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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cut or Uncut Leaves?

I love the changing discussions of the book world.  Here's a short article from the Philadelphia Times from the late 1800's:

Cut or Uncut Leaves?

In these days of rapid transit, when people will scarcely take time to eat their meals, and when the one great end of human ingenuity is the invention of labor-saving devices, it is not strange that the publishers should be urged to sell their magazines ready cut.  People who do their reading, or what they call reading, on the run, cannot be expected to take time to cut the leaves, and they actually complain that much good matter is lost to them because they cannot conveniently get at it. 

These persons probably would like to have the nuts brought to the table ready cracked.  You can eat almonds a great deal faster if their shells have been removed beforehand--much faster than you can digest them.  But it is a poor nut that is not worth cracking, and the time occupied in breaking the shells is the one thing that makes nuts desirable at dessert.

The very same principle applies to reading.  A person who does not take pleasure in deliberately cuttin ght leaves of a new magazine is no reader.  He is a mere devourer.  He is not only incapable of understanding the true intellectual enjoyment to be had in the act of reading, but he is in too great haste really to read with rofit.  The savages who go at a magazine or book with a lead pencil, a hairpin, or perhaps with their fingers, leaving jagged edges to mark their devastating track, are rather worse than those who do not cut the leaves at all.

But surely reading people ought not to be asked to sacrifice their pleasures and privileges for the sake of either class of barbarians.  The magazines and novels sold in trains and at railway stations might have their leaves cut, since they are not meant for careful readers; but those who like to have the margins thus mutilated should be made to pay extra for it.  There is too much reading in the cars as it is, and the practice ought rather to be discouraged than promoted.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Funny Bookstore Anecdote from a 1950s Science Fiction Fanzine. (Might even be true!)

A certrain New York fan and mag dealer catered to the well known fannish taste for future art (commonly known as pornography) and had a code.  You ordered "fantasy mags", "weird mags" or "stf mags" depending on whether you wanted dirty comic books, obscene photos or smutty stories.  Fans being the slans they are, he did quite well--up to the time his place was raided!  At least one Michigan fan was visited by the postal authorities, who wanted to know why they found a lot of his orders for "stf mags" etc in the dealer's store when they raided it.
--Martin Alger


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Resurrection of Maltravers. Alexander Lernet-Holenia.

An interesting book from Vienna, in which a decadent count "dies", and then comes back to life.  Rather than going back to his old life, he decides to start anew.  This is not a "bad man turns good" story: more complex, and not so rosy.  Instead, Maltravers decides to train a handsome young man in the ways of a jaded old man.

Some great scenes, a subtle sense of humor, with quite a few good one-liners of philosophy, psychology, or humor.  Here's a good one (from a rambling thought process of Maltravers), but be sure not to tell John Gray:

"All men love all women at once, and all women love only the man they love.  All women are only one woman to a man, and one man is all men to a woman."

I would recommend it, though the translation is a bit quirky at times.

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Monday, December 05, 2011

A Legacy of Letters: An Assessment of Stanley Morison's Monotype 'Programme of Typographical Design'. Mark Argetsinger

This beautifully produced book by Michael & Winifred Bixler (2008) was originally written as an essay to be included in the 1999 Godine reissue of Morison's "Tally of Types", but was judged to be too long for the book.

Argetsinger does an excellent job of providing a brief historical background to Morison and his times.  Typography had been widely argued about for a half-century before Morison first started working at Cambridge University: this discussion largely begun by the great William Morris, who demanded not only that craft be an art, but that typography should go back to its scriptorial roots.

Morison began his career at a time when many books began to be photographically reproduced, via offset, rather than being printed with type.  Morison was both a conservative, in that he insisted that historical type fonts and layouts be thoroughly researched, yet also a radical because he demanded that it be efficient and utilitarian.  In his own words, he says that typography is "the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end."

One of the most thought-provoking sentences in the book is this comment by Argetsinger: "The engineers  are beholden to art to the degree that they must make it their task to prevent the servant mechanism from contaminating the master letterform."  This is especially interesting in light of today's age of electronic display of type.

Although the essay is fascinating in itself, it is further enhances by nice plates of type specimens.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

FDR the SF fan and JRR Tolkien the plagiarist?

That great one-liner of Franklin D. Roosevelt's, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" (well, he actually said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" but it has since passed into immortality as previously quoted), is strikingly similar to the following quote from a book from 1922:

"Nor is aught to fear in such [apparitions], save the fear itself wherewith they strike the simple."

Take out the pseudo-Shakespearean language and you've got FDR.  So, here's what's interesting: the book quoted above is The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison (London: Jonathan Cape, 1922; p. 52), a book long held to be a cornerstone of fantasy writing.

Coincidence?  Maybe, but here's another striking one on the very next page (53).

"Therewith came forth that offspring of perdition...the face of it like no fowl's face of middle-earth but rather a gorgon's out of Hell."

Did you notice the key word there: "middle-earth"?  This is precisely the name that J.R.R. Tolkien would use as a setting for his Lord of the Rings books.  This notion, to those curious, goes back to ancient medieval times, when it was variously spelled "mydell erth", "middle erde", or "middel erthe", and even the great Bard himself used it (see Johnson).  However, be that as it may, Eddison, with his unique grammar and spelling, may have been the first to hyphenate it (never mind that Eddison's work is set on the planet Mercury; "middle-mercury" is hard to say.)  Tolkien, though he doubtless read Ouroboros, was assuredly familiar with the medieval term, so we'll let him off the hook.  Not so sure about FDR, though!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Great Big Paley Hoax. Robert Silverberg

Here's another article by a major author that's not (until now) Google-able.

"The Great Big Paley Hoax."  Bob Silverberg.  in: The Eight-Page Hink-Cup. Joel Markman, ed. New York, 1951.

In this article, Silverberg comments on the news that Morton D. Paley, prolific letter-writing fan, is the pseudonym of Sam Merwin and Jerome Bixby.  He provides details, cracks a few jokes.

[What happened to the book reviews on this blog?  Don't worry, I'm still reading & writing stuff down in my notebooks...will type them up soon.]

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Why Ghouls Leave Home" by Ray Bradbury

Strange to say, this brief humorous piece is not Google-able: although I'm sure the piece is in a printed bibliography of Bradbury, the title is not to be found online.  So, I figured, why not be the first person to put the bibliographic info online?

Probable first appearance in: FANTASCIENCE DIGEST, Jul-Aug-Sept. 1939.

Just a few paragraphs, with a high pun rate; Bradbury first describes Kuttner's pet ghoul Oliver (whom Kuttner sent over to visit Bradbury), and then his own ghoul Moses Gable.  Quite funny, and appropriately classified by the fanzine as "humor."


Saturday, March 12, 2011


This is an excerpt from "Biography of the Blind" (1838).  Presumably mythological, but hopefully based on fact:

Perhaps one of the greatest curiosities in the city of Augsburgh, is a bookseller, of the name of Wimprecht, who had the misfortune to be born blind, but whose enterprising spirit has enabled him to struggle successfully against the melancholy privation he is doomed to sustain, and to procure, by his industry and intelligence, a respectable and comfortable support for a large family, dependent upon him.  His stock consists of more than 8,000 volumes, which are subject to frequent change and renewal.  When he receives new books, the particulars of each are read to him by his wife, and his descrimination enables him to fix its value; he recognises it by his touch, at any future period, however distant, and his memory never fails him, in regard to its arrangement in his shop.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Selling Retail. John Lawton.

Selling Retail.
John Lawton

This business book is better than most because the author doesn't just repeat the same thing over & over with an endless supply of anecdotes.  Yes, there is repetition and yes, there are anecdotes, but he has a few good ideas in here.
  1. There is a huge difference between features and benefits.  In book land, for example, the feature of a book may be that it is a first edition, but the benefits are that the book will be a treasured bit of history that will increase in value, be a great conversation piece, add real substance to a collection, be bibliographically important, etc.  Benefits must be explained, customized, and demonstrated if possible.  Features are useless unless their benefits are expounded upon: benefits sell the product, not features.
  2. Know your product, your company, and your competition.
  3. Get as much information about your customers and what their needs are: why does your customer need a particular product?  Often, the customer thinks an item will satisfy his/her needs, but the knowledgeable salesperson may be a better judge of that!  Open the lines of communication with your customer.
That's the Cliff Notes version, but the book also has a lot of one-liner tidbits of good advice.  Recommended reading for anyone in sales.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Analysis of an Electronic File

[This is taken from a rough draft of a longer article.]

Part of this is an erroneous perception that buying something online is less expensive. (For a years, I had a rule in our Albany store of only listing for sale online those books that could be sold for twice the in-store price!) The ebook phenomenon is another perception of value. What is value? An electronic file is a lower quality product than a well-made book in many ways: its resolution is less, it requires constant maintenance in the form of power, it cannot engage the senses in the ways a book does, it cannot be given as a gift or heirloom, etc. (The kicker for me is how bad children's books look as an electronic file. Not only do you lose the tactile enjoyment—especially for books with moving parts or alternating textures—but the very layout is less appealing. Why do we accept for ourselves what we don't for children? Are electronic files like smoking—bad for kids, but okay for adults?) Oftentimes, value is mistaken for price. Here's a breakdown of one of today's most popular books, Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.

