucible of Time, or for anyone wanting a look at a far future vision, I recommend this book.

To order Tomorrow and Tomorrow from, click here.


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

I've read several books on thrift/cheapness/pricing lately, of which the most interesting was CHEAP: THE HIGH COST OF DISCOUNT CULTURE by Ellen Ruppel Shell (ISBN-13 978-1-594-20215-5). One example Shell uses throughout the book is that of watered milk. Assume that a fair price for milk sells for $1 a quart, but some people cannot afford that and so watered-down milk sells for 80 cents a quart. If everyone knows which is which and they are priced accordingly, there is no problem--everyone can buy whichever they prefer at a fair price. But if the two sorts of milk are packaged identically, then no one is willing to pay more than 80 cents a quart for any milk. This in turn means that it is no longer economically feasible to sell unwatered milk and it will disappear from the market. The end result is that the only product available is the low-quality one.

Shell also discusses IKEA at great length. She observes, for example, that while IKEA makes a big deal of using "ecologically sound" materials and processes, they also position their stores such that people need to use a lot of gasoline to get to them (and to return for missing parts, etc., which is apparently very common). IKEA also encourages the idea of discardable furniture rather than items built to last.

To order Cheap from, click here.

THE LAST MAN by Mary Shelley (Bantam Classic, ISBN 0-553-21436-5, 1826 [1994], 499pp, mass market paperback):

While everyone else was re-issuing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to coincide with the release of Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (and indeed there was even Leonore Fleischer's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the novelization--think about it), Bantam published Shelley's other science fiction novel, The Last Man. My suspicion is that not a lot of people ran right out and picked it up. First of all, it was in Bantam's "classics" series, so if bookstores ordered it at all it was put in the "Fiction" section, or the "Literature" section if they subdivide it further. (How do they determine what is literature and what is "merely" fiction?) And then its cover had a small reproduction of a painting of a pastoral English countryside, rather than a hideous monster with stitches and bolts glaring out at you. And finally a quick flip through would show that the specific science fiction element--a world-wide plague--doesn't even appear until most of the way through the book. (On the up side, if Mary Shelley is checking her sales from the astral plane, her books are quite popular in women's studies courses, so there is a market.)

The book starts in 2073. We know this because Shelley (in the voice of the narrator) tells us this. Otherwise we would have no idea, because the world that Shelley describes is that of 1823 when she was writing it. Oh, there are a few changes. People travel in airships (the Montgolfiers had already flown their balloons by 1823). And someone goes as ambassador to the "Northern States of America" (page 254). (Mark claims this last is pretty impressive in predicting the Civil War, but I suspect people could see it coming even then.) But the social structure of England is as it was in 1823, with power held by the monarch rather than by Parliament and elected officials. And people still get around on horses. And while having a war in the Balkans may sound very 21st Century these days, the war Shelley describes is the same war that Byron fought in, with the noble Greeks trying to gain their independence from the evil Turks. (And the war is fought in the same way, with the families of the officers following the troops to Greece and then staying at nearby villages while the troops marched off to formal battles.)

Much of the first two-thirds of the novel is a study of the social structure and attitudes of Shelley's own time, and works only if one reads it as a historical novel set in Shelley's time rather than a novel set in our future. But when the plague arrives, the novel becomes as convincing as a futuristic tale as such other "disaster" novels as Earth Abides and On the Beach. The style is still that of the early nineteenth century, of course, but the images of death and the decline of civilization are as vivid and enthralling as in any modern novel.

Is The Last Man as good as Frankenstein? In the sense that the latter has been continuously in print in inexpensive editions for as long as I can remember (and quite possibly for over a hundred years before that) and has had an inestimable effect on science fiction (and horror), while the former has been almost inaccessible for much of that time and has had no identifiable effect, the answer has to be no. But if read without considering the context of subsequent authors, and considering the books as mainstream fiction rather than science fiction per se, The Last Man is certainly a more polished, more considered, and more mature work than Frankenstein, and well worth the reading. I have to wonder what Shelley's other novels (Valperga, Lodore, and Falkner) are like, but since they are not science fiction, they are probably totally unavailable.

To order The Last Man from, click here.

"Stars Seen Through Stone" by Lucius Shepard:

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

I suppose "Stars Seen Through Stone" by Lucius Shepard (F&SF Jul) is well-written, but I seem to have a blind spot (deaf spot?) when it comes to fiction based on music, especially on rock music.

DEAD MAN'S FLOAT by Beth Sherman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/23/2004]

Beth Sherman's DEAD MAN'S FLOAT (ISBN 0-380-73107-X) is the first of a series set on the Jersey shore, specifically in Ocean Grove and Asbury Park. While some of the descriptions of the area were recognizable, I guess I'm not as familiar with that part of the shore as people who grew up here. If you are a longtime shore-goer, you'd probably enjoy them, but I can't really recommend them for others.

To order Dead Man's Float from, click here.

URBAN NIGHTMARES edited by Josepha Sherman and Keith A. DeCandido (Baen, ISBN 0-671-87851-4, 1997, 278pp, mass market paperback):

The problem with theme anthologies is, well, the theme.

I mean, if I'm reading a story in a general anthology, or in a magazine, and the point of the story is that the main character is a vampire, then the author can tell me that when s/he wants to. But if I'm reading a vampire anthology ... well, you get the idea.

So here we have an anthology based on urban legends. These are all those things that you've heard somewhere that happened to "a friend of a friend." In fact, these are so common that they even have a Usenet group (alt.folklore.urban) and a whole set of abbreviations (e.g., FOAF). So if you're reading a story in this anthology in which a fur coat is involved, and you know anything about urban legends, you know snakes will start appearing in the coat.

Because of this, the authors pretty much have to tell you early on which urban legend they are working with, and then do something original with it. This is not unlike what was done with the "Fairy Tale" series of books, so it is possible.

Of course the problem is exacerbated by my position as a reviewer--I need to read this book in some reasonable period of time. Marketing being what it is, mass-market books tend to disappear after a few months. If I read a story a week, this book will be long-gone before you can read the review. There are twenty-five stories, an unusually high number. The longest story is sixteen pages long. In fact, the biography section is longer than some of the stories.

Even making allowances for all this, I think four prosthetic arm stories and four alligators/crocodiles-in-the-sewers in one anthology is a bit much, though I did like the literary allusions in Bill Crider's piece.

If you are familiar with all the urban legends referenced here, and like bizarre twists on them, you will probably like this book. But if you don't know what "The Hook" is, or find a whole sequence of twists on them more repetitious, you should skip this book. Me, I find the psychology of the urban legend interesting, but don't see them as a great literary source.

To order Urban Nightmares from, click here.

SCIENCE FRICTION by Michael Shermer:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/07/2005]

SCIENCE FRICTION: WHERE THE KNOWN MEETS THE UNKNOWN by Michael Shermer (ISBN 0-8050-7708-1) is a sampler of various aspects of science (and the public perception of science), history (ditto), and other topics. The chapters of most specific interest to science fiction fans, though, might be "What If?" and "The Hero on the Edge of Forever". Both are about counterfactuals and alternate histories, and both discuss what Shermer calls "contingencies" and "necessities". These are pretty much parallels for "The Great Man" and "The Tide of History" theories. The former was championed by Thomas Carlyle, who wrote, "Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the history of the great men who have worked here. Worship of a hero is transcendent admiration of a great man." The latter was supported by Friedrich Engels, "That a certain particular man, and no other, emerges at a definite time in a given country is naturally a pure chance, but even if we eliminate him there is always a need for a substitute, and the substitute . . . is sure to be found." Like so many dichotomies, the truth probably lies between the two, which Shermer calls "the model of contingent-necessity: In the development of any historical sequence the role of contingencies in the construction of necessities is accentuated in the early stages and attenuated in the later." Shermer then applies these ideas to the Neanderthals, the development of agriculture, Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder", and "The City on the Edge of Forever" (Gene Roddenberry's, Harlan Ellison's, or a combination of the two?).

To order Science Friction from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/06/2010]

THE CUBS AND THE KABBALIST by Byron L. Sherwin (ISBN 978-0-976-48740-1) is okay, I suppose, but had a few problems. First of all, the story involves a lot of Jewish ritual and so on. Now, when someone write a book that involves a Catholic mass, she doesn't usually explain everything to the reader--she assume that either he already understands it, or that he will figure it out on his own. But all too often, an author writing about Jewish rituals feels obliged to explain it all in infodumps. And so it is with Sherwin. In fact, he is so thorough (obsessive?) in explaining that at one point Rabbi Jay Loeb (his main character) explains to his Jewish guest the meaning of Succoth, the sukkah, and everything else. Connected to this (call it first-and-a-halfly), Sherwin also has massive infodumps of baseball history.

Secondly, Sherwin seems to have an agenda similar to other Jewish-oriented science fiction or fantasy (e.g., PLANET OF THE JEWS), in that it is not just about the magic but about becoming more religious. In THE CUBS AND THE KABBALIST, the rabbi does perform some "magical" rituals, but he also insists that the players must repent of their sins, give more to charity, etc.

And lastly--and this is true of a lot of authors--Sherwin is a bit sloppy with details. He needs to have someone who has no identification get from Chicago to New York. He apparently recognizes this is a problem, but then just says, "Luckily, none of the airline personnel asked Greenberg for a photo ID, as he didn't have one." Even if he is a well-known sports figure, I cannot imagine the staff at O'Hare would just let the ID requirement slide. Sherwin also seems to think that the mayor of Chicago can proclaim a city-wide day of prayer for the Cubs (First Amendment, anyone?), and what's more, get all the religions to agree to it.

(Oh, and the subtitle of the book--plastered across the cover--gives away the ending. That is, of course, assuming there was ever any doubt about it.)

On the whole, then, this is probably of some interest to Jewish Cubs fans, but they will find a lot of unnecessary explanations (sort of like if in a current science fiction novel about space exploration the author felt it had to explain gravity and a detailed history of the space program). I suppose a really diehard non-Jewish Cubs fan might enjoy it and find the Jewish explanations useful, but I doubt a Jewish non-fan would find it at all interesting.

Interestingly, at just about the same time (late 2005/early 2006) Harper Scott's book HOW I HELPED THE CHICAGO CUBS (FINALLY!) WIN THE WORLD SERIES. I haven't read this; the reviews seem more negative than those of Sherwin's book. The synchronicity may have been because of the 2003 incident where the Cubs' almost guaranteed pennant win was taken from them by, of all people, a Cubs fan who interfered with the ball in an attempt to catch it. [-ecl]

To order The Cubs and the Kabbalist from, click here.

GOLEMS AMONG US by Bryon L. Sherwin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/21/2006]

GOLEMS AMONG US by Bryon L. Sherwin (ISBN 1-56663-568-3) begins with a discussion of the legend of the golem in Jewish mysticism, and then proceeds to apply the theological and ethical implications given by rabbis and scholars over the years to modern questions of artificial intelligence, reproductive technology, and corporations. Sherwin's coverage of the Golem legend extends beyond that of the Golem of Prague (which turns out to be a recent "invention"), and it is good to see an ethical analysis of these modern issues that is not based on Protestant fundamentalism or Roman Catholicism (or indeed on Christianity at all). I recommend this as providing a counter-balance to what is usually presented as "the" religious opinion of these issues. [-ecl] [For those unfamilar with golems, there is an article about them at . Modesty forbids me giving a fulsome but accurate recommendation of this article. -mrl]

To order Golems Among Us from, click here.

