Home : Ex Libris : 1 September 1998

ex libris reviews

1 September 1998


We talked about pipe flanges for a while. It is true that there's not much about pipe flanges to bewitch the imagination, but we were in one of the downtown hotels where it was warm. When it is minus thirty-eight degrees centigrade outside, it can be counted a pleasant experience to stand in a warm place talking with a fat Canadian about pipe flanges.
Paul Theroux


Contents


In This Issue:
Score: 3Com 3, Gateway 0

This has been an interesting month. My Gateway 2000 laptop went into the shop for a second time; they fixed the problem but managed to introduce a new one. After a prolonged period of phone calls and negotiations with Gateway tech support, it's been determined that it must go in again. I'd like to give all due credit to Gateway; I love my Solo 2300 laptop, it's a joy to use, and I may very well buy another from them in due course. The tech support people have been courteous, patient, helpful, and, most important, they have been readily available.

It's the Gateway 2000 service technicians who have earned my wrath.

Still, third time is the charm, as they say. Once again I will ship it in, but this time I will insert a note requesting slightly more thorough testing this time. The practical implications for you, dear reader, are that Ex Libris is a little early this month.

It's not been all bad on the home technology front, however. Three weeks ago I became the proud owner of a "Palm III Connected Organizer", a nifty gadget made by 3Com. With this little device, I can save addresses, phone numbers, and my calendar. Of course, little handheld devices that can do those things have been around for years. I can keep a "to do" list, and take notes on any topic, arranged as an outline. Of course, I can do that with a paper notebook. I can download electronic books to it, and read them where ever I am. Of course, I can do that with a paperback. I can play a variety of games, including solitaire, mahjongg, crossword puzzles, a variety of action games, and so forth. Of course, I can do that with a Nintendo GameBoy. Plus, I can track my expenses, use it as a calculator, read and reply to e-mail, and many other things. Of course, I can do all of these things with a laptop computer.

The Palm III, however, does all of these things. It's about the size of a pocket calculator, about 5" x 3" by 5/8", and weighs less than six ounces. It fits easily in my shirt or pants pocket. It's no big deal to take it with me wheresoever I go. I wouldn't carry an electric organizer that just did addresses and dates. I wouldn't carry a paper notebook or Dayrunner where ever I go. I don't carry paperbacks with me unless I've got my briefcase or a backpack. I wouldn't carry a GameBoy around with me. My laptop (may it run forever) (once it comes back) is too big to take most places with me.

But put all of those features into a little package, and suddenly it becomes really cool. It now rides in my pocket as a matter of course. It follows me around the house. It goes with me to meetings. (Hint: don't bother trying to do crossword puzzles during a boring meeting; it's too obvious.)

Data entry is done using a plastic-tipped stylus that slides into a silo on the back of the machine when not in use. You can tap out words and sentences using an on-screen keyboard, or you can just write them long hand. Unlike the larger, more expensive Apple MessagePad, the Palm III doesn't try to learn your personal handwriting; instead, you use a simplified written alphabet called Graffiti, which I have found surprisingly simple and easy to use. I've entered quite a lot of text this way; in particular, I've taken notes on every book I read this month, to aid in writing this month's Ex Libris.

Perhaps the neatest thing about the Palm III is that it doesn't try to be an entire desktop system in your hand. It has no disk drive, nor any expansion slots; it assumes that it's simply a remote extension of your desktop. Suppose, for example, that you'd rather manage your list of business contacts, your "to do" list, and your calendar using PIM software on your desktop machine. No problem; the Palm III comes with a desktop program just for this purpose. Plug the Palm III's Hotsync Cradle to your PC, put the Palm III in the cradle, press a button, and lo and behold, your PC and your Pilot are contain the same information. And if you already use some desktop PIM, you're still in luck; there are Hotsync "conduits" between the Palm III and most of the available PIM applications.

The Palm III is the third generation machine; the first was the Pilot 500 and 1000; the second was the PalmPilot Personal and Professional. Among cognescenti, all of these devices are referred to collectively as PalmPilots. Upgrades are readily available from 3Com; even a lowly Pilot 500 can be upgraded so that it's nearly equivalent to a Palm III. In a world of rapid obsolescence, that kind of support is comforting.

