Last Update 6/24/15

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

It took me over a month to re-read this – not because it is 900 pages long – but because I could only read so much before the stupidity of the French, English, and Belgian governments was so monumental that I could only take it in small chunks. This is essentially about the fall of France and the rise of the Vichy government during World War II, and frankly it seems to me that many of the top leaders of France were secret traitors and many of the top leaders of Great Britain were just craven. The fabric of French society was badly frayed even before the rise of Hitler, with class struggles and ideological splits reminiscent of contemporary US politics. When German attacked, France had more and better tanks, and more soldiers, but they collapsed almost without a fight. Which perhaps should warn us of something. 6/24/15

The Politics of the Hunger Games by Jamey Heit, McFarland, 2015, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-0658-7

Although the author has good intentions, the subject matter of this book cannot bear the weight thrust upon it. Using the Hunger Games trilogy as its base, the book explores the nature of political action, personal responsibility, government structure, and associated matters. A good deal of the discussion is interesting but the references to the trilogy often feel after the fact, tacked onto the arguments. I suspect the same book could have been written using any dystopian novel to provide the illustrations. So while it is an interesting essay, it is not going to tell you anything about the books that you didn't already know. 6/11/15

Classic Horror Films and the Literature That Inspired Them by Ron Backer, McFarland, 2015, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-9896-3

The title of this good sized book tells you pretty much what it contains, summaries of the plots of movies and the stories they are based upon, with comparisons and some critical analysis. For the most part the author's comments are entertaining and enlightening, although he misses the point that there are NO ghosts in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, nor in The Shining by Stephen King. In the former, one of the characters is a poltergeist and in the latter it is the hotel itself which is malevolent. Some of the illusions it creates are of living people so they are clearly not ghosts. He is apparently unaware of the fact that Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber was remade as Witches' Brew in 1980. He also asserts the Carrie was the first horror movie involving psychokinesis, but that's only true if you call The Power something else. Neither movie involves the supernatural, so if one is horror, presumably so is the other. Despite these cavils, the book is a good read and there were a couple of entries that I was unaware of. 6/19/15

Lost States by Michael J. Trinklein, Quirk, 2010 

A short but fascinating book mostly about attempts to create new states in the US, from colonial to contemporary times. Included are very brief histories of Franklin, Deseret, Rough and Ready, Forgottonia, Howland, Nickajack, Texlahoma, and many others. A map of each is provided and the dustjacket opens up into a panoramic view in which most of the changes are shown. I knew that Cuba and the Philippines had both been considered, but there was actually a serious attempt to annex Iceland after World War II, and Senator Richard Russell proposed annexing the British Isles.  Neither indigenous population was happy with the idea. 5/15/15

The Fantastic Made Visible edited by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell & Ace G. Pilkington, McFarland, 2015, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-9619-8

The editors have assembled here a collection of essays on the process of transition from book to screen of a variety of SF and fantasy stories. Some of the selections are obvious - The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Tolkien, and Verne - and some less so but welcome like Heinlein's Destination Moon or one tracing the evolution from The Tempest to Forbidden Planet. The inclusion of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter was the only one that seemed out of place, and the movie I, Robot bears not even the slightest resemblance to the Asimov work that supposedly inspired it. The essays vary slightly in quality but are generally readable and informative. I wouldn't normally second guess the selection made by editors, but I'm not sure a book can really be said to deal thoroughly with the subject when it overlooks Dune, Bladerunner, and all of the various films made from the work of H.G. Wells and Stephen King. Space is a limiting parameter, but surely these are more important than the Lincoln novel or even "Snow White." 5/4/15

Trespassers on the Roof of the World by Peter Hopkirk, Kodansha, 1995 reprint of 1982 book 

This is a very detailed and fascinating account of the various attempts to reach the forbidden city of Lhasa in Tibet, which was barred to all except the Chinese until the British finally sent a successful military force in 1904. Attempts were made by Russians, British, French, Americans, and Japanese, by military men, explorers, missionaries, diplomats, and the merely adventurous, including some women and at least one infant. All were turned back and most left detailed accounts of their adventures.  Has much of the thrill of fiction. 4/25/15

Time Travel in Popular Media edited by Matthew Jones & Joan Ormrod, McFarland, 2015, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7807-2

