Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE ANNALS OF IMPERIAL ROME by Tacitus:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/15/2016]

THE ANNALS OF IMPERIAL ROME by Tacitus (translated by Michael Grant) (ISBN 978-0-14-044-60-7) is a (mostly) year-by-year account of the period between the start of the Common Era and sometime around the year 60 (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, though parts are lost, including all of Caligula's reign).

"Tacitus" means "silent", and while Tacitus was not silent, he is known for his brevity and clarity.

Tacitus has this digression about fate versus chance (or looked at another way, predestination versus free will):

"When I hear this and similar stories I feel uncertain whether human affairs are directed by Fate's unalterable necessity--or by chance. On this question the wisest ancient Thinkers and their disciples differ. Many insist that heaven is unconcerned with our births and deaths--is unconcerned, in fact, with human beings--so that the good often suffer, and the wicked prosper. Others disagree, maintaining that although things happen according to fate, this depends not on astral movements but on the principles and logic of natural causality. This school leaves us free to choose our lives. But once the choice is made, they warn that the future sequence of events is immutable. ... Most men, however, find it natural to believe that lives are predestined from birth, that the science of prophecy is verified by remarkable testimonials, ancient and modern; and that unfulfilled predictions are due merely to ignorant impostors who discredit."

What is interesting is that Tacitus expresses this as people preferring predestination. Admittedly, one can argue that having your fate guided by something/someone more powerful is better than having your fate decided by chance. But it also seems (to me, anyway) that having free will is more appealing than believing you have no control over your fate.

While one understands the logic in the following, it still ends up sounding completely insane:

"Next day, the townsmen of Upse sent envoys asking for the free population to be spared but offering to hand over ten thousand slaves. The victorious Romans rejected this proposal on the grounds that it was barbarous to slaughter men who had surrendered, but hard to provide guards for such large numbers--better that they should be slain in normal warfare. So the soldiers, who had scaled the defences on ladders, were given orders to kill; and the inhabitants were exterminated."

In other words, we do not have enough guards to guard you if you surrender, but neither can we kill you if you surrender, so we are going to have what is basically a mock battle so that we can pretend that we killed you in battle.

(This reminds me of someone's proposal that the South might have been able to win the Civil War if all their wounded surrendered to the North, thereby putting an enormous strain on the North's resources. This might not have been a good idea, though, because the South being overwhelmed with prisoners was what created prisons such as Andersonville.)

The following aside got me to wondering about the geography of it: "His colleague in Upper Germany, Lucius Antistius Vetus, planned to build a Saone-Moselle canal. Goods arriving from the Mediterranean up the Rhone and Saone would thus pass via the Moselle into the Rhine, and so to the North Sea." Given that the Romans did not, to the best of my knowledge, have canal locks, I would think that a canal openly connecting two rivers would result in the flow of the river at the upper end of the canal would redirect itself to the canal and down the other river.

To order The Annals of Imperial Rome from amazon.com, click here.


HUNGRY STONES AND OTHER STORIES by Rabindranath Tagore:

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

HUNGRY STONES AND OTHER STORIES by Rabindranath Tagore (ISBN 978-81-7167-633-2) is a lovely little (4.5"x7") book full of lovely stories, some with fantasy or supernatural elements. It is printed in lavender/purple ink on cream-colored paper with French flaps and a border imitating moire taffeta on each page. The only problem in recommending it might have been that it was published in India. But luckily these days, globalization has solved this problem: there are many copies available on amazon.com (and its sibling sites), and even if there weren't, you could just order it from a bookstore in India. (Even before the Internet took off, I was ordering books from stores in Europe, though that often meant something like putting a ten-dollar bill in an envelope and mailing it.)

By the way, Tagore may be added to the short but growing(*) list of Nobel laureates who have written science fiction or fantasy.

(*) Or not. With the current status of the committee to choose the Nobel Prize in Literature, there may not be any more in the future. The committee has eighteen chairs; it requires a quorum of twelve to transact business, including choosing new members to fill vacancies. But eight of the members have resigned, leaving the committee with not enough members to transact business or even to choose new members to reach a quorum.

To order Hungry Stones and Other Stories from amazon.com, click here.


THE MAN WHO COUNTED by Malba Taham:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/08/2016]

THE MAN WHO COUNTED by Malba Tahan (translated by Leslie Clark and Alastair Reid) (ISBN 978-0-393-30934-8) is a combination math puzzle book and "Arabian Nights" sort of adventure story (although it is a geographic error to call a story that takes place in Mesopotamia "Arabian").

A more serious problem is that two of the puzzles are wrong. In one case (page 182), the puzzle is expressed ambiguously, and as most people would interpret it, the solution given is wrong and it has no solution. Tahan writes, "Mas este filho ... apenas tinha atingido a metade da idade do pai, morreu" (translated as "No sooner had this child reached half the age of its father than it died"). This could theoretically be read as either the child died at half the age its father was when the child died, or half the age its father was when the father died. They could have said, "No sooner had this child reached half the age its father did than it died." But instead what they said can get interpreted as "No sooner had this child reached half the age its father had than it died."

In the other (page 238ff), there is no solution because the logic used is faulty. The problem involves liars and truth-tellers, and the solution depends on whether a liar can say "A and B" when A is true and B is false. Beremiz assumes that if A is true the speaker must be a truth-teller. The problem is that "A and B" as a statement is true only if A is true and B is true. So if someone who may be a truth-teller or may be a liar says "A and B" and you know A is true, that does not tell you anything about B, or which sort of person the speaker is. (If on the other hand you know A is false, you do not care about B--you know the person is a liar.)

(If the person said "A. B." and "A" is true, then the questioner might reasonably conclude that the person is a truth-teller and that B is also true.)

It's a pity, because there is a certain charm and poetry to how the puzzles are told, embedded in a story of travelers in exotic settings. (These days, of course, one might question the "orientalism" embodied in this book--the author's name as given implies he is someone from that part of the world, but in fact the name is a pseudonym and he is really Julio Cesar de Mello e Souza, a Brazilian. For more information on Mello e Souza, see http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27254747.)

To order The Man Who Counted from amazon.com, click here.


THE BED OF PROCRUSTES: PHILOSOPHICAL AND PRACTICAL APHORISMS by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

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

The "Wall Street Journal" blurb on the back of THE BED OF PROCRUSTES: PHILOSOPHICAL AND PRACTICAL APHORISMS by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (ISBN 978-1-4000-6997-2) says, "[Taleb writes] in a style that owes as much to Stephen Colbert as it does to Michel de Montaigne." I've read Montaigne, and Taleb is no Montaigne. Nor is he Francois La Rochefoucauld, nor George Bernard Shaw, nor Oscar Wilde. His comments vary from the obvious:

"It seems that it is the most unsuccessful people who give the most advice, particularly for writing and financial matters."

to the just plain wrong:

"Read nothing from the past one hundred years; eat no fruits from the past one thousand years; drink nothing from the past four thousand years (just wine and water); but talk to no ordinary man over forty. A man without a heroic bent starts dying at the age of thirty."

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, this book is from the past one hundred years, beer is also more than four thousand years old (at any rate, older than wine), and Taleb himself is over forty. The notion that we should not talk to anyone over the age of forty is just outrageous.

