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The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2010.
Also see the full index of books I've read.

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Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

by John Mortimer (1923-2009) (Wikipedia) (pub. 2004)

I was in the mood for some light reading, so I pulled out my old copy of the last of the Rumpole books by the late John Mortimer. At last, a recounting of Rumpole's brilliant defense in the famous Penge Bungalow Murders case.

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Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals

by Robert M. Sapolsky (Wikipedia)

Rereading of a delightful collection of scientific essays for the layman.

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P. G. Wodehouse: Five Complete Novels

by P. G. (Pelham Grenville) Wodehouse (1881-1975) (Wikipedia)

Another reread, eminently enjoyable.


The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

[Book cover] by Leonard Mlodinow

In Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things about Delambre's and Mechain's attempt in the late 18th century to measure the meridian and thus determine the length of a meter, he mentions that the mathematical techniques did not yet exist for combining the observations of the two men and to account for errors; these techniques would appear later in the 19th century. Since reading that book, I've been on the lookout for a history of this area of math. 5 years later, I find it on the bookstore shelf: Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk

The Drunkard's Walk is a history of the development of the ideas of randomness, chance, probability, and statistics. In addition to recounting the history of these ideas, Mlodinow applies the resulting theories and principles to modern-day scenarios, especially in the areas of business, finance, law, medicine, sports, and, of course, games of chance.

This book was a page-turner—I bought it on Friday and finished it by Sunday. I couldn't put it down. On a cost-of-reading-per-day basis, this makes the book kind of expensive, but it was an excellent read and well worth every flipped penny!

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When the World Shook

by H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1919)

Three English friends—a rich but spiritually restless man, a surgeon who believes science is the answer to everything, and a clergyman who believes Christianity is the answer to everything—sail to the South Seas for rest and relaxation and, in the case of the rich man, on a spiritual quest. They discover the two remaining survivors, the ruler and his daughter, of a 250,000-year-old civilization that was more advanced than ours. Since this story was written about the time of World War I, this ancient civilization boasted flying machines that rained fire on cities. The people were also capable of ESP and, shades of Star Trek, teleportation.

The book, while interesting, was long-winded in places and I don't consider it one of Haggard's better efforts.

Project Gutenberg eBook: When the World Shook

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The Phantom Ship

by Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1839)

A seventeenth-century Dutchman, armed with a holy relic, must save his father, the captain of The Flying Dutchman, from eternal doom. Ironically, the oddest thing about the book is how quickly the son, with no prior experience at sea, rises in rank in the Dutch merchant fleet—and this despite every ship he sails on being sunk from under him!

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Phantom Ship

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The Red House Mystery

by A. A. Milne (1882-1956) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1922)

I listed this as a book I read in 2008, but I couldn't remember the story. Rereading it brought it back to me—an excellent mystery.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Red House Mystery

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The Ape, the Idiot & Other People

by W. C. Morrow (1854-1923) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1897)

A diverse collection of bizarre horror and mystery stories. Some of the earlier stories are food for religious and philosophical thought, but then the bizarreness seems to come to the fore. Very interesting all.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Ape, the Idiot & Other People

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Jonah and Co.

by Dornford Yates (1885-1960) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1922)

The adventures of Daphne et al are humorous stories somewhat in the vein of P. G. Wodehouse's, but the humor is generally a bit more subtle and the action is not so mile-a-minute crazy. In this book-length story, Daphne and the gang and Boy's new wife, Adele, and their terrier, Nobby, and their two cars, Ping and Pong, winter in the south of France. Hilarity is the order of the day and everyone frequently collapses in laughter. ("Supererogatory", sprinkled liberally throughout the book, is simply a fancy word for "superflous" or "done to excess".)

Project Gutenberg eBook: Jonah and Co.

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The Blue Germ

by Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1918)

An English doctor and a Russian scientist create a germ that kills all other germs, thus promising an end to sickness, aging (considered to be caused by some germ), and death. (The book was written before we knew about viruses and that some bacteria are essential to life.) Beguiled by the promise of a utopian world, the doctor and scientist introduce the germ into the Birmingham water supply, from whence it eventually infects the population of London.

Infected people, known as "Immortals", are cured of any illnesses and only need to fear death by physical violence, whether in an accident or at human hands. Unfortunately, the germ has unforeseen side effects. Cosmetically, the Immortals turn into Smurfs—tinted blue—hence the title of the book. More seriously, Immortals take on a more cerebral existence, losing the passion, love, and ambition they had as mortals. Chaos breaks out and the uninfected young rebel against and kill the older Immortals.

The story is excellent, well-written, and explores many problems that you wouldn't think of beforehand if everyone (or some) were to become immortal.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Blue Germ

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The Iron Pirate: A Plain Tale of Strange Happenings on the Sea

by Sir Max Pemberton (1863-1950) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1893)

In the age of steam, a high-tech, heavily armed pirate ship, able to outrun any warship, stops ocean liners, steals their treasures, and then sends them to the bottom of the sea. One man attempts to stop the piracy, but is captured and held prisoner by the pirate captain. As usual in English mystery stories, promises made between gentlemen (including the pirate captain) are made and kept. In an odd twist, the pirate captain, with the blood of thousands on his hands, becomes a sympathetic character towards the end of the story.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Iron Pirate

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The Leavenworth Case

by Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1878)

Set in New York in the 1870s, The Leavenworth Case is a mystery/romance involving a rich uncle and his two orphaned nieces (cousins, not sisters), one of whom is the sole heir to his estate. The uncle is found murdered in his library and some evidence points to one niece as the murderer and some evidence points to the other niece. A young lawyer representing the family, smitten with both nieces and believing them both incapable of murder, attempts to solve the crime, occasionally touching bases with the police investigator in charge of the case. The story is fairly interesting, but it unfolds excruciatingly slowly and would have been better at half its length.

Also see Mother of Mystery: Anna Katharine Green.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Leavenworth Case

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The Pirate of Panama: A Tale of the Fight for Buried Treasure

by William MacLeod Raine (1871-1954) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1914)

In 1913, a Kentucky southern belle in possession of a treasure map handed down in her family teams up with an adventure-hungry San Francisco lawyer to find a treasue buried on the coast of Panama. The lady's evil second cousin is after the same treasure ... and her. Numerous skirmishes and mutinies, instigated by the cousin and in which men are shot left and right, endanger the lives of the lady and the lawyer and the success of their mission. After a while, one is tempted to say, "Enough already! Just shoot the murderous cousin and get him out of your way for good!" Gentlemanly honor prevails, however, and besides, all the action (i) gives the lawyer time to woo the lady and (ii) makes for a rollicking good read.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Pirate of Panama

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Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero

by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) (Wikipedia) (translation by Jeremiah Curtin) (pub. 1895, original Polish)

An epic romance (Wikipedia) and a long and draining read—a little slow at first, but once the desperate pace picks up, it never lets up. During the reign (AD 54 to 68) of Nero (Wikipedia), a cruel Roman warrior, Vinicius, falls in love with a Christian maiden, Lygia. In his long and arduous pursuit of her, Vinicius eventually converts to Christianity. Despite rarer and rarer outbursts of temper that reveal his old self, he consciously tries to change his behavior to that expected of a Christian and worthy of Lygia's love. The story takes you through the dissolute swamp of patrician Rome, the terrifying burning of Rome (Wikipedia) in AD 64, and the subsequent wholesale persecution of Christians. Of special interest are the significant roles played by the apostles Peter and Paul in the book.

From Wikipedia:

Quo vadis is Latin for "Where are you going?" and alludes to a New Testament verse (John 13:36). The verse, in the King James Version, reads as follows, "Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards."

Project Gutenberg eBook: Quo Vadis

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The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1844, original French)

Reading Quo Vadis, a long book, used up a good chunk of the battery life on my Palm Pilot. The Count of Monte Cristo, at twice the length, will probably use up a complete set of batteries!

In an amusing coincidence for me, one of the characters, Franz, declared that "pirates existed only in the romances of Cooper and Captain Marryat"; see The Phantom Ship by Frederick Marryat above! Cooper is presumably James Fenimore Cooper (Wikipedia), "a novelist who wrote numerous sea-stories", as well as The Last of the Mohicans.

