Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2016 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: WRITINGS FROM THE PAMPHLET DEBATE, 1764-1772 edited by Gordon S. Wood:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/29/2016]

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: WRITINGS FROM THE PAMPHLET DEBATE, 1764-1772 edited by Gordon S. Wood (ISBN 978-1-598533774) is published by the non-profit publisher Library of America(*). Their books are very well-produced (acid-free paper, sewn bindings, silk bookmark, etc.), but one suspects that their primary market is institutional (libraries, colleges, etc.), because a cover price seems a bit high to the average book-buyer. Obviously, one is paying not only for the physical book, but for the historical and editorial knowledge required to assemble this volume. (This is similar to anthologies of older stories: they are often individually readily available elsewhere, but you are paying for the editor to select and collect them.) And also, as it turns out, these works are apparently not available on-line. (Not even the Constitution Society's Liberty Library of Constitutional Classics, at http://www.constitution.org/liberlib.htm has them.)

(*) The Guardians of American Letters Fund was established by the Library of America to ensure that all volumes remain "permanently available." One suspects this is recognizing that they may not remain "in print" so much as available digitally.

It is depressing to read the beautifully constructed sentences of these pamphlets and then to consider the present level of political discourse. For example, "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Present Disputes Between the British Colonies in America and the Mother-Country" (1769) [author anonymous] begins:

"The disputes at present subsisting between our Colonies in America and their Mother Country, are as weighty and important in their nature, as they are alarming and formidable in their effects, and of so long standing, that every true friend to either cannot help ardently wishing they were amicably adjusted and fairly determined. If the following remarks upon this subject, wherein I shall endeavour to place it in a new, and, I presume a clear point of view, will any way contribute to this end, it will give me real pleasure; although to conceive the most distant expectations of success from any thing that can be said upon it, will perhaps be a much stronger argument of my benevolence and good wishes, than of my prudence or sagacity."

Somehow the sound bites of the current candidates do not compare. (Never mind trying to get an actual position paper longer than a single page from them.)

I'll note in passing, by the way, that the problems the author of this pamphlet sees in extending all rights and privileges of a mother-country to its colonies seem to be those of time and space. In the Roman Empire, it was impractical to have meaningful representation in the Roman Senate from (say) Gaul, which was about 800 miles away--a journey of about 28 days. Now we have representation from Hawai'i in the Senate in Washington, even though Hawai'i is almost 5000 miles away, because the journey takes only 14 or 15 hours (with a stopover, no less!). (And direct communication via telephone or computer is effectively instantaneous, making it possible for a Senator in Hawai'i to be in some sense closer to the Senate than a Senator in ancient Rome who was a mile away from the Senate building.) One must re-examine the justification of colonies today under the modern conditions of communication.

The author of this pamphlet also says that there must be a supreme assembly and all other assemblies be subordinate to it. The notion that some powers are reserved for assemblies other than the "supreme" one did not occur to him, yet that is to a great extent what we have in the United States. (One can debate whether a given "central" law encroaches on these reserved powers, but clearly the concept is present and quite active.)

He also assumes that were the North American colonies set free from England, they would "fall prey" to France. In addition to being just flat-out wrong, he makes a telling comparison: now, he says, the colonists are treated as children, but under the French they would be treated as slaves. Indeed, he frequently compares the colonists to children, and while the term "Mother-Country" encourages that language, it is hardly likely to placate the colonists toward retaining their current relationship with England.

This volume has nineteen pamphlets and is volume one of a two-volume set; volume two covers 1773 through 1776 and has twenty pamphlets.

To order The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1772 from amazon.com, click here.


THIRD-CLASS TICKET by Heather Wood:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/06/2016]

THIRD-CLASS TICKET by Heather Wood (ISBN 978-0-14-009527-6) is an example of why online booksellers will never replace bookstores and book sales. I found this book in the Cranbury Bookworm, and "found" is the right word. I was not looking for it, did not in fact even know of its existence, but there it was, sitting on the "New Arrivals" shelf. (This is my favorite place to look, because it is such a grab-bag of topics.) There is no equivalent serendipity in shopping online. Whatever browsing capabilities Amazon and others have is incredibly primitive. "You May Also Be Interested In" suggestions often seem completely random. Even if they are not, you cannot sample the book the way you can in a bookstore. Oh, there may be a "Look Inside" on Amazon, but it shows you the pages it wants to show you. You cannot flip through it, pick several pages at random to read, perhaps check the index. And buying used books online is a total crapshoot vis-a-vis condition, because so many booksellers have no idea of what "Very Good" or "Like New" means. (Hint: An ex-library book with markings and labels is not "Like New".)

So I continue to browse physical book sales, and find books like this. It is the true story of a village which in 1969 was given a strange legacy by its wealthy landowner: a seven-month trip around India to all the famous holy and scenic spots so they would know more about their country. The first group were forty-four village elders, but there was to be a new group every year until everyone in the village had made the trip (or as long as the money lasted). This is the story of that first group. (We really only get to know about a dozen of them.)

The book is wonderful, but the major problem I have is that the author "was fortunate enough to share part of their trip" (according to the blurb). But how did she manage to cover the entire trip in such detail, down to conversations two people had at night when everyone else was sleeping? (And why does she herself never appear, unless she is the foreign girl that the travelers seem to keep meeting, as some readers suggest?) The author's note suggests that this was written in large part from accounts told her by the villagers, and that in fact some details have been changed to protect people's privacy. Still, I often get the feeling I would get when reading one of those biographies for children or young adults which have all sorts of supposed verbatim conversation between famous people of history ("Then Washington turned to Madison and said, "I will do everything in my power to help this man."). Quite often in these biographies the language is suspiciously modern; at least in THIRD-CLASS TICKET I do not get that feeling. But when we start getting the inner thoughts of one of the characters who has begun to have mental problems and for whom there is no opportunity to have related these thoughts to anyone else, then I have to conclude that there is some embellishment going on.