THE BOOK OF SPLENDOR by Frances Sherwood:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/29/2003]

My primary reading was Frances Sherwood's THE BOOK OF SPLENDOR, a book set in 17th century Prague and centering around Rabbi Loew, John Dee, alchemy, and the golem. If this sounds a lot like Lisa Goldstein's THE ALCHEMIST'S DOOR (which I read a couple of weeks ago), all I can say is that apparently when it's time to golem, we golem. The Sherwood was published in July and the Goldstein in August, so it's unlikely either was copying the other. (Perhaps both were inspired by Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, or Pete Hamill's SNOW IN AUGUST.) However, what is interesting is that the Sherwood is positioned as a mainstream literary novel, while the Goldstein is marketed as fantasy, even though they are really very similar. And I enjoyed them both and recommend them. And I just finished re-reading Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters". Is it possible that just as there was an amazing explosion of alternate history stories a few years ago, t there will be a burst of golem stories now?

To order The Book of Splendor from, click here.

VINDICATION by Frances Sherwood:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/16/2004]

Frances Sherwood's VINDICATION is a novelization of Mary Wollstonecraft's life. This is Mary (Wollstonecraft) Shelley's mother, not Mary Shelley (as I think I claimed in an earlier column). While Wollstonecraft was an early campaigner for women's rights, there was still a bit too much of it in the novel for my tastes. I suppose I have become so tired of seeing it in completely fictional novels, that when it actually makes sense--particularly if the situations described by Sherwood are accurate--I still find it annoying.

To order Vindication from, click here.

HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/30/2016]

HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly (ISBN 978-0-06-23659-6) is a book about the African-American women who worked at NACA/NASA as "computors" before the introduction of computers, and then after as programmers and engineers. The film based on it opens this month, and it takes quite a few liberties. Not only are the three main white characters fictional--though presumably reflecting some real people's characteristics--but some of the events involving Katherine Johnson in the film actually happened to other people in real life. (In particular, the rest room incident involved Mary Jackson rather than Johnson.)

The fictional white characters are particularly troubling. Kevin Costner has a very dramatic moment as Al Harrison--but it never happened and Al Harrison did not exist. Jim Parsons is obnoxious as Paul Stafford, and I suppose represents all the white male engineers who had those prejudiced attitudes, but he never existed either. And Kirsten Dunst's character again is possibly an amalgam, with a very predictable arc. The challenges were all real, and consolidating most of the dramatic events of the story onto Johnson made cinematic sense, as did making the white characters archetypes. (After all, the film is not about them.) But it would be a mistake to take everything in the film as gospel.

On the other hand, the book is presumably accurate. However, the problem is that the book is less engaging, possibly because Shetterly spends a lot of time on what may be interesting to a historian, but less so to the general reader: the history behind the various housing developments (all segregated, of course), the history of how Virginia's Prince Edward County closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate, and so on. There is also a lot about the history of the aeronautics and space programs which is not directly connected to the eponymous women. All this makes for a narrative that jumps around a lot, from scientific and mathematical explanations of air resistance to the psychological effects of the Jim Crow South to the effects of McCarthyism on the engineering program. There is a lot of valuable material here; I just wish it had been organized better.

To order Hidden Figures from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/14/2011]

SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY by Gary Shteyngart (ISBN 978-1-4000-6640-7) is one of those "stealth science fiction" novels, written by a mainstream/literary author and marketed as a mainstream/literary novel. But it is definitely science fiction, and if Charles Stross or some other science fiction author had written it, it would be marketed as such.

I choose Stross because this is a novel of future economics. The United States is falling apart, because people are so busy following media people who are streaming shows about fashion, entertainment, and each other that they have no time to follow anything having to do with the real world: economics, science, politics, or even reading and writing. Books are dead (even e-books) and everything is video. (Shades of FAHRENHEIT 451!) China, Canada, and Norway (if I recall correctly) are the new world powers, and the United States is basically a police state trying to hold up a failing system. In the midst of all this Lenny Abramov is working for a life extension company (where everyone is obsessed with extending their lives and youthfulness) when he meets Eunice Park, a young Korean woman who has a very different attitude about, well, everything, than Lenny.

It is a sign of my age, I suppose, that I found the sections consisting of Eunice's (and others') text messages very hard to read. I must be the only person on the planet who texts in full sentences with whole words, punctuation and everything. (On the other hand, I have probably sent fewer than two dozen text messages in my life.)

The resolution of SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY seems a bit weak, but the picture of what America could become is worth the read.

To order Super Sad True Love Story from, click here.

VINLAND THE GOOD by Nevil Shute:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/25/2003]

Everyone knows that Nevil Shute wrote ON THE BEACH, and a lot of people know he wrote A TOWN LIKE ALICE, but not many people are familiar with his "Vinland the Good". This is written as a screenplay, though it was never made into a movie (nor do I think that Shute necessarily expected it to be). It starts in the then-present, with a demobbed soldier returning to his British public school to teach United States history, but most of it is about how the Norse discovered America. What is most interesting is that Shute seems to emphasize the parallel origins of these first American "settlers" and the early Australian settlers. That is, the first few scenes set in the past are of Eric the Red picking fights and becoming outlawed, first from Norway to North Iceland, then from North Iceland to South Iceland, and then finally from South Iceland to Greenland. It's true that Eric got to transport himself and his family rather than being transported, and also that he tries to provide some defense for what he did (though rather unconvincingly), but the outlaw origins are there nonetheless.

To order Vinland the Good from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/09/2006]

Robert Silverberg is one of the great science fiction icons of our time. But while he is known now for his erudition and literary qualities, the sixteen stories in IN THE BEGINNING: TALES FROM THE PULP ERA (ISBN 1-59606-043-3) are from his earliest period, in the years during and shortly after when he was a student, and are a small part of his prodigious output for the pulps of the 1950s. Given that there were several times when he had four stories in a single issue of a magazine (under different pan names, of course), this can provide just a small sample. However, the fact that none of these have been previously reprinted means that this is a must-read for those interested in the early career of one of the great science fiction writers. Admittedly, at $40 for the signed, numbered limited edition, it is pricier than most other hardcover books but, content aside, the physical book is also much better constructed, with lovely textured end papers, good typography, and high-quality paper.

To order In the Beginning from, click here.

STARBORNE by Robert Silverberg (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-10264-8, 1996, 304pp, hardback):

Robert Silverberg's latest novel takes a lot of familiar science fiction ideas and combines them in a story that keeps promising to go somewhere, but manages to make even the transformation of mankind unexciting.

The spaceship Wotan has been launched with its crew of fifty by an Earth so bored with Paradise that this is the only excitement they can think of. While it travels through hyperspace to discover a planet that can be colonized, the ship stays in touch with Earth through telepathic twins. The crew explores a couple of planets, with somewhat familiar perils, learns that the twins' link seems to be weakening, and moves on to a climax that rings remarkably flat.

While I was reading this I kept feeling that just a few pages more and it would catch fire, that it was on the verge of something. But it never quite delivered on that, and looking back over it, it seems to have been a book about petty squabbles and personality conflicts more than about exploring the universe. Given that society as a whole is filled with boredom and ennui, I suppose it isn't too surprising that the characters often seem to display these characteristics. For example, there is supposed to be a new captain every year. But after the first year, no one else will take the job, so the same person continues in that position. (This sounds like a lot of organizations I've been in.) The problem is that reading about bored characters is, well, boring. Trying to keep track of who's sleeping with whom doesn't really provide much interest.

As in several of Silverberg's recent books (in particular The Face on the Waters and The Kingdoms of the Wall), the framework is a quest-like journey in which the diversity of characters is really what is supposed to hold your interest. Like many books with such a journey, the arrival is a bit of a let-down, and the problem here is that the characters are not interesting along the way either.

To order Starborne from, click here.

UP THE LINE by Robert Silverberg:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/22/2013]

I just re-read UP THE LINE by Robert Silverberg (ISBN 978-0-345-29696-2). I first read it when it came out in 1969. I have read a lot of alternate history and time travel stories in the interim, but re-reading this was like going back to an old friend. In particular, it is so believable to have Justinian's first words on beholding the Hagia Sophia not as "O Solomon, I have surpassed thee!", but rather, "Look up there, you sodomitic simpleton! Find me the mother-humper who left that scaffolding in the dome! I want his balls in an alabaster vase before mass begins!"

This is not to say that there are not "reverse anachronisms." (If an anachronism is putting something on the wrong place in the past, then a reverse anachronism is putting something on the wrong place in the future, that is, the future when you are writing.) So the Silverberg's Sparta of 1997 has little in common with ours: ours has no fusion-power plant built in the 1980s, no Stalinist-architecture apartment blocks, no pod serbive to Athens. And our 2010 was not the "Year of the Assassins". As Neil Gaiman said of the years 1984 and 2001, "Win some, lose some."

I also like the cover illustration for the 1981 fourth printing of the book. It is not as flashy as the original cover, but it captures the concept beautifully. Murray Tinkelman has rendered the Suleimaniye Mosque, the mounted Crusader and the time traveler in a style that makes them look insubstantial, as if they are illusions that might disappear. And the time traveler even has a ghostly double of himself. My only quibble is that the Suleymaniye Mosque was started in 1550, a hundred years after the fall of Byzantium, and in an era that was not visited in the book.

[See the cover at . -mrl]

To order Up the Line from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/16/2010]

THE RADIOACTIVE BOY SCOUT: THE TRUE STORY OF A BOY AND HIS BACKYARD NUCLEAR REACTOR by Ken Silverstein (ISBN 978-0-375-50351-1) is about David Hahn's attempt as a teenager to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard shed. He was not wholly successful--the shed and its contents became so radioactive that the EPA had to dismantle it and bury it in a radioactive waste site in Utah. (Well, except for the parts that his parents, panicked by the first visit from the government threw out in the trash and ended up in a standard trash landfill in Michigan!!)

Many of David's chemistry experiments, apparently, started with THE GOLDEN BOOK OF CHEMISTRY EXPERIMENTS by Robert Brent. Published in 1960 ("written in an era well before lawyers began earning such good livings off the proponents of bad advice"), THE GOLDEN BOOK is "amazingly oblivious to the volatility of the experiments it described." After describing the negative effects of chlorine gas (which included use on tens of thousands of World War I soldiers), it then goes on to tell its readers how to make it at home. It did give a few warnings about not letting the gas out of the jars into the room, working outdoors or opening the window, and above all "Be careful not to breathe the fumes!" (Remember the song lyric "My mother says not to put beans in my ears"?)

Anyway, Hahn started with this and gradually progressed to working with radioactive elements and then trying to build a breeder reactor. This story, it seems, did not have quite enough material to fill a book, so it is embellished with entire chapters about the history of atomic energy (a.k.a. nuclear energy). It turns out that Hahn was not the only person to contaminate areas accidentally with radiation (though he was the youngest). Part of the problem was Hahn's (admitted) refusal to read anything negative or warning about atomic energy. Though the Curies were his idols, he apparently never considered that Marie Curie died of radiation poisoning, or that Pierre undoubtedly would have had he not been killed in a traffic accident, or that their notebooks are still radioactive enough that people who want to examine them must sign a detailed release form. (Recent pictures of Hahn seem to indicate that he will suffer the same fate as Marie Curie did.)

