Last Update 12/30/09

Weird Words by Dan Clore, Hippocampus, 2009, $25, ISBN 978-0-9824296-4-8

There are a handful of words which automatically make me think of H.P. Lovecraft - squamous for one - and Dan Clore has here collected them all, plus a lot of other words that show up frequently or significantly in Lovecraft's work.  Each entry - and the book is 560 pages long - is accompanied by a definition but, more interestingly, by passages from the work of Lovecraft and other writers making use of each word in similar senses to that which is specifically Lovecraftian.  Mildly useful as a reference, but more interesting as a book to read in itself, and possibly to send you searching for the source documents from these often mephitic excerpts.  12/30/09

C.M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich, McFarland, 2009, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-4393-2

My first sampling of Kornbluth was a couple of the classic collaborative novels he did with Frederik Pohl and, frankly, his solo novels were interesting but not in the same class at all.  His short stories, however, include a number of outstanding pieces including "The Little Black Bag" and his most famous, "The Marching Morons."  Although he was only 35 years old when he died, he left behind a sizable body of work, which is explored in this good sized trade paperback (although $40 is pretty steep) in some depth, although most of the book is actually about Kornbluth himself and the time in which he lived.  Many of the anecdotes are nice stories in themselves and they provide insight both into the author and into the market and state of science fiction during his too brief career.  One can only speculate about how that career might have gone had Kornbluth lived longer, but I suspect he might not have confined himself to SF. There are a few photographs and some odds and ends rounding things out.  A more thorough examination of Kornbluth is probably not possible. 12/28/09

The British in Egypt by Peter Mansfield, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1971  

Peter Mansfield was a foreign service officer for England who resigned in protest over the Suez intervention in 1956.  This is his account of the entire history of the British occupation of Egypt, which was first undertaken only to prevent the French from gaining a potential foothold on the route to India.  England’s intentions were directed by self interest, not benign concern for the Egyptians, whose mismanaged government had gone into enormous debt partly because of the incompetence of its ruler, the Khedive, and partly because the European powers took advantage of the situation to enrich themselves. Mansfield paints a picture of the British imperialists as corrupt, intolerant, self interested, and exploitative, and is particularly critical of William Gladstone for acting contrary to his professed belief in self determination. At the same time, he acknowledges that British rule brought the country many benefits, although they were imposed rather than conferred, and the British misunderstanding of the nature of the people they were governing caused irreconcilable conflicts.  This is a well balanced book that demonstrates that imperialism, even when well intended, is inherently oppressive.  12/28/09

Life in the English Country House by Mark Girouard, Penguin, 1980  

I actually expected this to be a very dry description of manners and customs in Victorian England, and while that is indeed included, there is a great deal of fascinating stuff as well.  I was aware that the elaborate country houses of Victorian England were status symbols, but I hadn’t realized to what a great extent they created as well as reflected the power of their owners.  The author traces the evolution of their role in society from medieval times through the Victorian era in great detail.  The history of how the purposes and arrangements of various rooms changed through the centuries was quite interesting, but the real charm of the book is the collection of paintings and photographs of the interiors and exteriors which are sprinkled through the text.  A lot of the content is for specialized tastes, obviously, but if you're interested, this is a nice fix for your habit.  12/15/09

Keep Watching the Skies by Bill Warren, McFarland, 2009, $99, ISBN 978-0-7864-4230-0

Back in the early 1980s, I plunked down considerable money for the two volume edition of this comprehensive look at the science fiction films of 1950-1962.  It was fascinating reading for several days, reminding me of movies I had not seen in twenty years or more, and others that I'd never seen at all.  There is all the usual data you'd expect about cast and suchlike, but there is also comprehensive plot summaries and analysis, behind the scenes bits, lots of stills, and other information, all presented in a very entertaining style.  So you can revisit The Monster That Challenged the World, Creature from the Haunted Sea, Fire Maidens of Outer Space, It Conquered the World, The Man from Planet X, and many others.  This new edition in one volume has been revised and expanded.  I skimmed through it this time, but now that I have most of these on DVD, I've resolved to find time to watch them again, accompanying each viewing with Warren's insightful and and occasional acerbic commentary.  One of the few books with such a high price tag that I think is worth every penny.  12/14/09

The Utopian Vision of H.G. Wells by Justin E.A. Busch, McFarland, 2009, $35, ISBN 9780-7864-4605-6   

Obviously this is an academic book, more concerned with Wells’ political philosophy than his fiction as fiction.  It is also a book with its own ax to grind.  The author analyzes characters and situations in Wells’ Utopian books – When the Sleeper Wakes, for example – and then tries to extrapolate what kind of person citizens of such a civilization would have to be.  Necessarily this is colored by the preconceptions of the author, and just as necessarily it will be accepted or rejected by readers based on their own.  Among the topics discussed are the roles of scientists in culture, the nature of freedom, the role of the state, and similar subjects.  It’s rather dry, actually, although those who feel strongly one way or another about the author’s thesis may find it more gripping.  A bit expensive if you’re just curious though. 12/6/09

Thebes in the Time of Amunhotep III by Elizabeth Riefstahl, University of Oklahoma, 1992  

Here’s another of the several books I picked up about ancient Egypt.  This one concentrates on the reign of a single ruler, Amunhotep III, and the various aspects of life in the city of Thebes during that period. The parts of this dealing with the interaction of the population with the religion of the time, and the short section about Akhenaton’s monotheistic heresy, were probably the chapters I found most interesting.  There are a couple of maps, not very good ones, but so little information survives about Thebes that this was the best available.  A little dry at times, but clearly authoritative and informative.  I haven’t had much luck finding really good books about ancient Egypt yet but I’ll keep trying. 12/6/09

