Book Reviews: Summer 2018

By: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Answers to Random and Curious Questions About Space Exploration

Clayton C. Anderson. It’s a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut’s Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions. $16.95. 224pp, 6X9”, 38 images. ISBN: 978-1-49620508-7. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, July 1, 2018.


I read this book cover-to-cover as part of my research for my first science fiction novel. If I was not working on this book, it would have been difficult to get through all of these questions because they are so scattered. There are chapters that slightly break up the topics into the “Life of an Astronaut”, “The International Space Station”, “Philosophy and Politics” and the like, but frequently the same topic reappears not only within the same section, but also in other parts of the book. It would have been a much more helpful book, if the author wrote a textbook on how the body, objects and the like are affected by space flight, with sections on how to operate, build and otherwise organize a spaceship. It seems unlikely that there is a comprehensive multi-disciplinary book about how the human body reacts to space, how chemistry works in, how spaceships are engineered and the like. Each of these topics is typically handled separately. While this imaginary book is on my wish list, this current real publication does a pretty good job of addressing many of the curious aspects of spaceflight in a single source.

In it Clayton C. Anderson, a recently retired astronaut who is a long-time aerospace engineering lecturer, answers questions he has received from the general public online over the years. Anderson offers a lot of insights in part because he has spent a very long time in space in comparison with an average astronaut, 150 days on just one tour of the International Space Station. While I would have preferred more scientific and technological explanations, it was enjoyable to read a book spiced with Clayton’s humor (I think I giggled a couple of times; I don’t usually sympathize with American humor).

In reading this book, I was searching for clues on what it would be like for an alien species to live for decades in a weightless spaceship traveling through the vacuum of empty space between solar systems. By reading the whole book, I found bits of information, but there are too many summaries because each answer assumes no familiarity with the rest of the content of the book as they are the isolated replies Clayton gave to a specific query. For example on page 10, he summarizes that prior to launch he was trained in the “Russian systems (i.e., how to poop and pee, eat, and sleep in their kayuta…”, and then he covers each of these in more detail as questions specifically about poop or sleep come up. When he does zoom in closely on specific tasks in space, the text is particularly interesting (at least for my research project). For example, when answering how one gets “dressed in space”, he explains that one has to be “pulling your head through the rubber gasket-lined metal hole that attaches to your space helmet” with a “level of physical exertion that can cause the puking fit…” Then, he comments that it was also particularly difficult to put on shoes, but that they weren’t necessary and that he typically went around shoeless (14). To place readers more fully into space in fiction, these types of details really help writers. Most of science fiction has characters in full gravitational pull in space rather than weightless and otherwise skims over the realities of spaceflight perhaps because there have previously been few books like this that zoom into these details.

A pleasant and insightful read for any fan of spaceflight as well as for researchers of space exploration (including rocket scientists). There is enough structure to the replies to take the reader on an exciting, dramatic narrative into space without taking on personal risk of exposure to radiation or potential death from all sorts of space-related disasters (explained herein).

New Curious Research on Exoplanets

Donald Goldsmith. Exoplanets: Hidden Worlds and the Quest for Extraterrestrial Life. $24.95. 256pp, 6X9”, 18 images. ISBN: 978-0674-97690-0. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, September, 2018.


This was another book that helped with my science fiction research. The likes of it was not available until this point because exoplanets have only recently been able to discover exoplanets and to learn about their rotation, chemistry and other components from observing their stars or watching them pass in front of a star. Most of previous science fiction has described worlds that are very similar to earth and creatures on them that have two arms, two legs, and two eyes just like humans. This book and others like it help to dispel these myths with the introduction of numerous other possible worlds on which life could conceivably dwell. Life can survive in the goldilocks zone where liquid water is present, but perhaps it can survive in colder or hotter climates as well, or perhaps a large planet or moon can create enough internal heat even if it is much further from the sun than earth is. These and various other topics related to exoplanets in other solar systems are covered across this interesting, relatively brief study. Every science fiction writer should read this book and others like it as without these realities, the human mind cannot stretch beyond our atmospheric and other conditions on Earth.

The book is neatly organized into chapters on scientific concepts such as cosmic distances, the history of previous unsuccessful searches for exoplanets, the history of the current breakthrough into measuring radial velocity to find planets, as well as various other approaches to this search. The book covers this topic in depth, but in a way that is approachable to the general reader. There are plenty of diagrams that show how measurements are taken, as well as graphs that explain relationships and patterns. I really enjoyed reading about the details of unique planets that have been discovered to gather data on the types of worlds aliens might live in. For example, Goldsmith describes a star, HD 209458, which has a “radius about 14 percent larger” than our sun, with a planet, Osiris, around it which has “diameter… 1.4 times Jupiter’s”, and amass “220 times the Earth’s” (104). Other details about the likely temperatures on a planet like this as well as its chemical composition really start to paint what it would look like on its surface or in its oceans, or in its air. A table of the properties of the “Seven Trappist-1 Planets” also really paint the conditions on a whole solar system, to allow a reader to roam through these worlds and imagine their diversity and potential interplay. In other parts, there are discussions about interesting topics like the fact that young suns can be erratic and can suddenly collapse and explode.

This is not a textbook for an introductory astronomy class, but rather a book for a more advanced astronomy course for undergraduate or graduate students specifically interested in exoplanets. Somebody with a basic knowledge of astronomical concepts, should enjoy reading this book for fun as well. It might even inspire an astronomer with new directions for further research into exoplanets, as some unanswered questions are proposed.

On Clinton’s Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment and Other Salacious Intrigues

Russell L. Riley. Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History. $21.95. 442pp, 6X9”, ISBN: 978-0-19-088849-7. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


An exhaustive review of materials on the Clinton White House, based on 400 hours of interviews with over sixty people, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The story begins with Clinton’s first presidential run until the end of the presidency. The first part is about how the campaign came together, but then the book is organized by subjects rather than chronologically, with reviews of his domestic and economic policy, foreign policy, and review of each of the members of Clinton’s team. The Preface points out that Clinton’s political career’s last act was Hillary’s loss in the 2016 campaign (a run that he was heavily involved in). It also explains that this soft cover edition of the book only adds two new interviewees, Blair and Elaine Kamarck. The interviews were conducted across a decade at the University of Virginia in a “nonpartisan research institute”. The author, Russell L. Riley, assisted with collecting some additional interviews in the field. The book is based on the publicly accessible (since November 2014) interviews on the Miller Center’s website.

The book is logically organized to allow readers to follow the naturally digressive interviews. Each section begins with a summary of a portion of Clinton’s political life, followed by the name of the interviewee, their relationship to the president, and a quote on their take of this part of history. Each interviewee is allotted anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages to give their thoughts. They were probably all asked the same set of questions on the topics these headings are about, resulting in these categorized replies. On the other hand, this book seems to transcribe most of the relevant replies rather than picking only those which convey new information. For example, the first comment is from Susan Thomases, a political activist, who begins by explaining that Clinton “knew it was hard” to attempt running for office “and he might not make it, but that was his objective…” (4). This is a very cliché comment; Thomases is described as Bill’s “friend”, so it is only natural that she would want to talk about him in a friendly way, but these types of surface summaries suggest that she does not want to name any details perhaps to cover up something that cannot be put into public record. If you were describing a fellow politician’s first run, would you bother pondering on the likelihood it was going to be “hard”? Then, David Kusnet, a White House speechwriter, discusses that Clinton is a Southern Baptist from a small town. Then, he jumps at random to various causes Clinton supported aside from religion. Somebody who is reading this book casually for enjoyment would have a difficult time finding a unifying plotline and would lose interest. Perhaps, one can skip around to read what famous people like Madeleine Albright said, but her first comment appears only on page 30, and she gives the shortest response up to that point: “Getting to Little Rock from Washington is like going to outer space.” This is a response to a chapter on “Staffing the Campaign.” The replies also make for difficult reading because most of them appear without a question before them, just as comments on the topic of the chapter. Occasionally, a question is inserted, when asking for additional information, as in, “Were you concerned from your perch about the personal issues with Clinton?” This question seems a strange one, since it’s unclear what personal issues, might be meant, but the interviewee, Elaine Kamarck, a DLC strategist, explains in her response that they knew of “some of the women he had had affairs with, and we knew he had had many affairs. Al talked to Bill and got assurances that all of that was in the past.” Curiously, she goes on to explain that she was not concerned about these women because “these were all women who had a stake in his success” (22). This is a description of quid pro quo sexual harassment, wherein women obtain something related to their careers in exchange for sex. If this is a random specific detail out of the book, it seems that when interviewees are giving cliché or vague descriptions, they are avoiding saying something this blunt. Perhaps if the interviewees asked more follow up questions like this one, they would have obtained more incriminating details. Though, I’m sure plenty of dirt is already scattered across this book. Journalists can probably find many salacious headlines in this book. Of course, since the Preface begins by saying that Clinton’s political career is now officially over, it’s too late for such headlines to make a political difference, and therefore the dirt is now in the realm of history rather than journalism.

Answers to Popular Nutrition Questions

  1. K. Newby. Food & Nutrition: What Everyone Needs to Know. $16.95. 294pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-19-084663-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


I had to request this title for review as it promised to answer all of the questions I have been searching for answers to on the web and in YouTube videos since I went on a vegan diet a year and a half ago. In it a nutritional scientist answers 134 questions on how to attain a “health-giving diet”. It is especially concerned with creating a “sustainable” diet that is good for the planet rather than solely one that improves individual health. P. K. Newby is an Associate Professor at Harvard, so her advice should be more reliable than your typical vegan guru’s. To be honest, my current interests are in my own health, with the planet coming in second. The book begins with a chapter on “Nutrition Issues”, which explains contemporary diets, the ruling food companies and the impact of food on the environment. On the surface, this looked like guru-territory on first glance, but the details in the chapter are diving into details I have not come across in my casual reading. For example, the subsection on “traditional and contemporary diets” begins by defining what “traditional” means in this context, before jumping into major food categories like “cereal grasses”, a topic which is closely digested as containing some of the first-cultivated major crops. Each cereal, like rice is defined in terms of its territory, climate, and energy consumed in its production. Any YouTube video maker can really find a lot of details here to recycle. So many discussions touch on traditional diets as being healthier alternatives for humans than processed foods, but few other works I looked at define this closely exactly what traditional diets around the world consist of. The section on who runs the food system also surprises with statistics on the large percentage of population that work in agriculture in the developing world compared with only 1% in the US and UK. The chapter ends with a paragraph that brushes on four (near)famines in 2017 that affected millions in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen. Basically, every paragraph in this book is full of statistics, facts, nutritional research and other useful or interesting information. I find myself drawn into this story, and my own nutritional concerns fade as I keep reading this study. If somebody is purely interested in their own health, though, they probably would have a difficult time finding the needed data in this book. On the other hand, each of these topics really needs a lot more attention. For example, there is a brief section called “What are the causes of food poisoning, and how can it be reduced?” There are four pieces of advice in bold towards the end of the three pages allotted to the topic (wash hands, separate raw food, cook to kill, chill food). The section describes the various types of common food borne illnesses, but then offers this basic advice to avoid it. The facts suggest that one can catch these diseases by going to just about any restaurant even in wealthy countries, or by eating from a cruise ship buffet, or by eating raw vegetables from the local supermarket. Well, I already knew most of that. I would really appreciate a more practical guide for avoiding this problem. Surely, there are ways of telling if food is affected, or more advice that could be gained. How does food need to be cooked more precisely? How can I check raw vegetables to make sure they’re safe to it? The author’s motivations are also hazy. In a section on “processed” food, she sides with food processing in contrast with most nutritionists I’ve been reading who argue that processing food and adding sugar, salt and chemicals to it is a major cause of health problems. Instead of going in this direction, Newby sites a study that found that there is “little difference in healthfulness on average comparing nutrient intake… across a broad range of processed food levels” (57). I am recalling watching a documentary that mentioned that some top nutrition scholars are paid by the food industry for promoting their foods as healthy, and this siding with food processing suggests that Newby has fallen prey to this problem. In the section on “red and processed meats” relationship with cancer, she offers a more conventional summary that this link has been verified by studies, but does color it with rosier colors, saying that some processed and red meat consumption should be a part of a healthy diet (60-1). Throughout, Newby attempts to criticize the gurus’ bogus nutritional advice. It is easy to slip into obsession when following a vegan or otherwise restricting diet, so that one probably doesn’t realize that the rules he or she is following are potentially not grounded in reality. Newby does a good job explaining scientific findings on each of these trends; for example, avoiding pasteurization of milk is explained as a major health hazard confirmed by dozens of scientific studies. Some of the explanations are only brushing on the surface. For example, I really wanted to learn more about vitamin D, so I read this section, hoping to find if a brief trip outside or keeping my windows open would generate some vitamin D, or if eating less than the recommended value daily (but still a decent amount from margarine) might be sufficient, or if I definitely need a supplement. Instead of answering any of this, the section simply defined vitamin D and explained that its lack causes disease.

