ex libris reviews
1 September 2002
Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but truth. It is not for
the sake of material reward that she (Scholarship) pursues her (Truth)
through the undergrowth of Ignorance, shining on Obscurity the bright
torch of Reason, and clearing aside the tangled thorns of Error with
the keen secateurs of Intellect. Nor is it for the sake of public
glory and the applause of the multitude. Nor is it even in the hope
that those few intimate friends who have observed at first hand the
labour of the chase will mark with a word or two of discerning
congratulation its eventual achievement. Which is very fortunate,
because they don't.
It's been a good August. I had a short vacation, read some interesting books, celebrated family birthdays, and stayed up too late working on projects. And (mostly due, I think, to having stayed up too late last night in particular), I don't have a whole lot to say. You'll just have to make do with the reviews...and fortunately they speak for themselves.
I recently made a bold and dangerous decision. I decided that it was time to try to read a real book to my five-year-old son--a book with chapters, and few pictures, a book that would take a couple of weeks to finish. It was a gamble. On the one hand, if he enjoyed the book it would be the start of something wonderful. On the other hand, if he wasn't ready there was the chance of so tainting whatever book I chose that he'd never want to read it later. So it was with a great deal of trepidation that I took up The Hobbit and began to read it to David.
To my great relief, the gamble paid off. I still have no idea how well David actually understood the story, or the motivations of any of the characters; I'm sure the subtleties passed right over his head. But that's not the important thing.
The important thing is that he was riveted, not only that first night but every night thereafter from beginning to end. His favorite part? When Bard shot the arrow that killed Smaug.
And now, of course, we've done it. The night after we finished The Hobbit the question wasn't whether I'd read a chapter book to David, but which one. And even that question was easily settled: David wanted the one I'd told him about, with knights, and swords, and, among other things, a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe.
As expected, we went from The Hobbit directly to this one. I think David had an easier time following it, and so perhaps enjoyed it more; certainly he found it very exciting and was eager to get to the next chapter each evening. And I liked it, naturally, Lewis being one of my favorite authors. Something I hadn't noticed before, is that the chapter divisions are in exactly the right place: one chapter is perfect for one night's reading.
Reading "real" books to David at bedtime has so far been an unalloyed pleasure. May it remain so for many years to come!
This book is subtitled, "The story of the math majors, bridge players, engineers, chess wizards, maverick scientists, and iconoclasts--the programmers who created the software revolution." And speaking as one who's participated in that revolution and followed it since the late '70's, Lohr does manage to get a lot of the essential history information into a fairly slender and readable book. I enjoyed it, and I learned a few things.
But good grief, the things the man left out!
Lohr tries to cover the development of the x86 PC--and focuses almost entirely on Microsoft, as though there were never any other players. Lotus and Borland get brief nods. But no history of computing is complete without Wordstar, the first great word processor for microcomputers, or WordPerfect, the last to go down under Microsoft's heel (though I've heard recently that it's alive and kicking). Or without Ashton-Tate, whose dBase II, III, and IV line of products dominated the microcomputer database market for years, and whose collapse is legendary.
Lohr talks about the development of the graphical user interface at Xerox PARC and its adoption at Apple and Microsoft, while the X Window System, which provides the GUI for nearly every Unix and Linux machine on the planet (and which I use almost daily) is never mentioned; a precursor, NeWS, is dismissed with a line about how it was never commercially viable.
But perhaps most egregious, to my mind, is the complete absence of material--indeed, the complete lack of awareness, so far as I can tell, of the world of scripting languages: Perl, Python, and (my favorite) Tcl. You (if you're still reading this) have probably never heard of any of these languages. But the folks who run the web server on which this page lives have; and the folks who provide your Internet connection have; and the folks at Amazon.com and Google and Yahoo and Ebay have. Larry Wall, Guido van Rossum, and John Ousterhout have been as influential in their way as anybody else mentioned in Lohr's book.
Well. Sorry about that. He touched a nerve, that's all.
This was an interesting book to read, and not entirely for the reasons the author intended.