Creatures of the Deep by Erich Hoyt, Firefly, 2001, $40, ISBN 1-55209-340-9  

 Another picture book with accompanying text, this one concerned with deep sea creatures.  The pictures are mostly full color photographs, with a few drawn illustrations.   The text is for lay readers, obviously, but I would have liked more explanation of the section in which he mentions that eyes in deep sea creatures evolved to process bioluminescence instead of sunlight, which I thought potentially interesting. There is also an intrusive quasi-story line about a camera descending into the depths, a device I find in a number of non-fiction books aimed at a general audience.  Some authors seem to think we need a plot in order to remain interested in the material they are presenting.  Although the pictures are pretty, there should have been more.  The text refers to a number of tantalizing species but there is not even a drawing of them.  And as with similar books I’ve read on the subject, more text is devoted to the people who made the discoveries and how they did it than to the discoveries themselves. There’s also a fairly lengthy diatribe against the movie, Deep Blue Sea, which obviously offended the author.  A couple of surprises were included.  I had no idea that some jellyfish can have tentacles more than one hundred feet long and weigh a full ton, for example, or that sharks have sensors which react to the electric field generated by other animals.  I still find it fascinating that no one has ever seen a giant squid alive.  Some nice stuff here, but often just a tantalizing glimpse.11/26/09

Small Parts in History by Sam Llewellyn, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985  

This is a compendium of very short essays about minor characters in history.  These sketches don’t have any references so I don’t know how accurate they are, but one indicates that America was not named after Americo Vespucci, as I was talk in school, but actually after Richard Ameryk, who financed Cabot’s expedition – although the truth is apparently uncertain.   I am somewhat disinclined to trust the atuhor’s research since in one of the sketches he asserts that ventriloquist’s can actually throw their voices.  Other entries include the invention of the water closet, the creation of rugby, a singer whose voice apparently brought the king of Spain back to sanity, and other people lost to history, at least for most of us.  This is a slim little book, less than an hour’s reading, but the concept is a clever one.  Sometimes the author exaggerates the effects of a minor incident, but it’s all in good fun. 11/25/09

Panorama 1842-1865 by Leonard De Vries, Houghton Mifflin, 1969  

Last in my pile of picture books. This is basically a collection of clippings from an illustrated London newspaper from the period in the title, which provide an overview of great and not so great events that took place during that period.  The stories include sports, comments on fashion, riots, the royal court, and entertainment.  Although newspapers had occasionally included drawings in the past, the Illustrated London News was the first to do so on a major scale. Some are mere sketches but most are intricate, detailed works of art. There’s even a feature on the presses used to produce the newspaper. Although most of the scenes depicted were in England, others involved news in America and elsewhere. The series describing the work of the postal service and another about the civil wars in France and America are particularly interesting.  There’s also an artist’s interpretation of reports of a giant sea serpent, several about a polar expedition, a lengthy series about the Great Exposition, coverage of the Crimean War, and a short bit about a possible new weapon, a “floating mortar.”   A very nice volume. 11/19/09

London: A Pilgrimage by Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold, Dover, 1970, originally published in 1872

This is another picture book, consisting of nearly 200 of Dore's sketches of London in the late Victorian age. The sketches are quite elaborate with lots of little details hiding in the corners.  I was impressed not only by his ability to suggest objects and people with just a few lines but the fact that many of the human figures - even quite small and peripheral ones - have elements of character.  There is an accompanying text describing the various locations in London, some of which is quite interesting, but much is written in a flowery manner that had me skipping along the lines looking for something more substantial.  A combination art and travel book that has now become an historical piece as well.  Published in a very large softcover format to maximize the detail of the sketches.  11/18/09

Mosque by David Macaulay, Houghton Mifflin, 2003

City by David Macaulay, Houghton Mifflin, 1974

Building Big by David Macaulay, Houghton Mifflin, 2000 

         

Yet more picture books.  David Macaulay and I went to high school together – he did the illustrations for my first fanzine – so I’ve been picking up his books for some time.  These three I never got around to reading, so they’re the next batch in my stack of picture books.  His background in architecture is obviously in all three of these.  The first one is an illustrated account of the construction of a fictional mosque in the late 16th Century, following the established pattern for such buildings. Lushly illustrated to make comprehension of the intricacies of construction more accessible.  City examines the architecture of Imperial Rome in similar fashion.  The Romans were very systematic about placing and building cities to hold their empire together. Particular attention was paid to roads and the construction of an aqueduct. There was considerable diversity among the different public buildings, all fully illustrated here.  This is one of Macaulay’s best books.  Third and last is a companion volume to a series Macaulay did for PBS.  It covers various construction problems, explaining and illustrating why one choice was preferred to another in layout, materials, etc.  There are general problems and specific ones like St. Peter's Basilica and the Thames Tunnel.  All three of these are marvelous to look at, and informative as well. 11/15/09

Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War by Earl B. McElfresh, Abrams, 1999  

Still working my way through a stack of picture books.  Although this is primarily an atlas, there are lengthy captions connected with each map, and a longer introductory essay describing some of the techniques used, with profiles of some of the more noteworthy personalities of the time.  The maps are primarily those created by cartographers working for the two armies so they had a different emphasis than political maps.  The importance of wagons – the source of supply – made detailed maps a necessity.  Forage, water, and hills were all major concerns. Teamsters measured distance traveled by tying a rag to a wheel and counting the number of times it made a complete revolution, then multiplying that times the circumference of the wheel.  Ingenious, but tedious. The map makers, and readers, had problems we don’t experience as often today.  There were duplicate town names within a state, for example, and some towns, rivers, and other geographical features had two or more different names.  Many maps that existed at the outset of the war were simply wrong.  The bulk of the book is simply reproductions of actual maps drawn at the time, some of which are fascinating, some of which are pretty dull. 11/11/09