In summary, anybody who is going on an extreme diet of any sort should read this book or a book like it to understand the basics of nutritional science. I plan on reading it more closely at leisure later on to mine it for some useful details I might be missing.

A Pop History of Africa’s Golden Age

Francois-Xavier Fauvelle. The Golden Rhinoceros. $29.95. 280pp, 5.5X8.5”, 18 images. ISBN: 978-0-691181264. Princeton: Princeton University Press, November 13, 2018.


The history of Africa is particularly relevant today because the discussion on the origins of humanity has been popping up in everything from racist rhetoric in the presidential campaign, to Black Lives Matter, to new research that suggests that European humans have more of the Neanderthal in them. Thus, this history of medieval Africa in its Golden Age should answer a lot of these questions on the side of African pride and power. Francois-Xavier Fauvelle picks up the story at the birth of Islam in the seventh century, and carries it to the first explorations of this continent by Europeans. On top of archival research, Fauvelle relies on his own archaeological research. He reconstructs this distant past without a sufficient written record by describing and interpreting its art, maps, as well as the precious accounts left by geographers and travelers. The book looks at the multiple dimensions of life in Africa, including trade, religion, politics, art, and personal lives. The titles of the chapters are pretty cryptic, inviting readers to read them in full rather than skimming to find just the parts of particular interest; for example, one title is, “In the Belly of the Sperm Whale.” Most of the chapters do include some specification regarding the region of Africa covered as well as the centuries discussed, with most in a chronological order, though some focus on a single city like Ghana across the bulk of its history. Some chapters look at a single ruler such as the King of Zafun. All of these chapters seem to be structured around a coherent, engaging narrative with a beginning, middle and end, or in other words, they attempt to catch the reader’s attention with an engaging story rather than reviewing the details of the history for its own sake.

Each chapter includes a black and white illustration of the central concept, such as a piece of architecture, or a whale. Given the focus on art, it’s surprising that there are no archival photos of the art and architecture discussed. Given the condensed bibliographical notes, and the conversational writing style and illustrations, this book seems to be written for a younger audience, perhaps high school or introductory college history classes. For example, Chapter 1 includes this opening sentence: “One of the excerpts tells us about a certain land, Molin, where the people are black…” (17). This refers to the contents of a book, Jingxingji, described in the previous paragraph from Guangzhoe, China in 762. This introduction is suitable for younger readers, but a researcher in this field would probably find it to be too simplistic. Later on, the author asks if “we are forced to accept a 652 date for the signing…” (34). A conventional historian typically does not discuss unknown historical dates in these terms. Why would anybody be forced to accept an unknown?

In summary, this book is too chatty and non-specific for my taste. I prefer purely informative history that delivers the facts. But, if somebody is looking for lighter reading and is interested in the intriguing topics it promises to deliver, they should be happy with the contents herein.

Out-of-Context Snippets from Soldiers at War

Marian Eide & Michael Gibler. After Combat: True War Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. $29.95. 256pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-1-64012-023-5. Lincoln: Potomac Books: Nebraska University Press, 2018.


A collection of combat accounts from some of the 2.5 million soldiers U.S. has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror. Not all of these soldiers held weapons or shot somebody, but all were affected by listening to mortars at night, or otherwise being fully engaged in a warzone. These soldiers come from all branches of the military (marines, air force), with experience ranges from new entrants to retirees. It is a bit troubling that they are speaking anonymously, as it would be difficult to verify their stories to check for accuracy. I can understand how soldiers who are still active probably would not speak as frankly if their real names were used, but I have read other books where names are used for soldiers that took part in historic combat. If I was telling my war story, I would want my name to by in the by-line so I might use it as a publication credit in my CV. The soldiers in this book are touching on sanctions, and other failures, so I guess those bits would not be CV-worthy. One of the authors is a Texas history professor and the other, Gibler, served as an infantry officer for twenty-eight years, so they should have a good balance of understanding both the historical and the military components of this content. This book has a very similar structure to the Clinton interviews book I covered earlier in this set of reviews. The chapters are broken down into the twenty broad questions these soldiers were asked: enlisting, missions, explosions, low points, close calls, combat, comrades, chain of command, killing people, enemies, and topics related to grief, loss and other emotions. Each chapter begins with a brief paragraph summary of the topics raised in the chapter; perhaps these summaries are extended versions of the questions the interviewees were asked. These are followed by paragraphs of varied length from each interviewee separated by section breaks. There are no explanations regarding the rank, status and the like of who the storyteller is unless they include these details in their descriptions. While in theory there are a lot of curious details in this collection, in reality, a lot of things could have been taken out as repetitions, clichés or general and uninteresting information. For example, one of these answers begins with, “The cultural shock in and of itself was huge. I went from an over-abundance of things: a home, a place to sleep that’s guaranteed. Yeah, there are threats here, but not like over there…” (77). Without context, this is very ominous: what threats exist here? Obviously, this is just a soldier who’s just chatting about his impression of culture shock, but what kind of a reader would benefit from reading something like this? Another soldier talks about the “thrill” of warfare, admitting that he’s done “cocaine” before but that it surpasses it, especially when he was “driving past the Iraqi tomb of the unknown”, which made him feel particularly alive (150). Somebody’s tomb made him feel energized? Or this one: “there were a lot of ethical issues that surfaced”. This paragraph later explains that one of these issues was potentially treating and discharging a person only for them to possibly be “shot in a Sunni hospital (if they’re Shia)” (220). Why would a treated patient need to return to another hospital, and why would they be shot there? It’s extremely disorienting reading bits of history and biography without adequate annotations and explanations. For a researcher, if someone manages to dig through all this and finds the bits where war crimes, violence against innocent people and the like is covered, these bits cannot really be quoted in a coherent way in future research. Every paragraph is already taken out of context, so contextualizing it as any scholarly study has to do would be impossible. Thus, the book seems to be intended for the soldiers who went through the wars and want to read how other soldiers perceived the experience. I would recommend writing a version of this book that cuts out most of the irrelevant information, and offers primarily historical and strategic descriptions with interviews being used only as supporting evidence in proper context.

Digressions on the Biases of Scientific Naming

Michael Ohl; Translated by Elisabeth Lauffer. The Art of Naming. 294pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-262-03776-1. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018.


All writers have contemplated the act of naming. Should a name be symbolic? Should it be phonetically or aesthetically pleasing? What are the rules for naming species that might help a writer name a fictional alien or fantastical species? This book attempts to address this naming art in a single thorough study. Since there are 1.8 million named species, there is plenty of ground for research in this field. The cover explains that the rules for scientific naming “in standard nomenclature, the generic name followed by specific name – go back to Linnaeus; but they are open to idiosyncrasy and individual expression.” The cover of this book is beautifully and elegantly designed with several named with tags species of winged insects against a sterile white background. Several curious archival photographs from various uniquely named species illustrate the book, as well as photos of the scientists who named some of these species. Most of these images were taken by the author at the exhibits and collections of the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin.

The first chapter’s name attracts attention, “1 Hitler and the Fledermaus”, and it delivers on the promise to shock: on March 3, 1942, the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper attempted to announce that the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to change the names for shrew “spitzmaus” to “spitzer” and the name for bat “Fledermaus” to “fleder” because the original names were misleading. The newspaper then received a threatening letter from Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler’s private secretary that stated that they will be sent to “the construction battalion on the Russian front” if they did not immediately retract the renaming, and the paper immediately complied, so that these names remain to this day in their confusing original form. This is a great example of how names can become hotly debated political tools. It definitely draws readers into the book.

While this book is saturated with stories about how things are named and naming controversies, it is a bit frustrating for a researcher who might be interested in finding practical information on how to name a character or a new species to search for specifically relevant guidance. The second chapter begins with Armand David’s journey into naming plants, then has a section on if a panda is a bear, with later sections on nomenclature, and validity. Basically, most of the chapter discusses how irregular naming has been, wherein random institutions or individuals who discover species or influence those who discover them have chosen names somewhat arbitrarily rather than in a systematic, scientific way. A section called “Naming Rights for Sale” really stresses this. In the Chasing New Horizons book that I reviewed earlier in this set, there is a discussion on how Pluto was named after the wife of the donor that sponsored the observatory that found the semi-planet.

If a scientist buys this book in the hope of finding concrete guidance on how to name a new species, he or she has discovered, it is unlikely he or she will walk away with a clear sense on how to proceed beyond the basics. But they might realize that they are supposed to name the species after their funders or give it a political name that might inspire future funding of their work. This is a great read for those interested in history, archeology, biology, and naming. It is written for general readers who might want to escape with a good book but dislike fiction, preferring true dramatic stories.

A Precious Collection of Genre-Setting Gothic Tales from Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle. Gothic Tales. Oxford World’s Classics. $14.95. 550pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-19-873430-7. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


Whenever I feel a bit of strain for inspiration as I attempt to write one of my fictional projects, I typically open a random page in a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. And when I am searching for the best way to structure a mystery, I tend to return to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. Why have these early stories captured readers’ imaginations? Somehow, they seem to be better than recent best-selling or highly literary mysteries. What sets them apart? It is not their density of description, but rather something about their easy flow and inviting manner that brings readers into the tricks the authors set for their villains and heroes. So, naturally, when I saw the option to request Arthur Conan Doyle’s Gothic Tales, I jumped on it. In my scholarly research into the mystery genre, I read about the other genre fictions that Doyle practiced, but I have not read any of them in full. So, it is with great interest that I open these pages.

