Capsule Reviews

The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel
L. William Countryman

Conversion, the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, believing in Jesus are the path; to ove one another is the way; union, to come to know that we are one with God and God with us, is the completion.

Countryman's thesis is that John's Gospel is a manual for the mystical way in Christianity. He translates the Gospel in a manner which preserves John's simple syntax, limited vocabulary, and repetitions and intersperses commentary, interpretation, and some cultural and historical context. He shows how John's choice and ordering of events from Jesus' life and ministry, differing from the synoptics, emphasizes the path of spiritual growth. Characteristic of Jesus' teaching in John is the inappropriate response, the seeming non-sequitur when questioned that is meant to breakhis hearer out of old ways of thinking. It reminded me of the idea behind Zen koans.

Countryman writes clearly, precisely, intellectually, spiritually and with belief. The book is scholarly but direct, not dry, and faithful.

(Read January 2019)
1776
David McCullough

Riveting, detailed account of the first year of the American Revolutionary War. After a lively opening account of the British Parliamentary debates about how to handle the colonies, in which McCullough deftly sketches the opinions and eccentric characters on both sides of the issue, the narrative focuses on military matters: George Washington's initial indecisiveness and poor strategies (thoroughly redeemed in the sequel of course, but how close America came to failure in that first year!); his aristocratic Virginian disdain for the wretched Yankee soldiers; the squalor and viciousness of 18th century warfare; and the daring, dedicated, enterprising self-made men who officered his campaigns. McCullough quotes heavily from diaries and letters, and describes the characters and actions of British and Colonials vividly.

(Read September-November 2018)
The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro

The Shape of Water should have been beautiful: Creature from the Black Lagoon with a successful romantic ending. Sally Hawkins is indeed luminous playing a mute woman who feels herself an incomplete being, as much a freak as the ichthyic "asset" acquired by a military research laboratory, stolen from its home in a South American river where it was worshipped as a god. Octavia Spencer is warm and dignified and strong as the heroine's friend. Her smile of willing shock and delight when Elisa reveals her liason with the creature is one of the best moments of a film full of many such moments. The main villain of the piece is, however, so darkly unredeemably evil under his perfect sixties veneer as to skew the balance, and the movie has all of writer-director Guillermo del Toro's trademark fixation with puncture wounds and dismemberments. The harshest moment is the torture and execution of the sympathetic Russian mole whose poet-scientist's soul responding to the creature's nature rebels at capturing or killing it for his masters. The first two-thirds of the movie are absorbing despite a few over-the-top choices; the last third is a dark and ugly chase sequence. The ending is as expected for a del Toro story but the preceding nastiness robs it of the proper catharsis of a fairy tale.

(Watched 22 September 2018)
The Caves of Steel
Isaac Asimov

In form a "locked room" murder mystery, The Caves of Steel is a thoughtful science fiction novel about crime and justice. The world a thousand years from now is less strange than the echoes of the world of 64 years ago in the character of the society and people. But Asimov's sketches of feelings and motivations ring true. With The Gods Themselves and The End of Eternity, Caves of Steel is among my favorite of Asimov's novels.

(Read September 2018)
The Empress of Ireland
Christopher Robbins

If you know who Brian Desmond Hurst is, I need only report that Christopher Robbins is a fine anecdotist who accurately, amusingly, and affectionately describes the unusual characters and scenes that make up the time he spent with Hurst collaborating on a film. If you do not know him, I can set the stage no better than by reporting that Hurst the film director made Scrooge, the quintessential Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim and offering Robbins’ opening scene: Brian walking into the pub at 11am bearing an orange for the barkeep to make his breakfast mimosa with; builders taking an early pint insult "the old queen"; Brian buying them a round of drinks and, as the cowed and sheepish men mutter their thanks, delivering the exit line, I am not an old queen, I am the Empress of Ireland.

(Read July 2018)
Babylon 5

I loved Babylon 5 when it first aired. Yes, it was a cross of Lensmen and Lord of the Rings. Yes, it had something of the aesthetic of a saturday morning cartoon (technically, the special effects and make-up were superb, but the designs felt a little cartoony to me even then.) Yes, it sometimes chose to be stagey and dramatic, formal and artificial, but that worked with the material. Yes, it was occasionally amateurish, with something of a 1960s quality which was unexpected in the early 90s. Yes, J. Michael Straczynski's dialogue could be predictable or cliche (but as Clive James said of Telly Savalas' performance in Kojak "[he] can make bad slang sound like good slang and good slang sound like lyric poetry" and that is the case with some of JMS's excesses as performed by some of his better actors.)

