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1 August 2006

Vegetables aren't food! Vegetables are what food eats!


In This Issue:
Boiling Molasses

It's been like boiling molasses around here; hot and sticky. But I've written a few reviews, and here they are.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Photography and the Old West
By Karen Current

This is one of the books I got on my used book binge last weekend. It's an overview of (gasp) photography in and of the Old West, from the early days of photography up through 1915 or so. More accurately, it's a survey of the prominent photographers of the Old West during that period. For each, the author presents a biographical sketch, describing the photographer's life and their contributions to photography; this is followed by a handful of their photographs.

I picked this up with great anticipation, and unfortunately I was somewhat disappointed. The biographical sketches are good, certainly, and I presume the photos were well chosen from those that are available. But I was hoping for more photos from each photographer, and I would have liked a little more information about each specific photo.

On the whole, though, it's an interesting book, and I'm glad I bought it. Some of the photographers were masters of their craft, and their photos remain classics; I especially liked C.E. Watkins' photos of San Francisco. Others, alas, were not. The author dismisses Dr. William A. Bell, for example, as marginally competent, and the included images prove the point thoroughly--here, at least, I'm satisfied with a small selection of photos. And then there's Camillus Fly--an unlucky gent who was foolish enough to open a photography studio in Tombstone, Arizona, one of the roughest towns in the Old West, and who somehow failed to take pictures of shoot-out at the OK Corral...even though the OK Corral was next door to his studio, the shoot-out took place at 2:30 in the afternoon, and Fly is known to have been one of the on-lookers. On the other hand, he took the only photos known to exist of Geronimo the Apache--the force that caught Geronimo happened to leave from Tombstone, and Fly was lucky enough (for once) to be asked to come along.

All in all, not a bad book if you can find it.

An Old Captivity
By Nevil Shute

It's difficult to know what to say about this book without saying too much. Ian was especially eager that I read it; he said it usually throws people for a loop, and he was curious to see what I thought of it. He also said that it was something of an experiment that hadn't quite come off, but that he still liked it.

Now that I've read it, I have to go along with all of that. I liked it; it doesn't quite work; the climax is rather a surprise; and it was worth my time anyway.

The main action takes place prior to World War II, and concerns a former RAF pilot who is hired, on the strength of his post-service flying experience in Canada, to fly an Oxford archaeologist and his daughter to Greenland. There the pilot will conduct an aerial photographic survey of the site, while the archaeologist will work on the ground. We follow the pilot as he prepares for the expedition (a quite dangerous one in those days) and then the expedition itself. There's lots of the usual Shute storytelling detail, and a number of good characters; and as I say it all works out rather surprisingly.

I don't want to say any more just now, because I like to keep the main page a spoiler-free zone; but if you've read the book we can discuss the details in the comments.

Jerome and the Seraph
By Robina Williams

This is an extremely puzzling book; I'm still trying to figure out what to make of it. (I'll note in passing that the author sent me this copy for review.) It's intended to be a light-hearted fantasy; I didn't find it particularly amusing. One of the central characters is the absurdly named "Quant", the Quantum Cat. You know, the cat that's dead and alive at the same time, due to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? Which is invoked in the following way: "Looking at something alters it. Looking moves particles around." Except that it doesn't, of course--not at the macro level. But as this is a lighthearted fantasy I don't want to make too much of that.

It takes place at a very odd English monastery--or, to be more precise, a friary; the residents are friars. Their precise order is never named, though apparently they are Roman Catholic friars. But there's very little of the religious life in the book. There's an occasional reference to Mass, but there's nothing of the monastic Hours, although the services of the Hours are what give the rhythm to the religious life. Indeed, the friars seem to live lives that are largely unscheduled and have lots of free time, whereas I've never met a man of the cloth who couldn't have used umpteen more hours in the day. More than that, few of them seem to have any sense of Roman Catholic doctrine or theology. Perhaps that's the common state of religious communities in the early 21st century, but I'd certainly hope for better than this.

In most cases I wouldn't worry so much about this sort of thing, of course. If a mystery novel pays a quick visit to a monastery, I'm not put off by little inaccuracies in theology. It all depends on the book's world view, and this is in part what's so puzzling about Jerome and the Seraph. Most books published today are written from the secular humanist world view. If God exists at all, he's in his heaven; meanwhile we have to get along in the world as it is. Even fantasy fiction is mostly written from this world view: the supernatural trappings are window-dressing, there for atmosphere and to drive the plot; the only extent to which most fantasy novels are meant to be realistic is in the interactions between the characters. In "secular" novels I don't usually sweat the religious or theological details, provided that the book isn't out-and-out hostile to my faith.

