Last Update 12/31/14

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond, 2012   

The two previous books Iíve read by this author were spectacularly good. This one is, alas, rather disappointing. It is essentially a series of comparisons of how various social issues are addressed by a number of primitive societies and how they are addressed in more advanced ones. Some of it is very interesting, cogently written, and informative. Some of the anecdotes are quite entertaining. Diamond deals with compensation for the loss of a loved one, war, crime, and a few other issues, although sometimes one overlaps with another. The problem I had is that he makes a point, illustrates it, then illustrates it over and over again, and repeats the point several times as well. I frequently had the feeling that Iíd already read the text I was reading for the first time. My attention wandered considerably. Itís not really a bad book, but it is not as well organized or as tightly written as its predecessors. 12/31/14

The Maritime History of Massachusetts by Samuel Eliot Morison, 1921

As the title suggests, this is a history of seafaring and its development in Massachusetts. It concentrates more on commerce Ė trade, whaling, and fishing Ė than on the military use of sea power, which was one of Morisonís interests. I had not realized that most of the early American trade with China was from Boston and that it in fact exceeded British trade for a time, mostly involving otter pelts purchased from the various tribes of the Pacific northwest. Some of the anecdotes are particularly entertaining, but the nature of the subject means that a good deal of the text is spent describing what was carried by which ships at what time in history and that became rather boring after a while. This is more useful as a reference work than as something one reads from cover to cover. I read it in four bursts over the course of a couple of weeks because I kept losing interest. 12/23/14

How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman, Liveright, 2014, $29.95, ISBN 978-0871404855   

This is a fascinating detailed guide to how a Victorian lived, from getting out of bed, using the privy, dressing, eating breakfast, going to work, and so on. The author covers the breadth of the Victorian period, since a lot changed during that century, and a range of social and financial positions, with the very rich getting less attention, both because they were a minority and also because we know a lot more in general about how they live Ė from watching Downton Abbey if nothing else. The author has even tried living under these conditions so she knows whereof she speaks. Better her than me.  So if you want to know what Victorians used for toothpaste, or how the privy got cleaned, or how much laudanum they actually consumed, this is the book for you. Itís also a nifty guide if you want to write something with a Victorian setting and get the details right. 12/10/13

Ancient Semitic Civilizations by Sabatino Moscati, Capricorn, 1957   

This is a brief overview of the early history of Semitic civilizations including Judeah, Babylon, Ethiopia, and Mesopotamia. To my surprise, the sections about the structure of language were among the most interesting. There are a few photos inserted representing some of the art of this period but not enough to be particularly useful. The comparisons among the various religions of the era are also interesting but the author spends too much time explaining how we learned what we know and the various discussions are not chronological so are often confusing. 12/13/14

The Canadian Fantastic in Focus edited by Allan Weiss, McFarland, 2014, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-9592-4

As the title says, this is a collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy by Canadian authors. The essays deal with the best known recent authors - Robert Charles Wilson, Charles de Lint, Peter Watts, Tanya Huff, Nalo Hopkinson, and several lesser known writers although there is only passing reference to Robert J. Sawyer and A.E. van Vogt. The essays tend to be academic in style and substance and deal with subjects like Gnosticism, colonialism, and other faddish topics. I found about half of them interesting and skimmed the other half. The problem with most of these collections of essays is that there is little if any structure to them as a book and the writing varies wildly from one to the next. There are some good ones here - notably the essays about De Lint, Huff, and Wilson, but some of the others are of marginal interest. 12/10/14

Gargoyles and Grotesques by Alex Woodcock, Shire, 2011  

This is primarily a picture book that I picked up because I collect gargoyles.  Technically, if itís not a water spout, itís a grotesque and not a gargoyle, but the distinction is largely forgotten or ignored. Theories about the origins of medieval gargoyles vary from practical jokes by stone masons to holdovers from the pagan era. Most of the pictures included here are heavily weathered carvings, some almost unrecognizable. There is also a section of preservation methods and a list of places to visit in England. 12/9/14

