Copyright notice: All reviews, essays and other original material on this website, unless otherwise accredited, attributed or assigned, are copyrighted by Fred William Tims. 1997DEC15.
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The book reviews in BOOKPOODAH are not so much summaries of the content of the books, but short essays about them. Sometimes I blather on about the significance of what is said in the book. Sometimes I gush over what I deem to be a particularly artistic passage of the book. The site is organized in more or less descending order, from what I consider to be great works, to less important, but still nifty books, to, finally, cookbooks. I begin with my regrets – the great books I should have finished, but didn’t.
Books I Never Got Around to Finishing And Am Ashamed I Didn’t
On Growth and Form, D’Arcy Thompson.
Fifty years ago I was a callow fellow working on an image processing project. The leader of the project was a woman I will call “Dr. Bernice”. She advised me that no one could consider himself educated until he had read “On Growth and Form”. Having read about half of it, I agree, and can thus consider myself no more than half-educated. What I did read changed the way I see (and understand) the world.
Man the Measure, Erich Kahler.
Not at all a screed on masculine superiority. It was written long ago when “man” meant humanity. It is an astounding condensation and explication of human history.
The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek.
I had to buy this book in college for a course in Economics. I read the required parts for the course. After graduation I read more. But I never finished it. Lately it has become something of a cult book for free market partisans and Libertarians. Great book.
And Where Were You Adam?, Heinrich Boll.
I tried to read this book in the original German. I still have it, but managed only about, once again, half. The copy I have is named “Wo Warst du Adam?” and it is by Heinrich Boell (the best I can do with the umlaut problem). I think it is probably hard slogging even if you are not handicapped by lack of fluency. Never tried it in English. I am ashamed that I didn’t finish it because it seemed an excellent book and it would have been the only full-length work I had read in German outside of class.
The books above are all magnificent books. I read about half of each, set them aside because something else had caught my eye, and never got back to them. I regret never having finished them.
Books I Never Read, But Feel I Should Have
The Other Reviews
Now that that’s off my chest, here are my other book reviews:
I’ll add some E.A.Poe links as soon as I can resolve this perplexing communique.
Books I Actually Finished and Consider Important
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, C.MacKay & A.Tobias
This book MUST be read by every living soul. Period. It wires the brain forever with a pre-disposition to skeptically view any fad, fashion, just cause, accepted wisdom, media hype or sure thing. Reading this book can immunize you against mailing money to heating oil futures investment services, as well as wearing leisure suits and platform shoes. Read it NOW or risk remaining part of the aphid farm.
You English Words, John Moore The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson
The Covenant, James Michener
I suppose I should do some research before publishing this review. I should consult the opinions of professional historians, probably. What I am about to say may be total nonsense, but this is my page, so what the heck? My earliest awareness of South Africa was that it was one of many parts of the World colored red on the map pulled down in front of the blackboard during Geography time in the fourth grade. Part of the British Empire. That was as far as it went until a few years later when I picked up a vague notion of the Boer War that occurred there and that a lot of diamonds and gold were mined there. In my middle teens I read Something of Value by Robert Ruark and thought it a very fine book, indeed. That was about it until I read “The Covenant”. I now know a lot about South Africa. At least it is a lot relative to what I knew before. It is not the historical poodah, however, that causes me to include this book in the “Important” category. It is the deeper understanding and appreciation of the social and cultural forces which made South Africa what it was and is. And, I am amazed to watch, Michener predicted a very important component of the nature of post-apartheid South Africa.The original Boers were Dutch Reformists. They were fundamentalists who took their religion seriously and their Bible literally. When they first assayed to press eastward from north of the Cape and inhabit the land of the Zulus, they met, as one might expect, stiff resistance. Their wagon train of four hundred people (including women and children) was soon surrounded by 17,500 very agitated Zulu warriors. They had a day or two before hostilities began and made use of the time by writing a contract with God, which all signed. This document, the “Covenant”, promised that if God would see them through the pending confrontation, they would forever heed His injunctions as given to the Hebrews upon entering Canaan after their forty-year trip from Egypt to the promised land, i.e., they would make the indigenous population their slaves (“hewers of wood and carriers of water”) and would never mix with them – they would forever remain apart from them. In Dutch, apartness is “apartheid”. During the ensuing hostilities, which lasted, as I remember, two days, several thousand Zulu warriors were killed and they retired from the field. The Boers suffered two minor wounds. Well, hey! A deal’s a deal, right? Specially with God! According to Michener, this “Covenent” with God was the bedrock of national and social policy which guided The Union of South Africa thenceforth. So now we understand it in part.
