Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 1998. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves (1998):

Children of the Mind, Orson Scott Card

What? Fiction? Believe it or not, I still enjoy reading fiction, and I hope to get back to it soon. This is the fourth, and one presumes final, book Card has written in the world of Ender Wiggin. I've read and enjoyed the series, often gobbling books at a single span.

Children picks up where Xenocide left off, with Ender and two alien races (or three if you count Jane) about to be snuffed out on the colony world of Lusitania. Ender has just brought two other bodies into existence, and the metaphysics is flying faster than the action. Untangling the net Card has drawn in Xenocide is a tall order.

He's more successful than not. It had been some time since I read Xenocide, and I was able to slip back into the plot and recall the characters quickly. Card has a way with a moral conundrum, often forcing his characters to confront issues of what constitutes life, how to resolve the conflicts between societies' needs and individual rights, and how philosophy can influence politics. Like the other Ender books, the issues are interesting and Card's explorations illuminating.

Unfortunately, to get to these issues, his characters seem to suffer. Several times in Children I found that the emotions professed by his characters belied their actions or the actions of humans in my experience. His characters fall in love quickly and unbelievably deeply only to change their tune a chapter or two later, when Card wants to look at another issue. The notes clang a little here, but the overall work is worth it.

Recommended, but you should start with Ender's Game.

Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond

Diamond isn't concerned with the dates of major events in recorded history as he is with the events in prehistory that shaped the sweep of history. In fact, he isn't satisfied to note that societies that produced food surpluses, domesticated plants and animals, and adopted sedentary lifestyles became the eventual conquerors of the Earth, he looks for the root causes of those traits. He is enough of a thinker to resist the ideas that these events were primarily driven by differences in human genetic makeup, and look for objective advantages of humans living in various environments. And, importantly, he looks with the eyes of a scientist; his theories are supported with archaeological data and historic experiments wherever possible.

The combination of his interesting topic, his scholarship and scientific approach, and skilled writing make the book a delight to read.

Strongly recommended.

A History of the Twentieth Century Volume 1: 1900-1933, Martin Gilbert

Gilbert's history of the early 20th Century was a very interesting and satisfying read. He illuminates the trails of the early century clearly while providing almost subliminal notes on how they are affecting the world today. The causes are clear, but there is no recrimination for those who missed the warnings that are visible in hindsight. Many historians are not so forgiving.

Despite the limited space that he has for his year-by-year summaries, Gilbert spends a reasonable amount of space highlighting the non-political trends that are so easy to ignore. Major inventions and social trends have their place in the work, although it is undoubtedly mostly concerned with the political maneuverings of the world.

I came away both entertained and knowing new facts.


Pillar of Fire America in the King Years 1963-65, Taylor Branch

Branch's sequel to his Pulitzer prize winning Parting The Waters is a strong continuation of a great first book. Pillar has all the good qualities of Parting, although it suffers somewhat from being the second book in the trilogy. We know that Branch's narrative will be continued, and that robs some of it's dramatic force. King is also less the focus of this work than Parting, as Malcom X and his battles with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam consume more space.

These are minor quibbles. The book is a great, gripping read. It's a history lesson most Americans need, and it is beautifully presented.

Strongly Recommended.

A History of Europe, J. M. Roberts

Roberts' flying trip through European History is a good way to get people interested in European history. The trip is definitely fast, and the views are high-level, but I came away with a new understanding of the trends that shaped European History.

The bird's-eye view can be offputting to people who think history is about memorizing dates. Roberts assumes that his readers know or can find out when the Magna Carta was signed or the exact year that William the Conqueror showed up. He doesn't ignore these events, both those examples are related to various trends including the migration of the Normans and British claims to the French throne and the growth or representative democracy, but he doesn't waste space on the minutiae that accompany them. In a 600-page history of Europe, including Russia and the Slav states, he can't give much space for Minta.

His overflight is a good one, and I understand more about European history, especially as it relates to Eastern Europe, than I did before. It's readable, if somewhat dry, and a good introduction to further European historical reading.


