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ex libris reviews

1 January 2000


The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.
Jane Austen


Contents


In This Issue:
The Big Odometer Rolls Over

Q: How many doomsayers does it take to change the millenium?
A: None. It will change all by itself.

Well, here we are in the 21st century. Pedants will insist (correctly, of course) that we have just begun the last year of the second millenium A.D., rather than the first year of the third millenium, but only a fool would argue that we haven't begun the 2000's. And that's really what it's about, isn't it? Watching the world's odometer roll over to all zeroes?

Q: How many doomsayers does it take to change the millenium?
A: All of them--but they have to start a year early.

Not only are we here, we are here safely. If you're reading this, that's ample evidence for me that the collapse of world civilization did not, in fact, occur. I didn't really think it would; if I had, I'd have spent the last days of the 20th Century in a hideout, somewhere, surrounded by guns and other survival equipment, instead of writing book reviews and various other forms of jollity and merriment. Also, I'd have avoided getting the flu.

Ahem.

It was mildly tempting to celebrate the occasion by coming up with some kind of absurd top-10 or top-100 list, or to pick the person of the Millenium, or some such thing; but I'll assume that by now you're tired of all of that. I'm sure you'd much rather spend your time pondering what the future holds in this brand new 21st Century rather than rehashing the 20th over and over again. Which is a bit of a pity; although the date on this issue is 1 January 2000, the books reviewed herein were all read in December of 1999. Ah, well.

And now, a few other topics of general interest before we get to this month's set of books.

Pearls Before Swine Dept.

Every year, the people I work with have a Pizza Party and Christmas Gift Exchange. A good time is had by all. I decided that this year, rather than bringing something silly, I'd bring something I really liked and would want to receive myself, just to see what would happen. So I went out and got a copy of Patrick O'Brian's excellent Master and Commander, the first book in the Aubrey/Maturin series. I wrapped it up carefully in a long tube of corrugated cardboard, judging that if it was too obviously a trade paperback nobody would pick it. As it was, it chosen about half-way through. In our gift exchange you open a present, and then have the choice to keep or steal someone else's, giving them the present you've just opened. They may do the same, and the process starts over. So the person who opened Master and Commander immediately traded it for the Tigger T-shirt; that person traded it for the Starbucks gift certificates; and the person who ended up with it still had it at the end of the party, because nobody wanted to steal it despite his evident and oft-stated willingness.

In all honesty, I didn't expect it to be a really popular item...but I thought, in a crowd of over twenty intelligent, educated people, there'd be at least one who'd be interested. Sigh.

Oh, if any of my co-workers are reading this, I don't really think you're swine. It's just a figure of speech. Happy New Year!

Trends I'd Like to See Reversed Dept.

Looking ahead to the future, one thing I'd like to see a little less of is Tolerance. (Please hang on, while I don my asbestos underwear.) G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Illustrated London News, 10 October, 1908,

Creeds must disagree: it is the whole fun of the thing. If I think the universe is triangular, and you think it is square, there cannot be room for two universes. We may argue politely, we may argue humanely, we may argue with great mutual benefit; but, obviously, we must argue. Modern toleration is really a tyranny. It is a tyranny because it is a silence. To say that I must not deny my opponent's faith is to say I must not discuss it... It is absurd to have a discussion on Comparative Religions, for example, if you don't compare them.

This is the gist of my concern. There was a time when tolerance meant not persecuting those with different opinions or practices. Nowadays, it seems to mean not disagreeing with those with different opinions or practices. More than that, it seems to mean cherishing those different opinions, and holding them to be as valid, as true, as my own. Rationally, why would I be a Christian if I believed that Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, was objectively true? If I believed that Buddhism was objectively true, I'd be a Buddhist, not a Christian. And yet, many people seem to be preaching just this point of view: that all religious beliefs are equally valid. Many of them belong to my own denomination. I cannot reconcile this view with both rationality and integrity. If the people I speak of are rational, the only answer I can find is that they do not believe that any religion is objectively true, including their own. Clearly, they must be finding some value in the teachings of the religion...but if so, truth is not one of those things. That's where integrity comes in; they are supporting something they do not believe in. Generally, we call that hypocrisy.