Read Montaigne instead.

To order The Bed of Procrustes from amazon.com, click here.


THE BLACK SWAN: THE IMPACT OF THE HIGHLY IMPROBABLE by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

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

THE BLACK SWAN: THE IMPACT OF THE HIGHLY IMPROBABLE by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (ISBN-13 978-1-4000-6351-2, ISBN-10 1-400-06351-5) spends a lot of time explaining how people spend a lot of time trying to predict the future, while failing to take into account that so much of it is improbable (or unpredictable, if you prefer). He gave many examples (in fact, perhaps more than were needed), but one of the clearest was for the casino when he spoke at a seminar. All of the casino's risk management was aimed at cheaters, since the casino operated on the assumption that the law of averages was on their side. Yet "it turned out that the four largest losses incurred or narrowly avoided by the casino fell completely outside their sophisticated models." And what were these? First was a "$100 million dollar [loss] when an irreplaceable performer in their main show was maimed by a tiger." (Ironically, the casino had considered the tiger attacking the crowd, but not its trainer.) A disgruntled contractor tried to blow up the casino. An employee, for reasons completely unknown, failed for years to file IRS forms for big winners. When discovered, only paying an enormous fine kept the casino from being losing its license. And lastly, the casino owner embezzled casino funds to pay a kidnapper's ransom demand on his daughter.

All this is fascinating, of course, but since by their very nature unpredictable events are, well, unpredictable, it is not clear what Taleb expects people (or casinos) to do. Should a casino forget about trying to control the odds for its games because a meteor might hit it tomorrow? Yes, we need to recognize that predicting the future is a very shaky proposition, but we still have to attempt to plan. When you drive somewhere, you take a spare tire, but not a spare set of spark plugs, because the chances are greater that you will need the former than the latter.

The "black swan" of the title is one of the black swans of Australia, which amazed everyone, who until then had "known" that all swans were white. It is connected to the problem of induction, which is the assumption that the past is a (good) predictor of the future. Taleb gives several examples where induction fails, but the fact is that in general induction works fairly well, and I am sure Taleb uses it all the time. (Every time he has dialed his home phone number, he gets connected to his home, so he expects it will happen the next time too.)

Taleb gives Nelson Goodman's paradox of "grue". Something is "grue" if it is green before (say) December 31, 2010, and then blue after that date. Observing it to be green for hundreds of days before December 31, 2006, and hence apparently grue as well, does not correctly predict whether it actually is grue. The problem I see is that once you have defined a transition point, you must observe on either side for the observations to be meaningful. One might as easily consider H2O, defined as something solid below 0 degrees Celsius, liquid between 0 and 100 degrees, and gaseous about 100 degrees. Performing a lot of observations of something, but only at temperatures below minus-10 degrees Celsius, is not actually enormously informative. (I think some philosophers have found problems with this attempt to avoid the problem of induction with a concept such as "grue", but I have not been able to figure them out.)

There are some interesting ideas in the book, but it goes on too long, and spends too much time on how life is unpredictable. I am reminded of a meeting about a computer center move, during which we addressed all sorts of problems we thought might crop up. At the end, someone asked, "Are there any other problems we have not thought of?" "Well, Joe, if we could answer that, we would have thought of them!"

To order The Black Swan from amazon.com, click here.


THINKING IN NUMBERS: ON LIFE, LOVE, MEANING, AND MATH by Daniel Tammet:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/29/2013]

THINKING IN NUMBERS: ON LIFE, LOVE, MEANING, AND MATH by Daniel Tammet (ISBN 978-0-316-18737-4) is a collection of essays dealing with numbers (though not necessarily mathematics). However, unlike most such books, it is not a book of pre-existing essays, but rather a collection of essays either written expressly for this book, or written and stuck in a drawer until there were enough to make into a book.

One of the essays, "Counting to Four in Icelandic", is in large part about one of my particular fascinations, number classifiers. For example, in English we say "two sheets of paper" or "five pieces of fruit", not "two papers" or "five fruits" (or if we say the latter, it means something else.) This is rare in English, but in some other languages it is pervasive.

Another essay, "A Novelist's Calculus", is of interest to history (and alternate history) fans. For example, he quotes Tolstoy as writing, "The movement of humanity, arising it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. ... only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation ... and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history."

Later Tolstoy says, "Kings are the slaves of history. The unconscious swarmlike life of mankind uses every moment of a king's life as an instrument for its purposes." This is not even the "Tide of History" theory--it is more a "Random Brownian Motion" theory. No matter all the reasons put forward why Napoleon did what he did (often contradictory). The truth is that by the time Napoleon's commands filtered down, most were of necessity ignored or modified, and the actual outcome less attributable to him than to the cumulative effects of random events.

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

THINKING IN NUMBERS: ON LIFE, LOVE, MEANING, AND MATH by Daniel Tammet (ISBN 978-0-316-18736-7) is a collection of essays, some more interesting than others (though clearly which are which will vary from reader to reader). The "Family Values" talks about sets, and uses Jorge Luis Borges's "Chinese taxonomy." "Counting to Four in Icelandic" discusses counter words and forms used in some languages (English has only a few, such as "N head of cattle" rather than "N cattle"). Icelandic is odd in that it has different forms of the numbers depending on what they are modifying, but only up through four.

"Selves and Statistics" covers two of my favorite stories about how statistics do not tell the whole story. The first is when Stephen Jay Gould found out he had cancer, and had a median life expectancy of eight months. Gould wrote about it in "The Median Is Not the Message"--several years later, and in fact lived more than twenty years past the median. One key fact he noted was that while there was a constraint on the lower end (no one could survive less than zero time), but there was no limit on the upper end (other than normal lifespan).

The second is the story of Andre-Francois Raffray and Jean Calment. Calment was 90 years old when Raffray offered her a "rente viagere": he would pay her a certain amount a month and in return he would get her house when she died. The break-even point was somewhere about fifteen years, and the actuarial tables said a 90-year-old has a life expectancy of three years, so this seemed like a good bet for Raffray.

It wasn't.

Three years passed, and another three, and Calment kept going. She turned 100, then 105. The payments now exceeded the value of the house, but that did not matter. At 110, Calment entered a nursing home. At 113 she was the oldest person in the world. There was a big celebration when she turned 120, but Raffray was too ill to attend. He died, and his widow had to pay the rent for two more years, until Calment finally died at 122.

Now, Tammet says, "Not knowing how to read [the mortality table's numbers] ... cost one man and his family very dear." I disagree. Yes, it cost them, but there was no way to read the numbers and think this was a bad bet. Of course the unexpected may happen; there is always an element of risk.

But the richest chapter is probably "A Novelist's Calculus". The mathematical connection is that Tolstoy applied the concepts of calculus to history:

"The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history ... only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation ... and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history."

The historical aspect is Tolstoy's concept that "kings are the slaves of history." In other words, he believes in the Tide of History Theory rather than the Great Man Theory. And everything has many causes, no one of which can be labeled as The Cause. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was "the" proximate cause of World War I, but clearly there were a lot of causes before it (e.g., Germany's military build-up).

All in all, there is much to chew on in this book.

