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ex libris reviews

1 September 1997

If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.
John Kenneth Galbraith


In This Issue

Most sources of book reviews focus on new, just published or re-released books, and they focus on one narrow genre or another. ex libris is different; it includes whatever we happen to read, new or old, fiction or non-fiction, serious or frivolous.

This month, a long-running J.R.R. Tolkien thread in the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup prompted me to go back and re-read a variety of books by and about Tolkien; I've continued my exploration of the mysteries of Elizabeth George; I finished Jonathan Spence's latest book on China, and I've been reading a little space opera...a fairly typical mixed bag.

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I received an e-mail message on August 31 from something called URL-minder, telling me that our old "What's New?" page had changed. URL-minder is a nifty service; you can register any web page, and you'll be notified whenever it changes. It's handy for keeping up with pages, like this one, that are updated irregularly.

I was surprised to get this message from URL-minder, because I hadn't registered the page myself; apparently, someone entered our e-mail address instead of their own when registering it. It was a pleasant surprise, though, as it indicated that some 71 readers had registered our "What's New?" page. I was also slightly distressed, because our recent redesign did away with the "What's New?" page. I hurriedly created a new "What's New?" page giving the facts about the redesign, so that no one would think Will & Jane's Book Page was gone forever.

If you'd like to register ex libris with URL-Minder, click here.

New In The Archives:

I've revised many of the author pages; in particular, each author page now includes links to each of the reviews in the past issues.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Exit the Milkman
By Charlotte MacLeod

We're still working our way through this one; we just don't have the time for reading aloud at the moment that we've sometimes had. Exit the Milkman is proving to be better than we feared; there's a little fluff here and there, but so far it's more solid than her last couple of outings. Jim Feldster, Peter and Helen Shandy's neighbor and Dairyman Extraordinaire at Balaclava Agricultural College, has disappeared; his extremely unpleasant wife Mirelle is at first utterly distraught and then remarkably calm. What's going on?

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Poems and Stories
By J.R.R. Tolkien

Recently there was a discussion on rec.arts.sf.written comparing J.R.R. Tolkien's books with those of Terry Brooks, and then going on to discuss how Tolkien's Christianity appeared in his work. As a result, I felt the urge to re-read Tolkien's essay On Fairy Stories, which appears in Poems and Stories. It's the best easily accessible statement of what Tolkien was trying to do. Having read On Fairy Stories, I went on to read the remaining gems as well. Leaf by Niggle is a wonderful tale, and does somewhat to answer the question, "If earth is preparation for heaven, what are we being prepared to do?" Farmer Giles of Ham is a wonderfully funny little story of reluctant knights, a wily dragon, and a wilier farmer, disguised as a translation of an ancient manuscript. Smith of Wooton Major is a story of Faery, and quite literally brought tears to my eyes for no very obvious reason. If you enjoy Tolkein or C.S. Lewis, then this is a collection not to be missed.

The Silmarillion
By J.R.R. Tolkien

When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a child, what impressed me most was that Tolkien had created an entire new world, complete with languages, history, legends, diverse peoples...a world that was solid, and internally consistent. I was quite delighted, upon reading his essay On Fairy Stories some years later, to discover that this was exactly his intention. Tolkien aimed not at "the willing suspension of disbelief" that I was taught about in literature class, but at what he called "subcreation": the creation of a Secondary World, different than the Primary World, our own, but as real, into which the reader could be carried for a time. The Secondary world must be internally consistent, with its own rules and history. Beside subcreation, suspension of disbelief is a pale, negative thing.

The Silmarillion is a compilation of the legends, stories, and traditions that added so much depth and background to The Lord of the Rings; indeed, Tolkien spent far more time on this background material, than on the fiction published before his death. It was, truly, his life's work. Reading The Silmarillion is a much different experience than reading The Lord of the Rings, and so won't necessarily appeal to the same readers. The stories of Feanor, Thingol, Beren, and Turin Turambar are told as legends, passed down the ages. The heroes are skilled, and deadly; the heroines are lovely beyond belief. Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf, on the other hand, are real, earthy people; we see them as they are, in day to day life. We see their story before the songs and legends are made. Yet even here the beginnings of legend are seen, as Frodo and Sam sit and listen to the tale of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom.

