Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.


"Fade To White" by Catherynne M. Valente:

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

"Fade To White" by Catherynne M. Valente is an alternate history in which some bizarre radioactive disaster seems to have engulfed the western part of the United States (and possibly Japan) and McCarthy is President of the United States. So it presumably takes place in the 1950s. I am not sure that all the differences are plausible, and it seems somewhat influenced by Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE, but it was engaging enough.


SILENTLY AND VERY FAST by Catherynne M. Valente:

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

SILENTLY AND VERY FAST by Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA Press, ISBN 978-1-9368-9600-4) did absolutely nothing for me. When reading it, each phrase or sentence made sense, but taken as a whole, it was incomprehensible.

To order Silently and Very Fast from amazon.com, click here.


SPACE OPERA by Catherynne Valente:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/30/2018]

SPACE OPERA by Catherynne Valente (ISBN 978-1-481-49749-7) reminded me of the works of Douglas Adams or Raymond Chandler. But if Adams and Chandler use their stylized language as hot fudge on a sundae, where a little goes a long way, Valente has made a sundae that seems to be 75% hot fudge and very little ice cream. I liked the style but after a while I was just overwhelmed by it.

To order Space Opera from amazon.com, click here.


CELEBRATED CASES OF JUDGE DEE by Robert Van Gulik:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/09/2005]

CELEBRATED CASES OF JUDGE DEE translated by Robert Van Gulik (ISBN 0-486-23337-5) is the only Judge Dee book available in English that is an original Chinese Judge Dee novel. (All the rest of the Van Gulik books were pastiches written by Van Gulik himself.) Even more interesting than the novel (really three interleaved short stories) is the twenty-three-page preface in which Van Gulik talks about the Chinese detective story, a genre that goes back at least a thousand years. In particular, he describes some characteristics of the Chinese detective story that differ from its Western counterpart. For example, the criminal is usually introduced at the beginning, rather than remaining a secret until the end. (So "Columbo" is very Chinese in that way!) The books also tend to be much longer than Western detective novels, with a lot of background and digressions, and often after a hundred characters (making it more like a modern fantasy novel, I guess). They also have the supernatural as a matter of course and more detail about the punishment. There are many other differences based on the underlying differences between the Chinese and the Western legal systems, and I definitely recommend that you read the preface before reading the novel.

To order Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee from amazon.com, click here.


THE LANGUAGES OF PAO by Jack Vance:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/06/2013]

In THE LANGUAGES OF PAO by Jack Vance (ISBN 978-0-812-55696-4), Vance takes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to an extreme, or appears to. Yet the three classes of society are not created entirely by the languages, although that is not what is claimed: "The people of this area will be persuaded to the use of a new language. That is the extent of the effort." The description of the actual implementation seems to involve the isolating of children into three groups which are then raised in the mores of their intended class. (Indeed, the descriptions seem reminiscent of the methods of the Spartans.)

And the position of women is not only incredibly sexist (which can be explained as the attitudes of the cultures involved rather than an ideal promoted by Vance), but completely illogical. The planet Breakness has a shortage of women, apparently because they practice infanticide on girls (though this is never said explicitly). So they want women, and get them as indentured "servants" from Pao. But at the end of their indenture, the women return to Pao with their daughters (and a few sons selected to study there). In other words, Breakness never seems to figure out that a society with a huge surplus of men is going have permanent problems.

(I am reminded of the story where in order to increase the number of women available (so that men could have multiple wives), the king decreed that women might have as many daughters as they want, but must stop having children as soon as they had a son. This, not surprisingly, did not solve the mathematical problem. Why not?)

To order The Languages of Pao from amazon.com, click here.


THE BRONTE PROJECT by Jennifer Vandever:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/17/2006]

THE BRONTE PROJECT by Jennifer Vandever (ISBN 0-307-23691-9) is another book possibly inspired by THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, though there seems to be very little Bronte content. I will admit that I gave up after a couple of chapters when it seemed to be pretty much a novel of present-day relationships, and not a discussion of the Brontes.

To order The Bronte Project from amazon.com, click here.