All of these stories originally appeared in magazines, and most of them in the Strand. One of the things that puzzled me about Doyle when I researched him was his spiritualism, or the support of mystics and other quacks who argued for the existence of the supernatural. It is possible that Doyle propagated for these causes in order to lift sales of his Gothic short stories, or perhaps his true spiritual beliefs are expressed in these works. The “Introduction” does a great job discussing this link as well as explaining that Doyle might have been interested in spiritualism and psychology because of his father’s history of alcoholism and insanity. Another macabre element of Doyle’s life was his work as a military medic, wherein he dealt with an outbreak of enteric fever that “cost 5,000 lives” (xvi). It further explains that Doyle wrote an imperialist history of this war shortly thereafter, The Great Boer War (1900), which makes excuses for British concentration camps.

The “Introduction” concludes by arguing that Doyle became more anxious in his later Gothic tales about the “modern world”: “In ‘How It Happened’ (1913), a motorist loses control of his car and hurtles downhill to his death. In ‘The Horror of the Heights’ (1913), an aviator discovers a hostile new ecosystem high in the stratosphere. In ‘The Nightmare Room’ (1921), a disturbing domestic scenario is gradually revealed in all its horror as a film set. In ‘The Lift’ (1922), a group of tourists find themselves suspended in an elevator high above the ground, at the mercy of a homicidal religious maniac” (xxxiii). This is a great summary of the types of unique plots covered in these stories. Each one is unlike the hyper-formulaic horror films popular today. If these stories are more popularly read by producers and script writers, they might borrow some of these new concepts that have not been as exploited as Doyle’s Holmes stories have been.

The first tale in the collection, “The American’s Tale”, includes a great deal of linguistic complexity, as Jefferson Adams relates his convoluted and chopped-up story in a strange variant of the American accent. The second story, “The Captain of the ‘Polestar’”, is an incredibly dense account of a medical student. Everything from the geology of Amsterdam Island, to the crew of the ship, to the narrator’s relationship with the captain is minutely described. Since Doyle worked in a similar medical role on ships shortly after graduating from medical school, these read like a fictionalized version of his own journals. Later stories are a bit lighter on description, focusing more on actions and dialogue. For example, the third story, “The Winning Shot”, begins with a description of a dangerous man the public has been warned to look out for, building tension through this danger at the start, and then building on it across adventures like a rifle competition. Density returns in some of the later stories as well as the setting of dangerous sea voyages in stories like “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.” The complexity of the linguistics and structures of these stories hide some of the common tropes of horror, but they are still very much a presence in the works, as, for example, “The Surgeon of Gaster Fell” begins with the trope of howling wind: “Bleak and wind-swept is the little town of Kirkby-Malhouse, harsh and forbidding are the fells upon which it stands” (167). The narrators and characters express a constant sense of dread common to horror, but also slip into “a dash of romance”, as for example, the narrator in “‘De Profundis’” begins the story: “For the soul is swayed by the waters, as the waters are by the moon, and when the great highways of an empire are along such roads as these, so full of strange sights and sounds, with danger ever running alike a hedge on either side of the course, it is a dull mind indeed which does not bear away with it some trace of such a passage” (201).

This is definitely not light reading, but it is a great source of detail on the period described. It also offers intriguing and innovative approaches to the horror genre on every page. The stories travel in surprising pathways and mesmerize readers with amazing sights and adventures. All researchers into Doyle should study this collection closely. It is also required reading for graduate students and established researchers alike of the Gothic tale. Poe’s tales are more readable or approachable as their digressions are wrapped into more condensed and direct dramas. But by wondering away on many curious tangents Doyle shows a greater range this genre is capable of.

Practical Guide to Copyright Law

Neil Weinstock Netanel. Copyright: What Everyone Needs to Know. $16.95. 228pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-994116-2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


This is a practical guide to copyright law. It does not introduce any new research, but rather restates the facts in a comprehensive way. I definitely had to request this title because I have frequently googled specific copyright laws as I have been running my publishing company. Questions frequently come up regarding reprints, quotes in fair use, and various other potential infringements by others or by the authors I publish or by these authors of their own work. So, this book should help me find more precise answers to all of these questions when I need them next. Online sources typically only skim the surface and it is difficult to verify or trust most of them. In contrast, this book is written by the Chair in Law at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, Neil Weinstock Netanel, so his answers are definitive. Of course, this information is not only relevant for publishers nowadays, but to everyday web users, as the cover explains. Anybody can share something that is protected by copyrights on their social media or cloud storage account, stumbling into a potential lawsuit without realizing they are breaking the law. I have stumbled into websites that are offering ebooks of titles I have released for free perhaps to bait potential buyers into uploading a virus or perhaps to garner traffic to their website, without permission from me or from the author. Since I offer electronic review copies for free, it is likely users of review sites use them to steal content. It seems likely that they might also be selling content they are stealing under other names for a profit. These types of thefts are incredibly prevalent, and somebody purchasing a book online is unlikely to know they are breaking the law with each such purchase. Theft of original works have probably led to some of the consolidation and bankruptcies within the publishing industry, so these thefts are hardly innocuous to small publishers who gamble a significant part of their net worth with every new risky release. I love free and cheap books as much as anybody. I received dozens of free books for this set of reviews. I also thoroughly enjoy using free Google Books or free Amazon LookInside options as part of my research because my local library does not offer Interlibrary Loan or other methods of requesting the rare books I typically need. I have also narrowed my media watching to Netflix and YouTube to avoid paying fees for cable or movie theaters. So, I can understand critics who argue for more accessibility to the world of media, but if the price of books, films and the rest drops down to zero, only creators who are non-profits or doing the work for fun rather than a career will be left to create content. So, those who work on the margins of this dilemma, like music producers, definitely should be familiar with the law so that they sample and remix work in a way that is legal and fair to the original creators.

A world without original art, and instead crowded by stolen reproductions is a very grim and desolate world indeed.

On Clay’s Adventures in the Turbulent Politics

James C. Klotter. Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President. $34.95. 510pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-19-049804-7. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


A history of Henry Clay’s political career and the events that surrounded it, rather than a biography of Clay’s life. The main political struggles described are those around Clay’s two unsuccessful presidential runs that took place between 1824 and 1848. Clay ran the Whig Party for some of this stretch, but still could not win its nomination, as on at least one of these occasions the Whig candidate did succeed in winning the presidency. Clay is portrayed as a conciliator who brought about the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, as well as many other compromises that kept the United States as a unified whole. The book is heavy on notes and research and is illustrated with some telling cartoons, drawings and photographs. Clay had political roots in Kentucky, so it is only natural that the author, James C. Klotter, a professor of History at Georgetown College a past executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society, spent a good deal of time in the Kentucky Historical Society’s Clay archive when researching this book. The “Preface” begins with a note about the 1861 monument dedication in Kentucky in Henry Clay’s honor, with a note that he was “their state’s most famous political leader, a man who had tried to avoid the war [Civil War] now raging around them” (xiii). Clay was born in Virginia, but made Kentucky his adopted political base residence. The primary question Klotter set out to answer with this study is: “Why did Clay not win the presidency?” (xvi) Clearly, this heavy book was needed to simply begin answering this question. This is a great time for such questions as President Trump has managed to win this job once, and despite numerous accusations against him for anything from theft to treason, he might go on to win a second term. Is there an inherent corruption in the American political system that keeps the most fit (best educated, most talented, most brilliant strategists) out of the top office? Anybody who is considering running for office in the United States needs to read books like this one to begin to understand what drives American voting habits and what about the primaries process might be screening out the best fit in favor of the most corrupted. On the other hand, Clay was born in obscurity and had a limited education (facts that he stressed to improve his public image), and he did a lot of winning in politics to get to the top of the Whig party, including becoming a US representative, US senator, diplomat, and secretary of state. Klotter contradicts some of the myth Clay reinforced, arguing that Clay’s father was not an impoverished minister, but rather came “from a distinguished family that had been in Virginia almost from the first English settlement” (2).

Overall, this is a brilliantly executed history of a period and a presidential hopeful. Every page is rich with revelations and surprises and offers lessons for current politicians and historians alike. A graduate or undergraduate class can be taught with this book alone. The research is immaculate and touches every conceivable stone available. The stories related at every turn include adventures like Aaron Burr’s arrival in Kentucky after he was disgraced for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel (214) to the gifts Clay received after his 1844 defeat, which included silver pitchers (of all things) (328). This book, in many ways, makes for more exciting reading than top formulaic mysteries.

The Comprehensive History of European Law from Its Origins to the Near-Present

Antonio Padoa-Schioppa. A History of Law in Europe: From the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. 808pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-1-107-18069-7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


I requested this title because I occasionally write non-fiction and fiction that touches on the past, and frequently I find it necessary to look up laws from different periods to avoid making incorrect assumptions. Laws change yearly and certainly have mutated over the centuries. And laws vary widely between different countries. So, this is a very helpful attempt to summarize the history of law in Europe across the Middle Ages and through the Twentieth Century, an amazing range of places and times to squeeze into a single (though heavy) volume. Modern laws frequently seem barely comprehensible. Why does America still have a death penalty? Why are the debate about the legalization of pot or abortion still raging on in the modern age? This history attempts to look back to Roman and Christian laws to explain how they mutated into what we are familiar with today. Anybody who complains about the current legal system should benefit from the lessons from the past herein. This is a first translation of this copious work into English. It is authored by Antonio Padoa-Schioppa, Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Law School at the University of Milan. The book is chronologically organized, with the first part covering everything from the fifth to the eleventh centuries, and the last one on the twentieth century. Rather than being organized by country, within each part, different chapters address major changes and trends. For example, a chapter focuses on “Christianity, Church and Law” while another looks at the “University: Students and Teachers.” Each chapter title is intriguing and offers insights into the types of things we have come to take for granted; for example, a chapter on “Legal Professions” looks into the origins of various different legal sub-categories, such as notaries, colleges of judges and advocates, and justices. Another chapter examines the various “Sources of Law” for individual countries (Italy, France, Germany and others), examining the influences on the law made by their individual “state legislation, local customs, city and guild statutes, feudal law, Roman ius commune, canon law and the decisions of the superior courts” (368). The discussion veers into politics as motivation for unique trends in the law, such as the origins of the Austrian criminal codes in Napoleonic codes and the research conducted by “illustrious Viennese professors and jurists” who drafted Austrian texts.

In summary, researchers and writers who touch on Europe across its history can benefit from having this thorough review in their library. It answers many of the questions that modern legal scholars might take for granted. We have retained the inheritance of these ancient legal precedents, so we have to understand what motivated their original creation. Only by understanding the biases, preferences, and the like of their founders can be pick the laws that are still morally or logically suitable and which ones should fade into the history books instead of continuing as legal facts.

