Home : Ex Libris : 1 May 1998

ex libris reviews

1 May 1998

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don't like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don't like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don't like it.


In This Issue:
In Memoriam: Skipper

My dog Skipper died yesterday. Jane called him for dinner, and he didn't come. She found him in the playroom, lying down. She got him to his feet, and he just stood and panted for awhile, and lay down again. She called me in, and we got him into the kitchen, where he stood and panted for awhile, and then lay down again. He ignored his food. After a little, he whined, quite loudly for Skipper, who didn't usually whine, and had one last breath. By this time we'd figured out where the emergency vet was located (it was just before 6PM, and our own vet was closed), and we carried him out to the car and I drove off. He was dead when I got to the vet; I'm almost sure he was dead when we put him in the car. It all took less than half-an-hour.

I say "My dog Skipper" rather than "Our dog Skipper" because that's how it feels. Skipper was my first dog--my first pet, really, with more personality than a goldfish--and while Jane has always had dogs and wanted us to get one, and I was hesitant, nevertheless I was the one who found him. Jane and I got married a little over ten years ago; the following summer we bought a house; the following spring, nine years, a week, and a few days ago, we brought Skipper home.

Skipper was a pedigreed Golden Retriever, offspring of Nicholas Alexei the Yupper and Benninghoven's Golden Oddi. It would be wrong to think of him as a carefully bred dog, though; Nicholas and Oddi were nextdoor neighbors in suburbia, and determined that a 12 foot chainlink fence should be no obstacle to their union, whatever their owners thought. One of the Benninghovens worked with my sister-in-law, who told me about the litter. We went down to see the litter and picked out Skipper (they were calling him "Sam" of all things). The puppies were two months old, active and eager and rambunctious, and I was intimidated by them to a degree that amazes me now. Now I'd probably sit down with them and just let the furry tide lap over me. We paid them $200, and brought him home. I held "Sam" on my lap while Jane drove.

Skipper was supposed to be an outdoor dog. I wasn't sure I liked the idea of sharing my living quarters with a dog; I was sure it would be inconvenient, and messy, and a pain in the neck. So Skipper was going to spend his days in the backyard, coming into the house once in a while. My mother had brought us an alarm clock and some some teddy bears from a thrift shop; she'd heard that puppies wanted company at night after being taken from their littermates, and that an alarm clock and furry bears were comforting. That evening, I made a nest for Skipper in the gazebo in the backyard, and put him to bed, and then we went to bed.

This lasted until 1 or 2 in the morning. Skipper didn't want to sleep in his nest, wasn't interested in the bears, wasn't comforted by the clock; instead, he wandered around the backyard aimlessly, crying. I went out a few times to comfort him and put him back in his nest, but by early morning my resolve was gone, and I figured that our neighbors wanted to get some sleep, too. Skipper followed me into the bedroom, I got into bed, and he settled down on the floor right by me. No more fuss; we both went right to sleep. And that was that: Skipper was an indoor dog for the rest of his life.

He went outside occasionally, and loved trips to the park where he could run to his heart's content. His special joy was breaking out of the yard (a talent inherited from his father), running about the neighborhood, and refusing to come home without a ride in the car. That, alas, was a habit we had to curb. Even now, there are three potted cactus plants on top of a pillar beside a gate in our back yard, because no sooner had we moved here than Skipper showed that he could easily get to the top of the pillar and out.

Skipper's chief trait was friendliness. He liked people, and was exuberant in showing his appreciation. To this day, most visitors to our house won't believe that Skipper was calm most of the time; when new people arrived, Skipper acted like a little 75lb. puppy. Most of our friends and family preferred our other dog, a Shetland Sheepdog named Duncan, because he seemed quite and polite. Jane and I know better. Duncan is timid, and therefore diffident, and therefore easy on guests, but he was always a great bully to Skipper. For a great while they shared a foodbowl, until Duncan realized what a softie Skipper was. Then Duncan started hoarding the food; he'd drive Skipper away from the dish, eat his fill, and then lie there guarding the rest. Duncan got away with this, though much smaller than Skipper, because Skipper wasn't motivated by food; Skipper was motivated by affection. Duncan got first dibs on the food, but Skipper got the best petting.

Skipper also had exclusive rights to the master bedroom. He slept on the floor near us, and Duncan had to sleep in another room. Skipper became more lenient in later years, but when Duncan first came to live with us, Skipper would grab him by the tail and pull him out of the bedroom. We had hardwood floors, and Duncan couldn't get any traction.