Pest Control, by Bill Fitzhugh

Bill Fitzhugh has turned out a screenplay-ready comic thriller that's really quite enjoyable to read. The premise is that Bob Dillon (no relation) is an entomologist and exterminator who wants to go into business for himself with an environmentally-friendly extermination technique: Assassin Bugs. One of his resumés crosses a planted advertisement for a high-stakes assassin, a few coincidences occur, and suddenly Bob's allegedly one of the best assassins in the world. Unfortunately, he's also set upon by Fitzhugh's other stylized assassins.

The result is a fast-paced, entertaining story that is peppered with pop-culture-based humor. It's definitely fun reading, and will shorten your next airline flight.


Liberty! The American Revolution, by Thomas Fleming

Liberty is a companion piece to a PBS series of the same name on the American Revolution. It covers the two decades or so containing the American Revolution, from the Stamp Act to the ratification of the Constitution.

All in all, it's a reasonable survey of the times. It is certainly not as deep an exploration as many of the histories I have read on other topics. It is full of short sidebars and bright pictures, and seems to me that it would be a good way to get someone who isn't terribly interested in history interested.

Boy's Life, by Robert R. McCammon

McCammon's spun a nice yarn with Boy's Life. It's part memoir, part kids' story, part mystery, part ghost story. And it's a lot of fun. I laughed some, and I remembered my childhood some, and I imagined a childhood I never had.

So maybe the town's a little too perfect, with heroes and villains that are more from the Hardy Boys than anywhere I've ever lived. And maybe I can occasionally see where the plot's going. McCammon's got an easy, interesting way with a tale, and I had a lot of fun reading his story.

A good book to read on a lazy August afternoon.


Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

Reviewing Les Miserables in any real way would take a lot more space and time than I devote to these reviews. It's a classic of western literature that deserves to be one. Ostensibly about the society and life in France in the early 19th century, it's really about the human condition and the governmental forces that keep it that way.

Hugo is a brilliant instructor, both discussing the slow tidal forces of political and social change, and embodying them in characters that he strikes against one another to drive the lessons home. There are many images from this book that are memorable not only for their place in the narrative, but for their thematic significance.

The social commentary is at such a level, and so insightful as to remain relevant today, more that 130 years after he wrote it. The arguments that the harshness of the courts made a hardened felon out of Jean Valjean are as applicable to the three strikes law as they were to France's biased systems. I see, and to my shame sometimes act, the scenes of social injustice he relates daily.

This is not to say that the work is accessible. The sheer length daunts many people. My version was 1200+ pages, and I wouldn't say that Hugo is a focused writer. He likes to digress, and thinks nothing of rehashing the Battle of Waterloo in some detail in order to insert a brief fictional occurrence. There's something in every digression, but I imagine that for many readers, it's not worth the trip. I enjoyed almost all the digressions, but I imagine that the history of the Paris sewer system up to 1848 is not for everyone.

There's also some indication that Hugo was being paid by the word. He'll load his descriptions with long lists of synonyms and similar allusions that simply extend the paragraph rather than enhance the understanding. There are also long rambling dialogs that seem clearly designed to extend the page count.

But, those criticisms really aren't telling. The work is brilliant and enduring. If you dislike long asides, get the abridged version.


Watching My Language, by William Safire

I'm a vocabulary and grammar weenie, so I thought that I would enjoy this collection of Safire's "On Language" columns more than I did. Three elements detracted from the work for me: his subject matter, his tone, and the timeliness of the columns.

Safire's not picking random words or utterances to discuss. His examples tend to come from the world of Washington politics. As a result, I couldn't care less about many of the phrases he chooses to analyze. Often I've either never heard them, or worse, heard them and disliked them as being too oily for my use. As a graduate student I learned not to ask questions if I didn't care about the answer. I don't care about lots of these answers.

Safire describes his tone in these columns as being breezily pedantic (or words to that effect). He's hit that tone on the nose, but it's somewhat unpleasant to read for any length of time. I often felt like I was listening to someone's dad trying to be cool while remaining a stuffed shirt. The tone was just affected enough not to ring true, and affected pedantry is inherently grating.

Finally, the columns don't stand the test of time well. These columns are from the Bush/Clinton transition years, and many of the phrases that were novelties on the political landscape then are either gone or so commonplace as to be irrelevant. It's unfortunate, because I think I'd have been more interested if the events that motivated the columns were fresher in my mind.