To order Thinking in Numbers from amazon.com, click here.


The Teaching Company:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/03/2010]

I mentioned recently that I listened to both a Teaching Company course and a UC Berkeley course on ancient Rome. Obviously there was a lot of overlap in the content, but the presentations were very different.

The UC Berkeley course (hereafter called UCB) was a series of (audio) podcasts of the real lectures for a real course with real students, etc. It was intended, so far as I can tell, as a way to allow students who cannot attend some of the lectures to keep up with the course. As a result, it is very different from the Teaching Company course (hereafter called TTC).

The main difference is that TTC is completely self-contained, while UCB assumes the students will read the textbooks and readings. (As was clear from listening to the real lectures at UCB, the students there did not always do the readings before the class.) TTC has a reading list, with recommended and additional readings for each lecture, but does not assume the student is reading them. For one thing, I think TTC realizes that while a matriculated college student will pay a few hundred dollars for textbooks for a course, someone taking a TTC course probably will not. For another, in their advertisements TTC talks about how you can learn a subject during your commute time, etc., just by listening to their course. If you also have to do all the readings they listed, it would double or triple the time, at least. So in the lecture, the professor tells you everything to be covered about that lecture's topic.

The UCB lectures, on the other hand, are more like one or two details, livened up for the class. The professor (in this case) spent a lot of time making comparisons between actual history and HBO's "Rome"; SPARTACUS; I, CLAUDIUS; and so on. She also used terms she had not defined in previous lectures, but which presumably were in the readings. And she also made reference to a lot of visuals, which even those students in the course using the podcast could not see.

Apparently, UC Berkeley has a networking site called "B-space", because the professor would say things like, "I couldn't make copies of the supplemental reading because the copy machine is broken, but you can find it on B-space," or, "The study guides are on B-space." This is great for the actual students, but a bit annoying for us hangers-on. (TTC's booklet serves as a sort of study guide, I suppose.)

TTC's professor, on the other hand, had no references to television or movies that I can remember, but covered the material in a lot more detail in the lectures. Obviously, this is because the lectures are all there is for the vast majority of their students.

(Interestingly, the lecture on Christians under Diocletian for UCB was given by one of the professor's teaching assistants, and it was by far the best organized and most informative of the lectures (IMHO). It was also the only one done in a "traditional" lecture style.)

I will admit that if you take the UCB course with all the reading, quizzes, papers, and exams, you will probably learn more and retain it longer than if you take TTC's course. On the other hand, if you take TTC's course and do all the readings it lists, you will also probably learn more and retain it longer.

One big difference not mentioned often is the effect of discussion (classroom and otherwise). Any discussion of correspondence courses or today's more hi-tech versions of distance learning talks about this: a student sitting alone in a room studying does not have the advantage of a student in a group of students and teachers engaged in lively discussion. One solution to this problem with TTC is to take the course with someone else. Mark and I first did this with a course on the "Great Books" that we listened to on a cross-country trip, and we found that we kept stopping the course to comment on it, discuss what the professor had just said, and so on. This may be hard to do if you're listening to the course on your commute, but I still recommend it.

SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE CHINESE JUNK AFFAIR by Roy Templeman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/01/2005]

Roy Templeman's SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE CHINESE JUNK AFFAIR (ISBN 0-9475-3373-7) includes the title story as well as "The Tick Tock Man" and "The Trophy Room". The stories are a bit convoluted, but the writing is competent, and the title story is of interest to science fiction fans, involving as it does an inventor's demonstration of a teleportation machine.

To order Sherlock Holmes & the Chinese Junk Affair from amazon.com, click here.


OF MEN AND MONSTERS by William Tenn:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/15/2012]

When I read OF MEN AND MONSTERS by William Tenn (ISBN 978-0-345-29523-1), my first thought was that this was inspired by, or a response to, the speech by the artilleryman in H. G. Wells's WAR OF THE WORLDS:

"Well, it's like this," he said. "What have we to do? We have to invent a sort of life where men can live and breed, and be sufficiently secure to bring the children up. Yes--wait a bit, and I'll make it clearer what I think ought to be done. The tame ones will go like all tame beasts; in a few generations they'll be big, beautiful, rich-blooded, stupid--rubbish! The risk is that we who keep wild will go savage--degenerate into a sort of big, savage rat.... You see, how I mean to live is underground. I've been thinking about the drains. Of course those who don't know drains think horrible things; but under this London are miles and miles--hundreds of miles--and a few days' rain and London empty will leave them sweet and clean. The main drains are big enough and airy enough for anyone. Then there's cellars, vaults, stores, from which bolting passages may be made to the drains. And the railway tunnels and subways. Eh? You begin to see? And we form a band--able-bodied, clean-minded men. We're not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again. ... Those who stop obey orders. Able-bodied, clean-minded women we want also--mothers and teachers. No lackadaisical ladies--no blasted rolling eyes. We can't have any weak or silly. Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It's a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race. And they can't be happy. Moreover, dying's none so dreadful; it's the funking makes it bad. And in all those places we shall gather. Our district will be London. And we may even be able to keep a watch, and run about in the open when the Martians keep away. Play cricket, perhaps. That's how we shall save the race. Eh? It's a possible thing? But saving the race is nothing in itself. As I say, that's only being rats. It's saving our knowledge and adding to it is the thing. There men like you come in. There's books, there's models. We must make great safe places down deep, and get all the books we can; not novels and poetry swipes, but ideas, science books. That's where men like you come in. We must go to the British Museum and pick all those books through. Especially we must keep up our science--learn more. We must watch these Martians. Some of us must go as spies. When it's all working, perhaps I will. Get caught, I mean. And the great thing is, we must leave the Martians alone. We mustn't even steal. If we get in their way, we clear out. We must show them we mean no harm. Yes, I know. But they're intelligent things, and they won't hunt us down if they have all they want, and think we're just harmless vermin. ... After all, it may not be so much we may have to learn before-- Just imagine this: four or five of their fighting machines suddenly starting off--Heat-Rays right and left, and not a Martian in 'em. Not a Martian in 'em, but men--men who have learned the way how. It may be in my time, even--those men. Fancy having one of them lovely things, with its Heat-Ray wide and free! Fancy having it in control! What would it matter if you smashed to smithereens at the end of the run, after a bust like that? I reckon the Martians'll open their beautiful eyes! Can't you see them, man? Can't you see them hurrying, hurrying--puffing and blowing and hooting to their other mechanical affairs? Something out of gear in every case. And swish, bang, rattle, swish! Just as they are fumbling over it, swish comes the Heat-Ray, and, behold! man has come back to his own."

It's all in the Tenn: the gigantic size of the invaders, mankind living in burrows, the use of the drains, the winnowing of the weak, the attempts to harness ancient science to help mankind and possibly defeat the invaders. It is not unusual to see a science fiction novel written in response to another (consider Robert Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS, Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, and John Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR), so to assume OF MEN AND MONSTERS was is not all that far-fetched.

(Other examples of responses include Donald Kingsbury's PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS in response to Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series, and several short stories in response to Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations".)