I'm re-watching it on Amazon Prime. The special effects have suffered transfer artifacts which is sad, because they were stand-out in their day and even more amazing to fans who understood how they were produced. Straczynski got the genre, had a good story to tell, wrote appealing characters portrayed by personable actors. I loved the show in all its aspects and it stands the test of time for good, thoughtful, engaging space opera.

(Watching Summer 2018)
The Laundry Files
Charlie Stross
Stross wrote a fun series of novels combining the Lovecraftian and Spy Thriller genres. He also wrote a fine essay explaining that both genres explore our reactions to vast malevolent forces. In horror novels, we succumb along with the hero, while in thrillers we can at least hope the hero will save us, without succumbing to the malevolent forces of his own service's bureaucracy... Stross is a great admirer of Deighton, and when I ran out of Deightons I moved on to le Carré, neither of whom I had read before (though I have seen both the 1979 BBC series and the 2011 film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy". All highly recommended.
(Read December 2013-Feb 2014)
Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson (read August 2013)
This is a nicely written social and technical history of the computer project at the Institute for Advanced Study, starting with the founding of the IAS, treating the lives and personalities of the many fascinating people involved, the history of mathematics and logic in the early 20th century, the engineering developments that led to the computer, the interwoven histories of the computer and of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the effect of the computer on weather prediction and genetics, the inevitable politics and the quirks and foibles and human failures and human successes. The history is solid and well-documented, and this is above all a book about people and ideas and a great accomplishment.
The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (read June 2012)
I knew nothing of the Basques except that they spoke a language isolate predating the invasion of Indo-europeans. Turns out they played pivotal roles in European history, introduced commercial whaling, figured heavily in the profitable cod fishing industry, were notable explorers and seamen, and early mercantile and industrial promoters (at one time they were the predominant producers of ironware, and had much to do with the spread of the new world crops of beans, corn and peppers.)

Fiercely committed to their sense of identity in spite of never having a nation of their own, they resisted invasion from their first appearance in world records in Roman times and always managed to negotiate commercial and legal independence, self-rule by the Fueros, administered under the ancient Oaks... lost at the dawn of the 20th century, viciously suppresed by Franco. They are still here.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (read June 2012)
A fantasy novel of English Magic set during the Napoleonic wars, written in a nineteenth century style. Lovely prose, a bit melancholy, character driven, about the claustrophobia and loneliness of scholars, ambition, mentorship, the pain of living under enchantment. Reminds me of Neil Gaiman in themes and tone.
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (read May 2012)
A fine time travel adventure to the early 19th c. with Ancient Egyptian magic thrown in. Fast paced, tense and compelling.
Le Comte Ory at the Met, 14 Apr 2011
The orchestra and the staging overshadowed the voices. Juan Diego Flórez as Ory, Joyce DiDonato as Isolier, and Stéphane Degout were fine; Michele Pertusi as the Tutor was a little dull. The production is slapstick, which worked in the first act but was overdone in the second. I liked the framing effect of showing the backstage and technical work: costumed crew operate fluttering butterfly puppets and dance the trees and doorframes around as though a movie camera were following the action; a crooked window descends from above and Ragonde delivers her aria through it from a stepladder. It created a fairy-tale feeling that I thought suited a light comedy about a rogue trickster, and the stage business between the hermit and the page competing for the countess was precisely timed and fun.

The flawed second act makes the countess' peaceful retreat look like a bordello, the tippling knights disguised as nuns was well sung but unimaginatively staged, and Ory in nun's habit, wooing the countess in the dark, while unknowingly holding Isolier's hand, is turned into a tumbling threesome that doesn't come off, since it isn't at all clear which characters are aware of whom they are mis-grappling. But the first act was good enough to make up for the second.

Stories
Arthur Machen
A late Victorian writer of gothic horror and science fiction, something of a precursor to Lovecraft. A mystic who believes in a great unknown spiritual world behind or alongside the mundane, to penetrate which brings great delight and horror and death. Start with The Great God Pan. Subtly thrilling.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill
G. K. Chesterton

I'm on an English Catholic Fabulist streak. I recently recommended Neil Gaiman's Sandman to a friend, which reminded me that Gaiman much admires Chesterton, so, interrupting Lewis' Space Trilogy, I read The Napoleon of Notting Hill (e-texts of Chesterton's works at dmu.ac.uk) I might have said English Catholic Moralists but that Chesterton and Lewis are wonderfully entertaining writers (in very different ways) and terrific storytellers, which mere Moralists usually are not.

