Last Update 6/29/13

Tech Anxiety by Christopher A. Sims, McFarland, 2013, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-6648-1

This trade paperback is obviously priced for libraries rather than casual readers. It is a detailed examination of the interactions between humans and artificial intelligences as portrayed in four novels, Neuromancer, Cloud Atlas, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The four books themselves are varied not only in subject matter but in the ways in which they depict AIs, so they make a pretty good series of choices for the author's premise. It would be easy and familiar if he were to draw comparisons to Frankenstein's monster, to the dehumanizing aspects of the industrial revolution, and other cautionary labels that have been applied, and he certainly does touch upon those. But he also finds hopeful signs, that exposure to a different kind of intelligence could cause fundamental changes in how we see ourselves and the universe, and that this can be beneficial. Unlike most of the books of this nature that come by way, the prose is intelligent without being opaque to non-academic readers. Worth looking up if you have any interest in the subject. 6/29/13

Monster Culture in the 21st Century edited by Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui, Bloomsbury, 2013, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4411-7839-8

This is a collection of academic style essays about the role of monstrosity in modern culture, but one must first realize that  by "monstrosity" the various authors are not necessarily talking about what we think of monsters. They include benevolent aliens, friendly vampires, and such along with repressive governments, zombies, terrorism, alienation, and technological advances. They cover books (although very lightly), movies, television shows, and video games as well as current events in general. Essentially they use the term monster to refer to anything new which affects contemporary life and which has remarkably different attributes than its immediate predecessors. Once one accepts that definition, the individual articles make more sense although taken out of context I can imagine readers scratching their heads. As with most academic books, there are some fascinating bits that are often obscured by an artificially obscure use of prose designed to hinder rather than facilitate communication. This isn't true in all of these essays, but it renders a couple of them virtually unreadable as far as I'm concerned and some of the others were harder work than they should have been. A few, on the other hand, are both readable and informative. I don't think this was designed for a general audience but if you're interested in the subject, you might want to check it out. 6/28/13

Conversations with Kreskin by Kreskin & Michael McCarty, Team Kreskin, 2012, $24.95, ISBN 978-09859882-0-3

Kreskin is a mentalist, that is, a performer who employs what appear to be psychic abilities to find lost objects, discover information, and in some cases make predictions. He was very popular during the 1970s on television and appeared on evening talk shows quite often. I remember seeing him a few times. Much of his act is probably based on acute observation and other mundane means but he was more convincing than his competition, even though some of his prominent predictions did not come to pass. Michael McCarty provides the questions in this collection of interviews covering a wide range of subjects. Since I don't believe in psychic powers, I read with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Bits and pieces are interesting, but they are interesting in the way that a conversation with anyone might be. Kreskin has, however, had a very successful and sometimes interesting career so I did get caught up in the more narrative parts at times. Contains a number of photographs. 6/24/13

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, Dell, 1962    

I believe this was the first book I ever read about World War I, way back in my college days, and the second by Tuchman, following The Zimmerman Telegram. The author provides a great deal of detail without making it tiresome and the underlying narrative is as engaging as in any well written novel. Much of the content was familiar to me from recent reading, but her account of the voyage of the German ship Goeben and the discussion of British ignorance of the Ottoman Empire were particularly interesting. As always I am amazed at the stupidity of the generals, particularly the French in this case, but the English and Germans also had their days of great obtuseness. This account of the first thirty days of the war is one of the greatest historical works of all time. After August, trench warfare began in earnest and the bloody slogfest went on for years - despite the belief of most world leaders that it would be over quickly - and set the stage for World War II.  6/20/13

Naval Warfare Under Oars by William L. Rodgers, Naval Institute, 1967 (originally published in 1940)   

This is a history of naval warfare using ships powered by oars, covering the period from the 4th to the 16th Centuries. Some of it is rather technical – diagrams of ships for example – but most of it is historical research and an analysis of naval tactics, although generally with enough background that the reader understands the political and social tensions that underlay the conflict. The Roman Empire was still around at the beginning of this period, but fractured and not nearly as dominant as it had once been. The 16h Century saw most warships convert to sails, which provided an obvious end to the survey. His account of the battle of Lepanto is particularly good.  Not for casual readers but very interesting for people interested in the history of war at sea. 6/17/13

Imperial China edited by Franz Schurmann and Orville Schell, Vintage, 1967    

I read selectively in this one. It’s a collection of excerpts from historical texts involving China during the 18th and 19th Centuries, with a few accompanying essays and an explanatory introduction for each article. They deal with everything from a travelogue to an exploration of Chinese social philosophy to accounts of their interactions with the Europeans who came to plunder their country. The animosity between China and Japan is particularly well documented and the lingering antipathy is quite understandable. Some of the essays interested me more than others but overall they present an interesting overview of Chinese history during this period, with a stronger focus on isolated issues. 6/13/13