New mass market paperback price: $7.99
Trade-in value: $2.00
Net price: $5.99

New trade paperback price: $10.99
Trade-in value: $2.75
Net price: $8.24

Nook/Kindle edition price: $8.99
Trade-in value: $0
Net price: $8.99

So, in this case, buying the pocket book at your local bookstore actually saves you a buck. If you are willing to trade in your book at a used bookstore, you are three dollars ahead with the pocket book, and you are still slightly ahead if you prefer the trade paperback. I personally can't stand the appearance of files on the Kindle and although I find the color Nook more palatable (just to name the big two), I'd still list “unpleasant to read” as my big complaint. However, the complaint I hear most often about these two platforms is the cost of electronic files. Sure, you can get Moby-Dick for free, but you can also check that out at the library for free. The big sellers on electronic readers are popular fiction: people are buying bestsellers on these devices and they are paying dearly for it.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Mythmaker: Paul & the Invention of Christianity.

The Mythmaker: Paul & the Invention of Christianity. Hyam Maccoby.
Harper & Row, 1986.

Now here's a paradox: how can someone so obviously prejudiced, who is not ashamed to take cheap shots during the course of his argument and who hypothesizes so imaginatively, still be able to write a persuasive book?  Strange but true. Maccoby's main contentions are ones which require further research on my part:

1. Paul was not a Pharisee
2. Jesus was a Pharisee
3. Contemporary Jews saw nothing strange or wrong about Jesus or his teachings
4. Paul created modern Christianity against the wishes (and the Jewish practices) of the Jerusalem Christian Church
5. Paul created modern Christianity by blending elements of Gnosticism, mystery cults, and Judaism.

Maccoby's strength lies in his (claimed) understanding of the Jews and Pharisee of the time.  His argument also carries, because the only text he uses to any significant degree is the N.T. itself.  I must find the fully annotated & referenced version called Paul, Pharisaism, and Gnosticism.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Forever Odd. Dean Koontz.

Forever Odd.
Dean Koontz

This is the first Koontz novel I've read since my teenage fascination with him.  It centeres on a boy who can see ghosts--and they can see him.  This is the second in the series; Koontz does not often write series, and as a sequel, this one is flawed by too many references to the first.

Odd's best friend has brittle bone syndrome and is kidnapped by a psycho woman obsessed with the occult.  Unfortunately, Odd's friend revealed his (Odd's) ability to see the dead.  Odd must follow them to a burned-out casino and then kide/kill/run for his life.

There is nothing really of interest here save a few good scenes.  Koontz uses cheap narrative tricks to get out of corners into which he has written himself (for example, Odd is about to be killed by a huge bad guy while trapped in a storm drain--he's at the end of the line & blacks out, only to wake up and somehow he's back on the survace and the bad guy is dead.)

Perhaps I should not re-read my favorite Koontz novels of my youth, but let them stand in my memory better than they may be in reality.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wrong author.

Browsers' employees always get a kick out of books written by authors whose name is exactly the same as a more famous author.  We thought it would be fun to jot down a few of these that we come across (this list will be updated over time.)

  • Italic Calligraphy.  Abraham Lincoln.
  • Selected Organic Syntheses: A Guidebook for Organic Chemists.  Ian Fleming.
  • A History of Modern Russia. Robert Service.
  • A Plated Article. Charles Dickens (book about Spode-Copeland China Works)
  • Population Biology of the Indo-Pacific Hump-Backed Dolphin in Hong Kong Waters.  Thomas Jefferson.
  • The Curse of the San Andres. Henry James
  • The Sheepskin Psychosis. John Keats.
  • The Copperheads. William Blake. (historical novel, also the author of The World Is Mine and The Painter and the Lady.)
  • Hill Girl.  Charles Williams.  No, the "Inklings" member did not write this book: "It was obvious she had nothing on beneath the old cotton dress and that she didn't care a damn."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Galactic Pot-Healer. Philip K. Dick.

Galactic Pot-Healer.
Philip K. Dick.
Berkley: 1969

I guess this could be classified as a humorous tragedy.  Joe Fernright is a "pot-healer"--he fixes ceramic pots in a distant future communist society, which means he's fairly useless.  An immensely powerful & almost godlike alien creature contacts him (as well as others from various planets) to him him (the alien) raise a cathedral which has sunk in the sea.

Once on the planet, Joe and his new girlfriend Mali dive underwater to discover that there are two cathedrals--the cathedral, and the anti-cathedral.  Also, this alien the Glimmung, has an anti-Glimmung--a dark one, who is part and parcel of being a Glimmung--and who wants to detroy it.  Joe also sees his future corpse down there under the sea.  His corpse advises him to raise the cathedral.

Glimmung and dark one fight, Glimmung is badly injured & envelops all his employees who now must truly commune to help him.  All along, Dick makes references to Glimmung as Faust, so we are surprised to see that he/they do actually raise the cathedral.  Joe and one other opt to leave Glimmung but the rest--including Mila--choose to stay as part of him.  Joe attempts to create a pot rather than heal one; and succeeds only in making a really bad one.

Fairly decent novel, but certainly not his best.  The strange plot & world make about as much sense as do most dreams--there's some sort of over-arching sense to the whole thing, even if it is composed of parts which are utter nonsense.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Wilt. by Tom Sharpe

Tom Sharpe.
Pan: 1976.

Unlike Pratchett who is able to work in some satire along wtih his humour, Sharpe is just funny with no intention of "deep thoughts."  This is more akin to Wodehouse humour: ridiculous people in increasingly ridiculous situations.  The book has some very funny scenes in it, but I'm not sure if I'll be reading the sequel.

Stereotypical emasculated British husband fantasizes about murdering his wife, who meanwhile has inadvertently gotten mixed up with a lesbian swinger.  After being publicly humiliated--and while drunk--he "practices" murdering his wife by "murdering" a blow-up doll.  He throws it down a construction site hole that will be filled with concrete.  Unfortunately, "she" is seen just before the concrete is poured, and the police think that there's been a real murder.

Wilt, in the end, is a bit revitalized and on better footing with his wife.  Funny but mindless.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Night Watch. Terry Pratchett.

Night Watch.
Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins: 2002.

The most serious Discworld novel I have read.  Police Captain Vimes is sent back in time along with a psycho-killer and must play the part of his own mentor/idol to a younger version of himself and the rest of the Watch.

The psychopath's name is Carcer, one letter away from cancer, which is perhaps intended, but also one letter away from career.  One can't help but wonder if Pratchett is feeling stuck rehashing the same old jokes and wanting to go back to the good old days.  Although Vimes is successful in being a good role model for this alternate-universe/younger Vimes, can Pratchett be a good role model for himself?  Can his work remain fresh after two decades of Discworld?

This book is quite different than most--no as funny, much darker, and virtually exclusively focused on one character, rather than his usual convergence of multiple plot lines.  We shall see if Pratchett is able to control his own career or if it will control him.

The book is fun in that it gives background info on recurring minor characters.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thief of Time. Terry Pratchett.

Thief of Time.
Terry Pratchett.
Harper Collins: 2001

Another Discworld book involving Death's grand-daughter, Susan.  This time she winds up with a love interest in the person of Lobsang Ludd, the child of Time.

Pratchett discovers his funniest new (I think) character in a while: Lu-Tze.  This guy is the 800-year-old sweeper of a secret monastery who is nevertheless the most respected guy there--to those who know who he is.)  His knowledge of "The Way" comes from a housewife in Ankh-Moorpark, and he carries around a book of her sayings, which are, of course, everyday trite proverbs to us, but their application in the story is hilarious.

The usual misadventures, near catastrophe, and last-minute solution, with sit-com/slap-stick/monologue humor by that old stand-by, Death.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Ship of Fools. Sebastian Brant.

The Ship of Fools.
Sebastian Brant.
Dover: 1962/1944/1494

Originally written in 1494, this book is comprised of 112 poems, each describing a particular "foolishness" in an insightful and frequently humorous way.  This book has been both influential and well read over the centuries, and I decided to read it more out of curiousity and/or an educational impulse than for enjoyment.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I not only found the book very enjoyable, but even inspiring, as I read about my own foibles and why I should try to improve myself.

Brant was a conservative Catholic in Reformation-era Germany, and some of the sins he takes on are a little outdated in today's America, but the vast majority of the book covers general faults of humanity: bad manners, causing discord, complacency, adultery, sloth, etc.

The translation is among the best poetry translations I've read--smooth reading, and the poems even rhyme still.  Perhaps the original is easy to read as well, but this English translation is definitely so.  I had not intended to keep this, but it is worth rereading certain of these poems which are most applicable to my own faults.

Trivia note: this is the first book to refer to the discovery of America.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Golden Compass. Philip Pullman.

The Golden Compass.
Philip Pullman.
Del Rey: 1997.

A celebrated book and rightly so.  The writing is simple enough for young adults yet good enough for adults, the plot is relatively coherent and complex, the characters are excellent, and the setting is superb without the author having to write long, encyclopedic paragraphs about his alternate universe.