The Rivermen by Paul O’Neil, Time Life, 1975

The Mississippi Steamboat Era by Joan W. Gandy and Thomas H. Gandy, Dover, 1987

One of my hobbies is old riverboats so I picked these two books up on Ebay.  The first is part of a typical Time Life series about the Old West.  Both are primarily picture books, vintage photographs for the most part.  The first deals primarily with the Missouri, the Big Muddy, whose steamboats were a good deal less robust than the ones on the Mississippi and in the East.  The prevalence of sandbars made a lighter, hence more vulnerable vessel a necessity.  There were around 700 steamboats on the Missouri (of which nearly half sank in service).  Their numbers are explained by the fact that a single voyage usually made a profit greater than the cost of construction. I also did not know that honey bees were unknown in North America before the arrival of Europeans.  There are lots of mini-profiles of prominent trappers and riverboat pilots, but without one central narrative, it feels rather disorganized.  There is less text in the second title, which deals with the more luxurious and generally much larger riverboats that plied the Mississippi. Some of the most impressive photos are those of the steamboats so laden with bales of cotton that their decks are almost underwater. 11/10/09

Simon Bolivar and Spanish American Independence 1783-1830 by John J. Johnson and Doris M. Ladd, Krieger, 1968  

I picked up this extremely short biography of Simon Bolivar because I had hoped it would fill in my considerable gaps of knowledge about the history of South America.  It was a limited success.  For one thing, Bolivar’s battles to free five countries from Spanish rule are covered in a single chapter.  Most of the book consists of background, political analysis, and supplementary readings.  Understandably I felt as though I’d read an outline rather than a serious treatment.  There are also peculiarities in the prose that I found disconcerting.  Among other things, the authors seem to assume that I’d know a lot of things that I didn’t, and with no map, it was very difficult at times to figure out just what was going on and where.  I’ll be keeping my eyes open for something else on the subject. 11/1/09

The Book of the Spider by Paul Hillyard, Random House, 1994 

This has been my bedside reading for the past couple of nights, a discussion of the nature of spiders and their interaction with humans.  The opening section on the spider in mythology and literature is the least interesting, mostly because the author had to cover so many items that it amounts to little more than a catalog.  The closing chapters, which include a catalog of prominent researchers in the field, is similarly unprofitable. The subsequent chapters on the kinds of spiders, their habits, and other aspects of their existence are far more involving.  There’s even a recipe for cooking spiders. I discovered a number of things I hadn’t known.  Arachnophobia is a much bigger problem in Great Britain than in the US even though there are no native venomous spiders in the British Isles.  I never realized, for example, that spiders go ballooning, i.e., they spin fibers and then use them to fly up to three miles above the Earth.  I had never heard the history of the tarantella, an Italian dance that was supposedly a response to having been bitten by a poisonous spider, although it appears more likely it was a mass psychosis.  The author is British and I was amused to discover that he thinks the state of Rhode Island is an island.  Uneven, but informative when in the descriptive chapters.  The book could have used more photographs and diagrams. 10/29/09

Lost Worlds by John Howe, Kingfisher, 2009, $22.99, ISBN 978-0-7534-6107-5

Let me get a small misnomer out of the way right at the start.  The title is likely to cause some confusion.  Mount Olympus is not a  conventional lost world, nor is Asgard or Faerie.   I suppose you could count the Garden of Eden.  The author contends that there are two kinds of lost world - historical ones and those just imagined.  Atlantis is probably a little of both.  Some of the selections for this annotated art book are historical places that no longer exist - at least as they once were - and some are fictional.  That said, this is a nice assemblage of original art by the author, mixed with a handful of photographs of the historical sites as they exist now, or of some artifact connected to them.  The text is quite brief and descriptive, and the book seems to be intended for a younger audience.  There's a brief appendix of additional lost worlds not covered. The author/artist is noted for his previous work related to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.  10/25/09

Vampire Taxonomy by Meredith Woerner, Perigee, 2009, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-399-53579-6

The current popularity of romanticized vampires is almost self parody, but Meredith Woerner has found a way to make it even funnier.  This delightful little book is a guide to how to deal with, recognize, and survive encounters with vampires.  There's a list of tricks to identify an evil henchperson, physical attributes, signs that there is a vampire in your vicinity, a treatise on the proper manners you should employ when dealing with vampires in social situations, the differences between evil and tragic vampires, and so forth.  Quite clever at times and amusing throughout.  10/25/09

The Lost Pharoahs by Leonard Cottrell, Grosset, 1961 

Cottrell provides here a layman’s history of Egypt and Egyptology, starting with a summary of major events during the various dynasties with a brief explanation of the religious system and other background.  The bulk of the book deals with specific archaeological discoveries starting with the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. Cottrell discusses each of the major events in the unfolding of Egyptology in some detail without spending too much time on inconsequentials, although a lot of the discussion of problems external to the actual research could have been left out.  Although generally informative, I found that I had considerable difficulty with the author’s style and organization.  Sections which should have held me fascinated seemed to drag, and I found myself impatient to move on to the next subject.  An adequate starting point, perhaps, but lacking any real sense of the atmosphere of the places described.  This is the second book by Cottrell on the subject of ancient Egypt that I’ve read, and neither has impressed me. 10/12/09