Michener’s other important observation is that the m’Beles (the majority indigenous population) are remarkably gentle and, by European standards, forgiving to a fault. He advised that the whites were at risk of eventually exhausting this forbearance and that they should dissolve the policies of apartheid, and, if they were to do so, they would be surprised at the leniency that would be displayed. Subsequent events have borne him out. To me, the performance of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee is one of the most astounding and heartening developments of all time.
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
What a shame this book has of late been denounced as racist. When I read it in the third grade I enjoyed it as a great adventure story and was unconscious of the gently implanted message that racism was not only cruel, but absurd.
Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain. Seriously funny.
Roughing It, Mark Twain
The fascinating story of his days in the Nevada silver fields. The funniest tale was about his lining up with the other sex-starved miners to peep at a new woman in town through a knothole in the wall of a cafe kitchen – when he got his turn, he was treated to the sight of a ninety-year-old woman cooking pancakes. He didn’t get rich there, so he had to go to Sacramento and write for a living. Lucky us!
Flatland, Edwin Abbott Abbott. Calisthenics for the brain.
A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester
This book makes the Middle Ages palpable. Especially interesting is the one-on-one between Martin Luther and Satan. It is not for a tyro such as I to say if it is a true picture, but I was enthralled.
I read this book about thirty years ago. It was an engrossing true narrative of the first comprehensive scientific expedition to the seas off Antarctica. It was a sailing ship and the time was, as I recall, late 18th century, but it could have been a hundred years later then that. I lost the book and have been trying to find it on the net for years. No luck. I would be most grateful for any information. Please respond with subject = Blue Waters.
Not As Important, But Wonderful Reading
King of the Confessors, Thomas Hoving
What’s it like to be the head curator for one of the world’s greatest art museums? A lot more exciting than you might think. In this book, Hoving recounts a years-long investigation into the authenticity of a medieval artifact of great value. It is just absolutely fascinating!I haven’t read the two books below, but I intend to do so, based on my experience with “King of the Confessors”.
Making the Mummies Dance, Hoving. False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, Hoving.
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
This is my favorite Dickens. Engrossing and funny. I have a first edition, which I read and did a lot of damage to in the process. Sigh.
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
I read several books by Dickens, this was my favorite serious one.
The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy.
Will, G. Gordon Liddy
This autobiography by the rascal of Watergate is a fascinating book. You get not only Watergate poodah, but engaging tales of the inside workings of the FBI. Liddy’s use of the language shows he was taught more than self-esteem in school. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the self-esteem on his own.
Shogun, James Clavell.
The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth
It’s been some time since I read this, but I remember that it was special. Seventeenth century goings-on in off-shore Maryland. Sot-Weed is tobacco and a “factor” is an agent. A quirky, literate picture of the times, true or not. Approaches fantasy, maybe, it’s hard to tell. That’s how clever this book is.
The Journeyer, Gary Jennings
An outstandingly good premise for a book, executed brilliantly -“What would Marco Polo have chronicled had he not been inhibited by his readers’ disbelief?”This is a long, rich book. In a little corner of this adventure is a description of the construction and operation of a “kamel”, a device used for East-West navigation. Easy! The book gets a bit raunchy in parts, so I wouldn’t recommend it for youngsters. Also, I think Tibetans would probably be offended.
Vagrant Viking, Peter Freuchen
A great book by one of the founders of Thule, Greenland.
The Story of English, Robert McCrum & Robert MacNeil
Companion book to the television series of a few years ago. If you have any interest in English, you will love this book.
Wordstruck, Robert MacNeil
A nice, sweet little book by one of the authors of “The Story of English” (see above). It made me regret more than ever my neglect of Shakespeare.
The Tin Drum, Guenter Grass
The James Bond books, Ian Fleming.