The author,, is (or was; the book dates from the 1970's) a French historian, with a special interest in Medieval Europe. Apparently she got sick and tired of the cursory and disparaging treatment the "Middle Ages" receive in French schools, and decided to write a book to correct the situation. It's a work of popular history, written originally in French, for consumption by French men and women, from a French point of view (something I didn't realize when I bought it). And that French viewpoint has two interesting effects.
The first had the affect of expanding my borders a trifle. Living as I do in close proximity with Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the whole motion picture industry, I'm accustomed to being in the spot about which the whole world turns. It's odd to realize that to the French (a nation I'm usually inclined to discount) the world still revolves around France.
But that's just my parochialism showing. The book also made it clear to me how different the cultural and historical basis is for French society than for American society. To explain what I mean by that I'll need to explain Pernoud's argument.
The average person's understanding of the Middle Ages, she says, is as follows: Rome fell, and the Dark Ages began. Life was horrible for everyone in Europe for roughly the next thousand years, until the Renaissance began. Even the most lordly had it pretty bad, and what they had they got by enslaving the peasants. There was little art, and less culture, and what there was was ugly and crude. But then the Renaissance came, and civilization began again.
To counterbalance this absurd description, Pernoud offers an unusual take on the Renaissance. The name means "rebirth", of course, and is usually taken to mean the rediscovery of the writings of the Greeks and Romans and the rebirth of classicism. According to Pernoud, the educated folk of the Middle Ages were perfectly well acquainted with the writings of the Greeks and Romans; the Renaissance is simply a time when familiarity was replaced by slavish devotion. From then on, all that was "classic" was "good"; all that was "Medieval" was bad. Apparently this view dominated French culture and education from the the Renaissance right up to the present day--or, at least, the 1970's.
Pernoud gives examples in every area of endeavour; the one that struck me most was the field of Law. During the Renaissance and the centuries that followed, the body of "Roman" law was of great interest to judicial scholars. The Napoleonic Code, which is the basis of French law to this day, as I understand it, stems from this source. And here's where her French bias shows most strongly.
American law doesn't derive from the Napoleonic Code, or any kind of Roman law. Instead, it's an offshoot of the English Common Law, which in turn derives from the customs and standard usages and common sense of generations of English men and women. Trial by jury is an English custom, for example, as is being able to confront the witnesses against you. So her assertions about how things were after the Renaissance served for me more to highlight how odd the French are than anything else.
Nevertheless, this is an informative book, and makes many important points. When someone describes a point of view or custom of which they disapprove as "Medieval", you can remind them that:
The Middle Ages were no picnic, I'll grant you...but they were by no means as dark as they've often been painted, and in many ways were superior to what came after.
This is the last of the three Don Camillo books sent me by my correspondent in Wisconsin. Sigh. Now I'll never get to read them for the first time again.
But if you haven't, you still have that to look forward to. If you've never heard of Don Camillo before, use the search box (it's at the top of the page, on the right) to find my previous reviews.
This novel is at one and the same time absurdly silly and deeply serious.
It concerns the town of Grantville, West Virginia, a country town, the home of farmers and coal miners, which is suddenly and inexplicably torn from its surrounding hills and planted for no very good reason in Thuringia in 1630. That's in central Germany, which in 1630 was in the middle (both geographically and chronologically) of the 30 Years War-- a war ostensibly for reasons of religion, and really for reasons of realpolitik. And as most of the fighting was done by poorly disciplined and bloodthirsty mercenaries, for loot and rapine as well. It was a war that bestialized almost everyone who fought in it, and that halved Germany's population and left the countryside desolate.
That's the silly part. Small towns simply don't skip about the timestream in this way, and refreshingly Flint doesn't try to minimize this; he knows it's silly as well as we do, and the explanation he gives (I won't relate it here) is intended to be funny rather than convincing. It doesn't matter anyway, as the important thing is what happens after they arrive.
And what happens after they arrive is an ode of very nearly epic proportions to American patriotism, freedom of speech and religion, and other core American values. It's about Americans as we like to see ourselves: bold, tough, can do, informal about our manners but deadly serious about our liberties, championing the weak and spitting in the eye of evil. It's about people who will draw a line in the sand and say "Thus far; no farther," and who will fight and die to hold that line.