Secrets of the Great Pyramid by Peter Tompkins, Harper, 1971  

A couple of years back, I was thinking about writing a mummy novel so I picked up a dozen or so books about ancient Egypt for background material.  They’ve been gathering dust so mummy novel or not, I thought I’d try a couple.  This one caught my interest because I realized I knew practically zip about the pyramids.  It’s a large book but very heavily illustrated with photos and drawings, and I was caught up almost immediately in the history of the various people – from the ancient Arabs to Napoleon to modern researchers – who have tried to figure out just how and for what purpose the pyramids were built.  I was less entranced with the discussions of how measurements were analyzed though it is obvious that they reflect a much more sophisticated science than was generally attributed to the ancient Egyptians and skimmed through several such sections.  Not surprisingly, belief by Christian researchers that the world was only 4000 years old hampered their thinking for many decades.  I did remember that the chambers were empty, but I thought that they’d been previously looted.  This account asserts that the various chambers were still sealed until comparatively recently, and proved to be empty even when first opened.  An elaborate ruse? The author examines a variety of theories including some nutty stuff from the occultists.  Parts of this were excellent; parts were of no interest to me.  The illustrations are excellent throughout. 10/4/09

A World Undone by G.J. Meyer, Delacorte, 2006, $28, ISBN 0-553-80354-9 

This has been by bedside reading for a while. It’s another history of World War I, which is a much more complex affair than World War II in many ways.  I was surprised very early on by the author’s mention that elements within the Serbian government knew well in advance of the plot to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, that some even helped plan it although they later tried to call off the six assassins – obviously unsuccessfully.  I don’t recall mention of their complicity in any of the other books I’ve read on the subject.  He recounts the results of the first month’s fighting, in which the plans of both sides were thrown into disarray and when stubbornness on the part of several leaders led to the waste of lives and the squandering of chances for an early victory.  One interesting position is that he blames the French ambassador to Russia as the chief cause of the misunderstandings about mobilizations that directly led to the outbreak of fighting.  Germany was the last of the powers to mobilize and the ambassador kept telling the Russians they were already doing so, while telling his own government that the Russians were NOT mobilizing.  He was rabidly anti-German and probably hoped for a war.  There’s an amusing goof that the editors missed.  At one point the text states that the Germans sank 180 thousand ships totally over 300 thousand tons of cargo in one month.  Presumably the author meant 180 ships.  Overall the most comprehensive and interesting of the many books I’ve read on the subject. 9/27/09

Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty, Crown, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-307-23660-9  

This history of the pirate wars in the Americas focuses primarily on Henry Morgan, the Welsh adventurer who became a prominent figure on both sides of the struggle.  The book opens with a brief but thorough survey of the political situation in Europe.  The author introduces a fictional character named Roderick to use as illustrative of the typical pirate of that era, but this conceit is carried on rather too long and gets annoying after a while.  The book points out the dichotomy of the Spanish Empire, which valued conformity over individuality, order over chaos, and the pirates, who practiced democracy among themselves and preferred disorder.  Morgan was a charismatic leader and brilliant tactician whose major successes were on land rather than sea, the capture and looting of several Spanish towns.  The pirates were used by the British as a tool against the Spanish, and occasionally the French, and they were discarded as soon as they were no longer politically helpful.  The brief description of the earthquake that destroyed Port Royal is particularly interesting. 9/21/09

Fairy Tales Reimagined edited by Susan Redington Bobby, McFarland, 2009, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-4115-0  

We have here a collection of academic essays about fairy tales as elements in contemporary fiction, i.e., the techniques of the fairy tale updated in novels of fantasy.  I was hampered in many cases here by unfamiliarity with the works being discussed – never having read Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue or The Wild Swans by Peg Kerr, for example.  Some of the essays use prose that is sometimes impermeable if not impenetrable, a common failing in academic non-fiction, while others are perfectly lucid and informative.  I had not heard of any of the contributors.  In some cases I thought the authors were pretty liberal in their interpretation of what a fairy tale trope really is, but that was a minor problem. For specialized tastes. 8/28/09

Classics & Contemporaries by S.T. Joshi, Hippocampus, 2009, $20, ISBN 978-0-9814888-3-7 

This is a fairly hefty collection of essays and reviews by Joshi on a variety of subjects squarely within or impinging upon the horror and suspense genres.  Included are comments on Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Les Daniels, along with Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, and Algernon Blackwood.  There are bits and pieces about genre definitions – which I think Joshi values too highly – and weird poetry, genre history, and of course H.P. Lovecraft.  There is considerable objective material here, tinged at times with Joshi’s strongly held opinions, with which you’ll probably disagree from time to time.  He had distinct opinions of what the genre should be rather than what it is and is not reluctant to voice them.  You’ll be entertained, informed, and possibly infuriated, but you’re not likely to be bored. 8/18/09

Man and Aggression edited by M.F. Ashley Montague, Oxford, 1968 

This is a collection of essays which are designed to refute the theories advanced by Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, among others, that humans are innately violent killers whose instinct for destruction is kept in check by moral considerations.  Montague opens with an essay which provides instances of misinterpreted data, overlooked research, and outright lies in the work of the two in question.  Montague asserts that humans (and great apes) actually have very few instincts and that there is no evidence whatsoever suggesting we are instinctive killers.  He points out that unlike other animals, humans learn much of their behavior from a constructed culture rather than the natural world.  His indictment of Ardrey’s sloppiness is undercut to some degree by the fact that Montague himself gets the plot of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies quite wrong. S.A. Barnett then points out that even Lorenz’s comments about animal behavior – his specialty – are often incorrect, e.g. herd animals DO display territoriality.  He also laments Lorenz’s failure to define key terms like “aggression” and “threat”.  The next essay suggests that it is not that we have an instinct to kill but that we lack an inhibition against killing our own kind. Except for rats, animals normally stop fighting when their opponent signals submission.  Unfortunately, the remaining essays primarily reiterate points made in the first three, perhaps singling out one misstatement to explore in detail.  An interesting but repetitive look back at a controversy that was much talked about in the 1960s. 8/7/09

