Vidal, Gore. Lincoln. NY: Random House, 1984
I’ve never been a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, a result of reading too much real history, probably. Vidal makes Old Abe interesting — fascinating, in fact — but I can’t say I like him any the better. He was never any kind of abolitionist, of course, which was why the Radical Republicans didn’t like him. He “freed the slaves” only by “military necessity,” and then only in the areas the North didn’t even control. And he insisted, right up until the day before his assassination, that all negroes in the United States should be loaded onto ships and resettled in Central America, whether they wanted to go or not. Lincoln went into the war only to keep the Union together by force (which was certainly unconstitutional), but he had little or no regard for the Constitution anyway, suspending the right of habeus corpus, shutting down newspapers and arresting editors who didn’t agree with his administration, and censoring publications of all kinds before the fact. However, compared to the conniving of Salmon Chase (who wanted to be president but settled for Chief Justice), the arrogance of Edwin Stanton (who threw Mrs. Lincoln out of the room where the president was dying), the jingoism of William Seward (who wanted to start a war with England, France, and Spain so the U.S. could take over the entire Western Hemisphere — which, he was sure, would also bring the South back into the fold), and the long string of absolutely disastrous generals with which the North was saddled, Lincoln was almost an innocent. The most likeable character in the book is the young John Hay, Lincoln’s second secretary (and destined to become McKinley’s Secretary of State), who has a refreshingly unbuttoned attitude toward almost everyone and everything. And Mary Todd Lincoln, the only real abolitionist in the family, is a fascinating person, as Vidal portrays her descent from extreme migraine into paranoia and schizophrenia. So Vidal has done it again, and I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with the slightest interest in history. He invents almost nothing, but with this gang of political cut-throats, he doesn’t need to! (12/27/00)
Block, Lawrence. Hit List. NY: Morrow, 2000.
This is a terrific sequel to Hit Man, which was also terrific. And that’s what John Keller is. Not a savage bloodletter, but a very professional, rather quiet killer-for-hire. He’s even an avid philatelist. He has no close friends and no long-term romantic interests (“loose ends,” he says). A nice guy. If you met him, you’d like him — as long as the meeting was social and you weren’t his next contract. Especially in his long-running Matthew Scudder series, Block is known as a “thinking man’s” mystery writer and this new series (if two books can be a “series”) continues that theme. Keller thinks about what he does for a living; in the first book, he even goes into analysis for awhile (which is spectacularly unsuccessful). A caution: If you want a thrill-a-minute plot, Block doesn’t provide it, not here. These are more of an extended character study . . . but a very good, very absorbing one. (12/09/00)
Appel, Allen. Time After Time. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1985.
__________. Twice Upon a Time. NY: Carrol & Graf(?), 1987(?).
__________. Till the End of Time. NY: Doubleday, 1990.
Among science fiction sub-genres, I’m a great fan of time-travel stories, and it amazes me that I somehow missed this trilogy for more than a decade. How did I never hear of it or read a review? Because it certainly received a good deal of well-deserved attention among the reviewers.
Alex Balfour is a young history professor in New York City and the son of a famous historian turned historical novelist . . . and the grandson of yet another professional historian (he figures it’s a genetic predisposition). The death of his parents in a plane crash when he was 17 has left him semi-wealthy, enough so that he owns a brownstone and can do pretty much what he wants. Since childhood, however, he’s been afflicted with extremely realistic dreams: If he dreams about walking in the rain, he’ll wake up with wet hair. It takes a while, but eventually he finds he’s actually traveling back in time — the venue being determined by whatever period he’s presently absorbed in.
In the first book, that’s the Russian Revolution, and Alex finds himself in the thick of it. Of course, it’s unsettling for his girlfriend when he disappears from their bed and reappears in front of her weeks later. And it upsets Alex to run into his father back there in St. Petersburg — not a young version, either, but a man older than the age at which he supposedly died in the plane crash. Which is how he discovers that his ability to travel in time is also inherited. Alex hates his father, incidentally, and with good reason, and the old man continues to try to manipulate his son, just as he always did. There’s plenty of action and totally believable adventure in the story as he gets involved in an attempt to save the Tsar and his family from the executioners, but there’s also a great deal of internal and external moral and political discussion and the character development and exploration is exceptional.
In the second book, Alex is transported back to the Philadelphia of 1876 and the Centennial Exhibition, where he gets involved with some captured Indians and General Custer, and also Mark Twain. The social topics here are the treatment of both ex-slaves and the Indians by American society. This time, his girlfriend, Molly, who is a reporter for the New York Times, has her own parallel plot, involving the manhunt for an Ogalala Sioux who has declared himself the descendant of Crazy Horse and begun shooting White men who poke in where they decidedly don’t belong. Molly is smart and tough, and what happens to her is a bit shocking to the reader; we’re not used to the Heroine suffering what she does — not in a science fiction novel. But again, Appel rings all the changes and keeps the reader’s close attention.
