Last Update 12/30/13

Precolumbian Terracottas by Franco Monti, Hamlyn, 1969 

This art book obviously covers the various types of pottery found from Mexico through South America, with lots of full color photographs and accompanying text explaining what we know about the development of art in those regions, which is a good deal less than we know about art in Europe. The closest to an actual surprise was learning that there was so little cross fertilization of styles even over relatively short distances that experts can quickly determine where a particular piece was fashioned with only a cursory examination because they differ so much, particularly through the appearance of eyes and other components of humans and animals. 12/30/13

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor, Penguin, 1998 

Had Hitler not chosen to invade Russia and expend much of his army in the process, it is quite likely that World War II would have ended very differently. This is an account of Operation Barbarossa and the siege of Stalingrad, reconstructed in large part by drawing upon journals, memoirs, and official papers of the time. Both Stalin and Hitler personally directed military campaigns, to the frustration of the generals who actually knew what was involved. Hitler’s biggest problem – other than assuming his soldiers didn’t need winter clothing because the war wouldn’t last that long – was in constantly splitting his forces to go after multiple objectives. Stalin’s biggest error was insisting that his armies never surrender ground, allowing entire armies to be encircled and captured.  The Russians had, despite everything, a superior productive capacity and more motivation to fight. They also had fewer but better tanks. The Germans had better coordination with the air support and better training. The Russian generals were better at managing Stalin than the German ones were with Hitler. The privations involved almost defy description. Depressing but fascinating.  12/26/13

The Past That Might Have Been, the Future That May Come by Lauren J. Lacey, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7826-2

A survey of female writers of fantastic fiction. Given the number involved, particularly in fantasy and horror, a book of less than two hundred pages is necessarily going to be very limited. The author's intent is good - to determine whether female writers look at the past and future from different perspectives - but her selection of authors is not representative of the genre as a whole. Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood have only dabbled in the genre, Doris Lessing is hardly representative of significant trends, and I had never even heard of Jeanette Winterson before. Her approach is academic, her prose is dense, and while many of her points are worth making, they aren't really applicable outside of the small group of writers whom she has chosen to analyze. Significant female writers like Leigh Brackett, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, and many others are not mentioned at all, and while Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin are certainly major genre voices, they certainly don't reflect the variations of the field as a whole. 12/24/13

National Geographic, July 1889 

The third issue is less readable than its predecessors. The bulk of the issue consists of a discussion of the river systems in the state of Pennsylvania, is written in largely technical terms, and is more of a catalog than a narrative. The second article discusses topological maps, including hachures – those where elevation is shown by shading – as opposed to those with contours. The illustrations are very helpful in this one. There is also a discussion of the use of actual models, although there are obvious practical limitations. A pretty dull issue. 12/19/13

The Great Dirigibles by John Toland, Dover, 1957 

A short history of lighter than air vessels, starting with an unusual, unpowered vehicle created during the Civil War but never put into service. Apparently the means by which the human pilot steered and propelled this ship has been lost, but he caused a considerable sensation traveling back and forth across Manhattan, including into the wind. Toland covers the major developments up through the Hindenberg disaster, but given that virtually every other dirigible eventually had a catastrophic failure, I’m mildly surprised that they lasted as long as they did as a major preoccupation of aviation, even after heavier than air travel had been developed. Much of the book consists of adaptations of firsthand accounts so at times it feels more like a novel than a history. 12/17/13

International Dissent by William O. Douglas, Vintage, 1971  

This is Douglas’ six part program for achieving world peace.  The first part irritated me because it doesn’t seem sensible to include an element that is clearly unworkable and which could not seriously be considered realistic. He insists that all military alliances – including NATO – must be eliminated. This is clearly nonsense. The second is the elimination of all colonies – which is essentially what has been done in the years since he wrote it, as well as his third point, admission of communist China into the United Nations. A couple of his subsidiary points are, however, also nonsense. He considered the reunification of Germany to be a major threat to world peace and he insists that the Japanese and Chinese would never become rivals because they are united in their opposition to Russia. His fourth proposal, a general agreement on exploitation of the oceans, is sensible but has not yet reached a critical phase and is probably still impractical on the scale he suggests. His next point is rapid industrialization of developing countries, which is a mixed blessing in view of our current concerns about global warming. The improvement of agriculture and other developmental problems is less controversial. His last point is a series of universally accepted international laws, which is in part another pipe dream.  12/15/13

