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Podcast #189 is up!

Seeing by Electricity: The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939 - Doron Galili

With the slow site performance of the past few days, I forgot until now to post my latest New Books Network interview! It's with Doron Galili about his pre-history of television, which examines both its development and how visionaries conceptualized its role. Please enjoy with my compliments.

My Just One Book post on Harold II is up!

My Just One Book post on Harold II is up on my website! Please enjoy with my compliments

Reading progress update: I've read 180 out of 672 pages.

The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

Though it's been years since I last read this book, all my memories of my experience reading it are coming back to me. It's incredibly detailed, yet as I read it it's difficult to imagine how you could forego it and yet still convey the extent of Bevin's impact on the British labor movement. I can't help but wonder if Adonis's book gives this period of Bevin's life its due, or whether it skims over it to get to the political career that's more within his wheelhouse.

Reading progress update: I've read 1 out of 672 pages.

The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

After I posted about my plan to read a book on the battle of Jutland this week, my ex-roommate from grad school emailed me about a couple of reviews of new biographies. One of them was about a biography of Ernest Bevin, and given that the author is a Labour pol (albeit one with solid academic credentials) I expect it will get its fair share of publicity.


While the book isn't uninteresting, it reminded me that I have a superb three-volume biography of Bevin already on my shelf. I read the first volume when i was in graduate school, but the other two have sat unread in the face of more pressing commitments. Since I read the reviews, though, I can't stop thinking about how much I've wanted to read about Bevin — to the point where plowing through those three volumes is more appealing than reading about Jutland. So instead of following through on my original intention I'm going to satisfy my desire to read what I want at the moment and then go from there.

A great sampling of Silverberg's early work

The Cube Root of Uncertainty - Robert Silverberg

When I was younger, Robert Silverberg was among my favorite science fiction authors. While an extraordinarily prolific author of novels, I appreciated him most for his short stories, which remain some of my all-time favorite reads. Every summer when the latest edition of the Year’s Best Science Fiction came out, his would be the first name I would look for in the table of contents, and if one of his stories were included it would invariably prove to be among the best in the collection.


This was why, when I saw a copy of this collection of his short stories in a used bookstore I eagerly snapped them up. The dozen stories inside are all from the first decade and a half of his writing career, and represent some of the best from his output during the era. Some of them I had read before, while others were new to me. The stories are:


“Passengers” – This was one of the stories I had read before. In it, a man living in a world where noncorporeal beings possess humans tries to connect with the woman he had spent the night with during his last possession. It’s one of Silverberg’s most famous stories, and it still holds up pretty well so long as you don’t think too hard about the premise


“Double Dare” – Two engineers participating in a contest with an alien species find out that there is a price to winning. This was the oldest story in the collection and one of Silverberg’s earliest works; while a fun tale it felt insubstantial compared to some of its weightier counterparts.


“The Sixth Palace” – Two men submit to the tests of a mysterious robot guarding an incalculable treasure. One of the stories that was new to me, I enjoyed it enormously for both its premise and its resolution.


“Translation Error” – An alien agent sent to hold back humanity’s development finds himself in his worst nightmare. It was only when I was part-way through this that I realized that I had read this story before, which gave me a rare opportunity to appreciate something anew which I had enjoyed before.


“The Shadow of Wings” – A xenolinguist is forced to overcome his fears when confronted with a unique opportunity. This was another story which I had read before that proved an enjoyable revisit for me, even if it doesn’t rank among Silverberg’s finest.


“Absolutely Inflexible” – Tasked with dealing with the threat posed by time travelers, a government bureaucrat finds himself caught in a unique trap. One of those paradox tales that seem to have been a staple of the short stories about time travel during that era, it was fun if perhaps a little predictable.


“The Iron Chancellor” – The robot chef programmed to help a family lose weight takes his task to extremes. This is perhaps the most famous of the stories in the collection, and it’s one of my all-time favorites of his.


“Mugwump Four” – A wrong number leads an ordinary man on an extraordinary adventure. I had read this story ages ago and did so again when I reread it. It’s impressive how much Silverberg can compact into a single tale.


“To the Dark Star” – Three very different scientists – a human, a modified human, and an alien – cope with interpersonal tensions while observing an astronomical phenomenon. Tense and disturbing, this was one of the stories from later in Silverberg’s career, and its differences make for a contrast with the older stories in this collection.


“Neighbor” – A powerful landowner receives an unusual request from his despised neighbor. There is something in this story that I just find so incredibly true about human nature, even if it isn’t something about which we should be proud.


“Halfway House” – Suffering from cancer, an industrialist seeks a cure from a unique place. Though the premise in this story is interesting, it doesn’t prove as effective as the other tales in this collection.


“Sundance” – A member of a team of humans on an alien world questions his mission to eradicate a native species. This was the story I liked the least, both because of Silverberg’s often abrupt shifts within it and for the cultural expropriation in which he engages with his central character.