American Nations by Colin Woodard, Penguin, 2011    

I am of two minds about the premise of this book – that North America actually consists of eleven nations organized into three states. On the one hand, this is a handy way of looking at regional differences and obviously has considerable validity. On the other hand, given the narrow margins of victory for one party or the other in almost every state, this is in some ways an oversimplification. In many cases it is urban vs rural.  Nevertheless, there are regional trends that are discernible and the author traces these back to the original settlements, pointing out that the first culture imposed through violent displacement of the original population almost always absorbs newcomers, even if they are more numerous. One of the more interesting speculations is that if the South had seceded without a war, the rest of the Union would probably have split into three separate nations as well. The author’s prognostication is gloomy – he expects the current polarization to remain for generations to come. It’s hard to argue with his outlook. 6/7/13

The Gods Were Neutral by Robert Crisp, Ballantine, 1960   

This is one of two memoirs I read by this author back in high school. Crisp was an officer serving with the British tank corps in North Africa and in Greece. This title is about the latter campaign. Much of the book takes place before the fighting starts and consists of the author’s wandering about Greece and meeting people. It feels almost like a novel much of the time. The German armor was much more powerful and British efforts to defend Greece were doomed to failure, at least for the time being. This doesn’t deal with the strategy but with the experiences of the people who actually fought the battles and it is very effective. 6/3/13

Star Trek Craft Book by Angie Pederson, Gallery, 2013, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-1864-4

Star Trek Cross Stitch by John Lohman, Gallery, 2013, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-1866-8

I'm not sure how many of the sales of these books are going to be because they are crafts books and how much because they are Star Trek related. I'm not into crafts of this sort so I'm probably an inadequate judge. The first has detailed, full color instructions about how to make things like tricorder purses, cupcake toppers, and finger puppets. The second involves putting Trek related characters and other images on pillow cases, shirts, etc. There are thirty patterns to choose from. I didn't try any of the projects but the instructions certainly seem detailed enough and the illustrations look as though they'd be helpful. They various involve crocheting, embroidery, bead art, and other skills.

The Tsar’s Last Armada by Constantine Pleshakov, Basic Books, 2002   

The Russo-Japanese War is interesting for a number of reasons. It was the first modern war in which a European power was defeated by a “third world” power, for one thing. This history by a Russian born historian filled in a lot of gaps for me, including the revelation that as a young man, the Tsar had been physically attacked and seriously injured by a Japanese man, as a consequence of which he loathed that country all of his life.  The author spends a lot of time on the backgrounds of the individual players. Most of the Russians come across as unintelligent lechers who let their own issues override patriotic ones, although even if they had applied themselves, it’s unlikely they would have changed the outcome. The fleet sent to relieve the base at Port Arthur was encumbered by very slow, virtually useless ships which slowed down the more modern ones.  Russian ideas of command and discipline make the rest of 19th Century Europe seem amazingly enlightened. A large proportion of the sailors were convinced they were sailing to their doom – and they were right. Russian intelligence was worse than useless causing unnecessary incidents of panic along the way. 6/1/13

Oriental Lacquer by Oscar Luzzato-Bilitz, Hamlyn, 1966 

I vaguely remembered that lacquered objects originated in Japan, hence the term “japanning”, but I didn’t know that it almost certainly originated in China long before there was any real civilization in the Japanese islands. This is a collection of annotated plates of lacquered art objects with accompanying text describing the history and some of the techniques used.  Sometimes as many as three hundred coats of lacquer were applied to a single object, and since it had to be thoroughly dry between coats, lead times were needless to say rather lengthy. This is mostly about the pictures though and there are a lot of them. 5/26/13

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, Knopf, 1978    

I first read this more than thirty years ago although I have since read other histories dealing with the same period. None of them provide the richness of this one, however. It’s filled with fascinating details about how people lived during the 14th Century. I knew about courtly love, but not that it was designed to be extra-marital. I didn’t know that you could buy a dispensation to have a body cut in half and buried in two separate graves or that tournaments were generally frowned upon by both the church and the state.  Tuchman suggests on more than one occasion that much of Europe might have been clinically insane during the latter half of this century, as a result of the incessant warfare, the Black Plague, and other problems. There were widespread dancing frenzies and other mass delusions, and the circumstances surrounding the schism in the Papacy certainly suggests a degree of insanity on both sides. Given the volume of wars, plagues, civil wars, insurrections, repressions, massacres, murders, famines, and other disasters, I’m amazed that Europe survived to see the 15th Century. Although very long, this is compulsive reading. 5/25/13

Girls Transforming by Sanna Lehtonen, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6136-3   

The sub-title says this is an examination of “Invisibility and Age-Shifting in Children’s Fantasy Fiction Since the 1970s”, which seems an odd pairing to me. I would have thought shapeshifting was a part of the same phenomenon, but the author apparently sees it differently. Lehtonen draws on gay and straight concepts to interpret gender roles in this context. I raised my eyebrows a lot while reading the author’s assumptions. I don’t believe that science fiction and horror have both received more recent examination of gender roles than fantasy fiction, nor do I believe that the common perception is that fantasy is for younger readers than those other two genres. Quite the contrary in fact. When she announces that her grandfather probably had the ability to turn invisible magically, I almost put the book down. The secret wasn't passed on to her because it descends patrilinearly. She also states that most children’s fantasy is oriented toward boys, which is not the case in English (the author is from the Netherlands so I suppose the continental literature might have a different slant, but she specifically says she's talking about English language fantasy). There are some valid arguments in the text that follows, but a lot of the discussions about the depictions of young females are equally applicable to young males. 5/20/13