The Flashman books,
William Faulkner is my favorite American author; he has an elegant way with the English language. His prose reads like poetry. His stories are engrossing. While I was at The University (UVa), he was Writer-in-Residence and he lectured my English class for one full period (actually, it was a question-and-answer session). A small man with a beautiful, languid, yet precise aristocratic Mississippi accent. I remember with relish his answer to a particularly assiduous student who had posed one of those questions that takes three minutes to ask and is more an essay than a question. I believe the “question” had to do with naming one of the characters “Joe Christmas” in Light in August. Mr. Faulkner patiently withstood the barrage and, after a short pause, probably to be sure it was over, but maybe for effect, he answered, “Young man, I am sorry, but I cannot answer your question because I am not a literary person.”
I saw him often in his tweeds and Tyrolean green felt hat, walking the grounds, smoking a pipe. He joined the local hunt club (fox hunt) and was writing a book about it when he died, so I heard. It was rumored that his book would expose scandals of the nabobs of Albemarle County, who were very relieved at its remaining unfinished. An excellent narrative of his time at UVa, written by one of his department colleagues, can be read in The Virginia Quarterly Review. He doesn’t mention the unfinished book, so maybe it never existed. Also, if you read the article, please believe me when I say that I did not steal the “tweeds and Tyrolean green felt hat” from it. I wrote that before reading the article. A Faulkner book I especially liked was Sanctuary. One of the characters is a student at The University back in the days when we all wore coats and ties. He gets into a lot of trouble. I could really identify with that character.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Dune (Dune Chronicles, Book 1), Frank Herbert
One of the all-time great science fiction books. Book 1, that is. Full of life-style adaptations required to live on an almost waterless world. Dune was made into an annoying movie.
I found Book 2 (Dune Messiah) almost unreadable. I’ve heard that Book 3 is better, almost as good as Book 1.
The Mote in God’s Eye, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle. Cool. The aliens are virtuoso engineers, not scientists.
The Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake.
Has there ever been anyone since Shakespeare who had a better command of the Language? He was to the English language what Zoot Sims was to the saxophone. [Maybe Winton Marcalis to the trumpet? Benny Goodman to the clarinet? Somebody help me out, here.]
In this trilogy he describes an alternative world that, we assume, never existed. There is no reason, however, why it couldn’t have existed, or will not. There is nothing supernatural about this world. It is a completely plausible world that could have existed and might yet.
Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
First Book of the Trilogy. Truly weird. Truly fascinating. An ancient feudal civilization, thousands of years into accepted behavior and minute ritual, locked within the indeterminately massive “Gormenghast” castle, challenged only by poor little Prince Titus.
Contact, Carl Sagan
Didn’t see the flick, but read the book. The “zinger” in this book is the most surprising and thought-provoking I have ever encountered. Sagan, this most rational of men, this priest of science, playfully lays waste to the underpinnings of science, the very essence of rational thought, mathematics. He was a man among us who could, with authority, laugh with God – affectionately and fearlessly.
07mar00 – Well, I finally saw the flick. Probably the best SciFi flick ever made. Maybe I’m just overreacting to its recent impact on me, but it’s gotta be way up there. It was missing the “zinger” that was in the book, though. Too bad. (Hint: it was something in the message from Vega.) Hey! I’ve got a literary finding! Hey! Guess what I saw? Has anyone noticed this? It comes from television viewing, not reading. An accident. A day or two before seeing “Contact” I had watched “Madame Bovary” on PBS. As many people know (I didn’t until I saw the show), Emma’s husband is a good but dull man. Lying under her newfound lover at the base of a tree in the woods immediately after consumating the relationship (or was it during?), she exclaims over and over “I had no idea…I had no idea”. So what does Jodie Foster say over and over again when she sees the wonders of outer space? You guessed it! Carl, you sly, well-read devil. Just your way of saying science is as good as sex?
Books I Actually Finished and Loved But Have Not Yet Classified
Making the World Safe for Existence, Doren Slade.