I also got some reading done this month, between talking to Gateway on the phone and downloading shareware for my Palm III, though not nearly as many as last month, including new books by C.J. Cherryh and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. Enjoy!

In Times to Come

Books on the soon-to-be-read stack include more by Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, Anthony Powell, and Lawrence Block.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Once again I spent the month reading to Jane, and once again I have no books to review, for I am still working on my own novel. I'm about to start Chapter 17; I was in Chapter 12 last month, so my output has slowed considerably, mostly due to problems with my laptop. I've moved all novel-writing operations to our desktop system for the time being, and hope to be rather more productive this month.

Not that that's any use to anyone reading this page, as the novel will likely never see the light of day. Heaven alone knows whether anyone would be interested in publishing it, and I've no interest in vanity press, even web-based vanity press. But Jane tells me she doesn't want me to read anything else to her until I finish my novel, so on I go. Wish me luck.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Downbelow Station
By C.J. Cherryh

Published in 1981, this book has long been the cornerstone of Cherryh's future history. Last month I read one of her latest books, Finity's End, which is nearly a direct sequel; this prompted me to go back and refresh my memory of the earlier events.

The action takes place on Pell Station, the Earth Company's most important outpost outside of the solar system, at a crucial point in the war between the Earth Company and the rebellious forces of Cyteen-based Union. The politics are remarkably complicated. The Konstantine family, stationmasters of Pell for almost two centuries, want to preserve Pell, and not only Pell but the indigenous inhabitants of Downbelow, the planet Pell orbits. So far, Pell has survived by remaining neutral in the war between Earth and union. Jon Lukas, heir of a family almost as long on Pell as the Konstantines, wants to be stationmaster himself, and is willing to deal with the devil if necessary. The indigenes of Downbelow, the Downers, want peace and friendship with kind humans, but scorn the brutal "Lukas-men". Union wants control of Pell, because Pell orbits Downbelow; habitable planets are scarce. Earth wants peace at any price, and will sell Pell to get it. Earth's Fleet, commanded by Conrad Mazian, renounced by Earth, wants a base and supplies. The merchant-ship captains want peace, commerce, and freedom from exploitation by the stations and the Fleet. The resolution of these forces will shape human history for generations.

Downbelow Station is not a nice book; it's not a comfortable book; but it is a remarkably good book.

PalmPilot: The Ultimate Guide
By David Pogue

I bought this book a few days after purchasing my Palm III. I learned a few tricks and techniques, and learned quite a lot about the machine. It's an excellent book for newcomers to the PalmPilot, as it maps out the whole PalmPilot world. The book includes a CD with a vast quantity of applications, games, and documents. The CD is helpful but unnecessary to anyone with an Internet connection; publishing delay being what it is, later releases of most of the software are readily available on-line.

If what I've said about the PalmPilot intrigues you, this would be a good book to look at.

The Stars My Destination
By Alfred Bester

This is a classic science fiction novel that I somehow missed reading until this month. I'd seen several positive mentions of it in the past few months, saw it on the shelf at Border's, and decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did.

Very different in feel from Bester's other novel, The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination is a classic tale of revenge. Gully Foyle, working spaceman, is stranded in a drifting hulk of a spaceship; the rest of the crew is dead. He survives day-to-day on ship's rations and canned air until a passing ship ignores his distress beacon. He vows to survive and take revenge on the ship that condemned him to death.

The book was clearly inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo, but is by no means a slavish imitation--Gully Foyle is, in many ways, more complicated than Edmond Dantes. He begins the book as a cipher, a rough, lower-class spaceman. Throughout the book he grows, not only in wealth, not only in power, not only in education, but also in compassion and morality. He starts out much nastier than Dantes, who, after all, only harmed those who had harmed him. Foyle, on the other hand, ruthlessly removes all obstacles between himself and his target.

The future portrayed by the book is extremely dated; it was written in the 1950's. The world is governed by the great Corporations, which have become feudal clans, but the list of Corporations is 1950's: no computer firms, no networking firms, nor any mention of such.