I don't want to go back to the bad old days of religious persecution--not that they are that remote; people are still being persecuted for their religion in many countries of the world. Many of the victims are Christians. But be that as it may, the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of Protestants in Catholic countries, the harassment of Catholics in Protestant countries, the persecution of the Jews everywhere, all of these are morally indefensible. Religious toleration is a must. But let's not throw out our reason with our hostility.

Trends I'd Like to See Reversed Dept., Part 2.

Holiday illnesses. I get two days off at Thanksgiving; this year, I was mildly sick for both of them, and for the rest of the weekend. This year I got two days off at Christmas as well, Thursday the 23rd and Friday the 24th. I had a nasty case of the flu that I woke up with on Thursday morning that lasted into the next week. It involved the worst sore throat I've ever had, barring strep throat...and I've never had strep throat over a holiday weekend.

I am not looking forward to President's Day weekend.

Subscriptions

As I said last month, I'm changing my subscriptions policy; if the NetMind.com registry isn't working well for you, send me e-mail and tell me you'd like to subscribe to ex libris reviews; I'll add you to my mailing list and send you e-mail whenever it changes.

Would you like to contribute?

Last month I asked for contributors to ex libris; I got three nibbles, but no reviews as yet. I suppose it's just barely possible that the folks concerned had better things to do in the last couple of weeks...visiting with family and friends, procuring and storing emergency supplies, digging in, that sort of thing. I have hopes of getting reviews from them in the future. We'll see.

Just for the record, this is the call for contributors I included in last month's issue:

Do you read a lot? Do you like to tell others about what you've read? Would you like to contribute to ex libris on a regular or semi-regular basis? For some time now I've been pondering opening up the monthly issue to other contributors; Jane's talking about reviewing some of the books she's read, for example. Interested? Here are some of the ground rules, just off of the top of my head:

  1. I get to edit any submissions for style. I won't change your opinions, but I might change your spelling.
  2. The books you review should (ideally) be books you've read in the last month, as that's the format I've been following.
  3. I get to veto reviews I don't like, for any reason whatsoever.

Now, don't just start sending me reviews to include; I'm not going to work that way. But if you'd like to work with me and send me some reviews every month or every other month, drop me some e-mail, and we'll see what we can come up with.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud:
Alas and Alack

by Will Duquette

We simply haven't started another book. I discussed the Bernie Rhodenbarr fiasco, last month; that book sat, waiting to be read, for most of the month. Finally I shot it, putting it out of its misery; perhaps we'll start reading something during the coming weeks.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Hashish Man, and Other Stories
By Lord Dunsany

I first became interested in Lord Dunsany because of his influence on H.P. Lovecraft, many of whose early tales are described as "Dunsanian". I didn't really see much resemblance in the first two books of Dunsany's that I read, The King of Elfland's Daughter and The Charwoman's Shadow; here, though, in this collection of stories, the influence is plain. The beautiful land of Celephais, the doomed cities of Sarnath and Dylath-Leen, Kadath in the Unknown Waste, Ooth-Nargai, Ulthar, and all the rest of the strange and wondrous places that populate Lovecraft's Dreamland have their roots and prototypes in the stories found in this collection.

While the resemblance is clear, so to are the differences. Both were concerned with creating an otherworldly strangeness, but Dunsany's oddly-named countries and cities seem merely to belong to a Middle East as yet undiscovered by Western Explorers; he lacks that edge of dread and sense of alien worlds that fills Lovecraft's "Dunsanian" stories. Truth to tell, I like Lovecraft better.

Still, I enjoyed the collection, especially the stories "The Exiles Club" and "A Tale of Land and Sea". If you like Lovecraft, or simply enjoy a Weird Tale or two now and then, give this little book the once-over (if you can find it). It's published by Manic D Press.

Quartered Safe Out Here
By George MacDonald Fraser

I've reviewed Fraser's books many-a-time in these pages: his Flashman series of historical novels, the MacAuslan tales of life in a Border Regiment just after World War II, and so forth. This one is rather different; non-fiction, this is Fraser's memoir of his time as a British soldier in Burma toward the end of World War II.

The Burma campaign is one that we Americans know very little about. We're familiar with the ground war in Europe, and the sea war in the Pacific, but we generally have little concept about the ground war in Asia. Before the U.S. entered the war, Japan had conquered a good bit of East Asia, and it was necessary to kick them out again. Americans were involved in China, under General Stilwell; but in Burma it was the Brits...and not just the Brits, but the Gurkhas, Sikhs, and all of the other many, many races of the Empire's 14th Army. Fraser was a private in that army, eventually becoming a lance-corporal, and ultimately, after the war was over, a lieutenant with the Gordon Highlanders; it was that latter experience that formed the basis for the MacAuslan stories (Dand MacNeill, the narrator, is Fraser himself. Mostly). But I digress.