THE 60 GREATEST CONSPIRACIES OF ALL TIME by Jonathan Vankin & John Whalen:

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

THE 60 GREATEST CONSPIRACIES OF ALL TIME by Jonathan Vankin & John Whalen (ISBN 0-7607-0882-7) sounded very interesting, until I realized that their notion of "all time" was considerably shorter than even the "young Earthers". In fact, as far as I can tell, Vankin & Whalen seem to think "all time" began around 1940, with only two exceptions I could find: "The Lincoln Conspiracies" and "Those Christ Kids" (a.k.a. The Priory of Zion et al). And that brings up another complaint: all the chapters have cutesy titles that often as not given you no clue as to the subject matter (e.g., "Wake Up and Smell the Gas", "The Secret Team", "The Lost Boys"). At least it does have an index. But when it comes to "History's Biggest Mysteries, Cover-Ups, and Cabals" (the subtitle of this book), I am sure they are many better ones if one looks at the other 98% of history.

To order The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time from amazon.com, click here.


SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE GIANT RAT OF SUMATRA by Alan Vanneman:

As an example of too much modernization, Alan Vanneman has his take on one of the most famous asides in Sherlock, SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE GIANT RAT OF SUMATRA, this one with way too much sex (with Watson, not Holmes) to be at all true to the character of the original stories.

To order Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra from amazon.com, click here.


MAMMOTH by John Varley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/24/2005]

John Varley's MAMMOTH (ISBN 0-441-01281-7) is an okay science fiction novel, but more in the line of techo-thriller in its very current setting. There is a time machine, but it's a "one-off" with no other new technology cluttering up the background. The Howard Christian character seems very much Bill Gates crossed with the early Howard Hughes, the mammoths provide a connection to "Jurassic Park" and its ilk, and there are also the obligatory sinister government agents. While it's competent enough, one wonders what happened to the Varley who got fifteen Hugo nominations (and three wins) in the late 1970s and early 1980s for such works as TITAN, WIZARD, MILLENIUM, STEEL BEACH, or eleven shorter stories. Alas, I suppose that a more mainstream novel sells better than a visionary science fiction novel, and I note that none of the categories in the cataloging data given on the copyright page are "Science fiction." Instead we have five fiction sub-categories: woolly mammoths, billionaires, cloning, mummies, and Nunavut. Anyone expecting the older, more edgy John Varley will be disappointed.

To order Mammoth from amazon.com, click here.


THE LIVES OF THE ARTISTS by Georgio Vasari:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/27/2011]

When we were in Italy, we heard a lot about THE LIVES OF THE ARTISTS by Giorgio Vasari, so when I saw it at a book sale (translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella) (ISBN 978-0-19-281754-9) for only a dollar, I picked it up. It was a bit of a disappointment to discover that this was an abridged edition, particularly since there was barely any indication of this on the cover--just some text in the description saying that Vasari wrote about "hundreds of artists" and that this was a translation of "thirty-six of the most important lives." On the other hand, it could be that an unabridged edition would be too long, with too much about minor artists and too much minor information about major artists.

As it is, there is a lot of detailed description of works Vasari attributed to the artists (often erroneously). Vasari wrote in the mid-16th century, so you'd think he would have more accurate information, but he apparently did not let such things as accuracy stand in the way of a good story--witness what the translator's call "his engrossing account of how Andrea del Castagno murdered Domenico Veneziano." The fact that del Castagno died in 1457, but Veneziano lived until 1461 does not seem to have bothered Vasari at all.

Vasari does cover the major influences of many of the artists, such as Paolo Uccello's obsession with perspective, but it seems like this book would be more meaningful if I had read it with the works (or photos thereof) in front of me.

To order The Lives of the Artists from amazon.com, click here.


"Amaryllis" by Carrie Vaughn:

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

"Amaryllis" by Carrie Vaughn (in LIGHTSPEED 06/10) was another okay story, but I could not find anything that raised it above the usual depiction of a resource-limited future.


"That Game We Played During the War" by Carrie Vaughn:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/30/2017]

"That Game We Played During the War" by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016): How do you play a game like chess which requires analyzing and planning, with a telepathic alien? Vaughn has an idea and the implications of it are intriguing.


LIFE AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT: FROM THE DOUBLE HELIX TO THE DAWN OF DIGITAL LIFE by J. Craig Venter:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/09/2014]

LIFE AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT: FROM THE DOUBLE HELIX TO THE DAWN OF DIGITAL LIFE by J. Craig Venter (ISBN 978-0-670-02540-4) was the April choice for our book discussion group.