The Battle Is the Pay-Off by Ralph Ingersoll, Armed Forces, 1943   

I have a fondness for first person accounts of experiences during World War II even though their limited viewpoint doesnít  tell us much about the conflict itself. This one involves an army officer who fought in Tunisia mostly against the Italians. It provides insight into what it was actually like to fight under the conditions there, and while the author is respectful of his superiors Ė he was still enlisted when he wrote the book -  there are hints of his exasperation with some of the inefficiencies of the hierarchy, as well as the usual chaotic events that take place in a military conflict. Not one of the best Iíve read, but not among the worst either. 12/7/14

Joss Whedon as Shakespearean Moralist by J. Douglas Rabb and J. Michael Richardson, McFarland, 2014, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-7440-0

Joss Whedon is, of course, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Firefly, and has written and/or directed films including Toy Story, The Avengers, and Alien Resurrection.  This academic study compares themes and treatments of William Shakespeare and Joss Whedon, not quite as absurd as it sounds given that Whedon is known to have conducted readings of the plays and has even produced one as a low budget movie. The authors contend that Whedon's moral sense is more attuned to that of the Elizabethan Age than to contemporary times, at least in those areas under discussion. This is pretty arcane stuff at times and while the prose isn't impenetrable, it is not an easy book to read and I confess having skimmed through some sections that weren't of interest to me.  A lot has been written about Whedon's work in the past, but this is quite a novel approach. 12/5/14

The Price of Union by Herbert Agar, Sentry, 1950 

The author of this lengthy historical work explores the nature and effects of colonial and early American attitudes and how they affected the development of government, particularly presidential politics up through 1908. Agar argues that the two party system, which the founders did not want, actually proved beneficial because they both had national as opposed to regional identities. Covering the administrations from Washington through 1909, the author explains the politics behind various decisions very clearly. Even allowing for the authorís known sympathies with southern agrarianism, this is a fascinating, informative, and sometimes troubling view of American history, particularly the two presidents preceding and two presidents following Abraham Lincoln. The prose is excellent but there is so much information packed in here that it took me two weeks to read the 700 pages in regular chunks. Once again I am impressed by how much the political arguments today resemble those of a century or more ago. There is nothing new under the sun.   22/38/14

J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons, McFarland, 2014, $35, ISBN 978-1-7864-9537-5

I don't think many would question that Tolkien and Howard are largely responsible for the contemporary fantasy field, not because they came up with something new but because they made forms that already existed - high fantasy and sword & sorcery - and made them popular. They remain the two largest strains of fantasy today although they have both been modified somewhat over the years. The author describes the rise in popularity of both authors - but he also includes the success of the superhero comic as part of the same trend, which argument I found considerably less convincing, particularly given that these were mostly science fiction rather than fantasy. Most of the book is well written and entertaining. The short chapter on the successors to Tolkien and Howard is superficial, however. I had a couple of minor quibbles - "Nightmare at 37,000 Feet" is a poor choice as Richard Matheson's most notable work, for example, given I Am Legend, A Stir of Echoes, Hell House, "Duel" and others. No major problems though. 11/14/14

Hollow Earth by David Standish, Da Capo, 2006   

A history of hollow Earth theories starting with Edmond Halley and extending to the near present. In the 17th Century, scholars still believed that there were giants in the Earth, but they also began to assume that there was a hot center responsible for volcanos. They also had to explain Biblical statements that seemed to contradict observable reality Ė the dawn of creationism Ė such as the fact that there is not enough water in the oceans to have flooded the entire world. This was explained by one clever thinker by the fact that there were no mountains or valleys prior to the flood, just an endless flat surface.  Thereís a long chapter on John Cleves Symmes, who wrote the first American Utopian novel and tried to organize an expedition to the North Pole where he believed an entrance to the inner world would be found. Symmes was an indirect influence on Edgar Allan Poe, among others. The cult of Koresh was new to me, but the discussion of Verne and Burroughs was obviously old hat. An interesting overview, particularly the chapter on obscure hollow earth novels from the early 20th Century. 11/21/14

The Monomyth in American Science Fiction Films by Donald E. Palumbo, McFarland, 2014, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7911-5

The Fantastic in Holocaust Literature and Film edited by Judith B. Kerman & John Edgar Browning, McFarland, 2014, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-5874-5