(The fact that only fourteen of the villagers seem to have "speaking parts" or be mentioned by name is another indication that this is not a strict account. Think of it more as a docu-drama.)

To order Third-Class Ticket from amazon.com, click here.


LOOKING FOR THE MAHDI by N. Lee Wood (Ace, ISBN 0-441-00450-4, 1997 (1996c), 337pp, mass market paperback):

This book is not without flaws, but it did keep me up until 3 AM to finish it, so I guess that serves as a recommendation.

Kahlili bint Munadi Sulaiman is a television journalist. She covered a war in Khuruchabja (not unlike the war in Iraq, from the description), and now finds herself involved in escorting John Halton to Khuruchabja. But neither are what they appear: Sulaiman is also K. B. Sulaiman, male journalist (because frankly, there was no way a woman could cover a war in a Muslim fundamentalist country), and Halton is a fabricant. And besides the issue of gender, there is also the layer of deception and concealment inherent in the television journalism business: the newscasters are just "bubble-heads" repeating the words fed to them and nothing is what it seems. Given that the whole Middle East situation in real life and in the book seems tied up with identity in strange ways, I am sure that this emphasis on multiple and hidden identities is not accidental. (I might quibble that "Khuruchabja" sounds more Central Asian than Middle Eastern, but let it pass.) If you question whether Sulaiman could carry off her disguise, consider Linda Hunt in the film The Year of Living Dangerously.

Halton is also trying to conceal his identity. Fabricants are not entirely popular, even with heavy government regulation. This regulation, by the way, is one of my two major complaints. Looking for the Mahdi was obviously written before the recent cloning announcements, but even then reproductive technology had gone far enough that the sorts of definitions of "human" used here would never have been accepted.

Wood thinks through this whole issue of concealment more than most. Her characters need to acquire more than just the clothing and the hair cuts, they need to think and react the way their false egos would. They do not always succeed. One of the things that makes the story ring true is that they are not perfect at it. They make mistakes. Things happen beyond their control. And they have to deal with it.

Wood focuses primarily on intra-Muslim strife, and maybe because both (all?) sides are Muslim, she seems to avoid the stereotypes and extremes that so many writers fall into when they have the Muslims all on one side as inhuman monsters bent on destroying Western civilization. My only other complaint is the ending--I find Wood's "solution" to the Middle East situation unlikely, to say the least.

I haven't read Wood's first novel (Faraday's Orphans), but after reading Looking for the Mahdi, I will be looking for that one as well. Wood is an author to watch and Looking for the Mahdi is a book to read.

To order Looking for the Mahdi from amazon.com, click here.


DAUGHTER OF TIME by Sarah Woodbury:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/04/2014]

DAUGHTER OF TIME by Sarah Woodbury (ISBN 978-1-461-06933-1, Kindle ASIN B004SQSMV6) is the first in a series of "time travel romance" novels by Woodbury in which a modern woman goes back to the Wales of her forebears. I read it mostly because the newer ones keep showing up on lists of novels eligible for the Sidewise Award, and it was about what I expected. For example, the heroine always manages to know just enough about life in the past that she does not suffer the fate of the main character in Poul Anderson's "The Man Who Came Early". In a book like Connie Willis's DOOMSDAY BOOK, this makes sense--the heroine is a medieval scholar. Here, it's by authorial fiat. In a sense, this is the same sort of book that all those historical mystery series are, but I cannot say it will drive me to read more in the series. (I list the Kindle edition because it is available free.)

To order Daughter of Time from amazon.com, click here.
To order Daughter of Time from amazon.com for the Kindle, click here.


INTRODUCING ARISTOTLE by Rupert Woodfin and Judy Groves:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/21/2004]

Rupert Woodfin and Judy Groves's INTRODUCING ARISTOTLE (Totem Books, ISBN 1-84046-233-7) is yet another in the graphic book series of introductions to various scientific, cultural, and philosophical subjects. This one is a bit harder going, and is sprinkled with drawings of later philosophers who covered some of the same topics but who are not always identified. I guess they assume that if someone reading this book sees a picture of a brooding man in a World War I trench and the word "Tractatus", they will automatically think "Wittgenstein".

I am reminded of one of my favorite moments. When I was working, there was a table where people from our project tended to gather for lunch. Four or five of us would often get into discussions about philosophy or theology, but not everyone was into these topics, preferring cars or sports. One day we were discussing the implications of transubstantiation and one person was explaining that "the problem is that you've all bought into the Aristotelian notion of substance," just as one of the cars-and-sports folks arrived and started to sit down. The bemused expression on the latter's face was quite amusing.

However, this brings me to a problem with this book (and others in this series): the index is very skimpy. It fits (one suspects by design) on a single page, and doesn't include the word "substance" at all, or "morality", or many other concepts that do appear in the book. I guess I'd say that this book is a good introduction, but not good as a book to refer back to, and may serve best to help the reader decide whether to continue in studying Aristotle. (Even here I have a quibble. The author says, "[R]eading Aristotle in the original is not an easy experience." However, his subsequent remarks lead me to believe he doesn't mean not just in the original Greek, but even in translation, because he then recommends a lot of books about Aristotle rather than suggesting which translations might be the best.)

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


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