One also sees elements of the classic "generation ship" trope, particularly the idea that after a few generations the inhabitants will have imperfect knowledge of what their actual situation is. Robert A. Heinlein originated this, in the second "generation ship" story, "Universe" (written for the May 1941 ASTOUNDING, less than a year after Don Wilcox wrote the first, "The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years", AMAZING, October 1940). In OF MEN AND MONSTERS, humanity (or at least many of the tribes thereof) think that their burrows and the monsters' house (or even more specifically, the monsters' storeroom) is all there is to the universe. They have rote learning of some astronomy, but no idea what it means. (Shades of John W. Campbell's "Nightfall" as well?)

To order Of Men and Monsters from amazon.com, click here.


DEATH ON A PALE HORSE by Donald Thomas:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/03/2014]

DEATH ON A PALE HORSE by Donald Thomas (ISBN 978-1-60598-394-3) would be a lot better if there weren't egregious errors in it. First we have Thomas quoting Sherlock Holmes as having said, "Dear me, sir! I see you have just been in Afghanistan. You were lucky to come back from Maiwand alive, despite your injury." Any observant reader will remember that what Holmes said according to A STUDY IN SCARLET was "How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."

Now, I suppose you could claim that Watson (who supposedly wrote both the accounts) did not remember exactly what Holmes said, though I find that extremely unlikely. In any case, Holmes's first words are iconic, so why Thomas changes them is a complete mystery.

But even more inexplicable is Watson writing, "Yet while we were putting our detective partnership on a secure footing, in such cases as the decipherment of the Musgrave Ritual or the retrieval of the Admiralty plans for the Bruce-Partington submarine, stolen from Woolwich Arsenal, the world outside our rooms was moving on."

Sherlockian scholar William Baring-Gould and others date the case of the Bruce-Partington plans as November, 1895.

Holmes's involvement in the case in this book begins on a March 27 which was a Tuesday, and other evidence narrows it down to 1894. So the Bruce-Partington case has not even happened yet.

As for the Musgrave Ritual, it is a case that is clearly before Watson and Holmes met, since Watson writes:

        "These," said [Holmes], "are all that I have left to 
    remind me of the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual."
        I had heard him mention the case more than once, though 
    I had never been able to gather the details. "I should be so 
    glad," said I, "if you would give me an account of it."

The case is dated by Baring-Gould as being from 1879, well before Holmes and Watson met, which is pretty well agreed was in 1881.

Now it is true at the end Thomas makes a big thing of noting that in the world of his book, Watson did not marry Mary Morstan or buy the Paddington medical practice, possibly for the sole purpose of being able to claim that any errors are not really errors at all, because all this an alternate universe. However, it is stretching credulity to think that there was a Musgrave Ritual case in the universe of Thomas's book, but that it took place years later, and that the Bruce-Partington case took place earlier.

In any case, as I noted, this case begins on March 27, yet towards the end Holmes says that the new moon is on "29 March, just a couple of weeks away." I did not keep precise count, but the events of the story took place over a period of a few days, maybe a couple of weeks, but certainly not a full year. However, March 29, 1894, was not a new moon. (March 7 and April 5, 1894, were.) The closest years in which March 29 was a new moon were 1881 and 1903, and March 27 was not a Tuesday in either of those.

Okay, all this may seem like nit-picking. But after all, isn't that what Holmes would do?

To order Death on a Pale Horse from amazon.com, click here.


SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE RUNNING NOOSE by Donald Thomas:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/25/2005]

And speaking of fan cults, Donald Thomas's SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE RUNNING NOOSE (ISBN 0-330-48647-0) is yet another collection of "new" adventures of the master sleuth, and a pretty good one. Thomas sticks to the Victorian/Edwardian milieu and doesn't add a lot of sex or out-of-character goings-on. However--WARNING!!--this is the British/Canadian title of SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE FROM THE CRYPT (ISBN 0-786-71325-9), so don't be fooled into buying both!! Thomas's first Holmes book, THE SECRET CASES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (ISBN 0-786-70636-8) does not appear to have any aliases.

To order this under the title Sherlock Holmes and the Running Noose from amazon.com, click here.

To order this under the title Sherlock Holmes and the Voice from the Crypt from amazon.com, click here.

To order The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes from amazon.com, click here.


THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DOGS by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/23/2011]

This month's choice for the "science discussion group" was THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DOGS by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (ISBN 978-0-395-66958-8). (I put "science discussion group" in quotation marks because the group was originally just the "book discussion group" and after other, more focused, groups formed, was referred to as the "original discussion group." Now it seems to have mutated into a "science discussion group.")

Thomas appears to have no professional credentials as a scientist. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that many of the questions she says are unanswered may well have been answered. In addition, because she wants to remain just an observer, she does not perform any experiments that might answer these questions. For example, she says that to determine how the husky Misha navigated, she would need to blindfold him and take him somewhere, then see if he could find his way home--but she will not do that.

(It does seem, by the way, that some of her suggestions about how Misha navigates--using the stars, for example, or hearing the ocean and so knowing which way was east--have some problems based on what I remember of Boston-area roads. In specific, the use of directional signals cannot work if there are roads with center dividers, center barriers, or noise-reduction walls, especially if there are very long distances between gaps in the barriers. However, the book was published in 1993, and it is possible that many of the barriers are more recent than that.)

Thomas's point of view is anthropomorphic, at times possibly overly so. She realizes this, and defends it by saying, "Using the experience of one's species to evaluate the experience of another species has been a useful tool to many of the great wildlife biologists." I am not sure this is a reasonable defense--surely it is a useful tool for farmers and hunters to assume animals have no feelings, but that does not make it a valid position to take. In any case, Thomas's anthropomorphism extends to referring to talking about humane societies "executing" dogs, about how Misha had "married" another husky, and about how dogs and elephants can be "slaves",

Thomas also talks briefly about what I believe is a major issue in the dog breeding community today--health and behavioral problems caused by over-emphasis of what are deemed desirable traits. In particular, Thomas talks about brachycephalic (short-faced) dogs such as pugs and bulldogs, which have so much trouble breathing that they are prone to blacking out under exertion, stress, or even just normal existence. (Many airlines refuse to carry them, because they cannot survive the lower air pressure in airplane cabins.) As Thomas describes the problem, "Born with the same number of sinuses and teeth, the same amount of tongue, soft palate, and nasal passages as normal dogs, they lack the proper space to house these organs; all are squashed together inside the deformed skull." There is currently much debate about changing the official description of these breeds to allow for less compressed skulls. In Britain, they have already done so for the bulldog (or at any rate, accepted an additional breed of bulldog that is less compressed), while in the United States they have resisted change. (I believe that in some places there is a question of whether continuing to breed brachycephalic dogs might not be considered actionable under law as animal cruelty.)

Thomas also says, "Primates feel pure, flat immobility as boredom, but dogs feel it as peace." Perhaps this is true to some extent, but it implies that there is no problem with keeping a dog in a small apartment all day and only taking it outside twice a day for short walks.

To order The Hidden Life of Dogs from amazon.com, click here.