Two non-fiction books that deal primarily with SF films. The first is an examination of the plots of a large number of SF films and television shows discussed in the context of Joseph Campbell's concept of the Hero. The discussion is well organized and convincing and some movies that I would not have thought of in those terms - like the Back to the Future trilogy - are shown to reflect the same basic values, attitudes, and even narrative techniques despite the overtone of humor. The discussion definitely gave me a new perspective on the subject matter and even clarified a few points. The second book is a collection of essays by various authors so it is less even in quality. The holocaust in this case is not nuclear armageddon but a reference to the actual Holocaust during World War II. Even before opening it I expected to see a discussion of Jane Yolen's work and there are two pretty good essays in that vein. Stephen King's "Apt Pupil" is another obvious subject. Many of the articles deal with metaphors for the Holocaust, such as the alien pogrom in the V series, Pan's Labyrinth, Shutter Island, and Schindler's List. Most of the articles are quite accessible in terms of prose and about half of them actually held my interest. Your own tastes will vary the mix. 11/15/14

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Captain Ted W. Lawson, Armed Forces, 1943 

During the early stages of World War II, it was thought that a bombing raid on Tokyo might result in substantial psychological and morale gains. The problem was that Tokyo was out of range for a return trip, so the pilots would have to drop their loads, then fly on until they reached friendly Chinese space. Unfortunately, their fuel didnít last long enough and they crashed, most of them seriously injured, and had to be smuggled across China by local partisans. Lawson, who was one of the pilots, lost his leg before he was eventually returned to the US. This is one of the most famous of all memoirs from that war, basis of the movie, and a fascinating look at a minor but noteworthy incident. 11/7/14

Politics in Fantasy Media edited by Gerold Sedlmayr and Nicole Waller, McFarland, 2014, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-9510-8

The Hobbit and Tolkien's Mythology edited by Bradford Lee Eden, McFarland, 2014, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7960-3

Both of these are collections of essays dealing primarily with fantasy fiction although the former includes some science fiction and horror as well. I found the first one more interesting because the subject matter is varied, although I do wish people would consider books that didn't make it onto the best seller lists. This collection covers the Hunger Games series, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Stephenie Meyer, and a few others. The essays on gender roles in role playing games and the one about Joe Abercrombie's books were the ones I found most interesting. The prose ranges from mildly informal to academese but most are accessible to the uninitiated. The second collection is on average somewhat better written, but if I never read another essay about mythology in the works of Tolkien, it will be too soon. Once again, a few of them were quite interesting - the role of invisibility in the narrative and the device of talking animals - but the subject matter of most was overly familiar and there were a couple that gave new meaning to the phrase "abstruse point". 11/4/14

The Armada by Garrett Mattingly, Sentry, 1959   

This is the best of the four books Iíve read about the Spanish Armada, in large part because the author does a better job of placing the ill fated attack on England in context. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots was a mixed blessing for the Spanish, who were worried that the French would somehow ally themselves with the British while the Spanish were attempting to suppress the Dutch rebellion. The events on land were so intricately involved with the fleet that it doesnít even sail until 250 pages into this 400 page book. The author identifies several myths. The Armada was defeated militarily BEFORE the storms that sank most of its ships. They had run out of food, water, and ammunition by then. Also, very few of the survivors settled in Ireland and they are certainly not the basis for the ďblack IrishĒ appearance. He also provides a brief look at the consequences of the war, and concludes that even a Spanish victory would not have made much difference in the long run. 10/29/14

Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! by Harry Harrison, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3308-7 

Harry Harrison was one of those writers whose new books I always assumed would be good, and I was rarely disappointed. His subject matter varied from the romps of the Stainless Steel Rat to the very strange alternate world of the Eden series. His career includes time as fan, as a professional illustrator, lecturer, editor, and author. These are his memoirs, assembled and edited by his daughter, covering his life. The structure is largely anecdotal, and there are lots of little gems including his comments about John W. Campbell Jr. and other writers. Itís the kind of book youíll probably want to read in bits and pieces rather than straight through, but either way youíll want to read it. 10/25/14

Tales of Superhuman Powers by Csenge Viraq Zalka, McFarland, 2014, $29.95, ISBN 978-1-7864-1289-8

