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ex libris reviews

1 July 2000

ALOPECIA n. Baldness. Thus: "My husband's alopecia is very bad this morning, Mr. Purbright; I'm afraid I may not be able to get into the office before about eleven o'clock."
Peter Bowler


In This Issue:
Cartoons and Comic Strips

Usually I use this space to reflect on whatever I've been reflecting on for the past month. I can only assume that I've not been reflecting, for I've nothing profound to say. It was that kind of month.

We've got rather a mixed bag this month: some comic strip collections by Bill Amend and Gary Trudeau, some galactic politics and adventures by Julian May, mystery stories by Lawrence Block, G.K. Chesterton, and Steven Saylor, a little sociology, a little humor, a little history, and some autobiography by Bugs Bunny director Chuck Jones. On top of that, Stuart McAra's been studying up on travel to Australia and Singapore, and Steve Martin's caught a bad case of Harry Potter Mania.


-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

I'm Flying, Jack...I Mean, Roger
Think iFruity
By Bill Amend

I like comic strips, and one of my favorites these days is Foxtrot. I've written at some length about it elsewhere; these are the latest two collections. I enjoyed them.

Entertaining Ourselves To Death
By Neil Postman

I read this on the recommendation of my friend Rick; he describes it as one of the handful of books that really changed his life. I found it interesting but dated.

Postman's book, published in 1985, is about the corrosive effect of television on public discourse. In particular, he contrasts the modern era with the pre-television era in which printed matter was the primary source of information. As he justly says, television has introduced a great shallowness into our political process. One hundred years ago, a typical citizen's knowledge about presidential candidates would be what they read in the newspapers along with any speeches the candidates made in their town. Personal appearance was largely irrelevant. Today, of course, it's all important. But Postman has an additional point: that television has turned us from a nation of doers into a nation of passive receivers.

I agree with pretty much everything Postman has to say about television; but for two reasons I find this book dated. First, it's now a twice-told tale. In 1985, when Postman wrote the book, the illusion was perhaps still maintained that network news was a serious endeavour. Sweeps week has steadily eroded that position over the last fifteen years; no one today is surprised that the purpose of TV news is entertainment. Certainly, I don't rely on TV for any kind of useful information.

The second factor is the rise of the Internet. When Postman wrote, the Internet was only in its infancy. Only large multi-user computers were connected to it, and, at my college at least, none of the many net protocols we now take for granted existed. There was no "name@host" e-mail of the kind that's now universal; there were no USENET news groups; there were no websites. Compuserve and the Source provided some of the same services, but they were not widely used. Relatively few people had personal computers; the IBM PC XT and AT, and the original 128K Macintosh were available. Modem speeds were 300 to 2400 bits per second.

I don't think I need to explain to anyone reading this how much things have changed. And the big change, the change that Postman didn't anticipate, is the interactive nature of the Internet. If I write something of interest to you, and you want to know more, you can write me a letter, quickly and easily, and know that it will go straight to me. If you want to buy a car, a camera, a printer, a book, there are endless sites on the web where people discuss their personal experiences with these things.

So, I have to disagree with Postman; I think the level of public discourse is on the rise. More people are talking with other people than ever before. The real problem lies in the nature of Internet communities: they are narrowly focussed. We 'net with people who share our interests; we ignore people who don't. In short, the Internet is bringing the problems of faction and cliquishness to a whole new level. But that's a whole different book.

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road
By Peter Hopkirk

I discovered Peter Hopkirk a year or so before the first issue of ex libris reviews was written; I read all of his books in short order, and consequently this is the first one to be reviewed in these pages. Suitably, it's also his first book.

In the late 19th century, the only places on earth that hadn't been explored by Europeans (other than Antarctica) were Central Africa and Central Asia. By the beginning of the 20th century Africa was no longer the mysterious Black Continent; it had been partitioned by the European powers in the so-called Scramble for Africa. Central Asia, however, was still largely a puzzle to the outside world, and no place in Asia more so than Tibet and Chinese Turkestan (now the Sinkiang province of China). Chinese Turkestan lies north of Tibet; nearly impassable mountains surround it on three sides, and the Gobi desert of Mongolia on the fourth. It consists primarily of the Taklamakan and Lop deserts, in which dunes twenty feet high stretch to the horizon.