MASTERS OF MYSTERY by H. Douglas Thomson:

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

MASTERS OF MYSTERY by H. Douglas Thomson (ISBN 0-486-23606-4) is a survey of the mystery field--written in 1931. As such, it understandably covers many writers whose stars have been eclipsed by other authors. Freeman Wills Crofts is not exactly a household name these days, while Dashiell Hammett gets only six lines--and Thompson makes a major error in them (he puts Sam Spade in RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE). There has been a change in critical attitudes towards mysteries (and towards literature in general) in the last seventy years, so this is valuable as an insight into the attitudes of the time, as well as a place where one can find at least some information about the lesser-known early mystery writers. And editor E. F. Bleiler's footnotes elaborate on Thompson's brief allusions, correct Thompson's errors of fact, and quibble with some of what he sees as Thompson's errors of judgement. Warning: Thomson assumes you have read all the works he discusses, so there are spoilers if you have not.

To order Masters of Mystery from amazon.com, click here.


THE SECRET DOCUMENTS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by June Thomson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/30/2006]

THE SECRET DOCUMENTS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by June Thomson (ISBN 0-7490-0407-X) is the fourth in Thomson's series of Sherlock Holmes pastiche collections. (The first three are THE SECRET FILES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, THE SECRET CHRONICLES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, and THE SECRET JOURNALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.) These are among the best pastiches being written now, staying true to the tone of the originals. (Too many of today's authors feel compelled to add sex, or violence, or twenty-first sensibilities, or humor, or something else inappropriate for a Holmes story.) These seven stories (or most of them) also are based on asides or references in the original Doyle stories, giving them additional authenticity. There are also a lot of footnotes, giving this the appearance of an annotated edition, except of course, the footnotes are by the same person who wrote the text.

To order The Secret Documents of Sherlock Holmes from amazon.com, click here.


WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/11/2019]

I've fallen behind in writing about the authors and works covered in the Great Courses course on American Classics. Of WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau (ISBN 978-0-451-53216-9), I have little to say, except that his rural idyll was not quite the hermit's life people envision. He was half a mile from the railroad station, and close enough to town that he walked in every day or two, often having dinner with family and friends. And when he totes up his annual expenses for food, it very conveniently comes to exactly the amount given in a housewives' book of the time, indicating that just maybe he was cooking not only the food, but the books as well.

To order Walden from amazon.com, click here .


THE BOOKMAN by Lavie Tidhar:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/04/2011]

Does no one write straight alternate history any more? And by straight, I do not mean as opposed to gay alternate history, but just plain old "this one event happened in a different--yet plausible--way and here is how society was affected." Instead, all I seem to see are alternate histories with vampires, alternate histories with steampunk, alternate histories with the Great Old Ones, and so on. While these may be fine for what they are, they seem to be crowding out the more historically based alternate histories. The latest I've seen is THE BOOKMAN by Lavie Tidhar (ISBN 978-0-00-734658-5), which seems to want to be Kim Newman meets Jasper Fforde, with touches of Neil Gaiman and Harry Turtledove thrown in.

It's possible that some of what I say might be considered spoilers, so you have been warned.

The Kim Newman part is the premise that Amerigo Vespucci discovered Caliban's island and Les L├ęzards, a reptilian race who became the ruling family of England (with all the same names as the monarchs in our time line, and how likely is that?). The Jasper Fforde part is all the literary allusions, such as an inspector named Irene Adler, a knight named Harry Flashman, and a literary terrorist group known as the Persons from Porlock, who knock on the doors of famous authors and recite nonsense to them until the authors forget what the they were working on. The Neil Gaiman is the overall mysterious alien Victorian atmosphere reminiscent of "A Study in Emerald"; the Harry Turtledove part is the intelligent reptile part. But any actual consideration of how the society would be different if ruled by reptiles seems to be minimal: not only did Turtledove spend more time on it in his "World War" tetralogy than this whole novel does. James Patrick Kelly spent more time on it in his novelette "Think Like a Dinosuar".

For what it is, THE BOOKMAN is good. But just as a fan of Westerns would be upset if their favorite TV Westerns were cancelled and replaced by sit-coms, no matter how excellent the sit-coms were, so do I see this sort of novel as filling publishers' alternate history slots to the exclusion of more "historical" alternate history.

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


OSAMA: A NOVEL by Lavie Tidhar:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/14/2014]

OSAMA: A NOVEL by Lavie Tidhar (ISBN 978-1-78108-075-7) is an alternate history in a world without global terrorism (according to the back blurb). At first there still appears to be other bombings that match those in our world, but eventually it becomes clear that what seem to be news reports are actually extracts from pulp novels. In this we have something not unlike the structure of Norman Spinrad's THE IRON DREAM. The novel starts in Vientiane (Laos) in some unspecified year. As the novel progresses, we get small hints that times (or timelines) are different. People still smoke on airplanes. Our main character does not seem to recognize what a credit card is. The Vietnamese have fought the French, but apparently not the Americans.

On the whole, it is an interesting conceit, but Tidhar does not do much with it that I can see.

To order Osama from amazon.com, click here.


BOOKSTORE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JEANETTE WATSON AND BOOKS & CO. by Lynne Tillman:

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

BOOKSTORE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JEANETTE WATSON AND BOOKS & CO. by Lynne Tillman (ISBN-10 0-151-00425-0, ISBN-13: 978-0-151-00425-6) is a paean to the independent bookstore Books & Co. that existed in Manhattan from 1978 to 1997. It is not a narrative, but a series of recollections by Watson, people who worked at the store, people who shopped at the store, authors, and others. All extol the virtues of the independent bookstore, where the owner and staff love books, know just what to recommend to the regular customers, encourage new authors and marginal fields such as poetry, give fabulous parties for signings and readings, and generally are wonderful people. Woody Allen used the store as a setting in EVERYBODY SAYS I LOVE YOU, because he loved it so much. But somewhere towards the end of the book, we discover that this utopia is built on sand--it survived as long as it did only because Watson (and her family) kept subsidizing it. The Whitney Museum of American Art was their landlord, and came under fire, first for not giving them a lower-than-market-price rent, and then for not taking over the bookstore and continuing to run it the same way. The fact that the Whitney also had to deal with financial issues, and was an art museum, not a literary organization, seemed to elude most people.

Poor commercial planning caused many of the store's apparently unending financial problems. They include renting space next door to store books, paying Madison Avenue rent for what was effectively a warehouse. They spent more on refreshments for a reading than the increased sales would cover. And they had entire orders of hard covers signed by the authors before they were sold (meaning the store could not return unsold copies).

But almost everyone seems to want to blame the store's demise on the chains. Some independent bookstores are still going (*), so there are ways to compete, but the business model used by Books & Co. was not one. Books & Co. was undoubtedly a wonderful store run by idealistic people, but it was not a sustainable business venture.

(*) Shakespeare & Co. still has three stores, including one uptown, indicating that rents are not the only factor. But they have books that appeal to more people, while still concentrating on something other than best-sellers. Books & Co. seemed to try to have the most literary, the most edgy books and that had to limit their clientele a lot. (There were a lot of authors interviewed with whom I am not familiar.) And Michael Powell, of the still-successful Powell's in Portland, says, "Powell's had the strength of the used-book world; we can keep focusing on used and out of print, and that's something that Borders and Barnes & Noble don't have, and that gives us strength." This is ironic in two ways: Borders used to be one of those wonderful independents (one store in Ann Arbor in the 1970s), and Barnes & Noble used to carry used books, back when they had only three locations, all in Manhattan. Powell also says, "We are not prejudiced against any class of books . . . we are not prejudiced against pop fiction, romances, history. We wanted to treat all customers, all readers, as serious people."