There are some who will, based on this description, no doubt dismiss the book as jingoistic fantasy of the worst kind. And honestly, such people would probably have the same reaction if they actually read it.
But that wasn't my reaction. It's hard to claim that Thuringia--indeed, all of Europe--in the 1630's couldn't do with a hefty dose of American-style civil liberties. (A brief political digression: do you know why President Bush has steadfastly refused to be a signatory to the new International Criminal Court? It's because to do so would sign away rights guaranteed to us--my rights, and yours--by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And I say, "Bravo!")
No, my reaction, especially in the light of the events of this past year, was one of pride, and of almost absurdly strong emotion. It's supposed to be a light, fun book, and yet it frequently reduced me to tears.
I just hope, for the sake of the people of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and so forth, that we Americans can live up to the standards Flint's book idealizes. It seems a stretch at times; and yet it's because of those same standards that Germany and Japan are now prosperous, friendly nations instead of the expansionist killing machines they were sixty years ago. Perhaps we can live up to them again in this century.
I bought this for old time's sake. It's an omnibus of three marginally related novels Vance wrote back in the '70's, two of which I read while I was in college. Alastor is, supposedly, the name of a globular cluster near the edge of our galaxy. It contains, among other things, 3,000 inhabited planets; the cluster as a whole is ruled by a kind of troubleshooter called the Connatic. Each novel takes place on a different planet; only the character of the Connatic really connects them.
It's by no means Vance's best work; but it was a pleasant interlude, and I'm not sorry I bought it. If you're unfamiliar with Vance it's not the book to start with, but if you're a fan, hey, what the heck.
I've previously reviewed this book, and the others by the late, greatly lamented Sarah Caudwell, several times previously; in fact, Caudwell was one of the first authors to get her own page on our web site. I return to her books again and again first because they are screamingly funny, and second because of the beauty of her prose. It just flows off of my tongue when read aloud, which I'm frequently compelled to do; Jane's as familiar with the book as I am, and she always wants to know what I'm chuckling about now. It really says something about a book that it's still laugh-out-loud funny on the fifth or sixth reading. I'm coming to think that Caudwell does the best comedy of manners I've seen since.
Anyway, I've just looked at my previous reviews, and discovered that they don't really say much beyond, "Hey, you! Read this!" So I'll try to do a better job this time.
Caudwell's four books all involve a quirky Oxford professor named Hilary Tamar of indeterminate sex (literally--the books are written in the first person, and neither Hilary nor any of the other characters ever say anything the settles the matter conclusively one way or the other) and a group of young barristers of varying temperament and character.
In this book, the focus is on Julia Larwood. She is a British barrister, specializing in tax law. She is pretty, disheveled, romantic, clumsy, articulate, extremely knowledgeable about tax law and thoroughly capable of getting lost in her own neighborhood, and she has now embarked on an "Art Lover's" tour to Venice in hopes of meeting an angelic young man with a beautiful profile of whom she can take carnal knowledge. Much of the book consists of her letters back to her friends in London; the letters constitute a play-by-play description of her time in Venice. She meets a variety of interesting people, including the lovely Ned, her romantic target, and the horrible Major who wears Bermuda shorts and has hairy legs like a spider. Julia is in a quandary: should the Major be censured for exposing his legs in public, or should he be rewarded for so giving all women he meets early warning?
The letters are generally read aloud over lunch at the Corkscrew or dinner at Guido's, affording Julia's friends much innocent amusement until one of them, Michael Cantrip, hears on the news that she's been arrested for murder of one of the Art Lovers. After they focus on trying to determine which of the other Art Lovers is the murderer--for they all agree that poor Julia simply isn't competent to murder anybody.
It's a delightful piece, and probably my favorite of the four. Highly, highly recommended.
This is, unfortunately, the weakest of Caudwell's four books. Honestly compells me to say that the book's plot turns on the provisions of a very complicated family trust. That is not necessarily a bad thing in itself; Caudwell was a lawyer, and one would expect her books to turn (at least a little bit) on legal niceties. However, the book begins with a tolerably detailed description of said provisions, which is nearly unforgiveable.