The "jaunte", however, more than makes up for these deficiencies. By the time of the novel, the standard method of surface travel is by "jaunting" -- transporting oneself to another location by the power of one's mind. The best jaunters can travel over a thousand miles at a step. It's only necessary to know for sure just where you are, and just where your destination is. Bester had fun working out the implications of this. Wealthy men travel in cars, buses, and walk from place to place; not jaunting is a sign of their wealth. Houses are surrounded by labyrinths to confuse visitors: it's easy to jaunt to someone's front door, but difficult to jaunt into their livingroom if you're not sure where their livingroom is relative to that door. Prisoners are kept in perpetual darkness in the "hospital caves"; unable to see, unable to determine their position, they can't jaunt away.

The ending was a little lacking, but I read The Stars My Destination with great pleasure, and expect to read it again someday.

The Barbarian Conversion
By Richard Fletcher

I've been working on this book at lunchtime for many, many months, and I finally finished it. It is a history of how the "barbarians" of Europe were converted to Christianity. Though dry, it's an interesting story.

In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus commanded his disciples to spread the word from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Luke hints strongly that the first great step to this end has been accomplished when St. Paul finally comes to Rome, the center of the Roman civilization and the known world. What is certain is that for several centuries thereafter Christianity was primarily urban and Roman--that is to say, it spread within the confines of the Roman Empire, but little attempt was made to go beyond. Once the cities were converted, there were occasional efforts to persuade landholders and bishops to see to the peasants in the countryside, but Christianity remained largely urban.

The faith was first spread outside the bounds of the Empire by a few devout, driven men, of whom St. Patrick is the most familiar. Their efforts ultimately lead to the establishment of abbeys and monasteries in the British Isles and mainland Europe; these became centers of missionary work.

I must confess, the way in which these early missionaries spread the Gospel rather curls my toes. A typical tactic at this stage was for the missionary to take an axe or a torch to the local shrine with the intent of destroying it. I should point out that this took considerable courage, as the missionary was typically alone in his endeavours. What is most striking is how effective these tactics were. The missionary was effectively saying "My God is stronger than your God." The people of the region sometimes killed the missionary for his presumption, but perhaps more often judged that the missionary must be right; otherwise the god whose shrine was defiled would have struck him down.

Later, conversion efforts focussed on tribal chieftains and the leaders of the emerging nobility. Here, the message was "My God is a better provider than your God," and again it was remarkably successful. Through most of Europe, the faith spread from the leaders and prelates of one country to the next, and then down by dictatorial mandate to the common folk. Politics were often involved, and several countries played the Pope against the Byzantine Emperor for generations before settling down to be Latin or Greek in their devotions.

The most fascinating question raised by Fletcher's book is "What does it mean to be a Christian?" Reading how the church spread, what it meant to join the church, and how the new Christians lived, I find that to be a hard question to answer. I suspect that I would find their faiths to be remarkably shallow; but then, they might find my piety to be remarkably lacking. After all, I've never established a chapel, a parish church, or an abbey. One must also make allowances for differences in culture and education. They were Christians, but they were products of their time, as I am a product of mine. If I can see obvious failings in their understanding and practice of the faith, no doubt they could tell me of my obvious failings. It is a humbling thought.

The Grace in Older Women
By Jonathan Gash

This was something of a disappointment. At their best, Gash's Lovejoy novels are a rollicking rollercoaster ride: it's occasionally difficulty to see the scenery clearly, but it all makes sense when you get off. This is not one of the best; it more nearly resembles a long, slow bus ride through a city illuminated only by random lightning flashes. There were some interesting moments, but little makes sense, and you're terribly glad when it's all over.

On top of that, Lovejoy, the scruffy, nearly indigent antique dealer, is drawn almost as a caricature of himself. He is ruder than usual, poorer than usual, scruffier than usual, more ineffectual than usual, and, some how, more attractive to women than usual. Lovejoy has somehow always been attractive to women despite his rudeness, but in this book they are drawn to him like flies to honey. I can't think of any term for the literary equivalent to overacting, but with this book Gash is guilty of it.

Ignore this one. Go get The Judas Pair instead; it's a lot more fun.

Different Women Dancing
By Jonathan Gash

This is the first in a new series by Gash, and having enjoyed his Lovejoy mysteries (most of them, anyway), I bought it eagerly.

