Saturday, March 30, 2013

Free ebook: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester: A Biography by K.H. Vickers is an exhaustive scholarly study that entertains and fascinates


It’s been 600 years since he was born and lived, and we’re still talking about him. Academics continue to study him, tirelessly combing through the brittle, yellowed pages of antiquity, churning out doctoral dissertations and thesis papers – yet few can agree if he was actually “The Good Duke” or one of the most despicable figures in English history.

Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, was the youngest son of King Henry IV, and the ever-loyal brother and lieutenant of Henry V. Born in 1390 and died in 1447, Humphrey remains among the most confounding and enigmatic personalities ever to stride across the stage of history.

Pinning down the essential nature of the Duke is a task of monumental difficulty. That’s what makes this 600-page exhaustive study of Humphrey by British Prof. Kenneth H. Vickers an extraordinary academic achievement. Vickers gave it his all. He vigorously attacks the problem of defining Humphrey page after painstaking page. He provides a voluminous bibliography of cited sources that is almost half as long as the text itself. A muscular appendix expands on additional issues.

Vickers’ conclusion? Duke Humphrey probably deserves his lasting reputation as “The Good Duke,” among certain segments of English society, high and low. However, the greater measure of the man is represented by his numerous, sometimes shocking failings.

Duke Humphrey was greedy, power mad and an ego maniac. His lusts for fame and wealth were without limit. He could be cruel and wildly impetuous, but also witty, personable and charming. He was brilliant -- yet completely unable to sustain a long-term effort – be it in war, politics or devotion to a single woman. He lived to be flattered and adored by his court of groveling sycophants; his sexual hunger for the opposite sex is legendary.

Yet, Vickers manages to uncover Duke Humphrey’s saving grace: His burning love of literature and learning. Despite his repulsive and repugnant character flaws, Vickers credits Humphrey with nothing less than bringing the Renaissance to England, and delivering his country from the cloying cobwebs of the Dark Ages. If it wasn’t for Duke Humphrey, Vickers says, England may have remained mired in ancient ignorance for decades to come.

Humphrey single-handedly thrust England out of darkness and into the light by his aggressive sponsorship of Italian intellectuals. Somewhere along the line, Humphrey developed an insatiable love of the ancient Greek and Roman texts that were exploding on the scene after being lost for centuries in medieval anti-intellectualism.

At great personal financial cost, Humphrey commissioned a small army of brilliant Italian writers and linguists to translate into Latin, French and English the works of Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius and dozens of others. These translations were sent by the hundreds to Humphrey in England where he read them with great relish – but then he breathed new life into the local academic community by donating hundreds of volumes to what had become a backward, calcified and stagnant Oxford University – the primary body of learning on the British Isles.

Today it might seem difficult to comprehend that the donation of a few hundred books could be an act of real significance; however, the printing press was still a few decades away. Books were hand-made and hand-lettered by scribes. The production of a single book involved hundreds of man-hours – and those who were literate enough to do the job were rare members of society indeed. Thus, books were objects of rarity and enormous value.

Also, consider that no one – perhaps not so much as a single person –in England was capable of reading -- not to mention translating -- ancient classical Greek. For this, Duke Humphrey had to rely on the distant Humanist scholars of Italy. Merely the logistics of finding them, contacting them, making deals with them and arranging for translated books to be shipped to England was a remarkable undertaking. No one else was interested in doing it. It was Duke Humphrey who made it happen.

The historic effect of this effort is still rippling through British society today, Vickers claims (keeping in mind this book was first published in 1907). Thus, it would be impossible to overestimate the service The Good Duke paid to all of Britain.

But, ah, alas, despite this priceless everlasting boon bequeathed upon the Sceptered Isles by the hand of Humphrey, the rotting stench which clings to his reputation can never be scrubbed clean – nor should it be.

It was his lifelong, undying and illogical support of his brother’s war with France, especially after it was hopelessly and utterly lost, which brought untold tragedy to both realms, not the least of which is the unimaginable suffering inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of common peasants of the French countryside.