Chinese Turkestan has always been desert, but a thousand years ago there was more run-off from the mountains, and more oases, and on the edges of the Taklamakan desert were rich cities. For the Silk Road, the primary overland trading route between China and Persia, ran along the mountain's feet. Until the Portuguese found the ocean route to China, all trade between the countries of the East and far Cathay ran through Chinese Turkestan. And then the oases dried up, and the rich cities were buried in the shifting sands. And in the early twentieth century adventurous Europeans came seeking them. Their names are not widely known these days: Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, and von le Coq were the best known in their day, and it is their story that Hopkirk tells, with humor, insight, and zest.

One reason these explorers are not more widely spoken of these days is that they are somewhat in disgrace. They were responsible for removing vast quantities of manuscripts, statues, and frescoes from what is now the People's Republic of China, a loss that China now bitterly regrets. For their part, the explorers justified themselves by the damage that had already been done to the sites they found; they saw themselves as preservers rather than thieves. Hopkirk pleasantly doesn't take sides.

If you have any interest in late Victorian/early 20th century history, or in Asia, I highly recommend this book (and Hopkirk's others). It's a whole new world out there.

Perseus Spur
Orion Arm
By Julian May

I read and reviewed Perseus Spur last August; Orion Arm is the sequel. It has its moments, but overall it was a disappointment. The first book was a slightly goofy space opera, a nice mix of action, adventure, mystery, and corporate politics. If it was unlikely, it was nevertheless a good time. I can't resist quoting from the first chapter:

But I'm still convinced that the Hundred Concerns would never have come tumbling down, changing the course of human civilization in our galaxy and defeating the Haluk invasion, if the sea monster hadn't eaten my house.

The second book is less goofy, less active, more political, and much, much grittier. I enjoyed it enough to finish it, and enough to consider buying the next book in the series when it comes out, but there was a certain edge of boredom. On the other hand, Orion Arm might just be suffering from middle book disease, in which case the next (and possibly final) volume should be much improved.

Bottom line: read Perseus Spur; it's fun. If you like it, consider reading Orion Arm. Alternatively, wait until I review the next book, sometime next year, and then decide.

The Superior Person's Book of Words
By Peter Bowler

This is an amusing book of odd and recondite words; I inherited it when my dad was cleaning out his bookcases. If you've ever wondered what alopecia is, and how to use it in a conversation, this is the book for you (see the quote at the top of this page).

Doonesbury Dossier
Doonesbury Deluxe
By Gary Trudeau

Yet more of Trudeau's delightful Doonesbury collections. What can I say, I had a virus. I'm over it now.

Chuck Reducks
By Chuck Jones

Chuck Jones, along with Friz Freleng and Bob McKimson, is one of the three men primarily responsible for making Bugs Bunny come to life. With help from Dr. Suess, he also helped the Grinch to steal Christmas.

Some years ago, Jones wrote a book about his childhood and experiences at Warner Brothers in a book entitled Chuck Amuck. It's a gem, a true classic, a worthy addition to any library. I like it a whole lot. I've re-read it several times, with pleasure, for Jones, a gifted draftsman, is also a gifted storyteller. Thus, bought his second book, Chuck Reducks, with great anticipation.

I confess I was mildly disappointed. While not actually a rehash, the book covers much of the same territory as the prior work. Also, the tone is different; I think perhaps it's oriented more towards the aspiring animator than the prior work. But whatever the reason, it's considerably less essential.

Cheaper by the Dozen
By Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

I defy anyone not to be charmed by this book. If you can read through this delightful memoir of an early efficiency engineer and his enormous family without laughing (and occasionally crying), then you must be an old fuddy-duddy of a curmudgeon with no sense of humor whatsoever.

But perhaps you've not heard of the Gilbreth family. Back in the early years of the 20th century, time-and-motion study was a big topic, and Frank Gilbreth was the recognized expert. He had ample opportunity to practice his trade, as he and his wife had twelve children (six sons and six daughters), and managing such a chaotic household took quite a bit of doing. Many years later, two of the children wrote this loving, laughing memory of their father.