Sickles the Incredible by W.A. Swanberg, Ace, 1956    

Daniel Sickles was one of the most colorful figures of the 19th Century, although very few remember him today. His most notorious act was to murder his wife’s lover, the son of Francis Scott Key, after which he was the first person ever to be freed by pleading temporary insanity. He was a prominent Congressman from New York at the time, a friend of President Buchanan, and was considered a future Presidential prospect. His political career was not destroyed by the murder, oddly enough, but by his willingness to reconcile with his wife – a fallen woman – afterward.  His career as a general during the Civil War also had its ups and downs. He was a marvelous organizer though not a great tactician. After his checkered military career, he became a controversial and not very diplomatic diplomat. One of the more interesting minor characters in American history. 12/11/13

National Geographic, April, 1889 

The opening article of the second issue concerns the exploration of Africa and attempts to explain why it has been so hard to penetrate, in large part because waterfalls render the main rivers difficult for navigation, and also because of the Sahara desert. The author talks about colonialism fairly subjectively, but mentions that Liberia is descending into “barbarism.” I found it interesting that there was a decided distinction between the Bantu and the negro tribes of northern Africa. The author does, however, condemn slavery very energetically and he credits the Muslim missionaries with being much more effective than their Christian counterparts at improving the lives of the average African. In 1889 most slaves were sent to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and various Arab states.  The remaining articles are surveys of work done within the past year or so, a kind of summary of the state of the art. The author of the first of these is unfortunate quite convinced of the mental inferiority of Africans and laments the problems that imposes on visiting scientists. The other three articles are rather dry and naturally hopelessly outdated. Not nearly as interesting as the first issue. 12/10/13

The Monitor and the Merrimack and Other Naval Battles by Fletcher Pratt, Random House, 1951 

I found this in my grade school library when I was about eight years old and it was the first account I read of the first ironclad warship battle and probably my first contact with military history. Pratt starts his story – which is quite well illustrated – with an account of the background of the inventor of the Monitor. The Civil War breaks out and a discussion of the naval blockade follows, along with the steps required to build both ships. The battle is covered in some detail, followed by accounts of other monitors and ironclads during the latter days of the Civil War. Despite being written for a younger audience - the entire book took about thirty minutes to read - this remains an engrossing and informative account. 12/9/13

National Geographic, October, 1888 

As part of my effort to diversify my reading, I decided to try the very first issue of this venerable magazine. The first essay – following an extended editorial – is actually rather interesting, an effort to explain the differences between geology and geography for the uninitiated, which was probably most of the population when it was published. The author calls for more teaching of geography in schools, by which he means the way in which the landscape is formed. During my school days, it was reduced to identifying countries on a blank map and reciting the names of capital cities. The second article – an attempt to classify geological structures – is I suspect long since obsolete. Next is an account of an unusually heavy snowfall in New York and New England, awkwardly written and not very informative, followed by a second concerning another storm that same year that swept in from the Atlantic. It’s interesting to see how little the authors knew about meteorology at the time. The article about the difficulties of charting the American coasts until the government finally stepped in and financed it, to the subsequent financial benefit of the business community, has interesting parallels in recent claims that government shouldn’t be involved in things like this, but the article itself mostly dwells on the military advantages of accurate charts. The final article is an account of the geological survey of the state of Massachusetts. These are obviously all more technical than the articles being published in the magazine currently and they are mostly rather dated, though still interesting. 12/8/13