More Nonsense About Linguistics

John Bowers. Deriving Syntactic Relations: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics: 151. 296pp. ISBN: 978-1-107-09675-2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


Linguistics is a field of study that is undeniably necessary in our present times. Why? Every professor and high school teacher knows the answer. The volume of plagiarized essays is overwhelming. The essay mills are producing countless nonsensical and repetitive essays and selling them for a few dollars. Students are stealing information from Wikipedia and plastering it into their “creations”. Aside from this momentous problem, the volume of copyright lawsuits that accuses writers, musicians and others of theft of original content is climbing. There is a dire need for coherent linguistic analysis in courtrooms and classrooms. Instead of taking on these practical problems, most popular or established linguists engage in the practice of nonsense linguistics. It is easy to spot contributions to this field because they inevitably quote as their inspiration Chomsky or Lacan. The second most telling element is repetition of the same nonsensical phrases or even sentences with slight variations, as if the author is practicing self-plagiarism for the sake of proving that if readers cannot comprehend nonsense, they will assume the work is brilliant simply to avoid reading it. The repetitions in this text begin on its cover. The front inside flap replicates the book summary paragraphs from the back cover. Just imagine a book with two identical copies of the author’s biography on different parts of the cover, or what if two of these biographies were repeated one after the other on the back cover alone… The author is likely to have won a contract to publish this convoluted title because he is a professor in the Department of Linguistics at Cornell University. This is his third book in this field; one of these earlier studies was Arguments as Relations, and its title alone implies that it is also cyclical and nonsensical. What do you think is the logical relationship between arguments and relations in general? Relationship between relations? Arguments about relatives? Arguments that relate different things to each other? If this contemplation about the meaning of the title is nonsensical, imagine what an analysis of a few sentences might be like… Funny enough, the first sentence of the “Introduction” touches on this “concept” of “relations”: “There have been a number of attempts in modern era to argue that the primitives of syntactic theory should be relations (or dependencies) between words rather than constituents” (1). Then he jumps into naming a dozen random past nonsensical studies from this field, as if these notes are going to explain the lack of meaning in the opening sentence. What possible part of human language can exclude words? Constituents, regardless as to what this term means, are words themselves. If every part of language is a word, how can anything be outside of this term and yet an element used to express written language? This type of a self-contradicting opening sentence works to keep readers from attempting to find fault with the argument. If nobody can interpret the meaning within an inherent self-contradiction, then it is incredibly difficult to prove that it is nonsensical with help from logic. If I began this review thus, “The beginning interpret meaning element goes to exclude naming in syntactic theory and professor studies words”; how would you begin criticizing this string of random words put together in a nonsensical pattern? Why would you want to spend hours attempting to decode such nonsense? The only difference between pure nonsense composed of completely randomly selected words from a dictionary and linguistic research nonsense is that the latter tends to repeat the same strings of nonsense, referring to earlier studies that also said the same nonsense as proof that the research has been verified by established researchers. In addition, this particular study uses diagrams and convoluted theories that attempt to appear like serious linguistic research. Many sections begin with no introductory sentence other than “Let’s consider next the following two orders: (11) a. Dem N Num A (=Cinque’s (6c))…” Then, he goes on to explain the relations between the different categories summarized, touching on their common roots. This particular section ends in the middle of a thought without coming to any conclusions, with the promise that this “is a question I return to in §4.1.8” (134-5). If any scholar is seriously attempting to explain any concept, he or she has to begin a thought by summarizing the concept, then offer an explanation and in the end summarize what the research means to digest it for the reader. In contrast, linguistic nonsense research begins in the middle of a random thought, introduces nonsensical or extremely convoluted research, and then moves on to other topics without explaining the relationship between the random words just presented. When will publishers begin rejecting nonsense, sparing researchers like myself valuable time, and allowing for the publication of truly useful linguistic studies?

A String of Convoluted Definitions on English from Its Birth

Olga Fischer, Hendrik de Smet and Wim Van der Wurff. A Brief History of English Syntax. 240pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-521-74797-4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


My hope for this book was that it would be a clear and concise history of English syntax, as the title promises. The introduction and the back cover also promise this helpful textbook, but the interior delivers a very convoluted and jumbled set of ideas. Of course, delivering the history of all of English’s syntax is an extremely tall order. English has warped on numerous dimensions from its roots that lacked clear grammatical or spelling rules, which opted for regional, class and other variations. Attempting to read a text in English from 1,500 years ago is definitely a journey into an entirely foreign language with entirely different rules of syntax. As the introduction explains, English has been impacted by German, Viking, Norman, Celtic as well as numerous other languages and their rules. This book attempts to summarizes the changes into categories, such as the “rapid loss of inflexions” through contact with other linguistic populations. This might be a doomed quest because the nature of language mutation was not led by unified movements but rather by individuals in isolated regions making sudden changes across most of this 1,500-year history. Only relatively recently did dictionaries and grammar books unify the language and allow for kings or academics to control linguistic change. Can there be clearly identifiable changes in “word order, the noun phrase and verb phrase, changing relations between clausal constituents and the development of new subordinate constructions” that can be summarized in a short study? As a researcher in the field of linguistics, I certainly hope that patterns can be identified and explained, as they can help to interpret older texts, and evaluate the age of texts based on their syntax. The introduction ends with “Table 1.1 Overview of syntactic categories and their changes”, which attempts to summarize the major shifts across Old English, Middle English and Modern English with a focus on case form and function, determiners, quantifiers, adjectives, the aspect-system, the tense system, the mood system, the voice system, subjects, objects, adverbs and the like. For one of these, the voice-system, the authors examine how indirect passive was absent in the earliest period, developed in the middle period and became fully present in Modern English. The table shows which chapters touch on this particular subject: “7.5 Passive Constructions: Gains and Losses”. This section begins by referring the reader to two other chapters for additional explanations of these constructions (6 and 9) instead of summarizing what this construction is. Then, a brief definition is given: “changes in the realization of the arguments of the passive verb in a finite clause”, followed by a set of examples that compares direct, indict and prepositional passive voice (148-9). Several notes interrupt this very complex discussion by referring to research conducted into these topics by others. The story is also interrupted by contradictions in the linguistic evidence, such as the problem that “dative fronted passives had died out before the new indirect passives arrived”, thus, making it impossible that this previously proposed conclusion could be correct. Later in the section, examples include the very difficult to comprehend (for a modern reader) Old English examples. The conclusion to this section focuses on fine points that are impossible for anybody but an advanced grammarian to grasp in a paragraph-long single sentence with extremely complex grammar. In other words, just to read this single sentence, somebody needs to be an advanced grammarian, and then he or she needs to know the definitions of the numerous terms involved like “experiencer” and “(medio)-passive” (definitions which are not offered clearly in a way that would allow for comprehension) to begin to comprehend the meaning. Having taken PhD-level grammar courses, I can report that the difficult level of this book is far beyond the most difficult grad textbook I navigated through. It would take a year for anybody to simply read this book as he or she slowly looks up each of the barely explained terms and works through the examples (including translating the parts that are in Old English). If you are a linguistic historian who has written a couple of books on Old and Middle English, you should eventually understand this book (at which point you might be able to prove that its conclusions have inaccuracies in them). If you do not fall into this category, do not attempt to read this book; it would be a futile effort.

Great Promises and Rambling Delivery of a Linguistic Soup

Ian Roberts. The Wonders of Language or How to Make Noises and Influence People. 230pp. ISBN: 978-1-316-60441-0. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


After the last few linguistic titles, I am a bit hesitant to dive into this one. But the playful red lopsided “Noises” in the cover design suggests that this book is created with the general public in mind, so hopefully it is digestible. The back cover’s promise is ambitious, proposing an “accessible introduction to the main discoveries and theories about language” with a look at the various branches of this field, “phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics, as well as historical linguistics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics.” Since these are pretty much all of the fields under the broad umbrella of language study and the book is only a couple hundred pages long, this seems like a tall order. The author’s experience is also promising, as Ian is teaching at the University of Cambridge, and has published eight scholarly books. The chapters of the book are divided under the broad categories of linguistics named above. The last chapter makes a curious promise: “How to Build a Language: Language Typology and Universals.” This is particularly interesting for me because I’m currently pondering how language is created for my first science fiction novel. Would aliens have an entirely different type of language? Can they be using visuals, sounds, or other forms of communication that would not be translatable into English? Or is there something innate about language that would not change even across light years of space? Ian asks similar questions in this chapter’s opening paragraph, but he digresses much further without offering answers. He goes on to name previous research that looked at patterns in the main elements of language across dozens of different languages across the world. The order of subject and object varies, as do many of the other rules that are consistent in English alone. Meanwhile, the basic elements of language are found in all of the world’s languages. Then, he dives into a discussion that some orders are more common in sentences than others. Then, he attempts to explain this through psycholinguistics, but does not really get to a solution. Chomsky is named later in this chapter, so one can guess that not much sense appears, and it’s only natural that the concluding paragraph is: “What their answers are we just don’t know, but we’re working on it” (180). I’m saddened to report that my hopes for this book have fallen through. Instead of explaining linguistics in a way that students can grasp and digest, this book is a conversational exercise in speculation that offers some clear definitions and examples, but fails to be concise or clear. The main problem is that instead of defining what each of the covered fields is and offering explanations of their main concepts, the author babbles about narrow topics within these fields, giving a review of a few studies. This shows a lack of the broad knowledge necessary to write a textbook that encompasses such an enormous field. Perhaps a dozen books later, Ian will arrive at this comprehension and his twentieth book will finally manage to offer a digested linguistic meal.

Should the U.S. Stop Propagandizing on the Inferiority of Latin America?

Lars Schoultz. In Their Own Best Interest: A History of the U.S. Effort to Improve Latin Americans. 392pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-674-98414-1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.


It is always enjoyable to read research that departs from the formula common to a topic. In this case, most of the books on Latin America and U.S. relations I previously read attempt to interpret the paternalistic relationship in a positive way, searching for new ways to help out southern neighbors. Unlike them, this book questions this relationship and the wisdom of U.S. dictating proper government or oral hygiene methods to Latin America. U.S. barely has a rudimentary understanding or execution of democratic principles itself if the last few elections are any indication. The electoral college has overruled the popular vote in two recent elections, and the extremely close votes suggest that there is broad election fraud. People are less likely to vote in tight elections, and they are less likely to vote if they believe polls have already chosen a winner. And America’s two-party system prevents candidates with innovative ideologies or those who have not been corrupted by the paid-to-play politics these two parties promote from being able to compete fairly. What about this destructive and anti-representative system is worth spreading to other countries? Lars Schoultz explains how the current paternalistic role for the U.S. came about, dating it back to the Progressive Era. The duality of the Cold War built the concept in American minds that communism was the enemy while democracy was the solution. Of course, both concepts in their extremes or when misused are harmful to society. Communism can slip into totalitarianism, while democracy can either slip into mob rule or a corporatocracy (wherein corporations buy elections in order to further their own corporate interests). To defend either extremist communism or democracy or capitalism, an extremely strong propaganda machine is necessary. Schoultz explains that in America this propaganda machine was expressed in institutions such as the Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, which have gone on to propagandize for the spread of America’s “values” to Latin America once the Cold War ended. The book is structured chronologically, beginning with the War of 1898 through the Cold War through the Cuba dilemma and through to the present day. One drawback of this book is that it is very heavy on quotations. In other words most paragraphs are interrupted by quotes from various sources; this breaks up the narrative, and makes it difficult to follow the story or to draw conclusions from the details. There is hardly a single paragraph without at least one 2-3 line quote in it. Parts that are summaries of history rather than quotes are pretty hard-hitting, like this one: “FDR had handed Smedley Butler a Medal of Honor for killing two hundred Haitian cacos…” (112). While it is disorienting to find so many quotes crammed into a book, it is reassuring as well, as clearly the author did comprehensive research and found every bit of relevant evidence on this controversial topic.