Labrador by Robert Stewart, Time Life, 1977

The Great Divide by Bryce Walker, Time Life,1973   

At long last I come to the final two volumes of this series. The first obviously covers the extreme northeast of Canada with its mountains and forests. A good portion of this is devoted to the coastline and/or glaciations. A lot of the photography is impressive but forbidding.  Flora gets more coverage than fauna. There is also a brief section on early exploration that was fairly interesting, including some vintage photographs. There’s also a picture of a mosquito swarm that would make me think twice about visiting.  A selection of Audubon paintings was nice but I would have preferred photos. The Great Divide is in the northwest, chiefly Montana and Idaho and the land directly south as far as New Mexico. Some of the topography is very similar so there’s another discussion of glaciation. Flora and fauna get relatively little coverage in this volume, which is mostly photographs of canyons, mountains, and occasionally forests.  There are some vintage photos in this one as well. 5/14/13

The Modern Literary Werewolf by Brent A. Stypczynski, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 9780-7864-6965-9

Although there are a handful of classic werewolf stories, I have always felt that the vast majority of traditional tales of lycanthropy were basically the same story over and over - which of the characters is secretly a werewolf? This book attempts to describe the evolution of the shapechanger in literature. I was puzzled before I even opened the book because the cover copy states that the authors covered in the book have struck a chord with "readers and non-readers around the world." How do non-readers react to novels? The oldest book covered in Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think from the 1940s, which was a good choice although I would have started with Guy Endore's classic The Werewolf of Paris from a few years earlier.  I was surprised to see no reference to works by Robert R. McCammon, Stephen King, Laurell Hamilton, Patricia Briggs, Jesse Kerruish, Gary Brandner, Nancy Collins, John Farris, Ray Garton, Charles Grant, Rick Hautala, Brian Hodge, Peter Straub, or Robert Stallman, to name just a few who have written significant werewolf fiction. Instead the book concentrates mostly on minor werewolf themes in the Harry Potter novels and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and other discussions involve Larry Niven, Philip Jose Farmer, and other writers whose werewolves are almost side issues. Only Charles de Lint and Charlaine Harris are covered writers who have actually used the werewolf extensively. Although the author has some interesting things to say about the works that he does discuss, this is in no way a study of the "modern literary werewolf". 5/11/13

Great Battlefields of the World by John MacDonald, MacMillan, 1984 

This isn’t the kind of book you read through all at once. It consists of a series of 3D projections of famous battlefields throughout history – the Punic Wars to Vietnam – illustrated to show in depth how battles actually took place. The renderings are quite good and in a lot of cases this kind of presentation actually is quite helpful. There were a few where I though a traditional flat view would have served just as well because the terrain really wasn’t that significant. Some of the pages are rather cluttered with labels and information boxes that could better have been incorporated into the text.  There is a major layout problem. The textual description sometimes runs several pages after the map, so one needs to page back and forth, but there’s also a condensed summary, usually on the same page as the map. Reading this first leaves you with no context about why the battle is being fought, but reading the main text first is confusing and time consuming because of the flipping back and forth. And there are info boxes scattered among both.  5/9/13

War Over Lemuria by Richard Toronto, McFarland, 2013, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-7307-6

I'm too young to have been reading the controversy about the Richard Shaver mysteries when they first appeared, and didn't have access to 1940s pulp magazines until I was too old to really care. I was however aware of them retrospectively and even read a couple of Shaver's related stories, which struck me at the time as rather boring. The Shaver mysteries were a series of stories and articles which claimed that Shaver received visions or psychic messages from creatures called deros who lived beneath the surface of the Earth. The claim that this was true - despite the fact that even then the premise was patently absurd - was viewed variously as delusion, a publicity campaign, a hoax, or by a small handful people a great revelation. Shaver was in a sense an unsuccessful L. Ron Hubbard, whose creation of Scientology bears considerable resemblance.  This book consists of Shaver's biography and another of Ray Palmer, the editor who made him famous - such as he was. It provides a fairly good overview, but one should keep in mind that the author was a friend of Shaver and it appears that he still thinks the visions might have been accurate. Still nonsense after all these years, but an interesting insight into what was at the time a major controversy in SF fandom. 5/8/13

The Ancient Adirondacks by Lincoln Barnett, Time Life, 1964  

Wilderness Europe by Douglas Botting, Time Life, 1966 

The first of these is a tour of wild spots in upstate New York. Like most of the books in this series, the text is mostly accounts of personal experiences rather than an objective look at the flora and fauna. There is an interesting section this time about paintings inspired by the area, which is filled with traditional woodland landscapes and choked rivers. There’s also a brief discussion of local history. I’ve spent enough time in northern New England for much of this to look familiar to me but some familiar sights have a different feel in this context. The pictures vary in interest – there are too many shots of rivers for my taste and a lot of them are in black and white, which doesn’t really convey the richness of the landscape. The second title looks at scattered places in Europe from Scotland to Switzerland. As a consequence it feels less tightly organized than the first. There are fascinating examples of insect camouflage The photographs in the section on erosion are particularly impressive. 5/4/13

Compulsory Miseducation and the Community of Scholars by Paul Goodman, Vintage, 1964   