The Road to Stalingrad by Benno Zieser, Ballantine, 1956   

This account of the Battle of Stalingrad was written by one of the German soldiers who took part in it. The early chapters are largely an account of the preparations and privations, and suggest that the German soldiers could not conceive of defeat at the hands of the Russians. It’s full of anecdotes about the battle, which was ultimately a major German defeat, but ssince Zieser was a common soldier, there is no mention of anything outside his limited point of view. There are some amusing stories but the prose is spare and the structure is often awkward.  First published in England as In Their Shallow Graves. 12/6/13

Do It! By Jerry Rubin, Ballantine, 1970 

Jerry Rubin, who was killed when he jaywalked into traffic, became a successful businessman after years as one of the best known faces of the youth rebellion of the 1960s, going from hippie to yuppie. This was his major literary work, a rambling sort of autobiography/exhortation filled with photographs and drawings. It is frequently angry and frequently over the top, but there are a number of valid criticisms beneath it all, specifically his criticism of social conservatism in a changing society, consumerism, and the abuse of political power. His recollections of various demonstrations against the Vietnam War and other issues are largely accurate, although colored by his prejudices. There’s also an account of his campaign to be mayor of Berkley – he received 20% of the vote. He was also called to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. More interesting for the glimpses it gives of a troubled but fascinating period in history than for any other reason. 12/2/13

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter, Vintage, 2008 (originally published in 1964) 

A collection of essays by one of my favorite historians. The title one is a discussion of political movements which – despite the virtues of their programs – rely on demonizing the opposition, assuming grand conspiracies exist, and so forth. Hofstadter points out that the tradition goes back to colonial times and is not peculiar to the US. The only difference is that the menace used to be considered a problem with foreign powers and now it’s traitors among us. His essay about the Goldwater campaign is equally impressive and if you substitute Ted Cruz and the Tea Party for Goldwater and his followers, it could have been written today with equal accuracy. The three closing essays are about the annexation of the Phillipines, the furor over the switch to the gold standard, and other historical issues. All worth reading. 11/29/13

No Man’s Land by John Toland, Ballantine, 1980 

This is a detailed account of the year 1918 in World War I. Early that year a major German assault nearly ended the war with British and French leaders quarreling and failing to cooperate, the American presence not yet significant enough to tilt the balance. The replacement of Petain with Foch and British agreement that he should be joint commander almost certainly improved the situation, but when a German diversionary attack had unexpected success, the follow up actually forced them to defer a much more decisive blow elsewhere.  Toland mixes accounts from both sides of the conflict, as well as those from military and political leaders and eye witness accounts of soldiers and civilians who were in the war zone. Not surprisingly, Lloyd George’s government systematically lied to the British public throughout the course of the war, as did the governments of all the major powers. The events inside Russia after the revolution were particularly interesting. Did you know that the Czech army at one point held Vladivostok? The suddenness with which Germany collapses right after a series of stunning victories is remarkable. 11/17/13

Thomas Harris and William Blake by Michelle Leigh Gompf, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7101-0

I have not read William Blake since my college days but I've certainly read, and reread, Thomas Harris more recently. As you might expect from the title, the author contends that Harris drew heavily on Blake's imagery and ideas, particularly in creating Hannibal Lecter as an example of someone wherein good and evil are so inseparably mixed that it is impossible to define him simply in those terms. The book is relatively short, free of academese, and her arguments are generally so well constructed that it is difficult to imagine their being refuted. Reading this altered my understanding of the Harris novels, as well as convincing me that I have to find time to read them again, with a fresh perspective.  11/13/13

God Is My Co-Pilot by Colonel Robert L. Scott, Ballantine, 1956  

This is one of the best known World War II memoirs, in which the author sketches in his early interest in flying, his training as a civilian and a member in the Air Force, and then his experiences in Asia during the war. The book is mostly anecdotal and since it was written at the height of the war, the anti-Japanese rhetoric is occasionally over the top, but it does provide an inside look at how air operations were conducted in that particular theater of war and the effects that it had on the men flying those missions. Scott went on to become an Air Force general and write several more books about the war and other subjects. 11/10/13