Like most puppies, Skipper liked to chew on things, starting with the bears that my mother had bought for him. The first bears lasted for many months; we played games with them, like "Fetch the bear", and we replaced them as they wore out. Eventually, though, he got to where he was destroying a brand new (very inexpensive) bear in less than an hour, and we switched to rawhide chews and tennis balls (did you know you can by a big box of unpressurized practice tennis balls for about the price of a can of three good tennisballs?). His pinnacle of achievement as a chewer, though, came when he was still a puppy.

Jane and I came home and found Skipper in the middle of the living room, surrounded by the remains of The Story of Civilization, Volume II: The Life of Greece, by Will Durant, which I had checked out of the public library. It was a big, thick book in a hardcover library binding, and Skipper was still working on the carcass when we walked in the door. I fear I am responsible for Skipper remaining illiterate to the end of his days, as after the scolding I administered he never looked at another book again. Later that week, Jane went to the library and explained that we'd have to pay the fine, because our dog had eaten the book. The librarian had heard the excuse before, and looked unconvinced until Jane handed here the largest remaining piece and showed her the tooth marks.

Skipper didn't bark much; he'd make an effort when people came to the door, or if we shut him away from visitors, but that was about it. When he wanted attention, he'd WOOF. For nine years, that was my signal that Skipper wanted to go outside, and a few minutes later my signal that Skipper wanted to come in again. Duncan has never got the hang of tailoring his barking in this way, and often enough Skipper WOOFed so that we'd come and let Duncan out.

In the year since Dave's birth, Skipper really became his dog. From the beginning, Skipper was protective; when strangers came to see our new boy, Skipper would stand between them and the crib or playpen. Whenever Jane sat down to nurse David, or I sat down to read him a story, Skipper was always right there, lying beside the chair. When Dave learned to crawl and walk and climb, Skipper was there to be crawled and walked and climbed upon. He put up with the most amazing indignities; once I had to scold David for banging hard on Skipper's snout with a Duplo brick. David didn't mean to hurt him, and so Skipper didn't take any notice.

Nine to ten years is an advanced age for a Golden Retriever; long-lived Goldens will sometimes make it to eleven or twelve, especially if they don't develop hip trouble, which is common. Skipper had none, and there were no other warning signs; he was just as friendly and active and affectionate yesterday as he had always been. We hoped and expected that he would be with use for several more years. Then his good heart failed him, and he died. We will miss him greatly.

In Memoriam
Skippy Pnutbutr Duquette
January 24, 1989 -- April 4, 1998

In Times to Come

During the next month I'll be reading the third book of Dorothy Dunnett's "House of Niccolo" series; beyond that, who can say?

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

April is tax-time, and Jane works for an accountant; as a result, her attention span is minimal, when you can get it at all. We started Terry Prachett's Truckers, and then had to stop. I expect we will get back to it this month.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Lords and Ladies
By Terry Pratchett

Back in Lancre after their excursions abroad, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick have to deal with two serious problems: a group of young girls who dress in black and want to be witches, and an invasion of elves. The invasion of elves is serious because, Tolkien et al notwithstanding, elves are not nice! Country-people called the elves the "Fair Folk" for a reason: so as not to call attention to themselves by saying what they really thought. Elves are like the nastiest, most sadistic feral cat you can imagine, and humans are no more than mice. The elves had been banished from the disk long since. The young girls are important because, remembering the elves as the "Fair Folk" and the "Lords and Ladies", they seek to learn occult secrets from the Queen of the Elves, thus giving the elves access to the Disc. It's another romp, with still more Shakespeare references.

Men at Arms
By Terry Pratchett

The Discworld's greatest inventor is Leonard of Quirm, a man so obviously dangerous to the smooth running of things that the Patrician had him locked up years ago....in a well-equipped laboratory. Now one of Leonard's inventions, a terrible weapon never before seen, is on the loose, and it's up to Captain Samuel Vimes, Corporal Carrot, and the rest of the Watch to catch it. The second of the Guards books, it's a fitting sequel to Guards, Guards.

Soul Music
By Terry Pratchett

This is the third Discworld book to focus on the character of Death. At the end of Mort, Mort and Death's adopted daughter Ysabel marry and become Duke and Duchess of Sto Helit. Soul Music concerns their daughter Susan, a plain, intelligent girl with no patience for stupidity or disorder, and the disconcerting knack of not being seen when she doesn't want to be. Heredity isn't all it's cracked up to be, and Susan is, in fact as well as in name, Death's granddaughter. When Death decides to take a holiday, Susan discovers that bones are thicker than water. At the same time, the Disc has been invaded by a strange, alien force: Music with Rocks In.

