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ex libris reviews

1 December 2001

He recocked the Piat by himself, and by the time I had another bomb ready he was fiddling with the sight, adjusting the elevating leg, and squinting towards the target. "Gravity, muzzle velocity, density, intensity, one for his nob, and bullsh*t baffles brains! There -- into the breach, old Whatsit, and if all else fails we'll fix a bayonet to the bloody thing and charge! Fire at Will, he's hiding in the cellar, the cowardly sod!"
George MacDonald Fraser


In This Issue:
On Fidelity

I went to see the Harry Potter movie a couple of weeks ago, and all in all, I rather liked it. But I've been just as amused by the criticisms I've read in the press. One reviewer was annoyed that it followed the book so closely; the director clearly hadn't exercised any creativity. Another reviewer found the story line flat and hard-to-follow. Both points of view have garnered considerable opposition.

Not me...I agree with both assessments. More than that, I approve of them.

In a couple of weeks, I'm going to go see The Fellowship of the Ring, a movie made from a book that's close to my heart, and one that I've read over a dozen times. The first time was the summer I turned nine years old; the last time was just before my mother died almost two years ago. I'm expecting to be gravely disappointed by the movie.

I'm expecting that the director (and screenwriters!) will have exercised considerable creativity, mostly in ways I don't like. I'm expecting that some characters will be play much larger roles than they should, and that others will get pushed into the background. I'm expecting that many incidents will be deleted or condensed or combined in order that the movie might be easier to follow. I'm expecting that various aspects of the tale will be changed in ways that completely alter their meaning--and in ways that are completely inconsistent with the pieces that were left out.

In short, I'm expecting that the powers that be have made a completely hash of something I love dearly.

The folks who made Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, on the other hand, got it right. They knew that although they owned the film rights, the story belongs to the millions of Harry Potter fans around the world. The one thing they had to do was please those fans. And they did. In point of fact, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone isn't really a movie; it's a cinematic illustration of the novel, intended for those who already know the story perfectly well.

Perhaps the screenwriters and director of The Fellowship of the Ring will prove to have shown the same kind of wisdom and restraint. If so, I'll be joyfully surprised. We'll see.

-- Will Duquette

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Annulet of Gilt
Banbury Bog
The Cape Cod Mystery
The Mystery of The Cape Cod Tavern
The Six Iron Spiders
By Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Murder mysteries lend themselves to obsessive reading marathons and after I found three of these titles at the bookstore and read the first one, I immediately realized that I was in for another marathon. I have been looking for escape books since Sept 11 and the ongoing bio terrorism that occupies top priority in the media. These looked to fit the bill perfectly. Phoebe Atwood Taylor wrote the first one, The Cape Cod Mystery, in 1931 when she was 22 years old and continued publishing for years. I think for that reason, some of the plot developments are a bit muzzy, especially in early ones. Asey Mayo, the main character and detective, is also presented differently from book to book. He sometimes has a distinct Cape Cod accent and then in another book, the accent is gone or at least not emphasized in the writing. He is never completely described physically except that he wears corderoys and flannel shirts and has either a twinkle in his eye or a piercing gaze. And I think what bothered me most is that while the novels are contemporary to their time with both the Depression and WWII referenced and used as background, Asey himself never seems to change or age though he is middle aged in the beginning of the series. He's sprinting around just as much in the forties as he was 10 years earlier. With that said, I enjoyed them completely. I found myself shushing the critic in the back of my mind and just enjoying the storylines and regional charm that Taylor puts into her books. "The Cape Cod Mystery" introduces Asey as the detective, handyman, general car mechanic and friend to wealthy car manufacturer Bill Porter. Porter keeps Asey supplied with the latest in roadster cars that drive amazingly fast and seem to be constantly stolen. Asey must solve the murder of a prominent, nasty, self centered author that everyone is glad is dead but whose death is wrongly blamed on, of course, Bill Porter's sweetheart, Betsy. He solves the murder using deduction and intuition and surprises everyone at the end.