Alas! I'm somewhat sorry I did. This is evidently Gash's attempt to write serious (as opposed to humorous) mysteries. His protagonist is a young doctor named Clare Burtonall. After witnessing a murder, her inquiries entangle her with the world of prostitution, particularly male prostitution.

My chief complaint about this book is that it was dull; for serious mysteries I'll take Elizabeth George or Dick Francis any day. My secondary complaint is that I found it unbelievable; for a seamy picture of the underworld it was fairly tame, and Bonn, the male prostitute with a heart of gold who knows just what women want, seemed singularly unlikely. If Gash is hinting that prostitution isn't seamy, just illegal, I'm afraid I don't believe him.

Riding the Iron Rooster
By Paul Theroux

I've been interested in China for several years now, and so I was delighted when I found this book, which my parents had left in the house when they moved last year. Non-fiction, it is Paul Theroux's tale of a trip he took to China in 1986; he wished to travel all over the country by train, to see the landscape, visit with the people, and to find out what had changed since the death of Mao. It is a fascinating account, at least if one is already somewhat familiar with the recent history of China.

The book starts inauspiciously. Theroux travels to Peking with a tour group, taking the train from Paris to Berlin to Poland to Russia, through Siberia to Mongolia, and eventually to Peking. He seems rather snotty and arrogant in this segment, as though he felt superior to his traveling companions. Once in Peking, though, he is on his own, and the book takes off. Theroux evidently has the talent, which I lack, of making himself at home in strange places: of living there, meeting the local people, talking with them, and so on. It's the only real way to get to know a country and its people, and it's a far cry for the sort of sight-seeing I'd likely be doing.

It would be futile to give a detailed description of all that happens, but I'll relate one anecdote. On a train near Shanghai, Theroux is told of a nearby village, Min Hong, where peasants were brought from the fields, moved into highrise appartment buildings, and set to working in the factory. Apparently, they brought their country ways with them: they keep pigs and ducks in their appartments, for example. They also keep the peasant custom of visiting one's relatives' houses at dinner time, to see what is being served. According to the story, the elevator attendants nearly blow a fuse at dinner time every day, since one's relatives all live on different floors.

Theroux was intrigued, and resolved to see Min Hong for himself, and found that the story was utterly false. The villagers were the children of those originally brought in to do factory work; their apartments were clean and tidy, and there were no pigs or ducks. Nor were there any elevators. It's comforting to see that the urban legend flourishes as well in China as it does here in the U.S.

The Ecolitan Enigma
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This, one of Modesitt's latest, is fourth in a series. The previous books were published before I started reading Modesitt, and I've never gotten a hold of them, so I've never read them. This one stands alone fairly well, however.

On the surface, this is a book about galactic politics. The galaxy is a busy place, with many different powers squabbling with each other for position and prestige. The planet of Accord has just succeeded in negotiating a trade agreement with the Empire of Earth, but the Fuardian Conglomerate is going to try its best to foment war between them. Accord is home to the Ecolitan Institute, of which our heros are members. It's their job to prevent the war.

On the surface, the book is good space opera. On a more serious plane, though, it's about ethics (as are all of Modesitt's books, come to think of it). The Ecolitan Institute reserves the right to take any steps it deems necessary to prevent catastrophe and bloodshed, and has the power to do so. The philosphy of the Institute is to act before the catastrophe occurs, rather than after. The Institute would gladly have killed Hitler as a child in order to prevent the holocaust, for example.

The basic question asked by the book, then, is which is more ethical: to wait until a country has started a large-scale war, and then spend ten-million lives defeating them, or to nip the war in the bud by destroying the high command before the war begins? If you chose the latter, what if you're not entirely sure the war is really going to happen? Or what if you're going to have to destroy the country's capital city (population two million) in order to get all of them? On the one hand, you've saved (in theory) the lives of eight million people. On the other, you've killed (in practice) two million. The Ecolitan Institute sees this as a fair trade.

As such, the book is an interesting counterpoint to Adiamante, which I reviewed a few months ago. That book examines the opposite position: no first strikes, not even any threats or ultimatums: but massive retaliation when attacked. In either case, the decision must be made by a single human being -- and that person must be willing to pay the price for their actions.