There are exceptions to the rule of the secular world view in fantasy, of which J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are no doubt the most prominent. The puzzling thing about Jerome and the Seraph is that it doesn't appear to be written from the secular world view...but I'm not entirely sure just what its world view is. It certainly isn't the orthodox Christian world view of Tolkien and Lewis, but there's a definite emphasis on "spirituality".

On the one hand, we have our poorly catechized and sadly ignorant friars; on the other hand, some of them are clearly shown to have a real love and devotion to Jesus Christ. As the book opens Brother Jerome has just died (he stumbled in the friary's graveyard and broke his head on a tombstone). He's quite disgusted about the whole thing, and surprised about the after life, which seems to be quite amazingly empty; just him and nothing else. But despite not going to heaven in any Christian sense--which he describes to himself in terms of cherubs, harps, and fluffy clouds, as though that notion had any real validity--he's not distressed, downcast, or even much exercised about it. I would have thought it would call for some radical readjustments. Later on, Quant (who appears to be not only a cat, but also the "seraph" of the title) assures Jerome that Jerome's Lord is indeed Lord of All...but this appears to be meant in the Universalist sense, i.e., that all religions are more or less successful attempts to draw near to God, and that all of them have more or less the same content. To be fair, I'm reading between the lines here, but the vagueness with which the idea is expressed is of a piece with the fuzzy theology of the whole book. To add to the puzzling theological tone I'll note that Brother Jerome is (per the author's afterword) intended to be the re-incarnation of St. Jerome, the man who first translated the Greek Old Testament into Latin, as though meek, simple Brother Jerome the late friary cook is anything like that irascible, cantankerous desert father.

As I say, I wouldn't ordinary stress myself over the theology and worldview of a book like this, except that it seems to be important to the author, and clear theology is important to me.

On top of this, the book doesn't seem to have much of a plot--or if it does, it eluded me. The late Brother Jerome spends a fair amount of time learning the ropes of the after-life, being bailed out of trivial scrapes by Quant, and wandering about the friary and visiting with his old pals who aren't dead yet; but not to any particular result that I can see. There are only two important conflicts in the book. The first is when Jerome discovers that there's more to God than he realized (this is where the Universalist tendency comes in), and although he's shocked his eventual resignation to the actual state of things has no real consequence in the book. (This is part of why I say I think the theology, such as it is, is important to the author. I think there's a message here) Then there's Father Fidelis, the friary's "guardian", which I take to be an office like "abbot" or "mother superior". Father Fidelis spends the book going through some kind of spiritual crisis, apparently involving a sexy woman who's just moved into the parish. He resolves it by the end of the book and takes a new lease on life...but although his fidelity or possible lack thereof is a major topic of conversation at the friary (and even Brother Jerome goes and takes a peek at the woman's house) there's no interaction between Fidelis and any of the others (including Jerome) on the subject. Nothing Jerome or Quant does seems to have any bearing on it at all.

So there you have it. It's theologically muddled, relatively plotless, not particularly amusing (to me, at any rate), yet seems to be pushing the Oneness of All Religions. I can only conclude that the author is similarly muddled but deeply "spiritual", rather like many of the current leaders of my late denomination, the Episcopal Church. Frankly, I probably wouldn't have finished it or reviewed it except that the author paid for the book and the postage to get it here from England and I'd feel like a heel if I didn't give it a fair shot; and I feel a bit like a heel anyway since I hate writing bad reviews when I know the author is going to read them.

Possibly I'm reading too much into this; possibly Williams meant no more than to write a lighthearted fantasy and thought it would be fun to set it in a religious community, rather as Dan Brown meant to write a pot-boiler and thought it would be fun to make the Catholic Church the villain. I dunno. But if so, then I am most definitely not among the intended audience.

There's a sequel, entitled Angelos; and as Ms. Williams first inquired as to whether I'd like to read and review that book and then threw in Jerome and the Seraph as well, so that I'd have the full story, I rather feel compelled to read it too....if only for additional clues as to where Ms. Williams is coming from. But that will be another review.

The Chronicles of Amber
By Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny eventually wrote ten books in the Amber series; what I'm speaking of here are the original five books about Corwin, Prince of Amber: Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, The Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos. It's probably been fifteen years, or possibly even twenty, since I'd last read these, and ya know, they haven't changed a bit. It was nice to become reacquainted after so long, but somehow it didn't seem as long as all that while I was reading. It's as though every single word had been engraved in my brain--I wasn't so much reading them as remembering them. Consequently, I won't try to review them as such; when I first encountered them, they were too electric, too mind-blowing for me to be particularly objective now.