To order Bookstore from amazon.com, click here.


"The Gladiator's War: A Dialog" by Lois Tilton:

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

Lois Tilton, "The Gladiator's War: A Dialog" (Asimov's Jun 04): The dialog here is between Crixus and Marcus Terentius Varro. Varro was a real Roman historian and Crixus was a real Gaul who fought with Spartacus. In this dialogue, they discuss the effects of Spartacus's burning of Rome. It's fairly dry, having the same fault that people accused Asimov's early "Foundation" books of having: all the action happens off-stage and all we get is people talking about it. I don't find this a major problem, and really liked this story. (And the final line is a nice ironic nod to a William Tenn story.)


THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by Colm Tóibín:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/14/2012]

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by Colm Tóibín (ISBN 978-1-4516-8838-2) was chosen by the New York Times as one of the hundred best books of 2012, but it seems that you probably have to have a Christian background to appreciate it, while at the same time if you are devout you may well be offended by it. My observation is that I am not sure Tóibín understood the history of Judaism very well. Mary talks about living in what is presumably Nazareth, but definitely not Jerusalem, and she says, "I love watching my husband and my son walking together to the Temple, and I loved waiting behind to pray before setting out to the Temple alone ..." This is in the early part of the first century, when the only "Temple" for Jews was the Temple in Jerusalem, and there is no way people in Nazareth would walk there on the Sabbath. In fact, she later describes it as Jerusalem being two or three days' journey away.

To order The Testament of Mary from amazon.com, click here.


KEN BURNS'S CIVIL WAR: THE HISTORIANS RESPOND edited by Robert Brent Toplin:

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

In my review of THE CIVIL WAR BOOKSHELF, I mentioned Shelby Foote's three-volume history of the Civil War. Robert Brent Toplin, in his introduction to KEN BURNS'S CIVIL WAR: THE HISTORIANS RESPOND (ISBN 978-0-19-509330-5), reports that Foote's work had sold 30,000 copies in its first fifteen years; after Ken Burns's series, it sold 100,000 copies in the next six months.

And speaking of KEN BURNS'S CIVIL WAR: THE HISTORIANS RESPOND by Robert Brent Toplin (ISBN 978-0-19-509330-5): This was published in 1996, after Toplin had heard various historians arguing about Ken Burns's series "The Civil War". In this book, various historians voice their complaints: not enough time spent on women and the home front (and correspondingly, too much time spent on military matters), not enough representation of African-Americans voice, too much emphasis on the Eastern over the Western theaters of war, too much concentration on a few generals to the exclusion of others, not enough time spent on Reconstruction, and various errors or inaccuracies. (The latter category includes such inexplicable errors as getting the date of Lincoln's assassination wrong, but also using a photograph of wagons from one battle while describing another.) Some errors cited are relatively minor. No, William Tecumseh Sherman was not orphaned as a young boy, but when his father died when he was nine his mother sent him away permanently to live with other relatives, which is fairly close to the same thing.

At the end, Geoffrey C. Ward and Burns himself address these complaints. The over-arching excuse/reason for most of these was time. They had only eleven hours (they actually started with a plan for only five hours); to add more on one topic would mean to cut out others. But more specifically, the format of the series dictated what could be covered. A very high proportion of the visuals were photographs of the time, but the photographers were overwhelmingly of the Eastern theater, meaning there was not much visual material for the Western theater. The emphasis on some generals over others was a question of time. The reason for the lack of coverage of Reconstruction other than fleetingly was, as Ward explained, that they were making a documentary about the Civil War and not one about Reconstruction, which would require a separate series to cover it well. (One, alas, does not expect one any time soon.)

Ward disputed the claim that they did not represent African-Americans, citing both Frederick Douglass from the Civil War era and Professor Barbara J. Fields from the present, as well as many individual quotations from various African-Americans of the period. The problem here, as with covering the home front, or various other aspects of the war, is a lack of documentation. Thousands of white soldiers and civilians wrote letters, diaries, new reports, etc. The number of narratives from African-Americans is much smaller. (Even so, I suspect the most memorable image from the series for many is that of Daisy Turner, daughter of a former slave, reciting "The Soldier's Story".)

But reading the historians' essays in this book, I was given a vivid illustration of what the problem was. While what they were saying was worth thinking about, the historians were dry, at times dull, and with a tendency to assume a knowledge on the part of the reader that is not there. (One cites misquotations of generals in the series, but does not give what the original quotation was.) They also have a slew of footnotes, which is acceptable for a book, I suppose, but not exactly available to Burns as a device for the series.

This is in some ways a variation on those "History vs. Hollywood" books that one sees, although for this one Burns does not have the excuse that so many filmmakers use: "It's only a movie."

To order Ken Burns's Civil War: The Historians Respond from amazon.com, click here.


"Ray of Light" by Brad R. Torgersen:

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

"Ray of Light" by Brad R. Torgersen (Analog 12/11) is definitely an "Analog" story--it has agenda written all over it. After aliens have somehow blocked off the sun, resulting in the entire Earth being covered in ice, a few thousand people remain in deep sea habitats near thermal vents. The people who still remember the old times used to go up every once in a while to check to see if something had changed and the ice had thawed, but they have stopped doing that. When their children hear this, they cannot believe their parents would stop trying. The whole thing is a thinly veiled critique of our attitude towards space exploration, and the science necessary to build these deep sea habitats on short notice seems completely unexplained.


SCHLIEMANN OF TROY: TREASURE AND DECEIT by David A. Traill:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/25/2012]

SCHLIEMANN OF TROY: TREASURE AND DECEIT by David A. Traill (ISBN 978-0-312-15647-2) begins with a brief paragraph about Schliemann:

"When he was eight years old he was captivated by the stories of the Trojan War and resolved that one day he would excavate Troy. He devoted the early part of his life to commerce in order to earn enough money to be able to realize his childhood dream. At last, in his mid-forties he went to Paris to study archaeology. On a trip to the plain of Troy in 1868 he reached, on the mound of Hisarlik, the historic decision that here, not at Bunarbashi (Pinarbashi), as most scholars then believed, was the site of Homer's Troy. Soon after this he set about proving his theory by the evidence of his spade--the first seeker of Troy to take this practical step. His theory received dramatic confirmation at the end of May 1873, when, with the help of his wife Sophia, he discovered a large treasure on the city wall. which he called "Priam's Treasure". In 1876 at Mycenae, again with the help of his wife, Schliemann excavated gold masks and masses of other jewelry from the mud of the Shaft Graves. In one of the graves he found a mummy wearing a gold mask, which he ripped off and, finding the remains of a human face underneath, telegraphed the King of Greece. 'I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon,' he said. The gold mask he called the 'Mask of Agamemnon' and it is still known by that name."

Traill then says, "Recent research ... has shown that every statement in the preceding statement is false." For example, his wife was not with him at either of the mentioned finds, the treasure was found outside the wall, not in it, and the treasure almost definitely included pieces found elsewhere or even manufactured to make the find more dramatic.