The first part of a trilogy, this is the coming of age story of an orphan girl being raised by University dons.  Mysterious things are afoot, including an assassination attempt on her uncle, and strange scientific discoveries are at hand, and so off she goes with some gypsies to the North Pole.  The plot & setting mirror some of the boy adventure novels of "the good old days."  Very good book, appropriate for anyone old enough to read it, and a good one to find in hardcover.

The only drawback is that I have never found the plot device of a prophecy to be very fulfilling, if you'll forgive the pun.  It's more hokey than coincidence, unless done in a new & interesting way, which this novel does not.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi. Friedrich Durrenmatt.

The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi.
Friedrich Durrenmatt.
Grove Press: 1964.

Durrenmatt, a playwright by profession, wrote one of my favorite books: Traps.  Mr. Mississippi, a play, is more his standard work.  One funny thing about plays is that characters often spout off didactic monologues--this is allowed in a dramatic situation, but not in the (usually) more realistic prose work.  This play is full of mini-monologues as instructive & thought-provoking for the audience as they are revelatory of the characters' inner beings.

The play centers around the theme of justice--who decides what is just? a mass or a man, and in what situations?  Dare we follow a dream of ideal justice or settle for practical justice? Are there any truly just men?  In the midst is a love quadrangle between a married couple (who have killer their former spouses and have married each other for penance), a political aspirant, and a failed professional--and the lady, of course.  Very good.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Nun and the Bandit. E.L. Grant Watson.

The Nun & the Bandit.
E.L. Grant Watson.
Albatross: 1935

Another good book from Grant Watson. This one revolves around the changing relationship between a desparate man and the nun he accidentally kidnaps (she was with the girl he intended to kidnap.) The nun, Lucy, is of course beautiful, but it is not love which drives Michael; rather a combination of animal lust and revenge--revenge against God for the rotten hand he has been dealt.

Michael's tale is one of an everlasting search for meaning and escape. Lucy's tale is again a search for meaning (as, I suppose, it is for us all) and a complex one of acceptance and forgiveness. For she allows Michael to take her (in exchange for sparing the child) and she stays with him--not quite willingly, but at least passively, obediently, and even companionably.

The setting is the Australian outback, and Grant Watson once again evokes the horror close beneath it and the feeling of insignificance one feels amongst it.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Unkindness of Ravens. Ruth Rendell

An Unkindness of Ravens.
Ruth Rendell

Yet another modern female British mystery novelist who needs to have weird sex and/or a severely troubled childhood thrown into the plot. In this case, at least, the detective seems to be as normal as the rest of us. As it turns out, the semi-pedophile bigamist who was murdered did not rape his own daughter, but she had half-convinced herself that he had. Or something like that. The killer is fairly obvious, but when, for no real reason, Rendell evaporates the motive to a mere vapor of a motive, it leaves me wondering why.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Anniversary Sale....

The sale is over, and my faith is renewed (once more). It's great to see people who are really passionate about books--not just in reading the text, but in the book itself. For there is so much more to a book than the text. This is why I am not convinced that e-readers will take over the world. At any rate, thanks again to all of our customers for another wonderful year!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wicked. Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire.

An awful and tedious perversion of the Oz story. I can think of nothing to recommend it: the writing is ostentations, the characters are ridiculously unbelievable, the plot is both boring but also beyond belief and contradictory to Oz.

The whole idea is telling the story of the Wicked Witch of the West. However, if one is going to write a book using the characters, setting, AND plot from another novel, one ought to follow the rules set by the previous author. Wicked takes the wonderful world of Oz and its rich characters, and turns it/them into a soap opera complete with useless drama, pointless sex & perversions, cardboard characters who don't act like normal--or even abnormal--humans, sophomoric moralizing, etc. etc.

This is a best-seller, and I can't for the life of me figure out why. There can't be that many people who hate the Oz books so much they'd like to see them destroyed like this.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Mainland. E. L. Grant Watson

The Mainland.
E. L. Grant Watson
Alfred A. Knopf: 1917

The first half of this book is excellent. Grant Watson excels at a few things: intense psychological suspense, interesting nature writing, and mysticism. All of these are present and strong in the beginning of the book, and I had high hopes of a book as good as Lost Man.

After John's heartbreak, however, the book turns into a sort of epic, rather than a detailed description of his attempts to get Mrs. Cray back &/or is utter annihilation. Instead, as John grows and matures (he was raised on an island with only his parents), the intensity of both his emotions & Watson's writing lessens, and the detailed descriptions become more generalized (as John himself is learning to generalize.) Stylistically, this is successful, and it is still a very good novel, but I miss the intensity, the mystical response to nature, and the suspense, that was present in the first half. Grant Watson needed to have John be that intense as a youth in order to show his mellowing and maturing as an adult--perhaps I just miss my own intense youth...?

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Christopher Moore.

Island of the Sequined Love Nun.
Christopher Moore.

Avon: 1997.

Although I'm surprised that this 3rd printing had as many typos as it does, this is nonetheless a funny and enjoyable trip to the tropics with Moore.

The underlying plot is actually rather gruesome: a missionary doctor and his stripper/nurse/wife use religion to harvest organs from a primitive tribe on a remote tropical island. The organs, of course, are sold for enormous profit.

The spirit of the man (a WWII fighter pilot) who is worshipped as a savior on this island helps a luckless and gutless modern-day pilot to save the day. The characters are generally good, the plot bizarre but believable (unlike Fluke), the humor is great for the first half, but sort of peters out as the plot gets moving. Still, an enjoyable book, though it may not be a keeper.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Car. Harry Crews

Harry Crews
William Morrow, 1972.

A shockingly good story. Herman, the son of a junkyard owner, decides he is going to make his claim for fame by eating a car. The short novel follows the repurcussions within and out of their small family.

The writing is intense, the strange psychology of all characters is at once absurd and utterly believable. Crews is successfully able to tie together a devotion and obsession with pop culture, an expose of crass commercialism, and a wholly believable look at some strange sexuality, in a way which is riveting, disturbing, and fun.

I must get my hands on more of his books, but they are apparently all highly sought-after...

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Radio Free Albemuth. Philip K. Dick

Radio Free Albemuth Philip K. Dick
Arbor House: 1985.

Dick is known for his paranoid-loner-goes-against-the-system theme, and this book fits in well. Dick himself is a sort of side-kick character in the story. It is always interesting to me when authors are characters in their own stories, but this lacked the self-reflectivity and suspense that the Dark Tower excelled in.

Dick published the complete "Valis Triology" during his life--the first volume of which is Timothy Archer, the novel that got me hooked on PKD in the first place. Albemuth is a sort of prequel posthumously published.

Nicholas is a Berkeley loser who receivs helpful transmissions from aliens. He bcomes one of a vanguard underground whose task is to help humanity return to the cosmic consciousness it lost zillions of years ago. The last person who tried to help was Jesus. Now, an Orwellian dictator is in power, and the aliens are sending signals to select humans to help them resist.

Well-written, great cosmic insights along with fluff, and a good psychlogically interesting story.


Monday, September 29, 2008

The Tango Briefing. Adam Hall.

The Tango Briefing.
Adam Hall

Pretty bad adventure/spy novel. This has two appealing aspects. First, Hall is not obsessed with either technology or violence, so one does not become bored or aggrieved. Second, the main character, Quiller, is funny: he has an addicts' attitude toward his job & a very weird attitude towards himself in that his body is always referred to as "the organism" and his mind (he thinks) is totally separate from it.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

English Country. E.L. Grant Watson

English Country
E. L. Grant Watson
Jonathan Cape: 1924.

Brief essays and journal entries that Grant Watson made throughout one year. He claims they were not meant for publication, but can one believe this? Perhaps. The writings are of such astonishing depths at times, that when reading, you are aware of being in the presence of genius. This guy is just amazing and some of the things he thinks about on a daily basis are wonderful. It seems that much of this comes from his having time to contemplate nature for hours or days on end. No talk of work, family or friends to muddle his thoughts with daily existence--he concentrates on nature immediately before him, the significance of life, of thought, of the source & nature of spirituality. Great stuff, made greater by his honest searchings, and his belief in the explanations he develops, even knowing that they are partial at best and mysterious for certain. Grant Watson's writing is both poetic and scientific; his grasp of language is beautiful to read.

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Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Caged Whale Sings. Christopher Moore.

Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Caged Whale Sings Christopher Moore.
William Morrow: 2003

A big disappointment after Lamb, this is still a good book. Whale scientist Nate Quinn discovers the ultimate conspiracy: at first you think it's local scientists, then the government, then aliens, the . . . it's the original organism that evolved on Earth. This thing--Goo--can create and control life via DNA (or something like that. It kind of makes sense when you are reading it, but only kind of.)

Moor is off on his humor on this one. Yes, there are some funny parts, but nothing hilarious, and there are no consistently funny characters. Moore seems a bit too concerned about making the far-fetched storyline work than becoming engaged with any of his characters or developing any themes beyond a preachy save-the-whales moral. Still entertaining, but not up to his others.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Pirsig.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
by Robert Pirsig.