Soul Music is somewhat weak, but it's the necessary precursor to Hogfather, which is truly excellent. Jane and I read Hogfather aloud last month.

Sharpe's Eagle
By Bernard Cornwell

In Sharpe's Rifles, which I reviewed last month, Richard Sharpe makes the transition from quartermaster to leader of men, eventually acquiring the loyalty and trust of Private Harper, whom he promotes to Sergeant. In this volume, Sharpe is secure in his position of command; however, as his Regiment, the 95th Rifles, is in England, he and his men are assigned to a new regiment, the South Essex. The South Essex is a militia regiment, all spit-and-polish and parade ground drill, and their commander, Colonel Sir Henry Simmerson. Simmerson had raised and funded the South Essex himself, and come to Spain looking for glory. Being an idiot with no sense of strategy or tactics, his first act was to engage in a needless battle with French cavalry and lose the King's Colour, that is, the British Flag carried by the regiment into battle. The regimental colour had been saved at great loss by Sharpe himself, one of Simmerson's least favorite people. One of Simmerson's officers, dying after the debacle, makes Sharpe promise to undo the shame by capturing a French Eagle: the equivalent of the regimental and King's colours put together, and given to the French troops by Napoleon himself. To day, no Eagle had ever been captured. This book also sees Sharpe's promotion from Lieutenant to Captain.

Sharpe's Gold
By Bernard Cornwell

In the third Sharpe book, Captain Sharpe is directed by Lord Wellington is to go meet some Spanish partisans, recover some Spanish gold held by them, and bring it back to Portugal; the future of the war effort depends on it. "Aided" by an English officer who admires the partisans rather too much, and stymied by the partisans themselves, Sharpe eventually succeeds. Meanwhile, Sergeant Harper falls into a dungheap and comes up smelling like a rose--almost literally.

I quite enjoyed Sharpe's Rifles; the second and third books in the series live up to its promise.

A Light in the Window
These High, Green Hills
Out to Canaan
By Jan Karon

Last November I reviewed Jan Karon's first three books about the small town of Mitford, At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, and These High, Green Hills, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. The fourth volume, Out To Canaan, recently came out in paperback, and I bought it eagerly. I was not disappointed. First I re-read the second and third books (and would have re-read the first book as well, but I couldn't find it. It's around the house somewhere...), and enjoyed them thoroughly again. Out to Canaan was a fitting sequel.

Father Tim Kavanagh and his wife Cynthia are beginning to plan for Tim's retirement; they plan to relax and travel to various parishes that need a temporary priest. Somehow, they think that life will be simpler. The reader isn't fooled; Father Tim's outstanding characteristic is that he really cares about people, and his caring doesn't end with nice words. Karon hasn't yet written a fifth Mitford book, but if and when she does I expect Tim and Cynthia will be busier than ever. In the meantime, they and the rest of the town cope with a variety of crises, including several developers who seem intent on buying much of the town and a crooked race for Mayor of Mitford.

What can I say? The Mitford books are heartwarming, inspiring, just a little bit corny, and they make me happy. When did you last read a book that just plain made you happy?

Niccolo Rising
The Spring of the Ram
By Dorothy Dunnett

Last year I read and reviewed Dunnet's Lymond Chronicles, about which I waxed enthusiastic. This month I started reading Dunnett's House of Niccolo series, which, amazingly, is even better. The series is set in the late Fifteenth Century, at the height of the Italian Renaissance. Italy is a land of turmoil; Milan, Genoa, Florence, and Venice strive for commercial mastery; the Ottoman Turks have captured Constantinople and ended the thousand year reign of the Byzantine Emperors. And in the Charetty company in the city of Bruges in Flanders is a young man, an apprentice, known as Claes. Claes is more than he seems: open, friendly, cheerful, good with children, prone to jests and practical jokes, and taking the resulting punishment stoically. He is also devious, good with numbers, and on his way up in the world. This is no simple rags-to-riches story, though. Dunnett is skilled in complex, Byzantine plots, and has peopled Claes'--Nicholas'--world with fascinating friends and enemies, many of them historical. And Nicholas' enemies have a distressing way of coming to grief.