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, Vintage, 1963   

During the 1950s, the public animosity toward intellectuals – educators, scientists, artists, and others – reached its peak under McCarthyism, and only swung back in the opposite direction when Sputnik suggested that we were cutting our own throats. Hofstadter’s book is designed to point out that this prejudice – which he likens to anti-Semitism – has been a part of our history all along, and that it is likely to become more obvious as society becomes more dependent upon intellectuals. The vehemence of the climate change deniers and the continuing attempts to teach creationism in the schools support his point. The author takes pains to illustrate what he means by anti-intellectual by example rather than definition, and points out that it is common on both the Left and the Right, and also makes a distinction between intelligence and intellect. An inventor might be intelligent but might not be an intellectual; a professor might be an intellectual but might not be particularly intelligent. His discussion of the Puritans – whose clergy was very intellectual – is interesting in that he suggests it was more liberal than most other denominations, and that the clergy was far more liberal than the public at large, except for isolated rural areas. Harvard was, after all, founded to ensure an educated clergy. He traces the first rise of anti-intellectualism to the revivalist movement of the early 18th Century, which eschewed education and preached emotionalism. On the other hand, the revival movement almost certainly furthered the cause of democracy and individualism.  

Intellectuals were largely absent from the federal government for generations. Teddy Roosevelt at least created a team of experts to advise him, but Woodrow Wilson, once president of Princeton University, admitted that he hadn’t read a serious book in fourteen years and frequently expressed his distrust of experts and desire to keep them out of the government. His racism, opposition to female suffrage, and other positions were at odds with the prevailing intellectual sentiments of his time. The war forced him to change his policy and employ intellectuals in large numbers, so of course when public opinion turned against him regarding the League of Nations, the intellectuals were blamed as well. The Depression and subsequent New Deal were necessary before they returned to positions of influence. A very thorough and thought provoking historical study. 11/3/13

The Phoenicians by Donald Harden, Praeger, 1962   

The Phoenicians were a large Mediterranean civilization which invented the alphabet we still use and I knew very little about them before I picked up this book. Alas, I didn’t really have an understanding of their civilization even after reading it. The author seemed to me very disorganized, presenting successions of facts without any linkage or chronology, and  while I read lots of numbers and odd bits of information, the only thing I really retained – thanks to a lot of maps – was a much better understanding of the geography of their empire. Will have to look for another book on this subject that takes a chronological approach. 10/30/13

Orbiting Ray Bradbury's Mars edited by Gloria McMillan, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7576-6

Many of Ray Bradbury's Mars stories are SF only by convention because they are actually fantasy. Bradbury was never concerned with the mechanics of things, The subject matter of some of the essays are predictable - Bradbury's vision of the small town, colonialism in various forms, the clash of cultures, etc. Some of the essays are insightful; some are excuses for the author to discuss pet projects like Hispanic immigrants in the US. Other essays are about Mars - including some personal reminiscences - and the Bradbury references aren't much more than an afterthought. Some of the comments about films adaptations were interesting as well. A very mixed bag here in terms of quality and also in terms of relevance to the purported subject matter. Worth while for the better essays although as usual McFarland's prices are aimed at libraries rather than individuals. 10/20/13

A Coffin for King Charles by C.V. Wedgwood, Time, 1964  

This is an account of the last ten weeks in the life of King Charles of England, executed at the instigation of Oliver Cromwell and others following a war between the throne and Parliament. Charles was the first king to be tried and executed by his own people without being deposed and it was the first step on the road to the end of divine right. Although the majority of people opposed his execution, at the end no one seriously tried to intervene to save him, and the king himself was so convinced that he was divinely appointed that he believed his captors would never dare.  The author points out somewhat wryly that when the Army seized Parliament and packed it with its own proponents, the representation was actually more congruent to the populace at large than it had been under the elected Parliament – since only a minority could vote for those legislators. 10/18/13

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane, McFarland, 2013, $75, ISBN 978-0-7864-7111-9

This is a reference book so I obviously didn't read it through. It's exactly what the title suggests, a list of fairies and fairy related subjects drawn from folklore with a description of various lengths and a list of source material for each individual listing. There is a brief introductory essay and no illustrations. I'm hardly an expert on the subject but it certainly seems exhaustive and the entries that I sampled were all efficient and well written. A lot of work went into this and anyone interested in the subject is probably going to find this very useful.  The bibliography is also potentially very valuable to enthusiasts and researchers. 10/4/13