This book should be required reading for any U.S. politician who is about to argue for becoming entangled with Latin American politics. We have to know what happened when we intervened previously to decide how we should act in our present. Since Trump has been arguing that Mexico should pay for a wall between our countries, hopefully he will read this text (perhaps his first book in decades) to understand why his administration is continuing some of these paternalistic donations of resources and propagandistic deployment. If America is supposed to be focusing on “America First” and on helping itself, why is it continuing to hotly fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and its cold propaganda campaign in Latin America? The answers are in these pages, and the information will not surrender itself without work being put in through close reading.

Brilliant and Unique Critique of the Ties Between the Crown and the East India Company

Rupali Mishra. A Business of State: Commerce, Politics, and the Birth of the East India Company. 412pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-674-98456-1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.


I requested this book because I have been coming across mentions of the East India Company in my research into eighteenth century British literature. Travel voyage novels and various other fictional and true accounts touch on it directly or indirectly as it had sway over the world’s economy and politics at its peak in 1800. This book is not entirely what would have been directly relevant for my research, as it covers the birth of the company in 1600 and its history in its first century. Regardless, its founding has more profound lessons than its later history as its foundational structure is unique to history. The cover explains that the “monarch and his privy counselors” as well as an “extended cast of eminent courtiers and powerful merchants” shaped the nature of this company. Mishra’s analysis is distinguished from earlier studies as she argues that the East India Company was “embedded within – and inseparable from – the state” in contrast with earlier interpretations of it as a “private entity” that became state-like. This is a particularly important distinction for my own research because as a part of the state, this company had the power to commission propagandistic novels and other accounts that glorified its colonial endeavors. The controversial thesis is particularly impressive as the book was authored by only an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Auburn University (without an extensive publication record or decades of teaching experience). The text is of the highest quality, with polished prose and detailed notes, so it is clear why Harvard University Press accepted it.

The content is divided into categories of people or entities that governed the Company, including the Court of Committees, merchants, adventurers, and the regime. Other chapters look at separate decades and how the relationship between the Crown and the Company changed, including a chapter on trade manipulation in the 1630s. the first page opens with the central argument that was made in a “questionably legal” memo: “Each of the schemes… involved the transfer of money from Company members to the monarch.” These schemes involved lending money to his Majesty, allowing his Majesty to collect fines on the adventurers participating in the trade, and still others offered a 10% interest loan from the Monarch to the Company. All of these schemes are as relevant to today’s problems as they were in this period. We are currently debating the legality of a presidential American official accepting a loan at extremely favorable terms in exchange for offering a military government position. Perhaps, understanding how antiquated and engrained this type of corruption is in our western political system will help us to solve our current problems.

This book does a great job of explaining all of the basic concepts covered, allowing a reader unfamiliar with this topic to gradually understand it without checking outside sources. For example, the section “Patents and Trading Companies” begins with a summary of England’s trade relationships that existed before the foundation of the Company, namely that its “biggest export crop was wool” sold “primarily to the Low Countries.” The Company opened many new doors and built up the most economic power. Other companies like the Somers Island Company (founded in 1615) and the Royal Africa Company (1618) are hardly mentioned. Each of these companies had a geographic name because the monarch granted them patents that allowed them exclusive trading rights in a given geographical area. In other words, they were government-imposed monopolies (19). Anybody in England with a ship might have wanted to engage in independent trade with East India, but only this single company was allowed to do so across England. Given the current climate of consolidation or mergers among corporations, we seem to be headed back to this monopolistic pattern. The monopolization of trade with East India occurred because earlier traders lost a lot of money in sunk ships and other misadventures, so consolidation was sold by Elizabeth I as a form of protection against individual losses (25).

The wealth of information in this book is astounding given the complexity and rarity of sources from this period. This is recommended reading for anybody involved in business or government, and not only for historians (students and professors alike) in this field.

A Welcoming Biography of a Brilliant Composer

David Schiff. Carter: The Master Musicians. $34.95: hardcover. 266pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-19-025915-0. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


This is a rare biography of a recent American classical music composer, Elliott Carter. The book pays particular attention to Carter’s “politically charged Depression-era ballets” as well as his personal works that were affected by his family life. The story is based on Carter’s personal sketches and letters. It is chronologically organized by decades out of Carter’s life, though some chapters veer off into themes like vehicular accidents and farewell symphonies. The “Author’s Note” opens with a statement that this is the author’s third book about Carter’s music, as his first work on this subject was The Music of Elliott Carter (1983). David Schiff is a composer himself, who studied under Carter at Juilliard School. Chapter One opens with another curious fact: Carter was 104 when he died; this explains the relatively “mature” age of the author, his pupil. The pair first met in 1971 when Schiff was pursuing a doctorate at Columbia in English literature. Carter began making music in 1928, releasing 150 published musical pieces, of which “half, including his only opera, were completed after he turned ninety” (1). Chapter Three ends with a very helpful summary of Carter’s C.V., which lists his place and time of birth and death, his marriage, son, education, at Harvard, and his employment, which started at the Ballet Caravan in 1937, and included teaching at St. John’s College, working at the Office of War Information, the Peabody Conservatory, and then later teaching at Columbia, Queens College, Yale, Cornell, and Juilliard until 1985. Carter picked up on his musical publishing after retiring from teaching. Only the Julliard position lasted for a couple of decades, whereas the other jobs lasted for a year or two on a “short-lived and part-time” basis (25). The rest of the book expands on each of these and many other accomplishments from this curious life. A rich collection of details about everything that can be known about Carter has been collected, digested and presented to readers. The center of the book offers a dozen black and white photographs of Carter in various social settings. The back of the book also offers a helpful “Personalia” section, wherein the biographies of the key persons that Carter interacted with are offered.

This is a welcoming and pleasant biography of a unique and admired composer that allows a glimpse into this cloistered world. Anybody who is interested in the musical profession should read this book. It might make a good addition to a course about musical composition or a special course about Carter. Academic libraries can definitely benefit from having this work in their collections in case somebody is researching modern composers.

Misinformation and Misdirection on Surprise

Vera Tobin. Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot. 332pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-98020-4. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.


This book promises to explain to researchers and authors alike the elements that make up a successful narrative surprise. Isn’t surprise just something that you did not expect? Apparently not. Obviously, every author who wants to enter the popular fiction or screenplay writing arenas has to know how to deliver a surprise ending, with a few mini-surprises along the way. If the ending is entirely predictable and a fictitious work is entirely formulaic, the whole thing will appear to replay the same work the viewer has seen countless times before. The mystery and romance genres nowadays are hyper-formulaic; this restricts what is likely to happen in them in the beginning, middle and end. But something about the plot still has to be surprising to avoid audiences walking out. Tobin does not only review the pop genres, but also looks into how surprise works in classics and “obscure literature”. The cover explains that surprise “works by taking advantage of our mental limits.” This is pretty cryptic, but hopefully Tobin surprises readers within by delivering on this mighty goal. Does this mean that surprise is difficult for the feeble-minded to grasp? The cover goes on: “Elements of Surprise describes how cognitive biases, mental shortcuts, and quirks of memory conspire with stories to produce wondrous illusions…” In my research into surprise in mystery novels, I learned that many mysteries use tricks by introducing new information that was never touched on in the novel to create a surprise; in other words, most of these mysteries cannot be solved by even the closest and most astute reader; but, this book seems to argue that the information is provided in these novels but is obscured by memory. I doubt this book is seriously intended for fiction writers as the cover promises because the chapter titles are pretty cryptic as well: “The Naming of Things” and “When Unreliability Is a Surprise”. If an author wants to create a practical guide, typically chapter and section titles are very revealing, taking the reader by the hand and leading him or her to the exact bits of information needed to achieve a story element. The “Introduction” fails to give a clear explanation of this argument, veering into “a state of not-knowing” and the “curse of knowledge”, concepts that are common in nonsensical linguistic studies, and should not enter into helpful practical guides on how to create surprise. If the reader knows what the surprise was and how he or she feels about it afterwards psychologically is hardly helpful to the author, who is interested in the moment of surprise and achieving a satisfying climax and resolution. The next sub-section of the “Introduction” begins somewhat rationally by summarizing the surprising elements in Othello’s plot (that Iago is really a villain), but instead of classifying and dissecting why and how this is surprising, the author then discusses how “inaccessible Desdemona’s subjective experience is.” What does this have to do with the promised subject of this book? The author is digesting Stanley Cavell’s essay on this topic here rather than presenting her own argument, so it all becomes even more confusing and irrelevant. The paragraph ends with a quote of the word “riddle”, but other than a brief note on “skepticism” the rest of the paragraph barely touches on anything surprising (6-7). As I thought might happen, there’s a whole chapter seriously dedicated to smartness with sections like “Smart Stuff”, “Or Not So Smart” and “Mental Contamination and the Illusion of Knowledge”. The latter chapter seems to be especially insulting? Mental contamination? The opening paragraph explains in part that this all has to do with who knows what; for example, if a character presents a “deceptive viewpoint” that leads readers to misinterpret what happened until this deception is revealed in a surprise ending. But instead of breaking down clearly how to create this deception, the section then repeats the same idea, making it more and more convoluted: “We forget things we once knew, conflate or distort past experiences, and even remember events that never happened” (76-7). What do these commonly known things have to do with the elements of surprise? It is related to the general idea of what is known and unknow, but when these types of things are repeated in every paragraph with slight variations but without moving the explanation anywhere, they become nonsensical. Somebody really should have edited these repetitions out. Occasionally, the narrative does break into a logical and clear rhetoric. For example, in the section on “Burying Information”, the author offers a list of specific techniques that can achieve this: “Mention the item as little as possible”; “Use linguistic structures which have been shown empirically to reduce prominence (e.g. embed a mention of the item within a subordinate clause).” The second of these is particularly relevant because the author of this book actively practices burying her meanings within these pages. She creates long and convoluted sentences to hide the repetitions and the nuggets of wisdom her research has gathered. If she is doing this consciously, it’s difficult to guess why a scholarly author would want to surprise or confuse readers… This list also suggests offering the most relevant information in places where the reader has lost interest or is “distracted.” This definitely happens in convoluted studies like this one; the opening chapters and paragraphs at the start of a chapter are intended to be as dull as possible to lull readers into losing concentration when the bits of helpful information are presented deep within a paragraph without any introductory remark to specify that it offers a payoff. The other trick she is using is: “Make it difficult for the reader to make inferences by splitting up information needed to make the inferences” (114). By interrupting the explanations with returns to her contemplations about “knowing” and “not-knowing” and other bits of nonsense, Tobin is breaking up the pieces of information needed to bring the relevant bits of evidence and argument together into a coherent whole.

If you want to know how to create extremely convoluted scholarly essays or books to substitute repetitions for thorough research, you will definitely find what you are looking for in these pages (if you can stay with it long enough to reap the rewards). And if you are a pop, formulaic fiction writer interested in learning about linguistic and structural tricks for burying clues in a way that will leave readers bewildered, clueless, confused and disoriented, it might be worth your while to dig into this study as well. But if you are a member of the public casually interested in surprise, stay away from this book if you value your peace of mind. It’s going to disturb, confuse and misguide you.

A Reader on Fictitious Lies of All Sorts

Nick Marx & Matt Sienkiewics, eds. The Comedy Studies Reader. $29.95. 314pp, 6X9”, 12 images. ISBN: 978-1-4773-1600-9. Austin: University of Texas Press, August 1, 2018.