As with the Lymond books, I find I can't say very much about the plots without giving too much away; I'll just say that these are big, rich books, probably a little too involved for reading on the beach or by the pool, but well-worth the effort. The only nuisance is that they aren't in print in the U.S.; I found a couple of volumes at a local bookstore that occasionally has British editions. I ordered the others from the Internet Bookshop, the British equivalent of Amazon.com. I don't have the URL handy, but you can find it at Yahoo.

Mirror Dance
By Lois McMaster Bujold

This is one of Bujold's more recent books about Miles Vorkosigan and his family. The whole Vorkosigan series is just about the best space opera in existence, moving, distressing, and side-splitting by turns. Bujold is one of our favorite authors, and this is one of her best books, though it's not the one to start with. Look for Shards of Honor and The Warrior's Apprentice; these novels are included in the omnibus volumes Cordelia's Honor and Young Miles.

By Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory is the sequel to Mirror Dance, and Bujold's most recent book. Miles Vorkosigan has been leading a double life for many years. At home, he is Lieutenant Miles Vorkosigan of Imperial Security (ImpSec), a rather dull courier, interesting only because he is the son of the great Count Aral Vorkosigan. This is an image he has cultivated, because away from his home planet of Barrayar he is Admiral Miles Naismith, commander of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. Admiral Naismith is dashing, courageous, clever, a great strategist, and, naturally, secretly in the pay of ImpSec.

Now Simon Illyan, Miles' mentor and head of ImpSec, has become ill. Is it natural illness, or some kind of attack? Miles must find out... and he must find out as non-entity Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar, not as dashing Admiral Naismith.

The Phoenix Guards
Five Hundred Years After
By Steven Brust

Brust is another of our favorite authors, and a perennial read-aloud favorite. I started re-reading The Phoenix Guards while in bed with a cold, and went on to the sequel. These books are, in part, an homage to Alexandre Dumas Three Musketeers saga, but also provide background to Brust's Jhereg books. I recommend them highly, though it's fair to say that some dislike the style.

Path of the Fury
By David Weber

Following Auden (quoted above), this is trash but I like it. This standalone novel is another of Weber's absurd space operas, filled with space fleet engagements, ridiculously powerful weapons, and heroes and heroines larger than life. Space pirates devastate Alicia DeVries' home planet and kill her family. DeVries, however, is a retired member of the Imperial Cadre: an elite fighting force whose members are physically enhanced with a wide range of technological gimmicks. DeVries has another advantage: Tisiphone, last of the Greek Furies, has come to help her with her revenge! I said it was absurd....

By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Modesitt is in an interesting position. He become popular with The Magic of Recluce, and has nearly fallen into the trap which has claimed Piers Anthony and Jack Chalker: the public demands more books like those he has already written. Anthony and Chalker have given in, and provide only books in the established mold. Modesitt, as I say, has almost fallen into that trap, but not quite. Periodically he experiments with something different. I must say, after reading The Soprano Sorceress, I had begun to worry. Adiamante more than makes up for it.

The tale concerns a far future Earth, a much punished and contaminated earth, and the people who live there. Humanity has divided into three broad streams: the cybs, the demis, and the draffs. Cybs rely on high-technology, and are generally cybernetically enhanced (David Weber likes to write about cybs). Demis, so far as I can tell, are genetically enhanced. They can perceive and use electric current flows without benefit of machinery. This gives them a kind of telepathy; it also means they can eavesdrop on cybs. Draffs are normal, unenhanced people.

Some thousand years earlier, there was a political and then military battle between the demis and cybs, and the cybs were driven from Earth in a mass-exodus they called the Flight. The battle was due in no small part to the arrogance of both the demis and the cybs. Now, a thousand years later, a cyb war fleet has returned for vengeance. But the Earth has changed. Demis and draffs live together in peace, in a society that does not condone violence, and which cannot threaten or strike the first blow. Will the cybs drive them to defend themselves?

Adiamante raises a number of interesting political and moral issues. Highly recommended.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
By Marcus Rediker

I bought this book quite some time ago, and read it in dribs and drabs until I finally took it work and finished during my lunchtimes. It's a history of "Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750." I bought it due to my love of history and Patrick O'Brian's sea stories, though the period isn't quite right.

There's much interesting material in the book, which I nevertheless do not recommend. The author is interested in "labor history", which means that the whole book has a Marxist tone and that (I exaggerate but slightly) the common sailors are angels who just want a fair deal and whose every transgression is justified by the shipowners, demons incarnate usually referred to by the pejorative term "capital". I tend not to like history with so strong an ideologically bent to it.

Occasionally, Rediker's bias leads him into absurdity: "Since the capitalist mode of production ultimately requires the sale and purchase of labor power in a market through the medium of the wage, a major imperative of early modern capitalist development was the simultaneous dispossession of large numbers of small property holders and the consolidation and centralization of newly available property in the hands of a minority." What Rediker is saying (and supporting from Marx's own writing) is that capitalists required laborers and therefore arranged for small landowners to lose their land so that they would have no choice but to go to work for a wage. In fact, it was the large landholders who dispossessed the small landholders so as to farm large tracts of land more efficiently; most of these large landholders had nothing but contempt for merchants and other "moneygrubbers".

Alas, while Rediker uses many primary sources I have no way of knowing how his bias lead him astray in choosing and interpreting them.

Welcome to Jasorassic Park
By Bill Amend

As you all gathered last month, I'm a comic strip fan. This is the latest Foxtrot collection, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Especially the Quincyraptors.

I'm not Anti-Business, I'm Anti-Idiot
Seven Years of Highly Defective People
By Scott Adams

In addition to being a "Constant Reader", I'm also a software engineer; Dilbert has a certain resonance, although, fortunately, my boss's hair isn't particularly pointy.

Children's Books

Goodnight Moon
Written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd

Peek-a-Boo! I See You!
Written by Joan Phillips and illustrated by Kathy Wilburn

The books this month were chosen by my son David. I mean that literally; you can take this review either as a recommendation or as a warning. Dave loves these two books; he seeks them out; he makes us read them. On our own, Jane and I would be happy enough never to read them every again.

Goodnight Moon is a simple book. A small child has been put to bed, and says goodnight to every single thing in the room. But first, every single thing in the room has to mentioned by name. This is marginally interesting the first time through. After that, one can only grin and bear it.

Much the same can be said about Peek-A-Boo! I See You!, only more so. Goodnight Moon has a sweet simplicity about it. It's written at a very simple level, but it doesn't condescend. Peek-A-Boo!, on the other hand, ranks fairly high on my scale of terminal cutesiness.

But Dave likes them. So what can we do?


Reader Francis Murphy writes,

I'd like to suggest to you & your readers an excellent & fascinating book I just finished: When China Ruled the Seas, by Louise Levathes. If you enjoyed Jonathan Spence's books on Chinese history, you'll like this one too. Levathes tells the story of a little-known (to me) incident in which China came close to dominating the seas and maritime trade and exploration. China --- both the modern state and its imperial predecessor --- is often portrayed as being isolationist, looking inward, shunning contact with other lands. There is a great deal of truth to this. But China also has a tradition of seafaring and trade with the outside world. These opposing attitudes have often clashed throughout Chinese history.

Levathes' book documents one such clash. When Emperor Yongle came to the throne after a civil war; the economy was in shambles, the treasury was depleted. Yongle reasoned that nothing would revive things like an influx of tribute from China's traditional vassals in Southease Asia. So he ordered the construction of a vast "Treasure Fleet" designed to carry Chinese products overseas for trade, and to bring back foreign goods in exchange. Eventually over 1600 vessels were built --- including the huge Treasure Ships, numerous support vessels, troop transports, water tankers, and food supply boats. Between 1405 and 1433 the Treasure Fleet --- usually under command of Admiral Zheng He --- made 7 trips to various ports in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. China's trade and political influence was felt as far as the Persian Gulf and East Africa. Levathes even speculates that Zheng He's ships touched on Australia. They travelled not only for trade, but out of curiosity as well.

Within a decade, China was the most advanced sea power of its time. But wealth from foreign trade did not help the common people, to whom the Treasure Fleet meant only high taxes and greedy burocrats demanding supplies for the fleet. Emperor Yongle began to rethink his extravagant policies, including his vast naval enterprise. It seemed his state just could not support the venture. Just before his death in 1424, Yongle ordered cutbacks in the fleet. Succeeeding emperors were more inward-looking and saw no reason to be involved in overseas trade or foreign wars.

By the end of the last voyage of the Treasure Fleet in 1433, China's ascendancy on the seas was passing. After that, the great fleet was allowed to decay in port, Zhang He's logs were lost or destroyed, and it became a capital crime to build ocean-going vessels. In time Western Europe seized the initiative, and China was relegated to the status of a third-class nation.

All in all, When China Ruled the Seas was a most informative book which I'd recommend to anyone interested in Chinese civilization, the history of exploration, or sea travel.

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 May 1998
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