If you have any taste for high fantasy, and you've not read Zelazny, you owe it to yourself to check out at least these books, and then Lord of Light as well. Finding them might be tricky. There's an omnibus edition, entitled The Great Book of Amber if I recall correctly, which I think is still available. It also includes the Second Chronicles of Amber, five more books involving Corwin's son, and is printed on really shoddy paper--at least, the copy I first saw was. It's too big to read comfortably, and the paper looked like it would start to fragment after a few years. I didn't buy it.

The copy I read this time is the two volume hardcover edition published the Science Fiction Book Club back in the 1980's, which I bought used last month. Most of the SFBC editions were cheaply bound, with thin boards and bad paper; this quality of the binding and paper in this one is surprisingly good, and the folks at the used book store told me that it's much in demand as the only hard cover edition of the Corwin books that's readily available. Publishers take note!

Bystander: A History of Street Photography
By Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz

Some while back I reviewed Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography. While reading that book I was particularly taken with his description of various street photographers, notably Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Atget. And given that I take most of my pictures while out-and-about, walking hither-and-yon, I was curious to learn what other photographers had done in similar circumstances.

I asked around, and was pointed at this book. I had to order it on-line, and at $50 it was rather expensive to be buying sight-unseen; but it came recommended, and I was still in the early days of my passion for photography--I find that when I take up a new hobby, I almost go out looking for reasons to spend money, not a good habit but a common one, I suppose--and I went ahead and ordered it. My chief concern was that it would be too lightweight, that I'd read through it in a couple of hours and wonder what I'd spent my money on.

That was a number of months ago; and as I just finished it this evening I suppose I can't call it lightweight. In fact, it's quite a detailed exposition of street photography, from its earliest origins in the 19th century up through the final decades of the 20th. If I have a complaint it's that there aren't enough pictures--but then, there are seldom enough pictures in a book like this--and that the pictures aren't well integrated with the text. This was done on purpose, I guess, to let the pictures stand alone, but it would have made it simpler if the pictures were closer to where they were discussed. Also, the tone of the text is rather more hifalutin' than in Newhall's book--so that instead of devouring it in a couple of days, as I did Newhall's book, I spread it out in small segments over several months.

On the whole, though, I have to pronounce myself satisfied. I've now been exposed to the work of a great many skilled street photographers, and learned a great deal about their motivations. I've also taken a great deal more photographs, many of them in the street, since I acquired the book. And I've learned a few things.

First, it's difficult to do real street photography walking around a quite suburban neighborhood. Street photography delights in odd juxtapositions of people, and you simply don't get enought people on the streets. And then, if I go downtown there are more people on the streets...but I find taking pictures of folks I don't know rather daunting, especially since I don't really want to call attention to myself. Consequently, my forays into real street photography have been extremely limited to date. But as I intend to continue walking, and I intend to continue taking pictures (I've made--and kept--over a thousand exposures since January) I rather expect I'll take a few more that qualify.

Back to Virtue
By Peter Kreeft

Some while back I reviewed C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, an outstanding book on the decay of a common sense of morality in our culture and the effect it was likely to have on society. Peter Kreeft's Back to Virtue reads like a companion to Lewis' work--except that by the time Kreeft wrote it in the late 1980's, the problems Lewis foresaw were already here. And they are still with us today. I was fascinated to read the following passage:

We have lost objective moral law for the first time in history. The philosophies of moral positivism (that morality is posited or made by man), moral relativism, and subjectivism have become for the first time not a heresy for rebels but the reigning orthodoxy of the intellectual establishment. University faculty and media personnel overwhelmingly reject belief in the notion of any universal and objective morality.

Yet our civilization, especially the two groups just mentions, talks a good game of ethics. Ethical discussion has grown into the gap left by a dying ethical vision. It is the kind of discussion Saint Paul described as "ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth." (Perhaps he had a prophetic vision of our modern TV talk shows!) It is intellectual ping-pong, "sharing views" rather than seeking truth. For how can we seek something we do not believe in? The notions that there is objective truth in the realm of morality and that an open mind is therefore not an end in itself but a means to the end of finding truth are labeled "simplistic" by the intellectual establishment when, in fact, they are simple sanity and common sense.

As I read this, written twenty years ago, I had a vision of virtually all of the progressive Episcopalian rhetoric I've read over the last three or four years. Kreeft nailed it; he absolutely nailed it. I could quote more; I was constantly reading bits of it to Jane as I went through it.