I've just spent several moments trying to extract an anecdote from the book to give the general flavor; and I've just realized that I can't do them justice. So just trust me on this; it's a classic, a joy, a read-aloud feast. Go for it.

Actually, I do have one tale to tell. Early on in the book, they discuss how their father told all of the children apart. It seems that one day he was left in charge of the house. When his wife came home, she asked how the children had behaved. "Didn't have any trouble except with that one over there," he replied, "But a spanking brought him into line." "That's not one of ours," she replied. "He belongs next door." Now, the authors of this book aren't sure whether this episode actually happened or not...but there were two red-haired boys living next door, and all of the Gilbreth kids were blondes or red-heads. And there the story would rest, except for a bit of our family history: my wife's late uncle, Dudley Onderdonk, was one of those two boys...and he always claimed that he was the one who got spanked.

Like a Lamb to Slaughter
By Lawrence Block

Last month I reviewed Some Days You Get The Bear, a collection of Block's short fiction. This present volume is an earlier anthology, and was relatively speaking something of a disappoint. Each tale in the later book is preceded by a short introduction by the author, something that I just adore; this one lacks them. And it also lacks something else; the stories just aren't quite as entertaining. I'm not sure why, but this is only second-class Lawrence Block.

On the other hand, even second-class Lawrence Block is worth reading.

O, Jerusalem
By Laurie R. King

This is the latest in King's excellent "Mary Russell Holmes" series of mysteries; see our Laurie R. King page for a list of our earlier reviews. In one of the early tales, Holmes and Russell escape for a season to the Holy Land; this is the tale of what happens to them there. It's great fun, and a worthy addition to an excellent series, and I recommend it highly. But start with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, as that's the first of the series.

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond
By G.K. Chesterton

I've been a Chesterton fan for some time; his tales are always playful and full of interesting intellectual conundrums--usually with an incredibly barbed (but kindly) point. This is one of his last works, a series of short mysteries involving a bland civil servant named Mr. Pond. I won't call it his best work, but if you like Chesterton it's well worth seeking out.

Roman Blood
By Steven Saylor

Here's another author my sister recommended to me; it's a gritty, hard-boiled detective novel set in, of all places, ancient Rome circa 80 B.C., when Lucius Sulla was dictator. There's a whole series of them, all involving a quasi-PI named Gordianus the Finder; this happens (by luck) to be the first one of the series; it's the only one I found on the shelf at our local Borders Books.

In this particular tale, a middle-aged farmer is accused of murdering his father, a crime particularly detested by the Romans. The famous orator Cicero, then a young, unknown advocate, is enlisted to defend him; he hired Gordianus to find out what really happened. And what really happened turns out to involve the highest men in Rome.

I have to say, this book did a better job of bringing the ancient streets of Rome alive for me than anything else I've read. It's worth reading for that alone. If the subsequent novels are at least as good (and I suspect they are better), they will definitely be worth seeking out.

Podkayne of Mars
By Robert A. Heinlein

This month, I continued taking advantage of the current slew of Heinlein reprints by buying a new copy of Podkayne of Mars; my old copy unaccountably went missing sometime since I first read the book many years ago. I remember rather enjoying it, but not much else about it.

I dunno. It was fun to read, and I enjoyed Podkayne, a bright, charming, and fun young woman...but on the whole it seemed rather more shallow than I remembered. I dunno. I had remembered it as a minor classic; now it seems somewhat less than that.

But it's still better than Assignment in Eternity.

Stuart's Recent Reading

by Stuart McAra

Rough Guide to Australia
Lonely Planet Guide: Australia
Lonely Planet Guide: Singapore
By various

My friend still hasn't returned the books I wanted to review for you, and at the moment I'm in the middle of a series of books which I would rather wait and review as a series rather than in groups. This goes against Will's idea of reviewing things in the month they're read, but in this case I think it's appropriate as the books tell one story and aren't a number of stories involving the same characters.

A friend and I are off to Australia and Singapore for 3 1/2 weeks later this year so much of my time recently has been spent planning our trip. We decided to buy both the LP and Rough Guides to get as much information as possible. They are both excellent. Just about anything you could want to know about your travel destination is in there and the indexing is comprehensive enough that you can always find it.

I must admit I prefer the way Lonely Planet do it. It's pretty much a look and feel thing but I find that I can find what I'm looking for easier and it is a bit more thorough. Having said that, Rough Guide has better maps and it's easier to read--Lonely Planet tend to use very small dark print which becomes a strain after a while, this does however allow them to fit a lot of information onto the page.

I've used Lonely Planet before when travelling and rarely found any mistakes or wrong information, except once in Switzerland when the guidebook had the wrong bus number for how to get to the place I was working.

As one of my tutors at Uni used to say "time spent in reconnaissance is time well spent" and using one of these guide books certainly helps you get the most out of your holiday planning and therefore the most out of your holiday. Have a good summer.

Steve's Recent Reading

by Steve Martin

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
By J.K. Rowling

Well, last month I promised a comparison of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers to Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Alas, I didn't get to it. Maybe next month. Instead I finally read the Harry Potter books. My mother had bought me the first 3 books (the only ones currently out) for Christmas, and I've just gotten around to reading them.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone is the shortest of the 3 books. It introduces the main characters and lets you know how "magic" works in the world that Rowling has created. Harry Potter is an orphaned boy of 11 that is living with his Aunt and Uncle Dursley. They are "muggles" - that is, non-magical, ordinary people. They don't understand him or indeed want to. To them he is just a nasty little secret they want to hide. His miserable life is suddenly rescued when he is invited to Hogwarts, the premier school for wizards. We then follow him through out his 1st year at Hogwarts.

I had a hard time starting this book, as I do with many that place the main character(s) in such a miserable starting predicament. I end up hating the antagonists so much (Aunt and Uncle Dursley in this case), that I can't continue with the story. It didn't last that long for this book, and the rest of the book is excellent.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets covers Harry's second year at Hogwarts (it takes 7 years to graduate). In this you find out more about Harry and his parents. His parents died at the hands of the evil sorcerer "you know who" - err, Voldemort. No one likes to speak his name. Harry escaped with only a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt in the middle of his forehead. The plot develops as Harry tries to figure out who is going around Hogwarts turning people to stone. Rumor has it is Harry himself and that he is the heir to one of the founding wizards of Hogwarts who later became evil.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban continues with Harry's third year at Hogwarts and the last chance to win the Quidditch Cup, before his team captain graduates. Quidditch is a wizard sport, somewhat akin to soccer, but played on flying broomsticks and with 4 balls. Complicating matters is the fact that a dangerous murdurer has escaped the wizards' prison, Azkaban. Harry also finds out the murderer might be after him!

This is the longest of the books (each one has gotten longer and from what I've read on the net, the 4th book, which is due out in early July, is the longest yet by a substantial amount).

I've read several things on the Internet about the books. There are some groups that are banning it due to the magical element. I've read some of their objections and it is pretty much hogwarts - err, hogwash. The website for "Focus On The Family" had a good review on it that treated it very fairly. I found the series thus far to be very good.

Editor's Note: Readers might be interested in reading our earlier review of the first Harry Potter book. In general, I agree with Steve, though I found the evil Dursleys much less troubling than he did; they were so comically painted, so ludicrously awful, that I found them funny rather than distressing. It didn't seem that Rowling meant us to take them quite seriously. -- Will

Children's Books

by Jane Duquette

Green Eggs and Ham
By Dr. Suess

This was my favorite book when I was three, four, and five. I completely loved all the wacky things that Sam I Am did to try to get his friend to eat green eggs and ham. I was just as picky an eater and drove my Mom crazy when she tried to get me to eat new foods. I was convinced that I could read because I had memorized it. I always caught my Mom and Dad when they tried to skip the repetitive parts of the story.

Now that my son David is three, I got this book down off of the shelf to read read for him and found that the tables had turned. Now I am rooting for Sam as he tries to get his friend to try and eat the green eggs and ham. I realize that I do crazy things to get David to try and eat a new food. I also sometimes skip the repetitive parts of the book. But David loves the story, and so do I. This is a true children's classic.

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.

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