These two very long essays were quite controversial when they first appeared, and Goodman himself was a contentious figure, suspected of seducing young boys.  His educational theories are also rather suspect although I suspect there is an element of truth buried there. He felt that formal education just taught students that learning was a dull, unimaginative, and highly structured process where it should be freer and more spontaneous. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Some of his criticisms are still valid – too many students per teacher, too much emphasis on rote learning, too much concern about discipline and order. Other points he makes are clearly nonsense. He doesn’t believe everyone should be taught to read, for example, and his suggestions about abolishing classrooms and teaching “in the wild” are clearly unworkable and prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, like many current politicians, his attitude is never to compromise, which undermines his credibility. Some of his arguments are rather dated. Suggesting a utopian approach to a problem is often useful, as in this case, but Goodman never presents a practical solution to the many problems he illuminates. 5/1/13

The Sahara by Jeremy Swift, Time Life, 1975

The Southern Appalachians by Jerome Doolittle, Time Life, 1975 

There’s a tendency to think of deserts as featureless and rather dull, but that’s not always the case. Sand dunes or cactus are not the only choices available. The first of these is set in the world’s largest desert, which covers about as much land as does the US. There is a nice section here about cave paintings and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the discussion of the different kinds of sand dunes. There is also a considerably larger variety of animal life than I would have expected. There are also bits and pieces about the Tuaregs that made me curious about their culture. I’m more familiar with the Appalachians, though not by a whole lot. The plants and animals are both more numerous and more colorful and there are lots of photographs of flowers. There are some early pictures of the logging industry and an interesting section on mushrooms and fungus. No real surprises although the picture of a large bear in a comparatively small tree was arresting. There is a subsection on bears in the text as well. Both books are good but unremarkable additions to the series. 4/29/13

The Great Bridge by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 1972   

This is a detailed history of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge - which I read over the course of about ten days - and about which I knew only a little. I had not known that for a while it was the largest artificial object in North America, nor did I know that the person who oversaw most of its construction and a good deal of its design was actually the wife of Washington Roebling, the man given most of the credit for it, working from his father’s designs. The younger Roebling developed decompression sickness which confined him to his home for most of his later life. Parts of the narrative are fascinating, a few parts didn’t interest me, but all of it was well written. I was a bit disappointed in the photographs chosen – there should have been at least one showing the bridge as it appears today – but that’s a minor cavil.  It's an aspect of history that gets ignored much of the time. 4/26/13

Central American Jungles by Don Moser, Time Life, 1975 

Canyons and Mesas by Jerome Doolittle, Time Life, 1974 

There are two very different environments in this pair of books. Central America is a mix of jungle and forest and there is quite a variety apparent in the photographs. Interspersed among them are mountains and volcanoes, one of the latter of which is surprisingly quite active and situated in a densely populated part of Guatemala. The area is also home to a tree frog whose skin is highly poisonous. There’s quite a bit about monkeys and there are more varieties than I expected.  The second title is the part of the Southwestern US I would like to visit including the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. As you might expect, there are pictures of various forms of cactus, but there’s quite a bit of alternate foliage as well. I was disappointed in the photographs in this one, many of which are in black and white. I’d still like to go see it in person though. 4/20/13

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Dell, 1964   

This longish essay about the author’s experiences growing up in Harlem during the 1940s has been overtaken to some extent by events, but only in degree rather than kind. I can’t think of any other writer who was able to articulate the despair in that community, harassed and prevented from escaping into what we think is an upwardly mobile society. I suspect someone could write a similar essay today about the hopelessness of escaping the economic ghetto although many of the similarities are only superficial. When I first read this, I had recently been a picket in front of a rooming house in Michigan that didn’t allow non-white boarders, so I can’t say it came as a complete revelation to me, but it did help me understand the bitterness that existed even between black and white picketers supposedly joined in a common cause. While we have in some ways moved beyond the situation Baldwin describes, there is clearly a large, powerful, and increasingly vocal attitude among some whites who would like to set the clock back, from Ron Paul insisting that businesses should have the right to refuse to serve people based on race, to recent comments at CPAC that slavery wasn’t such a bad thing after all, to the incessant racist jokes about the current President. Baldwin also discusses his brief career as a minister, followed by his complete loss of faith in Christianity. His description of his reaction to the rise of Elijah Muhammed and the Black Muslims is also interesting. He attributes their success not to what they said, which he characterizes as “nonsense”, but to their immunity to police bullying. Still fascinating reading. 4/16/13

The Cascades by Richard L. Williams, Time Life, 1974 

The Great Barrier Reef by Craig McGregor, Time Life, 1974 

The Cascades are the mountains covering Oregon and Washington State.  The photography in this one is quite good, including a great shot of 200 foot Douglas first from the ground looking straight up. A good deal of the text is about the history of the region, including the destruction of the Modoc tribe after a brief war. This is the region that contains Mt Saint Helen’s and Mount Rainier. There is a sizable discussion, illustrated, about glaciers. The pictures of mountain lakes are also quite impressive, and I always enjoy pictures of caves. The second book is about a very different environment, obviously, just off the northeast coast of Australia. The coral reefs in that region are blamed for the sinking of about five hundred ships. As you might expect, the photographs are mostly of coral and fishes, some of them quite spectacular. Those illustrating camouflage techniques are among the most striking. The carpet shark is particularly impressive.  The text is this one is well above average for the series. 4/12/13