Amazingly, Hahn did all this in conjunction with working towards badges to become an Eagle Scout--a goal he did achieve. The main problems seem to be total cluelessness on the part of his parents (and step-parents, teachers, and Scout leaders. The only people who seemed to give him any cautionary advice were his friends.

To order The Radioactive Boy Scout from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/15/2006]

TIME IS THE SIMPLEST THING by Clifford Simak (ISBN 0-020-82075-5) is an older book (first published in 1971), but unfortunately its theme of prejudice and persecution seems to be forever current. At the time, I am sure people read Simak's story of the hostility towards "PKs" (paranormal kinetics) as a parable of the then-current attitudes of many towards blacks. (In fact, one sheriff in the novel talks about a "boy who came across the border and got himself tanked up. Figured he was as good as white folks.") Then later it was probably seen as a parallel to society's treatment of gays. ("Persecuted when they should be given all encouragement. They have abilities at this very moment that [we], also at this very moment, needs most desperately." I suspect those words will come back to me the next time I read about the Army discharging translators of Arabic because they are gay.) Now I am sure some people will see parallels to the anti-Muslim sentiment we are seeing. What with all this underlying message, it is easy for the other part of the novel--Simak's attempt to portray an alien intelligence--to get lost in the shuffle.

It is also interesting to see that Simak projected a rise in interest in the supernatural on television, in ouija boards, and so on--though he had these be the result of the discovery of PK powers rather than whatever less obvious cause has brought it about in our times.

To order Time Is the Simplest Thing from, click here.

ILIUM by Dan Simmons:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/30/2004]

Last week I said I gave up on one Hugo nominee, and this week it was another. I had started Dan Simmons's ILIUM a while ago and decided it wasn't my cup of tea, but felt I should give it another try. Well I did, and gave up just about the same place as last time. (In part it was the idea that after finishing these six hundred pages that I wasn't enjoying, I would still have read only half the story.)

To order Ilium from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/26/2010]

THE DECHRONIZATION OF SAM MAGRUDER by George Gaylord Simpson (ISBN-13 978-0-312-15514-8) is a novella-length time travel story. Inspired by H. G. Wells's THE TIME MACHINE (also novella-length), it chronicles a trip into the distant past rather than one to the future. (If there were any doubt as to the source of the inspiration, the use of designations rather than names for the characters (e.g., the Universal Historian, the Ethnologist) is the final clue.) There is also perhaps a touch of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's THE LOST WORLD and other prehistoric adventure tales. Simpson is described on the back cover as being "widely regarded as the greatest vertebrate paleontologist of the twentieth century," so this is not very surprising.

But there are other connections one can make, and the main one is one that Simpson had no way of knowing about. Since Simpson died in 1984, he may have written it even before the Alvarezes' proposal that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. But it was certainly written before the events dramatized in the recent film INTO THE WILD. In that film (based on a true story), Chris McCandless tries to survive on his own in the wild, much as Magruder has to do. McCandless does not have to deal with a finger bitten off by a large reptile, but there is one definite parallel between him and Magruder. Both McCandless and Magruder decide to build up a food supply by killing an animal and drying the meat. Magruder, in the tradition of most adventure heroes, manages this fairly successfully, with fish and turtle meat. I suppose McCandless might have been more successful trying these rather than mammal meat, but I still think that preventing other animals from stealing the drying meat would have been a big problem for either one. (In McCandless's case, the meat went bad, so having animals steal it became less of a problem.)

I suppose what all this means is that fiction does not have to be true to reality.

To order The Dechronization of Sam Magruder from, click here.

DONOVAN'S BRAIN by Curt Siodmak:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/27/2018]

DONOVAN'S BRAIN by Curt Siodmak (Black Mask, September-November 1942): I have no idea if all the medical jargon made any sense, or how much was based in fact, but it made the book hard going at times, and I just never could get caught up in the story.

To order Donovan's Brain from, click here.


Though Edith Skom's book is titled THE GEORGE ELIOT MURDERS, the only connection with Eliot is some parallels between MIDDLEMARCH and the murders. This is just your basic "take-to-the-beach-junk-food" mystery--not very well written, a bit obvious in spots, a bit contrived in spots (okay, a lot contrived in spots), and having the completely unbelievable setting of a midwestern professor vacationing at a really expensive Hawaiian resort. In spite of all this, though, I must admit it as a "guilty pleasure," probably because people in it were talking about George Eliot, "Middlemarch", and even Mark Twain.

To order The George Eliot Murders from, click here.

SINS FOR FATHER KNOX by Josef Skvorecky:

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

On another topic, Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox wrote some mysteries, but his enduring fame is due to his "Ten Commandments" for mysteries, which are, summarized:

1. The criminal must be mentioned, but his thoughts not given
2. No supernatural
3. Not more than one secret room or passage
4. No previously undiscovered poisons
5. No "Chinaman" (a common ploy when Knox wrote)
6. No accidental solution
7. Not the detective himself
8. No clues unrevealed to the reader
9. The "Watson" should not conceal his thoughts
10. No twins or doubles

[The full list may be found at many places, including]

Now, many authors have written very good and very successful stories which violated some of these rules. Agatha Christie broke at least two of them, and Doyle violated at least three in his Sherlock Holmes stories. But only Josef Skvorecky took it upon himself to break all ten, in SINS FOR FATHER KNOX (translated from Czech by Kaca Polackova Henley, ISBN 0-393-02512-8). Alas, in part what he proves is that while a great author can "get away" with breaking these rules, the mere breaking of them by a lesser author doesn't guarantee a good story. Some of Skvorecky's stories are good, but many are weak because they violate one of the rules. Having a hitherto-unmentioned person be the culprit in a "puzzle"-type mystery just doesn't work. (If the story is more a slice-of-life of the detective, and it turns out that someone not even mentioned turn out to be the criminal, then that would probably work.) The stories are an interesting exercise to Knox's implicit challenge, but work more to support Knox's thesis than to refute it.

To order Sins for Father Knox from, click here.

THE BOOK GROUP BOOK by Ellen Slezak:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/23/2004]

In an attempt to get some ideas of how to rejuvenate our book discussion group(s), I read Ellen Slezak's THE BOOK GROUP BOOK. While the descriptions of the various groups were interesting, they were not very helpful. First of all, most of the groups described were all-woman groups (or even more specifically, all-woman feminist groups). Our group is not an exact even split, but of the eight regulars, three are men. (Supposedly, one test of a group is to ask if they want to read Ernest Hemingway. The assumption is that even in a mixed group, the women will veto him. I'll have to try this, although I seem to recall our group reading THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA a few years ago.) Our biggest problem currently is picking books that the library has enough copies of, since the group formed on the supposition that people would not have to buy their own books. Currently, our tentative plan for the general book discussion group is to read books off the summer high school reading lists during the school year, and wing it somehow over the summer when these are tied up. The mystery reading group seems more successful in getting copies of books (though I couldn't get this month's selection). The science fiction group has a major problem in that library culling has resulted in very few books being available in more than one or two copies in the entire library system. (If anyone is in a reading group, I would be curious as to the size and make-up of the group, as well as what it reads and how it chooses it.)

To order The Book Group Book from, click here.

TO WALK THE NIGHT by William Sloane:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/28/2003]

William Sloane's TO WALK THE NIGHT is a classic horror novel, but as with many older classics, it will probably seem predictable to today's readers. (Personally, I found myself wondering if the film UNEARTHLY STRANGER was somewhat inspired by this.) While the writing style is good, the familiarity probably works against this book for modern readers.

To order To Walk the Night from, click here.


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

Lisa Smedman's THE APPARITION TRAIL (ISBN 1-894063-22-8) is a fantasy set in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century. The main premise is that native magic works, or works again, since the striking of the moon by a comet seems to have brought it back. It also seems to have made perpetual motion machines possible and changed the moon's rotational period (though Smedman keeps talking about how the "dark side" is coming around to face Earth). The native magic aspect would have been sufficient--I have no idea why Smedman felt she had to add the rest and they really detract from the story. I suppose it is possible that she thought they would set the book apart from all the straight fantasies about Native Americans (or, since she is Canadian, First Nations). However, if you concentrate on the main story, about the coming of the "Day of Changes", it works fairly well.

To order The Apparition Trail from, click here.

DARKER ANGELS by S. P. Somtow (Tor, ISBN 0-312-85931-7, 1998, 381pp, hardback):

Walt Whitman. Zombies. Abraham Lincoln's funeral. Voodoo. Lord Byron. A panther woman. Edgar Allan Poe. And who better to write about all this but a Thai writer?

Only in America.

Well, yes, but all this makes Darker Angels a hard book to review. I liked it a lot, but much of that may be due to the presence of Walt Whitman as a character. I find Whitman fascinating, not just as a poet, but as an observer of the Civil War. And Darker Angels has a lot of that sort of observation of the Civil War, even if it is leavened with voodoo.

But if you're not a Whitman fan, I'm not sure how you'll react to this. The structure is very complex with Griffin Bledsoe telling Tyler telling Jimmy Lee Cox telling Zachary Brown telling Mrs. Grainger about the strange goings-on. (Or something like that--I can't be sure this was quite this nested. There may have been some pops on the stack I missed.) The atmosphere is there, but the late appearance of Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe was in some way the straw that broke the camel's back, and I have to say that there's just too much going on here to make a satisfactory novel for most people.

But I can't un-recommend this either. Ultimately, all I can is that here is what this. If you think it sounds interesting, give it a try. If you think it would give you a headache, give it a miss.

To order Darker Angels from, click here.

THE COMFORTERS by Muriel Spark:

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

I read THE COMFORTERS by Muriel Spark (ISBN-13 978-0-140-01911-7, ISBN-10 0-140-01911-1) because a film reviewer noted that the basic idea of STRANGER THAN FICTION--that someone suddenly starts hearing a voice narrating what they are doing and thinking and realizes that they are a character in a novel--was taken (without credit) from THE COMFORTERS. This appears to be true, but I found THE COMFORTERS strangely un-engaging. Maybe it was because the novel that the character was in was not very good.

To order The Comforters from, click here.


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

I recently listened to DON'T EAT THIS BOOK: FAST FOOD AND THE SUPERSIZING OF AMERICA by Morgan Spurlock (read by Morgan Spurlock) (ISBN-13 978-0-143-05731-4, ISBN-10 0-143-05731-6; book ISBN-13 978-0-435-21023-9, ISBN-10 0-425-21023-5). In this book he briefly describes the inspiration and making of his film SUPERSIZE ME!, but spends most of his time attacking "Big Food" (e.g., Kraft, McDonalds, etc.), which he compares in power and effect to "Big Tobacco". While on the whole I agree with him, he makes enough errors in fact or logic to make it hard to endorse the book wholeheartedly.

For example, he says that he suddenly realized at one point that during his month-long McDonalds diet he would not be eating any fresh fruit. "No peaches. No pears. No lemons. No limes." (I may have the exact fruits and/or order wrong--it's really hard to flip back through an audiobook to get an exact quote!) But I'm not sure that is true. If McDonalds serves tea, they may very well have lemon wedges for it. (Then again, they may have just pouches of lemon juice. However, I don't go to McDonalds often enough to check before this appears.)