Banbury Bog is set in the small Cape Cod town of East Weesit, where a rich baker from the Midwest comes on vacation to keep his pretty and petulant daughter from getting into boy trouble. He uses his surplus of money to rejuvenate the town's economy from the depths of the Depression, thereby treading on some local toes. He is surprised to find himself blamed for the murder of one of the town's selectmen. Asey is called in as the person who can get to the bottom of it, something the cops in this series never seem able to do, and the whole book goes from there.

The Mystery of the Cape Cod Tavern is set in an expensive, renovated colonial tavern/inn that is filled with frustrated and famous writers on sabbatical. The tavern owner is known for her flamboyant stunts to promote the Tavern in the papers so when she starts saying someone is going to kill her, of course, no one listens. Then she turns up dead, stabbed in the chest with only a blind poet who was playing the violin at the time for a witness. Asey jumps right into this one and figures it all out.

The Six Iron Spiders has Asey coming home from his temporary job at Bill Porter's retooled tank plant to find his housekeeper cousin having first aid training in the living room as part of the war effort. Everyone rushes out to do some enemy sub spotting in the dark, leaving Asey to discover the body in his "buttery", which is like a cold pantry in the back of the house. Asey teams up with the town doc to figure out who did it and why, the whole time trying to connect with his cousin so she can do his laundry for him. Someone used an iron frying pan or spider to clunk the victim on the head and since six of them were sold that day at the local hardware store, Asey's supposedly able to use the process of elimination to get to the bottom of it.

The Annulet of Gilt has Asey helping Porter's new wife, Betsey, renovate the Cape Cod house they own in the face of a total lack of interest in the tradesmen of the town. They are more drawn to work on the renovations of the dishy blonde's rented mansion. Unfortunately, the blonde is surrounded by servants wearing blousy green satin shirts and scimitars in their belts. When the sister of the mansion's owner turns up strangled with a belt owned by the owner's neice, convoluted but it works in the novel, Asey gets involved to solve the murder and get things back on track for Betsy's project. This series is fun if you like period charm and local color as the background to your mystery. They have the light feeling of entertainment written for escape during some brutal social and economic times. They certainly are not examples of complex plot devices or intricate details, but for a rainy, cold weekend spent snuggled on the couch they had just the right blend of suspense and humor.

Malice in London
By Graham Thomas

The cover of this one claims it's jolly good reading but I found it jolly boring. The detective, Erskine Powell, works for Scotland Yard as an investigator. He is assigned to a month-old case as a punishment from his supervisor only to find that it's not just a simple mugging/murder but has deeper connotations in the politics of neighborhood renovations going on in the former docks of London. His sidekick, the pedantic but lovable Detective Black, and a cute young female Detective both pitch in to help Powell solve the murder. Mysteries don't have to be perfectly plotted if the characters are well drawn and interesting. And if the plots are tight and compelling, oftentimes the characters can be slightly flat and predictable and the book still works. But when both happen at the same time, the whole thing just becomes an exercise in tedium. That's how I found this author. I have two more from the same series but I think both of them are going into the sell-back-to-the-used-bookstore-box unread.

Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary
By K.M. Elisabeth Murray

When I turned 40, I sat down and made a list of 25 things I wanted to do before I die. It wasn't so much a midlife-crisis exercise as a realization that if I don't make a list and start doing some of the things on it, I might someday wake up too old--or worse--to do any of them. I've scratched off three or four in the years since. One near the middle of the list, more pie in the sky than realistic, is to own an OED, unabridged. I was one of the weird kids who read the dictionary for fun and I still enjoy thinking about what words mean and where they come from. For example, exactly what is the difference between shade and shadow. You sit in shade and cast a shadow but the two are essentially the same thing. So there must be some historical reason why we have two different words. I honestly have never looked it up, it just provides me with something to muse on behind the wheel of the car or doing mindless housework tasks.