In some ways this is more anthology than non-fiction. It is a collection of 55 traditional stories gathered from around the world, each of which deals with some sort of superhuman power, usually magically derived. Thereís a good variety Ė invisibility, super strength, clairvoyancy, telepathy, communication with animals. Each story is summarized or retold with commentary, analysis, comparisons, and supplemental information. There were only a few of these that were familiar to be as individual stories so they were more interesting to read about than yet another discussion of rustic settings in Stephen King or other topics. The price is quite reasonable for this trade paperback.  10/20/14

The Formulas of Popular Fiction by Anna Faktorovich, McFarland, 2014, $45, ISBN 978-1-7864-7413-4 

This ambitious book tries to discuss the rules and devices of each of several branches of genre fiction. SF, fantasy, and horror are all lumped together because, claims the author, they all predominantly deal with overcoming a monster of some sort. This is so patently untrue of science fiction and much of contemporary fantasy that it suggests the author has read selectively if at all of the dominant writers in the genre for the past seven decades of so. The fact that you can find representative novels from each of the three genres and point out their common plot elements is irrelevant. The six novels which the author uses throughout her thesis are Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Rick Riordan, J.R. Tolkien, and H.G. Wells. The authors she has chosen are almost all bestsellers, which has become almost a subgenre of its own, and they are only remotely representative of formula genre fiction, which certainly exists but thatís not what the author is talking about. Wells, the only SF writer, is hardly representative of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and J.G. Ballard, just to name a few.  There is a discussion of Larry Nivenís The Draco Tavern, but I doubt many would agree with her contention that it is his best book. On the other hand, the contention that it would have been hard to sell the book as a novel is patently absurd. Since the author at one point contends that further reading in the genre would be ďunbearableĒ it is not surprising that she is so ill informed. The section on mystery and detective fiction is somewhat better since that genre embraces its formulas openly. The authors selected for her comparisons here are Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Henning Mankell, the latter of whom I have never read.  Unfortunately, this section is so short that it is inconsequential. No mention of Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, or P.D. James. No mention of police procedurals, locked room puzzles, tough detective stories, or psychological suspense. There are plenty of formulas there, but they arenít discussed here. The conclusion is a rather whiny complaint that we need more literary fiction and less formula fiction. Itís a mixture of unfamiliarity with its subject matter and complaints that what she wants to read isnít popular. 10/20/14

Paths to the Present by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sentry, 1949 

The father of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was also an historian and this is a collection of his essays about factors contributing to American history. They cover a number of subjects and some contain interesting insights. He speculates about what makes up the American character as differentiated from the European character. Among other things he points out that Americans are immensely inclined toward creating organizations and that these in some ways serve as mini-governments such that the average American of the 1940s understood much more about how government is at least supposed to work than did the people of any other nation. He also suggests that the swings between liberalism and conservatism come approximately every sixteen years Ė with the exception of the disruption of the Civil War Ė and that this isnít necessarily a bad thing. The changes implemented during the liberal periods are absorbed and adapted during the conservative intervals. 19/16/14

The Politics of Upheaval by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sentry, 1960   

Third volume in Schlesingerís history of FDRís first term and the implementation of the New Deal. A lot of the philosophy involved the argument about whether production should be for profit or for use, the latter meaning a closely managed economy. There was considerable doubt about the survival of capitalism at this point. There was also trouble from the right, and from a Supreme Court that was much more ďactivistĒ than anything we have experienced recently. They even handed down decisions on questions that hadnít been asked to forestall legislation.  The improvement in the economy plus the problems presented by the Supreme Court led to the second New Deal, which was philosophically different. The book ends with the campaign of 1936 in which Roosevelt took every state except Maine and Vermont. I was most struck by how many Democrats openly supported Republicans and vice versa. The polarization of the parties was nothing like the way it is today. I donít think this is a good thing even if it does usually mean that choosing a candidate is a lot easier. Fascinating reading. 10/11/14

Breakout by John Deane Potter, Bantam, 1982 (originally published in 1970 as Fiasco)  