The Universe Below by William J. Broad, Touchstone, 1997 

I was rather disappointed in this book, but it’s not the author’s fault.  I was looking for a good layman’s survey of what we’ve found in the deep parts of the ocean in recent years, and although there’s a bit of that here, the book is really more about how we found it than what we found.  That said, there were chapters I found particularly interesting, most notably the extensive secret undersea intelligence gathering program whose true nature was masked by cover stories that I remember hearing in the news at the time.  Broad actually went down in some of the submersibles and his book covers quite a few different areas of exploration.  Worth your time if you’re interested, but I’m still looking for a good book on what was actually discovered. 8/5/09

Crimea 1854-1856 by Lawrence James, Van Nostrand, 1981 

Although this includes a brief history of the causes and prosecution of the Crimean War, it’s really just an annotated collection of photographs taken contemporaneously.  I’m still looking for a good overall history.  The photographs are interesting since this was still relatively early in the history of photography.  Most are portrait shots, single or group, and of limited interest.  Others show the various battlefields and other physical features, some of them remarkably clear considering the primitive state of the equipment.  There are no shots of actual battle scenes and I wonder if this was the timidity of the photographer or simply that action shots were too difficult to manage.  7/2/09

Kim Stanley Robinson Maps the Unimaginable edited by William J. Burling, McFarland, 2009, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-3369-8 

I really found this title annoying.  The “unimaginable” in this context is a contradiction, since it clearly is imaginable.  That cavil aside, this is a very good selection of essays on the work of Robinson, unquestionably one of the most important writers currently practicing in the field.  Robinson’s interest is ecological matters was evident even before his Mars trilogy, and his subsequent books have been even more obviously concerned with that subject.  Almost all of the articles here deal with the three Mars books and the vaguely associated The Martians, which is a shame, not because they don’t deserve the attention but because many of his other novels deserve equal treatment.  Among the more interesting contributions are those by John Kessel, Nick Gevers, and the essay about his version of Antarctica.  Stiff cover price but this is one of those rare critical works worth the high admission fee. 6/23/09

Empire by Default by Ivan Musicant, Henry Holt, 1998 

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the first book I read on the Spanish American War, and this one looked – and is – much more thorough and objective.  Musicant actually spends less time on the prelude to the war, but I thought he made the contradictory emotions among the major players – particularly the reluctant McKinley administration and the fatally self deluded Spanish authorities – much more understandable.  His account of the siege of Santiago, both at sea and on land, is far more detailed and dramatic.  He also makes some interesting observations, e.g. that the American navy was the largest in the world in 1865, but that it was inferior to that of Chile by 1881, thanks in large part to the stinginess of Congress and the isolationist tendencies of the country as a whole – although these largely dissipated during the war.   It’s a very comprehensive book and I finished it feeling as though I understood the situation as fully as it is possible for such a complex situation.  Musicant’s prose is also highly readable, not always a given in historical non-fiction.  I’ve ordered another of his books. 6/19/09

Science Fiction and the Two Cultures edited by Gary Westfahl and George Slusser, McFarland, 2009, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-4297-3 

The general subject of this collection of essays is one I find interesting, the use of science fiction as a compromise between the world of literature and that of science.  Set in roughly historical order of the works being discussed, the various authors examine different facets of that interaction.   A few of the essays descend into academese and are heavy going for native English speakers but most of them are quite accessible, not surprising since the contributors include Gregory Benford and Howard Hendrix.  The two editors also have above average essays.  I did find the overall tone a bit dry and a couple of the essays so esoteric that I skimmed through them.  My only regret is that all of these treatises examine the same few authors over and over again and there’s not much examination of new or obscure writers.  Generally speaking, however, this is a better than average collection of academic essays on the genre, but you may want to do as I did and read the essays over the course of several days. 6/18/09

The Spanish War by G.J.A. O’Toole, Houghton Mifflin, 1984 

I realized one day that I could fit just about everything I knew about the Spanish-American War into a single sentence, so I set about finding a book or books to provide some context.  This was the first I discovered, a straightforward narrative that occasionally slips into an omniscient mode – the author tells us what people were thinking at specific moments – but is otherwise quite good.  I found out early that some of what I knew was wrong. It was never confirmed that the Spanish sank the Maine, for example. The inquiry thought a mine was the most likely explanation, but there seems to have been no reason for the Spanish to have provoked the issue, particularly since President McKinley very much did not want a war.  Many years later a new inquiry concluded that it had been an internal explosion, probably caused by spontaneous combustion of coal.  The author also contends that the role of William Randolph Hearst and the yellow journalists in fomenting a war fever in America was minimal.  Nor had I known that the Spanish had forced the island’s entire population into concentration camps, killing one in six through starvation or disease.  So I ended up feeling more sympathy for the American intervention, though I found Teddy Roosevelt to be a rather unappealing character.  An interesting note is that Edgar Rice Burroughs volunteered to join the Rough Riders but there was no place for him. Like most wars, it was a case of who made the most serious mistakes, although the shorter supply line for the American side and the poorly maintained Spanish fleet were the major contributing factors.  There's also a brief account of the American occupation of the Phillipines, not one of our shining moments.  Our old friend waterboarding of prisoners, was a common practice, and at least one general issued orders that anyone over ten years old should be considered an enemy combatant and shot on sight.   This was a very good overall look at the causes, prosecution, and aftermath of the conflict. 5/21/09