A frustrating book to read because the whole time I was wondering: "But why is this book so popular?" A novel about a vain, egotistical and uncaring technical writer on a trip with his son. He (the narrator) used to be a vain, egotistical studing and teacher who perhaps cared a little for others. He then reinvents the philosophical wheel (or at least thinks he does) and becomes obsessed with the notion of quality. At last he has a moment of spiritual insight where it all makes sense. Instead of inspiring him--as such moments do for the rest of us--it drives him crazy and he goes to the psych ward where he undergoes electric shock therapy.

He re-emerges, feigning ignorance of his past life (but really he hasn't lost a single memory), discounts his previous obsession to a practical motorcycle-maintenance level and tries to live a 'normal' life. At the end, his old self comes back.

Boring. Author talks to you like you're an idiot. He is unaware of ridiculous logic and covers it up with long history lessons. Strange book, not to be read again.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

It Ends with Revelations. Dodie Smith

Little, Brown: 1967.
From the author of 101 Dalmations comes . . . a drama of homosexuality? Yes, and a good one. Jill Quentin is (we learn halfway through the book) married to a gay actor whom she loves dearly as a friend. He saved her from a hard life and so she is loyal to him as a wife. She, however, has just fallen in love with a widower, and enjoys the company of his teenage daughters, as well. So -- should she leave Quentin or remain loyal to him?
It is amazing that I, normally a plot-driven reader, enjoyed this novel, as nothing really happens. But every character is superbly written, and the complexity of Jill's emotions are handled brilliantly. Smith's sparse explanations and delicately handled and the entire book is a masterpiece in this regard.
The ending is disappointing -- because it is not the happy endng which we have been hoping for -- but very realistic, and eminently justified by the novel's complexity. Any simpler, happier ending would have cheapened the entire novel.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Princess and the Goblin. George MacDonald.

MacDonald is well-known for being an idol of C.S. Lewis and, to a lesser degree, of J.R.R. Tolkien. This is the second story of his I have read and it is quite wonderful.
As before, I came away a little confused by the imagery of this "Christian" (as he is packaged today) author. The main image in this book is that of the Princess Irene's great-grandmother who can only be seen by those who believe in her, or whose light can be seen by those she wishes to save. These are concepts clearly familiar to Christianity, and yet this magical person is a woman: unusual. Compare this to Lewis' Aslan, who -- although a lion -- is both male and masculine.
Another note of interest is MacDonald's acceptance of and use of evolution. Although approached from a fantasic storyteller's point of view rather than a scientific one, MacDonald makes liberal use of the theory which is now fought against by so many Christians. These two extended metaphors (among others) make me belive that MacDonald's faith is more personal than the over-politicized faith of some today. It would be interesting to read his original romance novels and compare them to the modern 'reprints' edited for a specifically Christian audience. I wonder what exactly needed to be "edited" out of or into these novels? Surely MacDonald is a superior writer to his editor!
In an interesting twist on the Genesis account of the Flood, the goblins in this story wanted to mate with the "higher species" (princess) and were punished for that desire. In Genesis, fallen man had become even worse by the nephilim who had taken the women as mates.
Fun story, well told. Highlight of ridiculous writing: foot-stomping fights.

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The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code.
Dan Brown.
The writing is mediocre. The characters are utterly unbelievable. The plot is ridiculous. Yet the book is the best-selling adult novel in years: why? It is a decent chase/treasure novel with little puzzles to solve, but that can't possibly be the point of interest for so many millions of people.
The "sacred feminine" is brought up repeatedly in the novel, and yet no one I talk with who has read the book seems to care. Indeed, it is just the conspiracy of the Catholic Church that people talk about (ironic in this case, because the Church is pointedly exonerated by Brown from any involvement in his plot, and indeed is portrayed as a source of inspiration and comfort.)
Grail legends, lost treasures, and vast conspiracies will always be popular, but I don't think they are enough to make this a runaway bestseller, especially considering the bad writing. It is beyond me.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Thoughts on the Dark Tower series. Stephen King.

I believe that King did not know where the story was going when he wrote the first book or two. This may, of course, strengthen his argument that the story was told through him rather than by him. Still, he seems undecided as to the reality of his characters and their worlds. Are we to take this series merely as a tale told by a "word smith," or are we to believe in it? Are these characters going to connect with us in a deep way, or are they only part of King's personal mythology? Or, is Stephen King opening himself up, as few authors do, and allowing us full access to his imagination and subconscious so that we may identify with what he hopes is a universal tale? I opt for this last theory.

One must wonder how he and the series will be regarded in 100 years. Will King be the Dickens of our time, in which case vast reference volumes and concordances shall be written? Or will he be yet another semi-forgotten author which just a few people will be interested in? This series is good; his writing matures (yet calcifies) over the 30 years it took him to write it. This may be his best shot at respectability and remembrance amongst our posterity.

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The Dark Tower. Stephen King.

The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower.
Stephen King.
Grant: 2004.

[warning: plot spoilers]
The final volume in this interesting series is as good as the first. All the good guys and the bad buys die -- including some real tear-jerking moments -- except Susannah (who gives up--a very disappointing move on King's part) and Roland. He, of course, successfully reaches the Dark Tower. As he ascends, he passes through rooms, each of which encapsulates one moment, one part of his life. When he at last reaches the top and opens the door, the horrible truth comes to him: he has done this already, perhaps an infinite number of times. He is immediately sent back to the desert, chasing the man in black (the opening scene of Gunslinger, already forgetting what he knew. King could have made this a great commentary on the curse of a character who has to relive his painful life each time the book is read anew (he is, after all, aware that he is a character), but he backs away from this by changing one detail, which implies that next time Roland goes through this, he might find redemption, or at least be one step closer. Oh well, at least it's a positive message of perseverance and hope.

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Sails of Hope. Simon Wiesenthal.

Simon Wiesenthal.
Macmillan: 1973.

A fast and interesting read which proposes that Columbus was either a converted Jew, a crypto-Jew (marrano), or came from a family of conversos. Wiesenthal is never foolish (or confident) enough to make a solid claim, and indeed, his scholarship is definitely at an interested amateur level, but he draws on the research of others and does two things: he shows that Columbus being Jewish or of Jewish descent is an Occam's razor for many of the unanswered questions about him, and he also poses a few questions that lead one to accept his idea, at least as a working hypothesis.

The bulk of the book, actually, deals with the plight, importance, and fate of Jews in Spain; this in itself makes for interesting reading.


Monday, December 03, 2007

The Cook. Harry Kressing.

The Cook.

Harry Kressing.
Random House: 1965.
This has been on my 'to read' shelf for at least two years. I'm glad I got to it (rather than giving up), as it goes into the permament collection.
A tall, thin, mysterious man comes to town to apply for a job as the cook at an estate. There are two families in the area, and when they inter-marry, they will be able to move into a large castle. Gradually, through means both sly and harsh, he succeeds in having the town kow-tow to his needs, the staff at the house fired, and his employers become the butler (the father), housekeeper (the mother) and cook (the son.) He marries the daughter, and after the son marries into the other family, they all move into the castle -- after which, the son's bride dies.
Conrad, the cook, is an awesome character, clearly possessed of demonic power (if not Satan himself, on a little holiday), yet always seeming to accomplish things by verbal and culinary methods. Funny and suspenseful; difficult to accomplish. Excellent book.

R.U.R. Karel Capek.


Karel Capek.
Washington Square Press: 1969/1923
I have always known this book for two reasons: it is the origin of the word 'robot' and it has always been hailed as being ahead of its time. Despite the advance warning, I was still taken aback by its ability to be applied to today's world. Indeed, the main plot of the book (robots come to realize that they can take care of things better than people can) is one of the plots in Asimov's I, Robot.
The play reads fast, yet even a fast read cannot ignore the huge issues raised: who is responsible for the moral use of technology?, what should the relationship ultimately be for man & machine?, will humans evolve or be replaced by another species -- even one of our own design?, what are the effects of leveling of the economic/political strengths of the world's economies?, who watches the watchers?, how does one face personal vs. global annihilation?, etc. This guy is good!

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Rasselas. Samuel Johnson.

John B. Alden: 1887.
A short classic about a young prince who leaves his overprotective castle to search the world for happiness -- or, the way to live happily. He is joined by his sister and an older "man of learning," Imlac, on his quest.
Along their way, they meet with a variety of people who seem happy: farmer, hermit, scientist, philosopher, ruler, etc.; yet each one declares himself to be unhappy. Eventually, they decide to return to Abyssinia.
Johnson's cynicism and pessimism are laughable at times, probably intentionally. Rasselas intends to find a life of continual ease and happiness -- such as his father intended for him at Abyssinia -- yet despite his own experience and observations, he his unable to see that struggle and strife are necessar to experience true happiness.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Broken Bubble. Philip K. Dick

The Broken Bubble.
Philip K. Dick
Arbor House, 1988.

One of Dick's posthumously published non-SF novels. This follows a man who is 30-35 but still refuses to succumb to societal norms. One day, he refuses to read a blaring radio ad on his programme; his refusal speaks clearly to some teenagers who proceed to -- believe it or not -- rebel against authority. More interesting than this guy is his ex-wife (whom he is pursuing again) who has a complete emotional and moral breakdown.

Ultimately, though, the reader is watching these people's lives rather than understanding or participating in them. Dick's writing is good enough that we believe him when the ex-wife seduces the 18 year old fan, or paints the whole apartment black, etc., but the emotional distance remains -- as with his naked woman in a giant ball, we are always watching through a plastic bubble.