Edmond Dantes is a young French sailor from Marseilles. His captain dies at sea, but not before entrusting Dantes with (i) delivering a packet to the marshal of the Island of Elba (where the exiled Napoleon was confined) and (ii) a letter to a man in Paris. Dantes dutifully lands at Elba and then manages to bring the ship safely to its home port, Marseilles. The grateful owner of the ship, Monsieur Morrel, instantly makes Dantes the new captain of the boat. To further add to Dantes's good fortune, he is about to marry the love of his life, the beautiful and loyal Mercedes.

Unluckily for Dantes, his sterling character and handsome looks aren't admired by all. Monsieur Danglars, the supercargo on the ship, thinks he should have been made captain. Fernand Mondego, a local fisherman, is a rival suitor for Mercedes' hand in marriage. Gaspard Caderousse is the landlord of the building in which Dantes's father lives and is not adverse to drinking heavily with Danglars and Fernand.

At one such gathering, Danglars, who knows about the letter Dantes is to deliver (suspected to relate to the return of Napoleon), writes an anonymous letter—just as a joke, mais oui?!—accusing Dantes of participating in a Bonapartist plot. When he's finished the letter, he crumples it up and, with a laugh, throws it in the trash. Fernand recovers the letter from the trash, straightens it out, and submits it to the police.

At his wedding feast the next day, Dantes is arrested by the police, charged with being part of a Bonapartist plot, and brought before the deputy procureur, Monsieur de Villefort. The police find the letter in Dantes's possession. (Note that Dantes has no knowledge of the contents of the letter or of the person to whom it is being sent.) Villefort, who swings whichever direction the political wind is blowing, recognizes the addressee of the letter as his very own father. He tosses the letter into the fire to destroy it and tosses Dantes into solitary confinement in jail to rot for all eternity. (Villefort's father plays a major role later in the book.)

M. Morrel and Mercedes spend much of their time over the next year trying to find out what happened to Dantes, who has disappeared without a trace. Caderousse knows what has happened and that Dantes is innocent, but he is afraid to speak up. Dantes's father lives in increasing poverty and dies of starvation, despite Morrel's and Mercedes' attempts to care for him.

Dantes is on the verge of going crazy when the man in the cell next to his tunnels through to Dantes's cell. This man, the Abbé Faria (based on an actual person), is considered crazy by the authorities because he claims to be very wealthy and is continually offering them millions of francs if they will release him from jail. Despite his reputation, Dantes allows Faria to take Dantes under his wing and put him through rigorous physical and intellectual training, thus turning Dantes into a culturally refined personage trained in all the arts and who speaks many languages. However, Faria is slowly dying and finally does. To escape the prison, Dantes switches his live body for Faria's dead body and is thrown into the sea by the undertakers. Dantes is finally free after 14 years of captivity.

To the chagrin of the authorities if they had only known, the Abbé was not crazy. Before he died, he confided the location of his wealth, a small Italian island known as Monte Cristo, to Dantes. Dantes took up smuggling until he had earned enough to buy his own boat and then he set off to the Island of Monte Cristo in search of these riches—he found them! Dantes became wealthier than any one person can be expected to be and thereafter styled himself the Count of Monte Cristo, no longer Edmond Dantes.

The Count believed himself to be an "avenging angel" of God; his mission: to help those who helped him and to wreak vengeance on those who wronged him. The count anonymously assists M. Morrel, who has fallen on hard times; however, this assistance is given in such a cruel way that Morrel is almost driven to suicide. The count then tries to help Caderousse, who is not exactly a friend, but also not exactly an enemy.

The greater part of the book is devoted to the Count exacting revenge on those who betrayed him: Danglars (now a Baron) is a rich financier in Paris; Fernand (now the Count of Morcerf) returned from the Greek War of Independence with a great deal of money, married Mercedes, and settled in Paris; and M. de Villefort is now a powerful King's Attorney in Paris.

This unabridged version of the book is very long, somewhere in length between Anna Karenina and War and Peace. There are a number of side stories; many times I wished I had a hard-copy of the book so I could flip back earlier in the book to refresh my memory. A lengthy and seemingly superflous section in the middle of the book describes Albert's (son of Fernand and Mercedes) and Franz's visit to Rome. Franz is the only person in the whole book who senses that the Count has a troubled past; I thought that story line might be developed further, but, no, Franz plays only a minor role in the rest of the story. (Albert comes across as somewhat of a dim bulb, but finally shows some character in the end.)

This is an excellent book, lengthy though it is. The only disappointing thing about the book is that, except for a fleeting thought after inadvertently killing an innocent child, the Count has no self-doubt about his role as "avenging angel". Perhaps this was not an era for male novelists to delve into such emotions, but the lack of self-reflection on the Count's part was quite apparent to me and detracted from the overall excellence of the book.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Count of Monte Cristo

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The Treasure of the Incas

by G. A. Henty (1832-1902) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1903)

After the brutally intense final chapters of The Count of Monte Cristo, any other story was bound to be a letdown. Although the title of this book, The Treasure of the Incas, promised a good Haggard-style adventure, it was not to be.

In the 1800s, an English Royal Navy officer and his 16-year-old brother sail to Peru and set out on a search for hidden Inca treasure. With the condescending English attitude of the older brother, the bubbly enthusiasm of the younger brother, and the annoyingly repetitive dialogue ("In case you didn't understand me the first time, I'll say it again."), the book bordered on being "Juvenile Fiction" (Project Gutenberg's classification for children's literature) in my opinion. For a 125,000-word story, I was expecting something with a little more substance.

The book got a little more interesting towards the end, only to have the older brother—the Royal Navy officer—start speaking of his boat traveling so many "knots an hour". Ai-yi-yi! (This usage turns out to have been common prior to the 1890s; see "Knots an hour" regarding Rudyard Kipling's use of the expression.

Memorable quote:

"There, come on, Bertie. I had begun to hope that you were growing into a sensible fellow, but I am afraid that there is no chance of that now, and that you will continue to be a donkey to the end of your life."

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Treasure of the Incas

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The Angel of Terror

by Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1922)

A solid English mystery story. A 29-year-old gentleman will only inherit his father's wealth if he is married by the time he is 30. His beautiful, angelic-looking cousin, who is the heir otherwise, gets him falsely convicted of murder and sent to prison. To foil the cousin, his lawyers break him out of prison a few days shy of his 30th birthday to marry a complete stranger, a poor, kind-hearted working girl who is buried under a mountain of her late father's debts. The two are married in a small private ceremony and the husband is promptly murdered two minutes later, thus making his newly widowed wife very wealthy.

Since the cousin is still the heir should anything happen to the widow, the cousin and her conniving father set out to eliminate the widow. With the lawyer trying to protect the widow and the cousin cozying up to her, the game is afoot to see who wins and who loses, who lives and who dies.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Angel of Terror

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The Lost Valley

by James Morgan Walsh (1897-1952) (Australian Dictionary of Biography) (pub. 1921)

A great Australian adventure/mystery. In the 1880s, two men rob a band of men carrying gold from a bank. The robbers are pursued and they bury the gold in a hidden spot out in the wilderness to lighten their load. One of the robbers is caught and killed; the other gets away, but falls, hits his head on a rock, and is struck with amnesia.

30 years later, the surviving robber has gradually regained his memory, but he can't remember exactly where the gold was buried. Three people—the robber's son, a lady, and her former fiancé—set out in search of the gold. They're not alone; another group, willing to commit murder if necessary, also wants that gold.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Lost Valley

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The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament

by Robert M. Sapolsky (Wikipedia)

This book was recommended to me by Katie Monroe back in 2004 for its discussion of obsessive-compulsive disorder; I finally got around to buying it and reading it. Thanks for the recommendation, Katie—it is an excellent book. Some songs I liken to cotton candy: you like them right away and they don't require repeated listenings to grow on you. So too with Sapolsky's books, his topics, and his writing style. His books pull you in and you can't put them down.

The Trouble with Testosterone seems to include more descriptions of primate research, by Sapolsky himself and by others, than, for instance, Monkeyluv. This may just be a matter of the topics selected for this book.