Venter describes ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis as being inspired by Jacques Loeb, whom Venter describes as "perhaps the first true biological engineer. ... Loeb made two-headed worms and ... caused the eggs of sea urchins to begin embryonic development without being fertilized by sperm." I found this interesting because ARROWSMITH is the story most often cited as a counter-example to Theodore Sturgeon's definition of science fiction as "A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content."

(While looking up that quote, I ran across this one from Rod Serling: "Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.")

"[Friedrich Wohler] helped to demolish the old view that two bodies that had different physical and chemical properties could not have the same composition." He did this by converting ammonium cyanate to urea, without changing its composition. (I am not sure if diamonds and coal would also qualify.) This is often claimed to be the first creation of an organic compound from an inorganic one, but earlier Wohler had combined water and cyanogen to create oxalic acid.

Venter talks about encoding information into DNA. Not surprisingly, science fiction has been there: "Written in Blood" by Chris Lawson (ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION, June 1999). Using a substitution cipher on codons and some (unspecified) compression technique, an old man has developed a way to write the entire Qur'an in DNA in a virus that will then write it into the recipient's white blood cells.

To order Life at the Speed of Light from amazon.com, click here.


THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION by Gore Vidal (Random House, ISBN 0-375-50121-5, 1998, 260pp, ):

Just as with Vidal's earlier Live from Golgotha, I will be nominating this for a Hugo. Which is to say that, just as with Live from Golgotha, I will be throwing away a vote, because the chances of enough nominating fans 1) reading The Smithsonian Institution, and 2) considering it as eligible for the Hugo, is vanishingly small. But hope springs eternal, they say, ...

Just to clear one thing up: The Smithsonian Institution is definitely science fiction. There is time travel, there is alternate history, there is cloning (of a sort), and there is transplantation of personality into, well, robots (for lack of a better term). There is also sex, hence the rather outre cover which is supposed to parody the typical romance novel cover rather than seriously place this in that genre (though I think reversing the two figures would have been even better). One does have the feeling that the artist at least read the book, though.

T. is a thirteen-year-old student at St. Albans when he is summoned to the Smithsonian on April 7, 1939. War clouds are gathering, and he apparently is the one person who can save the world. But first he must meet the inhabitants of the Smithsonian, including all the Presidents and First Ladies as well as various anthropological representatives, all of whom come to life after hours a la the Twilight Zone episode. While he can't convince anyone to use his bomb that will destroy buildings but not people (politicos and the military prefer things the other way around), he also has some ideas for how to get the world out of its current crisis, which he foresees as leading to total nuclear war.

It isn't giving anything away to say that T. does change history, but that things don't turn out exactly as planned. Vidal does a lot of hand-waving about the various time paradoxes involved, but no more than many other authors. He also spends a fair amount of time having the various Presidents give their views on the world situation, what got them into it, and what they should do about it. As an observer of American historical thought, Vidal shows us the differences in philosophy among the Presidents: the isolationists, the expansionists, and so on. Decisions are not made in a vacuum in this book, but as the result of argument and discussion among the various philosophies. (One is reminded of the musical "1776.") Another reviewer has said that Vidal's work is "all style, no substance, and a pretty boring read," contains a "long droning narrative on the essence of time," and postulates an unlikely alternate history. Let me respond to this.

So?

I find the concepts of "all style" and "pretty boring" a bit contradictory, but in matters of taste there can be no argument, as they say, so let me just say that if you haven't liked Vidal in the past you're unlikely to like him here. He concentrates as much on how he says something as on what he says. This certainly sets his work apart from much of the alternate history which is being written today. This is probably the crux of the dispute here, in fact. If you want to read this strictly as an alternate history novel, well, yes, you might say there is not enough of what happens to change this or cause that. But I tend to dislike that sort of novel, often full of detailed descriptions of battles, but with nothing of either characterization or literary style. I love to wallow in Vidal's excesses of style!