I don't mean to be as scathing as the previous paragraphs imply. The book had several good columns in it, and I did learn new things by reading it. My objections are primarily due personal taste issues, not fundamental flaws in the work. I prefer my grammar and etymology in Jesse's style. But Safire will do in a pinch.

Parting the Waters America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch

Reading Branch's narrative history of the Civil Rights movement of the late 50's and early 60's was an eye-opening experience for me. I knew about as much about the events in Parting the Waters as I do about WWII: enough to recognize the names of the major battles, but not enough to put them in perspective. Branch made the era and the events come uncomfortably alive for me.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is the focus of Branch's work, but he is not the entirety of it. The workings of the Kennedy White House have their turn on stage, as well as the internal machinations of Hoover's FBI. He also paints lively pictures of the leaders of Southern Churches and Civil Rights groups active at the time. He covers the times and the topic from wall to wall.

His writing is gripping. I wasn't able to stop reading the chapters on the Freedom Rides. The combination of the urgency of the material and his engaging writing resulted in many sleepless nights while I read the work.

This is a brilliantly well written book on an oft-overlooked, stunningly important, and disturbingly recent period in American history.

Highly Recommended.

American Aurora, Richard N. Rosenfeld

I couldn't finish this, and that's pretty unusual. Plenty of historical minutiae, but 75 pages in or so I didn't feel any pull to see how events unfolded. I am interested in how the Sedition Act was applied to Republican newspapers in Washington's and Adams' day, but Rosenfeld's format of telling the tale from an editors' point of view on a daily basis never brought him to life. He also dragged me into details about the times I didn't care about. Eventually the looming challenge of nearly 1000 pages of this approach was too much to bear.

The Secret Family, David Bodanis

Bodanis sets out to describe a day in the life of an ordinary family from various scientific viewpoints. He touches on the range of microscopic creatures living on and around them, the composition of the food and products they come in contact with and the anthropological and psychological motivations behind their actions.

Although this is interesting enough in theory, in practice it reads like a high school textbook because of his rigid presentation and characters. Although some of the facts he states are disputed, he never uses a phrase like "current research seems to show." There are no specific references to the studies that back up what he believes. In general he states some finding as fact, vaguely alluding to a study that established it. I may be unusual, but I'd like to be able to read some of the studies he references and draw my own conclusions. In many cases I seem to see a bias to his opinions, and I'd like to compare my evaluation of the evidence with his.

His "characters" are also a bit stilted. They seem like the stereotypical roles from the 1950's hygiene films, only slightly updated. In some sense this is fine; his real characters are the Sciences, not Mom, Dad, and Sis. Still the stilted world he depicts makes the book read like a high school science text.

For all its flaws, it was an interesting and often fun read. However, I'm left with the frustration of the book sounding like the last word and leaving me with the job of locating the studies and other first sources without so much as a reference if I want to continue, or more properly start, a dialog.

The Church of Dead Girls, Stephen Dobyns

As both a study in how to write a suspenseful novel and a study of the dark secrets of the human psyche and the mentality of a small town, The Church of Dead Girls is excellent.

Each chapter of the book seems to end on a cliff-hanger; the desire, no the need, to resolve each closing innuendo drew me further into the plot. Eventually even when chapters didn't end with a foreboding note I was drawn to the next to see what the absence of a cliff-hanger foretold. But the real force impelling me was the the prologue's haunting image, a horrifying psychic backdrop that hangs over the rest of the novel, the picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle that's being completed with terrible precision, the carnage from which you can't avert your eyes. The technique is terrifically effective.

Beyond that, the characters of the small town who are driven into terror and suspicion are very believable. The reader is drawn into their world, and begins to suspect everyone, characters, the narrator, even the author.

It's full of horror, although it contains a little graphically depicted violence and sexual situations, so if that's not for you, avoid it.

Highly Recommended.

American Sphinx The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Ellis

Ellis set himself a difficult challenge with this work: give a scholarly account of Jefferson's life in one volume. Putting anyone's life into focus in a few hundred pages is difficult, but when the subject is the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence as a slaveowner, was present during the American and French Revolutions, and erased the National Debt while bankrupting himself, daunting hardly describes the problems.