A particularly interesting chapter was "Curious George's Pharmacy", which looked into the question of whether or not non-human primates self-medicate. The chapter begins by talking about how we often attribute secret or not-so-secret knowledge to other groups: the "Wisdom of the Ancients", the "Wisdom of the Non-Westernized", the "Wisdom of Children", and especially, in this case, the "Wisdom of Animals". The "Wisdom of the Non-Westernized" has always bothered me because (i) there is an implication that Western ideas are inferior — an assertion to which I give the Enlightenment as a counter-example — and (ii) that people are qualitatively different in different cultures, ethnic groups, or geographic areas. Regarding the latter, I am reminded that Rabindranath Tagore knew that that he was not an Indian mystic, although his appeal to Western audiences was based on the fact that he looked like a mystic. I believe that Westerners and non-Westerners are very much alike: there are very good people, there are very bad people, and there is a large group in between.


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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

by Lewis Wallace (1827-1905) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1880)

I was a little unsure what to make of this book when I began reading it, but I soon got caught up in the story. The book begins with the visit of the three wise men to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. (Actually, the Bible doesn't mention the number of wise men; it just mentions their three gifts.) One of the three wise men, Balthazar, reappears later in the book.

Jumping ahead about 10 years, the story then continues in Jerusalem where a well-to-do Jewish teenager, Ben-Hur, is watching a procession in the street from the roof-top of his house. He accidentally knocks a roof tile off onto the head of the procurator, who, believing it to be an attempt on his life, has Ben-Hur seized and immediately sent to the galleys. Unbeknownst to Ben-Hur, the procurator also disposes of Ben-Hur's mother and sister.

Rowers on galleys rarely survive longer than a year, but Ben-Hur's strong constitution and mind enable him to survive 3 years. During a battle, he saves the life of the "admiral" of the Roman fleet, Quintus Arrius. In gratitude, Quintus adopts Ben-Hur as his own son and has him trained in the art of war and battle, Roman-style. When Quintus dies, he leaves his wealth and estates to Ben-Hur

Now rich, but still a soldier, Ben-Hur travels to Jerusalem to find out what became of his mother and sister. Along the way, he stops at Antioch, where he meets Balthazar and his beautiful daughter, Iras. Balthazar tells Ben-Hur of his trip to see the infant Messiah nearly 30 years earlier. Ben-Hur is intrigued and believes the Messiah has come as a warrior king to overthrow the Roman Empire and to raise Israel above all other nations. Balthazar tries to explain his belief that Jesus has not come to be the ruler of earthly kingdoms, but to be the ruler of the kingdom of souls. When Ben-Hur later becomes a follower of Jesus in Israel, he remains torn between the two beliefs.

Antioch is the setting for the famous chariot scene. I haven't seen the complete Ben-Hur movie, but I've seen clips of the chariot race, which is thrillingly told in the book. Almost as good is a masterpiece of dialogue towards the end of the book: the last couple of paragraphs of Ben-Hur telling off Balthazar's daughter, Iras, after she reveals to him that she is in league with his mortal enemy. (No spoiler here—Wallace drops hints throughout that Iras is a snake in the grass.)

The story ends (except for a brief postscript) with the crucifixion of Jesus. Watching the whole event from beginning to end, Ben-Hur, who came prepared for physical battle in defense of the Messiah's life, hears Jesus' words upon the cross and realizes that Balthazar is right—Jesus came to rule our souls in Heaven.

The book, first published in 1880, is largely faithful to the story told in the Bible and to Christian traditions. There are a lot of stereotypes of different cultures and ethnicities (e.g., Jews generally have "beaked noses", except for Jesus, of course). The settings of different scenes are often described in great detail, as if to add a patina of historical authenticity to the book, but, after a while, the gardens, the buildings, etc. all start to sound the same; some editing would have significantly reduced the length of the book without reducing the power of the story.

While writing this review, I saw a bit of a National Geographic Channel documentary, The First Christians. The documentary noted the irony of the fact that without the hated Roman Empire and its vast infrastructure of roads and shipping—and without one Roman citizen, Paul—Christianity would have remained largely confined to Israel. Interesting!

Project Gutenberg eBook: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales

by Oliver Sacks

I woke up early this morning and couldn't get back to sleep. I didn't feel like reading more of Ben-Hur, so I started in on this book and read the first couple of chapters. Interesting stories, but not great science writing. After Sapolsky's down-to-earth prose (see above), Sacks' writing is just too "high-brow". It's not that he is making an effort at being high-brow, he just seems to write that way naturally. His cultural refinment is evident: art, literature, music, philosophy, what have you. He's dealing with bizarre disorders, so some philosophizing is in order, but your eyes start to glaze over after a while. The use of medical terms is, of course, expected and acceptable, but who uses words like "hebetude" in normal discourse? (Perhaps neurologists?) Forgive my rant—I'll probably enjoy his writing more after a full night's sleep! (As I got further into the book, Dr. Sacks's writing style didn't grow on me; if anything, it got a little worse. There were frequent run-on sentences with so many commas that I sometimes had difficulty following the main thread of a sentence while trying to navigate through all the clauses. Mercifully, the chapters are short, usually 3-4 pages.)

Regardless of the writing style, I found this book profoundly disquietening and, perhaps, it should be so. In a way, it reminded me of Sherwin Nuland's How We DieHow Our Brains Die comes to mind as an alternate title. Brain damage in the event of accidents is not unexpected, but, in many of the cases Dr. Sacks describes, the brain degeneration happens spontaneously or after some minor illness. And, no matter what the cause, it's very, very sad.

Almost uplifting is the last section of the book, "The Wisdom of the Simple", which presents a few cases of mentally handicapped and autistic persons. Dr. Sacks suggests that they achieve some coherence in their souls through music, art, numbers (the Twins), etc. For example, the Twins would happily spend hours communicating with each other by exchanging numbers. Unfortunately, there is a trend to try and teach these people "normalcy" so they can be mainstreamed, more or less, into normal society. The Twins were split up and, at the time the book was written, were working in menial jobs, no longer able to communicate with each other, and they seemed to have lost their special ability (or the opportunity to exercise that ability)—and thus their souls. I said this section is "almost uplifting" because we must take into account the small number of cases discussed, which are not enough to draw more general conclusions about the happiness of and the best ways of treating or maintaining mentally handicapped persons. (And, at this time in the U.S., many states are making drastic cuts in social services, further limiting the already limited options available for care, etc. Tax cuts for the fortunate are deemed more important than improving the lot of the less fortunate.)

Finally, the book is now 25 years old and, as such, suffers from the problem with which any science book is eventually afflicted—becoming out-of-date. (Some of the books by Robert Sapolsky, mentioned in my rant above on writing style, are now 15 years old.) One is hungry to learn what new research findings have been made and what new knowledge has been uncovered since aging science books were originally published. Understandably, we can't expect authors to keep revisiting every book they've written!


Hurricane Island

by Henry Brereton Marriott-Watson (1863-1921) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1904)

The story starts off well, introducing a young doctor with bleak prospects and a practice in a sooty manufacturing district of London. He is engaged for a year as the doctor aboard a private yacht carrying a German prince and all of the prince's wealth. The yacht sets sail from England, bound for South America. A mutiny takes place fairly early on in the story ... and drags on and on and on. Halfway through the book, I was almost ready to give up, but, fortunately, I kept on reading—things really pick up in the second half and the story got very interesting. Perseverance pays off!

Project Gutenberg eBook: Hurricane Island

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Anthony Lyveden

by Dornford Yates (1885-1960) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1921)

A light-hearted romance sprinkled generously with Yates's subtle humor. Anthony Lyveden was born and raised a gentleman, distinguished himself in World War I, and, after the war, was due to inherit loads of money from his eccentric uncle—except for the slight stipulation that Anthony must first be knighted! Left penniless and needing to support himself and his dog Patch, Anthony was compelled to find gainful employment—as a footman. He meets and falls in love with a respectable lady above his station; she (Valerie) likewise falls in love with him. Of course, there will be a happy ending, but, along the way, there are some potholes—deep potholes—before their love is joined. To spice things up, Daphne and company make a cameo appearance in the book. Did I say "happy ending"? Actually, the story has an odd ending which left me puzzled, particularly in regards to an inscrutable letter regarding Peter Every, one of Valerie's former suitors.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Anthony Lyveden

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Doctor Pascal

by Émile Zola (1840-1902) (Wikipedia) (translation by Mary Jane Serrano) (pub. 1893, original French)

Doctor Pascal is the last in a series of twenty novels about the Rougon and Macquart families.in nineteenth-century France. I picked the book out at random. I would recommend first learning about the series, Les Rougon-Macquart, to get the historical context in which the stories are set and then, perhaps, reading the books in order.