This reader promises to explain the enormous field of comedy. Back in the days of Greek theater, all of fiction was pretty much divided into comedies and tragedies, and most plots written today also tend to fall into one of these two categories. Even if something isn’t funny, it can be comedic if it has a happy ending and other elements inherent to this category. So, it is a very ambitious task to gather all of the major thoughts on comedy in a single book. The essays included consider “the carnivalesque, comedy mechanics and absurdity, psychoanalysis, irony, genre, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and nation and globalization.” It is puzzling what the relationship between the nation and comedy might be; perhaps this signifies a discussion of political comedy. The two canonical authors included are my archenemies: Mikhail Bakhtin and Sigmund Freud. The latter I dislike because of his chauvinist perspectives: saying that every woman has penis-envy is insulting, and I’m sure Freud had vagina-envy if he came up with this hacked idea. The book also promises to explain comedy’s “evolution” into a “myriad subgenres”. The two authors are media and communications professors. The book opens with a joke on the page across from the title page: fig 1. includes a figure and a hand holding a pie, and fig 2. shows the pie heading towards the unmoved, smiling face. This is an inside joke for academics accustomed to seeing figures in scholarly books. There are a few stills, posters and other small black and white images in other parts of the book. Essays by canonical authors are mixed in with recent scholarship as the book is divided by topics such as the carnivalesque, comedy mechanics & absurdity, psychoanalyzing comedy, irony, genre and the like. Some of these essays look at individual films such as Family Guy, The Big Bang Theory, SNL, or Rush Hour 2. One chapter’s introduction is named after a comedian, Amy Schumer (the one on gender and sexuality). Freud’s chapters are called “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” and “Humor”. The first of these is a page long and attempts to philosophically summarize jokes as things that give pleasure while also insulting without the social stigma otherwise associated with insults.

Because so many varied essays are presented, it is difficult to summarize the essence of any reader. Some of the essays are heavy on citations, while others rely on theoretical reflections. The introduction to the first chapter on the “Carnivalesque” begins with a couple of pages from a screenplay, which ends thus: “Frank’s pee returns louder than ever: He lets out a loud fart. The mayor sits down, defeated” (17-8). Well, what can be concluded from this? How do the authors conclude this section? Thus: “carnivalesque comedy becomes an important way for us to collectively confront unimaginable acts of tragedy” (19). This brings me back to my initial pondering on this topic: if there are only two types of fiction, comedies and tragedies, and if comedy is a way of confronting tragedy, well, then, clearly this book could have been called: A Reader on Fictitious Lies of All Sorts.

Insightful Guide to Environmental Issues with the Giant Ogallala Aquifer

John Opie, Char Miller, and Kenna Lang Archer. Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land: Third Edition. $35. 438pp, 6X9”, 18 images. ISBN: 978-0-8032-9697-8. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, August 1, 2018.


This is a study of the Ogallala aquifer, an underground water reserve that stretches between South Dakota to Texas. The southern tip of it is a bit over an hour from my house, so it seemed like an interesting topic to look into. It developed from glacial melts from the Rocky Mountains. It promises to be an environmental history and a geography. Somehow it also manages to wander into the settlement of this area, dryland and industrial farming, and irrigation technologies. This is the third edition of this book, which has added on the previous version discussions of long-term drought, groundwater management districts’ regulations, and the failure of a water capturing aquifer for Texas’ urban areas. Three environmental history professors co-wrote this project. The story is somewhat chronological as the first chapter is called “The First Half-Billion Years” and the second chapter spans between 1870 and 1940. The book is full of illustrated maps that show drought patterns and groundwater districts in relation to the aquifer, as well as photos of farmers from this region at work. The stated goal for the book is to “inform and persuade” rather than solely to offer information on these topics. The significance of Ogallala is that it is “the largest underground body of fresh water in the United States.” It is a non-renewable (unlike “most water supplies” in the world), so it’s called “fossil water.” This body is three dimensionally large, as it goes up to 300 feet in depth (1).

This made me curious to find out if my water comes from this Ogallala aquifer, so I looked it up. It was not an easy search. I came across an article about the residents of Quanah losing their water because of a main line water break. I actually didn’t have water for three days so far this summer. The Judge of Hardeman county told me that their lines break at least a couple of times every year when the weather gets hot and the pipes expand and otherwise experience a lot of stress. They have limited funds for fixing problems until a major issue occurs. The one document I found that discusses sources of water for this region is the “Gateway Groundwater Conservation District Management Plan”. A map on their website seems to indicate that my house in Quanah falls under the Seymour Aquifer district that spans the eastern half of the county, but the description might indicate that occasionally water comes from further away if this source is insufficient. A table that details water boundaries for the area shows that Ogallala is one of the utilized aquifers, but a minor one. Still it is possible that sometimes I receive water from the Ogallala, or groundwater somewhat similar to it in soil characteristics, so I might return to this book next time I’m having water issues. Since I am interested in local politics, it seems impossible that this book would not be helpful in the future, as, for example, it includes a discussion of State Senator Troy Fraser’s debate with farmers regarding intervention and lawsuit threats “over the right to unrestricted pumping,” a debate that the farmers won (196). Hardeman commissioners frequently mention water pumping out of the ground and other water related issues at their meetings. This is a very rural area where farming is still a top industry unlike in the bulk of the rest of America. Every page is filled with other critical controversies for the region like the installation of Eco-Drip on sixty thousand acres (292) and limiting consumption from the aquifer (342).

This book should be of great help to residents, farmers, and politicians across the enormous region provided for by this enormous aquifer. Scholars of environmentalist history should also be able to mine it for useful and insightful information.

A Well of Knowledge on Native American Land Diplomacy

David Bernstein. How the West Was Drawn: Mapping, Indians, and the Construction of the Trans-Mississippi West. $65: hardcover. 324pp, 6X9”, 54 images. ISBN: 978-0-8032-4930-1. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, August 1, 2018.


This is a history of land conflicts between the Pawnee, Iowa and Lakota Native Americans and the European and American settlers in the Great Plains in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The unique element in this study is that Bernstein proposes that this conflict was “collaborative”, wherein the native people played an equal role rather than merely responded to aggression by the settlers. He argues that the Pawnees and Iowas diplomatically negotiated for autonomy with fur traders, merchants, explorers and other agents and neighboring tribes. Curiously, I just did an interview with Michele Stephens about the Huichol people in Mexico, and she explained that the natives in Mexico do not have equivalent reservation lands to the ones in United States. So, it seems American natives did succeed in gaining territory through diplomacy. Given this, it seems the story of oppression and conquer of the natives in the U.S. is unfairly skewed towards the power of the conquerors rather than the power of those who carved out power for themselves despite military disadvantages. With a third of this long book taken up with notes, numerous explanatory maps, and intricate research throughout, this is a trustworthy source of information on this controversial topic. One drawback is that there are only six chapters ad they are not very clearly organized. The second half is clear enough: it’s about the cultural and science creation and destruction of “Indian Country.” But the third part includes a chapter called “The Metaphysics of Indian Naming”. Whenever the term “metaphysics” appears in a history or literary studies book, typically nonsense is about to enter the discussion… Thankfully, this chapter does not begin with nonsensical repetitions, but rather with a concrete story of General Harney’s expedition against the Sioux Indians (197), so the title is more of an academic joke than a description of its theoretical leanings. A subsection in this chapter is called “The Science of Nation Building” and it describes the significance of a detailed 1853-5 survey that made some of this western land real for potential settlers; in other words, this is very concrete and specific research rather than a conceptional digression. This history is written with plenty of dramatic tension and consideration for helping readers stay interested in the narrative. For example, the “Introduction” opens with the story surrounding the controversy about the first map of where Native American tribes held territories just before Columbus arrived by Aaron Carapella called, Map of our Tribal Nations: Our Own Names and Original Locations, which came out only in 2012, just a few years ago. The controversy was the misspellings of the supposedly original names (not those they are commonly known by today) that Aaron gathered on his travels to archives and different native sites, as well as several other inaccuracies scholars found in this map once it became a bestseller and garnered him national media attention. This story helps to explain how contentious any discussion about Native American land boundaries has been.

This is a great source of easily accessible information that would otherwise take a researcher months of archival research to gather together. Bernstein has done the work for you. This research is also well polished and written up in a way that is a pleasure to read. Anybody who is engaged in researching Native Americans across both the north and south American contents should find a well of helpful information in this study.

Annotated Retellings of the Stabbing of Chief Crazy Horse

Robert A. Clark, Ed; Commentary by Carroll Friswold. The Killing of Chief Crazy Horse, Bison Classic Edition. Three eyewitness views by the Indian, Chief He Dog, the Indian white, William Garnett, and the white doctor, Valentine McGillycubby. $19.95. 150pp, 5.5X8.5”, 14 images. ISBN: 978-1-4962-0057-0. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, October 1, 2018.


For anybody interested in American history, the story of the fatal wounding of Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse in a scene strikingly similar to recent police shootings on unarmed African American man is a great treat. The shooting did not happen when Chief Crazy Horse finally surrendered after a lengthy rebellion at the end of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The story is told from three perspectives in a manner that matches some of the best murder mysteries. Whodunnit? Aside from who fired the weapon, the question of why they fired without an obvious provocation is in the center of this conspiracy. A possible culprit might be found among the other Native American chiefs that thought Crazy Horse was receiving favors from the U.S. Army for his surrender. Did these chiefs or a U.S. spy spread rumors that Crazy Horse was planning a new rebellion? The stabbing with a bayonet happened when Crazy Horse was being arrested in Fort Robinson, Nebraska on September 5 under suspicion of stirring a new uprising. Curiously, after discussing the potential threat the other chiefs had towards Crazy Horse, a chief narrator, Chief He Dog is described as “the victim’s friend and lifelong companion.” Does this leave room for doubt about Chief Dog’s narrative as well? Could he have been tempted into telling falsehoods or threatened into a narrative that insufficiently exonerated Crazy Horse? The second narrator of this event is William Garnett, the “guide and interpreter for Lieutenant William P. Clark, on special assignment to General Crook,” the general in charge of the military maneuvers involved. The last storyteller is Valentine McGillycuddy, “the medical officer who attended Crazy Horse in his last hours.” The narratives are promised to deliver “all the starkness and horror of classic tragedy.” One of the editors of this volume, Robert A. Clark, is the editor in chief of Washington State University Press, and curiously shares a last name with one of the narrators and an imprint he formally published, Arthur H. Clark Co., though there might not be any real relation between these. His co-editor is Carroll Friswold, a writer and editor into related subjects. A large part of this book is taken up with their introductions and commentaries on the brief letters and accounts from these primary sources. The preface to this edition explains that this collection was previously released from the Arthur H. Clark Company, edited by one of these editors, which sold 300 copies that it printed, a success that inspired the University of Nebraska Press to make this project available to a wider audience. The original version was edited by Mr. Friswold, and Robert A. Clark, the current editor, isn’t shy about finding some faults with the original commentary, including “his support of the authenticity of the photograph of Crazy Horse” (xvii). The book has pretty wide margins, so it is easier to read than even the page count suggests. Five photos of the depicted characters is presented in the center. One criticism that comes to mind is that the letters from William Garnett lack the details that might truly uncover the great mystery that the cover promises. There are just a few short letters that describe the battle before the stabbing more so than the stabbing itself. More room is given to another chief, Red Cloud, for whom Garnett interpreted than to the protagonist. They also discuss the narrator wishing he had had his picture taken with Crazy Horse, and questioning the spelling of his name (67). Then again, some of the later letters reveal some curious bits: Lieut. Lemly states that Crazy Horse was arrested because he and Louis Richards daughter had run away and lived together, and that Crazy Horse would not give her up” (75). That’s definitely a strong motive for murder (on the part of the girl’s family, considering racist sentiments of the period). The narrative of Chief He Dog was “written down by his son Rev. Eagle Hawk, Oglala, S. Dak” and it begins with stating the four rules every Indian chief has to keep. It continues in this philosophical vein, offering details from the surrounding events as well as reflections on their greater meanings.