Quartered Safe Out Here is a different kind of book altogether. I gather from the things Fraser says that he became disgusted with all of the "rot" he was hearing about the great wars and their effect on the combatants, and decided to set the record straight. So this book is in no sense a history of the Burma campaign; it is simply the story of Fraser's time in the army, the places he fought, the things he did, and most especially Nine Section, the folks he fought beside--the most colorful crew one could imagine. Most of them were Cumbrians from Fraser's beloved Anglo-Scottish border; most of them were disrespectful of authority, foul-mouthed, and much given to petty thievery at the expense of the supply corps; and for a year they were Fraser's family, and the men he relied on implicitly.

All-in-all it makes for fascinating reading, often humorous, more often profane, occasionally shocking. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to know what combat is like; and no knowledge of World War II or the Burma campaign is necessary.

Sense and Sensibility
By Jane Austen

For some reason I do not understand, the project upon which I work has chosen late November and early December as the appropriate time for technical design reviews. This involves much recrimination, writing of viewgraphs, dry-runs, rewriting of viewgraphs, printer hassles, and a fair amount of fear and loathing, leading up to three days of non-stop meetings before a review board. It is then the board's job to determine whether the team has the design well-enough in hand to proceed with implementation.

Needless to say, for the development team the three days are a mixture of boredom (it's our design, after all) mixed with terror (Whoops! Didn't see that question coming!) and annoyance (Does he have to ask that same question at every review?), with boredom predominating. We all develop our own way to deal with it; mine was to download the Project Gutenberg text of Sense and Sensibility into my Palm Pilot and take it with me to the review. And that's what I did. Except for the hour or so that I was presenting, I sat in the back and read Austen's delightful tale and listened with half-an-ear to the questions so that I could jump in and comment when appropriate.

None of which has anything to do with Sense and Sensibility in particular, of course. But do I really need to review Jane Austen? I suppose I do; I hadn't read any of her work until a very few years ago, and I suppose many others haven't either. The daughter of a parson and sister of several Captains of the Royal Navy (one rose to be Admiral of the Fleet), Jane Austen wrote several novels (under a pseudonym) and then died at a tragically young age. What I like best about her books are her witty character portraits of a wide variety of kinds of people, mostly well-to-do, some good and some bad, all directly on target. I sometimes think her portraits are painted with a bit too broad a brush, are just the slightest bit exagerated; but then I reflect on the people I've met, and I am forced to admit that if the brush is broad, the portraits are nevertheless beautiful delineated and instantly recognizable.

Sense and Sensibility is, in large measure, a book about the importance of subordinating feeling to reason; about judging based on the true facts, rather than on surface impressions; about seeing through masks. In Edward Ferrars, shyness and diffidence hides a core of strength and integrity; in John Willoughby, dashing good looks and refined tastes hide ruthless selfishness; in Lucy Steele, malice masquerades as friendship; in Mrs. John Dashwood (surely the most delightfully nasty person in the book) greed masquerades as prudence and snobbery wears no mask at all.

If you've not read Jane Austen, this book, along with Pride and Prejudice, would be an excellent beginning to the 21st century.

The Hobbit
The Lord of the Rings
By J.R.R. Tolkien

It is difficult for me to review these books, as I've read them so many times, starting in childhood, that the story and many of the words are permanently engrained in my memory. I truly do not know how many times I've read them; when I was in college I used to tell people I'd read The Lord of the Rings at least fifteen times, but even that was an estimate. Certainly there is no other text with which I am so familiar; reading it is much like visiting some much loved and thoroughly explored place, shot through with both its own beauty and the memories of previous visits.