Wellington in the Peninsula by Jac Weller, Curtis, 1962  

Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, was an undistinguished officer who demonstrated great brilliance during the campaign against Napoleon’s forces in the Iberian peninsula. Within five days of arriving he had defeated a better trained and numerically superior French army in Portugal and by the time the actual head of operations arrived to take over, the French had essentially been defeated and driven out of the country. Unfortunately, and despite reasonably good leadership, the British forces in Spain were forced to retreat and evacuate the country when France counterattacked.  The war continued for several years and while the French were never completely defeated, the conflict was a constant strain on Napoleon’s forces. Wellesley was instrumental in keeping them at bay and eventually led a combined army which captured Madrid. This may have been the first significant use of guerilla tactics during warfare. Pretty well organized and paced.10/1/13

Revolutionary Notes by Julius Lester, Grove, 1970   

Although I thought even at the time these essays appeared that Lester was sometimes completely wrong, sometimes saw only one side of an issue, and sometimes was right for the wrong reasons, I wonder now if in retrospect he would say the same things. Che Guevara may have been a hero in some sense, but he was not the saintly character described here. The war in Vietnam was a mistake and President Johnson and many others did horrible things, but that doesn’t mean that they gloated over the deaths of children. Picketing is not rendered ineffective simply because a permit is required. The International War Crimes Tribunal of 1967 took as given that the US had committed an aggressive illegal war and only enlisted people who believed that, so it’s not surprising that this was also their conclusion. Arrest H. Rap Brown for a blatant weapons violation is not a “jive” charge done just to harass him. Shortly after the essay was published, Brown attempted armed robbery at a bar. In 2000, Brown murdered a police officer. The fact that many of his complaints are valid doesn’t excuse some of his irrational responses. He also condemns Czechoslovakia for provoking the Russian intervention. Lester was obviously consumed by the tensions around him and became just as twisted and imperceptive as the people he rightly criticizes. 9/22/13

The Body in Tolkien's Legendarium edited by Christopher Vaccaro, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7478-3

This is subtitled "Essays on Middle-Earth Corporeality" and the back cover blurb is almost incomprehensible gibberish, so I was not well disposed to this collection of essays about the depiction of bodies in Tolkien's fiction. As you might expect, it involves a good deal of feminist and gay interpretation, some of it insightful, some of it obfuscatory. See, I can use big words too. There's even a table of descriptive terms like light, dark, clothing, body position, etc. for each of several characters with mathematical calculations. This is aimed mostly at academics and libraries will probably buy it, but the price is too stiff for casual readers, and casual readers aren't likely to be willing to penetrate the academic language, which is a shame because about half the essays actually have something worthwhile to say. 9/21/13

Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies, Penguin, 2011   

This is a lengthy (it took me almost three weeks to read it) study of why nations rise and fall, although the author has limited himself to examples from Europe. His introduction is an interesting critique of the state of historical research, which he believes has arisen from overspecialization and the absence of formal religious teaching, both of which he believes contribute to a better understanding of the mortality of nations as well as people. At one point he cites as an example of another historian’s quest for factual accuracy his climbing of Mount Ararat to determine where the Ark came to rest. Since the Ark is a myth, historical accuracy is irrelevant in his example. He opens with Tolosa, the kingdom of the Visigoths in what is now southern and western France, which lasted nearly a century before the Franks invaded and drove them down into Spain. Next is a study of the kingdoms in the northern British Isles during the Dark Ages, which is limited by the paucity of information available to historians. Next is the various Burgundian kingdoms, which includes parts of what we now think of as Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland.  Burgundy’s borders were eccentric because of marriages and so forth, and for a while the unofficial capital was what is now Brussels. It never was technically a kingdom because no pope would risk the wrath of France or the Holy Roman Empire, but its rulers had everything but the name. Some of the disorganization in the separate chapters is a consequence of the spotty information available  and/or the complexity of the situation, as in Aragon. On the other hand, some of it is the author going off on a tangent of no relevance to the stated theme of the book, for example a lengthy tirade against Lukashenko in Belarus which tells us nothing about the rise and fall of the much earlier kingdom. Much of the book deals with the area including present day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine, an area whose political fortunes changed frequently.  9/15/13