Ellis does an excellent job of putting forth and supporting his assessment; if you don't believe me, the National Book Award committee seems to agree. Although I certainly don't know enough to critique his historical research, I found the work accessible and scholarly. It acts as an interesting introduction to Jefferson, an eye-opening exploration of his character, and provides sufficient references for future exploration.

Ellis' portrait of Jefferson is fascinating: an idealistic thinker and writer of astonishing merit whose writings are appealed to by both sides of political arguments to this day; a shrewd practical politician whose Machiavellian methods rival today's slickest political manipulators; a real and sometimes flawed man whose intrigues were exploited by his political enemies. Anyone interested in American politics or American history can learn a lot from this work.

Recommended to anyone of a historical or political bent.

Spending, Mary Gordon

This book is an absolute delight. Gordon's prose flows effortlessly creating characters and scenes with a few precise verbal brush strokes that are pure pleasure to read. I'd recommend the book for the technical merits of its writing alone, but it's also an interesting exploration of the creative mind, the politics of sex, money and religion, and family dynamics. I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it.

Highly Recommended.

Old Hickory's War Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

I have been reading more history lately, probably because I so thoroughly enjoyed Shelby Foote's The Civil War, A Narrative, and I've been consistently rewarded. The Heidlers have picked a smaller incident than the Civil War to write about, but Jackson's role in the acquisition of Florida from Spain is full of revelations.

It's hard to imagine in these days of instant communication and media scrutiny, but, according to the Heidlers, the man on the twenty dollar bill decided America needed Florida (a decision that then-president Monroe probably agreed with) so he invaded it (which Monroe never ordered). Along the way he also court-martialed and executed two British citizens (on Spanish soil, mind you) who were a problem for him.

There was some level of row about it, but Jackson was never directly censured, Florida was returned to Spain, and then ceded back to us, and Jackson went on to become a very popular president. He ran roughshod over the Constitution and international protocol, and pretty much got away with it. Makes this whole intern-boffing scandal seem insignificant by comparison.

The presentation starts out a little slow as we get the stage set with introduction of the folks involved and the politics of the day, but picks up quite a bit as it gets closer to the end.

Recommended if you're a history buff.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick

I've been meaning to read this since hearing that it was the inspiration for Blade Runner. Philip K. Dick is a strange writer, from what I've read, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has done nothing to change that impression.

Do Androids Dream... is a more philosophical work than Blade Runner in my opinion. It's mostly a meditation on empathy, and by extension how humans relate to each other. It's also a trip through a haunted, paranoiac future, as much of Dick's work is.

It's tough for me to come away with a firm handle on the whole thing, actually. But I enjoyed reading it.

Confederates in the Attic Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz

Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tony Horowitz has created a thought-provoking look at Southern attitudes about the Civil War. Horwitz, who has spent several years abroad covering such garden spots as Bosnia and Iraq, tours the South exploring the aftermath of a conflict that seems in the news all too often. He encounters unpleasant similarities to the reactions of people in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and other areas with irreconcilable populations.

Horwitz treatment is remarkably even-handed, even when the material is explosive. He describes events ranging from the highway shooting of a young white man flying the Start and Bars by a young black, to road marches with hard core Civil War reenactors with equal facility and fairness. This often appears to require genuine effort; enough bigots (not all of them white) have drawn themselves to the Confederacy that it would be easy to demonize them. Although he often disagrees with those he meets, Horwitz depicts them all as people, not icons. The result is a spate of difficult questions about symbolism, history, and the nature of truth.

Strongly Recommended.

The Science Fiction Century, Edited by David G. Harwell

This is an excellent survey of short science fiction, i.e., short stories and novellas. Harwell asserts that science fiction is this century's unique literary form, and The Science Fiction Century is his attempt to collect a survey text spanning the genre.

The work is largely successful. The selections illuminate many of the the diverse subjects and styles that the broad characterization "science fiction" covers. Each story is briefly introduced by describing the author's work,how the story is representative of it, and how it relates to other work in the genre. These are succinct and informative.