Shortly after the Bismarck was sunk by British forces, the Germans had three wounded ships sitting in Brest awaiting repairs Ė the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and the cruiser Prinz Eugen.  Hitler had become paranoid about a possible British invasion of Norway so he ordered them to move through the dangerous English Channel to take up defensive positions and finish repairs there. The elaborate precautions to sweep mines, prepare the air crews, and mark the passage, all without telling the people involved why they were doing it, is probably the best part of the book. Even the German air force had reluctantly agreed to participate. Although the British suspected what was going to happen, they were almost completely unprepared to react.  Bad luck, poor organization, and some bad decisions allowed the ships to get through with only minor damage, although in the long run, this didnít really prolong the war. 10/3/14

The Coming of the New Deal by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sentry, 1958 

The second volume in the authorís history of the FDR years obviously covers his efforts to bring the country out of the Depression by means of what he called the New Deal.  Much of the early portion of this volume involves the collapse of the National Recovery Act in part because of personality conflicts, and the collapse of the world economic summit, largely because none of the participants were willing to consider changing their own plans. The amount of legislation that got passed in the first hundred days is astonishing. The New Deal established, among other things, unemployment insurance, social security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Tennessee Valley Authority, empowered the FDA, and so on. The author concludes with a description of the mechanics of how things were done administratively in the White House by FDR and his staff and some musings about leadership styles. Despite sometimes dry material, this was a lively book to read. 9/19/14

The Crisis of the Old Order by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sentry. 1957  

This is the first of three large books Schlesinger wrote about the age of FDR, of which I'm trying to read fifty pages per day, not as easy as it sounds given the density of the information. This one, covering 1919 to 1933, describes events leading up to the Depression, the administrations of Coolidge and Hoover, the danger of a revolution inspired in part by Communism, and the resistance of business leaders to change even when it would benefit them in the long run. I am often obtuse on economic issues but they are made quite clear and demonstrate quite clearly that a laissez-faire economy is ultimately self destructive, despite what Libertarians claim.  The nominating convention which chose FDR was deeply divided and there were hard feelings immediately afterward. This was also the first time that a nominee accepted at the convention rather than at some time later on. Despite the turmoil, or perhaps because of it, FDR won easily and took office despite Hoover's spectacularly bad graces about losing. 9/7/14

European Carpets by Michele Campana, Hamlyn, 1969 

This brief survey of the history of carpet weaving in Europe is heavily illustrated. This art, like many others, was imported from Asia. That influence is evident in the designs, which donít look that much different from the ones you can buy readily today, although these were hand woven rather than done by automated equipment and each one was designed to be unique. Some of those shown here are very elaborate but a lot of them seem to be just variations of the same few subpatterns. Pretty individually but a bit monotonous after a while. 9/6/14

Musical Instruments from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century by Sergio Paganelli, Hamlyn, 1970 

This is exactly what the title suggests it is, a very brief history of musical instruments with emphasis on their construction as works of art as well as instruments of artistic endeavor. It covers bowed and stringed instruments, organs, horns, flutes, guitars, harps, and others. Iíve always thought that harps were attractive objects but hadnít really considered the others. The organs are particularly elaborate, of course, but theyíre more varied than I realized. A very helpful chart of musical categories is included. The history is rather superficial but the photographs of clavichords, harpsichords, and pianofortes were very interesting. 9/1/14

Monstrous Bodies by June Pulliam, McFarland, 2014, $40. ISBN 978-0-7864-7543-8

A Quest of Her Own by Lori M. Campbell, McFarland, 2014, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-7766-2

Both of these critical works deal with the roles of females in genre fiction, the first in young adult horror, the second in contemporary fantasy. I suspect the first was written in part as a reaction to the tepid portrayal of females in the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. The book is broken up into three sections, roughly speaking ghosts, werewolves and changelings, and witches. Although Iíve read a good bit of YA horror, I was unfamiliar with the majority of books cited here. A good deal of the ďfictionĒ actually consists of movies, so the title is a bit misleading. As far as I could determine, the author has her facts right and the analysis is quite good. The second book is also well written, tracing the development of the female as protagonist/hero starting with fairy tales and Arthurian legends and moving forward. A lot of the works chosen are predictable Ė Le Guin, Gaiman, Pullman, George R.R Martin, and Rowling, but the author chooses a few unusual books too, drawing from Garth Nix and Catherynne M. Valente. I found the second half of the book considerably more interesting because the material was fresher but itís all very well done. These are two of the better titles Iíve seen from this publisher in recent years. 8/31/14