He also uses "soda" and "soft drink" to mean sugared cola. For example, when he says someone has a soft drink, he talks about how much sugar and phosphoric acid (found only in colas) they are getting. He does say that some people ask, "What about sugar-free sodas?" but then goes on about how bad aspartame is. But what about (for example) root beer, lemon-lime sodas, or ginger ale? If he means colas he should say colas.

He also responds to critics who say that what he did was extreme by saying what he did was consistent with people's eating habits. This is based on somewhat questionable logic. For example, because some people eat at McDonalds several times a week, he extrapolates that they must be eating junk food all the rest of the time. But this is not necessarily true. For example, in my town I see a bunch of mail tracks clustered around Wendy's at lunch time. It's a fast, convenient place to eat, and one that one can get a large group to agree on. This does not mean when these mail carriers go home they eat junk food. They may very well eat wonderfully at home. (To some extent, I think Spurlock has a skewed view of all this because 1) he lives in Manhattan, and 2) he works by himself and on his own schedule.) And I still think that always supersizing when asked is cheating. Let's face it, while it may be true that there are people who do, clearly not everyone answers "yes" when asked.

Spurlock criticizes the food lunch program for serving what big agriculture is pushing rather than what is healthy, but I do find his negative attitude toward milk a little peculiar. He seems to think that schools should not be serving milk. Yes, milk, though he thinks it's great that schools have vending machines that sell bottled water. If you want to look at a useless "food product" that's been pushed onto consumers by "Big Food" advertising, you don't have to look any father than bottled water.

In another example of how Spurlock seems to have been taken in by the very advertising he decries, he speaks of not eating red meat more than a couple of times a month, and then talks about how good pork is, as if it were not red meat.

One problem with audiobooks is that expressions which look okay on the page don't always sound good. Spurlock uses a lot of "mmm" (meaning "yummy") constructions ("Pesticides in your food? Mmmm!"). As I said, these look fine on the page, but read aloud, they sound very lame. It's possible that a better actor could deliver the lines better, but I wouldn't count on it.

To order Don't Eat This Book from, click here.

YEAR ZERO by Brian Stableford:

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

Brian Stableford's YEAR ZERO (ISBN 0-7862-5333-9) is all about UFO abductions and Elvis sightings, yet still manages to work in Stableford's abiding interest in evolution and biology. It's a somewhat lighter book than many of Stableford's works, but still well worth reading.

To order Year Zero from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/13/2012]

THE SILENT CASE: THE REAL WORLD OF IMAGINARY SPIES by David Stafford (ISBN 978-0-8203-1343-6) was written in 1991 for a primarily British audience, so it concentrates on British spy fiction (though it does cover some American, and even some Russian, works). In the introduction, Stafford says, "With the real world of espionage--like the Cold War itself--apparently on its deathbed, voices have been inevitably heard suggesting that the spy novel is doomed. For without the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, and without the daily tensions of outwitting the secret police in Warsaw, or Prague, or some seedy provincial Communist city, what are our fictional secret agents going to do in the future?" This was not Stafford's view--he responds that there were spies before the Cold War, and there will continue to be a need for them. (He could begin the book by talking about what may be the first espionage story in literature: the two spies sent by Joshua into Jericho (as told in the second chapter of Joshua).

Stafford focuses on the changing attitudes toward espionage through the last century, the parallel changes in espionage during that time, and the connections of espionage fiction authors to actual spying. At times it seems not much more than a listing of books by specific authors, but there is enough discussion of the major authors to make this worthwhile for espionage fiction fans.

To order The Silent Case: The Real World of Imaginary Spies from, click here.


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

Tom Standage's THE NEPTUNE FILE: A STORY OF ASTRONOMICAL RIVALRY AND THE PIONEERS OF PLANET HUNTING (ISBN 0-802-71363-7) is a history of the discovery of Neptune (as well as Uranus, the asteroids, and Pluto). It focuses on John Couch Adams, but covers the other contenders who might claim the title of "Discoverer of Neptune" as well. As with all too many scientific quests, it is as much a tale of competition, pigheadedness, and ineptitude as of the search for knowledge.

To order The Neptune File from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/14/2003]

Well, there's THE TURK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE FAMOUS EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY CHESS-PLAYING MACHINE by Tom Standage, which is the story of "The Turk," the famous . . . . Standage doesn't reveal the secret of "The Turk" until almost the end of the book, but I suspect most readers will either be familiar with it, or guess the secret. What's interesting is the career of "The Turk," including playing against Napoleon at one point.

To order The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine from, click here.


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

FIVE-FINGER DISCOUNT: A CROOKED FAMILY HISTORY by Helene Stapinski (ISBN 978-0-375-75870-4) is described on the back as "an extraordinary tale at once heartbreaking and hysterically funny." "Heartbreaking" I agree with, but "hysterically funny"? Really? It also says, "By turns hilarious and alarming, uproarious and depressing..." Again, the alarming and depressing manages to overwhelm the hilarious and uproarious.

Stapinski describes her family, which had two relatives in a mental institution, including her grandfather, who was coming home with a gun to shoot the entire family when he was stopped by the police just outside the building door. There are also bookies, numbers runners, and a variety of relatives who supplement the income from their jobs by bringing home anything not nailed down: steaks and lobsters from the cold storage facility where her father worked, books from the book bindery where her aunt worked, soap and toothpaste from the Colgate factory. pencils from the pencil factory. They didn't need detergent; the first time Helene's mother washed the clothes her brother had worn to work at Colgate the suds overflowed the washing machine, because the clothes had been full of detergent dust even before she added more. From then on, they never had to had detergent as long as her brother had that job.

So, okay, there are amusing stories. But reading about decades of corruption in Jersey City that left the streets potholed, the parks full of broken glass and syringes, and organized crime moving in on the "independent" numbers runners was hardly funny, and the stories of the corruption of the Jersey City Catholic Church hierarchy (at least in their parish), including "oversexed priests" and a parochial school that seemed determined to avoid teaching anything to its students besides that the ERA was evil, now that Noah's Ark had been found the world was coming to an end, and if your parents were divorced, you deserved to be humiliated in front of the whole class.

I won't say the book is uninteresting, or boring, but don't expect a laugh riot.

To order Five Finger Discount from, click here.

ALL-AMERICAN ALIEN BOY by Allen Steele (Ace, ISBN 0-441-00460-1, 1997 (1996), 267pp, mass market paperback):

[Though this also has "Alien" in the title it is totally unrelated to Illegal Alien, which came out from the same publisher at just about the same time.]

There is no story in this collection titled "All-American Alien Boy," but the subtitle of the book gives us the answer to the title: "The United States as Science Fiction, Science Fiction as a Journey: A Collection." Who is the "All-American Alien Boy"? It's Steele. But it's also each of us. (Well, some of us are All-American Alien Girls, but you get the idea.)

After all, isn't there something a bit alien in the idea of renting out your body for science ("The Good Rat")? Alien, yes, but also very capitalist and, well, American. Whether it's the shopping mall, the demolition derby, or Rock City, Steele takes something very American, and shows us how alien it is at the same time.

As if that isn't enough, Steele's introductions actually add something to the understanding of the stories. Too many authors, when confronted with the task of introducing their own stories, resort to either a bald description of how they came to write the story, or some brief--preferably humorous--anecdote about it. Steele uses this opportunity to talk about the ideas behind the story--what he thinks about UFO abduction stories, for example.

What this means is that even if you have all the stories from their original publications, this book is still worth getting.

To order All-American Alien Boy from, click here.

"The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/15/2011]

"The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele (in ASIMOV'S 06/10) is full of nostalgia for classic science fiction about Mars, but nostalgia does not a story make.

RUNNING THE BOOKS by Avi Steinberg:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/30/2016]

RUNNING THE BOOKS by Avi Steinberg (ISBN 978-0-385-529099) is a book I discovered because it was on display at the library for "September is Sign Up for a Library Card Month". Steinberg was a Hasidic Jew who went to Harvard, lost all his religion, and then just drifted from job to job until he saw an advertisement for a prison librarian. He had no library experience, but apparently the job requirements were pretty flexible.

RUNNING THE BOOKS is full of real characters (and indeed, they are real "characters"), and while there is a lot of humor, it is more surreal than funny, and there is a fair amount of pathos as well. All too often, inmates who seemed to be getting their lives together were either fooling Avi or fooling themselves. It is well worth reading, though, for its description of what life in prison is like,at least as seen through the eyes of a somewhat innocent, often oblivious, would-be librarian.

To order Running the Books from, click here.

AS A DRIVEN LEAF by Milton Steinberg:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/01/2003]

As is becoming common, I found strange synchronicity in some of my reading. Milton Steinberg's AS A DRIVEN LEAF is a philosophical novel centered around Elisha ben Abuyah and the famous Jewish sages of his era (during the reign of Hadrian and the Bar Kochba rebellion). It's not surprising that some of the same people are quoted in the "Pirke Aboth" ("Sayings of the Fathers"), but it is a bit startling to see the same sayings in both places (in particular, Rabbi Hanina's "Pray for the peace of the government; for, except for the fear of that, we should have swallowed each other alive."). It was even more surprising to pick up Franz Kafka's DIARIES and read the traditional version of the penultimate incident of Steinberg book. The story of AS A DRIVEN LEAF is about Elisha's struggle between the faith of Judaism and the philosophy of the Greeks. (Phrased in those traditional terms, of course, this already shows a bias that "Jewish philosophy and Greek faith" would not.) In any case, Elisha becomes enamored of Euclid's approach and decides he must prove his religion starting with axioms self-evident in their truth and building on those axioms. In this he seems to anticipate Descartes by over a millennium. Unfortunately, the author decides to have the end turn on Euclid's Fifth Postulate in a way that simply doesn't ring true--the argument seems way too modern for that era. Yet that doesn't lessen the worth of the rest of the novel and its musings, particularly its central notion that it is not enough that good should come from something, but that there must be good intentions behind it. "The good which is born by chance out of the evil design is corrupt and rotten at the core. The Empire was conceived in the lust for power [and] is motivated now by the desire to protect a system of exploitation. Everything else in the sight of those who administer it is secondary. ... [Whenever] the liberties of the individual or a group come into conflict with the interests they serve, they will destroy the former unhesitatingly for the sake of the latter." This would seem to contradict Rabbi Hanina, and indeed Elisha's dilemma is in part in trying to resolve these two opposing views.

To order As a Driven Leaf from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/19/2010]

HIDING THE ELEPHANT: HOW MAGICIANS INVENTED THE IMPOSSIBLE AND LEARNED TO DISAPPEAR by Jim Steinmeyer (ISBN-13 978-0-7967-1226-7) is the story of the development of magic as a form of entertainment, from the middle of the 19th century to the present (Steinmeyer designs illusions for magicians such as David Copperfield). He explains how many of the most famous tricks were done, in particular the ones involving vanishings. (Most, not surprisingly, used mirrors.) He does not explain how Robert Thurston did the Marvelous Orange Tree; this was one of the tricks shown in the film THE ILLUSIONIST, and one of the ones that many thought could not have been done in the time of the film. But apparently Thurston managed one almost identical. Steinmeyer's history is not rigorous, or at any rate not what is expected. He follows the history of the tricks and techniques rather than the biographies of the magicians. I would have liked a few more diagrams, and a few more explanations, but what is there is welcome.