The third book — which may or may not be the last in the series, but it kind of feels like it is — puts Alex in the thick of World War II in the Pacific, beginning with Pearl Harbor and ending with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The supporting characters this time include not only FDR and Bill Donovan, but Betty Grable, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, and Orson Welles. The moral dilemmas this time have to do with hating, xenophobia, and the nature of both killing and revenge. And, after three volumes in which we develop a high regard for the main characters, the ending of this one is most unsettling, even upsetting. But history isn’t “fair.”
Appel’s strength comes from his knowledge of the minutiae of history, which adds fascinating verisimilitude and keeps the reader’s attention in the best way. The real historical figures who pop up unexpectedly were, in fact, really there. The alternative explanations Appel offers for certain historical events are quite plausible, most of them having been advanced by historians at one time or another. The author also has a real knack for making us care about his characters, and he certainly has a wonderful way with words. (12/06/00)
Eklund, Gordon. All Times Possible. NY: DAW, 1974.
All my science-fiction-reading life, as I said before, I’ve been a sucker for time travel stories and alternate history stories. This one’s a little of both. It begins in a world in which Tommy Bloome (except that he’s not, really), who is twenty years old in 1947, attempts to assassinate one of the fascist generals who runs the United States. He fails and is shot for his trouble — but between the trigger being pulled and the bullet crashing into his forehead, a whole other story takes place. Tommy wakes up on the day of his birth, 4 July 1927, but he’s already twenty years old and remembers fully his earlier life. This time, he’ll get it right. This time, he has enough of a head-start to build a proper revolution. And he does, a Red revolution in 1934, following which he and his victorious colleagues form a Supreme Executive Committee (with Tommy as First Secretary) set about collectivizing and rationalizing the country. Of course, in the purges that follow, thousands must die, but maybe things are better. Or maybe not. Toward the end of the book, we find out that Tommy’s original world is one in which William Randolph Hearst died as a boy, but the significance of his absence is never explained. The characters — Bloome; his best friend and earliest supporter, Bob Ennis; his wife, Rachel, who comes to hate him; his one necessary outsider, Arnold Lowery; his dark alter ego, John Durgas; the one woman, Nadine, who loved him before the revolution — all are very nicely portrayed and developed, though the whole thing is a bit confusing at first, as each of them takes center-stage in turn. The world Eklund portrays is likewise well thought out and believable. And the writing style is striking — Eklund’s usual high-quality work. But the book is ultimately unsatisfying. And I’m not sure why. (9/23/00)
Margolin, Philip. Gone, But Not Forgotten. NY: Doubleday, 1993.
This is the first book I’ve read by this author, having had him recommended to me by several friends, and I wish I hadn’t waited so long. His plotting is complex but understandable (if you pay attention), his characters are very true-to-life, and the action is nicely-paced. In this case, it’s a serial killer (sort of), a lady lawyer who becomes his attorney (without at first knowing what he is), a D.A. who tries too hard, and a governor about to be confirmed to the Supreme Court with a secret in his political past. This would probably make a terrific movie, but I don’t know what you could cut to get it down to size. I’m definitely going to be reading more of Margolin. (9/13/00)
Benford, Gregory & Martin H. Greenberg (eds). Hitler Victorious: 11 Stories of the German Victory in World War II. NY: Garland Publishing, 1986.
I’m a sucker for alternate history stories, partly because of my professional background in history. I like to play “what if” myself (as noted elsewhere on this web site), but writing something that succeeds both as fiction and as plausible alternate history is really tough. Among themes, having the Germans win WWII is a close second to the South winning the Civil War, and virtually all the stories in this excellent collection succeed admirably. Some I’ve read before, like “Weihnactsabend” by Keith Roberts and Brad Linaweaver’s “Moon of Ice,” but others were apparently written especially for this volume, including the terrific “Thor Meets Captain America” by David Brin. A very good collection. (910/00)
Vidal, Gore. Julian. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964
Vidal is no fan of organized religion of any stripe, but he especially dislikes the authoritarian history of Christianity down through the centuries. The Emperor Julian, called “the Apostate” by the followers of the Galilean, was the grandson of Constantine and the nephew of Constans. He was a philosopher by nature but also a natural military genius who took back Gaul from the Germanic tribes. Most important, Julian was a convinced Hellenist and when he finally came to power, he made a serious effort to enforce religious tolerance in the empire — something the Christian bishops certainly didn’t want, and still don’t! Unfortunately, he reigned for only four years and was killed (probably murdered at the instigation of the bishops) on campaign in Persia. And that was the last chance the ancient world had. After Julian’s death, the Church was firmly in charge and stayed that way. Vidal’s polemical style is always enjoyable, but especially so in this case, with Julian pointing out to his politico-religious enemies the many ways in which they don’t practice what they preach. I’ve gotten on a Vidal kick, so a number of his other books should show up in the list shortly. (9/06/00)
Goldsmith, Olivia. The First Wives Club. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
I read this because I enjoyed the movie. Believe me, the film is only a shadow of the book! Of course, the movie inevitably has a lot less detail than the book it’s based on, but there are several additional plots in this novel that never made it to the screen. Good characterization, too. (7/29/00)
Coover, Robert. The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor. NY: New American Library, 1968.