As the father of four children, I want my kids to grow up knowing right from wrong; and I want them to be able to articulate their knowledge. This book is going to help me do that, because it's going to help me do it for myself. I've read it once, and I think I'm going to re-reading it fairly often for a while; there's a wealth of information and practical advice that I can definitely use. If you're concerned about where society's going--and what you personally can do about it--you should read this book. I recommend it highly.

The Wayfarer Redemption
By Sara Douglass

This is the first book in what's evidently a popular series; the fifth or sixth book has just come out, and Tor has issued a special low-priced printing of this book in the hopes of selling the whole set to a new crop of readers. Evidently they think well of it, and on the strength of that I bought a copy while we were on vacation. Unfortunately, I wasn't terribly impressed.

But before I go into that, here are a few words about the book. It is set in yet another shadow of the archetypal Western European Feudal Swords & Sorcery Milieu. The country of Achar was founded a thousand years ago following the Wars of the Axe, in which the followers of the god Artor drove the People of the Wind and the People of the Horn--now collectively known as "The Forbidden"--into desolate regions to the north of Achar. After the wars, the Acharites, in keeping with Artor's Way of Axe and Plough, cut down the forests, tilled the land, were fruitful and multiplied. As our story begins they are ruled by King Priam, and Artor is served by a church hierarchy known as the "Seneschal" (huh?). The Seneschal has a military arm, the Axe Wielders, who are led by one Axis Rivkahson, the BattleAxe of the Axe Wielders. Axis is the bastard son of Priam's sister, Princess Rivkah, who died at this birth. Rivkah was married to Duke Searlas of Ichtar, and gave him a legitimate son, Bornehold, who is now the Duke; Axis and Bornehold hate each other passionately. Both love a noble woman named Faraday who is betrothed to Bornehold by her parents but nevertheless has given her heart to Axis. Already we have enough hatred to drive a moderately sized plot; but there is worse to come.

In accordance with the legendary Prophecy, of which none of the Acharites has heard, Axis' unknown father has two sons: Axis, and the evil, fiendish, and uncanny Gorgrael, the Destroyer. Soon Gorgrael's wraiths of ice and snow will begin to attack Achar from the north; the entire land will be made waste unless the Acharites can band together with the remnants of the Forbidden. Only united by Axis, the StarMan, and Faraday, the TreeFriend, can the three races defeat Gorgrael--otherwise, they will die.

On the face of it, this is a reasonably typical premise for an epic fantasy. So why didn't I like it? First, the writing's lousy. The prose is especially clunky for the first hundred or so pages, though it improves a bit after that. Douglass has no ear for names, some of which are laughable, and she moves her characters around like puppets. Sometimes they'll have a fit of angst over something she wants them to do, but then they obediently do whatever the plot--that is, the Prophecy--wants them to do.

On top of that, there's something about the book, beyond just the quality of the writing, that I found repellent.

Given all this, why is the series so popular? It's possible that the writing improves; but why would readers have moved on to the second novel after reading the first? I think I know why, and it has to do with why I found the book so repellent. It's all about the world view.

In N.T. Wright's academic lingo, a "world view" is defined, in part, by two kinds of stories told by those who share the world view: stories they tell to bolster and strengthen their own world view, and stories they tell to subvert the world views of others. Some stories can work in both modes. The fantasy of C.S. Lewis, for example, is a prime example of work written from a Christian world view, which strengthens that world view among Christian readers, and which may well subvert non-Christian world views among other readers. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is an excellent example of fiction written specifically to subvert the Christian world view. (If you don't believe me, Google some of Pullman's recent interviews. Lewis makes him so mad he can hardly contain himself.)

Douglass tells a story in which the dominant civilization, which looks markedly Western European with its monarchy and church, is based on lies. The church is the guardian of those lies. The heroes, Axis and Faraday, must abandoned the lies of their childhood and embrace the Old Ways of the People of the Horn and the People of the Wind. The People of the Horn live in the remnants of the Great Forest of Avarinheim; they are strictly non-violent and live in harmony with nature. That is, they always apologize to the animals they kill for food or for blood sacrifice (!) to the Mother, a goddess who personifies Nature. If they attempt to retain their old beliefs, all of Achar will be laid waste.

Did I mention that none of the brothers of the Seneschal are shown in a good light? The leaders are narrow-minded, intolerant, and violent at best, and usually hypocritical liars to boot; and the one parish "priest" that we meet is a child molester.

What we have here is a story which attempts to subvert the institutions of our Western and Christian heritage in favor of (I'm guessing) a liberal, literary, (and most likely purely metaphorical) paganism. As such it's a story which I'd naturally find repellent, and one which I figure will resonate with a certain class of reader, and sufficiently to overcome the weakness of the writing and the character development.