The Battle of Cassino by Fred Majdalany, Ballantine, 1968 (originally published in 1957) 

The decision to invade Italy during World War II was controversial at the time and remains so today. It was Churchill’s pet project, although it was also designed to relieve some of the pressure on the Russians. The invasion force was not prepared properly for the mountainous terrain, under equipped and under manned, and forced to attack prematurely in an effort, which failed, to draw German defenders away from the Anzio beachhead. This is a detailed and well organized account that challenges many of the assumptions made about the battles for control of the area and the controversial destruction by bombing of an historic monastery believed to be housing Germans – although it wasn’t.  There are several maps to clarify points but the claim on the cover that it the book contains four pages of photographs is false – they were apparently dropped during the transition from hardcover to paperback. 4/9/13

The Vital Center by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Houghton Mifflin, 1949   

It is interesting to re-read Schlesinger’s discussion of liberalism and communist from a perspective of some sixty years. His prediction that communism would prove to be only a passing fad in the modernization of society has obviously proven to be accurate. On the other hand, his prediction that modern capitalism would redistribute income and tend to reduce the gaps between rich and poor has proven to be inaccurate, at least in the US. Libertarians would hate the book because it suggests that unregulated capitalism would lead to conditions just as bad as in the Soviet Union. He warns against the dangers of being dominated by a plutocracy, that is, a cabal of business leaders who are more interested in profits than in social development, who have no real sense of patriotism, and who abhor change of any kind. He would doubtless equate this with the financiers of the current Republican party. The analogy he uses is that businessmen took government away from the warriors and handed it to the accountants. He makes a good case against domination of government by businessmen; they are inherent resistant to change, slow to react in a crisis, and tentative in their policies. He points to Neville Chamberlain as an example of rule by plutocracy, as opposed to Churchill, an aristocrat. 

Another observation is that for a long time capitalists revered science and technology, and therefore change, but have grown increasingly fearful of it, a trend which we can see clearly now with denial of global warming, the fight over stem cells, the calls for creationist teaching, and the Texas Republican party’s insistence that critical thinking should not be taught in public schools. Although the author castigates the Republican right he has similarly harsh words for what he calls the doctrinaire left, people who condemn the early industrialists while relishing the results of their careers, or those who sympathize with the communists, whom Schlesinger clearly despises. He also makes a point I’ve expressed myself – that the left and communists in particular believe that humanity is perfectible where capitalists realize that we are not. Great quote: “Man is not free. He is out on parole.”  Much of the book is rather dated since it deals with how we should respond to Communism at home and abroad, but there are many good and still relevant points sprinkled through those sections as well. 4/2/13

The Snake River Country by Don Moser, Time Life, 1974  8

The High Sierra by Ezra Bowen, Time Life, 1972 

The Snake River area is mostly Idaho and includes part of the northern Rocky Mountains.  Most of the photographs are of rocky slopes and fir trees, and disappointingly a large number of them are in black and white. There’s an interesting discussion of the importance of fires in helping to renew forested areas, particularly where cedars grow, shading out even their own seedlings. Even the color photos are frequently blurry. This is visually the weakest book in this series, and not because of the subject matter. I was surprised to learn that a falcon can swoop down at 275 miles per hour and fly level at about 60. The High Sierra is, of course, in California and superficially similar, and the photography is much better in this one.  The sequoia tree figures prominently in this one. There is a photography from the 19th Century of one tree felled by lumbermen which yielded enough lumber to box up the Queen Elizabeth II. There’s also a picture of eight locomotives pushing a massive snow plow through the Donner Pass. I had never heard of exfoliation before – the process by which large rock domes shed their outer layers because of internal pressures. There’s also a bird that swims underwater looking for food. 3/27/13

Sagebrush Country by Donald Dale Jackson, Time Life, 1975 

Caribbean Isles by Peter Wood, Time Life, 1977 

The first of these is a tour of Nevada’s deserts and bits of the adjoining states. Mostly desert, of course. I was surprised to read that the bristlecone pine is the oldest living tree in North America; I always thought it was the sequoia. There’s an extensive section on wild horses and burros. Tumbleweed also turns out to be more interesting than I realized. There was snow on the ground as I read the second title, wishing I could teleport to the Caribbean for a week or two. The book concentrates on the four main islands and has entirely too many pages devoted to the frigate bird. The section on the eruption of Mount Pelee was fascinating and accompanied by excellent period photographs. I also hadn’t realized how much of the area is covered by cactus or that starfish hunt on the shore. Oddly there is not one photograph of a beach. 3/17/13

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan, Viking, 2003 

This was the war between the relatively democratic Athens and its allies against the relatively despotic Sparta and its allies that began in the 5th Century BC. I was immediately impressed by the clarity and completeness of the maps provided, a failing I find in a good many history books which either lack them or have maps so cluttered or incomplete that they are of limited use. The author states up front that some issues involved are not known and that some are controversial, although it’s always clear what he believes to be correct. As is the case with many wars, neither side really wanted the conflict and both sides tried to avoid it, but both were influenced by their allies, not even particularly powerful allies, and once set on the road to war it was hard for either side to back down.  Also interesting is that it pitted the Athenians, primarily a naval power, against the Spartans, primarily a land power, which may explain in part why the war went on for decades. The narrative is sometimes confusing, though not the author’s fault. There were so many factions within and among cities, and so many changed sides, either by force or by choice, that even at the time it must have been confusing.  Ultimately Athens lost because of two factors, the disastrous attempt to conquer Sicily, which diverted their forces into what was eventually their destruction, and the intervention of Persia. And of course none of it matters in the long term because Macedon conquered all of Greece a generation later. 3/11/13