This book, please realise, is an academic work, written for professional sociologists. As such, it is at times hard slogging for the layman. Struggling through it, however, I gained at least two insights. The first, not really a goal of the book, was a finer understanding of the mestizo/indian relationship (Castillians are not an issue in the book). Mainly, this was just a few more data points in the very sparse matrix of my understanding. The second, and this was the book’s locus, was one I had never really considered – just what is behind all of those many extravagant and bizarre religious festivals that go on in Mexico? Salient points: the church does not sponsor them (a BIG surprise!); private citizens devote their personal meager income and their time, including that of their extended families, for a year or more to bring one of these festivals off. Whereas there is a strong religious vector to this sponsorship, the real nut of it is that it is a civic duty, and one which gives the sponsor the fulfillment of knowing that he and his family have done their bit. In the main, it is not a seeking of status in the community that drives these people to such extremes of personal sacrifice, nor is it solely religious devotion. It is what one must do to validate his existence and achieve a measure of comfort in the knowledge that he has been a link in the continuance of his society. The festival is not a propitiation to God, to invoke divine support for the community. The festival is the essence of the community – thus the name of the book, I think.
This study was executed over a span of several years, in situ in the mountains of central Mexico, among what we would call “poor farmers”. I apologize to the author for my use of masculine pronouns and will review this review with a view to politically correcting it. I will not, however, take the easy way out and employ the abominable “he/she” construct.
Under the Colors, Milovan Djilas.
This book is extraordinarily relevant to current events (at least it was in 1995, when I wrote this review). It will give you an understanding of the hatred which rules the part of the world now called “the former Yugoslavia”.
Runaway Horses, Yukio Mishima.
Yukio Mishima is a hard guy to get a handle on. Was he a fanatic, a militarist, a poet, a genius, a reactionary? All of the above, I guess. He lamented the decline of the Samurai Way and “bushido”. He deplored the Westernization of Japan. He had a coterie of followers, but I don’t think it quite amounted to a cult. His novels are a paean to the way it used to be and a dirge for its loss. A few years ago, in a second-floor display window of a commercial establishment, he offered his final protest by committing sepuku, one of his disciples administering the coup-de-grace. (It looks like I may be all wet on this. See this note for what is probably the real poodah.) Was he insane or committed (unfortunate word choice, I guess). In my opinion, he was bereft, but I can’t claim to have more insight into his situation than that which I can glean from my limited reading of his books – a sense of consuming sadness and longing and regret and loss, and an almost unseen bitterness.
Whatever Mishima was, he could write with an astounding mixture of insight, delicacy and impact. He could build subtle, intricate pictures of exqusite detail and beauty, one on top of another, somehow, magically, leaving the reader (at least this reader) with a feeling of having been impaled with a butterfly’s sword. It is as if Mishima translated the precepts of the Eastern martial arts into literature. Speaking of translations, I wonder to what extent my unabashedly rapturous review can be attributed to the translator, Michael Gallagher? Is there some added value in the translation? It is beyond my ability to answer that question, but I find it hard to believe that he lost anything.
Some passages from “Runaway Horses” are, to me, pinnacles of the craft of writing and thought. The progression of his thoughts, for example, in just three paragraphs (beginning at the bottom of pg. 150 in my copy) exhibit his genius:
As Mishima contrasts the ephemeral beauty and repose of nature with the precision and stress of military endeavors, his thought progresses from “distant, dreamlike clouds, oblivious to the thick and lovely shade cast by the trees [now catch this!] bordering the drill field…”; to “finely tuned engine” to “moved by a giant, unseen hand”, to “the blazing sun”, and, finally to “choreography of death”. A gamut of images in just one short paragraph – 15 lines of poetic prose, containing not only the imagery limned above, but concepts such as the minimization of the finely tuned engine by the power of the unseen hand; a blazing sun dealing death “whenever it wished”; and culminating with a reversal of attribution:
“Here was the power of the Emperor himself.”
After this internal climax, there is a synthesis of images. In the second paragraph, the mood is intensified and there is an artistic combining of the images and concepts that came before: Now the sun, previously part of the nature contrasted with military order is “working with mathematical clarity and precision”. The “choreography of death”, mentioned above, is “beautiful, sweaty, intricate”.
He ends this passage with a two-sentence paragraph:
“And elsewhere? Elsewhere throughout Japan the rays of the sun were blocked.”