Journey Under the Southern Stars. E. L. Grant Watson

Journey Under the Southern Stars.
E. L. Grant Watson.
Abelard-Schumann, 1968

Because his novel Lost Man! is one of my favorites, and because the first part of the book reveals the real life experiences of the author which mirror his novel, I was immediately fascinated by this autobiography.

What I come away most clearly with, however, is the author's experience on a Fijian island in the plantation house of a white man. There are ghosts, a mysterious and horrific volcanic lake, and a magical calling of sea turtles.

The author is a young scientist out for adventure, and he maintains a firm belief in magic -- a belief which is confirmed by his observations.

Grant Watson's narrative prose in this book is beautiful and haunting in many sections. An excellent book to re-read as I find more of his works.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Secrets of Our Spaceship Moon. Don Wilson.

Secrets of Our Spaceship Moon.
Don Wilson.
Dell: 1979.

Sequel to Our Mysterious Spaceship Moon, this book rehashes a lot of the same info, but also presents new "evidence" and expands earlier statements offering proof that the Moon is a hollow vessel from another planet. This book is just as good as the first, and presents strong arguments as to why the other theories of the Moon's origin cannot be true, and why it could be that it is hollow.

The most recent (last 10 years) scientific theory is one that says the Earth, in its early formation, was "whacked" by a HUGE (planet-sized) object which caused the Moon to form out of the fragments. At a glance, this doesn't quite answer a lot of the structural questions Wilson raises (such as mascons), though I plan to look into it, as that theory is more plausible than the spaceship one (though not as exciting.)

Still, there are enough doubts about the moon's structure and composition, NASA's lack of communication to the public about certain things, and those pesky UFO's that will keep me open-minded on this subject for a while! :)

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Flowers in the Attic. V. C. Andrews

Flowers in the Attic.
V. C. Andrews.

This book is generally classified as horror, though I don't know why as there's nothing really scary about it. Four kids are locked in the attic for a few years, so that their mom can inherit lots of money. After she does, she tries to poison them slowly.

The whole point of "willing suspension of disbelief" is that you will accept the premise of the book as long as people still act like people. And that is the flaw with this book: it's totally unbelievable. And as such, boring.

People usually say that this book is just about incest and child abuse, but it truly is not overloaded with nasty details -- only a few instances which are actually handled rather well. Indeed, the writing is good throughout, markedly so for this type of book. Character development, though, is its downfall: the narrator is the most believeable, but even she has moments of being too innocent.

Not too interested in the sequels, of which there are many.


Monday, June 18, 2007

With Clive in India. G. A. Henty

With Clive in India.
G. A. Henty.
A. L. Burt, ca. 1900.

Henty is an author much sought-after by homeschoolers. He wrote historical fiction for teenage boys, although the writing style and vocabulary of this book far exceed that of most modern teen writers.

This book takes place in India around 1750, when England and France are battling for control of the country. Clie is the British officer who made many daring attacks against the French and helped turn the tide for the English. Henty, however, does not make him into a superhero, and points out emphatically that Clive's connivings in one battle were greedy, ungentlemanly, and one of the blackest moments in British military history.

The book flows quite smoothly and is interesting and humorous when describing the fictional adventures of Charlie Marryat (the main character), but becomes bogged down in military detail and jargon when the author describes some of the battles that took place -- his laudable concern for historical accuracy hampers the otherwise enjoyable prose. Overall, quite a good book and I would be interested in reading some more by Henty.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Myths of Precolumbian America. Donald A. Mackenzie.

Pre-Columbian America: Myths and Legends
Donald A. Mackenzie.
Senate/Random House: 1923/1996.

This book was originally written when scholars were gravitating to the theory that America remained completely isolated until Columbus. MacKenzie doesn't believe this and attempts to disprove the theory by a comparison of American myths to those of Egypt, India, and Asia.

There are two major flaws to the book. First, I'm reading it 80 years late, and a lot of new information has come to light. Second, his writing style is lacking in proper structure which makes his rambling, unorganized thesis hard to follow sometimes. The main theoretical problem is lack of dating -- when did the Indian my of such-and-such arise vs. the first appearance in America? Whas there time for transference of ideas? Are the ideas separated by many centuries?

The book does a good job in bringing to light how much you need to assume is a natural psychological process for two cultures to develop similar ideas if they don't have any contact, e.g., why would Egyptians, Chinese and Aztecs associate colors with four cardinal points? Overall, the book is persuasive that there was at least some sort of contact between Old and New Worlds.


The Proving Trail. Louis L'Amour

The Proving Trail
Louis L'Amour.
Bantam: 1979.

This is the first Western I have read. Centers around a young man whose "pa" has been killed after winning big at gambling. Mysterious men come after him -- turns out Pa's family back east isn't so nice. Our hero has to wander around the West -- mostly Colorado -- to avoid the bad guys. Along the way, he chats with a nice waitress. In the end, there's a shoot-out, the bad guys die, and the boy gets the girl.

The most annoying thing about this book is that although it is written in heavily accented and lingo'd first person, our 18-year-old narrator steps outside himself and starts teaching the reader how things were "in his day." There are other, slightly less obvious paragraphs where L'Amour is trying to teach us something about the Old West, but overall, the segments are indicative of a complete lack of subtlety in writing. Passable, but not a genre I want to get deep into.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. Nancy Farmer

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm
Nancy Farmer.
Orchard Books: 1994.

In Africa 2194 AD, the top General's three kids are too over-protected by their parents and not allowed out. They finally escape and during the course of the story are kidnapped several times - by a slaver, a ransomer, a commune, and evil gang. Meanwhile, Mother hires three mutant detectives (see title) to find them.

Story centers around maturing of 13-year old boy and on Arm, the psychic-sensitive detective. In both cases, sensitivity to others is shown to be a handicap: Tendai is too sensitive to be a brave warrior, and Arm is so sensitive that he turns into a baby when he's near one. Tendai loses his compassion for the enemy during a final battle scene, and Arm actually dies during the battle: when he comes back to life, he has lost his psychic sensitiviy. Not sure if I like this message for teens, but it is still a good story. Main flaw is that it spends too much time teaching us the vocabulary and customs of the future and traditional Africa -- overdone and it slows the reading down.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Truckers. Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett
Delacorte: 1990.

The first in a new series for teens, Truckers has the usual (though a bit toned down) Pratchett humor and wacky mythology. This mythology is a biblical-sounding one based on the store (in which these little guys live) being the universe, and the store's founder being God. The creatures in question are "nomes," 3-inch high people who don't live very long -- but they live fast. Thus, a minute for us humans is like an hour for the nomes.

Some rural nomes are forced to move and they wind up in a store which is like a great metropolis with rival families and guilds. However, none of the store nomes believe there is a world outside of the store. Various political battles ensue, and soon it is revealed that the store is about to close down. So Masklin, our hero, gets everyone together and they steal a truck and make it to a quarry, their new home.

As it turns out, they arrived on this planet a long time ago, but have since lost all knowledge and technology -- except the Thing, which turns out to be a super intelligent computer that helps them.

Good, not his best, and definitely for teens.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Rising Tides. Nora Roberts.

Rising Tides
Nora Roberts.

Felt I had to read this due to Roberts' tremendous popularity. After consultation with Diana, I've learned that this follows the basic pattern of romances: two people feel undeniable and irresistable attraction, but against the better judgment of at least one of them. Fate throws them together and they're quite happy for a while, but then break up. Of course, in the end they get married.

This one involves a guy who was sexually molested (sold to men by his prostitute mother) and now doesn't want to have kids of his own: he does not want to pass on his evil mother's genes. The rest is pretty boring, though there's nothing actually bad about the book. It's inoffensive, but by no means am I inspired to read everything she's written.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Who Was Jesus? G. A. Wells.

Who Was Jesus?
G. A. Wells.
Open Court, 1989.

Subtitled "A Critique of the New Testament Record," this book is unfortunately too biased for my taste. However, the main flaw is its poor quality of writing, which makes the book difficult to read.

Despite that, there is a lot of interesting information here, although not always documented. The author's main point is to show how different Gospels treat Jesus differently -- either because of the author's theology or because the mythology surrounding Jesus had changed. Thus, the earliest NT texts say nothing about John the Baptist or virgin conception, and the latest texts are full of this. Wells has another book called Did Jesus Exist? which, according to his references in this book, purports to show that the early NT texts refer to Jesus as a long-ago teacher, not a recent one, and say nothing of his resurrection. (Seems a stretch, but might be interesting to read.) The main strength of his argument comes from his extensive use of Christian theologians as sources.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Columbus & Cortes, Conquerors for Christ. John Eidsmoe.

Columbus & Cortes, Conquerors for Christ.
John Eidsmoe.
New Leaf Press: 1992.

Obviously written in response to liberal Columbus-bashing on the 500th anniversary of his voyage, this book is an overly apologetic defense of Columbus and Cortes.