To order Hiding the Elephant from, click here.

"The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/02/2019]

Our book group has two themes we're working on: international science fiction, and early science fiction. Since we picked a half dozen of each, and we meet only bi-monthly, we're covered through 2020. This month it was DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson, or more accurately, "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde". First, one hardly ever sees the full title, must as one rarely sees Edward Gibbon's work called "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Second, the work is a novella, not a novel, hence the quotation marks. (I referred to "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" as a title, not as the book itself, hence the quotation marks for that.) And lastly, there are no periods after "Dr" and "Mr" because the British usage is to put periods after abbreviations that are initial segments of the words they represent.

It's amazing how one can write 150 words about a book without writing anything about the book.


One thing that someone familiar with the films but not the book will notice is that the fact that Hyde and Jekyll are the same person is kept concealed under the end of the story. In the films, one invariably sees the transformation when it first happens. Oh, there is a big reveal at the end when everyone else discovers that Hyde and Jekyll are the same person, but the audience knows. I suppose that the audience would know even without being shown, unless the names were changed and no one posted any spoilers on the Internet. So "concealing" the secret in a film would just be silly.

Another difference is that while Stevenson wrote in Victorian Britain and could be only very vague about Hyde's disreputable activities, films made since then have been much more frank, and had much more sex. The 1932 Fredric March version was made before the Hayes Code, and had some very salacious scenes, particularly of Miriam Hopkins lying in bed, waving a bare gartered leg. The Spencer Tracy version had to tone it down a bit, but certainly anything recent is much more graphic. Whether that is better is a matter of dispute.

People reading the book now probably see the basic idea as very Freudian, with Hyde representing the id, and Jekyll the ego attempting to rid himself of the id and be entirely super-ego. So it's worth noting that Stevenson pre-dated Freud.

To order "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/30/2012]

THE MIRACLE OF FREEDOM: 7 TIPPING POINTS THAT SAVED THE WORLD by Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart (ISBN 978-1-60641-951-9) is definitely a book with an agenda. The authors describe their first book, SEVEN MIRACLES THAT SAVED AMERICA, has trying to answer these questions:

And their later statement that they believe in American Exceptionalism confirms their point of view. So it seems unlikely that this book is going to be an impartial, objective look at history.

However, from a counterfactual point of view, it is certainly worth considering 1) whether the tipping points they chose are tipping points, and 2) whether tipping in the other direction would have had the results they claim.

Their tipping points are:

"Had the Franks not succeeded [at Poitiers], respect for religious freedom, minority rights, women's rights, and government based on reason and democracy would surely not exist." Poitiers was in 732, and if one looks at the next thousand years of the Christian Europe that was saved, one sees nothing of religious freedom, minority rights, women's rights, or government based on reason and democracy. To claim that these suddenly appeared over a millennium later because of this victory is not a statement one can apply the adverb "surely" to.

To be fair, the authors do acknowledge that Christianity has had its negative influences as well, but they seem to limit these to "the corruption that befell the church in the latter centuries of the Middle Ages" (specifically the 14th and 15th centuries). This manages to put the blame on the Roman Catholic Church, and as a side effect making Protestantism look like the church's savior. They gloss over the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecutions of religious minorities (often other Christian sects), and all the sorts of things that they are quick to point out in other religions. They talk about Christianity's message of equality for all, and do not discuss how it supported slavery for centuries. In short, they give credit to Christianity for all its good aspects, and blame corrupt men and women for its bad, while blaming other religions (specifically Islam) for all the negative things done in their names.

More specifically, Christianity gets the credit for making Europe what it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. But Christianity just as surely made Russia what it was in the 18th and 19th centuries--a land of serfs (basically, slaves) where individuals had few rights and an all-powerful Tsar ruled them all. The claim that they were worse off than if the Mongols had remained needs something more than mere assertion. All the barbarity the authors ascribe to the Mongols can be found in the Russians, or for that matter in the Europeans.

I do not deny that these "tipping points" (more accurately, turning points) made a difference. Certainly things would be different if any of these went a different way. But "saved the world"? What exactly does that mean? To the Stewarts, it means "saved the world to become a Christian, capitalist culture just like ours." But if man-made global climate change is real, and as serious as some claim, perhaps all that these have done is set the world up for another massive extinction--in which case, one could hardly say they "saved the world." If this is the case, wouldn't a change that avoided the Industrial Revolution be what would save the world?

To order The Miracle of Freedom from, click here.

EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/18/2011]

EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart (ISBN 978-0-449-21301-8) was reviewed on a podcast I listened to recently, so I decided to re-read it. Written in 1949, it is often dated, but still well worth reading. Some samples:

Though in many ways progressive in terms of race, there is still some casual prejudice, e.g., "'Bad as a Mexican town,' he thought, 'everyone taking a siesta.'" And even more noticeably, when our point-of-view protagonist Ish finds out someone is "Negro" (to use his term), Stewart describes Ish's reaction: "Now everything came together in his mind--brunette complexion, dark liquid eyes, full lips, white teeth, rich voice, accepting temperament."

Stewart at times has an optimistic view of humanity, e.g., "On the whole, however, order had been well-preserved, possibly through fear." This was overly optimistic even for then, and now seems incredibly naive.

This is even more evidenced in the following passage. (Stewart interspersed his narrative throughout with this sort of poetic third-person-omniscient aside.):

"In those days when there had been death even in the air and civilization tottered towards its end--in those days, the men who controlled the flow of the water looked at one another and said, 'Even though we fall sick and die, still, the people must have water.' And they thought of plans that they had laid carefully in those times when men feared that bombs would fall. Then they set the valves and opened the channels, so that the water flowed freely all the way from the great dams in the mountains and through the long siphons and into the tunnels and finally to the reservoirs from which it would flow, all at the pull of the earth, through all the faucets. 'Now,' they said, 'when we are gone, the water will flow on--yes, until the pipes rust out, and that will be the time of a generation!' Then they died. But they died as men who have finished their work and lie down quietly, secure in their honor."

Another such aside is: "How long would the lights burn? What would make them go out in the end? What else would continue? What was going to happen to all that man had built up through the centuries and now had left behind him?" The BBC has an answer for this, in its series "Life after People". While the series becomes repetitive after a while, the original two-hour show would be an excellent adjunct to the book (and vice versa).

"It was as if there had been a blind man in a world suddenly bereft of light. In that world, those with seeing eyes could only blunder about, but the blind man would be at home, and now instead of being the one who was guided by others, he might be the one to whom others clung for guidance." This seems inspired by H. G. Wells's "The Country of the Blind", and in turn an inspiration for a sub-plot of John Wyndham's DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS.

Sometimes Stewart does not think things out very much. He writes of Ish's thinking, "Would he be ever able to figure out again just which day was Sunday? As for getting the proper day of the year, that should not be too difficult." Well, since it has been less than a year since the disaster, and he knows the date, even if he has not memorized a perpetual calendar all he needs to do is find a calendar, look up what day of the week that date is, and calculate from there.

"You and I, Joey, ...we are alike, we understand! Ezra and George and the others, they are good people. They are good solid average people, and the world couldn't get along withou having lots of them, but they have no spark. We have to give the spark!" And from this point on, Ish seems to be more and more focused on how superior he is to everyone else. Since the story is told from Ish's point of view (albeit in the third person), this makes the reader feel superior as well (by proxy), but on reflection makes Ish less ideal and almost a bit menacing when he starts talking about laws and trying to direct how things should be organized. And though he professes to not wanting to become some sort of god, he also wants to direct how things go and enjoy the prerogatives of being the leader.

One thing that struck me more this time than during previous readings is how Ish's society is much more capable of achieving some sort of recovery than ours is. If a prehistoric tribe had a plague, people could pick up and leave, go to a less populated area and resume their lifestyles pretty much the same. This was true through ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and even up until the Industrial Revolution. For that matter, even after the Industrial Revolution, there was still a lot that was simple enough that people could rebuild from a major disaster.

But now we are over-driving our headlights. Our society has advanced so much that no small group could even come close to rebuilding our technology. But worse, we have forgotten all the simpler technologies, so not only could we not build a new central heating system and the entire natural gas infrastructure to support it, most of us could not even build a working fireplace and know how to use it. Ish's generation still had a lot of people who knew something about farming; ours does not. All of which means, I suppose, that we really need to try to avoid global disasters.

To order Earth Abides from, click here.


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

Alan Stockwell's THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is yet another collection of Holmes pastisches, acceptable but nothing special, and missing that spark that the best ones have.

To order The Singular Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from, click here.

"The Battle of York" by James Stoddard:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/10/2004]

The novelette "The Battle of York" by James Stoddard ("Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction", July 2004) is an idea that is not exactly new, but Stoddard handles it very well. The premise is that three thousand years in the future, someone has pieced together a history of George Washington based on imperfect records (much as we do with, say, ancient Egypt) or on legends (Parson Weems has a lot to answer for). So not surprisingly, a few of the "facts" are wrong. What is surprising is how true to the spirit of it all Stoddard's re-telling is. This is a story I read a couple of months ago, and it has really stuck with me, which is the sign of a good story. This is definitely going on my Hugo nominations ballot next year.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/11/2012]

SILICON VALLEY SNAKE OIL: SECOND THOUGHTS ON THE INFORMATION AGE by Clifford Stoll (ISBN 978-0-385-41994-9) was written in 1995 and now seems a mere curious artifact. Consider the back blurbs. The top announces that this is "the first book to question the inflated claims--and hidden costs--of the Internet." I am immediately skeptical of claims by someone to be the first to question something, reveal something, or announce something. But then it continues, saying that Stoll reveals "that [the Internet] is not all it's cracked up to be. Yes, the Internet provides access to plenty of services, but useful information is virtually impossible to find and difficult to access. ... 'Few aspects of daily life require computers... They're irrelevant to cooking, driving, visiting, negotiating, eating, hiking, dancing, speaking, and gossiping.'"

Within the last week, I have used the Internet (or the Web) to find a recipe for broccoli, get directions to a museum, and arrange a social get-together for dinner. I think that leaves only dancing and hiking (and gossiping, but we know the Internet promotes that).

I cannot even begin to list all the places inside the book where Stoll gets it wrong. Well, okay, I can begin. (I will summarize Stoll's claims rather than include lengthy quotes.)

- Stoll says that we are told the data highway will be the cheapest way to send information around the world. But the Internet is too slow, he says, taking up to a minute for a keystroke to read the target system. Faxing a page is faster than email, and sending a CD overnight is faster than sending it over the Internet. Things will not get any better because adding more users and flashy services like audio and video will overwhelm any technical improvements. CD-ROMs are slow, especially if lots of people try to access a single one simultaneously. [And when was the last time anyone accessed a database that way?]

- Far fewer people are connected than people say, and if the predicted growth rates continue, they would imply that everyone in the world would be on-line by 2003. [Regarding this, I am reminded of Mark Twain's extrapolations about the length of the Mississippi.]

- We are told that "entertainment will reach us quickly, without waiting for the mail." Stoll claims this will not happen. [Boy, are Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube going to be surprised when they hear this.]