I confess, when I took it from the shelf I had it confused with The Sirens Sang of Murder, which is altogether the better book.
But, what with Hilary Tamar's exquisite narrative voice and Caudwell's dry wit, I enjoyed it anyway.
I confess, I didn't quite get this one. I enjoyed it, but I didn't quite get it.
It's the story of one Daryn Alwyn. He's the younger son of the man who runs the largest, most influential media network on Earth. He's a trailed skilled military pilot, one of the few people capable of piloting a ship through jump. But he's retired from that; now he makes a living as an author and media consultant. Despite owning a certain amount of stock in his father's company, he has no position or responsibilities there.
And someone--perhaps several someones--are trying to kill him.
Now, that's almost always a good recipe for a thriller. Interesting, resourceful, complex hero; unknown but ruthless and equally resourceful enemy. It works here, as it nearly always does. We become involved with Daryn and his world as we try to figure out, with him, why someone wants to kill him.
The answer lies in the usual area. Modesitt has two particular themes that he hits on again and again--in different ways, to give him credit, he's not simply repeating himself. The first is personal power, which is to say, ethics; the second is group power, which is to say, government. Both are involved here.
Daryn Alwyn is one of the physical elite: his genes were pre-selected by his parents for excellence in certain traits. Like all pre-selects, he's good looking, healthy, strong, has quick reflexes, and is taller than all but the tallest of non-pre-selects.
It's a given for Modesitt that government is always in the hands of an elite. In this book, government and power are largely in the hands of the pre-selects with a small mixture of normally conceived human beings. The pre-selects find this no cause for surprise--while they aren't superhuman, they've been selected to be at the high end of the human curve. Naturally they excel. And if the normals don't like it, they can arrange for pre-selection for their children...if they have the money.
But what if pre-selects aren't the natural elite they believe themselves to be? What if the aptitude tests being used in the school systems are skewed to the pre-select skill set?
As always with Modesitt's more serious books, it's an interesting meditation on power and government and their uses. But there's a lot that happens that only makes sense if there's going to be a sequel, and so far I see no sign of one.
This is an interesting, frequently amusing, and in the long run fairly inconsequential look at the life of Linux-creator Linus Torvalds. I enjoyed reading, it mostly, but I didn't gain any new and intriguing insights on either life or programming.
Except, of course, that Linus created Linux because he enjoyed it, it was fun, but that was no great revelation; it's not only implicit in the title, it's the reason I've written most of the code I use to maintain this website.
In the middle part of the last century there was a huge British espionage scandal in which two British secret service agents were convicted of selling information to the Soviets. It was known that there was a third man involved; ultimately it was made clear that that "third man" was another British agent named Kim Philby. By that time, Philby, the son of a noted Arabist and colleague of T.E. Lawrence, had defected to Russia, where he lived out his days.
Tim Power's forte is writing fantasy novels set in real history, involving real persons, weaving the fictional and the non-fictional elements together so skillfully that one really can't tell quite where the join is. And when he began reading about Philby's life and his father's life, (and he evidently read everything that was available, which was quite a lot), it seemed to him that he wasn't getting the whole story. There was some central fact that was missing that would make all the rest fall into place. And being an author of fantasy, he was free to use his imagination to decide what that something was.
The result was this book, which is a thoroughly enjoyable spy thriller even without the supernatural elements. With them--well, I won't say that I was totally convinced while I was reading it, but it would explain quite a few things....
Anyway, he's good. He's very good. Go buy him.
I've reviewed these before; you can find links to the previous reviews on ourpage. They aren't deep, but they have a really high "gosh, wow, gee whiz!" factor, and I think they are a lot of fun. I picked them up one day recently when I was really tired and needed a nice, comfortable, engaging romp. And I was not disappointed.
Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the seventeenth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.
Alas, I got started on this one late, and haven't quite finished it yet. Next month.
