Home : Ex Libris : 1 May 2006

ex libris reviews

1 May 2006

"You aren't at all my idea of a detective. I thought they were cold and sniffy, like solicitors."

"I know what you mean," said Jeff. "But in my case you feel--"

"--as if I could tell you things without you raising your eyebrows."

"Good Lord! Of course, you can. I may put the tips of my fingers together, but I wouldn't dream of raising my eyebrows."

P.G. Wodehouse


In This Issue:
A Little Better

I did a little better this month; thanks for bearing with me!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The History of Photography
By Beaumont Newhall

This is simply an outstanding book. I was prepared to find it interesting but rather dry; instead, I devoured it. Newhall covers the entire history of photography, from the early camera obscura and camera lucida devices used as an aid to drawing, through the daguerreotype and a number of other early photographic processes I'd never heard of before, all the way through the 1970's. In addition to the technology and the people behind it, he discusses a vast number of individual photographers, different kinds of photography (portrait, nature, street, photo-journalism, and so on), and fine art photography and its different periods. And of course the book is full of outstanding photographs.

To write well, one must read widely (so as to know what good prose looks like) and then practice assiduously. Photography is similar, except that studying good photographs takes the place of reading widely. The difficulty, as with any new subject, is knowing where to start. My usual strategy is to find a book that will give me an overview, to serve as a foundation for my further reading. The best thing such an overview can do is help me identify precisely which subtopics and authors are likely to interest me.

For photography, this book fits the bill remarkably well; and I gather I'm not alone in thinking so--now that I've read it, I'm seeing references to both the book and its author all over the place. If you've any interest in photography as an art form, it's well worth your time.

How To Look At Photographs
By David Finn

I bought this at a Borders Books in Kansas City while I was on my last business trip, and read it during one long evening in my hotel room. I'm afraid it didn't make much of an impression, especially compared to Newhall's History of Photography, which I'd devoured just previously.

Despite the title, I don't recall there being all that much in it about how to look at photographs. Rather, it's more of a survey of different kinds of photography, illustrated by famous photos of yore, photos taken by the author, and a few photos taken by the author's friends and relations. It was enjoyable enough; at least, I don't remember being bored. But I can't remember learning anything much from it either.

Jill the Reckless
By P.G. Wodehouse

The books, characters, and settings for which Wodehouse is best known all seem to inhabit an odd world of their own--a world in which young men can subsist for seemingly years on an occasional fiver or tenner from a wealthy friend, or an occasional win at the track, while remaining immaculately dressed at all times, a world where imposters, prize pigs, and absurdly ludicrous situations are a dime-a-dozen.

And then there are books like this one--a romantic comedy, yes, but one that appears to be about real people, living in the real world. Better yet, it's set in the New York City musical comedy scene, a time and place that Wodehouse knew intimately well.

As the book opens, it feels like a Bertie Wooster story. Freddie Rooke, the "Last of the Rookes" as Bertram is the "Last of the Woosters", awakes with a sore head from a night of revelry. And like Bertie, he's young, irrepressible, not overly bright, well-off financially, possessed of a competent valet, the estimable Barker, and inclined to help out his chums any way he can. He has a house guest, an old school friend named Sir Derek Underhill, who that very day will be introducing his fiancee, the lovely, generous, and talented Jill Mariner, to his mother Lady Underhill, a typical Wodehouse dragon. Sir Derek is a Member of Parliament, and has the fierce eye and visage of a Roderick (Spode or Glossop, take your pick), but he simply can't face up to his mother.

And then Jill is arrested for standing up for an abused parrot, and coincidentally loses her trust fund, and thanks to an appalling dinner, an appalling play, and some appalling "help" from Freddie, Sir Derek breaks the engagement.

And then, faced with destitution, Jill embarks on a series of absurd schemes intended to provide herself with a bit of the ready--well, no, she doesn't. That's what would happen in a tale of Bertie Wooster. Jill, on the other hand, copes admirably. With their last few pounds in hand, Jill and her uncle, Major Selby, take ship for New York City, where Jill (aided by the owner of the parrot) takes a job in the chorus of a new musical comedy and gets on with her life--and continues to renew her acquaintance with a striking young man, the author of the appalling play mentioned above, who is called in to help fix up the new show.

It's a romantic comedy, as I say, and the usual Wodehouse skill with the language is in full flower; I laughed frequently. But it simply isn't a farce, and in many ways is all the better for it. The only book I can compare it (of those I've read to date) is Picadilly Jim, which was written just a few years earlier and similarly involved "real" people and situations; but here Wodehouse uses a lighter touch, and seems altogether more sure of himself.

Anyway, I enjoyed it immensely (no surprise there) and I might well read it aloud to Jane in the not-too-distant future. and en

A Hymn Before Battle
By John Ringo

In Ringo's alternate universe, 2001 is particularly notable as the year in which Earth is first contacted by the Galactic Federation, which comprises a number of technologically advanced but naturally peaceful races: the Darhel, the Indowy, and others. The members of the Federation have been aware of Earth for some time, but have been avoiding any contact; we humans are far too prone to violence for them to feel comfortable around us.