- E-mail is undependable and anyway, a hand-written letter is cheaper and often faster. [Stoll was as wrong about the slowing down of the Post Office as he was about the speeding up of the Internet.]

This covers just three pages of chapter two.

A few more:

"No electronic shopping can compare with the variety, quality, and experiential richness of a visit to even the most mundane malls." In 1995, this meant a Waldenbooks versus the then-nascent even then I think would have won.

"Network authentication software can never give the same sense of trust as a face-to-face business transaction," so we will never have Internet commerce. The only time I had problems with someone stealing my credit card number was in a face-to-face transaction (at a restaurant). The amount of Internet commerce today clearly shows that people do have that same sense of trust.

He also was wrong about computer games, social networking, educational opportunities, e-books, and just about everything else. I actually gave up pretty early because it was painful to read.

I'm not the only one who finds it painful. Stoll himself says, "Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler... Now, whenever I think I know what's happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong,"

Oh, and Stoll's prediction that e-commerce would never take off? He now sells glass Klein bottles on the Web.

To order Silicon Valley Snake Oil from, click here.

"That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/15/2011]

I am sure that someone, somewhere has described "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" by Eric James Stone (in ANALOG 09/10) as "Mormon whales in space"--it's just too tempting to pass up. But to some extent it is too simplistic, because the underlying issues are a bit more universal than that description might lead one to believe. What is a god? Who determines, not what the correct belief set is, but what is the protocol to determine what interactions between belief groups is allowed? Basically, this is a story that questions "Star Trek"'s "Prime Directive": who determines whether one culture is allowed to affect (or interfere) with another? And under it all is the question of what evidence of "God's plan" is valid when what we get are piles of conflicting events. Stone does not ask us to take a particular stand on Mormonism (or any other religion); he presents a variety of views and then says, "You decide."

THEY ALSO RAN by Irving Stone:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/24/2003]

Of interest to fans of alternate history (and of regular history, come to that) is THEY ALSO RAN by Irving Stone. Written in 1944, it tells the stories of all the candidates for President who didn't win. Well, almost all--it covers from 1824 through 1948, and does not include anyone who actually won a presidential election either before or after his loss, or any third-party candidates. The candidates are grouped by category (e.g., newspapermen) rather than considered chronologically. (This makes sense since a couple ran and lost in multiple non-consecutive elections.) Each candidate's chapter includes Stone's speculation on how good a President he would have made, and what he might have done (hence the alternate history connection). My edition is from 1966 and has a chapter on Dewey and an updated transitional section on Stevenson, Nixon, and Goldwater, though Nixon would get dropped as someone who did finally win if the book actually were updated. (It's out of print, but widely available used.)

To order They Also Ran from, click here.

ARCADIA by Tom Stoppard:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/29/2010]

I was also listening to Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia", in which someone discusses at great length the universe as being deterministic: given knowledge of the (past and) current state of the universe, one could theoretically predict its future. I was reminded of the line from SERIAL about "a woman who knows where she's going because she knows where she's been."

To order Arcadia from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/02/2004]

I read Rex Stout's lost race novel, UNDER THE ANDES, which is available on-line. It was not really a classic of its genre, but rather pretty much a potboiler of clichés.

To order Under the Andes from, click here. It can also be found on-line here.

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/29/2019]

The next book in the Teaching Company course on American classics was UNCLE TOM'S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe (ISBN 978-1-532-86906-8), which the professor calls "the unread classic." This may be because it contains some unpleasant truths, and I am not referring only to its depiction of slavery. Stowe depicts the self-delusion of both (or rather, all) sides.

The "kind" slave-holder says things like, "If folks want to keep their slaves from running away, treat 'em well--that's my doctrine." But then we see how meaningless and ineffective this is: when the "kind" master dies unexpectedly, his slaves end up sold to pay off his debts, or because his heirs don't want more slaves, or any number of reasons out of his control. Also out of his control is whether their new masters will be "kind" so naturally the only safety for a slave is to escape to freedom (Canada, given the Fugitive Slave Act).

Then there is Senator Bird, who thinks the Fugitive Slave Act perfectly reasonable in theory, but "the magic of the real presence of distress--the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the dispairing [sic] appeal of human agony,--these he had never tried." When presented with the reality of what the Fugitive Slave Act meant, he could not support it in practice.

(This natural tendency shows up in many ways. Steven Pinker's philosophy is strictly utilitarian, yet he expends a lot of money on caring for his mother who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's. As he responded to a question about this, "It's different when it's your mother.")

St. Clare hits the mark on the hypocrisy of Northerners, though, when Ophelia objects to Eva hugging Tom. St. Clare says, "You loathe [Africans] as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused, but you don't want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn't that it?" And Ophelia is forced to admit this, and agrees with Sy. Clare later when he says, "We are the more obvious oppressors of the negro, but the unchristian prejudice of the North is an oppressor almost equally severe."

But, alas, St. Clare, while talking of oppressors, is also a victim of inertia. His excuse is that "the whole framework of society, both in Europe and America, is made up of various things which will not stand the scrutiny of any very ideal standard of morality," and later, "in a community so organized, what can a man of honorable and humane feelings do, but shut his eyes all he can, and harden his heart?" Because he cannot cure all the evils of the world, he concludes he needn't try to cure any. Na he asks Ophelia, "Are you such a sweet innocent as to suppose nobody in this world ever does what they don't think is right? Don't you, or didn't you ever, do anything that you did not think quite right?"

But another reason Stowe is not read is that she was a product of her time, and the book is full of stereotypes. For example, see describes "the African" as "naturally patient, timid, and enterprising," as having the "soft, impressible nature of his kindly race, ever yearning toward the simple and childlike," of "their gentleness, their lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness." And in her closing remarks, Stowe writes, "I trust that the development of Africa is to be essentially a Christian one. If not a dominant and commanding race, they are at least an affectionate, magnanimous, and forgiving one." Her belief that African would become basically a Christian continent seemed to ignore the spread of Islam; the two religions each have about 40% to 45% of the continent. Her belief that becoming a Christian continent would make it close to a paradise on earth seems to ignore the history of Christian nations elsewhere. Even Store admits that what is preached in churches is not Christianity: "Is that which can bend and turn, and descend and ascend, to fit every crooked phase of selfish, worldly society, religion?" Why she thinks this would change is unclear.

Then again, she writes, "The principle of reliance and unquestioning faith ... is more a native element in this race than in any other, and it has often been found among them that a stray seed of truth, borne on some breeze of accident into hearts the most ignorant, has sprung up into fruit, whose abundance has shamed that of higher and more skilful culture," implying a level of Christianity not found elsewhere. Was she the first to postulate the "magical Negro" described by Spike Lee, or perhaps more accurately, the "numinous Negro" of Richard Brookhiser? Certainly Uncle Tom seems to be able to give other people faith, although that also came with acceptance of their lot in this life because after all, they would be rewarded in the next.

(She also writes about the Haitian Revolution that "the race that formed the Haytiens [sic] was a worn-out, effeminate one, and, of course, the subject race will be centuries rising to anything." I think she means here that the white French were the worn-out race and apparently does not count the slaves as Haitians), but one reason the "subject race" would take centuries was that the "white" nations put onerous financial burdens on them as a condition of national recognition.)

To order Uncle Tom's Cabin from, click here.

DROWNED WORLDS edited by Jonathan Strahan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/16/2018]

DROWNED WORLDS edited by Jonathan Strahan (ISBN 978-1-78108-451-9) was inspired by J. G. Ballard's THE DROWNED WORLD (and by climate change and rising sea levels, of course). While one might expect some stories about how to combat the inundations, the anthology title probably influenced authors to consider a world already past the tipping point.

So "Elves of Antarctica" by Paul McAuley seems to have the underlying theme "you can never go home again" (or perhaps "no one steps in the same river twice"). "Venice Drowned" by Kim Stanley Robinson, "Brownsville Station" by Christopher Rowe, ...--the list of stories which look at adaptation rather than prevention goes on and on. One might get the feeling that all the authors have given up on resisting the change. Now as I said, the title of the anthology does rather imply that the stories will be about drowned worlds, not worlds save from drowning.

I suppose this is somewhat re-assuring, because these stories are on the whole about how we will continue in some fashion, but there is also a negative feeling that it is all hopeless.

One side note: Though in real life, the only city I can think of named for a fictional character is Tarzana, and in science fiction the cities seem to be named for scientists ("Goddard City") or science fiction authors ("Bradbury Town" or "Clarkesville"), Ken Liu (in "Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit--Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts") has taken a decidedly different approach and has one character referring to "the last time I visited Watney City in Acidalia Planetia."

To order Drowned Worlds from, click here.


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

I have been doing a lot of long-distance driving lately, so I have been listening to books on CD. THOMAS AQUINAS IN 90 MINUTES (actually more like seventy on CD) by Paul Strathern, read by Robert Whitfield (ISBN 1-566-63194-7, audiobook ISBN 0-786-18527-9) is better than his GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ IN 90 MINUTES. For one thing, it is more linear. For another, it is done in the style of English humorist (or humourist) Mark Steel, peppered with comments such as, "In an age when the mail took over a fortnight to reach Rome, as it does once again today"; "Christ's crown of thorns, of which there were only three genuine originals at the time"; and (of Louis IX of France) "he was canonized and is now famous throughout Missouri and for his blues."

This book is not for everyone, nor is Aquinas's work. Strathern says at one point about Aquinas's writings, "Other topics which have insured Aquinas's masterpiece the slimmest chance of entering the best-seller lists include the following: what the world will be like after judgement; whether weakness, ignorance, malice, and lust are the result of sin; and whether the movement of the heavenly bodies will cease after judgement." He then says that you might find it difficult to believe these were popular topics. Just as I was thinking, "Well, I would love to read arguments about these," Strathern says that Aquinas was doing more than just writing "Christianity's answer to the Talmud." "Ah, ha!" I thought. "That explains why they sound like fun."

I will note that there were a couple of mispronunciations, and at one point the reader says "Augustine" when he obviously means "Aquinas". (I am assuming the error was in the reading and not in the text.)

To order Thomas Aquinas in 90 Minutes from, click here.

CONJUNCTIONS: 39 (THE NEW FABULISTS) edited by Brad Morrow, guest-edited by Peter Straub (Bard College, 2002, 436pp, $15):

fabulist: a creator or writer of fables fable: a fictitious narrative or statement; as a: a legendary story of supernatural happenings b: a narration intended to enforce a useful truth c: falsehood, lie --Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary

I suppose I will join the parade of reviewers who say that CONJUNCTIONS: 39 (THE NEW FABULISTS) is a good anthology, but that I'm somewhat confused by the title. In his introduction, Straub talks about "the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror . . . transforming themselves . . . into something all but unrecognizable, hence barely classifiable at all except as literature." Okay, but then where did this "fabulist" label come from, and what does it mean? And what about the "New Wave" part?

To start with the term "fabulists": they would be writers of fables. "Fables", as used in this volume, seems to include science fiction, fantasy, and horror, as well as stories that are none of these. Whatever it means, it does not limit itself here to the fantastic, or tales with morals. And "New Wave" implies some coherent approach, or technique, or attitude, or something--but the stories here are merely what a wide variety of authors are currently writing in a wide variety of styles. A more honest title might have been "The Many Faces of Fantastic Literature Today", but I suppose "The New Wave Fabulists" sounds more academic.