Out of the Silent Planet
C. S. Lewis

A gentle novel, suspensful, melancholy, a little tragic. Reminds me, in its cosmic viewpoint, of Olaf Stapledon and of Arthur Clarke at his best. I can't wait to read Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

Fools' War
Sarah Zettel

A couple of centuries after devastating wars on Earth, Humanity has made it to the stars with FTL ships and communications, and Artificial Intelligences. Katmer Al Shei is captain of a mail packet, and Evelyn Dobbs is a professional Fool who has signed on to her crew. Reminds me of Cherryh - normal folk shoved into the middle of a clash of cultures; sympathetic characters, and lots of twists in the plot. Recommended.

Wasteland of Flint
Thomas Harlan

In an alternate future in which the Méxica (Aztecs) and the Japanese rule an interstellar empire, the light cruiser Cornuelle carries a Company team and an Imperial shaman/political officer to Ephesus to rescue a stranded archaeological team which has uncovered dangerous relics of a long-lost hi-tech civilization... good space opera, decent characters, and the usual pleasant unfamiliarity of alternate history.

I like alternate history when the point is to show that some of the things we take for granted weren't inevitable, but I think this story could have been told without the added conceit, by constructing a future culture that included all the elements he wanted to adopt from Aztec culture. Still, Harlan's extrapolation of Aztec society to technological imperium feels consistent and believable.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials
Origa
Era of Queens , Best of, Eternal
Dan Cederholm's Web Standards Solutions: The Markup and Style Handbook
How to seprate structure from style in web page design. Very clear.
Firefly
A terrific space western from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Kaylee is qute! Foolishly canceled, there is a movie in the works. Good theme song.
Haibane Renmei
Melancholy and lovely Anime, a story of redemption and coming of age from Yoshitoshi ABe (Lain, Niea). More info and a review.
ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer
Scott McCartney

I'm amazed at the continuity of geek culture: how similar the early days of EDVAC and UNIVAC were to the the dot com culture of hyperkinetic geeks working around the clock and fluffing business plans right and left.

I loved the description of Eckert perched precariously on a chair back interviewing some fellow for seven hours, inspired by the candidate's past projects to riff on about his own ideas. Eckert especially liked people with technical hobbies, since he supposed they would be most amenable to working on technical projects for his company around the clock.

Read: October 27, 2003.
C++ Templates: The Complete Guide
David Vandevoorde, Nicolai M. Josuttis

Encyclopaedic but readable. Part I is a tutorial overview of templates. The remainder of the book covers advanced usage, idioms and cutting edge techniques, and serves as a detailed reference as well. I bought the book because I stalled out on page 12 of Andrei Alexandrescu's Modern C++ Design for inadequate understanding of templates.

I like the book. So I get to complain a little: I'm in the middle of Part I now. The level is uneven: a properly (but painfully) elementary first chapter is followed by a fairly heavy section on template function overloading which invites you to digest the gory details in an appendix. Maybe when I return to the book as a reference guide I'll be glad of that. Code examples get repeated verbatim, sometimes on the same page, to illustrate an additional point. Pads the book out a bit, and makes me scratch my head looking for differences that aren't there. On the other hand, keeps me from having to flip back a page.

Physically, the books is attractive, with a clear and readable font and layout. Solidly in the Stroustrupesque "academic" tradition: straight text, no silly icons or sidebars.

Reading now.
Reviewed: first impressions: 21 July 2003.
Solaris
Stanislaw Lem

Sadder than I remember. The first time I read it, I was impressed by the satire of the Scientific Establishment. This time I was more attuned to Kelvin's inner journey, his changing understanding of his feelings of guilt and love for Harey (Rheya) and her Solarian incarnation, and the sacrifices each are willing to make for the other that suggest to me that they really did come to love each other in the end, beyond Harey's programmed love and Kelvin's sense of guilt. I think that Kelvin's decision to stay on the planet in hopes of establishing contact with what might be a planetary intelligence is just sublimated hope of Harey's further reincarnation. I think he would have done better to have let go.