The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature edited by Joseph Abbruscatto & Tanya Jones, McFarland, 2014, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7935-1

I don't read enough contemporary YA fantasy and science fiction to be very knowledgeable on this subject - there are limits to how much I can read, alas.  That said, I found about half of the essays gathered here interesting and most of the rest at least readable. The authors covered are pretty diverse. Orson Scott Card is really the only SF writer, but Holly Black, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Robin McKinley are all covered, and I've read at least some YA work by all four of them. The essays trace the influence of classic fairy tales in modern work, some of it obvious, some of it less overt. There is some inconsistency about what is young adult and what is children's literature, but it's a minor point. It wakened some interest in the Lemony Snickett books, which I haven't read. 8/27/14

European Porcelain by Mina Bacci, Hamlyn, 1969 

Porcelain manufacture was a highly secret process in China until Europeans finally figured it out in the early 18th Century. It was used to create a wide variety of objects because it was durable and attractive. European design was considerably different from that of the Chinese but there is occasional evidence of the Oriental origins. The photographs included here show quite a variety of attractive designs with a porcelain base Ė statues, bird cages, tableware, and even furniture. The text describes efforts to obtain the secret of its manufacture and the eventual successful reproduction of the process. The statues didnít impress me but some of the coffee pots and water pitchers are particularly attractive. Thereís a porcelain lined room that is impressive but so busy that it would be hard to sit there for long. 8/25/14

Stephen King's Modern Macabre edited by Patrick McAleer & Michael A. Perry, McFarland, 2014, $40, ISBN 978-1-7864-9400-2

Stephen King has dominated American horror fiction for decades now so it's not surprising that people keep writing books about his books. This is intended to be a collection of essays about his more recent books - the older ones have been analyzed to death by now. A good chunk of the book deals with the Dark Tower series, however, which I wouldn't call recent. I found these to be the least interesting things in the book, but I've never been a great fan of the series either. The article about King's essays in popular magazines was more interesting, particularly as I had not read most of the material being referenced. The other articles deal with Storm of the Century, Lisel's Story, Cell, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, all of which I consider relatively minor king. I would have liked to see more discussion of Bag of Bones or 11/22/63 or The Dome, all of which merit more attention. Generally informative and it does fill in some of the gaps in King related criticism. 8/23/14

The Age of Louis XV by Alvar Gonzales Palacio, Hamlyn, 1969  

This is another little art book with more photographs than text. The ascension of Louis XV had a radical effect on art, which became less formal and restrained, more colorful and varied. Some of the interior decorations on walls and ceilings are particularly impressive, as are the fountains. A few of the paintings are mildly experimental. The furniture and tapestries probably impressed me the most. Although the predominant style was a bit fancy for my taste, some of the items shown here are genuinely gorgeous. 8/16/14

Indian Miniatures by Mario Bussagli, Hamlyn, 1969  

Most of the art covered in this book was created during the Moslem period of domination, although it built in part on the artforms that already existed and Buddha is a common theme. The colors are less bold than in European art and much of it is less representational, although not surreal. It is frequently less well preserved than surviving western art from the same period, which may be in part at least due to the climate. The book dwells on the physical processes rather than the thinking behind these creations and was therefore less interesting to me than other specialized art books. 8/6/14

The Tirpitz by Niklas Zetterling & Michael Tamelander, Casemate, 2009   

My second attempt to read a comprehensive book about this German battleship was only mildly more successful than the first. I suspect that itís because Hitler was so protective of the ship Ė which spent most of its career in Norwegian waters Ė that it really didnít have an exciting career until the battle in which it was finally sunk. As with the other book, a large chunk of the text is devoted to describing the fate of various convoys which felt menaced by the ship even though it never made an appearance, forcing the British to provide counter forces that could have been used more profitably elsewhere. 8/4/14

Handbook of Vance Space by Michael Andre-Driussi, Sirius, 2014, $32.95, ISBN 978-0-9642795-6-8

This is a massive fourfold expansion of a guide to the planets created by Jack Vance in his fiction. Some entries have just a single identifying sentence, others more detailed information including maps, symbols. There is another section with star maps, lists of spaceships, a speculative timeline, and various other materials. A handy companion book for Vance fans although it's not the kind of book you sit and read from cover to cover. There is also a trade paperback edition for $16.95.

1787: The Grand Convention by Clinton Rossiter, Mentor, 1966 

This is an analytical history of the Constitutional Convention that established the so far permanent government of the US.  The author devotes about a hundred pages to providing profiles of each of the participants, whose views on nationalism, centralized government, and other issues seemed hopelessly divergent.  Through notes kept by the participants and other documents, the author reconstructs the major points of difference, then describes the frustrating and extensive lobbying process to get the states to ratify it. Two of them, Vermont and Rhode Island, refused to do so until the Bill of Rights was added, so the union wasnít really completed until 1790. The authorís style is a bit dense and dry but the detail is impressive. Most members of the Tea Party would hate reading this.  7/31/14

Medieval Goldsmithís Work by Isa Belli Barsali, Hamlyn, 1969  

This short volume covers a variety of work by goldsmiths ranging from decorated painting to sculpture. The author contends that this was one of the more difficult forms of art because in addition to the artistic talents, the artist also needed to understand some intricate chemical and physical processes. I think thatís true of most art forms though perhaps not to the same degree. There are lots of color plates and actually I found most of them uninteresting, partly because much of it looked like variations on a theme, and partly because they just didnít seem to me particularly well done. Much of it looks like brass, and I donít care for that either.  Not one of the more interesting art books Iíve read. 7/18/14

Tolkien in the New Century edited by a whole committee, McFarland, 2014, $40, ISBN 978-1-7864-7438-7   

I have read so much Tolkien criticism and commentary over the years that I confess I skimmed through a few of these articles that didnít seem to have anything new to add, or that were written in such an arcane academic style that I lost interest. That said, there is a lot of interesting material here as well. The contents are a bit more circumscribed because they deal directly or indirectly with Tom Shippeyís Tolkien scholarship and are reconsiderations or expansions on things he had written previously. I found the most interesting pieces to be those discussing possible influences on Tolkien, the discussion of The Children of Hurin, and the essays grouped as The True Tradition. Mostly for academics but others might well want to browse as well. 7/16/14

The Vampire in Science Fiction Film and Literature by Paul Meehan, McFarland, 2014, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-7864-7487-5

The title of this one struck me as a bit odd because vampires are really an insignificant theme in SF literature, unless you count the flood of recent rationalized zombie novels, which I don't. But the author is one of those who confuse SF with fantasy and horror, so the relatively brief discussion of vampire related "science fiction" includes works by George Du Maurier, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker, along with more legitimate ones like C.L. Moore's "Shambleau" and The War of the Worlds. The literary discussion is interesting but less than half of it is actually about SF. The much longer treatment of movies is also well written, but also mixes genres indiscriminately. The various Dracula movies, Blade, The Night Stalker, Van Helsing, and others are horror movies, not SF. Notably, the author does not cover the rationalized vampires in works by Brian Stableford, Kim Newman, or Jacqueline Lichtenberg. Moderately interesting, but don't expect exactly what the title suggests. 7/10/14

The Progressive Movement edited by Richard Hofstadter, Prentice Hall, 1963 

Hofstadter has collected here a number of documents pertaining to the Progressive Movement of 1900-1915, a largely bipartisan effort to adjust the social conscience to accommodate the changes of industrialism. We could use something like that now. The various articles deal with the founding of Standard Oil, working conditions for women, children, and minorities, an unsettling article about food processing by Upton Sinclair, and various other subjects, mostly related to the labor movement. Most of these are very short and very readable. 7/8/14

The Age of Louis XVI by Alvar Palacios, Hamlyn, 1966

The art of this particular time and place is generally not to my taste. Portraits donít appeal to me as a rule, and some of the intricately crafted furniture and utensils seem almost silly. Some of the statues in the included full color plates are okay but none of them really impressed me. There seems to me a lack of any single style within the various categories of art, let alone across them. Some of the architecture is quite nice, but many of the vases, clocks, and candleholders are outright ugly. And naturally I liked the interior shot of the library at Versailles. The text is moderately interesting, providing some background, but provided no new insights. 7/2/14