This book tells the story of James Murray, the original editor of what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary, who apparently had the same sense of curiosity about words and where they come from that I do, only much, much more of it. It's a fairly straightforward biography written by his great-granddaughter which follows the chronology of his life from birth to death. Based on his letters to and from friends and professionals in his field, his published works and the reminiscences of his huge family, the book has a level of detail about the construction of the Dictionary and the work that went into it that is totally amazing. Not to mention that all the information, all the details in the dictionary, were checked individually by hand and all the writing was done using dip or fountain pens without any aid from the memory and storage capacity of a computer or even electric lights and central heating. One of the dominant themes in the book is Murray's tenacity and his emphatic belief that corners should not be cut for expediency and that a job done well is better than a job done fast. The folks who funded the writing of it, however, were understandably more interested in putting out a product that would make money rather than writing a monumental work of scholarship and it is this difference that puts some of the tension in what would otherwise be a fairly placid story. Murray was self-educated Scotsman with a deep, devout belief in Divine purpose and a Victorian sense of honor and virtue that prevented him from discussing money in conjunction with his work. Desperation for money is another theme that runs thru the entire book. I was sorry near the end of the book, when he dies before he able to see the completion of the project that he struggled with and loved for 40 years. This biography was enjoyable though, I confess, at times I found it a bit too heavy on detail. I have no problem scanning bits that lose my attention and usually within a page or two the author is back on track.

Lovely in Her Bones
By Sharyn McCrumb

This mystery was ok. I picked it based on the cover and the strength of the blurbs by Tony Hillerman and Mary Higgins Clark. I have never read either of those two authors but at least I know who they are and the premise did sound kind of interesting. The story line revolves around Elizabeth MacPherson, a college student whose brother has a cute archeologist roommate. He takes a shine to her and asks her on a summer holiday dig in Appalachia. The dig is designed to prove or disprove the claim of a group of possible Native Americans that they are in fact indigineous peoples. Of course, they don't have any Native American features, no vestiges of the typical Native American culture, no Native American religion, none of it. But, the skulls of the bodies in the cemetary should prove ethnicity one way or another. That's the theory anyway. The land also has mineral interests that want to buy it up and should a reservation appear, some of the locals would stand to lose lots and lots of money. The plot generally was pretty predictable. They go to the dig, tensions mount due to personalities of the diggers, the locals are hostile and then someone gets killed. The local sheriff is a bit like Barney Fife and the crime looks unsolvable. Elizabeth, while amusing and silly, really doesn't fit the bill of the traditional sleuth and it's almost pure coincidence that she actually figures out who murdered and why. The book was entertaining, though, so if you are looking for something light, it's a good candidate. I will probably look for this author again when I get the chance.

The Misunderstood Child: Understanding and Coping With Your Child's Learning Disabilities
By Larry B. Silver, M.D.

The copy of this book that I read is the third edition, revised in 1991 and 1998 from the orginal publication in 1984. The author lists his credentials as Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Gerogetown University Medical Center though at one point he was also deputy Director of NIMH. I have had this book on my shelf for at least a year. Originally I read it thru completely start to finish, absorbing the content and the predominant themes of the advice he gives. Parent teacher conferences were coming up this month when I plucked it off my bookshelf again and reviewed the parts of the book dealing with adolescence and anxiety. Both my children are mildly ADD although my son is much more affected by that than my daughter. My daughter, however, also has "learning disabilities" or as some folks mistakenly call it, dyslexia. She doesn't make the renowned letter reversals that typify for most people the dyslexic. With her it's the language skills that are affected with some of the organizational/executive functions as well. Learning to read was a struggle and reading fluency is still hard. Spelling is and maybe always will be a mystery for her. Math is twice as hard because she can't read the problems correctly even though her numeracy skill are superior to her peers. Normally, my policy is that I avoid self-help books like the plague and stick to common sense and gut instinct when it comes to raising my kids and just about everything lse. But after struggling with homework and school and all the emotional issues that go along with being in the "special ed" class and being different, I looked for some book of wisdom to help us cope with it. I really found this book helpful. The author goes step by step thru "normal" child development and then explains the various common permutations of LD. He covers the process of testing, explains the common tests and what they can signify, covers the general ideas in IEP's and all the other interventions my child needed and still needs to learn and develop. He repeats over and over that learning disabilities are life disabilities and that once the child leaves the schoolroom the problems don't just go away. That can be a stopper. You keep hoping they will just grow out of it. He also reassures the reader over and over that with hard work and a sense of confidence, an LD child can succeed. Having someone write that helped somehow. It's a book I highly recommend to everyone I know who has kids with learning disabilities, mood issues, ADD/ADHD and all the associated problems that go with it. I've also recommended it to a couple of adults who are still struggling with the same issues, now in the workplace. While it doesn't alleviate the anger or pain of watching your child struggle, it does offer some very practical advice on what to do to help them cope.