Small Renaissance Bronzes by Maria Grazia Ciardi Dupre, Hamlyn, 1966   

This is a brief study of bronze casting of statuettes in Italy during the 15th and 16th Centuries, heavily illustrated. Because these pieces were not meant to be displayed outdoors and were examined at close hand, more attention was paid to the finish and surface details than in full sized statues.  The smaller ones were often deliberately copied from full statues and sold to tourists as souvenirs. The fad died in Florence with the advent of Michelangelo, who believed that art must always be created on a grand scale. Perhaps the best known artist in this area was Donatello, who left Florence to live in Padua, making it the second center for bronze statuettes. The style and most of the subject matter was taken from classical Rome and Greece, although there are a few contemporary or random subjects including a quite impressive boar. The photographs are the heart of the book, all in full color. 9/10/13

The Un-Americans by Frank J. Donner, Ballantine, 1961   799 

This was written before the House Committee on Un-American Activities was eliminated as a blot upon Congress and the country as a whole, although the current House would probably bring it back if it occurred to them. HUAC was renamed in 1975 and dropped out of the public consciousness when it stopped committing its worst excesses. Their hearings were similar to the McCarthy hearings, although he was in the Senate rather than the House. Nixon, on the other hand, was a member of HUAC at one time. It was founded as a temporary committee in 1938 and by 1960 it was the most powerful, expensive, and corrupt institution in Congress. For much of its existence, HUAC was linked with hate groups and fascist organizations, which it never investigated, and used language that we might today find laughable – although some members of Congress even today see conspiracies in the most absurd places. Scary, because it wasn’t that long ago and I could see it happening again. 9/9/13

Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings by Stefan Ekman, Wesleyan, 2013, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-7324-7 

The importance of setting in most fantasy fiction – particularly the better works – is so apparent it almost goes without saying. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others, as when features of the landscape are also important plot points. Sometimes it’s more subtle but not necessarily less important. The author covers a variety of writers including China Mieville, Patricia A. McKillip, Terry Pratchett, and others but he is most interested in J.R.R. Tolkien. I was rather surprised not to see George R.R. Martin not even mentioned, since the landscape of his worlds is clearly very important, but it’s a minor point. The section about crossing from one landscape to another struck me as the best part of the book, but there are interesting points sprinkled throughout. The prose is frequently dense but it avoids the jargon thick approach common to most academic writing. This should appeal to a wide variety of fantasy fans and suggest an alternate way of looking at some of what they read. 9/1/13

The Courage to Create by Rollo May, Bantam, 1975   

This is another of those books that does not stand up well to rereading. The author sets out to explore the nature of creativity and asserts that it takes courage to create art that is not popular. I’ve just essentially summarized his entire argument. Instead of being brief, he spends two chapters defining what he means by “courage”, several more defining “creativity” and then a couple linking the two. The text is repetitive, insubstantial, simple minded, and trite. It at least has the virtue of brevity. 8/27/13

The Arrogance of Power by J. William Fulbright, Vintage, 1966  

Senator Fulbright was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Vietnamese war and was one of the first to oppose its prosecution. This book is his discussion of that and his feeling that powerful nations tend to think that because they have power they have an obligation to use it. He considers this a trap that the US is falling into, and events since then have proved him to be prophetic. He espoused several unpopular ideas at the time, most of which I agreed with, including the desirability of allying ourselves with Hanoi instead of Saigon, the need to distinguish between nationalism and communism even when the two were intertwined, the dangerous concentration of power in the Presidency, and a preference to concentrate on improving things at home rather than meddling aboard – although he was certainly not an isolationist. Even after fifty years, this book seems relevant and insightful. 8/24/13