The foreword by Peter Marshall gets off on the wrong foot, decrying adultery and homosexuality in entertainment, yet saying nothing of violence, rape, murder, etc. Eidsmoe's main fault is that he does not apply the same standards across the board -- thus, we have to understand that slavery and warfare was an acceptable practice back in days gone by, but those idolatrous cannibals must have worshipped Satan because their actions were so evil. His other main flaw is putting words in the mouths of his opponents who, he claims, either deny that Cortes and Columbus were Christians (saying they only gave lip-service to Christianity), or that they suffered from severe delusions. Although Columbus was, indeed, "visionary", none of the books I have read on Cortes indicate anything other than that he was a devout Christian.

The bulk of this book is retelling the story with occasional jabs at non-Christians. Eidsmoe uses older sources, and at least one teen-age book, rather than newer and/or more accurate texts, and he provides no historical or textual criticism. Disappointing and poorly written.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Human Encounter With Death. Stanislav Grof & Joan Halifax.

The Human Encounter With Death.
Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax.
Dutton: 1978.

Certainly one of the most interesting books I've read for quite some time. The authors are psychiatrists who administered LSD to dying cancer patients to see if it would alleviate pain or enable them to cope with their impending death. It did both -- sometimes, and in varying degrees.

After discussing this research project, the authors launch into a comparison of LSD sessions with both near-death/resuscitation experiences as well as initiation rites throughout world history. Not surprisingly, a major component is the death-rebirth experience (perinatal) where the subject describes a scene much like the process of birth; often followed by a transcendental feeling of unity with the cosmos. The authors, having experienced LSD themselves, may give too much credence to the reality of the hallucinations/insights, even after explaining that they are caused by lack of oxygen to the brain -- inhibited by LSD, through meditative breathing techniques, fasting, etc. Their argument is that because those archetypes are within all of us, they must point to an external reality. Not so sure...


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Death and Dishonor. Iaian Pears.

Death and Dishonor.
Iaian Pears.
Scribner's: 1996.

Jonathan and Flavia Argyll are the husband and wife team of this mystery author, who is an art history professor. As we saw with Elizabeth Peters, the novel allows the author to show off (rather than share) his or her specialized knowledge. Fortunately, Pears is not nearly as obnoxious as Peters in this regard. I rather enjoyed the basic plot of the book, because although there were two murders, the mystery to be solved is an art theft, not a murder. However, there is a major stretch of imagination to be made (a monestary has proof that Constantine spent his last days there and brought a holy relic with him), and the crime is too easily solved. On the other hand, one character, who is a retired art thief and now a grandmother, is pretty amusing.

The author has the opportunity to develop some interesting points -- do supernatural powers of holy icons dissipate if no one believes in them? why is the mass public satisfied with religion, yet not the clergy? etc., but the author opts for a short, mostly-brainless, easy-to-read book instead.


Lord Foul's Bane. Stephen R. Donaldson.

Lord Foul's Bane.
by Stephen R. Donaldson.
Ballantyne. 1977.

First novel in popular epic fantasy series. Thomas Covenant has leprosy and is magically transported to fantasy world, which he refuses to believe in. The whole leprosy thing is done well, though overdone at some points, but his constant anger and disbelief are a bit wearisome. The problem with the book is that the reader doesn't care about any of the characters. The plot (Covenant has to defeat the evil Lord Foul) is so inane that it doesn't hold the reader's interest, either. So, the author does what all epic writers do: keep the characters moving, keep introducing new settings, weird characters, etc.

Well-written from a technial standpoint, but the author never gets us to question our own reality (even though this is the whole point of the book), and only in a limited way get us to see that there are other realities: specificly, how different it must be to be a leper. Overall, rather boring, and I doubt I'll read any further in the series.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

King Solomon's Mines. H. Rider Haggard.

King Solomon's Mines.
by H. Rider Haggard.

Supposedly the first African adventure novel, this book contains interesting details of the white man's experience of Africa circa 1885, but since so much is obviously made up, there are some places where you're not sure how much Haggard is intentionally stretching the truth.

Two English men approach a white hunter to locate their brother whom the hunter (Alan Quatermain) knows has gone off to search for King Solomon's Mines. They enlist some native help, and discover a lost valley. One of their helpers happens to be the rightful king. They invoke a civil war, win it, and are led to the diamond mines by an evil and ancient witch, who then betrays them, only to wind up dead thanks to the efforts of African maiden in love with John Good. They escape with a few diamonds and live happily ever after, etc.

The plot is too simple for its time and genre, but laced with enough humor to keep your interest. Quatermain stars in 16 more books and stories, although he dies in the sequel to this one.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Gnostic Gospels. Elaine Pagels.

The Gnostic Gospels.
by Elaine Pagels.
Vintage: 1979.

Written by an academic who is an 'expert' in gnosticism, this popular work gives a brief introduction to the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi.

This book is far, far too short, and inspires me to read the complete translation of these early, unorthodox Christian texts. As short as it is, the book is dense with information and valuable interpretation.

Most interesting is the author's main argument that the conflict between orthodoxy and gnosticism was as much political as it was theological -- in fact, that doctrine comes more from politics than from the teachings of Jesus.

Pagels does a very good job of evoking the climate of A.D. 60-200, during the establishment of the Catholic church and its constant attacks against the gnostic Christians -- who were often part of the catholic church itself -- especially their belief in personal experiences of enlightenment, even though they did not necessarily disbelieve in having a "regular" church.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

The Five Flamboys. Francis Beeding.

The Five Flamboys.
Francis Beeding.

Little, Brown: 1929.

This mystery/adventure gets a regular guy involved in an international espionage scheme involving the overthrow of the Roumanian government. It's truly impressive the number of plot twists Beeding is able to invent.

Excellent Hitchcockian adventure, even though it predates Hitchcock. One interesting thing about reading pulp fiction from this era is that, because the authors generally didn't spend much time concerning themselves with high quality of writing (sort of like writing a blog, don't you think?), a lot of colloquialisms come through, rendering several sentences absolutely unintelligible. In this case, outdated British slang makes a few spots even harder to figure out...

Character-wise, the evil villain is fairly interesting, as well as self-reflective, and the super-spy who helps the narrator is flat, but very cool in a pre-James Bond sort of way.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

'H' is for Homicide. Sue Grafton.

'H' is for Homicide.
Sue Grafton.

The two complaints that I hear most often about Grafton are that she's wordy and that all her books are alike. I read this book as an abridged audio book, which takes care of the first complaint, and I probably won't read another of her books, which takes care of the second.

Nothing really mysterious about this mystery. The reader and narrator both know that she's investigating a bad guy. This is more of a suspense novel without the suspense.

Kinsey Millhone is an insurance PI investigating false claims. The police persuade her to work under cover. She does, and does nothing too interesting, until the bad guy shoots someone, then she chases after him. No Poirotesque grey cells in action here: this is the new breed of mystery novel.


Great Author Alert! Jean-Patrick Manchette!

The books I blog are generally ones I read 3-4 years ago (I keep a handwritten journal. I am a nerd.) So, rather than wait that long to tell you about a modern author, I will tell you now: Jean-Patrick Manchette. French. Noir. Crime. I'm on chapter four, and I can already tell it will be one of my favorites!


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Voyagers to the New World. Nigel Davies.

Voyagers to the New World.
Nigel Davies
William Morrow: 1979.

Here is a book that should be updated every decade or two. This is a thorough review of the main theories of precolumbian contacts between the Americas and the rest of the world.

Davies covers everything from the colonists' theories, to the Mormons, to scientific hypotheses, and even UFO contacts. His most interesting writing involves the very earliest ideas.

By reviewing the scientific literature on plants, arts, histories, ships, etc., the author is pretty convincing that there was probably scant contact between the Old and New worlds, and if there were, such contact had little, if any, impact on American culture. Not entirely convincing, and I personally suspect there may have been more contact than Davies thinks.

The author's final chapter deals with alternative theories on the striking similarities between cultures: these are cognitive, archetypal, and dream/hallucinogenic theories which, he urges, need further research.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

By Neva's Waters. John R. Carling.

By Neva's Waters.

John R. Carling.
Little, Brown: 1907.

An uncommon title by Carling, who was a writer of historical romances. A hundred years ago, there was much more emphasis on the adventure than the romance, though. This is a simply marvellous tale of Russia at the time of czar Alexander I's rise. A dashing and gallant Englishman, Lord Wilfrid Courtenay, falls in love with a beautiful Russian noblewoman.

Various adventures and political intrigues ensue. At times, this is more a drama of manners, as it were, since so much of the plot revolves around certain people's perceptions of other people. Nowadays, of course, such thinking seems quaint and it is felt to be an outdated plot device.

At the end, it turns out that Wilfrid's love is in fact the Czarina, and as such, a relationship is impossible. So, he settles for his second favorite lady, who was in love with the Czar, but now prefers Wilfrid. Strange, but wistfully happy.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Browsers' Bookstore buys Albany Book Co.

Yikes! It's been a long time since I've made any blog entries. As you may have heard, we've completed the purchase of the Albany Book Company. Be sure to stop by our new store! It has the same hours -- 9:30-6:00 Mon-Sat -- and is located at 1425 Pacific Blvd. SE in Albany (Oregon.) It's taken me three weeks to move boxes and stacks of books off of the floor and into storage. We've got more cleaning to do, and then we'll be concentrating on expanding the floor space. But, now that the cleaning is almost done, I've got time to write my little notes about books again...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Aztecs: An Interpretation. Inga Clendinnen.