Honestly, I'm still working on this one little by little. Sigh.If you're a newcomer to ex libris, you might wish to jump back to the review of The Game of Kings in last December's issue.
by Deb English
This is the most recent Langton mystery featuring Harvard Literature Professors Homer Kelly and his wife, Mary. It's also still in hardback so I am not going to include much of a plot summary. I don't do spoilers. I will say that with this one she departs just a little from her normal pattern of using art as a plot device and actually incorporates some of the themes of Escher's art into her narrative. Things get a little surreal in this one but Homer manages to find his way thru the maze, with Mary at his side. Her mysteries are light and humorous though not as slapstick as Natural Enemy is still my favorite of her books.'s or 's. If you have read her other mysteries, it is one of the better of her later ones. If you haven't, start with an earlier novel and work you way up to this one.
This is actually a single volume edition of two separate books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, which tells the pre-Miles story of the courtship of Cordelia Naismith and Count Aral Vorkosigan. Bujold, by the way, is on Will's Authors page so if you haven't read any of this series, I suggest you click on Bujold's name, just above, and bone up.
First, I have to say, I completely enjoyed this book I usually don't read much sci fi and never read space opera so when my son handed me this book, I was just a teensy bit skeptical. And I won't say that I was so enthralled by this specimen of the genre that I will run right out to the local chain bookstore and stock my shelves with more either. But it was a lot of fun. Ok, it was more than a lot of fun; I couldn't put it down. In fact, I read it in an afternoon.
Again, Will has an Author's page on Pratchett so if you are new to his work, go bone up before reading this review.
Pratchett reminds me of the Monty Python with his silly, adolescent sense of humor. No matter how I try to resist, he gets me chuckling and then giggling and finally guffawing. I like the word "guffawing." It sounds like how it feels. And while I am laughing I am thinking to myself how stupid this book is and why am I finding it so funny. The vampire is an absolute hoot. The whole parody of an ex-alcoholic as a vampire who gave up blood is priceless. And the bad guy who curses by saying " ---ing" and has folks wondering what "ing" means is wonderful. The peripherals in this book were much more entertaining than the main satire on newspapers and the media. That I thought was kind of obvious. Together, all the well drawn side characters really held the book together. I may have to go sniffing around my son's bookshelf to find more of Pratchett's stuff if this one was typical.
Fraser surprised me with this book. After reading a couple Flashman novels, I was expecting something a bit more flamboyant and racy than what I got. Not that I was disappointed. In fact, this book held my attention completely.
The novel, set during the years just before WWI, centers around Mark Franklin, who comes to England from America seeking his roots. Initially he's a mystery. He's rich but we don't know where he got his money. He's in England but we aren't told precisely why he's there. He eventually buys the manor in the town his people came from a couple centuries ago, acquires a valet/butler/friend and sets about becoming English. Like the Flashman novels, Fraser uses real individuals from history to people his novels and even gets Flashman in the picture as the uncle of a suffragette. He meets women, lords, common folk, eccentrics, servants, even the King and sees them all from an American point of view. And his history is told thru a series of flashbacks/ruminations that Franklin has. That was one of the most interesting things about this novel. The whole thing is seen from an American's viewpoint though this is book about England written by a Brit. And the ending was devastating, though I can't think of another that would be less so and still be consistent with the rest of the book. I can't think of a category or genre to put this book into except "really really good storytelling." It's one I could read again even though I read the last 20 pages three times just to make sure it ended the way I thought it did. I couldn't believe it. I still can't.
These are the third and fourth novels in Trollope's Barsetshire series. The first two, The Warden and Barchester Towers, take place in the same county with a few of the same peripheral characters but are much more concerned with the Church and church politics. In these two novel, Trollope takes us out into the countryside and a much more rural, rustic setting.
Dr. Thorne is set in Greshembury and tells the story of Frank Greshem and his unfortunate love for Mary Thorne, the local country doctor's niece. Greshembury, the family estate, is heavily in debt and Frank must marry for money. Mary, while a wonderful girl and certainly worthy of loving, is unfortunately penniless, of uncertain birth, i.e. illegitimate and therefore not a suitable mate for Frank. Around the story of the ill-matched couple are secondary stories of Dr Thorne and his rival doctors in the county, the love affair of Beatrice and Caleb Oriel, the local rector and the absolutely wonderful Miss Dunstable.