This is a collection of essays about the use of time travel in books, movies, television, and videogames. There is actually very little about time travel in media, and most of that is somewhat ill informed. The appendix listing of "most influential" stories is embarrassing. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Really? And where's the time travel in "The Langoliers"? On the other hand, some of the articles about use of the trope in film and television are quite interesting, and there is a nice discussion of the philosophy of time travel. There are numerous mentions of the element of paradox in time travel narratives which could have been the basis for a book all by themselves. Film fans should find this useful. Fans of prose time travel will just find it frustrating. 4/6/15

Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century edited by Tara Prescott, McFarland, 2015, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-9477-4

Neil Gaiman is one of the handful of authors whose reputation transcends genre, even though the majority of his work has been identifiably fantasy. This is a collection of academic style essays discussing his novels, comic book/graphic novel efforts, and miscellaneous writings from various sources. I found the discussions of American Gods and The Graveyard Book the most interesting, although I imagine a lot of people will be more inclined toward the discussion of the Sandman graphic stories. The articles are mostly quite accessible to non-academics and rarely drift off to ascetic heights. There were a couple of places where comments did not agree with my memories of the works in question, but they were minor points and I haven't read the relevant work in so long that it is probably my memory that is at fault. Above average for this type of book. 4/4/15

The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks by Simone Caroti, McFarland, 2015, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-9447-7

I am firmly convinced that Iain Banks was one of the most unappreciated SF writers of recent years. His Culture Series was set in a distant future society whose technology seems almost magical. There are artificial intelligences housed in a variety of different bodies. Their starships are self aware and are sometimes among the more interesting characters. The sections about how Banks started out as a writer and developed the culture universe were particularly interesting to me, and I found little to argue about in the author's discussion of the various books, which are sometimes quite insightful and helpful. I am not really convinced that they should be considered even remotely as Utopian fiction, but I suppose that depends on perspective and definitions. This was one of the more entertaining critical books I've read in a while. 3/31/15

Dead Reckonings 16 edited by June M. Pulliam & Tony Fonseca, Hippocampus, 2015, $7.50

Latest in a series of collected reviews of horror fiction and related books. This is arguably a magazine since it doesn't have an ISBN but it doesn't take subscriptions. The reviews cover mostly very recent books including some from the same publisher, which is a bit of a conflict of interest. They are for the most part well written, occasionally insightful, and provide information about a lot of small press work that might not otherwise get much attention. They are not invariably puff pieces, however, and sometimes are quite critical. The contributors include Richard Bleiler, Darrell Schweitzer, and S.T. Joshi. 3/29/15

The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell, Penguin, 2015, $17, ISBN 978-0-14-312704-8

This purports to tell us how to rebuild civilization after a catastrophe. That's really not quite what it is except in very general terms. The author discusses various scenarios for destruction, and suggests that the best situation is one in which nearly everyone gets killed because the survivors have a better chance if there aren't too many of them. He cites a number of examples - I knew that the expiration date on most drugs was bogus but had not known that canned foods would probably last for at least thirty years. There are also some general comments on restoring transportation, the continuance of medicine and chemistry, restoring power, and organizing a political structure, but while his comments are sensible and even interesting, they really don't provide the nuts and bolts of how most of this could be accomplished. More interesting as source material for novelists writing a disaster story. 3/27/16

Foundations of Atlantis, Ancient Astronauts, and Other Alternative Pasts edited by Jason Colavito, McFarland, 2015, $49.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-9645-7

This collection of documents and translations was actually more interesting than I expected it to be. It consists of nearly 150 sources for various fringe beliefs about the origin of the universe and the development of human civilization, and as the title suggests this includes explanations of why people could not have built the pyramids unassisted, why Atlantis must certainly have existed, why the great flood was an historical and not just a Biblical event, etc. There is a section on the miraculous powers of Christ's physical remains, the Holy Grail, various mythical creatures, supposed ancient voyages to the western hemisphere, and many others. Some of them are rather tedious and I skipped around a bit, but it is nice to have them gathered all together in one place. Now if only we could do the same with all the adherents. 3/26/15