I re-read them this month because of my mother. She has been in poor health the last few years, and isn't likely to be with us much longer; this may have been her last Christmas (I was seriously bummed to be stuck at home with the flu!). As Christmas approached, therefore, I was lead to reflect on my life and the role my mother has played in it, and all of the many, many things she has done for me. I thought about it for quite a while, and then wrote up all the things I thought of, and gave the list to Mom for Christmas. And one of the things on the list was this: although Mom thought my taste in books as a child and teenager was deplorable (I liked that science fiction and fantasy nonsense, you know) she never tried to prevent me from reading what I really liked. She'd express her distaste occasionally, and encourage me to read more widely, but that was as far as it went. More than that, I have on my shelf hard-bound editions of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales, all of which she gave me. She's never read these, mind, nor did she get them for me out of a clear blue sky; I first read my elder siblings' Ballantine paperbacks copies with psychedelic 1960's covers. She was simply supporting a taste already formed which she didn't share.

I love my mother a whole lot.

But anyway, I hadn't reread these books in some years, and as Christmas approached I resolved to do so, as a way of remembering Mom.

The Hobbit I simply enjoyed. I've not read it quite as many times as its sequel, nor as recently, and I was surprised by how easy it was to fall into. Tolkien is well known for opposing all attempts to allegorize his work; he was attempting to write history rather than allegory. And yet, it seems clear to me that The Hobbit is about the many young Englishmen of Tolkien's generation, born into a world which thought it had licked all of the world's serious problems, born into a life of respectable dronehood, who then found themselves amid the horrific and quite unrespectable events of the first World War. Bilbo's quest to the Lonely Mountain and his return home is transforming experience; it's as though Bertie Wooster went to war and found he was really Lord Peter Wimsey.

But all of this is an adult reflection (spurred on, no doubt, by Quartered Safe Out Here, reviewed above) on what is, at base, a children's tale of adventure, filled with real wit, real danger, real horror, and real triumph. I can't wait until David is old enough for me to read it to him.

My emotions about The Lord of the Rings are more complicated, both because I've read it many more times, and because it is a longer, more complex work, written at the adult level. There are chapters, essential to the story, that I now find simply tedious. "Yes, yes", I think, "Can we get on with this?" There are chapters which I found tedious and boring on first reading (I was nine years old) which I now treasure; and there are others which delighted me then and delight me still.

I noticed several things in particular on this reading. First, Tolkien has an amazing capacity for visualizing (and then describing) the transient details of weather and terrain. I skipped right over most of these details when I was nine; I've tended to skip over most of them on each re-reading as well. I know many people almost see a movie in their heads when they read a novel; my brain doesn't work that way. This time through I made an effort to read every word, and I was quite surprised at how much of this kind of material there is. The facility with which Tolkien describes quite complicated terrain leads me to believe that he had a much greater store of experience with the out-of-doors than I do.

Second, it became clear to me that his experience was primarily with the green, well-watered English countryside. In The Lord of the Rings the hallmark of lands controlled by the Enemy is the lack of living things. Morever, these lands are always described as polluted, blasted, poisoned, and destroyed; the kind of terrain one would see in England only where the hand of men had lain heavily. Speaking as a resident of Southern California, we've got vast tracts of desert that look, to my suburb-bred eyes, as blasted and barren as any man-made devastation.

Finally, there are passages in the last several chapters which I found considerably more moving than I ever had before: the death of Theoden King and the Lord of the Ringwraiths; Aragorn's acclamation of Frodo and Sam on the Field of Cormallen; the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen Undomiel; the healing of Eowyn, white lady of Rohan; the passing of the ringbearers over the sea to the Blessed Realm of Valinor. It's only fair to say that that I finished the final volume of The Lord of the Rings very early Christmas morning after a mostly sleepless and uncomfortable night, while in constant pain from my sore throat and in emotional distress at the near certainty I wouldn't be able to go to my extended family's Christmas gathering, so perhaps I was more susceptible than average; but I'll also note that all previous readings of the trilogy were prior to the birth of my eldest son. I find that I value human life much more highly now that I have helped create and nurture it. I used to be able to hear stories about maltreated children with detachment; now I hear them with horror, picturing my son's face. Along with that new sensitivity goes a corresponding increase in my respect of heroism...and The Lord of the Rings is about heroism of a high order. The Dark Lord isn't overthrown by a gimmick, or by a plot contrivance, but by blood, toil, tears, and sweat; not by unlikely men and women with superhuman powers, but by people like you and me.

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a modern classic; there's not an epic fantasy written since its publication which doesn't show its influence. (Nor were many epic fantasies written prior to its publication.) More than that, there's not a single epic fantasy written since its publication that equals it. Tolkien created an entire world; he gave it a detailed history spanning several millenia, which history underlies these books; and because of his scholarly background was able to avoid the comic book feel that mars such later offerings as David Eddings' Belgariad and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. It is a work that has often been imitated, and never equalled. If you've not read it, it is high time you should.