God's Chinese Son
By Jonathan Spence

I read this book over a period of months, mostly on my lunch break, and at last I'm done. It's one of the best history books I've read, and certainly the most thought-provoking. Spence is an excellent writer of history, and has the rare knack of presenting what happened, clearly and concisely, in appropriate detail...and letting the reader come to their own conclusions. This objectivity was particularly important in this volume, the story of Hong Xuiquan, who thought he was Jesus Christ's younger brother.

Hong was born in the early 19th century, in the country. He was a scholar, and tried several times to pass the Chinese Civil Service exams which were the only sure road to high office and success. He failed each time. Returning home after one such attempt, he fell ill, and in his fever had a vision. He was taken up to Heaven, where he met his divine Father and was told to conquer the demon-devils. He slew thousands, all that threatened Heaven, and was lauded. But his divine Father and Elder Brother told him that the demon-devils were still ravaging China, and he determined to return to Earth and slay them.

Sometime after his vision, he found a tract he had been given by a Christian missionary some years before. Suddenly it was clear to him: he had seen Jehovah, and his son Jesus Christ, and he himself was Jesus' younger brother sent to save the world. He began by preaching to his friends and family, and eventually set out to conquer the ruling Qing dynasty, the demon-devils of his vision. He proclaimed himself the Taiping Heavenly King; when he was finally put down, over a decade later, over twenty-million Chinese had lost their lives from battle or starvation.

As a Christian, Hong's story is deeply troubling to me. The missionaries of the day were greatly to blame. They published tracts in a scattershot way, hoping that some Chinese would find and be swayed by them--but no tract tells the whole story. The Bible was not yet widely available in Chinese, nor did folk like Hong have access to mature Christians who might have explained what the tracts meant. Later, as Hong gathered power, the missionaries supported him as a Christian ruler--which he was not. His doctrine had certain trappings of Christianity, but steadily diverged with each passing year. Hong's story is a wonderful and terrible example of how not to do evangelism.

As a fairly conservative Christian, I find Hong's story troubling in a different way. Today in America, conservative Christians are flexing their political muscles, trying to build a Christian state--or so the liberals would have us believe. For myself, I don't think it's quite true. I do think it would be disastrous for the Church, let alone the country. Hong's Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was a theocracy. The leaders were holy, and spoke for God; they also wielded great temporal power. This is inevitably a recipe for theological disaster. Rulers, like all men and women, are flawed. The Holy Ruler of a Holy Kingdom, however, must not be. In the U.S., our presidents simply try to hide their flaws; if they are publicized, they ride the storm as best they can. A Holy Ruler, on the other hand, might decide that they are holy no matter what they do. The evil they do is not sinful...or, more likely, not sinful for them. Thus, while proclaiming that all men and women (including married couples) must live apart, Hong had several wives. The theology of their kingdom becomes what they need it to be to support their vices and their thrones.

This is typified best by Hong's rewriting of the Bible. One of the glories of the Bible is that even the heroes are human. Moses, Abraham, Peter, Paul...all are human, all make amazing bungles. King David, beloved by God, sent one of his generals to be killed in battle so that he could marry the general's wife. Hong was appalled by this. His legitimacy as ruler rested on Jesus Christ's legitimacy, and the Gospel of Matthew clearly shows Jesus as a descendant of Abraham, Moses, and David. Such goings on could not be allowed! And so each such incident was changed so that Hong's Biblical ancestors were beyond reproach.

God's Chinese Son is a cautionary tale of the first degree.