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer 

I spent about a month reading this fifty pages at a time. At almost 1500 pages, the book is likely to stand as the single most important history of Nazi Germany. It follows the career of Adolf Hitler from his youth through his ascension to power and ultimately his and Germany’s destruction. Shirer was in Germany for a portion of this time and had first hand experiences of Nazi rule.  Re-reading this – I first read it back when it was first published – I was reminded of details I had forgotten, such as that Hungary had been one of the Axis powers and that both Hungary and Poland participated in the destruction of Czechoslovakia. Shirer’s preconceptions occasionally show through – he believed that part of the reason the Nazis were so bad was because so many of their leaders were homosexuals. Neville Chamberlain seems like even more of a gullible fool than I remembered, the Polish government suicidally stupid, and despite the later perfidy of Hitler with regard to Russia, Stalin had good though insufficient reasons in retrospect for signing the non-aggression pact.  I had also forgotten that there had been so many attempts to assassinate Hitler, all of which failed through ineptness, bad luck, or mischance. The four top Nazis – Hitler, Goebbels, Goehring, and Himmler – all committed suicide, the last two while in captivity. The official and very brief head of the German government following Hitler’s death was Doenitz, head of the navy. This is a fascinating though very long history of possibly the most repressive government in modern human history. 3/25/15

Tolkien's Intellectual Landscape by E.L. Risden, McFarland, 2015, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-9865-9

I have read so many books about Tolkien's work over the years that there is a degree of déjà vu involved with any new one I encounter. The back cover blurb makes a dubious claim - that publishers are cutting back on creative fiction outside of fantasy - without any substantiation, but that might not be the author's fault. The text examines the usual aspects of his work - his use of mythology (the section on Orientalism and Occidentalism is probably the most interesting part of the book), his depiction of heroism, the role of the quest in the plot, and some suggestions about how one could structure a college course examining his work. My interest rose and fell several times. There's nothing really new here, but it's restated in an accessible and organized fashion. 3/24/15

The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam, Hyperion, 2007 

The previous book I read about the Korean War was essentially a military history with only peripheral discussion of the political background or the personalities of the key players involved. This reverses that emphasis and provides portraits of American, Korean, and Chinese leaders to explain their motives, advantages, and limitations. I had not thought my opinion of Douglas MacArthur could fall any further, but I was wrong, although the information about his childhood and his parents’ obsessions helped explain his arrogance.  There are many personal accounts of the tribulations by individual soldiers, a good deal about the personal conflicts among the top military leaders, the dismissal of MacArthur is covered in some detail, and Mao’s change from liberator to oppressor is also touched upon. This is an excellent summary of the war we as a nation have tried to forget. 3/3/15

Castles: A History and Guide by R. Allen Brown, Michael Prestwich, & Charles Coulson, Blandford, 1980 

I picked this up mostly for the pictures of castles, but it actually has some very well written text about the purpose and evolution of castles, how they were attacked and defended, their political significance, the role of cavalry in medieval warfare, the differences between fortresses and castles, and so on. The subject was interesting enough that I’ll be looking for something that  explores these areas in more depth. There is also a listing of all surviving castles – with information about visiting them that is almost certainly long obsolete. 2/20/15

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, Kodansha, 1990  

I have read several books about the Great Game – the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for influence in Asia – but all of those have understandably concentrated heavily on events in Afghanistan, which was the main buffer state between the two. This lengthy discussion of the era – which ended with the Russo-Japanese War – necessarily says a lot about that country also, but it goes on in considerable detail about the individual city states, most of which were absorbed by Russia, like Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva, Merv, Kholkand, and others. The author has a very readable style and the book is structured as a narrative. He also examines the personalities – and often the fates – of a number of players on either side. The battle for Chitral, which I had not read of before, reads like a Talbot Mundy novel. Recommended. 2/8/15

The Science Fiction of Phyllis Gotlieb by Dominick Grace, McFarland, 2015, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-7082-2

Although Phyllis Gotlieb was by no means a prolific writer, she did produce about a dozen books, starting with Sunburst in 1964. I don't believe any of her fiction is actually in print at the moment, which is a shame. This is an in depth examination of her novels, short stories, and poetry, with background about her life and career. The author has had access to her original manuscripts and provides some interesting observations about the differences that emerged as the stories were revised. Gotlieb frequently used familiar themes - aliens, galactic empires, psychic powers - but employed them in non-traditional ways. This book nudged me into adding her name to the long list of writers whose work I want to revisit. 2/1/15