The first half of Doctor Pascal is interminable; a more concrete plot emerges in the second half and the book gets interesting. Doctor Pascal, nearly 60, is a good man, a physician, and a scientist. Using a carefully researched genealogy of his family, he attempts to develop a theory of heredity that accounts for (and predicts) all of the behavioral, intellectual, and physical eccentricities of each individual in his family tree. (And would thus be applicable to any family.)

Doctor Pascal has raised his niece, Clotilde, since she was a child. Clotilde, now 25 years of age, has assisted her uncle in his research for many years and he gradually develops a more-than-fatherly love for her. Enough said—no spoilers here.

The book is essentially a discourse on the promise of scientific progress and, to a lesser extent, on the conflict between science and religion. The story itself is depressing for the most part, but it is also a celebration of life in all its aspects: the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Apologies to Clint Eastwood!) Seriously.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Doctor Pascal

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by Jane Austen (1775-1817) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1818)

A delightful little romance, Persuasaion was written shortly before Jane Austen died and was published posthumously. Anne Elliot, 19 and the middle daughter of a vain baronet, became engaged to an equally young Navy sailor, Frederick Wentworth. Succumbing to the pressure of her family, who thought the match was beneath her, Anne broke off the engagement. Eight years later, Anne remains unmarried, the baronetcy is in financial decline, and the family is forced to move from their manor house to more modest lodgings. Through kind of a Kevin Bacon six-degrees-of-freedom thing, Wentworth reappears in Anne's life. From his humble status as a sailor, Wentworth has risen to become Captain Wentworth and has acquired glory and riches in battle. Still resentful of his shabby treatment at the hands of the Elliot family, Captain Wentworth is now wooing one of Anne's younger sister Mary's two sisters-in-law.

Anne is an admirable heroine, though little appreciated by her father and her elder sister, Elizabeth. Quiet, sensitive, thoughtful, and yet practical—she's often called upon to take charge in emergencies. Open your eyes, Captain Wentworth!

Project Gutenberg eBook: Persuasion

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

by Anne Brontë (1820-1849) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1848)

When I read the Brontë sisters most famous novels, I found Charlotte's Jane Eyre to be an interesting story, but over-the-top well written; I considered Emily's Wuthering Heights to be overrated; and Anne's Agnes Grey was like a breath of fresh air. Wikipedia has an explanation for this: Charlotte and Emily presented a romanticized view of life, good and bad, in their stories, while Anne presented a more realistic view of life. (Anne was also the most religious of the three sisters, which is reflected in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.)

The posthumous edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that I read has an introduction by Mary A. Ward (Wikipedia). Mrs. Ward praises Anne's two sisters and extolls the loftier sentiments expressed in their novels and poems, in contrast to Anne's more pedestrian talent and sentiments. If I ever write a novel and/or poems that are published after I die, please pick someone to write the introduction that shows at least a smidgen of appreciation for my work!

First published about a year before Anne died, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a popular, but controversial book. Unlike other books of the time, it gave a realistic portrayal of abusive husbands and seemed to suggest that it was the religious duty of wives to suffer and cleave to their men. After Anne died, Charlotte prevented a new publishing run of the book, saying, "Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve." With her own sister trashing her work, it is understandable that Anne's literary output fell into the shadow of history, so to speak.

The book begins with the story of Gilbert, a reluctant farmer fulfilling a promise made on his father's deathbed. Consistent with Anne's predilection for realism, Gilbert is a "realistic" hero: honest, upright, quick-tempered, and jealous. A beautiful widow, Helen, and her son move into and occupy several rooms of a long-abandoned manor house, Wildfell Hall. Helen, aloof and refusing to talk about her past, is soon the subject of rampant rumors in the village. Gilbert falls in love with her, but she cannot return his love. Gilbert constantly pushes for an explanation and Helen finally gives him her journal to read about her past.

The book is structured as letters from Gilbert to a friend in the first quarter of the book, Helen's journal in the middle of the book, and then more letters from Gilbert in the last quarter of the book. The letters and journal are so detailed that, except for the dated entries in the journal, it's like you're reading regular prose in a book. The journal takes up about 50% of the book and seemed, to me, extremely repetitive, recounting year after year the same misbehavior from Helen's husband.

To avoid spoiling the book for prospective readers, I won't say any more about the story line, except the following. I figured out who Mr. Lawrence was long before Gilbert did (yeah for me). And Helen's husband, Anthony, was supposedly modeled after the Brontës' dissolute brother, Branwell (Wikipedia). Here again, in the introduction, Mrs. Ward faults Anne for taking too literally the outrageous stories that were supposedly just a product of Branwell's fevered imagination. (Stories considered true by other literary critics and biographers.)

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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Prester John

by John Buchan (1875-1940) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1910)

In the early 1900s, a 19-year-old Scottish youngster is sent by his great-uncle to manage a store in a desolate region of South Africa. He stumbles upon the planning of an African uprising and gets involved in trying to foil the rebellion at great risk to himself. This is a good adventure story, but rife with the racism typical of Englishmen towards natives of the British Empire.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Prester John

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A Lady of Quality

by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1896)

'Twas ever and again the word "'twas". 'Twas the word "'twas" every other sentence, or so it seemed. Actually not—"'twas" was used 236 times in the book and "'tis" 148 times. Anyway, their usage was tiresome and the apostrophe often made a sentence look like the beginning of dialogue. (A lot of Project Gutenberg books use single quotes for conversations.) Mrs. Burnett was possibly trying to mimic the language of the time of the story.

Could the author of Sara Crewe and Little Lord Fauntleroy have written this dark romance? A wife has borne her husband 9 daughters, only 3 of whom survive, and dies during the birth of the youngest in 1690. The husband was only interested in an heir and so had nothing to do with the daughters. In fact, the youngest, Clorinda, didn't learn she had a father until she was six years old. A wilful child from her birth, the terror of the servants, and an accomplished horsewoman by the age of 6, Clorinda had assumed herself owner of the finest horse in the stable, her father's. The horse was missing one day; Clorinda found it at the main house with a strange man (her father), took a horse whip, and began beating the man. The father broke out laughing at the thought of being horse-whipped by a 6-year-old and took an immediate liking to the child. From then on, Clorinda became an integral part of the debauched lifestyle that her father and his friends led.

The disgraceful upbringing of Clorinda was the widely discussed scandal of the county and, when she was nearing the age of 15, a relative took the father to task and reminded him of his duties regarding his daughter as she approached marrying age. The father sloughed off the criticism, but Clorinda took it to heart and decided that, upon her 15th birthday, she would henceforth dress and act like a lady. Her wilfulness continued, but was gradually softened with the passage of time and circumstances. Did I mention that Clorinda was very beautiful and very smart? The older daughters, Barbara and Anne, were very plain and not so smart. The eldest, Barbara, played almost no part in the book and was eventually married off to a widower seeking a mother for his children. Clorinda, for some unknown reason, took a liking to the middle daughter, Anne, who became devoted to Clorinda. While admirable at first, Anne's continuing innocent devotion starts to wear thin—Anne is not the sharpest tool in the shed and Clorinda is no goddess.

Clorinda first marries an older Earl, to whom she is a loving wife, but he drops dead a year later. After the proper period of mourning, Clorinda is again in the market for a husband and all heck breaks loose. The dark part of the romance begins ... Hmmm, let me amend that. The story, as a whole, is dark, but not so much the romance after all. The book finishes up with a good solid Burnett ending: inspiring more than depressing.

Project Gutenberg eBook: A Lady of Quality

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The Deemster

by Hall Caine (1853-1931) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1887)

According to Wikipedia, this is one of Hall Caine's most popular books. I hope so, because try as I did to fix scanning errors (see the sources of the text below), the remaining errors I missed make for rough reading.

Thorkell Mylrea was an ambitiuous, greedy man on the Isle of Man. His wife bears him a son and, during the subsequent celebration of the fact, a poor old woman, mother of a pregnant daughter with whom Thorkell had an affair, shows up and casts a curse on his house, Ballamona: birth in the house shall be matched by death until justice is done. Thorkell is not superstitious—or so he says—but, with money given under the table, he is appointed a deemster, basically a traveling judge, and uses his authority to stamp out superstition in his region. Nevertheless, when his daughter is born, his wife dies in childbirth.