Stephen R. Donaldson and the Modern Epic Vision by Christine Barkley, McFarland, 2009, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-3288-1   

When I read the first Thomas Covenant trilogy many years back, I very much enjoyed it despite the controversy over whether or not the protagonist should be viewed as a rapist.  In part that was because there weren’t a whole lot of fantasies in the Tolkien tradition at the time, although that situation obviously changed quickly.  The second trilogy struck me as okay but disappointing, and the recent additions have been less than thrilling.  The author uses situations from the series to discuss problems facing the contemporary world – pollution, depression, etc, and certainly the despoiling of the land is a commentary on ecological damage in the real world.  I doubt that many readers will miss that linkage.  The author of this scholarly work contends that Donaldson embraces an “epic vision” in his work that has application to the real world.  Of course, she's correct in that assumption.  In one sense, that’s true of virtually all fiction of any merit; if it didn’t reflect from or apply to the real world, we’d have difficulty empathizing with the characters, after all.  I can’t fault her arguments and I found much of this pleasant reading, but I’m not sure that they contribute anything significant to our enjoyment and understanding of the novels, or to our ability to deal with the problems she cites. Perhaps the act of drawing the obvious conclusions is itself helpful. 5/8/09

The Balkans by Misha Glenny, Penguin, 1999

Balkan history is definitely not one of my strong points, so this was picked to deal with that deficiency.  The author admits in his introduction that he has a mild agenda, that the perception that this is a troubled area which has sucked the major external powers into wars is not entirely valid because it was the meddling of those same outside powers that caused the tensions in the first place.  Having recently read Roger Crowley’s book about the last few attempts by the Ottoman Empire to control the western Mediterranean, it was interesting to see the change that had taken place by the beginning of the 19th Century.  The tight unity that made the Ottomans such an adversary was gone.  The sultan had to battle the janissaries, a quasi-military organization which had carved out its own prerogatives in various subject regions, and the pashas, who didn’t want to cede their power back to the central government.  This led to such apparent anomalies as rebellious Christian armies allied with the Sultan’s forces against the local Muslims.  For example, the Serbian rebels found themselves caught in the middle when war broke out between Russia and Turkey, decided to cast their lot with Russia, which might have worked if Napoleon hadn’t sided with Turkey.  Russia retreated and the Serbs were crushed. 

Glenny contends that one of the problems in Serbia is that its rulers have ever since been more concerned about domestic rebellions than outside enemies. Both Serbia and Greece were peasant cultures whose early nationalist structures were imposed upon them by European powers who didn’t realize where these structures were inappropriate.  The author covers their revolutions as well as that of the smaller states that eventually became Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Bosnia, and others.  The narrative also makes it clear that the Balkans were not the cause of World War I but rather the excuse, that the rivalry between England and Germany made the conflict inevitable.  There are several interesting tidbits mixed in as well, including the fact that the first ever aerial dogfight was between an Austrian and a Serbian pilot.  Another is that the King of Greece who might have prevented the war with Turkey just after World War I died when he was bitten by a pet monkey, which accident might well have led to the loss of a quarter of a million lives.  Glenny’s account is complete through the late 1990s.   An excellent and well organized account of the history of this frequently overlooked part of the world. 5/6/09

Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley, Random House, 2008, $30, ISBN 978-1-4000-6624-7  

This is a history of the Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and war between the Ottoman Empire and the western powers for control of the Mediterranean, and ultimately, Europe, during the 16th Century.  The narrative opens with an account of the fall of Rhodes to the Ottomans under Suleiman, the last outpost of Christian rule in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Shortly thereafter, an innovative pirate convinced the Sultan to incorporate what is now Algeria into his rule, a base for corsairs who preyed on shipping from Spain and Italy.  I had thought of this period as a conflict between cultures without a lot of personal rivalries, but that turns out not to be the case.  Charles of Spain and Suleiman were quite clearly competing against each other, as was Barbarossa and Andrea Doria, the two great naval minds of their day.  The section on the siege of Malta is riveting, more engrossing than a good many novels, so good in fact that I ordered Crowley’s other book about this period in history before I’d finished this one.  That’s followed by the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus and finally the battle of Lepanto, which ended Ottoman ambitions in the Western Mediterranean.  One of the very best books on European history that I’ve ever read. 4/13/09

Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling, Doubleday Doran, 1937 

We are part of a group who have rented Rudyard Kipling’s Vermont farm for a few days this coming spring, and one of the other members – Paul Di Filippo – forwarded me a copy of this late memoir by Kipling, which includes a section about the farm.  The opening section describes his brief period boarding with a religiously conservative woman, who abused him physically for a time, after which he attended what appears to be a fairly typical British boarding school of that era.  His early career as a journalist in India is fascinating, but he skims over his sudden rise in popularity in England, jumping to his partial breakdown and recuperative world tour.  His stay in Vermont is covered, but he glosses over the reasons for his departure – the growing unpopularity of the British during a dispute of colonialism in South America and, more immediately, a physical assault on Kipling by his brother in law.  Kipling also visited South Africa during the Boer War, where he was after a fashion a war correspondent.  He then returned to England, which section of his life is given short shrift, and finishes up with a discussion of his writing methods.  Filled with amusing anecdotes, but Kipling was a very private person and avoids the more controversial aspects of his life. 4/2/09