While the book offers a set of stories as mixed in quality as other collection of its type, in this one the average quality is much higher than the norm. Together they offer a great representative sampling of Silverberg’s earlier work, and make for highly enjoyable reading for any fan of the genre.

Podcast #188 is up!

Horace Greeley: Print, Politics, and the Failure of American Nationhood - James M. Lundberg

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jake Lundberg about his biography of the American newspaper editor and presidential candidate Horace Greeley. Enjoy!

My review of Piers Compton's "Harold the King" is up!

Harold the King - Piers Compton

My review of Piers Compton's biography of Harold II is up on my website! Please enjoy with my compliments.

Reading progress update: I've read 168 out of 1150 pages.

Andrew Carnegie - Joseph Frazier Wall

I knew that Andrew Carnegie lived through the American Civil War, but I don't think I ever appreciated how important of a role in it. He was involved in organizing the Army of the Potomac's initial advance on Richmond, and he had a role in the War Department which resulted in frequent encounters with Abraham Lincoln. Not bad for a Scottish lad still in his mid-20s!

Treating myself to a reading project

The Battle of Jutland - John Brooks

Yesterday I completed the last of my grading for my summer school classes. Once I finish up an overdue report for the administration (which apparently needs it to justify their existence), I will have a month free of work obligations.


I plan on putting the time to good use. But first I'm going to treat myself to a reading project. John Brooks's book on the battle of Jutland has sat on my shelf unread ever since I purchased it four years ago. Now that I've acquired a fantastic collection of maps about the battle, it seems like the perfect time to pick it up and spend a few days mastering the details of that much-debated event.

My review of Ian W. Walker's "Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King" is up!

Harold: The Last Anglo Saxon King - Ian W. Walker

My review of Ian W. Walker's biography of Harold Godwinson is up on my website! Please enjoy with my compliments.

Reading progress update: I've read 134 out of 191 pages.

Harold the King - Piers Compton

This has proven an even more interesting read than I expected, thanks to passages like this one about William of Normandy awaiting favorable sailing conditions:

It was then that William, confronted by the powerlessness of man and the perversity of nature, fell back upon his faith; and at his asking the body of St. Valéry, who had founded the abbey there in the seventh century, was carried in its shrine, with the abbot and monks in procession, and placed on a carpet spread upon the ground and exposed to the general view of the army. The great host, kneeling in ranks above the shrine, prayed for a favourable wind; offerings of money, to be used in beautifying the shrine, accompanied the prayers, and coins were showered down in such numbers that the saint's casket was soon covered.

     On the next day (Wednesday the 27th) the weather cleared; and glancing at the vane on the abbey tower, William saw that the breath of God, at the intercession of St. Valéry, had shifted to the south.

It's a passage I would expect to find in a work written in the twelfth century rather than the twentieth. It's not atypical of the book, either, as Compton sees God's disfavor with Harold as the basis for his defeat. It's little wonder that modern-day historians steer clear of this book.

Coming soon to my bookshelves

Ever since I read one of the volumes of the U.S. Army Air Force's official history of their operations in the Second World War, I've toyed around with the idea of buying and reading the remaining volumes. Having encountered the volumes here and there over the years, it appealed to me as a sort of long-term project that I could shop around for with no real need to buy them right away.


Then while browsing eBay, I came across a seller advertising these:



It's the complete set of the series, all first editions with their dust jackets. Intrigued, I decided to watch-list it for the time being, then largely forgot about it until I received a notice saying that the seller was offering a limited-time discount on the books. I counter-offered, he countered back, and we began exchanging emails.


It was clear from the emails that the seller was loath to give it up for the price I wanted to pay, which was a little over $40 per volume. He had originally asked for $50 a volume, which wasn't an unnecessarily reasonable price considering that used sets of the first editions go for closer to twice that. But as I noted, these weren't necessarily a priority, so I was on the fence about spending so much right now to buy them.


Two factors decided it. The first was shipping; he had advertised expedited shipping, which was a ridiculous extravagance as I was happy to have them sent to me at a slower and cheaper rate (safe packaging is always my priority in these matters). The other was a more intangible factor, namely my "gut check." This was one of those situations where I was indifferent to buying them until I thought about not getting them, and then I started feeling regretful. So he worked out the lower shipping rate (which was less than a quarter of the original amount) and I agreed to pay about $45 a volume.


So now I'm the owner of another set of official histories. I doubt I'll get to them anytime soon, but one of the things I like the most about book series in general is that after I've gotten a sense of them I can anticipate what sort of reading experience I can expect whenever I pick up a volume. Though the one I read proved wearying, it was also in its way an engrossing book. Unless it was the exception this should prove a series that be a valuable addition to my library.

Reading progress update: I've read 12 out of 191 pages.