How the Irish Saved Civilization
By Thomas Cahill

Originally I thought of this book as McHistory or History-lite. On first glance it's main premise seemed simplistic and the writing glitzy to the point of being condescending on the author's part. I couldn't decide if Cahill was often just so enthused about his subject matter that he dropped his objective tone or if he was trying to make what he perceived as a difficult subject easy to understand for someone not very fast on the uptake. It's not terribly long and glosses whole stretches of time, concentrating rather on certain pivotal moments that the author uses to prove his premise. Essentially he sets out to sketch out the sequence of events that led to the Irish clerics collecting and preserving Greek and Roman manuscripts from destruction during the era between the fall of Rome and the rise of Roman Catholicism as the organizing force in Europe. He theorizes that the Irish were uniquely suited to do this both by geographical isolation from the continent and by the cultural temperment that resulted from their Celtic origins. After some thought and reading a little further in the book, I came to the conclusion that while this book isn't particularly deep, I was missing the point. History is a series of stories not totally comprised of facts and the author is using both poetry and art as a cultural expression that tells as much about the history of the time as the known facts and details do. What I was reading as condescension was enthusiasm for an interesting story with a what-if premise. What if the Irish hadn't collected these manuscripts? And I actually learned things I didn't know before. I probably wouldn't recommend this book for academic research or citation but as an introduction to early Irish history it was very entertaining.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Treason's Harbor
By Patrick O'Brian

Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the ninth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April Issue.

The title "Treason's Harbor" refers to the harbor of Valletta on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, to which Jack Aubrey has brought his two commands, the Worcestor and the Surprise, for repairs following the events of The Ionian Mission. The island and town have been under British control for some time, and there is quite a community of officers, both naval and army, along with a variety of other expatriates. It is a peaceful time. Jack and Stephen go to musical soirees and dine with the governor; Stephen explores the harbor floor in a diving bell.

But tongues wag too loosely in Valletta; when Jack is assigned a mission to the Red Sea, it seems that all Malta knows his destination and purpose before he even leaves. More than that; a conduit of naval intelligence runs by devious routes from Valletta to Paris. And the man responsible for it is closer to them than either Jack or Stephen can possibly imagine.

It's at about this point that the series' real nature finally emerges. It's not really a connected series of novels; rather, it's one long novel. The story of our two heroes runs on and on, and each book is a chapter in the continuing saga. Reaching the climax at the end of the book becomes far less important than just watching it all happen.

Next month: The Far Side of the World

The Game of Kings
By Dorothy Dunnett

Each month for the next few months I'll be reading and reviewing one book from Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. This is the first in the series.

The year is 1547. Henry VIII of England is dead, and his young son Edward is on the throne; the monarch of Scotland is the equally young Mary Queen of Scots; and the Anglo-Scottish border regions have not yet recovered from King Henry's "rough wooing" or the attempts of young Edward's regent to see Edward and Mary wed. Francis Crawford of Lymond is a Scottish lordling, brother to the Baron of Culter, a scholar, a poet, a wanted outlaw, and a real pain-in-the-neck.