Freaks and Marvels of Insect Life by Harold Bastin, Wyn, 1954 

While attempting to diversify my reading habits, I remembered how little time was spent in high school biology on the insect world.  This book by a British naturalist opens with a brief but excellent survey of the nature of insect life in general before launching into sections dealing with specific aspects of their physical nature and habits.  One of my earliest surprises was to discover that there is an insect in Great Britain known colloquially as the dumble-dor.  Was Rowling suggesting that her master wizard was a dung beetle?  Most of the book is not actually about “freaks” but may have been considered so at the time – fifty years back – because we weren’t as familiar with entomology as we tend to be at present.  I thought he chapter on giants and dwarves was one of the better ones, pointing out that the variation in size among insects is far greater than that among vertebrates. There was more than I really cared to know about camouflage, mimicry, and other subjects, but there were bits and pieces throughout that were interesting enough to hold my attention. I probably should try something less than fifty years old on the subject next time. 3/7/09

Seafaring Women by Linda Grant de Pauw, Houghton Mifflin, 1982

I actually bought this one by accident; I was looking for a different book with the same title.  Both dealt with the history of women as sailors and such, but the one I got is aimed at young teens and is deliberately superficial in its treatment and written down to their perceived level of comprehension.  So what we get is lots of little anecdotes but very little actual detail, which is what I was looking for.  In its own right, however, it does a good job of dispelling the myth that all sailors were men.  There’s a brief overview, after which several sections deal with female pirates, warriors, whalers, and commercial traders.  The final section is more of a review of the various feminist movements from the 18th Century onward.  This does a good job at what it tries to do, but I’m still looking for the other book with the same title. 3/5/09

Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century by Jane Frank, McFarland, 2009, $135, ISBN 978-0-7864-3423-7

There are encyclopedias, dictionaries, and reference books for almost everything related to the SF field but this is the first significant work that I know of dealing with artists in the field in a fairly comprehensive manner.  The author and Robert Weinberg open with two long articles covering a history of genre art, after which comes the main listing, over four hundred pages of profiles of artists accompanied by detailed lists of work they've had published, some of the latter very extensive.  Also included are lists of awards given to artists including Hugos, Chesleys, and others.  Compiling all of this must have been an enormous amount of work and the result is worth the high price of admission.  The book can also be ordered from the publisher's website, www.mcfarlandpub.com.

The London Monster by Jan Bondeson, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8122-3576-2 

This is an account of a predecessor of Jack the Ripper who attacked a number of women during the last few years of the 18th century in London.  Although a man was ultimately found guilty of the crimes, there is reason to believe that he was a scapegoat, that there might not even have been a single person responsible, and that some of the attacks might even have been hysterical delusions.  The author sketches in some background to provide perspective, including the inefficiency of the existing, inadequate police force.  The Monster label was applied to a series of attacks in which a thin, apparently ugly man would accost women using indecent language, then strike them with some very sharp object, tearing their clothing and sometimes wounding him.  He was seen on several occasions, would even appear outside the victims’ homes to taunt them, but was never identified or arrested.  The description varies enough to suggest that not all of the attacks had been committed by the same person, but several were so close that the obvious conclusion seems justified.  There were in fact thirty attacks between 1788-1790, but many of them were undoubtedly unrelated or copycat assaults.  The fact that testimony by women was generally discounted at the time contributed to the confusion.  

One interesting revelation is that people were so suspicious of men walking alone at night that it was impossible to do so unless accompanied by a female companion, a kind of reversal of the usual protective relationship.  Another is that the British legal system was so chaotic at the time that when they finally arrested a man for the attacks, they discovered that wounding was only a misdemeanor, so even though he had theoretically assaulted dozens of women, the maximum sentence was time in the stocks.  On the other hand, tearing clothing was a felony, so that was the basis of the charges.  The man convicted was Rhynwick Williams, who may or may not have committed some but certainly not all of the attacks. There is an interesting discussion of the phenomenon of mass hysteria in the closing chapters and speculation about the guilt or innocence of the man convicted of the crimes.  All in all, a very readable history of little known events. 2/13/09

Inside the Dark Tower Series by Patrick McAleer, McFarland, 2009, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-3977-5 

Stephen King is one of my all time favorite writers but, although I enjoyed it, the Dark Tower series is not among my favorite fantasies.  That said, it is filled with an enormous amount of imagery and allusion, which I realize that many readers find attractive for that reason alone.  This is an academic study of some aspects of the series, covering the context of the novels, the techniques King uses, and explanations of some of the more convoluted elements.  It is, however, rather short considering the breadth of the subject matter and in some ways barely brushes the surface.  There are also occasional goofs, e.g., Carrie White is described as a “telepathic prom queen.”  She was not telepathic; she had psychokinesis, an entirely different matter.  The book is still interesting and occasionally enlightening, but it still leaves much of the depths of the series unplumbed. 1/28/09

The Twilight and Other Zones edited by Stanley Wiater,  Matthew R. Bradley, and Paul Stuve, Citadel, 2/09, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-8065-3113-4