The local bishopric has been vacant for 5 years and, to spite his conniving father-in-law, the Archdeacon, Thorkell manages to have his brother Gilcrist appointed to the position—through more money under the table, of course. The widowed Gilcrist, unlike his brother, is a good man, a shining example of true Christian charity and love, and quickly becomes a man beloved of his congregation. He also plays a surrogate father to his brother's children. Since Thorkell travels so often, he dumps his two children, Ewan and Mona, at the bishop's doorstep. Ewan, Mona, and Gilcrist's son, Daniel, spend most of the first few years of their life at the bishop's house; they become close friends and these are happy years.

Thorkell notices that Ewan is not growing up to be like himself and abruptly removes Ewan and Mona from the bishop's care. Thorkell is right—Ewan does not grow up to be like him; in fact, Ewan eventually becomes a clergyman. Mona grows up to be a beautiful young woman. Daniel, a great disappointment to his father, grows up to be a troublemaker with no fixed aim in life. However, the children remain close friends. Ewan marries and the couple and Mona live in Ballamona. When his wife becomes pregnant, the curse rears its ugly head and Ewan's wife dies in childbirth.

Then something happens between Ewan and Daniel. To put it mildly, justice is finally done to the Deemster.

As I mention above and detail below, the scanning errors made this a rough read, which is too bad because it is an interesting and compelling story. I recommend buying it in book form.

The full text of the book is available from the Internet Archive and from A Manx Note Book. Both versions are scanned in copies of the book; the former has the full body of the text with the book's 360+ page divisions and the latter divides the text up by chapters. I originally downloaded the Manx version, chapter by chapter, and converted it to read on my Palm Pilot. I then looked more closely at the Internet Archive version and saw that it had fewer scanning errors, so I downloaded it, painfully removed the page divisions, and converted the text to the Palm Pilot format. (Let me retract the assertion about errors—I discovered a lot of errors in the Internet Archive version as I was reading it, so the Manx version could very well have fewer errors.) I wish Project Gutenberg offered a decent copy of the book! Five years later, well, maybe they do ...

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Deemster

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The Christian

by Hall Caine (1853-1931) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1897)

A seemingly interminable book—it dragged on ... and on ... and on. Many were the times I felt like giving up on the book. Two-thirds of the way in, the pace finally started to pick up and the ending was very good.

The story begins on the Isle of Man, located midway between Ireland and Scotland. Glory Quayle and John Storm grow up together as children, although John is a few years older. Glory is the grand-daughter of a poor parson, both her parents having died. John Storm is the son of a wealthy earl. When Glory reaches adulthood, the two of them head to London, Glory to seek fame and fortune on the stage and John to pursue his vocation as a clergyman. Glory, after many trials and tribulations, attains her desired goal. John, quickly disillusioned with the Church of England (history), first enters a monastery and then leaves to found his own church, a shelter for homeless men, a shelter for poor women, and an orphanage. For John, the conflicting emotions of love of Glory, jealousy of her suitor, and devotion to the Christian life eventually drive him into a fanaticism of sorts. (In fairness, Glory's suitor, Drake, is a cut above most men of the leisure class—but still a mixed bag thanks to the friends he keeps.)

The main theme—and the subject of the long lead up to the final third of the book—is how titled men, wealthy or in debt, take advantage of poor women, often getting them pregnant, and then casting them aside to marry women of means; the wives are equally victims of the sinful behavior of the men. Father Storm preaches against this despicable practice and attempts to ameliorate its effects in some small measure through his shelters and the orphanage.

A less central theme is the separation of Church and State (Wikipedia). Throughout the book, the leaders and clergy of the Church of England are depicted as being more concerned with material goods and aristocratic connections than with the renunciation of self, care for the poor, etc. demanded by the Christian ideal. This theme is more deeply explored, but briefly and readably, at the end of the book. The theme also produces this classic exchange between the Archdeacon, who is seeking to suppress Father Storm's teachings, and the government minister being asked to arrest Father Storm:

The Archdeacon drew himself up. "Because a clergyman is well connected—has high official connections indeed— But surely it is better that one man should be put under control, whoever he is, than that the whole Church and nation should be endangered and disgraced."

"Ah— H'm!— H'm! I think I've heard that sentiment before somewhere, Mr. Archdeacon [," the government minister replied.]

These themes—the mistreatment of women and the critique of the Church of England—made this a controversial book when it was published. Interestingly, the separation of Church and State has become a hot topic in the U.S.A., 200-plus years after Thomas Jefferson raised the issue in a letter. Less well-read conservative politicians with little knowledge of history are claiming that there should be no separation of Church and State (while simultaneously decrying those Middle Eastern countries that don't separate Church and State). (Fred Clark's Slacktivist article, "Establishment", discusses some of the unintended and undesirable consequences of a "hegemonic religion".)

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Christian

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

by Fergus Hume (1859-1932) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1886)

I started reading this Australian mystery, but, feeling a desire to read something weightier, I set it aside to read The Christian (above). When I returned to this book, I found it a fast-paced mystery from the beginning. A man is found murdered in a hansom cab, a suspect is tracked down, arrested, and put on trial. A poor girl from the slums provides an alibi and the suspect is released as innocent, which he is. A lot happens—but that gets you only halfway through the book! The search goes on for the real killer and for the secret that resulted in the man being murdered in the first place.

Surprisingly, in the story, Hume took a potshot at Anna Katharine Green's The Leavenworth Case, published 8 years before Hume's book. Strange! From Chapter 7:

"Puts one in mind of 'The Leavenworth Case,' and all that sort of thing," said Felix, whose reading was of the lightest description.

Hume later took on the recently deceased George Eliot. From a brief philosophical excursion into the topic of why bad things happen to good people in Chapter 30:

After all, the true religion of Fate has been preached by George Eliot, when she says that our lives are the outcome of our actions.
The tone of the sentence is critical, but the two halves of the sentence seem to contradict each other, so I'm not sure what Hume's point was.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

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Aladdin of London

by Sir Max Pemberton (1863-1950) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1907)

I've been having trouble getting interested in fiction books lately. I was a third of the way through this book before finally getting caught up in it. Maybe I should look around for some non-fiction books to read—there's usually no ramp-up time for a non-fiction book.

If rearranged chronologically, Aladdin of London (I'm not sure what the allusion is) would begin in 1893 in Warsaw, Poland. Poland had not been an independent state since 1795 (Wikipedia) and Warsaw, at the time of this story, was occupied by Russia. Paul Boriskoff, a Polish worker, invents a new method of manufacturing sulphuric acid from ... drum roll ... sulphuric acid. He enlists the help of fellow Pole Max Gogol to help sell the idea. Max Gogol is all too successful at selling the idea—as his own—and reaping the profits, meanwhile cutting Boriskoff out of his share. 10 years pass (1903) and we find Boriskoff, a Polish radical, living in the slums of London with his daughter Lois. Boriskoff finds Gogol living under an assumed name (Gessner) in London, very rich, and with a very beautiful daughter, Anna.

Lois has grown into adulthood with her best friend, Alban Kennedy, an English lad of excellent ancestry but whose parents died in poverty, leaving him to live off the streets. Lois and Alban are such good friends that most of their neighbors expect them to marry someday.

Having tracked down Gessner, Boriskoff threatens him with exposure unless Gessner (i) pays for the education of Lois in Warsaw and (ii) takes Alban into his house as a son. Lois is duly sent off to Poland for schooling and Gessner reluctantly "adopts" Alban. Alban, a level-headed fellow, is nonetheless struck by the beauty of Anna and there is romantic tension between the two of them, notwithstanding the fact that she is more or less engaged to another suitor.

Despite giving in to Boriskoff's blackmail, Gessner realizes he'll never be safe as long as Boriskoff and Lois are alive. The humiliation of having his true identity exposed is of no concern to Gessner; what worries him is that the Polish revolutionaries in London would target him for assassination and his life would not be worth a halfpence. Somehow, Boriskoff is convinced to visit Warsaw and Gessner makes arrangements with the Russian occupiers of Poland to arrest Boriskoff and Lois. Boriskoff is arrested, but Lois, forewarned, goes into hiding.

Finding Lois in a city of millions is a nearly impossible task for the police, who don't even know what she looks like. Gessner has the bright idea of sending Alban to Warsaw to find her. Alban, who still doesn't know that Gessner is Gogol and who was on the verge of proposing to Anna, agrees to go. You're on your own now—read the book!