The latter quality is part of Lymond's character; but it's equally the fault of the author, who has taken a marvelously peculiar way of telling the tale. Although Lymond is the main character, we never share in his thoughts or see anything from his point of view. And, contrary to the last, Lymond seldom if ever explains himself. Desirous of keeping his own counsel and wary of revealing too much, he habitually speaks in snatches of poetry and divers quotations. The result is that a considerable part of the book has gone by before we know why he was outlawed; longer goes by before we know why he has returned to Scotland despite this; and most of it goes by before the beginning chapters really begin to make sense. Indeed, some of it didn't make sense until this, my second reading of the book.

What we have in Lymond, in short, is a man who doesn't share his thoughts and who cares very little what others think of him--and an author who requires that we see him as others would see him. And so, much of the time, we wonder whether we are supposed to like him or not, and what we think of him is usually mistaken indeed.

Dunnett is by means an easy read. And yet...the historical setting is beautifully and wonderfully detailed. Lymond, even at his most evasive, is a compelling, fascinating character. The twists and turns are stirring, shocking, and occasionally hilarious, and the conclusion is well worth the effort spent reaching it.

Related reading: The Steel Bonnets, George MacDonald Fraser's history of the Anglo-Scottish border.

By Michael Moorcock

This third omnibus volume of Moorcock's tales of the Eternal Champion comprises four novels, The Jewel in the Skull, The Mad God's Amulet, The Sword of the Dawn, and The Runestaff. The four books tell the story of a far future Europe in which a baroque and decadent Britain is attempting to conquer the known world. It is a world that has arisen after some kind of world-wide cataclysm; technology is scarce and it is once more a time of swords and armor and horses. Allied against the forces of Granbretan, as it is called, are Dorian Hawkmoon, the Duke of Koln, and his friend Count Brass. There's just one problem: Baron Meliadus of Granbretan has had a black stone embedded in Hawkmoon's skull. If Hawkmoon does not submit to Meliadus' will, the stone will eat his brain...

When I first read these books, lo those many years ago, I was entranced. Then, some time after I graduated from college I picked them up again, and was severely disappointed. My taste had improved, or, at least, changed, and they now seemed like badly written hackwork. To be fair, it's possible that I skipped the first two and only read the third, The Sword of the Dawn; it's the one I particularly remember from that time, and it's clearly the weakest of the four.

Anyway, I was disappointed. My disappointment led me to eschew all things Moorcock, to the extent that I disposed of my entire collection of his books. So why did I pay for it and read it yet again? Well, tastes change, and tastes change. There's always the possibility that I had my nose in the air. But mostly, I'm not entirely sure. It seemed the thing to do.

So what's the verdict? The Sword of the Dawn is rather a stinker, but the series as a whole is better than I remembered. I'd probably rank it ahead of the first set of Corum novels (Corum: The Coming of Chaos) that I reviewed a while back.

Elric: Song of the Black Sword
By Michael Moorcock

This is the fifth omnibus edition of Moorcock's tales of the Eternal Champion, and contains the first half of the material relating to Elric of Melniboné. I won't list the names of the individual novels contained in this volume; many of them are short and have been packaged in a variety of ways, so there's no point.

Elric is the last Emperor of the Island Empire of Melniboné. The Empire has stood for 10,000 years, thanks to a bargain an early emperor made with Arioch, Knight of Swords and Duke of Hell; for most of that history the Melniboneans have been a cruel and decadent people, taking what they want and having no thought for ethics, justice, or other such intangibles. Elric is different in this, as he is different in his body, for Elric is an albino. Because of this, his strength is maintained only by constant use of strange herbs and drugs, and because of this his cousin Yyrkoon plots to steal his throne. Elric himself bargains with Arioch and is given the use of Stormbringer, the black sword that drinks souls. The sword gives him the strength he needs to live without drugs...but the sword indeed has two edges, for Stormbringer must be fed....