I also found Vidal's narrative on the essence of time not boring at all, but an interesting explication, if not completely scientifically rigorous. (It was at least as sensible as Kage Baker's in The Garden of Iden.) And as for the fact that "a lot of it is the kid talking with dummies," as I said, I found the main character's discussions with the ex-Presidents, and the discussions among the ex-Presidents and other characters to be one of the book's strong points. If you'd rather think of it as having somehow downloaded their personalities into androids, maybe that will help. It's an artificial set-up, true, but no more so than finding God's corpse in James Morrow's Towing Jehovah or having Dr. Frankenstein's creation as a baseball player in Michael Bishop's Brittle Innings. I don't demand hyperrealism of my alternate histories. (The last person to do that well was Robert Sobel.) What I look for is an alternate history that tries to say something about us. At Intersection in 1995, Harry Turtledove said that alternate history doesn't have to be believable to be good; there can be a "gonzo" story that was still good, and that in any case, we do not write about alternate worlds--we write about our world, and alternate history gives us a different mirror. I find enough content in what Vidal is trying to say in The Smithsonian Institution that I am willing to overlook the question of strict plausibility.

I highly recommend this book to fans of time travel, alternate history, or sharp commentary on United States history. [-ecl]

To order The Smithsonian Institution from amazon.com, click here.


MONTANO'S MALADY by Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Jonathan Dunne):

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

MONTANO'S MALADY by Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Jonathan Dunne) (ISBN 978-0-8112-1628-9) was written in 2002, but not translated into English until 2007. I reviewed Vila-Matas's earlier work, BARTLEBY & CO., in my article on the course "The International Legacy of Jorge Luis Borges. In that book, Vila-Matas wrote about something he called "The Literature of No": the phenomenon of writers who write one book, or a few short stories or poems, and are well-received, and people look forward to their next work--but they never write anything else. In MONTANO'S MALADY, he appears to refer to this work, but as NOTHING EVER AGAIN.

As he did with BARTLEBY & CO., Vila-Matas fills MONTANO'S MALADY with a mix of real authors and imaginary ones, all presented as real. So Jorge Luis Borges is real, but Teixeira, the author who stopped writing and started teaching laughter therapy, is not. Danilo Kis and THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD is real, but Felipe Tongoy, an actor who is a distant relative of Bela Lugosi and looks like a vampire, is not. Henry Frédéric Amiel is real, but Margot Valerí, the South American aviator, is not. And so on. Fernando Pessoa is real, but had so many pseudonyms, or heteronyms, that one might put him somewhere between real and imaginary.

But even more, in the second part of the book, Vila-Matas tells us that he is an unreliable narrator and that many of the things he has told us in the first part are not true. But in fact, some of the things that he re-iterates are true are not true, so he is even more unreliable than he seems. And while Kafka is real, when Vila-Matas says of him, "He said that he felt like a stranger [at home], although he had great love for his family, parents, and sisters," there is someone being mendacious here. Kafka famously had no love for his father; it is not clear from Vila-Matas's sentence whether Kafka or Vila-Matas is saying that Kafka had this great love for his parents, but whoever it is appears to be lying.

All in all, Vila-Matas uses an assortment of literary references, tricks, and deceptions to produce a labyrinthine novel. But all these references have another (probably unintended) result: they remind us how every language has its own literary background, and the cross-overs are a small minority of it. For example, for English-speakers, the background includes a vast number of authors who wrote in English, but of authors who wrote in Russian only Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, and some of Gogol, Turgenev, and Pushkin. Russian readers have a much larger Russian background to draw on, but do not have Andrew Marvel, Robert Browning, or any number of important but lesser English or American authors. So when an English speaker reads a translation of a Spanish author who makes all sorts of references to Spanish-language authors (especially modern ones), the English speaker is going to have trouble identifying the real from the imaginary--almost all will be unfamiliar.

BARTLEBY & CO. and MONTANO'S MALADY are considered the first two books of a triptych; the final one, DOCTOR PASAVENTO, has not yet been translated into English, but I'm looking forward to it.

To order Montano's Malady from amazon.com, click here.


THE VINLAND SAGAS:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/14/2009]

What is the name of the first identifiable European child born in North America? What you probably learned in school was Virginia Dare. These days they might acknowledge that there were plenty of children with some European heritage born in Mexico before her. But I don't think anyone learns that the first European child born in North America was Snorri Karlsefnisson, sometime about 1011. (In a sense, this is similar to how we are taught that the first novel was Samuel Richardson's PAMELA (1740), or possibly even Miguel de Cervantes's DON QUIXOTE (1605), with no mention of Lady Murasaki's TALE OF GENJI (1020).)