Harold the King - Piers Compton

It's not often that I crack open a book and almost immediately take issue with it, but then it's not often that I come across passages like this one about Edward the Confessor:

It was more than the passing of a king for which the people waited. For by popular agreement Edward was already a saint, one possessing not only the gift of holiness but also the healing touch. His was the faith that surmounted political and social barriers, so that the warmth of his charity and concern for general welfare were things experienced by the people, like radiated warmth. Men felt that they had, as it were, a stake in his sanctity, which is something that the vast impersonality of our secular time and country will scarcely understand.

While one of the reasons why I undertook my English monarchs reading project was to give me the context to detect bullshit like this, even if this was the first book I had ever read about the era I would have been able to pick up that last sentence for the utter nonsense that it is. Piers Compton had an interesting background as a Catholic extremist (in the 1980s he wrote a book arguing that Vatican II was proof that the freemasons had infiltrated the Church), and I was wondering if some of his more interesting views would pop up in this book. In that respect he didn't keep me in suspense for long.

Reading progress update: I've read 113 out of 1150 pages.

Andrew Carnegie - Joseph Frazier Wall

I'm really enjoying this book. Wall is a very insightful writer, and I'm finding his analysis of the contrast between young Andrew's politics and his world-view especially interesting.


Unfortunately the person I'm reading it with doesn't have the time to read that I do currently, so I need to slow my pace by alternating it with another book or two. Time to see what else in my TBR stack looks appealing right now!

Reading progress update: I've read 80 out of 1150 pages.

Andrew Carnegie - Joseph Frazier Wall

This is a book I had long ago given up plans to read. When we went into (what passed for) lockdown, however, I liberated it from my book book and added it to my TBR stack, and I'm glad I did.


While Joseph Frazier Wall's book is a doorstop at over a thousand pages, it's proving a surprisingly quick read. It helps that I gave myself the liberty of skimming over the first fifty pages, which recount the Carnegies' background in Scotland and the conditions that led to their decision to emigrate to America in 1848. Now that the family has arrived in Pittsburgh (which Wall makes out to be a singularly miserable place), I plan on slowing down and absorbing fully the details of young Andrew's rise in the business world.

A fresh take on a familiar life

Rodham: A Novel - Curtis Sittenfeld

What is the value in alternate history? For most writers, alternate history provides an opportunity to play “what if?” games with the past, to imagine how much different the world would be had events turned out differently. For others, it serves as a sort of literary funhouse mirror that can be used to comment on the world in which we live, in subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle ways. In the hands of a very few authors, however, alternate history can become an acute form of character study, one that can use changes in circumstance as a means to considering questions of who we are as people and the ways in which our lives are shaped by the choices we make.


Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel is an example of the latter category. In it she offers a fictionalized account of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life, one that is altered from the one we know by her decision to break off her relationship with her soon-to-be husband Bill just after his failed election to Congress in 1974. No longer tied to his fate, Hillary Rodham goes on to forge an independent life of her own as a law school professor, activist, and United States Senator. These changes are chronicled in a narrative centered around three key periods of Rodham’s life: her time with Clinton at Yale and in Arkansas, the point when her political career begins while that of her former lover’s ends, and her climactic bid for the presidency. In each of them, events unfold involving a mix of historical, fictionalized, and fictional characters, with Hillary Rodham at the center of them.


In most works of alternate history, the focus of such a story would be on how a change in one moment transformed the subsequent course of history. In Sittenfeld’s hands, though, her premise becomes a means of providing a new look at a long-known personality. So many of the controversial associations are stripped away: gone is Whitewater, the Rose law firm, the health care plan of her husband’s presidency, and everything that follows. What’s left is the author’s assessment of who Hillary Rodham is as a person and the choices that person might have made free from a decision so pivotal to the arc of her life. Some of what happens is familiar, much of it is not, but all of it is true to that conception. In this respect Sittenfeld manages something extremely difficult to achieve: a fresh take on an ostensibly familiar figure.


Yet this novel isn’t just a reexamination of the Hillary Rodham we think we know. As Bill Clinton once declared, we get two for the price of one, as we see how her decision impacts his fate as well. In the first part of Sittenfeld’s novel, we see Clinton at his most charming, affable, flirtatious, and stimulating. Not only does it define his character, but it helps us to understand what Rodham saw in him as well, as well as why she agreed to become Hillary Clinton. Absent that choice, Bill Clinton’s life undergoes a different trajectory as well, one that illustrates the role she played in his success. Without Hillary, certain aspects of Bill Clinton’s character emerge in ways that define his life very differently from the history people remember, which then goes on to have its own impact on the events described in the novel.


Nevertheless, while Sittenfeld’s commentary on Bill Clinton is oftentimes sharp, her focus never wavers from her protagonist. The result is a novel that gives its readers a discerning meditation of one of the most important figures of modern times, one conveyed through the story of a life that she very well could have lived. In the process, Sittenfeld demonstrates one of the underutilized possibilities of a genre better known for using counterfactuals to consider different outcomes of major events than to better understand controversial personages. I doubt that others will follow her example, though, as her achievement in writing an alternate history novel that is both a perceptive character study and an entertaining work of fiction will be extremely difficult for others to emulate.