The Badlands by Champ Clark, Time Life,1974

Cactus Country by Edward Abbey, Time Life, 1973 

Two natural history volumes with superficially very similar subject matter. The Badlands are primarily in the Dakotas and consist of land which even the Native Americans thought was cursed and barren. There is in fact considerably less diversity of life, particularly fauna, than in most of the other volumes in this series. Not surprisingly a majority of the pictures deal with two subjects – erosion and prairie dogs. Some of the latter are cute. Some of the former are imposing. There is also a brief section about Teddy Roosevelt’s experiment with ranching there, including photographs of his apprehension of two boat thieves. The second title deals with the desert country in southern Arizona and northern Mexico and, as you might expect, spends a lot of time and photography on cactus. An odd fact is that the saguaro cactus, which I always picture having thick arms, doesn’t start to grow them until it is at least 75 years old.  Disappointingly a lot of the animal pictures in this one are paintings rather than photographs. 3/6/13

The Hell-Fire Club by Donald McCormick, Sphere, 1975 (originally published in 1958)  

Dennis Wheatley’s introduction to this history of the Hell-Fire Club, which was not called that until after it had disbanded, says that it is a whitewash. The author contends that the club – which included one prime minister and many other prominent men and government officials – was simply a sex club that used Satanist trappings as simply a device to distinguish it from other clubs. Wheatley says the author overlooks incidents that run counter to his thesis, and that agrees with two other accounts I’ve read in the past. That said, the opening chapter about the history of clubs in 18th Century England was quite interesting. Although we know the names of all of the male members, the female members – who apparently always wore hoods – have never been identified. The book has its interesting moments, but is not particularly well organized. 3/2/13

Cyberpunk Women, Feminism, and Science Fiction by Carlen Lavigne, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6653-5 

Although this academic study says that it’s about feminist cyberpunk fiction, the author has included under that label a great deal of work that doesn’t fit into that category as far as I can see – Lyda Morehouse, Laura J. Mixon, for example – unless you expand the definition beyond all utility. Not every story about a cyborg is cyberpunk. That cavil aside, several of the essays included here are quite interesting and generally free of academic over writing.  In a few cases I suspect that the author’s pre-existing opinions have shaded her interpretation of some of the fiction she discusses, but overall she seems to remain fairly objective. 2/26/13

The Bayous by Peter S. Feibleman, Time Life, 1973 

Urban Wilds by Ogden Tanner, Time Life, 1975 

Obviously the first of these two volumes is primarily concerned with Louisiana although some of the adjacent states also have bayou country.  I hadn’t realized the differences between bayous in the northern part of the state and those closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The section about efforts to control the growth of hyacinths was of particular interest and the photographs are generally outstanding. A substantial portion of the book deals with the author’s experiences during a hurricane, but in this case the personal data illustrates how the plants and animals respond to stress. The second title takes a look primarily at parks and beaches in the New York/New Jersey area, although there are occasional photographs and references to other parts of the country, suggesting that there is more wilderness near at hand than most people realize.  Central Park in New York alone is host to over two hundred different species of bird, for example. For some reason a good number of the photographs are black and white in this volume. Interesting in spots but one of the least impressive volumes in the series. 2/22/13

Lois McMaster Bujold edited by Janet Brennan Croft, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6933-1

A collection of essays about the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, known for her Miles Vorkosigian SF as well as several first rate fantasy novels. Bujold's popularity rests in part on her appeal to a wide range of reading tastes, from romance to military SF to high fantasy, although the vast majority of these essays deal with the Vorkosigian books. There are several interesting points raised in the essays, often in discussions of the governmental structure and social customs of Barrayar rather than about the quality of the writing, and only occasional lapses into sometimes nearly impenetrable academic jargon. There's also a mild defense of fan fiction - unauthorized stories written by fans using characters in professionally published stories - that I found unconvincing, but since the author concludes that it is probably a generational issue and I'm an old fart, I won't dwell on it here. Overall a better than average selection. 2/13/13

The Everglades by Archie Carr, Time Life, 1973

The Okefenokee Swamp by Franklin Russell, Time Life, 1973 

These two surveys of regional ecologies have superficially similar settings. I knew very little about the Everglades but assumed it to be boggy year round. I was surprised therefore to discover that there is an annual dry season during which most of the big swamps are dry and large numbers of plants and animals die off, leaving the survivors to repopulate when the next rainy season comes around. Some of the aerial photographs are spectacular, but the others are of mixed value. The text is okay with a bit too much concerned with personal experiences. The swamp is a relatively small area, mostly in Georgia, but as wild as the Everglades. The variety of different flowers is particularly striking, and well represented in the photographs. Reptiles and amphibians are also plentiful, including alligators which at one time used to attack boats, though apparently that is now a rare occurrence. There’s a large section on the history of the region with period photographs that was actually more interesting than I expected. This was by far the best written of this series I’ve read so far, and has the best collection of pictures. 2/12/13