But now it seems that the Federation has a problem--a warlike race called the Posleen is advancing into Federation space, and the races of the Galactic Federation are, quite literally, powerless to do anything about it. Indowy are incapable of killing, and while a Darhel can kill if it feels it must, it's almost guaranteed to commit suicide in remorse immediately after. They'd like Earth to provide troops to fight the Posleen; if the people of Earth agree to this, the Federation will outfit these troops with advanced technology.

If any further inducement is required, the Posleen will reach Earth in less than ten years...and so the people of Earth have a choice. They can fight the Posleen with the Federation's help, or without it.

So begins a grim yet fascinating tale, the first in a longer series which now includes four many novels and two spinoff novels. We get to follow along as the U.S. military comes to grips with both the new threat and the potential uses of Federation technology, and finally sends a number of units across space to fight the Posleen on Federation planets. Some of them are outfitted in powered armor that makes the powered suits of Heinlein's Mobile Infantry look like so much tinfoil. And one of those ACS troopers is a guy named Mike O'Neal. He's one of the few who really knows what his powered armor is capable of, and how units outfitted with it are best trained and deployed--after all, he helped design it. He's also a junior officer...will he be allowed to make use of what he knows, or will the idiots in the ranks above him fritter away the ACS troopers through inappropriate tactics?

Of course they will! It's that kind of story. Will O'Neal be able to save the day? Of course he will. But getting there is half the fun.

Ringo's an ex-Marine (he was stationed in the Middle East during some of the more interesting periods of late 20th-century history, if I recall correctly), so he knows what combat is like; and more to the point, he knows what soldiers are like. Consequently, this is not a nice book. It's grim, profane, scatalogical, and all that. But it's also fascinating. For example, what's with the Posleen? They don't seem to have any strategy at all: they just overwhelm everything in their path with sheer numbers. They've got incredibly powerful warships--woe betide the Fleet vessel that gets in the way of one--and these warships are perfectly capable of working in atmosphere, yet they never use them for air support. There's something very strange here.

And there's something strange about the Galactic Federation as well. Supposedly it's a union of equal partners...but how come the Darhel do all the ruling and the Indowy do almost all of the work? Are the Darhel as altruistic as they claim to be? And just how long have the Darhel known of the Posleen threat to Earth?

For the record, I read this book (and its sequels) last summer, and I'm only now getting around to reviewing them. Shame on me.

Gust Front
By John Ringo

The preparations for the Posleen Invasion are incomplete, but that's just too bad; the Posleen are here.

This, the second of John Ringo's four primary Posleen War novels, details the initial waves of the invasion of Earth by the Posleen. It's even grimmer than its predecessor--not hard, considering the ferocity (and fecundity) of the Posleen hordes and the inadequate time Earth had to prepare. The action focusses on the battle in the eastern United States, and the outcomes aren't pretty. After the debacle in the first book, Mike O'Neal's tactics for using the ACS powered armor troops are vindicated, and where the ACS can engage the Posleen the results are good. But there are only a few ACS troopers, and a vast number of Posleen; and this is the story of how Earth's conventional forces learned to fight the Posleen, or, more likely, to die trying.

One lesson learned--when trying to stem a vast flood of epic proportions....call in the Corps of Engineers!

The third and fourth volumes of the set were originally conceived as a single book, so Gust Front is really the middle volume of a trilogy. Very little is resolved here; the book ends with a (very) minor victory, notable only because it is a victory of sorts. Along the way we learn more about the Posleen, and why they fight the way they do; and we begin to learn more about the Darhel as well, and why they might not actually be our friends. In addition, we meet a number of characters who'll be key in the next books.

In short, read A Hymn Before Battle first. If you like that, you can go one to this one...but plan on having the rest of the series on hand if you do.

The Serpent on the Crown
By Elizabeth Peters

This is Elizabeth Peters' latest entry in the long-running Amelia Peabody series of Egyptological mysteries, and I'm not sure why I'm bothering to review it. If you've not run into Amelia Peabody ere now you've not been paying attention, and if you have you can draw your own conclusions.

Throughout the course of the series, it has been driven by two things: archaeological detail, and the delightful cast of characters: Amelia herself; her husband Emerson, the Father of Curses; their son Ramses and foster-daughter Nefret (an English girl, raised as the priestess of a Lost Civilization in a Hidden Oasis); Sethos, the Master Criminal; and many others.

Unfortunately, though I hate to say it, the last eight or ten books in the series have a painful sameness about them. The archaelogical detail has been largely nominal for same time; and the major characters have long since settled into comfortable grooves and rarely do anything unexpected. For a time the interest was sustained by the nascent romance between Ramses and Nefret--would this be the book in which they finally come to an understanding? (Peters dragged that story arc out for a deplorably long time.) But that was books ago, and though Peters has introduced new characters into the cast in each book in an attempt to keep things lively, there really isn't room for them to standout amid all of the strong personalities which are already there.