The Ecolitan Enigma was an enjoyable read, and a pleasant change from some of Modesitt's other books, if a little farfetched in places. I'm now rather curious to find the earlier books in the series.

Burglars Can't Be Choosers
By Lawrence Block

This is the first of Block's "Bernie Rhodenbarr" novels, and introduces the pattern that many of the books will follow: a burglary job goes wrong, landing Bernie in the soup, and he spends the rest of the book trying to swim out. It is somewhat more serious in tone than the later books, but I found it more satisfying; it had several neat plot twists, and the climax wasn't particularly shopworn. This is also the book that introduces bent cop Ray Hirschman and Bernie's neighbor Mrs. Hesch. (Mrs. Hesch doesn't mind that Bernie's a burglar, since he only steals from those momsers on the east side.)

The Burglar in the Library
By Lawrence Block

Following the earliest of Bernie Rhodenbarr's adventures, I proceeded to read the latest, and a joy it is, too. It's truly funny, and I had to stop and read several passages aloud. If I were looking for book to read aloud to Jane, this would be a good one. Moreover, it's entirely different than Bernie's other adventures: exit Bernie as burglar, enter Bernie as amateur sleuth. Bernie and his friend Carolyn go to spend a weekend at an "English" country house in upstate New York. It seems there's this rare book in the house's library, and Bernie wants it. No sooner do they get there than they are snowed in, long with twelve or fourteen other people, guests and staff of Cuttleford House. And then people start dying like flies.

Somehow, Block managed to write a single book which was in its own way an homage to both Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, and made it screamingly funny to boot. I liked it. I almost want to read it again, right now.

Heretics
By G.K. Chesterton

I have no idea whether this book is actually in print or not, because I downloaded it from a website and read it on my Palm III. It's surprisingly pleasant to read books that way, by the way; a PalmPilot is small enough to hold comfortably in bed, for example, and weighs no more than your average paperback.

Anyway, this is a book of essays written in the early years of the 20th century by journalist G.K. Chesterton to confound his foes and amuse his allies. The subject of the book is heretics: a term defined by Chesterton to mean people who hold to a very definite but unorthodox point of view. Or, to put it another way, people who have their own orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that differs from Chesterton's.

One might guess, given the semantic baggage attached to the word "heretic", that Chesterton is frothing and fulminating and calling for witch hunts. Nothing could be further from the truth; he has the greatest of respect for anyone who knows what he believes, and tries to live by it. Rather, he discusses how and why he disagrees with them. His targets include George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells, among other long lost voices of the tail-end of the Victorian age.

I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I might, finding that Chesterton spoke a great deal of sense, and spoke it in a witty, expansive, joyful way. I didn't agree with everything he said, some times because I think he overstated his case, other times because I simply didn't have the context. For that reason, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to a general audience; it is an artifact of a particular place and time, and while its principals and conclusions are still valid, its arguments and examples are hopelessly dated. If you have some knowledge of that period of time, however, I highly recommend it; it will make you think.


Children's Books

Birthday Monsters
By Sandra Boynton

Sandra Boynton has been and remains one of David's favorite authors. Her books are simple, rhythmic, and fun, and Birthday Monsters is his current favorite: "They took your gifts, they ate your cake, they made the mess that monsters make." It's also a great little book to give to a friend on their birthday; David just gave it to his grandma last weekend for her birthday. I've started beating out the rhythym on my leg as I read it to him, and he's started trying to pound it out himself. He hasn't quite got it down yet, but he's working on it.


Letters

This month I got a letter from a nice fellow who is publishing a book and wants to give a copy to author George MacDonald Fraser. He hoped that since I've got a page dedicated to Fraser's books (along with several dozen other authors), I might know how to get in touch with him. I was sorry to undeceive him; I'm just a constant reader who happens to write about the books he reads. I have no ties with publishing firms; I don't get advance copies of books to review; if I recognized a noted author in the street, I'd probably ignore him. Why should I invade his privacy?

So, while I'm quite willing to answer questions like, "How are all of the Musketeer books related again?", don't bother asking me how to contact Alexandre Dumas, because I can't tell you.


Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.


Home : Ex Libris : 1 September 1998
Copyright © 1998, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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