Aztecs: An Interpretation.
Inga Clendinnen.
Cambridge: 1995.

Along with Bernal Diaz and Todorov, this is among the best Aztec books I've read. This book takes a close look at the rituals of Tenochtitlan and who those meant to the common people, as well as what they indicate to the historian.

Heavily underlined is the Aztec dependence on maize and their belief that humans were made of corn -- because we eat, we owe the gods. This is why we must feed the gods our blood. Also of primary importance is the constant competition, skill, destiny which is always tempered by the capriciousness of the gods, and drastic luck.

She spends quite a bit of time maturely discussing the role of women, and includes an interesting discussion of breastfeeding and weaning. Another good chapter is on the sacred & art: the transient beauty attained by art can be a connection with the sacred, but the transient quality is as important as the beauty. The author's epilog is just a paragraph, but is a beautiful piece of writing on historians. Lots of good notes in back.


K-PAX. Gene Brewer.

Gene Brewer.

Classified as sci-fi, this was a disappointing novel of a mental patient who thinks he's from another planet. (Disappointing mainly because there's was nothing "sci-fi" about it.)

Turns out the guy has multiple personality disorder, and this alien, "prot" by name, is one of his personalities. This was discovered through - what else? - hypnosis. MPD is interesting in itself and I would think that real-life cases would have more interest than this sensational, though silly, fantasy.

I guess I wanted the narrator, who is the psychologist treating prot, to have convinced himself that his MPD diagnosis was correct, only to have prot return to his home world. As it is, prot (the personality) does leave. This departure leaves Robert (the patient) near catatonic. There's some question of how he got out of his room and his unusual eyesight, but overally, a catastrophic return to reality that left me only slightly less catagorically despressed than Robert.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning. Viktor E. Frankl.

Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning.
Viktor E. Frankl.
Insight Books: 1997.

A series of lectures and essays by Frankl, the inventor/developer of Logotherapy, a theory of psychology he developed while in WWII concentration camps. Besides Jungian theory -- which really appeals to my aesthetic side -- this is the only psychology I have found which I feel is pretty much correct. His basic tenet is that people's primary objective is to find meaning, "logo", in and for our lives. Along with this, Frankl believes that man is spiritual at core. Thus, for us to be really happy, even in a concentration camp, we must see a spiritual meaning for our lives. This doesn't mean we have to know the Meaning of Life, but at least an individual meaning.

Logotherapy is practical, though not to the extreme of behaviorism, yet it keeps psychology existential and humanist, not reducing man to Freudian drives & impulses.

An extremely important book, with a lot of truth mixed in. A good one to reread every few years.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

The Story Without a Name/A Nameless Story. Barbey d'Aurevilly.

The Story Without a Name.
Barbey d'Aurevilly.
W. B. Conkey: 1882/1902.

An interesting little book, with a Robert Louis Stevenson short story at the end. For some reason, "Collins" is on the spine of this book (along with the title "Nameless Story"), but this was penned by d'Aurevilly although he is not credited anywhere in the book. Most likely a pirated edition. The first legit U.S. edition seems to be 1919 published by Brentano's of New York.

At times, this book seems almost more of a sketch of a longer one. This story takes place in a remote valley, where a widow and her daughter are host to a wondering Capuchin monk for a few weeks. Neither like him, and they are relieved when he leaves.

The daughter, Lasthenie de Ferjol, becomes sick, and her mother thinks she's in love; a suspicion reinforced when the daughter is discovered to be pregnant! Lasthenie has no knowledge of how this happened. Mme. de Ferjol is harsh and unforgiving. Daughter gives birth to still-born, slowly pines away and dies, not having spoken for years. Of course, it turns out that the monk was the father of the baby, and the mother goes to the grave and curses him.

Sections of nice detailed writing interspersed by long sections of simple, almost hurried writing (or translation.) Could be reworked into a great gothic or Dickens novel.

Interestingly enough, French doctors have described as "Syndrome of Lasthénie de Ferjol" a syndrome in which women bleed themselves repeatedly and secretly to the point of death or grave illness.

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Too Many Cooks. Rex Stout.

Too Many Cooks.
Rex Stout

This is a Nero Wolfe mystery. Wolfe is a big fat detective, and his stories generally have a gastronomical lean.

The great chefs of the world hold a conference, and one of them is murdered. The killer is very easy to identify, and although this is written as a Christie-like mystery, you get the feeling that Archie Goodwin, Nero's sidekick, would rather be (or thinks he is) in a hard-boiled detective novel. At any rate, his very dry, sarcastic wit carries the story along, and Nero Wolfe himself is more of a plot device than a truly interesting character (although he does have his share of good lines.)


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Genesis. W. A. Harbinson

W. A. Harbinson.
Dell: 1982.

Mad genius joins the Nazi's in the 30's to build flying saucers. By the 1970's, he is starting to control world governments from his secret base at the South Pole. UFO investigators who learn too much are either captured and turned into robots (electrodes in the brain) or are killed.

Part techno-thriller, part sci-fi, overall a rather good book, despite how it may sound. The main flaw is that mysteries are solved by very long monologues by various characters; this is more like an (alternative) history lesson than anything interesting.

Much of the book is believeable. Some things stand out, such as ESP, but overall, I'd buy it. The writing is generally clear and concise, but when the author forays into more fancy writing, he does so with some small skill, unlike many genre writers.

UFOs and government cover-ups are fun topics and this book, though strictly one-sided, does not go overboard with the whole consipiracy thing.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Nothing That Is. Robert Kaplan

The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero.
Robert Kaplan.
Oxford: 1999.

An interesting topic that intrigued me when I first read about this book in a review. The first half of the book is rather interesting, as Kaplan follows the development of the idea of zero through the 16th-17th centuries. Zero as a number was never really accepted until this time; before then, it was either non-existent, a place-header only, or a suspicious number used by mathmeticians and magicians.

Throughout this half of the book, the author's innumerable tangents, asides, and references -- literary, philosophical, historical, scientific, religious, or otherwise -- are distracting and annoying, but we still follow something of a course.

Once we reach the modern era, however, the book collapses into a rambling essay on "what is the meaning of nothing" with all the author's usual asides. Boring to wade through, as he seems to have no point other than show off his wide array of knowledge (which, of course, is a valid point for discussion, but not one I particularly care about.) If he had stuck to the history, this would have been a great, albeit short, book.

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Tales of the City. Armistead Maupin.

Tales of the City.
Armistead Maupin.
Harper: 1990.

Essentially a soap opera with San Franciscans. Maupin has presumably lived in San Francisco, and he really hits on the middle- to uppoer-class white folks there, with their casual acceptance of everything and their amateur philosophy. There are, of course, other sides of SF, but perhaps he touches on those in one of his other five novels in the series.

The book centers around a house owned by a marijuana-growing woman with a secret past, who is like a mother to her young tenants. None of the tenants have any real direction in their lives, nor are any very lucky in love. Although largely a soap, there are some truly comic moments in the book (but not as many as the author thinks.)

Overall, this is a safe, well-written story. I listened to the audio book, which is read by Maupin who has a distracting accent. I probably will not read more in the series, but would like to read another book of his to see if he ever really develops his sense of absurdity, or if he just keeps it at the sit-com level.


The Treasure. Selma Lagerlof.

The Treasure.
by Selma Lagerlof. Translated by Arthur Chater.
Doubleday, Page & Co: 1925.

A very enjoyable book. Set in 16th century Sweden, it tells the tale of a brutal murder by villains, and how the only survivor, the ghosts of the victims, and the last person to see them alive avenge their murders. The plot twist is that the survivor, a 14-year old girl, falls in love with the leader of the villains. The leader is haunted by a ghost and is very remorseful; he falls in love with the girl. The witness is too cowardly to do much of anything.

It ends with the lovers hating each other, the girl kills herself so that the leader can get caught (he doesn't) and the witness finally gets the courage to make a stand. The bad guys are eventually caught, and the girl is honored in/by her death.

This has all the aspects of a successful fairy tale: a fun yet dark & twisted plot; good characters; yet reads as easily as a young adult novel. Lots of neat setting details make this successful just as an historical novel.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Hunters and the Hunted. Lesley Egan.

The Hunters and the Hunted.
Lesley Egan.
Doubleday: 1979.

The only reason I read this is that I happened to notice it takes place in Glendale, California, the city I grew up in. It was kind of fun to read along and see familiar street names and landmarks...

The book itself, however, is boring. Supposedly about an ex-husband wanting to kill his ex-wife, it is really just a couple of weeks on the beat with Glendale's finest. A bunch of completely unrelated cases occur, paperwork is filled out, and the bad guys confess.

No suspense is built at all on this main "case" and it ends with the bad guy getting killed in a car accident when someone runs a red light. What kind of plot device is that? Egan is scratched off my list of potential authors to read.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

THX 1138. Ben Bova (based on screenplay by George Lucas & Walter Murch)

THX 1138.
Ben Bova (based on screenplay by George Lucas & Walter Murch)
Warner: 1978

Reissued after the success of Star Wars, this book is sort of a dumbed-down version of 1984. Overall, it is quite good, and Ben Bova keeps us moving along at a fair clip.