The Lore of Ships by various, Crescent, 1975   

I was quite disappointed in this, believing it to be a detailed history of the development of watercraft. There is in fact a brief essay on each element – hulls, rigging, etc. – but only a couple of pages on each. The bulk of the book is drawings and diagrams. Some of the illustrations are pointless – an array of different painting patterns on smokestacks – and some would be useful if they were accompanied by explanations, which they mostly lack. The assumption is that you already know a great deal about the subject, which makes no sense in a popularized coffee table book. I found a couple of things of interest but for the most part this had no appeal for me. 8/21/13

The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter, Vintage, 1948   

This is a collection of portraits of famous Americans from the revolution to FDR, written to dispel some of the myths about each and provide a more realistic look at American history.  One point he makes is that Jefferson and the other founding fathers weren’t as fond of democracy as we’d like to believe. The thought of universal suffrage was repellent to them because that meant the unqualified rabble could prevail. Andrew Jackson’s crusade against the national bank succeeded in destroying that institution, but brought about a more severe onset of the financial woes he was trying to avoid than if he had left it in place. The essay on John C. Calhoun contains an interesting statement that Calhoun’s invention of the right of nullification of federal laws by states is only of historical interest, given that several states are claiming it again currently – and inaccurately. The most recent portrait is Roosevelt. Hofstadter is much more realistic in his appraisals than are the writers of textbooks and the men come across as complex and flawed. 8/18/13

The Last Battle by Stephen Harding, DaCapo, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-306-82208-7   

During the last days of World War II, an American unit team up with a German one to fight an SS group that had been sent to kill a small number of French political figures held captive in a castle in Austria. The group included Clemenceau and Weygand among others. This account consists in large part in portraits of the handful of prisoners and the principle military personnel associated with the battle. A German officer who was active in the anti-Nazi resistance leads his men in helping the Americans against the SS. Although significant for what it accomplished, this wasn’t a major military battle although it does have some interesting details. 8/12/13

The Transgressive Iain Banks edited by Martyn Colebrook & Katharine Cox, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-4225-6

A collection of essays about the late Iain Banks. Banks, most of whose SF work was set in the Culture Universe backdrop, was one of the handful of recent writers who specialized in space opera, though not the traditional space patrol type work popular in the middle of the 20th Century. Banks also wrote a number of mainstream novels, and this book covers both sides of his career. There is, therefore, a section of essays about his background in Scotland and his treatment of that setting, as well as other aspects of his mainstream work. The SF is in fact largely relegated to a few essays toward the end although there are references to it sprinkled through the book. Almost all of the entries are written in academese rather than English, so if you're put off by terms such as "theorizing the psychosomatic" or the misuse of the term "science fantasy", then you might want to be wary. I thought that several of the essays spent a great deal of time circling a point rather than making it, but there were other times when I was absorbed. 8/11/13

Parabolas of Science Fiction edited by Brian Attebery & Veronica Hollinger, Wesleyan, 2013, $28.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-7367-4

The promotional materials suggest that this collection of essays has some kind of common theme about the metatextual qualities of the genre, but there didn't seem to me to be any commonality. They're just a selection of essays about various aspects of the field, many of which are quite good. Some of the contributors are familiar names - L. Timmel Duchamps, Gary Wolfe, and Terry Dowling - and some are not. The topics include SF in Canada, the work of Katherine MacLean, mad scientists and uplifted animals, generation starships, gender roles, as well as less specific discussions of the themes, paradigms, and devices of science fiction. Most of them are quite accessible, a couple use too much jargon for my taste. There's a fair balance of discussions of classic work and newer material. A well balanced selection of essays for those with an analytical inclinatio. 8/7/13

The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 1977  s705 

This is an extensive history of the construction of the Panama Canal, starting with early surveying efforts, followed by a lengthy discussion of the failed attempt by a French company, and then the trials and tribulations attending its final construction. The most interesting parts for me were the political maneuvering that separated Panama from Colombia, the various alternate routes that were rejected for one reason or another, and the politicking in Washington to get the project funded and approved. Least interesting were some of the financial and technical details. It took well over a week for me to finish this, a chapter or two each night, because McCullough provides so much information that much of it is inevitably somewhat boring. The book is also provided with an unusually large selection of photographs. 7/30/13