The plot of Aladdin in London was sufficiently different from the run-of-the-mill mysteries I've been reading that I really found this book a pleasurable read. My only complaint is that the ending was abrupt, with all the loose ends tied up in just a couple of pages. Maybe the author had run up against a deadline or had just grown tired of the story.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Aladdin of London

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The Lamp of Fate

by Margaret Pedler (????-1948) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1921)

What I initially thought would be an English mystery story turned out to be a tragic romance. And the first chapter of the book made it sound like the story took place in the late 1700s or early 1800s—no, it began in, I'm guessing, the 1880s and, for the most part, was set in the first decade of the 1900s. And the "Lamp of Fate" figures only in an epigraph for the entire book.

The Lamp of Fate begins with Sir Hugh Vallincourt having recently married a French dancer, Diane Wielitzska. Sir Hugh's sister, Catherine, disapproves of Hugh marrying a lady not of the aristocracy, but Hugh loves Diane deeply. Diane is pregnant with their first child. By chance, in the previous 8 generations of Vallincourts, the first-born child has always been a son. Hugh is naturally expecting a son, but when Diane instead gives birth to a daughter, Magda, Hugh joins with Catherine in viewing the "tragic" event as divine retribution for not marrying an aristocratic wife. Thereafter, Hugh has nothing to do with Diane and little to do with Magda. Before she dies a few years later, Diane teaches Magda to dance. Her final words of advice to Magda are, "Never give your heart to any man ... Take everything. But do not give—anything—in return." After Diane dies, Hugh turns custody of Magda over to her godmother, Lady Arabella Winter, and enters a monastery; at the same time, Catherine enters a convent.

The elderly godmother, Arabella, is a wonderful character; you can't help falling in love with her. Under her tutelage, Magda grows up to be a beautiful woman and a famous dancer—and something of a sorceress. She seems to bewitch every man she meets and they fall in love with her; she, remembering her mother's advice, is simply amused by it all. The men that fall in love with her have a curious habit of, after finding out they've been used, needing to leave England as they can't stand to be in the same country as Magda.

Only one man is immune to Magda's charms: Michael Quarrington, a famous painter. He appreciates her dancing for Art's sake, but despises her for the way she treated one of his friends. Eventually, however, even he succumbs ...

Although not the story I was expecting, I enjoyed it in the end.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Lamp of Fate

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by Dinah Mulock Craik (1826-1887) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1850)

I've had trouble getting into some of the recent fiction I've read (see above), but Olive drew me right in and was a smooth and quick read. Although somewhat long, the book had an interesting plot that kept me glued to the story—for the mere 4 days it took me to read the book!

A Scotsman, Captain Rothesay, and his wife have a daughter, Olive, who was born with a mild deformity of her spine—she's a hunchback. She grows up as a sickly pale child and her parents are ashamed of and repulsed by her. She is raised virtually alone by her old Scottish nurse, Elspie, who instills in her a deep faith in God. Unfortunately, Elspie dies when Olive is about 10.

The Captain's initially vivacious young wife loves music and dancing and having fun, but the Captain expects a wife to be a docile woman waiting on him hand and foot at all times. His wife's health very slowly weakens under the enforced solitude and their marriage is in name only. At the same time, she and Olive gradually grow closer and closer together. As time goes on, even Olive's father begins to realize that there is more to Olive than meets the eye.

The Captain is addicted to speculating in business markets and, after one particularly bad gamble, loses his fortune and dies from the shock. His wife and Olive are forced to periodically move and live in increasingly straitened circumstances. Olive becomes the emotional and physical nurse for her mother (who also goes blind) and they are both very dear to each other.

Due to her odd appearance, Olive picks up few friends along life's way into her 20's. She sees little happiness in the future and the thought of a normal life for her is out of the question. She is more or less content, devoting herself to helping others, particularly her mother, believing that this is God's plan for her. Olive retains her sickly look from childhood, albeit with beautiful golden hair, but she has surpisingly turned out to be the strong one in crises and is often depended upon by others without them realizing it.

Captain Rothesay's sole creditor is a Church of England minister, Harold Gwynne. Olive, ever scribbling since she was a child, becomes a painter and eventually sells enough of her artwork to pay off Gwynne, whom she's never met. She later meets him by chance, they get to know each other, and she draws out his secret: he's a skeptic who believes in a God, but not the one set forth by the Church of England. This is a new one for Olive, who, as I said previously, has a deep faith in God.

As usual, time for you to read the book. My simple summary of the plot leaves out many of the large cast of characters you'll meet and the twists and turns in the plot that make the story so interesting.

Last but not least, we have to deal with the author. After reading several of Mrs. Craik's books, you'll come to expect heavy moralizing on the inherent inferiority of women and on their God-given duty to serve men. Olive is no exception and Mrs. Craik's attitude is no where more evident than in a discourse on gender and the Arts. Women can be "good" painters, composers, and poets, but, bounded always by their hearts, they'll never be "great" painters, composers, and poets like men, who are bounded only by their intellects. To wit, from chapter 21:

Vanbrugh had said truly, that genius is of no sex; and he had said likewise truly, that no woman can be an artist — that is, a great artist. The hierarchies of the soul's dominion belong only to man, and it is right they should. He it was whom God created first, let him take the preeminence. But among those stars of lesser glory, which are given to lighten the nations, among sweet-voiced poets, earnest prose writers, who, by the lofty truth that lies hid beneath legend and parable, purify the world, graceful painters and beautiful musicians, each brightening their generation — among these, let woman shine!

But her sphere is, and ever must be, bounded; because, however fine her genius may be, it always dwells in a woman's breast. Nature, which gave to man the dominion of the intellect, gave to her that of the heart and affections. These bind her with everlasting links from which she cannot free herself, — nay, she would not if she could. Herein man has the advantage. He, strong in his might of intellect, can make it his all in all, his life's sole aim and reward. A Brutus, for that ambition which is misnamed patriotism, can trample on all human ties. A Michael Angelo can stand alone with his work, and so go sternly down unto a desolate old age. But there scarcely ever lived the woman who would not rather sit meekly by her own hearth, with her husband at her side, and her children at her knee, than be the crowned Corinne of the Capitol.

Thus woman, seeking to strive with man, is made feebler by the very spirit of love which in her own sphere is her chiefest strength. But sometimes chance or circumstance or wrong, sealing up her woman's nature, converts her into a self-dependent human soul. Instead of life's sweetnesses, she has before her life's greatnesses. The struggle passed, her genius may lift itself upward, expand, and grow; though never to the stature of man's. Then, even while she walks with scarce-healed feet over the world's rough pathway, heaven's glory may rest upon her upturned brow, and she may become a light unto her generation.

Or, as George Eliot says in Middlemarch:

A man's mind — what there is of it — has always the advantage of being masculine — as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm — and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Olive

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Red Pottage

by Mary Cholmondeley (1859-1925) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1899)

(The author's last name, incidentally, is pronounced "Chum-lee".)

An excellent book, but I'm not sure how to describe it and I'll only give a brief overview of its plot. The book is a comedy, a romance, and a tragedy, all rolled into one story. Yes, tragedy—there are a couple of shocking moments towards the end.

The two protagonists in the book, Rachel and Hester, become friends as children. Rachel is Rachel and Hester has a vivid imagination. Rachel's father made his money in the coal mining industry; Hester's family earned their wealth and title the old-fashioned way—through inheritance. As such, Hester's family looks down upon Rachel's family despite the friendship between the two girls.

When the girls are older, Rachel's father loses all his money and the family is reduced to poverty. The parents die and Rachel ends up living in a poor section of London, scraping by as a typist. Hester visits frequently and tries to help Rachel out, but Rachel is a reluctant recipient of charity. Her father's former partner gains the money back and gives Rachel her father's share. Overnight, Rachel goes from being dirt poor to one of London's wealthiest single women.

Hester, meanwhile, has become a published author. Her eyes were not idle when she visited Rachel and her first book presented a controversial, but accurate, portrayal of the poor in the district in which Rachel lived. Hester's aunt, with whom she was living, dies and Hester goes to live with her brother, a narrow-minded vicar, in the country.