Few sources like these have been digitized by archivists and a 300-copies printing probably means that it would not be available even through interlibrary loan in most places, so it’s great that Nebraska published this general public version. This book should make for great supplemental reading for a high school or a college history class. It can also be useful for a research paper on Native American history, or even for a paper on recent police brutality cases. There cannot be enough books like this that digs out treasures from the dusty archives, so the rest of us don’t have to travel to Nebraska to discover them.

A Biased Review of the Kosovo “Stabilization” from within the Ranks

Sean M. Maloney; Foreword by Sir Mike Jackson. Operation Kinetic: Stabilizing Kosovo. $38.95: hardcover. 512pp, 6X9”, 17 images. ISBN: 978-1-61234-964-0. Lincoln: Potomac Books: Nebraska University Press, July 1, 2018.


This is a study of NATO’s and especially the Canadian Army’s 1990s work of stabilizing Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after this region suffered from genocide and other atrocities. Why did NATO enter this conflict? What exactly did they do while they were there? Kosovo appears frequently in news broadcasts and in other media channels, but other than the atrocities references, it is a topic that is hazy in my imagination. The cover explains that international troops performed “surveillance” and sent in units that worked to prevent “violence” that might have resulted in further bloodshed if the Serbian Army had to be called in. The second chapter in the background section describes the long history of the conflict in Kosovo, spanning from 1389 to 1999, when the central military conflict related occurred. The “Foreword” by Sir Mike Jackson describes Canada’s involvement from the first-person perspective of a commander that led NATO’s Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps up to the pivotal year, 1999, when in March NATO started air strikes against Yugoslavia as peace talks failed. Yugoslavia “conceded on June 3, and this commander led the Kumanovo talks “with a Serb military delegation.” They secured Serb withdrawal. Then they stayed to assure “demilitarization,” securing the “volatile and angry population; restarting public utilities…; providing support to UNMIK, the UN civil administration; assuring freedom of movement; demining; assisting with the return of refugees; and deterring any reoccupation of Kosovo by Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) forces” (xi-xii). This helps to explain some of the tasks involved in this peacekeeping and hot fighting process. Then, the main author explains in the “Acknowledgements” that he was involved in this conflict as a historian for 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade. Since both of them have been and continue to be employed by the military or its branches, one criticism is that their views must be biased by this proximity. If they were not biased they might have started this discussion by explaining why and how the intervention became necessary, and questioning the need to engage in a violent conflict abroad. Is there really any logical justification for firing a weapon in war or peace? These types of questions do not come up if career military personnel are authoring their own war stories. The historian does mention that September 11, 2001 “overshadowed” his work on this book, if not the Kosovo conflict, but was there a relationship between Kosovo and 9/11; would the latter have happened if America did not become entangled in Kosovo and other similar conflicts in the Middle East and other hot zones? The introduction begins like an action movie with a description of troops swarming “onto the sleep eight-wheeled armored vehicles, attaching equipment, mounting machine guns, tightening bolts, and filling jerry cans with that precious fluid, water” (xix). Usually, I enjoy reading very active historical descriptions, but this history is a bit too close to the present, so it makes me pretty uncomfortable to be entertained by this drama. The first chapter begins by raising the question that is clouding my own judgment on this matter, “‘Why do we bother? They’ve been killing each other for hundreds (or thousands of years anyway.’” The answer given in this section is that Canada became involved to “prevent spillover effects on adjacent countries, and to forestall aggressive Russian intervention in the region that would affect NATO and therefore Canada” (4). Whenever Russia is blamed for international warfare, I always imagine that Russia is being used as a scapegoat to hide corruption at the heart of all warfare. NATO and Russia have renewed their conflicts in 2014 when Russian annexed Crimea from Ukraine. I published a couple of novels by one of the leaders of the Ukrainian revolution, so I know a bit about this conflict. The annexation seems absurd and more like a symbolic grab rather than as a military threat. We are hardly still in the age of colonialism when a non-democratic annexation of foreign entities can be executed without sanction by the public in one’s own country. It seems more likely that warfare is an excuse for contractors to make billions in arms, military equipment and other deals. Wars provide jobs for commanders and their historians. Ukraine is a third world country. Why would any ruler be interested in annexing even its richest part like Crimea? The Soviet Union collapsed because of the financial pressures involved in carrying so many indebted and impoverished Eastern European countries. Why would Russia want to renew these expensive unions? Would all of these questions be answered if I read this book cover-to-cover? At the moment the thought of making the attempt is too depressing. Whenever I meet an American person that otherwise does not know who I am, they always only ask me where I’m from and after I say I am from Russia, they do not ask me anything else. The Cold War-style anti-Russian sentiment I’ve faced as a refugee in America over the last three decades has been very annoying, so from my perspective reading an entire book of anti-Russian propaganda is akin to an African American reading a book of anti-African American propaganda authored by the KKK. I do not agree with Russia’s annexation of Crimea nor with its anti-gay laws nor the various other illogical decisions Russia has taken since I left at the fall of the Soviet Union, but if I’m viewed as the enemy without being at fault for Russia’s decisions, it is difficult to see Russia as a viable enemy as a whole entity. If somebody is reading this and they would like to understand the Kosovo conflict better to have something to complain about Russia on, this is definitely a great source for you. And if I ever decide to write something concrete about Kosovo, I will definitely return to attempt to concur this book once again.

Hilariously Offensive Study of Rude Settlers in a Rugged Mexican Landscape

Martin Austin Nesvig. Promiscuous Power: An Unorthodox History of New Spain. $45: hardcover. 268pp, 6X9”, 11 images. ISBN: 978-1-4773-1582-8. Austin: University of Texas Press, June 2, 2018.


This is an innovative perspective on the conquest of Mexico as a project accomplished by “local agents – magistrates, bureaucrats, parish priests, ranchers, miners, sugar producers”, who established the empire, hardly aware of the grand plans of their monarchy back in Europe. Instead of looking at the whole country, this is study of the Michoacan province in western Mexico. From this perspective, the conquest was primarily economically motivated as self-interested individuals worked to better their own lives. Most curiously, Nesvig challenges the often-repeated notion that Spanish Catholicism succeeded in capturing the region by suppressing indigenous cultures. Nesvig presents the opposite picture wherein the focal province allowed European settlers to leave their own Catholicism behind in favor of a lawless, decentralized system akin to anarchy. Martin Austin Nesvig is an associate professor of history at the University of Miami, who has authored and edited a few boos on related topics. One of the chapters is called, “‘I Shit on You, Sir’; or, A Rather Unorthodox Lot of Catholics Who Didn’t Fear the Inquisition”. Even if one of the characters in this history used the word “shit” in an archival document, it says something about Nesvig if he utilized this phrase in a chapter title. It is definitely unique in the scholarly genre… It might have been funnier if all of the chapters had slang in them… and indeed another chapter has the word “Murderous Dudes” in it… Then, he goes on to open the “Acknowledgements” with a self-reflective observation: “Acknowledgements in academic books are fascinating reading, but the form is a little strange…” (ix). Indeed it is, especially if it opens thus, and then proceeds with a thanks to his partner instead of inserting this note at the end, as the formula for “Acknowledgements” dictates. Then, also somewhat oddly, there is a “Cast of Characters”, but instead of full biographies, it just gives the characters brief descriptions like bishop, imposter, royal judge and conquistador. Why not just include these descriptors next to their names in the text? The “Introduction” returns to a more formulaic format for such studies as it describes the “physical beauty” of the nature in the Michoacan region (1). The photos of the region in later pages do not do justice to this as they depict a lonely church or a stack of rocks (the ruins of the Purepecha ritual complex), but perhaps the color versions are more inspiring. For some reason, the ruins include a spelled-out link to its Wikipedia page; the current convention is to leave such links out, as they can be found by typing the name of the image into a search engine. Some regional art and several maps also illustrate this book.

This book should interest liberal-minded historians and students interested in the colonization of Mexico. Ardent Catholics are unlikely to be at all pleased with the contents or findings of this study, and might be offended by some of it. Perhaps Mexicans (native and descendants of the colonists) might be offended by it as well. Maybe pretty much everybody will find something to be offended by in these pages. On the bright side, anybody who is not easily offended, and more easily amused is likely to enjoy reading this controversial and non-conformist study.

Dramatic True Crime Detective Stories

Thomas A. Reppetto. American Detective: Behind the Scenes of Famous Criminal Investigations. $34.95: hardcover. 312pp, 6X9”, 20 images. ISBN: 978-1-64012-022-8. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, August 1, 2018.


This is a series of case studies of police detectives’ top cases in America in the 1920-70s decades. I found this book particularly helpful in learning a bit more about practical policing for an anti-police procedural mystery novel, Fatal Design, I was finishing when I was reading it. My story took place in Los Angeles, so the LAPD chapter was especially relevant. This book glorifies detectives and makes them appear super-human. The cover advertises these decades as the pinnacle of policing, whereas many might see it as a time when police forces were especially violent towards African Americans and other minorities, and this brutality went unchecked. The decline of the status of detectives after the 1970s might have been due to more strenuous reporting that uncovered corruption and problems with cases, as well as the entry of scientific or forensic studies into policing that substituted detectives’ hunches with fingerprint or DNA evidence. Still, it should be of interest to all citizens and police members alike to read the details of successful investigations from a period that was somewhat pre-scientific. How did detectives solve cases back then? What tools, tricks and methods did they use that modern police and mystery writers can acquire? The detectives covered are Thad Brown (Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles), Elliott Ness (corruption investigator, but failure at catching the “Mad Butcher” that decapitated over a dozen victims), and J. Edgar Hoover (“top cop” at the head of the FBI).

The author, Thomas A. Reppetto, is a former commander of detectives in the Chicago Police Department with a PhD from Harvard, and an added history of work as a professor and vice president at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He has also been active in government, serving as the head of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. With a background like this, obviously Reppetto is biased on the side of detectives, but his work in academia must have given him distance from this world, and he isn’t afraid to look at the dirty components of the job.