Hiero's Journey
The Unforsaken Hiero
By Sterling E. Lanier

In between reading Tolkien, I wanted to read something light and fun and settled on these two books, which I first read (and thoroughly enjoyed) while I was in college. Hiero's Journey apparently received a fair amount of notice when it first came out in the early 1970's; it cried out for a sequel, which was not forthcoming until sometime in the 1980's, hence the title of the second volume. The Unforsaken Hiero itself cries out for one more book to round things off; we're still waiting.

I remembered Hiero's Journey as an exciting, innovative adventure, and expected to enjoy it as much this time around. Alas, I find it hasn't aged well, or perhaps my taste has changed; today I'd judge it as a barely competent, frequently heavy-handed adventure story which embodies a number of embarassing cliches and silliness, from the Plucky Girl to the Unspeakably Evil Villains Who Are So Evil They Torture People For Fun As They Plot Their Way To World Domination. The truly evil usually do a much better job of masquerading as upstanding members of society. Worse than that, the villains have silly names like "S'Nerg".

It seems to me that I based my previous good opinion on basically one gimmick: the notion of telepathy operating on different bands, like radio waves. Hiero gets out of a number of scrapes by learning to use his mental powers in interesting ways, operating on different bands than the villains. It was a new idea to me then; since then, Julian May, among others, have used the idea with considerably more sophistication.

Rereading these was a not unpleasant way to spend a few flu-stricken hours, but I find I can't recommend them.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War
By Richard H. Minear

I got this book Christmas morning from a good and dear friend; accompanying it was a card saying, in essence, "I think maybe perhaps you'll like this, I hope, and I guess at least I'm providing you fodder for a future Ex Libris." Actually, Debbie, not to worry; although I hadn't yet bought myself a copy, I had indeed seen it with interest in the bookstores and made a mental note that I might like to get a copy some day. So thank you! Anyway, not having received any other books for Christmas and still suffering from the flu, I dived right into it on Christmas morning.

Everybody is, of course, familiar with The Cat in the Hat and other Seussian favorites. What few people know is that for a couple of years in the early 1940's, Theodor Seuss Geisel was the chief political cartoonist for the left-wing New York daily paper, PM. The author of the present book, Richard H. Minear, selected the best of the 400 or so cartoons and wrote a fair amount of scholarly commentary about them, commentary that in some cases is essential to understanding the cartoons at all. Who remembers Virginio Gayda, Italian newspaper editor and mouthpiece for Mussolini's fascist regime? We all know that Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic; but among people my age, how many are aware that he (along with many others) was a staunch isolationist in the years leading up to World War II? Along with the essential commentary, however, there's also a lot of inessential scholarly hogwash that I didn't bother with; given the basic historical context, the cartoons speak for themselves.

From the historical and social point of view, the cartoons are a fascinating depiction of the ideals of the American Left around the beginning of World War II. Anti-fascism is the topic most represented; the leftist of the era was anti-isolationist and in favor of joining the war against the Nazis and the Japanese as soon as possible. Labor issues are touched on lightly; for Seuss, racism and anti-semitism were bigger targets, and he attacked them agressively (an interesting counterpoint to these cartoons, though, is one declaring Americans of Japanese descent a fifth column for Japan).

The cartoons are generally not particularly subtle, subtlety not being an asset in a political cartoon; and the point being made is often so overpowering as to remove any semblance of humor. In one cartoon, for example, two men labeled "You" and "Me" are gazing at a Mount Rushmore that shows Hitler and either Hirohito or Marshall Togo; the caption is "What have you done today to prevent this from happening?" And of those that are funny, many, particularly those of Hitler, seem somewhat indecent given what we now know of the Third Reich's many crimes. But there it is; when they were drawn, the extent of Hitler's excesses were unknown, and in any event humor is a normal way to take your current opponents down a peg.

The cartoons are by their nature dated, and will probably appeal more to the history buff than the Seuss completist, but I for one enjoyed them. I was particularly pleased to see the Umbus and the Wumbus from On Beyond Zebra in a couple of cartoons; it was like meeting old friends unexpectedly.