SCHLIEMANN OF TROY is an odd combination--on the one hand it attempts to be a biography of Schliemann and a record of his archaeological efforts, but on the other it is an effort to discredit almost everything he said or claimed. The two do not blend well; I can't help but feel that it would be better either as a straight biography, revealing but not dwelling on the discrepancies, thefts, and falsifications, or as a monograph detailing the discrepancies et al without attempting to write a full biography.

To order Schliemann of Troy from amazon.com, click here.


OUR LADY OF DARKNESS by Peter Tremayne:

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

Peter Tremayne's OUR LADY OF DARKNESS (ISBN 0-451-21221-5) is one of his Sister Fidelma mysteries, set in ancient Ireland. I enjoyed it, though with a lot of reservations. The most annoying was that Tremayne seems to have an axe to grind with 1) the suppression of the Irish Catholic Church by Rome, and 2) capital punishment. I also thought the red herrings seemed a bit over-done. And while the Irish background is a large part of the flavor of the book, Tremayne has filled the book with so many Gaelic titles, ancient laws, and other details of Irish history that I found myself lost at times. I suppose that's the same problem a lot of readers have with science fiction (or fantasy, for that matter), but I found myself wishing for a little less "alien" flavor. Trying to figure it out at the same time as I was trying to figure out the mystery was a bit much. On the other hand, this series is very popular, so maybe it's just me.

To order Our Lady of Darkness from amazon.com, click here.


THE TIME SELLER by Fernando Trias de Bes (read by Kerin McCue):

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

THE TIME SELLER by Fernando Trias de Bes (read by Kerin McCue) (ISBN 978-0-787-98838-8, audiobook ISBN 978-1-428-12696-1) is a satire which feels like science fiction, though there is not anything in it that is science fictional. (In this regard, it is a lot like China Mieville's THE CITY & THE CITY.) Our protagonist, AG ("Average Guy"), lives in the Unnamed Settled Area and works for IBN ("International Business Nonsense"). (The abbreviation for Unnamed Settled Area is never explicitly used.) AG is trying to find some way to make more money, at least enough to cover his mortgage payments. But he never seems to have enough time. And then he realizes that is the solution--sell people time. He starts with five-minute vials of time, but eventually sells larger and larger containers. No matter how much he sells, people want more. Don't have enough time to enjoy your morning coffee. Just open a half-hour can at work and you have a half hour to drink your coffee, put your feet up, and in fact do whatever you want. This is the sort of premise that does not bear close examination, and the book is best read as a commentary on our hectic lifestyle than as a serious science fictional premise.

To order The Time Seller from amazon.com, click here.

To order The Time Seller on audiobook from amazon.com, click here.


EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES by Lynne Truss:

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

Lynne Truss's EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES (ISBN 1-592-40087-6) has been getting rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and there is a lot to be said for it. But for all her vigilantism about punctuation, she manages to make mistakes. For example, she claims that Americans are taught to put all ending punctuation with quotation marks that occur at the end of a sentence, but that just is not true. Americans are taught to write, for example:

    Did he really say, "If nominated, I will not run; 
    if elected I will not serve"?
We do not put the '?' inside the ending quotation marks.

Truss does make some interesting observations about Biblical inerrancy when she points out that punctuation as we know it did not appear until the 15th century. So consider Luke 23:43:

"Verily I say unto thee this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise."

Protestants render this as: "Verily, I say unto thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise."

Catholics render this as: "Verily I say unto thee this day, thou shalt be with me in Paradise."

(Yes, the originals are not in English, but they did not have punctuation either, and one presumes that either interpretation is consistent with the original text.)

To order Eats, Shoots & Leaves from amazon.com, click here.


TALK TO THE HAND by Lynne Truss:

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

Lynne Truss may be an expert on punctuation, but although TALK TO THE HAND (ISBN 1-592-40171-6) is punctuated very well, it is a very uninteresting read. Truss is complaining about the rudeness and lack of consideration in today's society, but since anyone who hasn't been living in a cave knows that people throw litter on the ground, talk about personal details in loud voices on their cell phones, and tell everyone else to "eff off". So what's the point of a book whinging about this? And is the fact that credit companies want you to call them if you are going to another country really an example of rudeness? That is in her chapter "Why Am I the One Doing This?" and while it makes sense to complain when one has to input one's credit card number multiple times on the same call to the credit card company, does Truss really expect the company to call you on a regular basis to see if you are going to another country soon? (I bet she wouldn't like that either.) And she complains that when she orders coffee, she has to choose size, flavor, type of milk, type of sweetener, and so on. Here she has a situation where the shop is trying to be accommodating, and she does not like that either.

To order Talk to the Hand from amazon.com, click here.


GODZILLA ON MY MIND by William Tsutsui:

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

GODZILLA ON MY MIND by William Tsutsui (ISBN 1-4039-6474-2) looks at all the "Godzilla" films, and is as negative about the 1998 American version as most people are about the Di Laurentiis KING KONG. Admittedly, the TriStar film has even less going for it, as its "Godzilla" neither looks nor acts like Godzilla, but one could argue that if TriStar had called its film RAPTOR instead of GODZILLA, it would have been considered a fairly decent film. However, most of Tsutsui's book is about the real Godzilla (in all his incarnations). It is more a loving, anecdotal look at Godzilla than an academic study, though the notes indicate that Tsutsui did a good amount of research. Recommended for all fans of "the Big Guy."

To order Godzilla on My Mind from amazon.com, click here.


TIDE OF DEATH by E. C. Tubb:

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

A couple of weeks ago, in the 04/03/09 issue of the MT VOID, I talked about the Linford Mystery Library of large print books. The ad in the back of one of their books says they publish "romances, mysteries, general fiction, non-fiction, and Westerns." And my library does have some volumes from the Linford Romance Library, the Linford Western Library, and so on. However, the most recent one I checked out was from the Linford Mystery Library and was E. C. Tubb's TIDE OF DEATH (ISBN-13 978-1-84782-145-4, ISBN-10 1-84782-145-6). The mystery is what this book is doing in a mystery library--it is a straight science fiction novel, pure and simple. Set in a post-atomic-war world full of controls and shortages, the book starts with the discovery of an almost magical source of unlimited free power. Then, of course, it turns out that there is a downside--it will grow and destroy the world. If this sounds terribly 1950s, it's because it was first published as WORLD AT BAY by Panther in 1954. While it is enjoyable in a nostalgic way, it does seem very dated now, though, and I wonder why they picked it, and what someone expecting a mystery would make of it.

To order Tide of Death from amazon.com, click here.


THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara Tuchman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/27/2014]

Tomorrow is a very important date. It is the 100th anniversary of my maternal grandparents' wedding. It is also the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. So in honor of the latter, I re-read THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara Tuchman (ISBN 978-0-345-38623-6). Tuchman's style is quite different from several of the (very thick) tomes published over the last year for the centenary of the start of World War I; here is a sample from THE GUNS OF AUGUST:

"The cohorts of Vladimir dominated a court that was living out its age of Nero, whose ladies enjoyed the thrills of afternoon seances with the unwashed Rasputin. But Russia also had its Democrats and Liberals of the Duma, its Bakunin the Nihilist, it Prince Kropotkin who became an anarchist, its "intelligentsia" of whom the Czar said, 'How I detest that word! I wish I could order the Academy to strike it from the Russian dictionary,' its Levins who agonized endlessly over their souls, socialism, and the soil, its Uncle Vanyas without hope, its particular quality that caused a British diplomat to conclude that "everyone in Russia was a little mad"--a quality called 'le charme slav', half nonchalance, half inefficiency, a kind of 'fin de siecle' fecklessness that hung like a faint mist over the city on the Neva which the world knew as St. Petersburg and did not know was the Cherry Orchard"

Tuchman clearly assumes a level of education among her readers--not just knowing who Rasputin, Bakunin, and Prince Kropotkin were, but also being able to decode the references to Levin, Uncle Vanya, and the Cherry Orchard.

(And keeping with the World War I theme, my mother was born on April 6, 1917--the day the United States entered World War I.)

To order The Guns of August from amazon.com, click here.


THE MARCH OF FOLLY by Barbara Tuchman:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/12/2010]

THE MARCH OF FOLLY by Barbara Tuchman (ISBN-13 978-0-345-30823-8) was the February book for the general discussion group. While I found her book THE GUNS OF AUGUST excellent, and Mark recommends A DISTANT MIRROR, I found most of this book less than enthralling. The best part was definitely Chapter One ("Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest"), and overview of the subject. The topics examined in detail include the Trojan Horse, the Renaissance Popes' provocation of the Protestant Secession, the British loss of America, and the American loss in Vietnam. But Tuchman has a problem with them--she needs to pad each of them out enough to fill a hundred pages or so, but not enough to fill a whole book. The result is less than ideal; the British-lose-America chapter in particular is very hard to follow, with many digressions about who had which livings to give out and what the personalities of their ancestors were.

To order The March of Folly from amazon.com, click here.


REX LIBRIS: I, LIBRARIAN by James Turner:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/31/2008]

I found REX LIBRIS: I, LIBRARIAN by James Turner (ISBN-13 978-1-59362-062-2, ISBN-10 1-59362-062-4) intriguing, but impossible to read due to the tiny font size. At about half the height of the letters in the hardback I was reading, this made the letters only about a quarter the size.

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ETERNAL LOVECRAFT edited by Jim Turner (Golden Gryphon, ISBN 0-9655901-7-8, 1998, 411pp):

This anthology is divided into three sections. The first is three stories which either have Lovecraft as a character or are expressly set in Lovecraft's "universe." The second set is eleven stories with some allusions to Lovecraft, but no direct connection. The third is four stories with "implied" Lovecraft connections. Though called Eternal Lovecraft, the connections between the stories and things Lovecraft seems at times tenuous, at least to me. (If you are more familiar with Lovecraft than I, then the connections may seem more obvious.)

This is the third book from Golden Gryphon, the first two being collections by James Patrick Kelly and R. Garcia y Robertson. As with the previous volumes, this is a well-produced, well-crafted book with a wonderful wrap-around dust jacket (by Nicholas Jainschigg). Unfortunately, I found the contents less interesting. But as I said, if you are a Lovecraft aficionado, your reaction will probably differ, and I certainly recommend you at least investigate this.

(This has nothing to do with this book, but I would like to commend my public library, which has the Kelly and Garcia y Robertson volumes. It is unusual for a public library to track the small press arena, and I'm quite pleased that my library does so.)

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GOD IS MY BROKER: A MONK-TYCOON REVEALS THE 7-1/2 LAWS OF SPIRITUAL AND FINANCIAL GROWTH by Brother Ty with Christopher and John Tierney:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/04/2008]

GOD IS MY BROKER: A MONK-TYCOON REVEALS THE 7-1/2 LAWS OF SPIRITUAL AND FINANCIAL GROWTH by Brother Ty with Christopher and John Tierney (ISBN-13 978-0-060-97761-0, ISBN-10 0-060-97761-2) is a both a parody and a critique of all those self-help books. (And the title appears to be a parody of all those really long, pretentious subtitles on books these days as well.) "Brother Ty" is a former stock broker turned monk who gets involved in his monastery's attempt to be more successful in marketing their wine. Along the way, we get to meet an internal investigator from the Vatican; agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and even the Mafia. Each chapter is concluded with a "rule", a "meditation", and a "prayer" embodying that rule. For example, Rule III is "As long as God knows the truth, it doesn't matter what you tell your customers." The meditation includes questions such as "Who's more important, anyway--God or my customers?" and "Did God know I was lying? Did He stop the sale?" And the prayer begins: "Almighty God, Top Salesman of the Universe, Master of Pitches and Presentations, grant that I should exceed my quota, and that the truth shall not stay my tongue from its appointed task."

While this is reasonably amusing, ultimately it is not much more substantial than the self-help books it is ridiculing. (And somewhere in a back corner of my mind is the thought that a lot of these meditations and prayers sound a lot like those presented seriously in sermons which talk about how God rewards believers with wealth and success.)

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DEATH BY BLACK HOLE: AND OTHER COSMIC QUANDRIES by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/28/2007]

DEATH BY BLACK HOLE: AND OTHER COSMIC QUANDRIES by Neil deGrasse Tyson (ISBN-13 978-0-393-33016-8, ISBN-10 0-393-33016-8) is a collection of "Universe" essays from the magazine NATURAL HISTORY. (Tyson has recently been seen on the History Channel series "Universe".) The essays vary in interest, but I do have to take exception to a couple of Tyson's conclusions in "Fear of Numbers". Tyson claims that people are afraid of negative numbers, and gives some supposed examples of this. For example, he says that "a mild case of this syndrome exists among car dealers, where instead of saying they will subtract $1,000 from the price of your car, they say you will receive $1,000 'cash back.'" This is more psychological than mathematical: people like getting cash back. Why else would people prefer to overpay their taxes and then get a refund, than pay less throughout the year? (And if they are getting a car loan, they really do end up with more money in their pocket right away.)

Tyson also claims that this fear of the minus sign is why accounting reports enclose negative amounts in parentheses rather than use the minus sign. I think it is more likely that this is done because it is easy to overlook a minus sign--it is fairly small, after all--or to confuse it with a dash or just an ink streak.

There is also an article, "Hollywood Nights", about how Hollywood manages to get the night sky wrong so often. For example, James Cameron spent a lot of time and money making sure that the dish patterns were correct on the Titanic, but did not seem to care that the stars in the night sky were all wrong. Directors also have the moon waxing and waning in the wrong direction, or make other astronomical mistakes.

Some of the astronomy complaints are a little unfair, though. Tyson complains that one sees a full moon much more frequently than the law of averages would indicate. But of course you do, and for the same reason that people always find parking spaces right where they need them--it serves the purpose of the film. In films, you also never have a situation where two important characters have the same first name, unless it is a plot point, and you also never see anyone doing anything (such as going to the dentist).that is not connected to the plot. As long as the full moon is not actually impossible (such as lasting two weeks), complaining about it on the basis of frequency hardly seems fair.

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