This is another of those books I first read shortly after it was published and only recently added to my list of books I really wanted to re-read. It’s long out-of-print, which is a shame, though I can understand the lack of economic enducements. Coover’s hallucinogenic, postmodern style is certainly not for everyone. The focus of the story is J. Henry Waugh, an ordinary office-worker, whose real life begins after he gets home at night and plays The Game. Think Dungeons & Dragons, but with a baseball league. Henry plays one (or more) games every night, rolling dice to determine what happens — this is the part that fascinated me the first time around — and meticulously posting all the statistics. But the characters in The Game are almost more real than Henry himself, and the outside world gradually loses out to Henry’s internal life. Then a rising young star pitcher falls victim to a most improbable accident — allowed for in Henry’s dice tables, of course — and the reader watches as Henry gradually slides into insanity. The book starts out fascinating and sort of fun but by the end you’ve definitely been chilled. This is a fantastic book — and I’m not even a sports fan. (5/01/00)
Cornwell, Patricia. Postmortem. NY: Scribner, 1990.
This is one of those books that’s been on my “to read” list forever, but I’ve only just gotten around to it — mostly because another writer said Cornwell had remade one section of the mystery genre with this book. And I can see how she did that. This is the first of what has become a long series of novels featuring Virginia Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, who has not just a tense and trying professional life but a stack of personal problems that somewhat overlap with it, especially in the matter of her ten-year-old, too-bright niece. She’s a very believable protagonist. More than that, this is a serial killer story written right on the edge — very realistic, very gritty, and pretty nerve-wracking. I had to stay up late one night to finish the book! And that’s where my only complaint comes in, too. I had considered all the characters, trying to figure out whodunit, and I could make a case for several of them — but each of them also had (or seemed to have) an alibi or a counterbalancing reason to assume their innocence. And I was anxious to see how the author wrapped everything up. Well, . . . I won’t give away the ending, but I will say I was rather annoyed. I don’t think she quite played fair with the reader. However, given the high reputation of this series, I’ll have to have a go at a couple of others and see what happens. Cornwell is an excellent narrator and a talented purveyor of the language, so I’ll give her another chance. (4/22/00)
Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. NY: Knopf, 1997.
This one has been on my “to read” shelf for more than a year, and I wish now I hadn’t waited so long. Sakamoto Chiyo (“Chiyo” being her first name) is the daughter of a poor fisherman. Her mother is dying from cancer and neither Chiyo nor her sister have much of a future — though, of course, it doesn’t seem that way to her. But it’s 1929 (she’s nine years old), and things are about to get much, much harder. Partly for his own (unstated) reasons, partly to rescue his two daughters while he still can, their father sends both girls off to Kyoto to be apprenticed into the geisha trade. Actually, he sells them — they “belong” to their new mistresses — but it takes a little while for the reader to realize that. Satsu, the older sister, doesn’t meet the requirements and becomes, for awhile, a prostitute, until she manages to run away and essentially disappears from the story, except in Chiyo’s mind. But Chiyo herself becomes a maid — sort of a pre-trainee — in the okiya of Mother and Auntie, and though she loathes the life, and the loss of her home, and expects nothing good of her own future, she adapts rather quickly. Over the ensuing years, she becomes first an apprentice, then a full geisha, and the story of her training, her growing understanding of her world — the limits of the geisha-world of the Gion district of Kyoto — and her understanding and misunderstanding of men makes up the first three-quarters of the book. Golden, a Westerner, nevertheless has considerable experience in and understanding of Japan and the social institutions peculiar to its recent past. He puts you there, looking over Chiyo’s shoulder as she attends lessons in flute, shamisen, dance, and tea ceremony, as her name changes to Nitta Sayuri when she becomes a geisha and is adopted as the “daughter” of the okiya, as she learns from her “older sister,” Mameha, and suffers under the thumb of Hatsumomo, the senior geisha of her okiya, and as she forms her lifelong attachment to the Chairman and to the one-armed Nobu-san. Chiyo/Sayuri is a strange (to us) combination of worldliness and sophistication on the one hand and utter naivete and ignorance on the other, as was apparently typical for geisha. She has no idea whether a pound of tea costs more than a broom, but she shows astute knowledge of the history and art of every kimono among the thousands she wears in her young life. And, of course, just as she’s nearing adulthood, World War II brings its full weight down upon the ordinary people of Japan, including the geisha. This novel proves once again that Knopf continues to be the premier publisher of high-quality fiction in this country, and I can’t recommend it too highly. (3/23/00)
Westlake, Donald E. The Ax. NY: Mysterious Press, 1997.