The Anubis Gates
By Tim Powers

Well, having finished The Lord of the Rings far too early Christmas morning, and my one Christmas book not too much later, I was casting about for something both good and familiar--not so heavy that my flu-fogged mind would have trouble with it, but not so light that I'd have to dig up something else in an hour or two. An excellent choice in this frame of mind is often a much-loved book that was a challenging read once-upon-a-time; long-time readers may recall that that was how I got started re-reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series some time ago. This time a perusal of the shelves lead me to The Anubis Gates, the first of Powers' novels I ever read and still one of his best. It's the kind of book that people use as a touchstone, and try to push on their friends.

Powers' forte is making improbable magical things happen in a well-researched historical or present day setting. The historical events of the period take place as we know them to have done...but the reasons for them might be a little different than the history books record. He takes this to absurd (but delightful) extremes, at times; in Last Call, for example, we find that Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo Hotel and founded what we now know as Las Vegas as a way of becoming an American equivalent of the Arthurian Fisher-King.

The Anubis Gates is somewhat more restrained. It takes place (well, mostly) in Regency England, just at the time of the wars with Napoleon, when the European powers were first starting to get interested in Africa. It begins with an attempt by an extremely aged Egyptian wizard to subvert the British Empire and restore the rule of magic by invoking the Egyptian diety Anubis and through him the rest of the Egyptian pantheon. The attempt fails, but opens a number of holes in the time stream; those who know how can jump from any hole to any other hole.

Enter one Brendan Doyle, a literature professor and expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other similar poets. He has been offered a frighteningly large sum of money by wealthy industrialist J. Cochran Darrow to give a lecture on Coleridge to a very select group of people: people who are paying $20 million dollars each to travel back in time and hear Coleridge speak. Doyle accepts, and after attending Coleridge's speech is mugged by one of the wizard's henchman--and therefore is unable to return to the present with the rest of the team.

It goes on from there, in incredibly convincing style; I really don't have words to convey the attention to detail, the careful plotting, and sheerly beautiful writing of this book. If you have any taste for fantasy whatsoever, go out and grab a copy.

Grunt
By Sandra Boynton

Now, this book (along with the accompanying CD) is just plain silly...and wonderfully so. Some years ago, the CD Chant had its fifteen minutes of fame, as you may recall; it is an album of Gregorian chants sung by the monks in some monastery in Europe. Somebody must have played it for Sandra Boynton, she of the greeting cards and silly children's books (Barnyard Dance, Moo Bah La La La); and she, in turn, invented the Pigorian Chant, as grunted by the pigs of Snouto Domoinko de Silo. The book is a detailed history of Pigorian Chant, along with a complete libretto of the chants on the accompanying CD. Represented are the cows, chickens, ducks, sheep, the farmer, and, of course, the pigs. All lyrics are in Latin, except, of course, for the pigs; the pigs sing, naturally, in Pig-Latin. Consider, for example, the lovely Chant of Repose: "Ore-Snay, Ore-Snay". The book contains the lyrics in both the original languages and in English, needless to say.

The book is a gem, even without the CD; it had both of us laughing out loud. The CD, well, the CD...sounds just like Gregorian chant, which is the whole point of the joke. At the first opportunity I intend to play it at a party as background music, and see if anyone notices what it really is.

Just as a side note, when I first saw Grunt at the bookstore I immediately bought two copies as Christmas presents, one for my sister-in-law (who works for the local opera company) and one for another friend. I would likely have bought one for myself as well, but they only had two copies. Comes Christmas Day, and what did my sister-in-law get me? My own copy of Grunt. How felicitous!

The Magic of Recluce
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

By Christmas evening I was sick, tired, bored of being sick and tired, badly in need of sleep I was unlikely to get, and in need of something else to read. As when I picked up The Anubis Gates, I wanted something familiar enough that it wouldn't be too hard to read, but not so light that I'd finish it immediately. Moreover, I wanted a real page-turner, to distract me from my ill-health if I couldn't sleep. This is the book I ended up with.

The Magic of Recluce is the first of Modesitt's Recluce novels, many of which I've reviewed in these pages, and still, I think, the best. Modesitt was already an experienced author when he wrote it, so it doesn't suffer from the usual immaturity so often seen at the beginning of popular series. The following books in the series, though worth reading in-and-of themselves, are exploring the same territory; moreover, Modesitt has been accused, in this particular series, of writing the same book over and over and over. There's a certain amount of justice to that, but only a certain amount.