Harwell cuts the field along other axes and provides samples of those as well. He shows the historical evolution of the field by including pieces from Welles and Kipling (and a little known gem from early Russian author Alexander Kuprin called Liquid Sunshine) through the contemporary cyberpunk authors Gibson and Sterling. Women writers are well represented as are writers from other countries.

He notes that some of the heavy hitters of the genre, e.g., Heinlein and Asimov, are not represented. I didn't miss them. Not because they aren't important writers, but as Harwell notes, they are so important that their influence can be seen in many of the selections from other writers. I preferred the opportunity to hear from less widely read authors. In a work this size (1000 pages or so) there are going to be some that any reader dislikes, but for me the list of those was short. The vast majority of the works are very good, and many are excellent. Among the latter are: James Triptree, Jr.'s Beam Us Home, E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops, Connie Willis' Fire Watch, George Turner's I Still Call Australia Home and Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain.

Highly recommended.

Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters - The Rows and Romances of England's Great Victorian Novelists, Daniel Pool

Pool's rambling discussion of England's seventeenth century serial writers is full of interesting facts, but its rambling narrative didn't help me put them into context well. The detailed research here really cries out for structure, and sadly, it never really shows up. I can't help contrasting this with Shelby Foote's Civil War. I could put Foote's book down for a week and after reading a paragraph or two remember exactly where I was in the narrative and how I'd gotten there. I frequently lost track of those facts in a single chapter in Pool's work.

The facts were interesting, but I'd skip this one unless you're in love with English Victorian writers.

Letters of a Nation, Edited by Andrew Campbell

This is collection of letters to and from American authors, and at least one thing I learned from it is to never feel bad about apologizing for a late letter again, as all the famous and common writers here do so. The letters themselves range over a variety of topics, covering great events in American history as well as common trials.

The letters are generally well chosen. Martin L. King's letter from a Birmingham jail is here, as well as Sherman's letter to the mayor of Atlanta telling him to leave, and others less famous. Some of the most moving are the letters that proved to be cries in the dark: letters written to Presidents or Generals that were ignored or never read. Also included are many moving responses to such cries.

Also interesting is that the letters are basically unedited. They provide very close second sources to the events, and as such are fascinating.


How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, Umberto Eco

Eco covers a broad range of mostly trivial topics in How to Travel with a Salmon, and still manages to be witty, charming and erudite. The essays range from short, exaggerated slices of life (``How to Replace a Driver's License'') to meticulously executed academic satires (``Three Owls on a Chest of Drawers''). I prefer the former to the latter; Eco's too good at the satire: his satires are as dry as actual papers on the topic. ``Conversation in Babylon,'' ``How to Travel on American Trains,'' and ``The Miracle of San Baudolino'' are not to be missed.

As a whole the essays are everything personal essays should be, short vivid views of an interesting writer and person. Recommended.

How To Play in Traffic, Penn & Teller

If you know about Penn & Teller, you know if you want to read this book or not. There are no surprises here, it's the same kind of book as How To Play with Your Food, or alternatively, exactly the kind of book you think Penn & Teller would write.

If you're unaware of these guys, they are a pair of (literally) irreverent magicians who gleefully discuss how their tricks are done, how to do a few yourself, and other things that interest the types of people who think a serving bleeding gelatin heart dessert at a dinner party is funny. If you think it is too, do yourself a favor and follow the link above and then buy the books.


Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut

Timequake is billed as a novel about a cosmological event which causes time to take a stutter step, resulting in everyone having to relive ten years with full awareness of how events will turn out. It isn't; it's a short story about that (featuring Kilgore Trout) padded out with Vonnegut's rambling observations on the decline of writing in American life, the need for extended families, willing and unwilling suspensions of free will, and anything else he cares to comment on.

Personally, I find Vonnegut's observations to be excellent ones. His simple, precise prose illuminates everyday situations and ideas in thought-provoking new ways. If you're not interested in a literary walk in the garden with one of the most original thinkers, writers, and curmudgeons in America, this book isn't for you. If you have a functioning imagination, and are willing to be provoked by ink on paper, enjoy.


Valid XHTML 1.0!
This page written and maintained by Ted Faber.
Please mail me any problems with, or comments about this page.
PGP Public Keys