Okay, so who cares about the title anyway? What about the contents? Sixteen short stories, two excerpts from novels, and two essays cover a lot of territory. And I'll say up front that, as with most anthologies, I found some stories good, some middling, and some unreadable.

The first story is John Crowley's "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines". It is the best story in the anthology, and is not, so far as I can tell, fantasy at all. One could describe it as a "coming-of-age" story, but with Shakespeare and the theater and Francis Bacon thrown in as well. As in his novel THE TRANSLATOR, Crowley seems to have left the world of fantasy, or even magical realism, for that of the literary tale of literature. In THE TRANSLATOR one of the central characters is a (fictitious) Russian poet, and the novel centers around poetry. Here the story centers around Shakespeare's works--always a good starting point in my opinion. But even if the story isn't magical, the style is.

One that is fantasy is Andy Duncan's "Big Rock Candy Mountain", the story of what is basically hobo heaven. But once you get the idea (turkey dinners grow on trees, no one works, etc.), there's not much else to say. Jonathan Carroll's "Simon's House of Lipstick" is also fantasy, but a bit too predictable.

James Morrow's "The Wisdom of the Skin" is science fiction, set in the future (or a future) and although it has the satirical edge that Morrow is known for, it's also a bit more heavy-handed than some of his other works.

"The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door", by Jonathan Lethem, seems more surreal than most of the other stories--but that may just be because of the suicidal talking sheep.

Patrick O'Leary has perhaps the closest thing to a fable in "The Bearing of Light" a story about sin and forgiveness. It wouldn't succeed if it were much longer, but O'Leary knows when he has given us enough, and knows to stop then.

As an alternate history fan, I read John Kessel's "The Invisible Empire" with particular interest. Inspired by Karen Joy Fowler's "Game Night at the Fox and Goose" (It says so right at the beginning), it is remarkably unsubtle for Kessel, and also attempts an analogy that fails on close examination.

It was followed by a story from Karen Jay Fowler, "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man", which is another story here that has no fantastical element at all (unless you count the fact that the main character plays video games and has been told that his father had been abducted by aliens (though clearly this is not intended seriously).

The essays at the end are written for academics. (Gary K. Wolfe's is somewhat more accessible than John Clute's.) Feel free to skip them.

I haven't mentioned all the stories. Frankly, some were just not to my liking after a few pages, and I skipped them. (It's not like I'm being paid to review this book in detail.) Others I read but had nothing to say about them.

Oh, and each story has a lead illustration by Gahan Wilson, who also did the cover.

Do I recommend this anthology? As a look at what a range of authors with some connection to the speculative fiction field are doing, it's certainly worth while, but one could argue that if all you want are good fantasy stories, you should buy THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling instead. (After the next issue, it will be Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant.) Contrariwise, it's probably worth noting that the Datlow and Windling may very well be available in your library, while CONJUNCTIONS is unlikely to be.

To order Conjunctions 39 from, click here.

THE DEATH OF CAESAR by Barry Strauss:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/19/2015]

THE DEATH OF CAESAR by Barry Strauss (ISBN 978-1-4516-6879-7) is a fairly thorough, yet mercifully short, coverage of the assassination of Julius Caesar--what led up to it, what exactly happened, and what the ultimate results were. Most history books written for the mass audience (as much of a mass audience as there is for history, anyway) seem to be a thousand pages long, so something in the three-hundred-page range is a welcome relief. Strauss has written several other books of this sort about the ancient world, including THE BATTLE OF SALAMIS and THE SPARTACUS WAR.

At the very end, Strauss resorts to quoting literary and popular culture, first with a quote from the Italian novel THE LEOPARD by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa ("If we want everything to stay the same, everything has to change.") and then with one from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE ("When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."). I cannot endorse the latter, but the truth of the former is often demonstrated.

To order The Death of Caesar from, click here.


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

Jonathan Stroud's THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND (ISBN 0-786-81859-X) is the first of the young-adult "Bartimaeus Trilogy". In case, you're wondering, I'm reading this for the golem content (the second book, in fact, is called THE GOLEM'S EYE). Magic is real, and one of our main characters is a young magician in training. Sound familiar? Well, in Stroud's world, everyone knows magic is real. Governments employ magicians in large numbers. Prague, by virtue of its pre-eminence in magic, is a major world capital. And one of the first-person narrators of this book is Bartimaeus, a djinni. who delivers his asides as footnotes. (Example: As Bartimaeus is in the form of a mole, tunneling, he says, "No magical alarm sounded, though I did hit my head five times on a pebble," and then footnotes this with, "Once each on five different pebbles. Not the same pebble five times. Just want to make that clear. Sometimes you humans are so dense.") I like Bartimaeus as a character (he reminds me of C. S. Lewis's Screwtape), though I suspect some people with be less than thrilled with a demon as the sympathetic protagonist of a young-adult novel. This trilogy seems more in the tradition of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" than in that of J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter"--there is a darker side to magic (and life) that is more fully explored here.

To order The Amulet of Samarkand from, click here.

THE GOLEM'S MIGHTY SWING by James Lewis Sturm:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/03/2004]

I do not normally read graphic novels, but James Lewis Sturm's THE GOLEM'S MIGHTY SWING (ISBN 1-896-59771-8) sounded as though it might have some Jewish fantasy connection. It doesn't. It is about a Jewish barn-storming baseball team in the 1920s, and the "golem" of the title is the name given to one of the players who wears a golem costume as a publicity gimmick. It probably is of interest to fans of baseball history or Jewish history, since it covers the difficulties faced by the Jewish players (and by other minorities as well). But don't read it expecting a real golem.

To order The Golem's Mighty Swing from, click here.

The JEW STORE by Stella Suberman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/04/2003]

Stella Suberman's THE JEW STORE is a memoir of the author's family's life in a small town in Tennessee, where they moved so her father could open a dry goods store. (The title comes from the name given to the dry goods stores opened in these small towns by Jews. Apparently almost every small town large enough in the South of the 1920s had one of these stores.) While it is true that Hickam's memoirs have their hard times, they at least seem to have a lot of friendship and happy events, while Suberman's story is more downbeat. Her mother was never happy in Tennessee, the neighbors never really accepted them (and they never really accepted the neighbors), the Ku Klux Klan was always a threat, and the Depression almost wiped everyone out. I was reminded of RACHEL CALOF'S STORY, the memoir of a Jewish bride brought to a sod house in North Dakota in the 1870s. That too was filled with a lot of hard work, loneliness, and misery. In THE JEW STORE, the misery is almost all Suberman's mother's, but it serves to drag down the entire story. For Jews (or Southerners, I suppose) this book has some interest, but I doubt others would get much from it.

To order The Jew Store from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/29/2011]

You would think that brain teasers and logic puzzles are things that do not become outdated, but one of the puzzles in THE GREAT BOOK OF MIND TEASERS & MIND PUZZLES by George J. Summers (ISBN 0-8069-6320-4) is a counter-example. On page 18 of this book (published in 1985) is the following puzzle:

Lee, Dale, and Terry are related to each other. Among the three are Lee's legal spouse, Dale's sibling, and Terry's sister-in-law. Lee's legal spouse and Dale's sibling are of the same sex. Who do you know is a married man?

They claim this has a unique solution, with Dale as Lee's spouse and a married man. They rule out Terry as Lee's spouse, because then Terry and Lee would be two men married to each other.

Like I said, you would think that brain teasers and logic puzzles are things that do not become outdated, but you would be wrong. (And before you quibble about various states, the book was published in New York, which does recognize, though not perform, same-sex marriages.)

To order The Great Book of Mind Teasers & Mind Puzzles from, click here.

A CERTAIN AMBIGUITY by Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal:

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

A CERTAIN AMBIGUITY by Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal (ISBN 978-0-691-14501-0) is subtitled "A Mathematical Novel". There is a plot which occupies at most 20% of the content, the rest of the book being lectures, essays, theorems, and proofs about infinity (and geometry). (The premise of the book is that Ravi Kapoor's grandfather was a mathematician and while at Stanford, Ravi signs up for a course, "Thinking about Infinity". Much of the book consist of the discussions in the class.) The problem with this is that mathematicians are going to find the 80% very elementary and frankly, not very interesting. And non-mathematicians will probably give up rather early, which makes me wonder who the audience for this is.

To order A Certain Ambiguity from, click here.


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

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS: WHY THE MANY ARE SMARTER THAN THE FEW AND HOW COLLECTIVE WISDOM SHAPES BUSINESS, ECONOMIES, SOCIETIES, AND NATIONS by James Surowiecki (ISBN-13 978-0-385-50386-0, ISBN-10 0-385-50386-5) makes the claim that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." The important phrase here is "under the right circumstances," and the problem is determining those circumstances.

For example, he gives the example of the Challenger: while minutes of the explosion, the stock value of the four companies involved--Morton Thiokol, Rockwell International, Martin Marietta, and Lockheed--started to drop. Yet by the end of the day, Rockwell International, Martin Marietta, and Lockheed had basically recovered, while Morton Thiokol was still falling. Surowiecki gives this as an example of how the collective wisdom "knew" Morton Thiokol was at fault (albeit with some acknowledgement that it might have been just luck or some other fluke). My first reaction on reading this list of companies, though, was that before the Challenger explosion I had heard of three of them, which probably meant they were big enough to survive even if they were at fault, while Morton Thiokol was not. (Surowiecki does allow that this might have been the reason for the stock market reaction.)

So is this an example of collective wisdom, or just a fluke? Who knows? When it works, it's too easy to attribute it to collective wisdom, while when it fails, it is for unknown reasons.

When talking about stock prices, Suriowiecki says, "If Pfizer's stock price today makes it worth $280 billion, then for the market to be right, Pfizer will have to generate $280 billion in free cash over the next two decades." (page 234) Is this some rule-of-thumb everyone knows but me, or is Surowiecki assuming too much on the part of his readership?

He also says, "In starting to think about bubbles and crashes, one thing comes to mind right away: you don't see bubbles in the real economy, which is to say the economy where you buy and sell television sets and apples and haircuts. In other words, the price of televisions don't suddenly double overnight, only to crash a few months later." (page 245) Does he include gasoline in this real economy?

And Surowiecki claims that the reason movie theaters charge the same amount for popular movies as well as for duds is tradition. He pooh-poohs the idea that variation in ticket prices might be too complicated to coordinate with distributors, observing that theaters already discount matinees. Yes, but they know about that when the contract is drawn up. What they don't know is how successful a film will be, so they would have to have the freedom to change ticket prices unilaterally. What he doesn't even address is the problem in differential pricing for simultaneous movies at multiplexes. As it is, teenagers buy tickets for PG-13 movies and then sneak into R-rated ones; differential pricing will mean people will be buying cheap tickets for the duds (turning them into hits in the process!) while actually sneaking in to see the hits (which, selling fewer tickets, will become duds!).

What all this has to do with the wisdom of crowds is pretty tenuous, of course. I suppose that Surowiecki is trying to demonstrate that when attempting to make decisions, people and groups are swayed by tradition and ignore their collective wisdom, but he spends an entire chapter on it.

Collective wisdom, by the way, would say that the title is way too long, and that the book should have an index.