The Recluce books, ultimately, are about the just use of power. They generally involve a young man, with untested but extensive magical powers, who is thrown out of his familiar home because he doesn't fit in. He must make his way in the world, coming to terms with himself, the use of his powers, and the rules of his homeland, before he can return. Along the way he usually performs a variety of daring deeds, usually at great cost to himself; power is never used without a price.

It would be untrue, however, to say that the books are carbon copies. Rather than creating a single character, place, and time, and using that character to explore that place and time over a series of books, Modesitt has chosen to dip into the history of the world of Recluce at various places and times. The books are similar because the forces at work are similar...but the circumstances can differ greatly. In the present book, the first to be written, the island of Recluce is a mature nation based on Order magic. For there are two kinds of magic in Modesitt's world, Order and Chaos. Order magic is concerned with healing, strengthening, and building; it cannot be directly used for destruction, and cannot be used indirectly for destruction without great cost to the wizard. Chaos magic, on the other hand, is essentially destructive, but is easier to use. Chaos wizards tend to die young, because their own bodies are damaged by the chaos they employ. Food tends to spoil and wine to go bad in the presence of too much chaos. But if you're trying to build an empire, Chaos magic sure is appealing.

Recluce is an island nation, a realm based on Order. Chaos simply isn't permitted there. I don't mean to imply that it is some kind of police state in which conformity is all; it's more the notion of "a place for everything and everything in its place". Diversity is not a problem; discontent and sloppiness is. Naturally, such a country has problems with rebellious teenagers; one such is Lerris, a budding order-master (though he knows it not), who is bored with order, bored with life, bored with the craft of woodworking to which he has been apprenticed. He is extremely discontented, and because of his awakening powers is a great danger to the order of Recluce, so he is sent on a "dangergeld". He is given weapons training, and taught the customs and ways of the countries near Recluce, and then is, in effect, exiled until "he knows why he had to leave Recluce".

So off he goes, to learn the ways of Order and Chaos...experience is a hard school, but a fool will learn no other, as they say.

The Towers of Sunset
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is the second book in the Recluce series; once you get started, it's hard to stop. In this book Modesitt jumps back perhaps a thousand years, to the founding of Recluce. Creslin is a young man, raised in the fortress of Westwind, atop the Roof of the World. Westwind is home to the Westwind Guards, an elite corps of deadly swordswomen; for Westwind is home of the Legend, which teaches that the Angels were driven from Heaven by Men's use of Chaos. Thus, in the lands which follow the Legend, all Chaos magic is banned, and the women are firmly in control.

Creslin, the son of the Marshall of Westwind, has received most of the Westwind Guard training, and though he doesn't know it is as good as any of the guards, which means he is as good as any in the world. He is also an order-master, with particular control over the winds. There are only a few order-masters around at this time, and the balance between Order and Chaos is only partially understood; and Creslin, though immensely powerful, is entirely self-taught.

The book is concerned with Creslin's early adventures, and ultimately with the founding of Recluce itself, as a home for Order. For at this time the Chaos wizard's city of Fairhaven is beginning to dominate the entire continent of Candar; and Fairhaven has little use and no trust for this young and powerful order master.

I've enjoyed The Towers of Sunset on previous readings, and enjoyed it again this time as well; but I don't like it quite as well as The Magic of Recluce.

The Magic Engineer
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This, unsurprisingly, is the third book in the Recluce series. It takes place some three centuries after Creslin founded Recluce. By this time Recluce has achieved a somewhat stable existence based on Order and the rejection of Chaos, but it is still remarkably vulnerable; only the memory of what Creslin had done to the fleets sent to conquer Recluce stands between the island nation and the Chaos wizards of Fairhaven. As in Lerris' day, the orderliness of Recluce is maintained by exiling malcontents, though only those whose families can afford it get any kind of training before being sent overseas. Enter Dorrin, son of weather wizard and council-member Oran. Dorrin desires, more than anything else, to build machines--mills, steam engines, what have you. His father is convinced that such things must be Chaos-based; when Dorrin will not relent, he is exiled.

I found this one to be compelling reading, as Modesitt's books almost always are, if perhaps a little too long. But there was one refreshing part: Dorrin himself. Modesitt's protagonists are usually superhuman in their powers; Dorrin is mildly talented as an Order-master, but his real gifts are his intelligence and his perseverance. He wins out, in the long run, not by wreaking destruction on his foes but by outthinking them. And in his deep understanding of the nature of Order and Chaos and the Balance between them lies the seeds of Recluce's future greatness.