There are other passages from “Runaway Horses” which engage my fascination and which I hope to extoll at some future date. In my copy, they are on the following pages: 168-169; 187; 199-200; 240-241; 245; 249-250.
For more on Mishima, check out his Cyber Museum.
By the way; eager for more Mishima, I read “Temple of Dawn”, another in the “Sea of Fertility” cycle. It was really bad. What a disappointment. A confused mishmash.
Anyone interested in my thoughts on Japan in general might have a look at my Kyoto Trip Report
I get my jollies trying to emulate famous authors. Anyone interested in my try at Mishima can read Rising Sun
Joseph Brant,1743-1807,Man of Two Worlds, Isabel Thompson Kelsay
Historical biography of the leader of the Mohawks, allied with England in the Revolutionary War. He met George Washington and King George III.
History of the Mongol Empire
Air Force Manual 100-24, The JOVIAL Specification.
A beautiful example of how to write a programming language specification.
Books for those who want to get off the grid
Build Your Dream House For A Song, David Cook The Straw Bale House, Swentzell, et al
Finding and Buying Your Place In The Country, Les and Carol Scher
Four Season Harvest,Eliot Coleman Straight-Ahead Organic, Shepherd Ogden
A Walk in the Woods,Bill Bryson Herbs, Lesley Bremness. An excellent field guide to useful herbs.
If you like the Adirondacks, check out this site of beautiful photos: Outdoor Photography
And, for online photo galleries of flowers and information on plants: Flower Pictures
Scandalmonger, William Safire “Defender of the Language”
A fascinating treatment of dirty U.S. politics circa 1790. Safire presents a new (to me) form of historical novel. Rather than made-up characters going about their lives in an historical context, he gives us real historical characters going about the affairs of the country in a painstakingly researched historical narrative.
Purple Dots, PBS’s Jim Lehrer
The cauldron: Washington,D.C. – The ingredients: cynical politicians, ambitious aides, a commune of retired CIA spooks – The result: enjoyable reading for those who like intrigue and are familiar with the center of the universe – “DC”.
Nominated by Friends of BOOKPOODAH for THE Must-Read-to-be-Considered-Educated category.
A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton G. MalkielOn The Sensations of Tone, Hermann Helmholtz.
From the Jaws of Victory, Charles M. Fair.The Feynman Lectures, Richard Feynman.
Man cannot live by great thoughts alone, he must have food. I love to eat and I love to cook and I love to read cookbooks. My favorites are the ones with lots of background info and serious cooking poodah (FOODPOODAH?). Here are a few:
Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer
This is the one I have, an older one and the one I love. I compared it with the new one (below) very quickly and found something quite different. In my copy, there are three recipes for making curry powder. In the new one, there is only one recipe and it is not any of the three in the old one. At any rate, they both are full of cooking lore. I like to read mine while I am waiting for something to boil down or cool or whatever.
This is the new one. I hope I’ll get to read it at length.
The New Basics, Julie Rosso & Sheila Lukins
Lots of interesting background stories and lore. Some really fine recipes. I especially like the Pork Chops Tuscan.
Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites: Flavorful Recipes for Healthful Meals, Pam Krauss
Real Barbeque, Greg Johnson & Vince Staten
These two guys took off for a couple of years and just traveled around the country checking out BBQ joints. Included in the book are reviews of the joints, recipes, and instructions for building your own smoker. I’ve hit about twenty of the joints. The best was Payne’s in Memphis. That was during a cross country from NYC to Dallas with a couple of business associates. It was an excellent adventure and the book found us some great food along the way. I carry it with me whenever I take a trip.
The Tortilla Book, Diana Kennedy.
A great book for Mexican Cooking. Good salsa recipes, including a delicious and easy to make one that uses oregano rather than cumin. It specifies tomatoes, but I like it better with tomatillos.
A tip for cooking pinto beans – add the salt after they have been cooked – makes ’em more tender. That figures – put a membrane between fresh water and salt water and the osmosis flows toward the salt.
Cooking Secrets of the CIA, Pavlina Eccless.
If you are looking for informal, non-professional, irreverent and entertaining investment advice, check out the “Drooling Oatmeal Investment Club”. Poodah (of this site) contributes occasional pieces there, such as this: “The Miracle Yoda Stump”