A number of plot lines involving one or both of the heroines develop out of the basic story. The humor in the story is not of the P. G. Wodehouse variety, but consists more, I guess, of witty sayings and retorts by different characters. (For example, a visiting rough-and-tumble friend of the vicar's from Australia gives a hilarious speech at a temperance meeting.) The romance is as expected, given the two young women, but plays a major role in the book. The tragic moments are the only down side of the book, although they add poignancy to the story.

Project Gutenberg eBook: Red Pottage

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Immortal Words: History's Most Memorable Quotations and the Stories Behind Them

by Terry Breverton

This book consists of memorable quotes through the ages, one quote per page with the context of the quote, a brief biographical sketch of the speaker/writer, and some other memorable quotes by the same person. I began reading the book from the beginning, but then found it was more fun to just browse through the book, picking out random pages.

The quality of the quotations are a bit uneven: Ronald Reagan appears with "Tear down this wall!" and a hagiographic summary of his presidency, while George Eliot is represented by a forgettable quote, "A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have a habit of submission afterwards." (In my humble opinion, any of these Eliot quotes would have been better!)

Some humorous quotations are thrown in. My favorite is Jerome K. Jerome's, "I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours."

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The Old Curiosity Shop

by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1841)

Yipes! When searching Google for images of covers of this book, I happened to pull up an old illustration from the book—more specifically, from very near the end of the book. I got a great big spoiler staring me right in the face! I'm nothing, if not a trooper, so I bravely forged ahead in the story knowing what was going to happen in the end! As usual, Dickens does not disappoint, even in the presence of spoilers.

An elderly man and his granddaughter, Nell, live in a dusty London shop that sells curios and this and that; hence the name, "Curiosity Shop". I'm not aware of anything actually being sold in the shop, but the old man begins going out every night and staying out very late—he's become addicted to gambling, not for himself, but so he can win big and Nell will be able to live in the style she deserves. Nell also stays up, keeping an eye out for when he returns home; her best friend, Kit, is also up and, from a discreet distance, keeps an eye out for Nell's well-being.

The grandfather never has any luck and resorts to taking out a loan, using his shop as collateral, from a malignant dwarf, Quilp, who has a business down by the docks. The grandfather loses even that money and, realizing he is ruined, also loses his mind, becoming like a child. Quilp moves into the shop in preparation for having its entire contents thrown out. Nell, not wishing her grandfather to witness this final outrage, packs up their few belongings, collects her little bit of money, takes her grandfather's hand, and they disappear in the middle of the night. Destination unknown, but as far from London as possible. Her goal is to be a beggar in the country, to sleep wherever they find themselves at night, and, above all, to always be there for her grandfather. Kit offers to share his own poverty-stricken home with them, but Nell fends him off. Quilp falsely put it into the old man's head that Kit was responsible for his humiliation and Nell is afraid that the sight of Kit will make her grandfather even sicker.

The Old Curiosity Shop follows the wanderings of Nell and her grandfather through city, village, and countryside, showing the appalling aspects of poverty; the depressing example of others, not well off themselves, taking advantage of the two; and the inspiring example of others, not well off themselves, helping the two.

Meanwhile, back in London, things are not standing still. A whole new slew of characters are introduced and their lives followed. Surprisingly, a number of them, from Quilp to Kit, are interested in finding out what became of Nell and her grandfather. Everytime someone hears of them being seen at such and such a place, everyone races to the place, only to find out that Nell and the old man have just set out for who knows where, and the trail grows cold again.

As I said, Dickens never disappoints. This book is particularly concerned with poverty and with sundry characters. There is a good deal of humor despite the sad goings-on. A great read!

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Old Curiosity Shop

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The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation

by Barbara R. Rossing

First of all, I should put out a general disclaimer: I've read only parts of the Gospel of John and none of the Book of Revelation. The former has lengthy theological speeches given by Jesus; considering this Gospel was written about 70 years after Jesus was crucified and no one could possibly remember long speeches in such great detail after all those years, I think it obvious that this is "John"'s theology, not necessarily Jesus'. As for the latter, apocalyptic writing, especially about the Roman Empire, was a popular genre back in the first century, so I have never been clear on why it was included in the New Testament canon in the first place.

The Rapture Exposed was highly recommended by Fred Clarke, author of the slacktivist blog. I respect Clarke's religious writings, so I ordered the book. The book is not bad, but I was disappointed. There is a sliver of history of pre-tribulational (dispensational) premillennialism; about a third of the book is devoted to critiquing dispensationalists, the Left Behind series of books (Wikipedia), and the earlier The Late Great Planet Earth (Wikipedia); and the remaining two-thirds of the book could, for all practical purposes, be a collection of sermons presenting Dr. Rossing's interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

The critiques are on target, but scattered throughout the book. Dr. Rossing's interpretation is a view of the Book of Revelation as both (i) promising a beautiful world to come and (ii) as a guide to making our present world beautiful in the here and now. There is plenty of discussion of current political issues including the turmoil in the Middle East, the environment, and global warming. I found it an inspiring interpretation, but it is still just that—her interpretation. (Albeit founded on complete Biblical texts, unlike the dispensationalists, who have cherry-picked items from Revelation and other books.)

In summary, I was hoping for a more history-oriented book (both the history of the Book of Revelation and the history of dispensationalism) and I should have researched other books on the same subject more thoroughly before placing my order.

Also see Jay Guin's book review and Wikipedia's "Comparison of Christian millennial teachings". Based on the chart, I guess I'm an amillennialist.

  [Magazine cover]

Two Thousand Miles Below

by Charles Willard Diffin (1884-1966) (Science Fiction Encyclopedia) (pub. 1932)

A short science-fiction story that took me a little while to read. I was torn between reading this and the time-consuming play of one of the Nintendo DS Professor Layton mystery-puzzle games; too often I opted for Professor Layton!

Despite my hit-and-miss reading, Two Thousand Miles Below was a pretty good book, albeit with a somewhat overused plot. The story begins with a clan of cavemen. Facing an advancing glacier and a coming ice age, the cavemen, rather than heading south, decide to retreat further into the caves and deeper into the earth. The glacier closes off the outside cave with glacial debris and the cave people are left to live in the dark and evolve separately from the humans on the surface.

Millennia later, in the early 1900s, Dean Rawson has the brilliant idea of drilling a 10-mile hole in a desert basin and tapping into the energy underneath the earth's surface. With financial backing from a group of investors, he and his partner, Gordon "Smithy" Smith, a nondescript tramp that Rawson rescued from the desert, make great progress.

Ten miles down, however, they find absurdly low temperatures and a bailing tool they send down comes back neatly shorn off, not melted as you would expect from lava or whatever. The drillers have broken into a cavern of the red "mole-men", the evil descendants of the original cavemen, and their slaves, the yellow mole-men. The mole-men people are able to come to the surface, destroy the drilling rig, and capture Dean Rawson. Rawson is about to be sacrificed to the mole-men's fire god, when he is rescued by white "men"—actual men—a separate, peaceful branch descended from the cavemen. And they speak American English, a feat which is explained in the book! Red, yellow: bad; white: good—you get the idea.

Meanwhile, on the surface, Smithy is not waiting for events to unfold. Far from the nondescript tramp that Rawson took him to be, Smithy is someone with connections in the world. When he talks, others listen, and an army is quickly formed to battle the mole-men. Oddly, I would lose myself in reading the underground story, but the above-ground story seemed a little far-fetched (for science fiction?!) and didn't interest me as much. A better phrase would probably be "conventionally far-fetched" with battle scenes and weaponry typical of what you'd find in stories written when Diffin was writing (1930s).

Project Gutenberg eBook: Two Thousand Miles Below

  [Book cover]

The Prince of India, or Why Constantinople Fell

by Lewis Wallace (1827-1905) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1893)

Another epic from the author of Ben-Hur. As numerous book reviews have pointed out, this book has nothing to do with India; "Prince of India" is just a title assumed by the main character, the Wandering Jew, doomed to wander the earth until Jesus returns.

Prior to writing The Prince of India, Wallace served as an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. As in Ben-Hur, stereotypes are rampant: Muslims and Christians fare pretty well (although the Greek Church, as opposed to the Roman Church with which the Greek Church was still in communication, is subject to some pretty hard knocks) and Jews are given short shrift. There are some individuals, however, who don't fall into the stereotypes. The devout and beautiful Princess Irene and the dedicated monk Sergius come to mind.