But it is clear from the Icelandic sagas that this was the case. It may not be clear where in North America Thorfinn Karlsefni established his settlement, but it is clear from the descriptions of the native inhabitants that it was North America. (Leif Eiriksson explored it a few years earlier, but Thorfinn was the first settler.)

The sagas are available from Penguin Books as THE VINLAND SAGAS (ISBN-13 978-0-140-44776-7, ISBN-10 0-140-44776-8), translated by Keneva Kunz, with an introduction by Gisli Sigurdsson. (The Penguin edition I read was translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, with the introduction by them as well, so it was almost an entirely different book!) Both editions include "Graenlendinga Saga" and "Eirik's Saga", as well as a long introduction on history, literature, etc., a glossary of proper names, and several maps. I have not seen the new edition; one suspects that there have been many discoveries affecting the belief in the accuracy or translation of various parts.

For example, Chapter 5 of "Eirik's Saga" mentions Thjodhild's Church, but the 1932 excavations of Eirik's farmstead at Brattahlid/Kagssiarssuk found no such building. So people used this as an example of the inaccuracy/unreliability of the saga. Then in 1961 a workman digging in Kagssiarssuk found remains and when that area was excavated, a very small medieval church was found which is now believed to be Thjodhild's Church.

There is definitely some humor in the sagas: "They stayed there [Straumfjord] that winter, which turned out to be a very severe one; they had made no provision for it during the summer, and now they ran short of food and the hunting failed. They moved out to the island in the hope of finding game, or stranded whales, but there was little food to be found there, although their livestock throve. Then they prayed to God to send them something to eat, but the response was not as prompt as they would have liked." ["Eirik's Saga", Chapter 8] Perhaps the best-known, though, is "[Eirik] named the country he had discovered Greenland, for he said that people would be much more tempted to go there if it had an attractive name." ["Graenlendinga Saga", Chapter 1]

And why was I reading these? Because we were visiting L'Anse aux Meadows, the site on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland where they had discovered a Viking site dating from around 1000. Actually, "Viking" is probably an inaccurate term. "Viking" was a verb, not a noun. More accurately, it was a Norse, Icelandic, or Greenlander settlement, depending on how you parse the geopolitics of the era.

To order The Vinland Sagas from amazon.com, click here.


LA VIRGEN DE LA LUJURIA:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/11/2011]

And a film comment: I recently watched LA VIRGEN DE LA LUJURIA (THE VIRGIN OF LUST) and found myself reminded of a comment Dan Kimmel made in regard to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: "I have not seen a movie that surreal and twisted since Buñuel died." Well, Dan, this one's for you. It has the social commentary of Louis Buñuel as well as some of his surrealism, but it has even more of the surrealistic style of Guy Maddin, and, oh, it also has a Mexican masked wrestler. The Buñuel influence is not very surprising, as director Arturo Ripstein began his career as an assistant for Buñuel.

To order La virgen de la lujuria from amazon.com, click here.


THE AENEID by Virgil (translated by Robert Fitzgerald):

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

I read THE AENEID by Virgil (translated by Robert Fitzgerald) (ISBN 978-0-679-72952-5) in conjunction with two audio courses: one taught by Dr. Susanna Braund at Stanford in six two-hour sessions available as podcasts, and one by Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver at the Teaching Company in twelve thirty-minute sessions.

One of the things Braund covered that Vandiver did not was the variation among English translations of THE AENEID. For example, Braund thought that John Dryden's was the most poetic in its own right. William Morris's was unusual in that he avoided Latinate words; here are the opening few lines:

I sing of arms, I sing of him, who from the Trojan land Thrust forth by Fate, to Italy and that Lavinian strand First came: all tost about was he on earth and on the deep By heavenly might for Juno's wrath, that had no mind to sleep: And plenteous war he underwent ere he his town might frame And set his Gods in Latian earth, whence is the Latin name, And father-folk of Alba-town, and walls of mighty Rome.