The French Empire Style by Alvar Gonzales-Palacios, Hamlyn, 1966 

This is a survey of the artistic style in France during the time of Napoleon, which often reflected his megalomania by what we would not considered wildly excessive detail and decoration, wild beasts, stylized claws, etc. The book covers everything from painting and sculpture to interior decoration and architecture. The influence of Egyptian mythology is obvious and logical given Napoleon’s interest in that country. There are seventy full color photographs but some of the items discussed are not included, so I read this sitting in front of a computer so I could look up those that were missing. The author has little good to say about the sculptors and architects but praises the painters almost without exception. As a sign of the times, one of the chairs is designed so a man can sit in it without taking off his sword.   Not a lot of information but the photographs are excellent. 2/2/13

The Northwest Coast by Richard L. Williams, Time Life, 1973 

New England Wilds by Ogden Tanner, Time Life, 1974 

The first of these is a look at the northwestern part of North America, Oregon up into Canada. The first half is more concerned with the local history than other volumes in this series, and most of the descriptive work is about the mountains and the sea coast. The author turns to the forests for the second half.  Some nice pictures in this one but not enough natural history for my taste. The second volume is my neck of the woods, although the author excludes Rhode Island, apparently because we have no true wilderness. The text is good in this one, although the photography for almost the entire first half of the book is snowscapes, which all tend to look alike after a while. The section on bogs was actually the most interesting; I hadn’t realized how many carnivorous plants existed in New England. One of the better written entries in the series. 1/30/13

The Grand Canyon by Robert Wallace, Time Life, 1973

Hawaii by Robert Wallace, Time Life, 1973 

I have never been to the Grand Canyon, although it’s on my to-do list. This is a frankly rather disorganized discussion that mixes the history of exploration of the cavern, Native American folklore and customs, an account of a river journey, and bits and pieces of natural history. The photographs were, in general, less impressive than those in the other books in this series. I did find it interesting, though not surprising, to learn that the ecology on one side of the canyon is remarkably dissimilar to that on the opposite side because of natural barriers, but overall I found this disappointing.  I have been to Hawaii, however, although I only saw one island. It’s not surprising that Hawaii has a unique ecology given its relative isolation from the rest of the world. Many of the plants that grow there found so few threats that they stopped growing thorns or developing other defensive measures. Not surprisingly, a good chunk of the book is devoted to the discussion of volcanoes. There is even one plant that grows only in the crater of one of these, and nowhere else in the world. 1/21/13

Strange Cults & Utopias of 19th Century America by John Humphrey Noyes, Dover, 1966 (originally published in 1870)   

The original title of this was The History of American Socialism, which is far more appropriate given the subject matter.  This is a survey and brief history of the two main branches of socialist Utopians in America – the Owenites and the Fourierists, theoretically opposed to each other although their tenets overlapped to a large degree. They were both designed to minimize the nuclear family in favor of a larger, more integrated community. They also almost invariably failed within a single generation. The accounts of some of these suggest that the people participating were incredibly naďve. Bits and pieces of this are interesting but most of it is very dry reading and often repetitive, because most of these societies collapsed for very similar reasons. It’s more of a reference book than a narrative history and I found myself incapable of reading more than fifty pages at a stretch without taking a break, and skimmed some sections that were simply statistical in nature. 1/17/13

The Killings at Kent State by I.F. Stone, Vintage, 1971   

I read this way back when it first came out, but I’d forgotten that the investigation had revealed that the claims by the National Guard that they had felt threatened by the demonstrators they shot and killed was fabricated after the fact. Nevertheless, the authorities in Ohio chose not to charge any of the people responsible for the deaths of several people, including at least one innocent bystander who wasn’t even part of the demonstration. For those who never heard of this, it was an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University during which a number of National Guard troops fired live rounds indiscriminately into the crowd, apparently without provocation. Even Spiro Agnew characterized it as murder. It also covers the Orangeburg Massacre in which a group of policemen killed and wounded a number of black students, perjured themselves, falsified evidence, but were all acquitted. The FBI evidence was ignored by the politically motivated prosecutors. The contrast in appearances between then and now is interesting. The official police order at the time was “scatter them niggers”. Can’t imagine that getting past the networks and the Feds nowadays. It was interesting to re-read this with Wikipedia open and discover some of the students named later became college presidents and successful politicians. I also doubt that this kind of unrest on campuses would be possible today unless the draft was reinstituted; despite claims otherwise, self preservation was a large factor in the anti-war protests (although the civil rights protests that overlapped were considerably more admirable). It would be nice to think that nothing like this could happen again, but alas that’s a daydream in present when the government has declared it can imprison us indefinitely without charges and that torture is now a matter of policy, to be used or not at the discretion of the President, rather than something contrary to American principles. 1/12/13