A Great Deliverance
By Elizabeth George

George writes serious, psychological mysteries; if they make you laugh, it's only because you've become too tense and need a little relief. I read In The Presence Of The Enemy a couple of months ago, and enjoyed it. I chose it at random from her books on the bookstore shelf, and by chance it was one of her latest. Equally by chance, A Great Deliverance appears to be her earliest, the book which first pairs Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley (the Earl of Asherton) with working class Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. It was not an immediately successful pairing, and indeed the the tale concerns Lynley and Havers almost as much it does the crime they are investigating: a farmer, a pillar of his community, is found beheaded in the barn one Sunday morning. His daughter is found nearby, with an axe. Her only words: "I did it, and I'm not sorry."

Do not stay up late to finished this book. Finish it in the morning. It's a good book, a well-written book, even a pleasant book considering that it's a murder mystery. It jogs along quite easily, keeps you entertained, and then, just as the end approaches, she sticks the knife in your gut. And turns it. Twice. The book ends on a positive note of redemption and healing, but it wasn't enough to restore my equilibrium. It's rare that a book affects me this deeply.

Fortunately, it was only about 8 PM, and so I immediately dug up something rather lighter, as you'll see.

On Basilisk Station
By David Weber

For several years now, Weber has been writing a series about Captain Honor Harrington of the Royal Manticoran Navy. The premise, essentially, is "Horatio Hornblower in Space". This is definitely a case where the science is made to suit the story, rather than vice versa: Weber's intent is to mirror the wind-powered Royal Navy of Admiral Nelson's day, and he's cobbled together a remarkable set of technological gimmicks to bring the two worlds closer together. I had avoided the series, judging it to be utter tripe, but a number of people whose opinions I respect convinced me that it was, at worst, really good tripe. And they were right!

On Basilisk Station is the first book in the series. Captain Harrington is given command of the light cruiser Fearless, and and is soon in the midst of troubles. Having embarassed the party in power, through no fault of her own, she is sent to the Basilisk system, the place where misfits and troublemakers are sent. Her crew is resentful, her task is impossible--she has been set up to fail. But it would hardly be a good series if the heroine's career was scuttled in the first book, and Honor comes through with shining colors, just as you'd expect. She pulls her crew together, gets the job done, embarrasses even more people in high places, stands her ground, foils an invasion...you know, the usual thing.

On Basilisk Station was light, not very serious, not particularly believable, a real pageturner, and quite a lot of fun. While Weber's space opera is not up to that of Brian Daley or Lois McMaster Bujold, I'm still looking forward to reading more about Honor Harrington.

Which I will most likely do, following the next Elizabeth George novel.

Children's Books

By Bruce Degen

Our son David has come quite a long way in the last month; he's crawling easily; he can sit up and roll over without much work; and he's eating solid food. Meanwhile, one of the books we've been reading him is a board book called Jamberry

There's not much story...a bear hails a little boy with the words, "One Berry, Two Berry, Pick me a Blueberry!", and the bear and the boy are off on a rhyming adventure through a world of berries. David enjoys the rhymes, and the pictures are fun and well-drawn; Degen's drawing style reminds me of Mercer Mayer. Plus, it's fun to read.

In fact, David likes just about anything with a strong rhyme and rhythym. At Jane's request I read him The Cremation of Sam McGee, a somewhat grisly but humorous poem of the Klondike Goldrush, by Robert W. Service. It's a long poem, but he enjoyed it thoroughly. He bounced, and kicked his legs, and gurgled quite a lot. I expect he'll enjoy it even more when he's nine or ten.


I just read Barbara Kingsolver's book The Bean Trees aloud to my husband and two teenagers on a road trip. It was a great choice. Light yet thought provoking. On a trip around Arizona I read Kingsolver's essays, High Tide in Tucson and that too was good. Another fun one I read once was Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick. I'm not familiar with some of your recommendations but they're going on my reading list. Thanks.
-- Barbara Geer

I've started reading a couple of Kingsolver's books, one of them aloud, and somehow got sidetracked each time. I enjoyed what I read, though, and I expect we'll get back to them eventually.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 September 1997
Copyright © 1997, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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