The Victorian Internet
By Tom Standage

I received this delightful little book late on Christmas day, and was glad to get it...although it was a couple of days before I felt well enough to read it. It's a timely book for the beginning of the 21st Century.

We tend to think of the telecommunications revolution as being a recent thing. But consider this: until the invention of the telegraph around 150 years ago, the only way to get a message to another person was to carry it by hand. An example: it was once common wartime practice for the London Times to announce the departure of naval vessels to foreign wars in considerable detail. After all, no spy could get to the theater of operations prior to the ships themselves! All of this changed with the coming of the telegraph, and by the later part of the century it was possible to send a message almost instantaneously between any two large cities in the world.

Standage's book covers the development of the telegraph from its French origins as an optical semaphore system to the electrical systems of Morse and Cooke to its eventual demise at the hands of Bell's telephone system. But this is not simply, or even primarily, a technical history. Many chapters deal with the social aspects of the telegraph, and with the community of telegraph operators (much like today's netizens). One chapter is particularly apropos: it deals with the desire of telegraph users to encode their messages, and the (ultimately futile) attempts by the authorities to prevent them.

I would like to take exception with one of Standage's conclusions. Because the telegraph made instant communication possible, it was predicted that it would encourage global community, and end war. Obviously, two world wars later, it did no such thing. Similar claims have been made about the Internet; Standage claims that they are similarly inflated and doomed to fail. I don't say he's wrong...but he fails to note one of the most important differences between the Victorian Internet and our own. The telegraph allowed people all over the world to communicate; but one only sent and received messages with people one already knew. The only people who met people through the telegraph were the operators themselves, and there the sense of community was indeed strong. Now, e-mail messages are rather like telegrams; you exchange them with people you know (bulk e-mailing scum to the side). But via websites, Usenet news groups, chat lines, and discussion groups of all kinds, everyday people from all over the world are getting to know each other. Just in the last year, I personally have gotten e-mail from England, Canada, Spain, Mexico, France, New Zealand, and Australia, just because of the website I maintain. The community known only to the telegraph operators of the last century has now been opened to anyone with access to the Internet. And that's cool!


Jane's Recent Reading:
A Little Romance

by Jane Duquette

We've got a treat this month: my wife Jane is contributing a review, and now that she's aware that I don't object to her reviewing romance novels just so long as I don't have to read the novels myself, I have hopes of receiving reviews from her on a more regular basis. The last time I noted how seldom Jane's words have appeared in this space, a reader accused me of taking all of her non-literary contributions to ex libris for granted; consequently, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Jane publically for her support and love over the years--and also for the more direct contribution to ex libris which follows.

-- Will Duquette

Summer's End
By Kathleen Gilles Seidel

This is the most recent book by one of my favorite authors. Like the rest, it is sold as a contemporary romance, but I think it would appeal to a wider range of readers. Unlike many other writers in this genre, Seidel is most interested in how a couple's falling-in-love affects not just them, but their friends and family as well. As such, her books do not feel like they are taking place in a bubble or in rosy-lenses land.

This particular book is the story of an older couple, both widowed, who fall in love and remarry--and of the consequences for their children. Seidel's books are character-driven, and her characters are usually people you would like to have over for dinner and conversation. She lets her characters introduce themselves over the course of the book; rather than telling you how charming a character is, she lets the character show you. I've read this book several times already, and have been keeping it in the bathroom to read a bit at a time. It won't change your life, but it might brighten your afternoon. Enjoy!


Children's Books

A Fish Out Of Water
Written by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman

I bought this book for David the other night, because it was one of my favorites as a child; my mother read it to me on countless occasions, and no doubt got quite tired of it. It's the story of a little boy who buys a goldfish. Mr. Carp, the fish salesman, tells him to feed it just a little, or who knows what will happen? But poor Otto the goldfish looks so hungry, the boy gives it the whole box of food at once...and Otto starts to grow...and the race is on: can the boy find a container big enough for Otto before Otto outgrows it?

It's a silly book, of course, but David was riveted, cheering when the fire department got Otto into the Public Pool. Ah, memories.


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 January 2000
Copyright © 2000, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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