As Braund notes, the use of Anglo-Saxon words such as "father-folk" (rather than the Latinate "ancestors") makes it sound more like Tolkien than like Virgil, though one has to respect Morris's reasoning. Morris felt that just as Virgil wrote for his Latin audience in a sort of "pure" Latin, without using all sorts of Greek-derived words, so should he write for his English audience in a sort of "pure" English, without using all sorts of Latin-derived words. (One is reminded of Poul Anderson's wonderful "Uncleftish Beholding".)

A few odds and ends:

The word "fatum", usually translated as "fate", literally means "what has been spoken". In that sense one could consider it the definition of a performative (e.g., "I promise", "I declare this bridge open", etc.). There are echoes throughout other epics as well. In THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, Pharaoh repeatedly sayd, "So let it be written, so let it be done." In LAWRENCE OF ARABIA they constantly speak of "what is written" (or, "for some men, truly nothing is written"). But it is somewhat ambiguous: sometimes it seems to be what Jupiter (Zeus) has decreed, but other times Jupiter speaks of fate as being something external to him that he does not control.

There are a lot of Homeric parallels: the flashback related by the hero, Cassandra and Laocoon as prophets who are not believed, the visit to the underworld (including the same sorts of shades met), a profusion of similes, and a lot of epic tropes in general. There are also anachronisms, e.g., Aeneas flees with his household gods, but household gods are a Roman concept, not a Trojan or Greek one. (And you thought that this was true only of modern movies!)

One can also see where Dante got his inspiration for Virgil as his guide through the (Christian) underworld--and in fact Dante's Inferno bears more than just a little resemblance to Virgil's Tartarus, including various circles where different types of sins are punished.

In Book V's description of the games, you get some notion of the place of women in ancient society when you read that in a race, the first prize was an embroidered cloak, the second was a shirt of chain mail, the third was two cauldrons, and the fourth was a slave woman and her two children. (For that matter, while Dido gets a lot of attention, after Aeneas's first wife Creusa is rather summarily disposed of in the Sack of Troy, we never hear of her again. When Aeneas goes down to the underworld, he sees and speaks to Dido, but no mention is made of Creusa.

Before Aeneas goes down to the underworld, he is told that he must pluck a golden bough from a certain tree. If the gods are willing that he make the journey, the branch will come away easily, but if they are not, no amount of human strength could break it off. This certainly sounds like an inspiration for Arthur's sword in the stone (and with Roman expansion into Britain after Virgil's writing, it is certainly possible that the Britons were aware of the legend).

And when Aeneas asked about how to get in to the underworld, the Cumaean Sybil tells him (in William Morris's translation):

"Man of Troy, from blood of Godhead grown, Anchises' child, Avernus's road is easy faring down; All day and night is open wide the door of Dis the black; But thence to gain the upper air, and win the footsteps back This is the deed, this is the toil: Some few have had the might, Beloved by Jove the Just, upborne to heaven by valour's light, The Sons of God."
This reminds me of the exchange in Henry IV, Part I:
Glendower: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep." Hotspur: "Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?"

Aeneas is the son of the goddess Venus and the mortal Anchises. When Aeneas needs a shield, Venus goes to her husband, Vulcan, and convinces him to make a shield. Does anyone else think there is something strange about this: " Oh, sweetie, please make a shield for my illegitmate son that I had when I cheated on you with Anchises." "Sure thing, honey."

Scholars say that Virgil left THE AENEID unfinished, and they point to two pieces of evidence. One piece is the incomplete lines--the sentences are complete as they are, but some syllables are lacking for the meter. The other is various inconsistencies. These are not anachronisms (like the household gods mentioned earlier), but things like having Ascanius's age. He was at least two years old at the Sack of Troy. Seven years later, in Carthage, he seems to be only about six or seven years old. Then in Latinum (maybe a year or two after Carthage) he is old enough to be a leader and a soldier during the fighting there. The Fury Alecto predicted that the Trojans would "eat their tables"; later this prophecy was attributed to Anchises. Palinurus fell into the sea either because he fell asleep or because the rudder broke off. And so on.

(Many of these observations were triggered by or discussed in the two courses I followed.)