Framley Parsonage takes place a few years later. Mark Robarts has been taken under the wing of Lady Lufton and after receiving his Orders is given, quite young, the living of Framley Parsonage. Lady Lufton kindly brings in a suitable girl and nudges their marriage, has definite ideas about the proper behavior for clergy and generally rules over her estate and neighboring lands like a benevolent dictator. Mark, however, is friends with her son, Lord Lufton, who leads him into unsuitable company and unsuitable tastes, precipitating a crisis that threatens to ruin him and shame his family. Not to mention that Lord Lufton has fallen in love with Mark Robarts' sister, Lucy, also a penniless girl of low birth. Major bad thing in Lady Lufton's eyes.
Trollope writes about money, marriage and rank and how the three intersect. His novels don't have the comic characters ofor the sparkling wit of but they do have plain good storytelling. Miss Dunstable is wonderful because she, of all the women in the novels, says precisely what she thinks and can do that only because she is vastly wealthy. She makes no pretensions about her birth or the source of her wealth, a product called Ointment of Lebanon, nor has she much respect for nobility of birth without nobility of character. Her misfortune is that she sees thru all the men who propose to her merely for her money. There were times when I wished some of the other women in these novels would tell everyone to shove off but that, unfairly, is my 21st century perspective butting in. Never a good thing to do when reading books written nearly 150 years ago.
The Blue Sword
Last month I reviewed McKinley's "Spindle's End." After reading it and not being able to get it out of my mind, I went back and got a couple more of her books, hoping to have the same experience again. She ostensibly writes for children but her books certainly kept my attention throughout. In fact, I had a really hard time putting them down.
The Hero and the Crown is the first chronologically in time and tells the story of Aerin, the youngest daughter of the King of Damar. There is a hint of scandal about her dead mother and the circumstances of her birth which isn't helped by the fact that Aerin herself isn't particularly pretty or good at courtly manners. In fact, she's a bit of a loner and lonely as well. Her childhood friend and the heir to the realm, Tor, gives in to her wishes and teaches her the art of using a sword. She makes friends with her father's wounded and now wild warhorse. And while reading one of the dusty tomes from her father's library, she discovers the outlines to a recipe that will prevent dragon fire from burning the flesh of those who seek to kill them. Of course, the crisis in the realm comes, and she is left behind to mind the hearth. Which she doesn't do. At all.
The Blue Sword takes place several generations later. Damar has been conquered by Outlanders and is also fighting off the Northerners who have constantly threatened their borders. Northerners are not quite human, by the way. Harry Crewe, an Outlander orphan, is now living at the military base next to the Damarian border. Again she is a misfit and a loner, refusing to use her feminine name and not quite fitting into the roles girls are expected to fill. The King of Damar comes to see the military commander of the Outlander base, leaves in a fury and briefly, very briefly, gazes into Harry's eyes just before leaping into the saddle of his horse.
Two things struck me while I read these books. One is that McKinley is writing for girls at that mysterious stage somewhere between childhood and adulthood. The horses play a huge role in the girl's lives but so does defiance of the expectations and a searching for the true self. It's adolescent girl literature dressed up in a fantasy mode. The second is how well McKinley does this. She surrounds the girl heroes with supportive men, which I found interesting, but also gives them sympathetic but traditional women and girls who can accept the oddball heroine for herself. And she tells stories that are exciting and dramatic and suspenseful. There is magic and dragons and swordplay and battles. In fact, some of it reminded me very much of Eowyn and her defiance of the Lord of the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings. Definitely books to go on my daughter's "to read" list.
McKinley retells the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale in this novel. The novel is full of enchantment and magic and mystery. But it is also a story about home and gardens and finding your true self, a theme that seems to run thru all her books. It's, again, a story written for adolescent girls which I enjoyed just as much as her other work. She continues with her themes of the misfit girl who has a unrecognized talent, growing things, and follows how she finds within herself her place in the world and her family. It was a cozy story. I enjoyed it immensely though it didn't prompt me to go out and weed my tomatoes.
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.