If this wasn’t enough, Duke Humphrey’s fantastically insane decision to march an English army to Hainault (or Hainaut) after his semi-legitimate marriage to Jacqueline, Countess of Holland, so that he could claim what he deemed to be his – represents one of the most egregiously rash and ill-advised military blunders of all time. This action also unleashed monstrous cruelties of war upon a land of industrious, innocent, peaceful people who wanted nothing of England but to be left alone.

It was all so unnecessary! The Hainault campaign drained vast sums of treasure from the English coffers, wreaked hideous brutalities upon the prosperous people of The Low Countries– raping, pillaging, killing, burning, ravaging, destruction of cattle and crops – all for the insipid whims and greed of Humphrey!

Today’s historians owe an enormous debt to Professor Kenneth Hotham Vickers for this extraordinary manuscript. Before Vickers brought out this volume more than a century ago, there was yawning gap in the modern record. The life and deeds of one of England’s most prominent princes was languishing in the obscurity of dusty archives.

I made a considerable attempt to find out more about Kenneth Vickers, but precious little is available, at least on the Internet. But perhaps it is fitting that a man who devoted his life to the study and teaching of history be remembered by a great work of history – and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester serves as a magnificent legacy for an exceptional scholar.

NOTE: You can download a free copy of this book here: HUMPHREY

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"Aliens in the Backyard" by Trish and Rob MacGregor is a well-written, terrific contribution to UFO literature and lore that will keep you turning pages

Review by: KEN KORCZAK

You know that old adage: “Call a man a dog once and you insult him; call him a dog a thousand times and he may start barking.”

Well, that's the effect I get when I read one UFO book after another. After five or six of these things, I find myself thinking: “Well, by golly, maybe we really are being visited by aliens, alternate dimensional beings, intruders from a parallel universe – or just whatever the hell they are.”

That might be the case for you too when you read a well-written, infectiously compelling book such as this one, ALIENS IN THE BACKYARD by TRISH AND ROB MACGREGOR.

Both authors are seasoned veterans at writing about the UFO phenomenon, cutting their teeth by reporting for that spectacular glossy publication of the 1980s, OMNI Magazine.

The MacGregors are not only well-trucked in UFO literature; they are accomplished and prolific fiction novelists. That means they bring highly polished wordsmithing skills to crafting highly controversial nonfiction. So skeptics beware -- these writers can pull you in.

The MacGregors focus on four individual cases of real people who encountered the unimaginably strange, and then struggled mightily to come to grips with the eschatological shock of having their paradigms shattered. The authors do a marvelous job of presenting these accounts as believable, captivating – and frightening.

These four case studies serve as a platform for the authors to expand on other aspects of UFO phenomenon. They include some of their personal investigations, such as their travels to the Chilean island of Chiloe, where centuries of fabulous legend combine with the modern elements of “alien” abductions and apparitions. It’s interesting stuff.

But, you know, an integral element of ufology is that it naturally produces confusion, confounding contradictions and a tendency for the discussion to devolve into the ridiculous. With that in mind, there are a couple of areas where the MacGregors fall prey to those notorious bugaboos of UFO lore – conspiracy theories and apocalyptic scenarios.

A major buzzword in ufology today is “Disclosure.” This speaks to the idea that the U.S. government – and apparently with the cooperation of all other world governments, who can’t cooperate on anything else – know the truth about UFOs and aliens, and they’re all colluding to hide the astounding truth from the public.

And so there is a movement among ufologists to demand “Disclosure.” That is, they insist that governments finally come clean, tell us what they know, and stop hiding the most important story in human history from all of us, the common rabble.

All of this is patently ridiculous.

I can criticize the Disclosure nonsense on many levels. I partially did so in my review of Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel’s book A.D. After Disclosure (see my review here: DISCLOSURE REVIEW) The authors reference Dolan and Zybel to their detriment.

I have other quibbles as well.

The authors trot out – yet again -- the purely asinine quotes of Ronald Reagan regarding alien life from other planets. You know, Ronald Reagan, the President who said that air pollution is caused by trees, a year’s waste from a nuclear power plant could be stored “under a desk,” and that he didn’t know enough about astrology to understand if it was real or not. (This after it was revealed his wife was consulting with an astrologer to help plan the schedule of the President of the United States).