Ironically, the Elric stories were among my least favorite way back when; this time through I enjoyed them rather more than the others in the series. I'm looking forward to getting the volume containing the second half of Elric.

The Roads Between the Worlds
By Michael Moorcock

This book, the sixth omnibus edition of Moorcock's Eternal Champion tale, hardly deserves the name. It contains three unrelated novels, The Wrecks of Time, The Winds of Limbo, and The Shores of Death. Except that the name "von Bek" pops up now and then, these novels have nothing in particular to do with the Eternal Champion saga. Marketing, ah, marketing.

The Wrecks of Time was a romp, and I enjoyed it. The other two were self-consciously serious, and I wasn't particularly impressed with either one. The Shores of Death was particularly unsatisfactory; about two thirds of the way through it takes a sudden left turn and becomes an entirely different story.

If you're a Moorcock completist, you might want to get a copy of this book just for the sake of the (remarkably incoherent) framing story, which concerns one Renark von Bek, last seen in omnibus volume #1. Otherwise, don't bother.

A Civil Campaign
By Lois McMaster Bujold

The best antidote to mediocre fiction is outstanding fiction. My antidote to Michael Moorcock's less compelling tales was to pull out two of the most recent books by one of the best authors currently writing. I read both of these to Jane when they were new (you can find links to the reviews on our Lois McMaster Bujold page); this is the first time I had read them silently to myself.

Oh, my. She's good. If you're not familiar with Bujold's work, go out and buy the omnibus trade editions Cordelia's Honor and Young Miles and read them.

Trouble and Her Friends
By Melissa Scott

I bought this rather against my better judgement, only because I've liked many of her other books. It was against my better judgement because the book proclaims itself to be a cyberpunk novel, a subgenre for which I have very little time.

I should have listened to my better judgement, as this book entirely failed to hold my interest.

It's the tale of a lesbian computer hacker whose nickname is "Trouble". When hacking (in the sense of breaking into computer systems belonging to other people) is outlawed in the 2020's, she goes legit...but then some young hacker steals her name and style, and the Feds are out to get her, and the action begins.

I've got all kinds of troubles with this book, many of which stem from its publication date of 1991. Scott wrote the book when the Internet was still in its infancy, when only universities, large computer companies, and government installations were connected to it (well, almost), when the World Wide Web was still a thing of the future and nobody but computer geeks knew a .com from a hole in the ground. The technology described in this book Has Not Worn Well. But more than that, the perception of hacking, even among the software community, has changed drastically. I've had my work disrupted by hackers; I've little sympathy to spare for them, even in fiction.

So there was nobody in the book I cared even the slightest little bit about. After carrying it about in my car for a couple weeks as my odd moments book, I finally gave up altogether. I still don't know who stole Trouble's identity, and frankly, I really don't care.

Sewer, Gas and Electric
By Matt Ruff

I don't remember who recommended this book to me quite some time ago, but I'd like to thank them. I happened to see it on the shelf at the local borders, and bought it on a whim. I do this every now and then; sometimes it pans out, and some times it doesn't. This time it panned out in spades.

Subtitled "The Public Works" trilogy, this is a complicated little gem set mostly in New York twenty or thirty years from now. It's kind of a cross between the Illuminatus Trilogy and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, if you can imagine such a thing, without the kinky sex. It's got conspiracies, it's got Walt Disney, it's got eco-terrorists roaming the seas in a polka-dotted submarine, it's got alligators (and great white sharks) roaming New York City's sewers, it's got the tallest buildings in the world, it's got militant homeless people, it's got Electric Negroes (!), it's got a simulacrum of Ayn Rand's head in a box (it argues with people),....

It's extremely funny, it's rather sick and twisted in places, and I enjoyed it far more than I ever would have expected. Be warned: it's not at all PC--or, as the characters in the book would say, it's not only politically incorrect, it's Philosophically Untenable: "PU".