(Those unfamiliar with it will not recognize that EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS AND THE MADNESS OF CROWDS, the classic book by Charles MacKay, is the inspiration for the title.

To order The Wisdom of Crowds from, click here.


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

CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE by John Sutherland (ISBN 978-1-61608-074-7) is a collection of short essays on various literary topics. Some are very similar to those in his books of literary conundrums: What really happened on Dorothea's wedding night (in MIDDLEMARCH)? Is Hamlet really to supposed to be making notes while talking to the Ghost and if so, how? Others are more connected with authors or books in our world: What were the most popular novels in the Civil War? Why are there no Brontes now, and why did the authors have an umlaut in their name?

What I find ironic is that the chapter "Morbid Curiosity", which includes essays on authors' deaths, and (quite often) the misinformation given out about them, starts with a quote from Isaac Asimov (*), but says nothing about how the cause of his death was concealed for ten years.

(*) "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."

The problem with analyzing each word in a story in translation is that if you do not know the original word you are at the mercy of ambiguities, missed connotations, and translators' whims.

For example, a recent podcast was analyzing "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges and discussing the phrase (in English) "the blades that dilacerated his flesh." One person thought this referred to knives that were already embedded in the man's body, and thought that "dilacerated" was a very interesting concept. But the original Spanish is "las cortaderas que le dilaceraban las carnes." "Cortadera" is a type of sharp-bladed grass, and "dilacerar" is a stronger form of "lacerar", closer to "flay" than to "lacerate". (Another person had a translation that referred to "brambles", which made him think this a reference to the Crown of Thorns, but "cortadera" actually has nothing to do with thorns.

To order Curiosities of Literature from, click here.

GUILTY PLEASURES OF THE HORROR FILM edited by Gary J. Svehla and Susan Svehla:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/27/2006]

GUILTY PLEASURES OF THE HORROR FILM edited by Gary J. Svehla and Susan Svehla (ISBN 1-887664-03-1) is a collection of twelve essays on "guilty pleasures" such as UNKNOWN ISLAND, SH! THE OCTOPUS, and THE TINGLER. The least interesting are the essays that are almost entirely devoted to recounting the plot in detail; the more interesting are those which take a more subjective look. However, sometimes people's enthusiasm for a film can get the better of them, such as Robert A. Crick's defense of the Dino Di Laurentiis version of KING KONG (1976). Crick says it "seems remarkable" that we have had dozens of Frankenstein and Dracula movies, but no chain of Kong films. (He does mention SON OF KONG, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, and KING KONG LIVES.) The fact that Frankenstein and Dracula have been in public domain for decades, and Kong has not just might have something to do with that. (Actually, the 1981 "Donkey Kong" court case seems to say that Kong as a character is now in public domain, but before that he was at least thought not to be in public domain.)

But Crick also says, "Almost as if genius were something which died in Hollywood at the moment of Kong's death on the streets of New York, it has since been universally decreed that no remake of KONG, however lovingly executed, can ever be more than a joke." First of all, I doubt you would find very many people who would claim that the Di Laurentiis KING KONG was "lovingly executed." But even more importantly, Peter Jackson has clearly proved Crick's premise wrong. No, it is because the Di Laurentiis KING KONG was a bad "King Kong" movie, with neither the technical artistry nor the charm of the original, but only campy humor.

To order Guilty Pleasures of the Horror Film from, click here.

BONES OF THE EARTH by Michael Swanwick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/23/2003]

Michael Swanwick's BONES OF THE EARTH was an enjoyable enough read, but not really what I would call Hugo material. In fact, this year has been quite disappointing in its selection of Hugo nominees, with at least three striking me as not worthy of being labeled "one of the five best novels of the year."

To order Bones of the Earth from, click here.

"From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" by Michael Swanwick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/19/2009]

"From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's Feb 2008) was completely unintelligible to me.

THE PERIODIC TABLE by Michael Swanwick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/21/2006]

I cannot comment on the actual book of THE PERIODIC TABLE by Michael Swanwick (ISBN 1-9046-1900-2), because I read it as individual pieces on the scifiction site (A HREF=> Actually, I downloaded it a bit at a time to my palmtop, because each of the pieces is just the right length to read while waiting in a line or during other short periods. It consists of 118 pieces each "inspired" by an element on the periodic table. Some are science fiction, some are fantasy, some are alternate history. Some are humorous, some are serious. Some are based on the name of the element, some are based on the characteristics of the element itself, and some are fairly generic (e.g., someone is mining for the element, but it could just as easily be another element). For example, "Iridium" is about the iridium layer at the end of the Cretaceous, while "Radium" is a reminiscence of Pierre Curie, and "Radon" is about monsters in the basement. While a few of them fall flat, on the whole Swanwick does an excellent job. (And I am sure he is happy it is over!)

(After writing this, I noticed that it was mentioned in SciTech Daily,, so it may actually get an actual printing in the United States, rather than just the current British small-press edition.)

To order The Periodic Table from, click here.

"A Small Room in Koboldtown" by Michael Swanwick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/27/2008]

"A Small Room in Koboldtown" by Michael Swanwick (ASIMOV'S Apr/May) is basically "CSI: Supernatural", and the solution turns on something supernatural that the reader cannot possibly be expected to know, so while the "CSI" element is kind of cute, the ending doesn't work for me. On the other hand, the setting is at least interesting, and frankly, its competition is not very strong.

WHEN ANGELS WEPT by Eric G. Swedin:

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

WHEN ANGELS WEPT: A WHAT-IF HISTORY OF THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS by Eric G. Swedin (ISBN 978-1-59797-517-9) is an alternate history somewhat in the style of Robert Sobel's FOR WANT OF A NAIL, an alternate history presented as a non-fiction book written in the alternate universe (in this case, one in which the Cuban missile crisis turned out differently). But where Sobel carried the technique through to footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, etc., Swedin "breaks character" with his introduction, prologue, "further sources" at the end of each chapter, and so on. Also, the style seems a bit wrong for non-fiction, though I have a hard time pinning down why. I suppose it seems too casual and simplistic for the topic.

One specific nit I have to pick is over Swedin's contention that Torrejon Air Force Base near Madrid would not be targeted. True, Spain was not in NATO at the time, but nevertheless this was a major United States military installation in Europe. I am particularly aware of this because we were an Air Force family and at the time of the Cuban missile crisis my father was stationed at Torrejon. The rest of the family was stateside, living a few hundred feet from Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. (My school was only about fifty feet from the base perimeter fence. We all knew that for us, "duck and cover" was pretty useless.)

Swedin also says that the Middle East was not touched by "the Fire", but he does not indicate how the politics of the region played out when the two super-powers were no longer around to provide support or weapons (or curbs) to the two sides.

To order When Angels Wept: A What-If History of the Cuban Missile Crisis from, click here.

"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" by Rachel Swirsky:

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

"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window", Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Summer 2010) is "fantasy with an agenda." The narrator is from a society in which women rule, and men are "worms", and more along that vein, and a lot of the story reinforces the validity of all this. It is true that eventually there is some question about whether this is good, but my feeling is that Swirsky ultimately says that it is, or rather that the alternative is bad. Combine that for my general disinterest in high fantasy, and you have a story that does very little for me.

"Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky:

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

"Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four) is about the afterlife, but more about the messed-up characters who end up there. It is okay, but not much is done with the fantasy aspect except at the end, when you get a sort of wish-fulfillment deus ex machina.

PLAGUE LAND by S. D. Sykes:

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

PLAGUE LAND by S. D. Sykes (ISBN 978-1-60598-673-9) is a murder mystery set in a village in England shortly after the Plague. The Plague has turned everything upside down, with the third son of the lord of the manor suddenly called back from his probationary period at the monastery when his father and two older brothers die of the Plague. He has to contend not only with running the manor when so many of its vassals have died, but also with someone--or something--that has murdered two village girls. I cannot judge whether this is an accurate picture of fourteenth century life in England, but there is a lot of melodrama and soap opera laid over it. I found some of the twists and turns unlikely, but then that is true of a lot of Agatha Christie's novels as well.

To order Plague Land from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/12/2015]

NUMBERS RULE: THE VEXING MATHEMATICS OF DEMOCRACY, FROM PLATO TO THE PRESENT by George G. Szpiro (ISBN 978-0-691-13994-4) covers all (or most of, anyway) the various voting systems developed throughout history.

Of Plato's comments on voting, Szpiro writes, "The description of the exchange [in 'Laws'] as a conversation or dialogue--trialogue would be more apt--is somewhat of an overstatement. Plato reduces Cleinas and Megillus to uttering 'of course,' 'that is very true,' 'by Zeus', and 'OK' from time to time. (Well maybe not 'OK,' but something like that.)"

Just such a pattern was also noted in the BBC's version of the Sherlock Holmes story, "The Lion's Mane" (dramatization by Bert Coules):

"You know, this is just like that damn stage play."

"The similarities elude me."

"Questions! All I'm doing is asking an endless string of questions! It's always you who gets the interesting speeches.!"

"I thought you liked it that way."

"'Amazing, Holmes!' 'That's incredible, Holmes!' 'It all seems so simple now you explain it, Holmes!' Oh, I'm not sure I want to go down in history as a literary device to make you seem even cleverer than you are. Not to mention lending credence to your dubious deductions.'"

The method that is currently used for Hugo voting (not nominating!) is discussed and its major flaw pointed out. Szpiro covers this in what could be called Charles Dodgson's multistage voting, which appears to be the same as the Hugo method. Each voter ranks the nominees. Whichever gets the lowest number of first-place votes is dropped, and its second-place votes distributed to the remaining nominees. Repeat until one nominee has a majority. (Later, Szpiro describes the more commonly recognized "single transferable vote" method, which so far as I can tell is identical with Dodgson's method.)

The problem is thus: Assume four candidates and eleven voters. Two voters list A first, and three each list B, C, and D. The last nine all list A as their second choice. In specific, the rankings are:

A gets dropped in the first round, and B and C each get a vote from those ballots. Now it is B=4, C=4, and D=3. D is dropped, and B picks up one vote, while C picks up two, making C the winner. But 8 of the 11 preferred A to C! This can be summarized by saying that if there is a candidate who is no one's first choice, but everyone's second choice, they cannot win.

(Oh, and the system is susceptible to strategic voting, as proved by the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem. Consider it a partner to the Arrow Impossibility Theorem in showing just how impossible life is.)

There are also four chapters on the very current topic of the apportionment of Representatives in the US House of Representatives (and by extension, the Electoral College) which covers several paradoxes without even touching on the recent question of whether the apportionment should be on the basis of eligible voters, citizens, or all persons (including resident aliens, etc.). The Fourteenth Amendment states, "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed," which is, one admits, a bit ambiguous.

Rather, the paradoxes addressed by Szpiro (and various apportioning bodies) are due to the fact that when you divide the population of a state by 30,000 (or any reasonable number near that), one ends up with fractional Representatives. How to round these numbers to integers is the difficulty: merely rounding up or down based on the arithmetic mean favors bigger states. Using the geometric mean favors smaller; using the harmonic mean did not work either. Even if one came up with a "fair" system for the current population, when new states were added, or the size of the House was increased, or state populations increased at different rates, additional paradoxes arose. You might be able to stop the first two, but the third, like the poor, will always be with us.

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