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


QUANTUM MOON by Denise Vitola (Ace, ISBN 0-441-00357-5, 1996, 279pp, mass market paperback):

At first, this sounded like a really cobbled-together idea--a werewolf detective in a future of a world-wide dictatorship (the United World Government). But strangely enough, it works.

Ty Merrick is a detective in a rather run-down future, or at least run-down for the masses of the people. The rich are. of course, still rich. The title might make you think this book uses some high-tech physics concept, but it's really just a reference to a new drug called quantum. Okay, so that makes this just another drug-running story, and telling any more of the story is perhaps unnecessary, but the twist of having the detective be a werewolf, and a female werewolf at that, gives it just enough of a twist to make it worth reading. It's not great, but as a first novel it shows promise.

To order Quantum Moon from amazon.com, click here.


THE SIRENS OF TITAN by Kurt Vonnegut:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/28/2008]

This month's science fiction discussion book was THE SIRENS OF TITAN by Kurt Vonnegut (ISBN-13 978-0-385-33349-8, ISBN-10 0-385-33349-8). The point of the book is the pointlessness of human existence, and so far as I can tell, Vonnegut tried to demonstrate this with the book. Very little seems to happen, and one doesn't get very involved with the characters either.

And it is good that Vonnegut is not an author who attempts to predict the future: "According to figures released by the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Fern was the highest-paid executive in the country. He had a salary of a flat million dollars a year--plus stock-option plans and cost-of-living adjustments." Magnetically suspended furniture, rocket travel, etc., yet executives make less than a million dollars a year. Oh, if only it were so.

To order The Sirens of Titan from amazon.com, click here.


ASSASSINATION VACATION by Sarah Vowell:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/20/2016]

For all those people who have made visiting Presidential Libraries and birthplaces the focus of their vacations, and have run through the entire list(*), ASSASSINATION VACATION by Sarah Vowell (ISBN 978-0-7432-6004-6) may help fill the next few trips.

(*) On a trip through the South a few years ago, Mark and I visited Beauvoir, the home of Jefferson Davis. My brother is one of these "Presidential tourists" and I told him he should consider adding this, but with an asterisk, sort of like Roger Maris--or this note. Anyway, back to ASSASSINATION VACATION. Vowell covers the locations for each Presidential assassination in detail, along with passing mention of the assassination attempts. The problem with trying to use this as a vacation guide is that the sites for any given assassination are too far-flung. Consider Lincoln's assassination. Besides the obvious sites in Washington DC and Springfield IL, there are many sites scattered around having to do with the Booths (e.g., New York City), with Dr. Mudd (e.g., Dry Tortuga FL), with William Seward (e.g., Ketchikan AK), and so on. One can visit them semi-randomly as one travels to various parts of the country, but putting them all in one "Lincoln Assassination Trip" would require an excessive amount of time and money.

Luckily one can enjoy the book and Vowell's writing without having to follow in her footsteps. She had researched every detail of the assassinations and their casts of characters. Not only does she know that Robert Todd Lincoln was in the Washington train station when Garfield was assassinated there and had just gotten off the train in Buffalo when he received word that McKinley has been assassinated in that city, and also that Edwin Booth saved Robert Todd Lincoln's life in Jersey City in 1863 when the latter slipped under a train, but also that Edwin Booth was at a party in New York and was admiring a cast of a pair of hands. Booth asked the host whose hands these were; when he was told they were a cast of the hands of Abraham Lincoln, Booth "silently put them back upon the shelf."

My one complaint would be that Vowell too often lets her positions vis-a-vis (then-)current politics get away from her, and she will go off on a tangent about the Second Gulf War or the "corporate polluter lobbyists now employed at the EPA." When she connects this to what is going on at the time of an assassination, or how (for example) Theodore Roosevelt's policies led to a century of interventionism, it is okay, but when it is just a snarky aside, it gets a bit annoying. (And I actually agree with much of what she says; it just often seems out of place.)

On the other hand, when I read "Nowadays, the national nominating conventions are foregone conclusions in which party zealots spend a few days and a few million dollars applauding themselves while balloons bounce off their shellacked hairdos on TV. But the 1880 Republican National Convention in summertime Chicago was unpredictable, a hissy fit on the verge of riot," all I can say is, "1880, meet 2016."

To order Assassination Vacation from amazon.com, click here.


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