This is a tribute to Richard Matheson, one of the most popular horror writers of all time, whose fiction and work for television and films include a great many very familiar titles. He was one of my personal early favorites, and I read I Am Legend and A Stir of Echoes several times each before I left high school, and I even chased down his westerns, war novels, and non-fantastic suspense novels..   The editors have pulled together articles about Matheson and his work, transcripts of speeches, bibliographies, testimonials, anecdotes, and created something between a companion book and a biography.  The contributors include F. Paul Wilson, Gahan Wilson, Jack Ketchum, Harlan Ellison, Joe Lansdale, Dean R. Koontz, Brian Lumley, and many others including friends and family members.  The commentary runs from insightful analysis to personal reminiscence, and is uniformly well written and interesting.  This is probably  the only reference work you’ll ever need for one of the most influential writers of his generation. 1/18/09

Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs by Dr. Gregory L. Reece, I.B. Taurus, 2009, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-84511-756-6 

Bigfoot and other bits of pseudo-science are the subject of this mix of history, wishful thinking, and personal reminiscences.  The opening section provides a history of the legend of the abominable snowman or yeti, largely debunking the best known stories though insisting that the case hasn’t been proven either way.  It’s obvious the author would like it to be true even if it isn’t.  He then connects this to other hominid legends like wendigos and the Mothman, tactfully not mentioning the absurdity of some of the stories, e.g. the Mothman flies at one hundred miles per hour but, although provided with large wings, does not use them to fly.  He quotes extensively from other writers, most of whom come across as either frauds, crackpots, or idiots.  One woman communicates with the Sasquatch telepathically and has seen them teleport.  Part two is about the search for Atlantis, hollows in the Earth, and other lost worlds, less interesting – although the Symmes Holes section was new to me - and in most cases, just as nutty.  I did enjoy the section on the Shaver mysteries, which are more than just nutty.  The last section is about alien influences – Eric Von Daniken, pyramid power, etc.  Did you know Tesla was an alien?  Most of this is tongue in cheek, of course.  I came away from it, however, wondering if such a great wealth of ignorance and self-delusion was worth writing about.  The author makes the case that alternate forms of belief and investigation should be welcomed, which is true, but many of the examples he picks are people who are clearly mentally disturbed, which tends to invalidate his argument.  I would have been more interested in an examination of WHY some people choose to believe things that are so obviously nonsense.  1/18/09

Castles of Steel by Robert K. Massie, Random House, 2003, $35, ISBN 0-679-45671-6 

I enjoyed Massie’s Dreadnought so much that I immediately tracked down this long, anecdotal book about the naval battles during World War I.  I’ve been reading a chapter a night for several weeks – it’s a very long book – but decided it was time to push through to the end. As expected, he brings together a wealth of detail in an entertaining manner, dealing with each significant confrontation and with the personalities of all of the major figures.  Winston Churchill comes across as rash, occasionally disorganized, but brilliant in flashes.  Several of the German naval officers as well as the British are highly praised, and others have their flaws pointed out in great detail.  I hadn’t realized that the English royal family became the Windsors because of suspicions about their German family name, although I already was aware that the Kaiser was rather nutty.  I had previously read accounts of the Battle of Jutland, but was only vaguely aware of the Battles of the Bight and Dogger’s Bank, and knew nothing at all about the naval war in the Pacific.  Not surprisingly, the feuds among the various officials at the Admiralty were often puerile and counter productive, a quality I’ve noticed in the descriptions of most military establishments throughout history. Admiral David Beatty, Winston Churchill, Jacky Fisher, and David Lloyd George come in for particular criticism, as does the Kaiser, Ludendorff, Von Tirpitz, and Scheer.  A few are portrayed more admirably, particularly Jellicoe and Hipper. Other problems resulted from the fact that the kind of naval warfare engaged in was brand new and no one was experienced.  World War I saw the first battle between ships and aircraft, the first aircraft carrier attacks, and for the most part, the first real surface battles between dreadnoughts and cruisers.  Tactics that sounded good on paper didn’t work as well in practice.  The British naval superiority in numbers was offset by the better construction and more accurate gunnery of the German navy so that neither side really was in a position to knock out the other. One amusing tidbit is that the British attempted to train seagulls to defecate on periscopes to reduce the visibility of submarines.  There's a lengthy, detailed, fascinating account of the Battle of Jutland, in which the German and British fleets fought their only full scale battle. One of the most riveting and well presented naval warfare books I've ever read. 1/9/09

Duel Between the First Ironclads by William C. Davis, Doubleday, 1975 

I think this is the sixth account of the meeting between the Monitor and the Merrimack (actually the Virginia) that I’ve read over the years.  I’ve always thought that this single encounter is the line of demarcation between modern naval warfare and the past, as well as being an excellent example of converging technological developments.  This is a comparatively cursory treatment.  The author opens by pointing out that these were not the first two ironclad warships, which had existed as early as the 16th Century.  He also describes the unusual problems that both faced and the coincidence of timing that led to their battle despite shortages of gunpowder and a badly timed storm at sea.  The resistance by authority figures on both sides to the innovative new technology is well covered and Davis points out that there was no single element in either design that was revolutionary but that, in the case of the Monitor, combining all of the radical changes into one vessel was an extraordinary achievement, accomplished chiefly by Ericsson, a naturalized Swiss engineer. Neither ship was particularly seaworthy and it was obvious from the first day that the Merrimack could not be used to raid the coastline of Union states, although Lincoln and his cabinet were in near panic at the possibility.  She handled awkwardly and her engines were unreliable.  On the other hand, she had easily defeated the wooden ships that tried to stop her without receiving more than minor damage.  In one of those coincidences that you can’t put in a piece of fiction, the Monitor arrived on the scene only hours after the Merrimack went into battle.  Their own battle occurred the following day, ended in a draw, and they would never fight again.  The Confederate ship was scuttled by its crew when the fall of Norfolk left it trapped, and the Union ironclad was lost at sea. 1/1/09

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