Read: in college. Rereading in January 2003.
Reviewed: 7 January 2003.
Heavenly Discourses
Charles Erskine Scott Wood

God, Jesus, Samuel Clemens, Voltaire, Rousseau, Paine, Bob Ingersoll, Lao Tze, Gautama, and many others discuss the foolishness, bigotry, cruelty and stupidity of humanity in these satirical, erudite and deeply humanistic pieces written for Max Eastman's The Masses during World War I. Funny and still, sadly, relevant.

Read: first in my early teens. Rereading in Aug 2002.
Reviewed: 16 Aug 2002.
The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories
A.S. Byatt

If you like storytelling, if you enjoy Italo Calvino or Borges or Neil Gaiman, you will love this little book of tales. Each is a perfect little postmodern fairy-tale, charming, frightening or enlightening. The tone is illustrated nicely by the Tale of the Eldest Princess, who, realizing she is in a story and not liking the role she is playing ("I do not want to be the princess who fails and must be rescued" and she cries), decides, after much reflection and with the brusque encouragement of a dangerous guide, to leave the road and abandon the story and create her own. Along the way she sees sometimes an old woman walking behind her, or ahead of her on the path. Much later she learns that there is always an old woman ahead of you or behind you... and I'm sure she will someday be the old woman to another young woman who chooses to make her own path.

Read: in progress. Should be savored in small doses.
Reviewed: 12 June 2002.
My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World
Julian Dibbell

I loved the breathless, hip, intellectual pop-culture neo-electric-kool-aid acid test writing style. He captures the initial thrill of joining an on-line community, the strange blurring of on-line and real-life identity that those of us who live largely in our own minds are apt to experience, especially the first time out. His descriptions of the characters are vivid: excellent postage-stamp portraits that we would have had to compile for ourselves from hours of typed dialogue.

About two-thirds of the way through I lost interest in the descriptions of bickering and intense dislike among the participants in the mud. Had I been there I suppose I would have left the mud; as it is, I stopped reading the book. I'll finish it one of these days.

Recommended.

Read: last summer.
Reviewed: this summer.
Web Standards Solutions: The Markup and Style Handbook
Dan Cederholm

Each chapter demonstrates how to seprate structure and style for one element of web page design, including lists, anchors, tables and layout. Very clear.

Reading now.
Ringworld
Larry Niven

A ribbon around a star with the area of a billion earths. Evolutionary manipulation. Flying cities! A classic.

Re-read it because I wanted to finally read the rest of the series in honor of the appearance of the latest installment. But I misremembered the cat-tails, which are actually from A World out of Time

Read: September 2004
Azumanga Daioh

Wacky highschool Anime. Cute characters.

Watched: Vol. 1 September 2004
Wicked
Gregory Maguire

Interesting twist on an old favorite.

The Dance of the Changer and the Three
Terry Carr

A short story. I think this is the best approximation of a truly alien mindset that I've read. The middle third of Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves also embeds you deeply and sympathetically in an alien culture, but in the end you can understand Asimov's aliens. Carr's aliens remain alien, and the story is both unsettling and exciting.

White Apples and The Wooden Sea
Jonathan Carroll

Eschatological fiction. Interesting characters.

A Box of Matches
Nicholson Baker

He is superb at capturing the stream of memories and minutiae that run through all our minds in a way that makes us interested in the character and his preoccupations.

I don't think the character (who, I think, is the author quite undisguised) is all that interesting a man in and of himself, and I think that is the point - looked at closely enough, with some empathy, anyone can be interesting. And Baker even manages to make a story arc out of a two month sequence of daily diary entries, with a conventional climax and denoument structure and some character growth. Unexpected and very pleasing!

Indra's Pearls
David Mumford, Caroline Series, David Wright

Mathematical and computer graphical exploration of some beautiful fractals deriving from Klein's work on the interactions between certain kinds of spiral motion. Lovely images, nice mathematics (geometry and complex numbers) and computer code.

Firefly

A terrific space western from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Kaylee is qute! Foolishly canceled, there is a movie in the works. Good theme song.

Haibane Renmei

Melancholy and lovely Anime, a story of redemption and coming of age from Yoshitoshi ABe (Lain, Niea). More info and a review.

Bird of Passage
Rudolph Peierl

A charming physicist's charming autobiography

Neverwhere and American Gods
Neil Gaiman

Great storyteller.


email: dhf at panix dot com
Revised 21 January 2019 7:46