Ronald Reagan spewed all kinds of shoot-from-the-hips folksy quips and quotes (including unwittingly saying into a live mike that he would start bombing the Soviet Union “in 10 minutes”) – yet UFO folks have latched on to his comments about aliens as if they were the most hallowed of “smoking gun” slips. It’s absurd.

Trish and Rob MacGregor
They also drag out – yet again – Jimmy Carter’s 1969 UFO sighting, which is the thinnest of thin gruel indeed. As an extremely experienced amateur astronomer, and after reading reams of pages about the Carter sighting, I am 100% convinced that he saw the planet Venus – as do most others – including other UFO researchers. The people who were with Carter on that day also think it ridiculous to suggest that what they all saw was a “real UFO.” It just wasn’t that impressive.

The authors make a lot of hay about statistics which show that millions of people believe that UFOs and aliens are real – but this is meaningless. A recent poll showed that as much as 52% of people in some areas of the Deep South believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. This does not make Obama a Muslim – it just means that millions of people are easily deluded.

Other aspects of the book trouble me as well – such as the marvelous psychics the authors seem to have access to. For example, in one case, they bring to a psychic a vial of holy water that an abductee has been carrying around in his pocket to frustrate “evil beings” that continue to torment him after a bizarre visitation event.

With a mere touch of the vial, the psychic is able to spin off astounding detail about the situation of the owner. She provides a detailed analysis which matches almost point by point the scenario that is vexing the "experiencer."

All this is well and good – but it can’t help but make me think – with psychics of such astounding clarity of vision out there – why then can’t they turn their penetrating powers on some of the other UFO mysteries that the authors are concerned about?

Why, for example, can’t these obviously marvelously gifted psychics get to the bottom of the Disclosure issue? Why can’t they ferret out details of what the government knows, or who knows what, and provide at least decent clues to investigative journalists -- to help them gain some traction on the government cover-up issue? But they never seem to apply their amazing powers in this way.

Quibbles aside – the closing impression I want to leave is that this is among the best UFO books I have read in a long time. The areas of concern I mention are relatively minor compared to the overall information Rob and Trish MacGregor present in these pages.

My judgment of the authors is that they are sincere, thorough, and intelligent. They are even more balanced in their approach many other UFO writers I have read recently. Aliens In The Back Yard is a fascinating, well-written, highly entertaining read.

Ken Korczak is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA

Friday, March 15, 2013

"This Is Me, Jack Vance!" is a remarkable autobiography by a remarkable writer


Over the past 30 years I have read just about everything Jack Vance has written – many dozens of books – and, yes, I have re-read most of them multiple times. I know there are five or six of his titles I have read 15 or 20 times each – I’m not kidding – and each read and re-read is always pure unadulterated joy.

Vance is a writer of strange power; he is a unique phenomenon in literature. There was never another writer like him before, and there will never be another like him again. The science fiction writer Robert Silverberg said other writers have occasionally tried to imitate Vance “only to embarrass themselves or find it impossible.”

And yet, while it can’t be said that Vance is an obscure writer, in his long career he never approached the fame and recognition of his fellow genre artists, such as Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov. He won every major award in science fiction, including the Hugo and Nebula multiple times – as he also did in another genre, detective novels and murder mysteries. But true fame eluded him – and that was probably okay with him.

Writer Michael Chabon said of Vance: "Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don't get the credit they deserve. If The Last Castle or The Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he's Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there's this insurmountable barrier."

Of Vance's place in American literary tradition, Chabon said: “It's not Twain-Hemingway; it's more Poe's tradition, a blend of European refinement with brawling, two-fisted frontier spirit."

The immensely popular Neil Gaiman read his first Vance tale at age 13. He said: "I fell in love with the prose style. It was elegant, intelligent; each word felt like it knew what it was doing. It's funny but never, ever once nudges you in the ribs." Gaiman credits Vance with his own desire to become a writer.