The Wandering Jew, having been wandering for nearly 1500 years, is bent on dissolving Christianity one way or another. He hits on the idea of consolidating all religions into one. God is not limited to one son, so the Wandering Jew puts forth the idea to the religious leadership of the shrinking Byzantine Empire that all the prophets and/or major figures in all religions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu, etc.) are all sons of God. He is rebuked. Furthermore, his adopted daughter (who reminds him of his own daughter at the time of Christ) is kidnapped by the son of one of Constantinople's most important religious leaders. The Wandering Jew doesn't think the emperor has tried hard enough to recover his daughter, so he decides to throw in his lot with the Muslims who are planning to overthrow the Byzantine Empire. (The adopted daughter is eventually freed by an unlikely duo, but the Wandering Jew never learns of the fact.)

The story is much more involved than my brief presentation above might imply. There are multiple plot lines moving along in tandem and Wallace masterfully brings them all together in the end. I can't give much more detail for fear of giving away some of the surpising plot twists, of which there are many. Like Ben-Hur, the book is quite long, but, all in all, it is a very good work of fiction.

Historically, Constantine (Wikipedia) was the last Byzantine emperor. There was also a Princess Irene (Wikipedia), mother of a woman with whom Constantine unsuccessfully negotiated a marriage proposal; this Irene bears no relation to Wallace's Princess Irene and, according to legend, was, if anything, the exact opposite of Wallace's heroine.

Midway through reading the book, I finally broke down and purchased an inexpensive eBook reader, the Aluratek Libre Pro. I transferred the book from my aging Palm Pilot to the Libre and continued reading. The Libre has a monochrome 5-inch screen similar to the Palm Pilot and does not use the eInk technology of the other eBook readers available at the time. As a result, the Libre moves smoothly from page to page without the flashing display of the eInk readers. (The Borders salesperson tried to tell me that the flashing was a "feature"—kind of like actually turning a page in a real book!) The Libre's screen is large enough to make for easier reading while still remaining small enough to be capable of being slipped into my pocket. My only problems with the eReader are that its CPU is grossly underpowered (making it too slow to switch between books if I feel the urge), the display of PDF files is hit or miss depending on the book, and I really miss the touch screen and games on the Palm Pilot.

Also see the Fall of Constantinople (Wikipedia).

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Prince of India - Volume 1 and The Prince of India - Volume 2

  [Book cover]

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (Revised and Expanded)

by Dan Ariely (MIT Home Page - interesting navigation method! Click the question mark to avoid having to search through the bubbles. Or use the links at the top of the page if you have no sense of fun.)

In Predictably Irrational, Dr. Ariely has two aims: one, to advance the case for Behavioral Economics (Wikipedia, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics) as a legitimate discipline and, two, to present different experiments showing how people really are predictably irrational in how they make decisions, both economic and otherwise. He succeeds on both fronts with, in my opinion, a well-written and easy-to-read book. (Warning: some of the case studies involve himself; he was badly burned in high school. Dr. Ariely is very matter-of-fact about it, but these chapters still make for queasy reading.)

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Islamic History

by Laura Etheredge, ed.

This book suffers from two problems: it tries to cover 1400 years of religious, cultural, and political change in a little over 200 pages; and, being part of the Encyclopedia Britannica's The Islamic World series, the writing is predictably dry. Many Islamic terms are defined and then used much later in the book; I found myself using Wikipedia frequently to refresh my memory (and for more in-depth definitions). What I brought away from the book is that the development of Islam—religiously, culturally, and politically—was (and is) just as chaotic as the development of any other religion. Islam was buffeted by both rigid and liberal theologians, ambitious rulers, and, of course, the greatest leveler of all, popular culture. We're all human in the end.

Also see Wikipedia's History of Islam.

  [Book cover]

No Bugs!: Delivering Error-Free Code in C and C++

by David Thielen


The book is available for free in PDF format. (Legally, I think. It used to be freely available for download from the website of his company, Windward Studios, but he appears to have moved on and the link no longer works.)

  [Book cover]

Islam: A Short History

by Karen Armstrong (Wikipedia)

Unlike Encyclopedia Britannica's Islamic History, Karen Armstrong doesn't attempt to cram a comprehensive history into a small book, but, instead, follows a few important narrative threads that hit upon the important historical points of Islam while keeping the book readable. I always enjoy Armstrong's books and this is another one to add to the list.

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Nail the Job Interview: 101 Dynamic Answers to Interview Questions

by Caryl Krannich, Ph.D. & Ron Krannich, Ph.D.

Having finally gotten an E-reader and hearing about how people were checking out E-books from their public libraries, I took the plunge, getting a new library card and logging onto Maryland's state-wide E-book repository (accessible using any county's library card). The experience was a big disappointment. If you're interested in self-help books, you're in luck; other subjects, not so much. There wasn't even a category for science and/or technology books.

So, I downloaded this book and the following one. For a first-time job seeker, Nail the Job Interview is a good book not just for its main thrust, answers, but also about preparing for a job interview in general. For seasoned job seekers, the book is a good refresher course.

  [Book cover]

201 Best Questions To Ask On Your Interview

by John Kador

As mentioned above, this is another book I downloaded for the heck of it from our state's public library system. The book is actually quite good, with the aim of getting you to ask insightful questions at job interviews instead of being just a passive question answerer. Well worth reading.

  [Book cover]

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

by Philip Pullman (pub. 2010)

... One of The Myths series ...

Also see the book's web site.

  [Book cover]

A Rare Benedictine

A Morbid Taste for Bones

One Corpse Too Many

Monk's Hood

Saint Peter's Fair

The Leper of Saint Giles

The Virgin in the Ice

[Derek Jacobi]

The Sanctuary Sparrow

The Devil's Novice

Dead Man's Ransom

The Pilgrim of Hate

An Excellent Mystery

The Raven in the Foregate

The Rose Rent

The Hermit of Eyton Forest

The Confession of Brother Haluin

[Book cover]

The Heretic's Apprentice

The Potter's Field

The Summer of the Danes

The Holy Thief

Brother Cadfael's Penance

by Ellis Peters (1913-1995) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1977-1994)

(Written in June 2015.) When I was in college and living at home in the late 1970s up through 1981, my father used to pick up some of the early Brother Cadfael books on his lunch hour and Brother Cadfael became a great favorite in our house. Written by Ellis Peters (pen name of Edith Pargeter), the books are about a twelfth-century Benedictine monk, Brother Cadfael, a former sailor and soldier who came to the habit later in his life. They're mystery stories with Brother Cadfael as the "detective" and as a shrewd observer of people and religion. Twenty of the twenty-one books published between 1977 and 1994 are set in Shrewsbury, England (Shrewsbury Abbey) during the period of A.D. 1137-1145. The twenty-first book, A Rare Benedictine, dates back to 1120, when Cadfael layed down his arms and entered the monastery.

From reading the books, I had always pictured Brother Cadfael as a tall stocky man with some age on him. When the BBC television series came out in 1994 (although I'm not sure when I first saw it), I was a bit taken aback by the average-sized, but superb actor, Derek Jacobi, who was chosen to play Brother Cadfael. Of course, anyone who has seen a real suit of armor in a museum would not be surprised! I gradually got used to Derek Jacobi and, now, cannot picture Brother Cadfael as looking and acting like anybody but Derek Jacobi.

This time, in 2010, I read or reread all of the stories in the order of their chronological settings. Doing so only resulted in me realizing how compressed the time period was in which the stories occurred. The books stand alone perfectly well and can be read in any order; I highly recommend them.

Also see Wikipedia's Cadfael article about the man and its The Cadfael Chronicles, which describes the historical background of the Brother Cadfael stories.

  [Book cover]

Figments of Reality: The Evolution of the Curious Mind

by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen


  [Book cover]

The Equivoque Principle

The Eleventh Plague

by Darren Craske

This is a two-part series, the Cornelius Quaint Chronicles, so read The Equivoque Principle first. The first book is a mystery/adventure set in Victorian England; the second book picks up the plot line and carries it to Egypt.

The protagonist of the stories, Cornelius Quaint, is a circus owner, ringmaster, and magician; as the Amazon product description says, Quaint is a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini. The storylines were good, but I think the books would have benefited from being edited down to about half their length. As it was, it was a stretch—pun intended—to fit the plots into the respective number of pages for each book.

Alex Measday  /  E-mail