If the writing were exceptionally wonderful, I might be inclined to forgive all of this; one could make a fair case that P.G. Wodehouse, for example, spent his career prolifically writing the same book over and over again. Peters' writing is competent, but it's not exceptional.

Peters made her mark by writing mysteries set in interesting places which contained a large dollop of romantic comedy; but I fear that these days she's simply riding the gravy train. She'd do well to return to her roots.

Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs
By Ansel Adams

A couple of months ago I joined a website for photography enthusiasts called photo.net. The site provides portfolio space (my own photo.net portfolio is here) and has many interesting articles and discussion forums. Some while back, having devoured a number of books on basic photographic technique, I asked which books should I consider reading next, and this was one of the suggestions.

As the name implies, the book is a collection of 40 of Adams' photographs; each is accompanied by an essay in which he explains how he happened to take the shot, the things he considered before positioning the camera and pressing the shutter release, and the steps taken to make the print. These are usually accompanied by some anecdotes about the time and place, and the general circumstances surrounding them.

The pictures, of course, are excellent, and range from the subjects we'd all expect (Half Dome, El Capitan, Taos) to some that I didn't, including a number of portraits that really caught my eye. The essays make interesting reading--if you're in the target audience. There are no discussions here about the meaning of any of the photographs, or about how the desired emotional response is achieved by the composition; Adams felt that photographs need to speak for themselves. In short, if you're looking for a short course in appreciating the art of photography, that is, in how to look at photographs, this isn't it.

What is here is a great deal of technical detail on how the shots were set up, the exposures taken, and the prints made. The writing is clear and engaging, even when the details were rather over my head, as they frequently were. I'm a digital photographer; the little I know about the processes behind fine art film photography I've learned from my friend the Test Lead over the course of the last year. I wasn't completely at sea, therefore, but I suspect I missed a lot of the subtleties as well.

What caught my attention most were the details of how Adams made his prints--mostly, I think, because that's a part of photography I've mostly ignored to date. So far this year I've been focussing (no pun intended, alas; if I could think of a better word, I'd use it) on composition and exposure--on learning to get the picture right in the camera so that it requires a minimum of post-processing work. I've made quite a few prints, of course, but I've generally done little to the images beyond minor contrast adjustments and sharpening. Adams' approach was different. His goal was to make the exposure in such a way that it was possible to produce from it the print he visualized ahead of time. In some cases that print might be very easy to produce from the exposed negative; in other cases, the visualized print might require quite a lot of work even given an optimal exposure--some "dodging" here, so that this area doesn't get to bright, some "burning" there, so that that area isn't too dark, and so forth.

Adams had two motives for going to this effort, or so I gather from his book. The first was to make the print resemble the subject as he saw it; and the second was (paradoxically) to make the print resemble the subject as he saw it in his mind's eye, rather than as it was, so as to emphasize the details he found important. The human eye can see a range of light that is much wider than film can record; and if you do color photography, the color as seen by the camera is frequently somewhat different than that perceived by the eye. Even with the best camera, producing a print that appears to match the range of tones seen by the eye can be tricky. And if you wish to modify the tones so as to emphasize this or that detail, it becomes trickier still.

Consequently, the book has encouraged me to spend more time over (some of) my images; to consider whether I see in them what I saw when I pressed the shutter release, and if not, to do something about it. In addition, it has also prompted me to spend more time thinking in terms of black & white compositions, something I've done very little of. I like color very much; but for subjects which involve a lot of fine detail, a black and white treatment can be extremely appealing.

Anyway, if you have a serious interest in photography the book is definitely worth getting, and I'm sure I'll go back to it from time to time; but if you're just getting started and want to get a handle on just what photography can do, I'd start with Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography instead. I've found both to be inspirational; but Adams' book is inspirational in a much smaller, more focussed way.

Locked Rooms
By Laurie R. King

This is the latest in Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series. Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, are concluding a round-the-world journey with a trip to San Francisco, where Russell once lived and where she still owns property. She hasn't been back since she left as a young girl, just after the tragic death of her parents and brother in a car wreck some distance down the coast. Of course, mysteries lie waiting; and perhaps the deepest of those mysteries lie in the depths of Russell's own mind......

And with that, I've told you almost all you need to know about this book; Awful Secrets of Great Significance lurk in Russell's own suppressed memories of her childhood, Awful Secrets which are the Key to the Mystery which confronts her.....If Only She Can Face Them.

But though it may be trite, King handles it pretty well. Russell and Holmes are always entertaining, and there are some nice evocations of San Francisco circa 1920 and 1906 (the earthquake, natch). There's less here, I think, than in Russell's previous outing, The Game; but on the other hand I think I had more fun reading it. All in all, not a bad outing, even if the premise is a little silly.

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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