One of the reasons Vance never became as revered as a Mark Twain or as popular as a Ray Bradbury is that his style can be (or seem) challenging. Over the years, I’ve heard dozens of my friends say, “I really tried to get into Vance, but I always found myself dropping out of his books after two or three chapters.” On the other hand, Vance certainly has legions of fans, and may be more popular in Europe than the United States.

Vance published this biography, THIS IS ME, JACK VANCE! at about age 95. As of this writing, he is 97. He has been blind for more than 20 years, and the loss of his eyesight eventually forced him to stop writing – even though he completed some of his best works after his eyes failed, including the marvelous Lyoness series and “Night Lamp,” the latter of which is a near masterpiece.

Because of his blindness, Vance was obligated to write his biography by dictation, a process with which he was not familiar or comfortable, and he says so at the beginning.

Norma and Jack Vance
What interesting is that this is a biography of a great writer which contains almost nothing about writing at all. He provides about three pages of commentary about writing near the end of the book, and then he only did so at the insistence of his agent and editors.

The majority of the book is devoted to his passions for life: traveling around the world on a shoestring budget; restaurants serving great food wines, liquors and whiskeys; the world's oceans and sailing; carpentering his home in Oakland from the ground up. Last but not least, and his most ardent passion of all – jazz.

Vance says that his wife, Norma, was an indispensable part of everything he wrote. Their method was to cloister together in a room. Using a fountain pen and notepad, Jack would churn out 2,000 to 3,000 words per day. Norma would type and edit his drafts. Jack would then pore over the first typed version and make changes. Norma would then retype the manuscript – and they sent it off to publishers – all of whom were eager to print whatever they could get with the name “Jack Vance” on the byline.

Ah – but what rooms they worked in! A cabin in rural Ireland, a cottage in Tahiti, a balcony room by the sea in an Italian hotel, a houseboat parked on Nageen Lake in Kashmir, a campsite tent in Zimbabwe, an Oceanside apartment in Australia, a rented house in Mexico – the travels of Jack and Norma (and later with their young son, John), left me astounded!

So this is a biography quite unlike any other – iconoclastic, completely unconcerned with commercial appeal or popularity, unpretentious, humble, filled with terrific, entertaining anecdotes – the last remarkable work of one of the most remarkable writers of all time.

Ken Korczak is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA

Saturday, March 2, 2013

"The Trail of Money" by Peter David Shapiro has a complex plot but which strays frequently off trail to get mired in thickets of niggling detail


Imagine the hero of a thriller novel who is some white collar business consultant. His job is to pore over balance sheets, crunch numbers, examine reports, look for accounting errors and scrutinize the legal aspects of corporate transactions. Sound exciting?

Okay, not really -- but wait a minute - what if our handsome consultant gets caught up in a nefarious game of international intrigue? There's money laundering, mobsters, corrupt government officials, hired thugs, exotic-erotic women, murderers, evil millionaires - all these elements are seething in the urban-money-and-poverty pit of Hong Kong.

Well, those are the components of THE TRAIL OF MONEY by PETER DAVID SHAPIRO - and although he has all the ingredients for a compelling pot boiler - this novel feels more like a bottle of carbonated water with a loose cap. All the potential pop of a great plot fizzles away.

And here's why:

As the terrific writer Ben Bova advised, "All fiction is based on character." The characters in this novel simply are not fleshed out enough. Yes, we learn that Dr. Harry West has suffered the death of his daughter and a resulting divorce. This should add depth and dimension to the character, and forge empathy for him among readers, right?

Well, giving the viewpoint character a dead wife or child has become so common, especially among new writers, it now has entered the realm "plot gimmick" if not an outright cliché. Just in the past 50 books I have read, the following authors supplied their hero with a deceased spouse and/or child: John Connolly (dead wife and child), Stephen Ames Berry (dead wife), Paul Antony Jones (killed own child in accident), Michael R. Hicks (dead wife), Richard Brown (dead wife), James LePore (hero has a dead wife; his new love interest has a dead husband), Nathan Lee Christensen (dead wife) - and those are the one I can think of just off the top of my head - so easily more than 10% of the fast 50 books I have read.

Granted, I read more than 100 books per year, and this new dead wife/child trend may be invisible to the casual reader - but, well -- I'll let my reader decide if I am being fair in this regard, or if I am merely finding picayune fault.