The world of THX 1138 is living underground in vast, overcrowded cities, everyone takes mood pills to stay sedated (not taking drugs is a crime), sex is illegal, and everyone is constantly being monitored by cameras and police robots.

THX falls in love with LUH, a sex-born woman who secretly isn't taking her pills. Plot is obvious from here with minor exception being that LUH turns out to be pregnant. She's killed by the state while THX is in jail, but they save her fetus, renaming it LUH - it being more economical to save the name than think up a new one. THX is able to change the record on the fetus from sex-born to "natural" (meaning artificial), thus ensuring his baby a "normal" life.

THX escapes to edenic surface of the earth and vows to return to retrieve his daughter.


The Longest Night. J. N. Williamson

The Longest Night
J. N. Williamson.
Leisure: 1985.

Psychologist tricks friend into living in a haunted house. Shrink winds up dead, main character is annoying, bad guy (ghost) is too boringly evil, beautiful girl ghost is never aware of anything going on, and the book isn't scary at all.

Supposedly a horror novel, the only thing that's horrible here is the author's writing.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Bruce Sterling.

Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology.
by Bruce Sterling.
Ace: 1987

"Gernsback Continuum" William Gibson. Guy sees alternate present: the 1980s as pictured by 1930s people. Dumb.
"Snake-Eyes" Tom Maddox. Guy has computer implanted in brain which becomes hooked up with supercomputer. Okay.
"Rock On" Pat Cadigan. Fresh rock-n-roll only lives when people plug into a human synthesizer's brain. Dumb.
"Tales of Houdini" Rudy Rucker. Houdini still alive in 1948 performing in cheesey movie. Pointless.
"400 Boys" Marc Laidlaw. Futuristic gang war against mutant children. Pretty good.
"Solstice" James Patrick Kelly. Druggies have personal problems at Stonehenge. Dumb.
"Petra" Greg Bear. God is dead - or has he just weaned us? Cool.
"Till Human Voices Wake Us." Lewis Shiner. Guy becomes mermaid. Okay.
"Freezone" John Shirley. Rocker becomes terrorist. Dumb.
"Stone Lives" Paul di Filippo. Blind guy gets new vision and is taught how to see world, history, etc. Okay.
"Red Star, Winter Orbit" Bruce Sterling & William Gibson. Last cosmonaut revolts on Soviet space station. Good.
"Mozart in Mirrorshades" Bruce Sterling & Lewis Shiner. Future corporation goes into past & alternate universes for natural resources. Dumb.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Last Camel Died at Noon. Elizabeth Peters.

The Last Camel Died at Noon.
Elizabeth Peters.
Warner, 1991.

The worst elements of series writing abound here: flat characters, inside jokes, repeat jokes (I mean, repeated within the same book -- I can't imagine how tedious it must be to read all of her books), and lack of interesting plot. Author is professor of Egyptology and likes to show it off. She attempts to compare her novel with Haggard and Wilkie Collens, yet she is seriously deficient in one area: she lacks the ability to write a good story.

The plot moves lamely along and mostly consists of opportunities for the characters to make jokes or refer to previous novels in the series. Two 19th-century egyptologists find a lost emplire that sill mostly lives as ancient Egyptians. Various forms of danger follow, their son usually helps them because he's so darn smart, and evetually the good guys win. I finished it yesterday and can't even remember how it ends, it was so unimpressive.

Billed as a mystery, the only redeeming quality of this book is that it sort of tries to be an old-fashioned mystery. It fails, but at least it makes the attempt.


Death of the Fifth Sun. Robert Somerlott

Death of the Fifth Sun
by Robert Somerlott.
Viking, 1987.

Historical novel of the Conquest told from Malinche's point of view. Somerlott is most successful when giving Aztec points of view on religious matters: it is complex, mysterious, yet matter-of-fact. He has clearly done his homework on Aztec history, both social and political (and has lived in Mexico for 30 years, apparently), but his understanding of some of the historical pressures on the Spaniards seems superficial and basic. Perhaps this is because Malinche (the narrator) was never able to learn much more than the basics.

Characterization is quite good even though personalities may not fit with my own imaginings - especially Cortes. Malinche, especially, is truly a well developed character. Somerlott really only uses the parts of history he wants -- he skims over some parts, makes up others (to give Malinche more power). I think he got tired toward the end, for he covers the seige & destruction of Tenochtitlan in just a few paragraphs! Oh, well, still an enjoyable book.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

The First Coming. Thomas Sheehan.

The First Coming
by Thomas Sheehan.
Vintage: 1986.

Subtitled, "How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity," this book attemps to look underneath and through the surface of the Bible to find the original teachings of Jesus and the original meaning and sentiment of early Christians.

A scholarly book, it is obviously written by a professor (it happens to be of philosophy), yet readable by a general audience. Very convincing in most of its arguments, although there are a few minor assumptions which do not quite fit -- though the author is honest enough to point out that they are speculation.

The main thrust of the argument is that although Jesus was an eschatological prophet, his message was that the Kingdom of God is love for one another, and this kingdom is at hand, but only if we live it. And if we do live the Kingdom of God, it would mean the end of organized religion. Early Christians betrayed Jesus by confusing the message with the messenger. Jesus used apocalyptic imagery, as was the custom, but Christians took it to mean he was literally coming back. Two thousand years later, modern liberal theologians are revealing his original message (says Sheehan.) Very good, need to reread later.

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Jesus Christ Is Not God. Victor Paul Wierwille.

Jesus Christ Is Not God
by Victor Paul Wierwille.
American Christian Press: 1981.

Wierwille, who is considered in some circles as a cult leader, has been going through something of a revival lately. A less common title, this book is obviously an anti-trinitarian study.

This book presents the argument that there is no Biblical basis for the Holy Trinity, and that trinitarianism is a dogma with a historical basis rather than textual. This book provides support for the view that the Bible says God and Jesus are distinct individuals, but that Jesus was with God in his foreknowledge in creating the world.

I was surprised to see close textual and linguistic details for many of the verses discusses, as I had assumed Wierwille was more fluff than substance. The support runs a bit thin at times, and he should have made this a much longer and more thoroughly documented book. The book would also have been improved by a more careful examination of trinitarians' evidences.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Calendar. David Ewing Duncan.

by David Ewing Duncan.
Avon Books: 1998

Subtitled "Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year", this book mainly focuses on the Gregorian calendar, mentioning non-western developments only as side notes or when they have something to do with Europe.

The book devotes equal time to two aspects: the technological/scientific advances -- and retreats -- in figuring out the length of the year, and the political/social intricacies in developing an accurate and universal calendar.

We quickly reach 100-300 AD at which point the book is an interesting history of the Catholic Church, with an episode in the Middle East. What was most surprising to me is how the most vital aspect of calendar-keeping to the Europeans was the keeping of saints' days -- the commercial and personal aspects were not that important (and were still frequently tied to seasonal time), especially compared with the struggle to accurately determine when to celebrate Easter! Good book.


Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Aztecs: People of the Sun. Alfonso Caso.

Return of the Nephilim
by Alfonso Caso.
University of Oklahoma: 1970.

Wonderfully illustrated by Miguel Covarrubias, this book is at times a general overview of the confusing and complex Aztec religion and deities, and at times provides insight into some interesting details.

Intended as a popular introduction, this is also a great reference. His economy with words and clear prose make a difficult subject more accessible to us non-experts.


Return of the Nephilim. Chuck Missler.

Return of the Nephilim
by Chuck Missler
Koinonia House: 1997. (audio only)

UFOs, Stonehenge, the Book of Revelations - what more can you ask for? Missler explains that Genesis chapter 6 means that when fallen angels were having sex with women, their offspring were monstrous 'people' called Nephilim.

He suggests that these Nephilim, or perhaps their spirits (demons?) are reappearing today, this time as UFOs and aliens. He also suggests that they have done so for thousands of years and were involved in building Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid and other monuments. Heathen legends which talk of intercourse between gods and humans are further evidence. CIA and other government cover-ups indicate our government is aware of the situation and is on the wrong side.

Although he does a good job talking about the Nephilim, he does not convincingly tie them to UFO appearances. He gives too much credence to wackos who claim alien abduction. He says that every single abductee has dabbled in the occult, and yet he takes them at face value when they claim to have had an embryo implanted. I always wonder what the babies are like when they're born...?


Friday, December 30, 2005

The Squares of the City. John Brunner.

The Squares of the City
by John Brunner.
Ballantine: 1980s.

Packaged as a science fiction novel, and of course Brunner is well-known as such, this was not what I had hoped. Rather a boring read, as nothing of any real interest happens.

South American dictator builds new city and uses subliminal messages and other means to control citizens. He and his main political rival chose 15 people to be "chessmen" -- these two guys influence their chessmen to make "moves" in a giant game of chess to see which one of the two leaders will win the game. A vaguely interesting idea, but not well carried out.

The only thing that keeps the book readable is Brunner's skill as a writer - if this had been written by a run-of-the-mill pulp author, I would probably not have been willng to finish. But the writing is good, and he throws in a few interesting philosophical conversations along the way.