A dozen archival photographs from across America’s detective history is provided in the middle of the book, starting with Allan Pinkerton (who founded one of the first detection agencies) pictured with Abraham Lincoln. Every part of this book is written like a mystery novel, beginning in the most exciting and shocking part of the story and then returning to the details. The endings typically reveal whodunnit or explain why an investigation failed. So it reads like a mystery short stories collection, or a bit better than average mysteries due to the added heavy research that layers numerous details onto the dramatic plot. Because the stories cover various states and time periods they jump between a 1920s Texas cowboys train robbery that was solved by Chicago’s police, to a 1930s armored-car heist in Brooklyn, to a 1950 Brink’s holdup in Boston that nearly reached its statute of limitations because of squabbles between police and FBI forces (xxvii). The first chapter does a good job of placing this period in greater historic background by reviewing the rice of detectives from the Civil War to the 1920s. Policing itself was not much older with the first police department being founded in Boston in 1838. Throughout the book, there are plenty of stones being thrown around as to who might be to blame for various failures to deliver a suspect, as happens here: “The feeling among the Hudson County crew was that the Somerset team had not conducted a thorough investigation…” (61).

Great set of dramatic true crime retellings written for general readers and policing researchers alike.

A Delightful Submarine of Propaganda for Roosevelt and the American Military

Matthew Oyos. In Command: Theodore Roosevelt and the American Military. $36.95: hardcover. 456pp, 6X9”, 13 images. ISBN: 978-1-61234-967-1. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, August 1, 2018.


This is a study of the work Theodore Roosevelt did to strengthen the U.S. military in his eight-year presidency that did not see a major war (1901-9). Particular attention is given to Roosevelt’s innovations in technology, militia, and international missions. The “Introduction” opens with a lesson in Roosevelt’s sense of “civic duty” as he volunteered to fight Spaniards and became a hero during a battle on July 1, 1898, returning in the middle of a violent fight to rally his men and to overtake a high point that secured America a victory. This indicates that this is a book that is glorifying warfare and making a connection between pride in one’s country and military service. The chapters are divided chronologically and by major themes in Roosevelt’s military policies. Some of the story takes readers back to his days at the Naval War College, and as a member of the Rough Riders, but most of it looks at his time in office. There are some digressions throughout into other bits of Roosevelt’s biography than the military. For example, a section discusses how Roosevelt’s public relations team staged “hikes and hunts” for him to “reinforce… an image of ruggedness and vigor” (103). Other parts look at individual small innovations that Roosevelt brought in such as the introduction of a row of dummies that those training in the army could hit to mimic hitting bodies in actual warfare (185). Chapters are helpfully broken down into sections that should help researchers find relevant information. For example under chapter 6’s broad title “In the Fullness of It All”, the sections are called: “Mechanic in Chief” (on Roosevelt’s interest and contributions to various types of military designs), “Innovator in Chief” (on his operation and testing of risky new mechanisms, such as driving a submarine on one of his vacations) and “Big Guns for the Big Stick” (on Roosevelt’s lobbying of Congress to approve more ship and other military building). Roosevelt did not only war with Congress over military spending, but he also faced opposition on various other fronts. One of these instances was an “eruption over Roosevelt’s handling of the Brownsville affair… in 1906”. This incident centered against the accusation that “African American troops had shot up Brownsville, Texas.” The section name “Brownsville” attracted my attention to this part because I lived for a year in Brownsville when I taught at UTRGV; it’s at the southernmost tip of Texas, on the Mexican border. Roosevelt “summarily dismissed” 167 soldiers “from service” from among the accused African Americans. Tensions initially sparked because of segregation rules. The author attempts to garner sympathy for Roosevelt despite his questionable actions, explaining that Roosevelt had condemned lynching and had met with Booker T. Washington in his first months in office. Roosevelt is called a “chief disrupter” and “preacher militant” (excusing his behavior), but the conclusion to the section does confirm that it was a “wrong” on Roosevelt’s part which was only corrected in 1972, when “the troopers were cleared of all charges” (266-76). Like most biographies, this work does its best to make its central character likable and appealing to readers. It is mostly pro-military and pro-Roosevelt propaganda. But, as far as propaganda goes, this is a delightful bit of it. There are a few too many speculations without sufficient evidence regarding how Roosevelt was feeling or what he was thinking (rather than a presentation of the pure facts), but these digressions do not steer too far from the main storyline so they should make for more enjoyable reading for the general public.

The Dramatic Adventures of America’s First Diplomats

Peter D. Eicher. Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands. $36.95: hardcover. 416pp, 6X9”, 40 images. ISBN: 978-1-61234-970-1. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, August 1, 2018.


The first person that comes into my mind when I think of an American diplomat is Thomas Jefferson and his work as a minister to France in the crucial years around the American Revolution, wherein he managed to convince France to back America in the conflict against their rival monarchy, Britain. This type of diplomacy won America its independence, so America’s diplomats are the underrated players in international politics. There are only so many countries that a US president can think about in a day, but these envoys can be all over the map, looking out for America’s interests. Here’s the summary: “Their stories, often stranger than fiction, are replete with intrigues, revolutions, riots, war, shipwrecks, swashbucklers, desperadoes, and bootleggers.” Since I’ve traveled to China, Mexico, Italy, Israel and other countries and since I was born in Soviet Russia, I definitely can confirm that simply traveling abroad is full of drama and misadventure, representing a foreign government in an official capacity definitely adds an extreme level of danger to the job. Typically, when governments go abroad they do it with a slew of federal agents or a massive military force, but a diplomat’s job is to have a minimal military presence with them as their job is avoiding wars rather than engaging in them. So, they are out there preaching for America amidst a country that might be extremely hostile to this message, and to this lone propogandist. The summary goes on: “Early envoys abroad faced hostile governments, physical privations, disease, isolation, and the daunting challenge of explaining American democracy to foreign rulers. Many suffered threats from tyrannical despots, some were held as slaves or hostages, and others led foreign armies into battle.” The period examined is between the American Revolution and the Civil War. These stories shaped what we all currently accept as America’s established foreign policy. The author’s comments on these narratives comes from experience as he is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who served at various countries around the world. This is one of the most beautiful jacket designs out of the set: great painting at the center, and great use of the patriotic red, white and blue without sliding into pure formulaic flag-propaganda as it’s all very elegantly executed. There are also some interesting photographs, paintings, and drawings in the center of the book.

The “Introduction” explains that Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other famous diplomats were intentionally left out in favor of lesser known once that deserve to be brought into public consciousness. The first chapter begins at the start of the American Revolution with the retelling of the Boston Tea Party, wherein Americans dumped newly arrived British tea out of a ship, in a way declaring the war. The diplomat covered is Samuel Shaw who was chosen to lead America’s first expedition to China to establish a tea trade to meet the demand for a product that was no longer available from Britain. Shaw had served in the early Revolution, but had little education or travel experience. The information about this process of establishing trade with China comes primarily from Shaw’s letters home. A large portion of the chapter is dedicated to explaining the political issues related to trade with China. The main problem was that Americans had very little knowledge about China’s culture, history, language and the like because of the difficulty of exchanging such information across the globe in this early period. What could be traded, the prices of the trade, and other matters had to be determined. The first voyage took a lot of ginseng aboard because it was known that it is a priced commodity in China, and it grew wild in America. Various other products were taken to diversify the odds that something would sell. The difficult voyage is described in dramatic details. The approach to establishing trade is explained. Then, a major international incident, the Canton war is related: during a dinner party the British East India Company ship Lady Hughes fired a customer salute cannon shot, which accidentally killed a boatman and injured two others on a small Chinese vessel nearby. The gunman who fired the shot was detained in Chinese custody and later executed. Shaw later served in the War Department before returning to work in Chinese trade. The final pages of the chapter explain how trade gradually migrated from ginseng and into opium between these two countries, later leading to the Opium War. So, each of these chapters focuses on the biographies of the diplomats, the history of the related international contacts, and the political issues these interactions touched on.

Very engaging and a pleasure to read for casual readers and researchers alike. The research is immaculate as well as the polished writing. This is an interesting story, and the political discussions are handled gently and apparently without much bias. For example, China isn’t blamed for the execution of the gunman, but neither are China’s actions excused. Anybody who enjoys a great adventure narrative (fictional or true) will have fun just drifting into this set of sagas.

Intricate Maps with Encyclopedic Entries for Most of the World-Carving Treaties

Malise Ruthven, General Editor. Carving Up the Globe: An Atlas of Diplomacy. $39.95. 256pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-97624-5. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.


This is an encyclopedia of various treaties and other types of agreements that have carved the boundaries between countries. Many of these agreements are illustrated with large maps that show where the line was drawn and which countries were affected. Geopolitical reasons for the placement are offered. Adding acres of territory has historically meant significant wealth not only for the countries but even for those making the boundary decisions. The pages are huge in size, really allowing for zoomed in and detailed map images. The maps cover a wide spectrum across the known history of the world: “ancient Egyptian and Hittite accords to the first Sino-Tibetan peace in 783 CE, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and the 2014 Minsk Protocol looming over the war in Ukraine.” Aside from simple ownership of territories, these maps also illustrate “missile and nuclear pacts, environmental treaties, chemical weapons conventions, and economic deals”. The motivations behind these treaties are explained in the commentary, with a focus on empire-building, security, and national wealth. All of this complex and divergent information is edited together by Malise Ruthven, a former editor with the BBC Arabic Service and World Service in London. The book is organized chronologically, starting with the Treaty of Mesilim from 2550 BCE, the first treaty in the world that was entered into the historic record (as it was around this time when written texts first started appearing). It was between two kingdoms and settled the matter of an irrigation canal and a land boundary. It refers to one of the kings, Enlil as “father of the gods”. It is illustrated with a colorful map that shows the various kingdoms, tribes and other entities that crowded into a narrow territory around the Persian Gulf and the main rivers running into it. It is a bit difficult to tell from this map where the irrigation canal in question is, and the boundaries between countries seems to be rounded off into circles whereas true boundaries could not have been circular in all of these countries, but this fuzziness must be due to the lack of sufficient map information from this distant period. The boundaries are much more specific in the map of the Thirty Years Peace 445 BCE image a couple of pages later. The next treaty is from a thousand years later and it concluded the Battle of Qadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites; it promised “‘peace and brotherhood’ for all time”, an ambitious goal in any period. One particularly interesting map is of the world in 1 CE as this year is still used as the start of our yearly calendar. It is historically telling to see the visual of the giant powers from this period: Roman Empire, Parthian Empire, Han Empire, and some smaller entities like the Moche and Nazca people in Southern America. Typically, histories of these individual entities only show maps of an isolated part of the globe, but many of these places were trading and otherwise interacting with each other, and such maps are a great way to show their geographical relationships. These maps should be helpful if I’m ever writing a history or a fictional work about the past to catch up on some political highlights from a given period as well as to check what the geopolitical climate was. Putting all of these different political entities into a single soup helps to make the world appear to be a small place with some of the same stories of conquest and surrender happening in all these different places that propaganda convinces us are different, but on a giant map that fluidly mutates over time, they truly become inventions of our imaginations. Do you know how many states were in the union and who controlled the areas around them after the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and what did America ask for of the different neighbors in the dispute? There’s a map of this in this volume.

This is a great source for anybody who needs an encyclopedia of world history or a set of historic atlases of contested regions across the world. The grand cover design featuring an image of a meeting between two disputing leadership delegations and the thick pages and beautiful color maps also make for a great coffee table book or a book to put on a shelf as a decoration. Researchers who occasionally mention treaties form the distant past should find a quick reference to double-check their memory. Cartographers who study or draw maps will also find plenty of brand new designs to examine or adopt. This might also be a great parent for a high school student who might be disoriented about world history to help put it all into perspective. Highly recommended for scholars and curious students alike.


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