Panzer Battles by F.W. von Mellenthin, Ballantine, 1973 (originally published in 1956)   

The author was an officer in the German army during World War II, primarily in armored divisions, so this is a combination of his own experiences and his researches. He analyzes the use of armor by both sides, pointing out that the French had considerable superiority at the outbreak of the war but wasted it through lack of training, lack of initiative, and poor dispersal of forces. His accounts are often dry though occasionally enlivened by his personal reaction to some specific situation. The book covers the entire war – the author was involved in almost every major battle to some extent – and is more concerned with strategy and tactics than in creating any kind of narrative. There are lots of maps, some of which are too busy to be useful. The narrative is a little unfocused but there are some interesting insights into a few of the notable battles. 7/18/13

Syria: A Short History by Philip K. Hitti, Collier, 1959  

What we now call Syria is actually only a part of a region that bears that name, other parts of which include Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and part of Turkey. The modern nation state of Syria was created somewhat arbitrarily by Europeans, which is part of the reason there is so much instability in that region. This was where the first phonetic alphabet was created and probably where the first widescale use of agriculture was developed.  Interesting at times, but the 19th and 20th Centuries are covered in about 25 pages, and that’s the period I was most interested in. It’s much more thorough covering the earlier periods. 7/7/13

H.P. Lovecraft's Dark Arcadia by Gavin Callaghan, McFarland, 2013, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7079-2

The blurbs describe this as a reconsideration of the controversial stories of Lovecraft, but I've never actually heard them called controversial before. That aside, this is one of the most intelligent and readable critiques of Lovecraft that I've ever read. The author contends that Lovecraft has been largely misread by critics, that the cosmic elements of his fiction are simply masks concealing rather mundane and familiar horror tropes, and that contrary to what is commonly believed, Lovecraft grew more conservative rather than more liberal in his fiction as he grew older. Much of the confusion, he believes, is that undue weight has been given to his nonfiction, which is not representative of his fiction. For the most part, he makes very good arguments. He also discusses the recurring imagery in the short stories, Lovecraft's fascination with female attributes and how that creeps into some of the stories. There were a couple of times when I thought the author's points were a bit shaky but for the most part he backs them up well, and best of all, the book is written in English rather than academese. The best McFarland book I've read this year. 7/6/13

The Greening of America by Charles A. Reich, Bantam, 1970    

This was the author’s attempt to analyze changing social conditions in America and predict what the next generation – as characterized by student activism during the 1960s – would lead to.  Alas, although many of his observations about the flaws in modern American society were accurate and still exist, his cheery prediction that we would soon evolve a new consciousness to control corporate interests and repressive government was almost completely wrong. I found his characterization of the philosophy of the people who wrote the Constitution rather unlikely; they were not as concerned with the rights of the unpropertied class as he suggests.  Reich contends that big government arose as a counterbalance to big business, but by doing so it simply validated big business as a concept and perpetuated its flaws. Similarly he believes that efforts by government to “reform” the situation legitimizes the status quo and generally comes too late to do much good. The first hundred pages or so of the book are most an interesting critique. After that, things fall apart dramatically. The bulk consists of over generalizations, misinterpretations, simplistic analysis, and wishful thinking. Reich looks at a small minority of college students from the 1960s and assumes they are representative of their entire generation. He ascribes common feelings to all of them which was not the case at all. He claims that once someone has had the revelation – which isn’t very specific except that it involves rock music, drugs, dressing oddly, and not wanting to work a boring job – one can never go back. I wonder how he feels now that most of those people did in fact revert to the lifestyles of their parents. There’s more than a trace of Luddism – he dislikes technology – and to top it all off he’s long winded and repetitive. I wonder if it’s significant that he never had another book published. I also wonder why, if he thinks laws are a major infringement on freedom that he chose law as a career. Dated, dreary, and deluded. 7/1/13

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