Anyway, I'm giving the rest of the series a miss--I'll just have to find something else to read on the plane during next week's business trip.

Dies the Fire
By S.M. Stirling

S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire begins with the end of the world as we know it. One morning, for reasons unknown, all higher technology ceases to work. All electrical gadgets are nonfunctional. Guns will not fire. Steam pressure will no longer drive an engine. Cars run off the road; food spoils in refrigerators; jumbo jets fall out of the sky. The cause is and remains unclear; one character opines that "Alien Space Bats" have chosen to drive mankind back to the pre-industrial age.

As with Eric Flint's 1632 series, the cause is almost immaterial; the interest is in how our heroes adapt to the change in circumstances. Stirling gives us two primary viewpoint characters; the first is Mike Havel, ex-Marine and bush pilot. He's flying the wealthy Larsson family from Oregon to their ranch in Montana when the Change occurs. His story begins as he draws on his strength and his backwoods experience to get the Larssons to safety--and on his memories of his Marine gunnery sergeant to get the best effort from each of the people in his charge--a group that continues to grow throughout the book.

The second viewpoint character is Juniper Mackenzie, folk musician and Wiccan "High Priestess". Quicker to see the implications of the Change than most, she immediately leaves the city of Corvallis with her daughter and a close friend for her cabin out in the woods. She's hoping that other members of her coven will join her there; in the mean time, the goal is to survive through the Dying Time that she can clearly see approaching. Others begin to cluster around her, just as they do around Havel.

Both of these groups realize that the world has become a very dangerous place; there is not enough to go around, and if they do not defend themselves they'll be destroyed. Both, in addition, are more or less on the side of the angels--they'll play fair with anyone who'll play fair with them. Their styles, however, quite different. Mackenzie and her friends, and those who join them, immediately settle down to practical matters: getting the crops planted, so they'll survive the winter--and learning how to fight, so they can survive those who would take their harvest from them. Over time they begin to build a society based on consensus, decency, and honesty--but it's very clear (much to her chagrin) that all involved look to "Lady Juniper" as their leader.

Havel's first goal is to get the Larssons from Idaho (where they crash) to their country estate in Oregon. Like Clan Mackenzie, Havel's group emphasizes both the crafts and skills needed in the post-Change world, but also swordplay, archery, and horsemanship. Where Clan Mackenzie is settled in one place, Havel's group is mobile, trading skills and the things they make with the settled groups they pass. Being decent people, they rescue a number of folks from fates worse than death, first as they see need, and eventually as a matter of business. By the time they reach central Oregon Havel is leading what's essentially a band of knights (though he doesn't think of it in those terms) called the Bearkillers.

Mike and Juniper aren't the only ones to see the possibilities of the post-Change world, of course; and their chief antagonist is the Protector, a former professor of Medieval History who's trying to rebuild the feudal system (with himself as King, naturally) with fear and blood as the mortar. In his view, you can be a farmer or you can live off of the farmers as a rancher lives off of his sheep. Clan Mackenzie and the Bearkillers are natural allies, and naturally they band together against the Protector.

Dies the Fire is an interesting and well-written book, if not strictly original. Portions of it remind me of Lucifer's Hammer; and the premise is strongly reminiscent of John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons. In fact, there's something of a flood of apocalypse novels of late, especially if you count Eric Flint's 1632 series. I was also interested in Stirling's choice of Wiccans as his protagonists. Juniper Mackenzie is kind, intelligent, and clearly sincere about her Wiccan religion; and the fact that she practices what she preaches leads many other characters to adopt Wicca as the book progresses. I find that troubling.

If you think of religion as primarily an internal thing, as a way of viewing the world that helps you cope, then it may well be true that there are many paths that lead to God, as Juniper says at one point. By that view, Wicca makes as much sense as any other religion. But if you think of religion as being based in truth, as being our confrontation with ultimate reality, then obviously some views of the Godhead are truer than others. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is God and the Son of God: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Wiccans are not satanists, as such, and I do not hate them or wish to persecute them; I'm sure the proportion of good and bad people is much the same within Wicca as without. But they are, at best, misled--and as teachers, at best misleading. It troubles me to see them lauded in what is arguably a mainstream novel. That said, one of the basic messages of the book is that courage, fortitude, decency, charity, and other virtues are survival traits, and that's a message worth spreading.

There's a sequel out in hardcover; I'll undoubtedly buy it when it comes out in paperback.

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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