Except for Grafton’s “alphabet” series and Joe Gores’s D.K.A. novels, I’m not an especially devoted reader of mysteries. I’ve read a few of Westlake’s decidedly odd yarns in the past, though, so I decided to believe the rave reviews of this one. And I’m glad I did, because it’s terrific. Burke Devore is a decent guy, a 50-year-old middle manager in charge of a specialized assembly line at a paper mill in Connecticut, who gets (as he puts it) “chopped” by the latest round of downsizing and consolidation in his industry. There are a lot of guys with his job description out of work all at once. And he knows that, although he’s very good at his job, he’s not the best available. After two years of belt-tightening unemployment, of job interviews followed by nothing but silence, Burke is coming to the end of his rope. Then, while keeping up with the comings and goings in his field — can’t let your industry leave you behind, you know! — he reads an interview with another manager in another mill nearby, and he knows that’s the job he wants, the job he should have, the job he’s entitled to in order to take care of his family. But what to do about all those other unemployed managers? What about the competition? How can he make sure he is the best available candidate when “his” job opens up? Well, he’s a manager, right? He can manage this. All the time I was reading this ghastly, funny, satirical, terrifying, and very entertaining book, I was thinking what a first-rate movie it could be. I’d pick John Lithgow for the role of Burke. (2/20/00)
Flynn, Michael. In the Country of the Blind. NY: Baen Books, 1990.
Even if you don’t count going-to-the-moon stories, and alien-invasion stories, and all the other categories of sf stories that have to do with space, there are still dozens of other genres within the science fiction paradigm. One of the usually less successful types (in my opinion) is the “secret history” story. The plot, that is, turns on events that most of us don’t know about — things we aren’t supposed to know about, secret things that allow some individual or group to (usually) rule the world. Generally, the key events or relationships that give the secret group its power are a little too pat, a little too coincidental, and the stories usually are not believable. And in science fiction, believability is the key to success, even given the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” as they say. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was an exception, up to a point, and so was Wilson and Shea’s Illuminati trilogy. And now, so is this novel. Every educated computer junky knows who Charles Babbage was: The inventor of the first computer — or, he would have been had he had electricity back in the 1830s. He certainly had the basic theory worked out, including the notion of binary decision trees and the idea of punch cards, but he could make it work with just mechanical rods and gears and cams. At least, that’s what we’ve been told. The early 19th century was also a time of amateur gentleman scholars who thought that if you could only gather enough information, enough data, about people and society at large, you could work out policies that would improve everyone’s lot in life. According to Flynn, a small group of those do-gooders in New England (1) managed to develop a mathematical approach to social engineering, (2) got Babbage’s engine to work, and (3) began to do something about the state of the world. And they’ve been at it ever since. Only, they’re really not very good at it. They really didn’t *mean* to start the Civil War. Now it’s the present and things for the Babbage Society have gotten much more complicated. Flynn has a real knack for the language and he seems to know his history. The “fulcra” he selects, the points where a small change might tip the course of events in quite a different direction, are quite reasonable, and he’ll tell you exactly why. The characters are believable and three-dimensional and often sympathetic, even the bad guys. And coincidence is kept to a minimum. There’s lots of juicy quotes in this one, too. This book was recommended to me by a friend several years ago, but I’ve only just gotten around to reading it — and now I have to go see what else Flynn has written! (1/22/00)
Powers, Alan. Living with Books. San Francisco: SOMA, 1999.
Okay, I have a pro-book bias, but it’s nevertheless fascinating to discover the many creative, ingenious, and very original ways architects and ordinary booklovers have found to store them, display them, and enjoy being in their presence. Face it — one never has enough bookshelves. And some of these homes are definitely masquerading as libraries! Here are bookshelves up under the eaves of an older house, or installed over the doorways in the hall, or built into closets and cupboards and under kitchen counters. Others are freestanding on metal shelves and poles and rigged like a ship’s masts. There are small libraries built into the landings of staircases and others that cover entire walls of bedrooms. Some are two tiers deep, with the front one moving sideways on rollers. Others share space with lamps, TV sets, telephones, clocks, computers, ancient artifacts, photographs, and knick-knacks. And the one thing all the arrangements depicted in this book have in common is, none of them — even the most attractively arranged — are just for show. One glance at the worn covers and frayed jackets tells you these books are the constant companions of their owners. (1/07/00)