The Search for the Panchen Lama
By Isabel Hilton

Historically, Tibet has had a vast number of continously reincarnating holy men who, although they have achieved sufficient merit to leave the wheel of time for Nirvana, nevertheless choose to be reborn so as to help those still bound to the Earth. The famous Dalai Lama is best known of these, and ranks first among them in Tibetan Buddhism; the Panchen Lama is the second.

When such a holy man dies, a search begins. Omens are taken, and oracles are consulted; and candidate children are identified. Eventually one is chosen (or recognized), and brought back to the reincarnate soul's home monastery, there to be trained for his holy task.

Or so the theory goes. Tibet has been a province of China for about half a century, and the Chinese have had little use for Buddhism, except insofar as it can be controlled to keep the Tibetans quiet.

During the last half of the 20th century, the Dalai Lama (titular political head of Tibet) has resided in exile in India, while the Panchen Lama (titular spiritual head of Tibet) remained in Tibet. It was a kind of division of labor. At one point the Panchen Lama was imprisoned by the Chinese for nearly ten years; after that, he lived out his days in Beijing, dying in the late 1980's. And then came the question: how would the next Panchen Lama be chosen? The Tibetans said that it was a purely religious issue; the Chinese, not surprisingly, called it a political issue, and insisted on being involved in the process. The Tibetans insisted that the Dalai Lama must recognize the reborn soul; the Chinese insisted that the Dalai Lama must have nothing to do with it.

In 1995, through secret messages and subterfuge, the Dalai Lama selected his choice, a seven-year-old boy. The Chinese immediately repudiated his choice, and staged their own process, choosing a different boy. Then both boys were removed from their homes. Neither boy has been much in evidence since; it's not clear whether the Dalai Lama's choice (the true Panchen Lama in the hearts of many) is even alive.

If you have any interest in Tibetan Buddhism, or the history of Tibet, this is a compelling introduction to the subject. It's also an interesting reflection on China's methods of government. Indeed, I often found myself quite torn while I read it. On the one hand, I think Tibetan Buddhism is a bunch of hooey; any claim made for extreme holiness (in any sense I understand) on the part of the average Tibetan lama is quickly dispelled by a perusal of Tibetan history. On the other hand, I feel strongly that the Tibetans should be able to worship as they choose, and that China's involvement--indeed, China's presence in Tibet--is inexcusable. And of course, as a father, I can't help but feel for those two boys.

Treason by the Book
By Jonathan Spence

In the aftermath of September 11th, we've had the opportunity to reflect on the difference between repression and freedom of speech. Many critics of the war on terrorism have arisen from the campus left; most of them have been roundly told to stifle themselves and have consequently raised the red flag of Repression. These are the same folks, bear in mind, who for years have been stifling freedom of speech on campus in the name of Political Correctness.

But as we've discovered, it isn't repression when other Americans exercise their power of free speech to tell you to shut up and stop being an idiot--but go no farther than telling you. Repression is when women are jailed, tortured, or executed for showing their faces--or ankles--in public. Repression is when you criticize the government and the death squads knock on your door in the middle of the night. In America, on the other hand, the Unabomber was convicted for his bombs, not his beliefs.

But repression has a quieter, more judicial face as well; this was revealed to me in Jonathan Spence's list book on Chinese history, Treason by the Book. In 1728, Yongzheng was Emperor of China, the second Emperor of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty. There were many still alive at that time who remembered the days of the Ming dynasty with fondness, and who would have gladly seen a Ming emperor sitting on the imperial throne once again. Dissent against the throne--of any kind--was legally defined to be treason. And treason was punishable by death, not only for the dissenter but also for the dissenter's family.

In 1728, a poor man handed a letter to the governor of a Chinese province. The letter was critical of Qing rule in China. The book is the tale of what happened after. In summary, the man was jailed for years. The man who gave him the letter was jailed also, and was thoroughly interrogated, in writing, by the Emperor himself, to find out where he had come by the ideas he gave in the letter. Meanwhile, all of the force of the Chinese bureaucracy was bent on verifying his story, tracing his past life, and locating (and in many cases jailing) those he had associated with. In the end, many people were executed.