But beyond that, what does our hero, Harry West, look like? I think he looks like a 30ish Harrison Ford, but you might disagree - you might think he looks like Vince Vaughn. Maybe he looks like your friend Charlie from college. We don't know because he is never described. Apparently, he a thirty-something white guy (I think) with a Ph.D.

By chance, Mr. West meets his future love interest on a jet ride over to Hong Kong. By fantastic coincidence, she is seated right next to him. She just happens to be a journalist who just happens to be, by more coincidence, reporting on the very project Mr. West is flying to Hong Kong to examine. Here is how we are introduced to her:

"She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, slim, good-looking with red hair cut short gamine style."

As it happens, the novel I read just prior to this one was an obscure 1960 science fiction pulp job, but it also featured a sexy redhead as a primary character. Here is how that author, Richard Wilson, introduced us to a woman his hero meets on a train:

"The girl's hair was a subtle red, but false. When Don had entered the club car he'd seen her hatless head from above and noticed that the hair along the part was dark. The cheeks were full and untouched by make-up. There were lines at the corners of her mouth which indicated a tendency to arrange her expression into one of disapproval. The lips were full, like the cheeks, but it was obvious that the scarlet lipstick had contrived a mouth a trifle bigger that the one nature had given her." (From: AND THEN THE TOWN TOOK OFF, Ace Double, 1960)

And the latter is from a hacked out piece of pulp fiction! I ask the reader, which character comes alive more for you? Which is more vivid, more interesting? And, hey - the second description is only a few extra sentences! In a novel-length manuscript, that's perfectly reasonable, even if the author is trying to write extremely tight.

Most of the other characters are as bland - they're mannequins dressed in suits with a lot of blanks for readers to fill in - and not just because we don't get treated to physical description - it's because they don't do or say much that clearly makes them unique, quirky individuals.

But a far greater problem for me is what I am going to call a certain rather odd GPS Effect - that is, the author is constantly giving us the niggling details of streets, plazas, locations, taxi routes, train connections, boat harbor routes, highways and walkways.

Even in a flashback describing a romantic adventure between two carefree post-college hitchers - the GPS device is constantly bip-bip-bipping in the background, as in:

"We stood together silently in front of a poster for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum on Marylebone Road next to the entrance to the Baker Street Underground station, where Mei-Ling would catch the Bakerloo Line to Piccadilly, and then transfer onto the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Airport."

Nice to know how she'll be getting to the airport - I guess.

Furthermore, the author again and again injects the narrative with repetitive details which rob his story of tension. For example, sometime a character will summarize what the cops just told him for another character - even though we the readers already know it all - and we have to hear it all again.

Even during a passionate love scene, we simply must pause for a detailed description of the bathroom fixtures:

"The (hotel) had outfitted the shower with both the overhead sprayer and a second nozzle on a flexible stainless steel hose coiled on a hook just under the faucets. Guests could select either nozzle or both at the same time by swiveling a lever. The outer edge of the tub, opposite the wall, was two feet high and wide enough to accommodate indented seats that were carved into it. A light nylon shower curtain could be pulled along the outer edge to protect the rest of the bathroom from the spray."

The action of wet and steamy love scene is interrupted right in the middle - I'm not kidding - so that we can get this description of the tub and shower stall.

I have other quibbles as well. I hate it when writers reference pop culture in their narratives. (On the plane Dr. West watches "The Wedding Crashers," and in his hotel, he watches a Bruce Willis movie). This has the effect of yanking me right out of a fictional world back into our own mundane world of trash culture. (I read literature to escape from cultural trash, not to be reminded of it).

Despite all, the Trail of Money has an excellent, well-conceived plot. Let me tell you, it takes an enormous amount of writing skill to hatch a scenario such as offered here - I give the author colossal credit for being a brilliant strategic thinker in terms of crafting an air-tight scenario that never contradicts itself.

I say completely without guile, that I believe Peter David Shapiro to be a writer of fierce talent with a fine literary mind - I absolutely will be looking forward to and buying his future books, and I bet each one will be better than the last.

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS