Last Update 12/24/12 

Lapland by Walter Marsden, Time Life, 1976

The Andes by Tony Morrison, Time Life, 1977 

Lapland consists of the northernmost parts of Sweden, Norway, and Finland plus a swatch of Russia. Much of it is mountainous, tundra, and/or covered with ice and snow much of the year. It has relatively few varieties of plants, animals, and even insects because of the extreme conditions, although it is in fact inhabited by Lapps, whose origins are not entirely understood.  There is a long section here on lemmings which I found particularly interesting. The photographs are well done but there are curious omissions. Despite a lengthy discussion of gyr falcons, there are no pictures of them, for example. The second title includes considerably more impressive and varied photographs given that the mountain range is the longest in the world, crossing the equator and reaching nearly to the south pole. There’s a bit too much narrative in this one and given the breadth of material, the treatment is rather cursory at times. 12/24/12

The Great Admirals edited by Jack Sweetman, Naval Institute Press, 1997

This is a large collection of essays about several of the more noteworthy admirals in world history, starting with Sir Francis Drake, who is portrayed as a vindictive and greedy religious fanatic, which accords with other things I’ve read about him.  The sections dealing with the Ango-Dutch wars were particularly interesting for me because it’s a period I know little about. The section dealing with Edward Hawke is among the better entries in part because it shows how British commanders strove to balance innovation with the rigid written rules of engagement for their fleets. The article on Lord Nelson seems rather perfunctory; it barely mentions Trafalgar. All but one of the articles are essentially laudatory but the one on Yamamoto asserts that he was not in fact opposed to war with the US, that he wasn’t that good a tactician or strategist, and that his habits were morally suspect. 12/118/12

Atlantic Beaches by Jonathan Leonard, Time Life, 1972

Borneo by John MacKinnon, Time Life 1975   

The first of these is a look at beaches along the East Coast from Cape Cod to North Carolina. Much of it consists of descriptions of the varied elements of beach sand and how they are deposited. The author demonstrates that an apparently barren beach actually swarms with life. The second book is the best I have read to date in this series, partly because it’s well written, partly because the fauna and flora of Borneo are so diverse and often strange. There are literally hundreds of different kinds of trees on the island, and a variety of small mammals and insects most of which I’ve never previously heard. Flying snakes, oh my!  Two very different environments in these two books. 12/10/12

The Divine Wind by Rikihei Inoguchi, Tadashi Nakajima, and Roger Pineau, Ballantine, 1958   

The two Japanese authors were officers in the portion of the Japanese air force which staged the kamikaze attacks on Allied ships during World War II.  Their praise for the devotion and moral purity of the kamikaze pilots is somewhat questionable given that they were both pilots as well and never felt called upon to give up their own lives. It’s also interesting that the Japanese pilots consistently exaggerated their success, claiming ships sunk that were only damaged, characterizing destroyers as cruisers, and sometimes claiming success on days when the US Navy actually experienced no loss or damage whatsoever. 12/4/12

Klingon Bird-of-Prey Owners’ Workshop Manual by Rick Sternbach and Ben Robinson, Gallery, 2012, $28, ISBN 978-1-4516-9590-8 

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new Star Trek tie in book that wasn’t a novel. This is what the title suggests, a profusely illustrated full color book with depictions of various parts of a Klingon warship. The text describes the pictures and provides the overall rational for the ship, and there are diagrams to show you where things fit in relation to one another. The contents list is in both English and Klingon so it’s handy for humans and aliens alike. The illustrations seem to me a lot more detailed than those in earlier, similar books. A nifty Christmas gift for Trek fans. 11/19/12

The North Woods by Percy Knauth, Time Life, 1972

The Himalayas by Nigel Nicolson, Time Life, 1975   

The first of these deals with the major forests covering central Canada and a little bit of the northern US. Given that this was beaver country when Europeans first arrived, it is not surprising that there is a lengthy discussion of the fur trade.  There’s also a discussion of forest fires as a way of renewing the local plantlife. There is also quite a bit about beavers, not surprising given their significant effect on the ecology. The second title takes us to one of the most remote parts of the world where, I discovered, you can walk from tropical rain forest to desert in less than a day. This is the world’s tallest mountain range and has its deepest gorges as well. The author retells his explorations and indicates his opinion that it’s too bad animal species have to be wiped out but since “man is also an animal” this is just the natural order of things. He also apparently believes in yetis. There’s a boring section about mountain climbing and a pretty good section including some very old photographs by early explorers. 11/18/12

The Sex Is Out of This World edited by Sherry Ginn & Michael G. Cornelius, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6685-6  

First of all the title of this book is misleading and the subtitle – “Essays on the carnal side of science fiction” is an outright lie. Most of the essays actually deal with gender questions or other issues and rarely discuss carnal acts at all. One of them is about H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which is about as non-carnal as you can get. Another essay advises us what science fiction should be about rather than what it is about. A collection of essays which purports to discuss carnality or even gender issues but which does not deal with Philip Jose Farmer, Norman Spinrad, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Varley, or Tanith Lee is by that fact alone seriously suspect – although there are two articles about Octavia Butler. There are some interesting points in some of the essays, but there is no coherent structure to the book, some of the works examined are not even science fiction, and the mix of television and movies with written work, given that the two genres are very different, made no sense. Pass on this one unless you are really desperate. 11/15/12

The Realm of Prester John by Robert Silverberg, Doubleday, 1971  

Prester John was a legendary Christian ruler of a land thought to be part of India, although it appears that the legend is a mishmash of real and invented events about as reliable as the existence of King Arthur and Camelot. Silverberg explores various aspects of the legend, its possible origins and interpretations, efforts to track down the truth, implications on the politics of the time, and so on. If you think today’s politics are convoluted, imagine them in a world where news took months to get from place to place. In fact, if anything he provides a little too much information in this detailed and obviously well researched survey. 11/13/12

Hermione Granger Saves the World edited by Christopher E. Bell,  McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7137-9

The Postmodern Sacred by Emily McAvan, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6388-6   

A pair of academic works based on fantasy literature. The first one is self explanatory, a series of essays about Hermione’s character in the Harry Potter novels. I actually did think she was among the most interesting characters in the series. In general, the book seems to want to position her as a new kind of feminist, although it isn’t always clear what distinctions are being made from the “old” kind of feminist. On the other hand, the arguments that Hermione is a “pivotal” character are undoubtedly true. All three of the young protagonists function in this manner. The arguments focus on the books but the film versions are also mentioned. The authors do not, however, always agree on what the word “feminism” means. Some of them are very readable; a few are so couched in academese that they had me shaking my head. The second title deals with both fantasy and science fiction, though primarily television and movies, and is written by a single author who examines the role of religion in the genres in recent years. The prose is thick and requires patience to decipher what the author is saying some of the time. She sees symbols where, I suspect, they do not always exist. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer says “Get out” upon meeting Dracula, the author assumes that this is indicative that this is to “purge the series” of any reference to the famed vampire. That’s quite a reach. If you can pick your way through phrases like “Todorovian epistemological uncertainty” there are some interesting ideas here, but they founder under the idiosyncratic prose. 11/8/12

Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed, Vintage, 1919 

This is generally considered the best eye witness account of the Russian Revolution of 1917, although Reed made a lot of factual errors which are pointed out in footnotes by the editors.  Despite or perhaps even because of its internal disorganization, the account provides a fascinating look at the utter chaos that ruled in the days following the fall of the czar and before the Bolsheviks took power. Filled with personal reminiscences and observations, it is clear that Reed sympathized with the communists at the time – although he was to become very disillusioned within a few short years and died shortly thereafter. We occasionally get a well written personal account of historical events, and this is one of the best of them. 11/1/12

Wild Alaska by Dale Brown, Time Life, 1972 

Baja California by William Weber Johnson, Time Life, 1972 

  Another pair of natural history books. The first is obviously about Alaska, and other than a few brief passages, it’s not nearly as interesting as others I’ve read in this series. Too much personal reminiscence, although the portions about glaciers and earthquakes were much more entertaining and informative.  The second title is much more interesting. I had always thought of Baja as a resort area with beaches and lush stands of palm trees. Well, there are beaches there, and some palm trees, but mostly it’s an uninhabited, mountainless desert. The Indian tribes who lived there are mostly extinct, thanks to introduced diseases and other problems with the European invaders, who pretty much abandoned the area themselves. The book describes the terrain, which varies considerably, and the wildlife, which is not nearly as numerous as in most other regions of the world. On the other hand, it is home to very strange variations – a rattlesnake without a rattle, a bat that catches fish, and a jack rabbit that is black with red trim.  The section dealing with strange forms of cacti was also fascinating. Some of them are 75 feet tall. 10/29/12

Feminism in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman edited by Tara Prescott and Aaron Drucker, McFarland, 2012, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-6636-8 

As you might expect from the title, this is a collection of essays about how Gaiman deals with issues of interest to women in is various works of prose, graphic novels, etc. The essays are all supportive of his positions with very minor criticisms, not unexpected given his reputation for strong female characters. None of the contributors are familiar to me and they are all academics, which explains titles that include phrases like “fracturing of phallocentric discourse” and “liminality and empowerment”. To be fair most of the essays are accessible but some are rendered obscure by the artificial prose style peculiar to literary academia. Overall its worth reading, but you’ll probably want to skip some of the more arcane sections. 10/25/12

The New Russians by Hedrick Smith, Random House, 1990   

I read Smith’s earlier book on Russia in which he lamented that it was unlikely that the repressive dictatorship would change in our lifetimes, so I picked up this new one, which he wrote after Gorbachev freed the satellite states, although the collapse of the USSR itself had not yet happened. He eats humble pie well, admitting that he underestimated the power of urbanization on the national psyche, as well as failing to detect the simmering unrest in the scientific community in particular. The book includes a lengthy biography of Gorbachev, whom Smith believes was one of the most important people of his generation in the world.  Most of the book is quite interesting, but once again I wonder how the author’s perceptions might have changed in the twenty years that have passed since it was published. 10/24/12

Soviet Deserts and Mountains by George St. George, Time Life, 1974

The Ozarks by Richard Rhodes, Time Life, 1974   

The first of these is a survey of the region known as Turkestan, now split among five of the former Soviet republics plus part of China. Much of the region is uninhabitable desert with no population or roads, some of the most inhospitable landscape on the planet. There are lots of photographs accompanying a large if not entirely organized body of text that includes a little history, quite a bit of nature study, and perhaps a shade too much personal reminiscence. The author covers the geological evolution of the region quite well. The second book is obviously the same format, much better written, but also including a good deal of personal recollections. The coordination between photos and text is not very good. The first chapter on caves has no pictures related to them – they come much later in the book and fail to show one of the most interesting structures described in the text. Similarly the author describes one location as the most beautiful place he has ever seen, but there are no photographs of it anywhere in the book. Both are mildly entertaining, but more for the pictures than the narrative. 10/18/12

Seventy Days to Singapore by Stanley L. Falk, Putnam, 1975 

Although I’ve read very extensively about the war in the Pacific, I had never found a good account of the Japanese capture of Singapore until this one, which includes the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the fall of Malaya. The British had been forced to withhold reinforcements because of the war in Europe and assumed that the American fleet could make a difference if the Japanese attacked. Pearl Harbor knocked the Americans out and despite a desperate defensive effort, it took only two months for the defenses to be overwhelmed. If anything this account is a bit too detailed, but it certainly told me everything I wanted to know about this particular part of the war. 10/16/12

Rain & Fire by Chris D’Lacey & Jay D’Lacey, Scholastic, 2012, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-41453-1 

This is a companion volume to Chris D’Lacey’s recent completed Last Dragon Chronicles, a series of pretty good adventure stories for younger readers. The contents of this piggyback book are predictable. Articles about the characters, the setting, myths and legends, and other aspects of the novels, plus an extensive glossary of terms. The most interesting part was probably the description of how the author came up with the ideas for the series. You really don’t need this to enjoy the books and it probably won’t add much to your enjoyment of them, but it does provide some interesting insights. 10/8/12

Africa’s Rift Valley by Colin Willock, Time Life, 1968   

The Northeast Coast by Maitland Edy, Time Life, 1973 

Some years ago I bought the World’s Wild Places series from Time Life, primarily for the great photography, but also because I was curious about the differences in geographical features around the world. I had always intended to read them but other priorities intervened at first and then they were in storage during the years when I had insufficient shelf space. Now that everyone is accessible again, I’m finally getting around to it. The first of these two books deals with the 4000 mile long rift that runs down the eastern coast of Africa. I had not realized that there are thirty active volcanoes in this region, or that one of the deserts is so hot that stones can be 300 degrees Fahrenheit and that a river that runs into the desert evaporates before it can create an outlet.  The second title feels more like a travelogue than natural science, starting with an explanation of the rocky coast that extends from Massachusetts to Canada. There is rather too much of the author in much of the book, relating his experiences in present tense, and sometimes rather fancifully. Another chunk of the book is dedicated to seals and whales, with frequent lectures about the evils of pollution, over fishing, industrialization, and human expansion into the natural environment. 10/4/12

The Collapse of the Third Republic by William L. Shirer, Simon & Schuster, 1969 

The fall of France at the beginning of World War II was stunning in its speed and completeness. Within weeks of the outset of the war, factions within France were already welcoming the German occupation and discouraging resistance. Shirer’s sympathies are clearly with France as opposed to Germany or even England, but he identifies a large number of contributing factors including the intransigence of the rich mercantile community, the incompetence and disloyalty of Petain, Weygand, and others, the disillusionment of the working class, the bad politics of the left, the inane antics of the monarchists, and various others.  The generals come off particularly badly, incompetent, lazy, unimaginative, and in some cases sympathetic to the fascists.  France’s unwillingness to intervene in the Spanish Civil War and the German reoccupation of the Rhineland seems almost incredible but the paralysis engendered by right wing opposition to what was clearly in the national interest has interesting parallels to the current Congress in the US. The horrible performance by Neville Chamberlain is not quite as bad as that of the French generals but it’s close, and their mutual abandonment of their treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia was shameful. On the other hand, the Polish government must have had a death wish, refusing Soviet aid against the Germans. There are some nuggets of information here that were new to me, e.g. that Britain and France seriously considered uniting into a single country in 1940. A tour de force of World War II history. 10/2/12

Special for Today by Herb Block, Simon & Schuster, 1958 

This is a collection of political cartoons from the 1950s. Many of the references are obscure today but there is a large body of text that explains things. I was struck by how similar the issues were to those of today. Among the subjects Block covers are budget battles, oil prices, the efficiency of the post office, flip flopping politicians – in this case Eisenhower, lobbyist influence, campaign financing, one party ignoring science, judicial activism, disdain for education, immigration reform or the lack thereof, nuclear proliferation, unemployment, the bloated defense budget, a pledge not to raise taxes, too strong a central government, and even the potential for a battle over islands claimed by China – in this case Quemoy and Matsu. 9/26/12

The Battle of Salamis by Barry Strauss, Simon & Schuster, 2003   

This is the major sea battle that took place after the fall of Thermopylae. The Persian king Xerxes was hoping to incorporate all of Greece into his empire but the resisting Greeks – some sides with him – were led by the Athenians and Spartans and won a significant victory against a much bigger fleet. This conflict was as significant at the somewhat similar one at Lepanto, but was probably even more one sided. An organized minority can often defeat a disorganized majority, as in this case. Nicely written overall, although a summary of the political situation should have appeared earlier as I had difficulty following what was going on during the first couple of chapters. 9/15/12

Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood, Riverhead, 2010, $16, ISBN 978-1-59448-544-2  

The most famous pirates are probably those of the Caribbean but there were lots of them in the Mediterranean, particularly when it was contested between the western Christian nations and the Ottoman Empire. This book deals with that area and includes an interesting discussion of the way the terms “pirate” and “privateer” were abused so much that the distinction is effectively nonexistent. For example, if an English crew received a letter of marque from the Dutch to prey on the Spanish and captured an Italian ship bound for an Spanish port, is that piracy or not?  Most of the book consists of accounts of individual pirate careers or the experiences of people who survived encounters. It ends with the collapse of the North African pirate kingdoms in the 19th Century. 9/12/12

Spain by Rhea Marsh Smith, University of Michigan, 1965  

The history of Spain is unlike that of any other European nation. For one thing, there were numerous kings of various portions like Castile and Navarre, sometimes with the same names so that trying to keep them straight is nearly impossible. It also seems that the Spanish had an unusually high number of mentally defective heirs to the throne, and a weakness about managing budgets that got them into fiscal trouble over and over again. This longish book covers the entire history of the nation, but there is so much going on at times that there is no sense of narrative continuity.  This works more as a reference work to be sampled as needed rather than as a book to be read from cover to cover. 9/5/12

The Kings Depart by Richard M. Watt, Barnes & Noble, 1968 

This is a detailed summary of the circumstances of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and its effects on the subsequent German revolution. Much of the opening third focuses on the behind the stage maneuvering and my low opinions of Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson sunk even lower reading it. The chaos in Germany that prevailed from the time they offered to surrender until the treaty was actually signed is stunning and depressing. The rise and fall of the German communists was particularly interesting as was the ever changing and sometimes astoundingly unrealistic expectations within Germany about what the peace would bring. Inevitably, of course, it led to World War II. Completely new to me was the short lived German conquest of the Baltic states after the Germans had effectively surrendered, to the chagrin of the allies. 8/28/12

Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy by Tom Henthorne, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6864-5

Of Bread, Blood and the Hunger Games edited by Mary F. Pharr & Leisa A. Clark, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7019-8 

Two books of criticism based on the bestselling young adult SF trilogy by Suzanne Collins which, if you haven’t read it, is set in a dystopian future America and resembles the Battle Royale series from Japan. The first of these identifies itself as an interdisciplinary study devoid of academic jargon. That is mostly true, although I found the author occasionally belaboring the obvious so much that it was nearly as tedious. There are some genuinely interesting insights as well so it’s worth slogging through the slow parts. There are two glossaries and questions for further study. The second title is a collection of individual essays and as you would expect, the interest level varies from one to the next, as does the prose. The essays cover a range of subtopics, perhaps the least interesting of which is a comparison to the Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer. There are lapses into academese. Both books are interesting commentaries but the reader must be patient sometimes to separate the wheat from the elaborate chaff. 8/20/12

Downfall by Richard B. Frank, Random House, 1999 

This is a detailed account of the last months of the Pacific War, alternating between the American and Japanese perspectives. The author tackles several controversial issues. Was Hirohito a war criminal? The author leans in that direction. Did the atomic bomb save lives in the long run? The author embraces that conclusion and provides convincing evidence. Were the Japanese already trying to arrange peace when the bombs were dropped?  Yes and no. Some Japanese were, but the military would not hear of it and was in fact preparing for a long and costly war against an invasion force. Did Truman drop the bomb primarily to impress the Soviets? I’ve always thought this was nonsense and so does the author. There are some criticisms of US tactics. The use of incendiary bombs was not only morally questionable but evidence suggests it was less effective than conventional bombing.  Well written and well documented. 8/9/12

The Twice Fought War by Kennett Love, McGraw Hill, 1969 

My attitude toward Israel has grown increasingly cynical over the years. Revelations that the two “defensive” wars were both initiated by Israel primarily to acquire more real estate and not in reply to a perceived threat offset the terrorist tactics of the Arab side – and after all Israel was created in large part by Israeli terrorist activity in the 1940s.  This long examination of the conflict by a former New York Times reporter tries to present a balanced view, but since I’d already heard all the pro-Israeli evidence, the anti tended to be more interesting. My view of Nasser changed considerably; he was basically anti-war and redirected massive funding from the army to peaceful development until a series of Israeli raids forced him to rearm, and he only turned to the Soviet Union when the West refused to deal with him. More surprising are the prejudicial news stories – some of them essentially lies - published by the NYT in the 1950s, which were designed to make Nasser look bad even when he was trying to avert a crisis. Anthony Eden comes across as a childish idiot, John Foster Dulles as an equivocator, and David Ben-Gurion as a war mongerer intent upon stealing more Arab lands at the point of a sword. This definitely changed my perceptions of the problems in the Mideast. 8/2/12

Empire Express by David Haward Bain, Viking, 1999 

This is a very long, very detailed account of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It opens with an examination of earlier proposed schemes that didn’t come to fruition. Most of the book deals with three main problems – overcoming difficult terrain far from any population center, managing labor problems and financial shortfalls, and dealing with  politicians and other interests who wanted to influence the way the project was managed or where the tracks were laid. It was in fact a bit too detailed and there were several times when I find myself skimming through sections that held no interest for me. That’s not to say they wouldn’t interest someone else and the author has certainly done an excellent job of tying the disparate threads of the story together. 7/29/12

Italy by Denis Mack Smith, University of Michigan, 1959 

I had only the vaguest idea of modern Italian history until I read this. I knew vaguely about Cavour and Garibaldi and that a Balkanized Italy had been dominated by Austria and others until the middle of the 19th Century, but was very fuzzy about the transition. This detailed account starts around 1860 with a quick summary of the abortive nationalist movements and the constant sniping among as many as twenty separate governments on the peninsula. It was interesting to contrast the nationalization of Italy to that of Germany, which was much more quickly brought under a centralized control. Mussolini's career was depressing, as I expected. The author blames much of Italy's political ineffectiveness on the lack of distinct parties. Most governments consisted of people drawn from all of the constituent parties and as a consequence there was almost never a unified government except when a strong man was in charge, and we all know how that works out. Very interesting reading.  7/23/12

Germany by Marshall Dill, University of Michigan, 1961 

I’ve read so much history that I had a pretty good idea of German history in bits and pieces, but I needed a book like this to pull everything together and enlighten me about the gaps. Although fairly long, the book summarizes much of what happened very economically and there were several sections I found very interesting, particularly the days of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s secret war against the Christian church. Nor had I realized just how fragmented Germany still was in the years before the two world wars, or that Hitler and Mussolini were originally antagonists.  The author weaves this all into a focused narrative that avoids being judgmental most of the time and nicely points out that the settlement imposed on the Germans after World War I made the rise of the Nazis almost inevitable. Very comprehensive and well organized. 7/15/12

Judith Merril: A Critical Study by Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-4836-4

The very first SF book I ever bought was Out of Bounds, a collection of short stories by Judith Merril, as a consequence of which I got hooked so it's probably her fault that I have 60,000 books. This is a critical examination of her admittedly very small body of work, with special emphasis on her handling of genre questions and the idea of the frontier. Merril was indeed far ahead of her time. "That Only a Mother" was published in 1948.  Her novels The Tomorrow People and Shadow on the Hearth are virtually forgotten; in fact, I don't think the latter ever appeared in softcover. Her writing as well as her editorial work are covered here in some detail and it was sufficiently interesting that I'm thinking about re-reading Merriil some time soon. There is also a good bibliography, although it fails to point out the Galaxy of Ghouls, an anthology, also appeared as Off the Beaten Orbit. 7/12/12

The Icon and the Axe by James H. Billington, Knopf, 1966 

This is a cultural history of Russia, starting roughly in the 14th Century when Kiev was the center of civilization. The author charts the course from there through the rise of Moscow, the turning away from the West, the conquest of a chunk of Asia, the two wars, and the Russian Revolution. Contributing factors to the ongoing tension with the western world are identified – the split between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox church, various unpleasant encounters with western powers, a preoccupation with expansion, and so forth. The book is very detailed and sometimes quite dense – I read it over the course of a couple of weeks because I foundered periodically. It did provide considerable insight into the national psyche and I think I better understand why it is so hard to reconcile those differences even in the present. Worth reading, but not an easy road. 7/9/12

The Crown of Mexico by Joan Haslip, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1971 

One of the more bizarre political developments in the 19th Century was the installation of an Austrian archduke, Maximilian, as Emperor of Mexico. Mexico was in great turmoil at the time and unable to meet its international financial obligations, so Spain, France, and England jointly occupied one of its ports and imposed a new government. Maximilian accepted the throne after Louis Napoleon’s wife was convinced by a couple of Mexican expatriates that the country wanted a European ruler, when in fact there was no monarchist movement there in any form. The US was occupied by the Civil War – this was 1864 – so European intervention went unchallenged.  One has to feel sorry for Maximilian, who was tricked into accepting the crown and never really wanted to go, and when he did go, his supporters betrayed him to his death. His wife, Empress Charlotte/Carlotta, had a mental breakdown while on a mission to get more support from Louis Napoleon and the Pope and spent the last sixty years of her life in confinement. The US never recognized his government and his arch-enemy, Benito Juarez, eventually captured and executed him. Although his intentions were good and he was surprisingly progressive for that era, he listened to dubious counsel as did the Europeans leaders who placed him on the throne. 6/28/12

Urban Legends by Thomas J. Craughwell, Black Dog & Leventhal, 2000

This is a compilation of 666 urban legends, about half of which I’d heard in some form or another over the years. The author’s definition of urban legend is a bit loose. He incorporates traditional ghost stories, for example, which I consider a separate phenomenon. Nor do I think the label applies to a real person describing his or her imagined alien abduction.  In some cases, they aren’t legends at all, but assumptions that aren’t true. For example, one he lists is the belief that college policy allows students to leave a class if the instructor doesn’t show up during the first fifteen minutes. That’s not a legend in any case, but it is also my experience that it was never considered a school policy but a social convention, and at Michigan State students and professors alike subscribed to it, so it was actually “true.”  Some of the legends are exaggerated versions of true stories, but the author fails to point it out in, for example, the story of the dying boy requesting postcards. The baby in the carseat on the roof story has actually happened several times, once just last week. Others are just famous jokes and I doubt that anyone ever believed them, so calling them urban legends is nonsense. Similarly, incorrect assumptions – like saying The Flintstones was the first television program to show a couple in bed – are just errors, not urban legends. The author even lists the Nigerian scam as one, which it patently is not. 6/24/12

Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture by Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6816-4

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with urban or dark fantasy knows that werewolves and shapechangers in general have become immensely popular in literature, even more so than in movies which is where they most commonly found until recently. Although there are a few werewolf stories in traditional horror fiction, they have never been as popular as ghosts, vampires, serial killers, and others until know, and they're more likely to be romantic figures than horrors. The authors contend that much of this is meant as symbolism for more abstract issues and that's undoubtedly the case for some writers, unconsciously for others, and less probably for the vast majority. Understandably the authors rely heavily on the better writers and produces, e.g. Charlaine Harris, the Ginger Snaps movies, but the vast majority of such work - including essentially all of the romantic novels - is ignored. Their conclusions about the works they discuss are generally logical (although once or twice I thought they were reaching a bit far) but less so for many of the works they don't cover. 6/23/12

Ancient Symbology in Fantasy Literature by William Indick, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6039-7

It's no secret that fantasy literature draws on myths and legends from various cultures, always has and always will. This scholarly work illustrates many of these reflections of earlier imagery, story lines, and other devices. The book is divided by categories - the mythic hero, princes and princesses, and so forth. The author is a psychologist and that colors his interpretations, obviously, and he loses a lot of points with this reader by introducing Julian Jaynes' concept of the bicameral mind - essentially the theory that primitive humans were not self aware but were guided by lucid dreams originating in the other half of the brain. The theory is dubious at best and it was more philosophical than scientific. The bulk of the book is much more convincing, though a bit dense at times, and I would have liked it better if I hadn't read the last chapter. 6/13/12

The Shadow of the Winter Palace by Edward Crankshaw, Viking, 1976 

Outside of John Reed’s famous book, I hadn’t read any accounts of how the Russian Revolution actually came about, and he’s a biased source. This covers the period from 1825 to 1917 and established that the Russian autocratic tradition proved to be too overpowering. Tsars who planned to be reformers resorted to autocracy, those who hoped to overthrow them assumed that a benevolent autocrat was the only solution, and even the Communists quickly assumed that posture. The peculiar nature of Russia is pretty obvious in this one, the lack of any serious progressive movements, the attempt to remain static while the rest of the world was changing and its inevitable end with a violent revolution. The various tsars of this period were also particularly inept; either obsessed, infatuated with their own power and destiny, intelligent but unwilling to use that intelligence, or outright stupid. 6/11/12

Now a Terrifying Motion Picture by James F. Broderick, McFarland, 2012, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-4763-3 

Quite a few published horror stories and novels have been transferred to the screen, although the vast majority of  the latter are based on more or less original screenplays. This book covers some of those, using a loose definition of horror, including Frankenstein, The Fly, Village of the Damned, The Thing, and others. For the most part the essays are well written and interesting if not particularly enlightening. There are several annoying little errors sprinkled about. Contrary to the author’s assertion there were not hundreds of stories of alien monsters invading the Earth during the pulp era. They were actually relatively scarce. He also gets John Wyndham’s full name wrong, muffs the title of The Day of the Triffids and I doubt that he’d find a lot of support for his contention that The Midwich Cuckoos was Wyndham’s best written novel. I also question his assertion that the original movie version of The Thing better conveyed the human element than John Carpenter’s remake. Not enough meat for the hefty cover price. 6/2/12

Persian Mirrors by Elaine Sciolini, Free Press, 2000 

This is a fascinating account of life inside Iran, although prior to the current nuclear development controversy, which I found oddly similar to Hedrick Smith’s portrait of the Russians. Both are very traditional societies ruled by dictatorships, and both have elaborate and extensive methods of getting around the rules of the system. Both peoples are fascinated with the United States while at the same time distrusting foreigners in general and Americans in particular. Overall the book is a combination of uplifting and depressing descriptions, and the author’s mild optimism about the future of Iran seems not to have played out, at least so far.  It would be interesting to see what she thinks of the situation there today. 5/31/12

Respecting the Stand by Jenifer Paquette, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7001-3

It has been a long time since I read Stephen King's The Stand, but I remember it better than most books I read that year. This is ostensibly a literary analysis of that novel, but it's actually a series of short essays on a variety of Stephen King related topics. There are some I agree with strongly, as in her rebuttal to Harold Bloom's insistence that literature should be hard to understand if it is really good, an elitism that mars much academic criticism. On the other hand she believes it is symptomatic of this disdain that there are not as many books dedicated to King's fiction as there are to H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. I don't buy that as a valid argument because we don't know what the situation will be when King has been around as long as Poe or HPL. Entertainingly written but not tightly organized, and the price tag on this one is rather high for such a short book. 5/30/12

Buffy and the Heroine's Journey by Valerie Estelle Frankel, McFarland, 2012, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-6792-1

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was and still is my favorite television show of all time. It also, I understand, is the subject of more academic papers than any other program, and they continue to appear, as is the case here. The author singles it out in this case because unlike most fantasy series - which feature boys as the heroic character who comes of age - the protagonist in this case is a girl. The book spans the entire run of the show with particularly close examinations of Buffy's relationship to Angel, her various allies, matters of identity and self image, and contrasts her to Faith and the other female characters. All of this is shown in relationship to classic myths and pre-existing story telling techniques in fantasy and elsewhere. The prose avoids academese and is very accessible and many of the author's observations are interesting and, to me at least, new. One quibble. The author says that Darla and Buffy never fight directly, but they do. 5/27/12

Hirohito by Leonard Mosley, Prentice Hall, 1966 

Although I’m not a big fan of biographies in general, I make exceptions for people whose lives were consistently unusual. Hirohito is one such case, raised in an incongruous Japanese society where he was believed to be the descendant of gods. The accounts of the political maneuvering while he was still crown prince – his father was insane – are fascinating. A good deal of the strategy consisted of saying “Do what I want or I’ll kill myself”. Doesn’t strike me as a winning strategy in the long run. There was a monumental battle over the choice of which distinguished family he should marry into, and he had very little input himself although he quietly got what he wanted.  I was also unfamiliar with the plot by junior officers to assassinate him and install his brother in his place in the years prior to World War II. The author clearly sympathizes with Hirohito and considers him a prisoner of the army and navy who tried ineffectually – he had very little actual power - to prevent them from committing the England, and it has to be admitted that some American policies during that period were directed against the Japanese for racial reasons. I also was unaware that Hirohito was actually a well respected marine biologist. There is evidence that he was unaware of the atrocities and misjudgments of the 1930s and 1940s, and could in any case have done nothing about them. He actually much admired the US and England and made fumbling efforts to avert the war before finally succumbing to fatalism about the whole thing. A very interesting perspective. 5/25/12

The Russians by Hedrick Smith, Random House, 1983 revised edition 

Hedrick Smith was bureau chief for the New York Times in Moscow during the early 1970s and later wrote this account of how people actually lived in communist Russia. Some of the information I already knew, at least vaguely, like the various tiers of stores available depending upon one’s status, and the fact that as bad as it was, the situation was an improvement over the past, which explains why there was relatively little open discontent. The secret police were even more pervasive than I realized, and their informant system was impressive. The elaborate code of behavior for standing in line was particularly amusing, as was the fact that new cars (price controlled) cost less than used ones of the same model (no price controls). There are countless anecdotes which combine into a rich, sometimes contradictory portrait of the Soviet Union of the time.  It would be interesting to contrast this generation with the one that followed. 5/20/12

The Subversive Harry Potter by Vandana Saxena, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6674-0

Here we have a scholarly analysis of adolescent rebellion in the Harry Potter novels, an aspect which is not only fairly obvious but which led to the books being condemned in some places by adults insecure in their status. Some of the analysis is interesting, some as mentioned almost too obvious to merit repeating, and some of it is perhaps shaped by the author's own viewpoint. For example, while noting that Hogwarts is multicultural, Saxena criticizes Rowling for not dealing with cultural differences in a more meaningful way. While it is perfectly true that the books don't spend time talking about the conflicting backgrounds of the students and how they adjust to one another, there are any number of other topics which Rowling avoided, and which were not relevant to the plot. Are there gay students? How is everything paid for? The prose only occasionally becomes academically opaque so it's an interesting read, but the author has her own agenda and that should be kept in mind while reading it. 5/18/12

Monster of God by David Quammen, Norton, 2003 

This frequently rambling book is a discussion of the subclass of predators which have been known to kill and eat people, but it’s neither lurid nor graphic and in fact is occasionally rather bland.  The author discusses the present state of each of the animals in question and gives some of their history, but the accounts frequently wander off into only vaguely associated matters, sometimes interesting, sometimes not.  I was very surprised to realize that there were no photographs in the book, even though I had no idea what an Indian lion might look like. The author traveled all over the world to accumulate his lore and anecdotes. I read this in fits and starts though; it really has no internal momentum. 5/15/12

The Russo-Japanese War: 1904-1905 by Geoffrey Jukes, Osprey, 2002

After reading an extensive history of the Far East, I picked up this slender little history of the war between Russia and Japan which shocked the world because it was the first time a European power had been defeated by a non-white state. In most military accounts, the stupidity of the generals is a common factor, but in this case it was almost entirely on the Russian side. The Japanese had fewer troops and equipment, though it was in some cases - particularly in the navy - more advanced. The Japanese troops were better trained and the overall strategy much more sensible. This account is heavily illustrated with maps, drawings, and photographs and does a pretty good job of keeping the complex movements comprehensible. 5/6/12

The Far East by Nathaniel Peffer, University of Michigan, 1959 

Although this history of Japan, China, and Korea claims to be impartial, the author wastes no time characterizing Japanese culture as “unhealthy”, citing too rapid changes in cultural level and a fascination with militarism. Given the date this was published, that’s probably a holdover from World War II, although he doesn’t seem nearly as outraged by German militarism. Leaving this prejudice aside, he provides an interesting explanation of how the Japanese and Chinese cultures developed with similar, but not identical patterns. He also observes that the functional government in China at the time of Western intervention was at the guild and village levels, and that Western insistence upon dealing with the emperor and aristocracy was therefore a tragic mistake. There are also occasional suggestions that Christianity is a superior religion and that Asians would have been better off if they’d adopted it.  He does admit that Japanese aggression was simply an imitation of Western aggression against china, but somehow thinks it is worse in their case. Peffer occasionally drifts off into political speculations about international politics that have little directly to do with Asia and are more polemical than informative. 5/4/12

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall by John Juliius Norwich, Knopf, 1996 

I hadn’t realized until I started reading this that it was the third volume in a comprehensive history of the Byzantine Empire, so now I’ll have to go out and find the other two. This one picks up late in the 11th Century with the founding of the Comnemos dynasty. It’s meant to be a popularization so readers wary of academic studies should be reassured. Which is not to say that the author doesn’t provide a great deal of detail. The machinations of the various political leaders of that time would make our current international situation look simpleminded. Apparently blinding one’s political opponents was a very popular tactic, although two of the more successful leaders achieved their success after they were blind.  I also now understand why elaborate plotting is referred to as “Byzantine.” It's also amazing to me that the empire lasted as long as it did considering its many enemies, frequent civil wars, and incompetent rulers.  4/25/12

Latin America by J. Fred Rippy, University of Michigan 1958 

A comprehensive history of Mexico, Central and South America from prehistory through the Spanish colonization and the first half of the 20th Century.  Among the things I found most interesting was the contrast between Spanish and Portuguese colonies and the career of Simon Bolivar, with both of which I was only passingly familiar. There’s a lengthy section discussing why Spanish American colonies did not transition to democracy the way they did in North America – in large part because they never had colonial legislatures and were conditioned to rule by a single authoritarian figure. I hadn’t known that Bolivia originally had seacoast – it was taken by Chile during a war, or that Paraguay was the first independent South American country. The author has a tendency to softpedal the careers of some recent dictators – Batista and Trujillo for example – but it may be that their excesses were not as well known when he wrote this in 1958. Castro's revolt in Cuba was in 1959. 4/17/12

Mammoth Cave by John J. Wagoner & Lewis Cutliff, Interpretive Publications, 1985

One of the things I plan to do some day is visit Mammoth Cave. This thin little book, consisting primarily of photographs, includes a history of the caves, explanations of how it and some of its features were formed, and brief descriptions of some of the tours available. It is in fact essentially an extended version of a tour guide's spiel. I hadn't realized the size of the cave system - over three hundred miles of caves - and several other bits were interesting. But the pictures are the real attraction here. Now I have to arrange to see the real thing. 4/6/12

The Wizard of Oz as American Myth by Alissa Burger, McFarland, 2012, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-6643-6

Here we have a surprisingly entertaining study of six different versions of the story first told by L. Frank Baum and reinterpreted many times since. The Baum version is, naturally, one of the ones covered, but the others include the classic movie version, a stage play, the 1978 musical version, Gregory Maguire's amusing variation in his novel Wicked, a Broadway production, and a television series I'd actually not even heard of called Tin Man. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Baum's talents were in story telling rather than prose, but he had a more inventive imagination and the characters from the original book - diluted by endless sequels - are among the best known in the world. Burger's treatment is insightful and rarely slips into academese without abandoning intelligent discussion in favor of popularization. I've read a couple of other critical works about Baum but they weren't as interesting as this one. 3/31/12

The Southwest Pacific to 1900 by C. Hartley Grattan, University of Michigan, 1963 

This is a very organized and detailed history of the colonial period in this part of the world, of which I had only a sketchy understanding. The author divides the area into four units, Australia, New Zealand, the islands, and Antarctica, then examines each during a specific historical period. He puts a great deal of emphasis on the commercial and financial management of each location rather than the political developments. There’s not much of a narrative tone in the sections on Australia, which are surprisingly the least interesting of the four sections. There are several maps but I found them less than useful as they are not particularly readable or illustrative. The text itself is much better and the sections on early exploration are particularly interesting. Casual readers might want something a bit shorter and less detailed. 3/28/12

24 Frames into the Future by John Scalzi, NESFA, 2012, $28, ISBN 978-1-61037-301-2

This is a collection of Scalzi's columns as a film critic for a California newspaper, each of which is quite short, but there are a great many of them.  Many of them really aren't about movies. Topics include the art of storytelling, various award nominations and the results, and a handful of other topics. Scalzi has definite opinions and it's likely that everyone will find some of his remarks infuriating and others pleasing and even enlightening. He's going to hate some of the movies you love and love some of the movies you hate, but he almost always has cogent reasons why he takes the positions he does, and while you might not agree that his points are adequate to his conclusions, there is always at least a chain of reasoning. The short format makes it easy to get lost and read more at a sitting than you plan, but after a while his overall philosophy about movies begins to emerge. 3/20/12

Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coast by Frank R. Stockton, 1898 

The author of the classic “The Lady or the Tiger” chronicles the rise and fall of pirates in the Americas. I was surprised by his initial proposition that the first pirate of note in this hemisphere was Christopher Columbus, since I hadn’t realized that his career had been called into question as early as the 19th Century.  Stockton relates the adventures of several pirates, some of whom I’d never heard of, in an entertaining narrative style that almost feels like fiction at times. He also sprinkles personal observations through the text. Occasionally he expresses skepticism about the truth of the stories, while admitting that they are possible. The escapes of the pirates Bartholemy and the Brazilian Roc are particularly clever. He repeatedly denies the romantic legends associated with pirates, stating that in most cases they were mean spirited cowards, although he contradicts himself on this point on several occasions. The familiar names are here as well as a number of more obscure brigands. The prose style is slightly archaic but actually quite charming. 3/8/12

Napoleon III by Fenton Bresler, Carroll & Graf, 1999 

I’m not a big fan of formal biographies but I knew very little about the reign of Napoleon III and this was at hand. The early chapters held little interest for me but once he was involved in politics I paid more attention. I was a bit put off by the author’s contention that it is important to know whether or not Napoleon III was illegitimate even though he believed that to be the case.  If so, then it makes no difference whether he was legitimate or not and in any case the author acknowledges that we probably will never know for sure.  There are some nice photographic inserts and the subject’s later career is quite interesting. 2/25/12

London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction by Michael Moorcock, PM, 2012, 23.95, ISBN 978-1-60486-490-8

Michael Moorcock has had a distinguished career as both writer - Elric and many others - and editor, New Worlds. Somehow despite his very large output of fiction, he found time to write quite a body of nonfiction, much of which is collected here. They range over the breadth of his career and several have not been previously published. Although he is largely associated with SF and fantasy, the topics here are much more varied, including reviews and commentary on music, mainstream books, early and recent fantastic fiction, as well as political commentaries and miscellaneous subjects. Many of them are quite outspoken - Moorcock makes no effort to sugarcoat his indictments of what he perceives as silly, evil, or stupid, and he finds plenty of it to point his metaphorical fingers. There are a lot of different pieces here, more than sixty, and while I didn't find them all equally interesting, they are all well written, witty, and straightforward. One of the most entertaining collections of essays I've read recently. 2/24/12

Letters to James F. Morton edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi, Hippocampus, 2011, $25, ISBN 9780-9844802-3-4

These are the letters of H.P. Lovecraft to one of his many correspondents, written in a day when letter writing was almost an artform in itself, and one in which Lovecraft was very skilled. I confess that I only skimmed through these, many of which are written in a somewhat contrived dialect. The subject matter varies from political and social philosophy to world events to jokes. Also included is some of Morton's own writing, plus remembrances of him by some of his personal acquaintances. This one is probably of interest only to Lovecraft students, as it presents a rarely seen side of Lovecraft. 2/20/12

The Secret of the Incas by William Sullivan, Crown, 1996 

The premise of this book is very interesting. Sullivan contends that myths and legends compose a kind of history that doesn’t get proper attention and that through them we can tell when the stories took place because they frequently reflect the constellations, thus can be dated. Unfortunately he goes on from there to suggest that the Incas knew that their civilization was doomed, even the year when it would happen, because they read it in the sky and tried to alter the sky to avert their fate. His arguments aren’t helped by his frequently opaque constructions and there were several places where I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say despite re-reading the relevant passages. 2/17/12

The Theology of Dracula by Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac, McFarland, 2012, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-8709-7

Although this analysis of the text of Bram Stoker's classic novel as an expression of various Christian belief systems is intelligently written and very detailed, I felt that in several cases the author was bending the evidence to fit the premise. I very much doubt that Stoker was consciously (and perhaps not even unconsciously) trying to incorporate Gnosticism and Mariology into his novel, although as elements of the Christian tradition they may have had some residual effect on his personal philosophy. That said, the book contains several reinterpretations of elements of the story that were actually somewhat thought provoking. The price tag on this is probably prohibitive for casual readers, but Stoker enthusiasts will certainly want to give it a look. 2/7/12

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, Norton, 1997 

This fascinating book attempts – and I think largely succeeds – in explaining why some civilizations like Europe acquired ascendancy over other ones like the Aztecs. An oversimplified summary is that environmental factors in various parts of the world affected the time and efficacy of the switch from hunter-gatherers to farmers, and farming led to food surpluses which allowed the establishment of specialists like soldiers and politicians and inventors. The number of animals which could be domesticated exposed some populations to wider varieties of germs, which meant that the ones they carried but were relatively immune to were more deadly to other cultures than those in the opposite direction. All of this is quite entertainingly written and there are lots of other little side issues that he discusses entertainingly as well. The book won the Pulitzer Prize. 2/6/12

The Great Boer War by Byron Farwell, Wordsworth, 1976 

I’d already read a pretty comprehensive discussion of the second Boer War but I like to get at least one other perspective on most historical events. This time I failed to find much new and certainly not an alternative interpretation of events. Both sides come across as pretty despicable and the justification for the conflict doesn’t stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny. The British were initially ineffective because they had uninspired generals and had made no attempt to adapt to modern warfare – they were still using muzzle loading cannon! The Boers failed because they were hopelessly outnumbered, poorly organized, and their support of virtual slavery made it difficult for outside powers to actively intervene. This just reinforced my conviction that both sides were vindictive, incompetent, and not on the side of the angels. 1/30/12

A Monster of Voices by Robert H. Waugh, Hippocampus, 2011, $20, ISBN 978-0-9844802-2-7

A collection of essays about the work of H.P. Lovecraft. I've read a few pieces by Waugh previously and found them informative and well written, so no surprise that this is a good collection, weighted for those who like detailed analysis of individual short stories rather than more superficial pieces. I only found a couple of points where I thought Waugh perhaps stretched things a bit, and there were several cases where he provided some interesting insights into HPL's work, particularly the suppressed eroticism. About half the book deals with specific works and the other half with Lovecraft's place in the literary spectrum, his real and possible influence on other writers and the writers who may have influenced him in turn. The prose is always accessible so you don't have to speak academese to understand what he's trying to say. One of the more enjoyable pieces of literary criticism I've read in recent years. 1/24/12

Dim-Remembered Stories by Massimo Berruti, Hippocampus, 2011, $20, ISBN 978-0-9846386-3-5

This is a lengthy critical story of the works of R.H. Barlow, who wrote a number of short stories, many of them in the Lovecraft tradition. I confess that I have only read a handful of these, and so long ago that I didn't remember any of them, so I found myself skimming through this very detailed analysis of his prose and poetry. The author has taken great pains to explore various aspects of the subject matter, and even in ignorance of the stories involved, I could follow most of the sections that I read. If I ever decide to reread Barlow, this will certainly come off the shelve as a reading aid, but for most readers this may be too specialized to read by itself.  1/20/12

An Epicure in the Terrible edited by David E. Schultz & S.T. Joshi, Hippocampus, 2011, $20, ISBN 978-0-9846386-1-1

Lovecraft Annual 5 edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus, 2011, $15, ISBN 978-11-61498-010-0

Two collections of essays on the life and works of H.P. Lovecraft. The first is a collection that first appeared in 1991, although several of them have been updated for this edition. The authors are familiar names within Lovecraft scholarship, including Kenneth Faig, Donald Burleson, and Robert Price. They are separated into three sections, biographical, thematic, and comparative.  I found the latter two sections more interesting, particularly essays by Stefan Dziemianowicz and Burleson. The second title is more recent essays on the same general subject matter, from some of the same writers and a bunch of new one. These tend to be shorter and the two I found the most interesting were those by Caitlin Kiernan and Robert H. Waugh. If you enjoy Lovecraft, these two books may show you a deeper level of appreciation. 1/7/12

Pictorial Guide to the Moon by Dinsmore Alter, Crowell, 1963 

Parts of this discussion of the Moon are dated, of course, since it was written before the first moon landing, but a lot of it is still relevant and I picked it up mostly for the pictures in any case. The author provides a history of human observation of the moon and a quick discussion of some of the problems of exploring there – no air, temperature variations, no familiar day/night cycle, etc. There’s a nice series of photographs showing specific areas on the moon’s surface and a table of named features with latitude and longitude, although it would have been nice to have them keyed to the various photos. There’s also an extensive and helpful glossary.  But the photos are the best part. 1/6/12

The Passionate War by Peter Wyden, Simon & Schuster, 1983 

The only previous book I’d read about the Spanish Civil War was a personal account, which didn’t provide much of an overview.  This one is somewhat better, but it is also a succession of personal experiences rather than a more detailed analysis and narrative histories of this sort generally don’t interest me. One thing the book did convey to me is that both sides were equally repulsive, rivaling the French Revolution in their bloodthirstiness and violent cruelty. The leftist side – supported by Communists and Socialists – did have the law on their side; they were the properly elected if rather ineffective government of Spain.  But the Fascists under Franco, aided by Hitler, were better organized and could bring in foreign troops from North Africa so their eventual victory was almost assured barring outside intervention. I couldn’t find many people in this to admire.