But if this were simply a story of brutal repression, it would be far less interesting. Yongzheng's actions were anything but brutal. He was careful, deliberate, slow to judge and slow to act. The Emperor's attempts to eradicate all traces of dissent, primarily by educating the populace, are a model of calm, conscientious planning. He spared no effort to eradicate the "wild ideas" root and branch.

And in the end, that just makes it more frightening.

The naysayers may natter all they like. They are wrong, but this is America. I wouldn't silence them for the world.

Quartered Safe Out Here
By George MacDonald Fraser

Fraser is one of my favorite writers; and, as with Mark Twain, I find his nonfiction more entertaining and engrossing than his fiction. This particular book is a memoir of his time in the British Army during World War II.

I last read this not quite two years ago, and I hadn't intended to read it again quite so soon; but Jane took it off of the shelf and left it lying about, and one day when the book I was really reading wasn't quite to hand I picked it up "just for a moment." And that was it, really.

I find the book interesting for two reasons. For the first, I put my history buff hat on. Few seem to remember, if they ever knew, that the war against the Japanese in WWII included a ground campaign in south-east Asia. Likely this is because the campaign was fought largely by the British (though there was an American presence as well), and so in American minds it was overshadowed by the wars at sea and in Europe. So the book is a window on a part of history I hadn't been aware of, and I value it for that.

But the main thing is Fraser's skill as a storyteller. He was a buck private for much of the time he was in Burma, and he describes the war from that point of view. Thus, this is not a military history of the war in Burma--but it conveys a better notion of the lot of the footsoldier than anything else I've ever read. It's written with clarity and humor, and all in all it's an extremely good time. I'd recommend it to almost anyone, regardless of the kinds of books they usually read.

An Oblique Approach
In the Heart of Darkness
By David Drake and Eric Flint

These are the first two books in the duo's "Belisarius" series, a series with one of the silliest premises I've seen in a long time. I'm tempted to tear these books apart in at least six different ways, and the only thing that's stopping me is how much I'm enjoying them--which is considerably.

First, let me describe the background. It is early in the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great, back for yet another walk on our stage. Belisarius is his best general, and perhaps one of the greatest generals of all time. But then a hermit comes to Belisarius with a mysterious crystal that brings visions, and this is where Belisarius' story and our own history explicitly part company. For the crystal reveals that a new empire, the Malwa empire, has arisen in India. The Malwa are bent on conquering the world--and they have weapons we would recognize as cannon, grenades, and rockets. These weapons are still incredibly primitive by modern standards--the rockets are particularly erratic and hard to control--but they are far in advance of anything available to the Romans. The crystal has come to aid Belisarius to defeat the Malwa; the future of the human race depends on it.

First and foremost, these are war novels; the details of each campaign and each battle are described with loving details. It's the sort of thing one could imagine Byzantine soldiers of fortune reading in their off-hours, perhaps serialized in the latest issue of Swords and Scabbards magazine, right before the "mercenaries wanted" advertisements. And, perhaps because they are war novels, the authors have loaded them up with mounds of casual, cheerful profanity, and school boy jokes that ought to grow tiresome after a while--but somehow they don't. There's lots of arch banter from almost all of the good guys that sits oddly on many of their lips, and which should detract from the tale--but somehow it doesn't.

Perhaps it's just that I came to these books immediately after reading something by Dorothy Dunnett, and that I'm trying to hold them to a higher standard than I ordinarily would--but despite all of the silly, profane, juvenile elements, the fact remains that I'm having a rollicking good time. There's just something delightful about watching a collection of superbly competent folk cheerfully and cleverly kicking the bloody hell out of some nasty people who desperately deserve it. Perhaps it's cathartic.

What can I say? If you have any taste for alternate history, and don't mind profanity and body parts gaily strewn about in pools of gore, you should give these a try. You might not respect yourself in the morning, but you'll have an entertaining night.

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 December 2001
Copyright © 2001, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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