Mastering the Game of Thrones edited by Jes Battis and Susan Johnston, McFarland, 2015, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-9631-0

George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire would probably have been the focus of a number of critical works even if there hadn't been a popular television series based on it. This latter fact made it certain. The subjects of these essays is necessarily limited to the first five volumes, since the others have not been written yet. They are grouped under a number of topics like language, philosophy, history, and so forth, but the essays are not otherwise integrated. Some of the concepts discussed here struck me as reaching pretty far - comparing the Wall to Frederick Jackson Turner's concept of the frontier, for example. A couple of the essays talk about how well elements from the books were adapted to the screen.  I found about a third of this very interesting, a third readable, and a third ranging from obvious observations or unlikely extrapolations. I'm sure this will not be the last book I see on the subject. 1/28/15

The Tropes of Fantasy Fiction by Gabrielle Lissauer, McFarland, 2015, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-7858-3

The premise stated in the cover blurb for this scholarly study is quite true. It doesn't matter so much what tropes are being used in a story as it does how the author makes use of them. This seems self evident. The author then goes on to analyze the work of a number of currently popular authors and I found myself nodding in agreement a number of times as I proceeded, particularly her criticism of some of the character problems in Seanan McGuire's novels, the way our expectations are thrown awry by George R.R. Martin and sometimes Mercedes Lackey, and her allusions to the effect that villains are more interesting if they are not evil just because that's their nature. The language in this one is very accessible and the author seems to have a much greater familiarity with the field as a whole than do a lot of writers who read half a dozen fantasy novels and feel qualified to write extensive analyses of the genre as a whole. Priced a bit stiff but you might talk your library into ordering a copy. 1/25/15

The Literary Haunted House by Rebecca Janicker, McFarland, 2015, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6573-6

I had high hopes for this one because I've always thought the haunted house story, which isn't really the same thing as a ghost story though it might have ghosts, is an area worth some analysis. The author confines herself to three authors - H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Richard Matheson, which I thought to be a somewhat odd assortment. King is a good example because he has done a superb haunted house story without ghosts - The Shining - as well as another excellent one with ghosts - Bag of Bones. Christine is similar to a haunted house, but it's more of a cursed car despite the author's efforts to make it fit. Lovecraft, on the other hand, really didn't do haunted house, and "Dreams in the Witch House" isn't one of his better known stories. The coverage of Matheson is quite good except for one thing. His most significant haunted house story, Hell House, is ignored.  The language is often obscured by academese. There are some good points here, but I was generally disappointed because the scope is so limited that it really does little to illuminate the subject. 1/23/15

The Korean War by Brian Catchpole, Carroll & Graf, 2000   

My understanding of the events of the Korean War were superficial so I picked up a couple of books on the subject. This one is mostly a military history and while the first half is quite interesting, the second half consists largely of accounts of the shifting around of specific military units and is considerably less engaging. Douglas MacArthur comes across as a megalomaniac, which sounds right. His chief assistant, General Almond, seems outright incompetent. The North Koreans and Chinese were as successful as they were mostly because they had numbers on their side and didn’t care how many men they lost. I did find it interesting that there was an air battle between US and Soviet fighters at one point, which information was suppressed until long after the war ended. There is very little about the individual soldiers, the political situation, or the effects on Korean civilians. 1/16/15

Mr. Wilson’s War by John Dos Passos, 1962   

A year or so back I reread all of the fiction of John Dos Passos, but I only recently found a copy of this history of the US from the assassination of McKinley through the defeat of the League of Nations. Dos Passos had decided political opinions which often show through. Although he covers the period fairly comprehensively, the book consists of scores of very short sections each centered on a particular individual or act and there’s almost no transition from one to the other. They read more like newspaper columns that an integrated book, and in many cases they seem superficial. The League was, of course, doomed in the US for political reasons rather than on its merits, but I’m not sure it would have survived even if the US had endorsed it. The abandonment of the promises of self determination made by the “great” powers during World War I was more tragic and one cannot help thinking that the rise of Hitler was the inevitable consequence of perfidy. 1/3/15