The Amazon by Tom Sterling, Time Life, 1973

The Sierra Madre by Donald Dale Jackson and Peter Wood, Time Life, 1975  

Although I knew that the Amazon was the largest river system in the world, I had no idea that it held 2/3 of all the fresh water in the world. The first of these two books admits up front that it is impossible to cover such a vast and varied area in any detail given the size of the book. Nor had I realized how relatively infertile the jungles are. Agriculture as we know it is virtually impossible and the fruit bearing plants are so widely scattered that gathering them is a major task. The author has a habit of anthropomorphizing the environment – the jungle really doesn’t care whether it is invaded by humans or not.  There’s quite a bit of personal experience in this one, but they’re more interesting incidents than in some of the others in the series, including the second title, which is essentially about the authors’ visits to that area, which covers most of Mexico and a little bit of the southwestern US.  Nice pictures, reminiscent of the Old West in many cases, but not nearly as diverse or interesting as the Amazon. 1/10/13

Power and Innocence by Rollo May, Norton, 1972 

During my college years, I read a lot of psychology books – even considered it as a major – before one of my professors told us that the “recovery” rate among people who underwent therapy was no higher than the spontaneous rate. I’m still rather skeptical about his conclusions, but there was at least an element of truth to them. One of the people I read was Rollo May, although I don’t think I read this particular book at the time. It is a discussion of the causes of violence and there are lots of wonderful insights and astute observations in it. There is also a great deal of balderdash, anecdotal evidence, and cherrypicking. 

Oversimplifying a bit, May’s premise is that the lack of power – and by this he means even the power to assert our own right to exist – is pretty much the only cause of aggressive behavior and it is not entirely without benefits. He rightly points out that if we bred all of the aggression and assertiveness out of the human race, we’d end up with the Eloi from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, virtually incapable of taking care of themselves. He uses this premise to explain quite convincingly why there is so much conflict between police and residents of poor communities, particularly minorities. He then defines innocence as the unwillingness to acknowledge of express power or anger and, again correctly, suggests that individuals and groups who never express any sort of anger can explode at some point with consequences which appear disproportionate to the cause, hence riots, school shooters, and revolutions.  He’s on safe ground here as well. 

But then there is the nonsense. May insists that this is almost always the case and that violent student protests during the 1960s were initiated because the hippie movement could no longer suppress their anger. Clearly he wasn’t there. The vast majority of students in the protests were no in fact “hippies”; they were the straights, many of whom did not look forward to the prospect of being drafted and sent off to Vietnam after graduating. There might be occasional beards and beads among the protestors, but the leaders and the most violent agitators were far more likely to be wearing cardigan sweaters and sweatshirts with athletic logos.  Similarly he asserts that “hippies” – which he never defines – were invariably anti-machine, particularly computers for some reason. I don’t agree with that at all, although I do think there is some truth his charge that the counterculture of the 1960s tried to retreat into a faux innocence because they felt unable to change American culture.  

Another example he gives struck me as a variation of the “magic vagina” nonsense. He tells us that one of his patients had experienced eight consecutive miscarriages because she could not express her anger with her parents, and that she was in the process of her ninth when he, May, expressed her anger for her and the miscarriage suddenly reversed itself. I believe that we have far more control over our bodies than we realize, but this strains credulity.  Similarly he asserts that when a repressed person finally asserts power through violence, he or she loses the ability to speak coherently. Well, in some cases that might well be the case, but it’s certainly not an absolute rule and frankly I doubt that it’s even very common. 

He goes on to say that violence is more common in America than in Europe or Russia because we have less power over our own lives than does even the average Russian laborer. I suppose one could argue the case but even if we grant him that point, then why are violent revolutions much more common in Europe and the rest of the world than in America?  Although he makes a clear distinction between power and force, he then charges that many intellectuals unwisely decry the value of power, although in those instances they are clearly talking about force.  

At times he makes assertions and then refutes them, but the assertions appear to be paper tigers. For example, he says that “love and power are traditionally cited as opposites of each other.” Who says so? I’ve never heard any such thing, and since his definition of “power” is not the traditional one, by his own statement, then even if this was true, it would not be relevant. He also claims that if a man is murdered (actually he just says killed but I suspect he means murdered) the killer is most likely to be his wife.  

May is on firmer ground in his discussion of our fascination with violence even warfare – and the last few decades of US history support his contention that we as a nation are to some extent obsessed with imposing our will by force on others, internally and externally. He also has an interesting discussion of the effect of possessing a gun, which changes the personality of the bearer more than the bearer of a knife or a club. Unfortunately, his conclusions are based in large part on his subjective opinions so his case is on shaky grounds although there is probably some truth in it. The book overall then is an odd mixture of insightful observations and unsupported assumptions that unfortunately make it suspect as a whole. 1/7/13

We Modern People by Anindita Banerjee, Wesleyan, 2012, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-7334-6 

It had not occurred to me until I read this book that fantastic fiction in the modern sense was popping up in Russia even before it did so in the West. I was familiar with Zamiatin, of course, but if I’d ever head of Bogdanov or Bryusov, I’ve long since forgotten them. This scholarly look at the evolution of Russian SF focuses on its wide acceptance among disparate social groups and its influence on science and technology. While I’m not entirely convinced that it was as widely influential as is suggested here, the author does make a good case for her argument and it clearly was more of a social force than it was in Great Britain or the US when Wells and Verne and others were first becoming popular. The prose is dense but not overly academic and should be accessible to most readers. 1/1/13

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