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Reviews 
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Joined: Fri Aug 27, 2010 10:44 am
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Post Re: Reviews
Reviewing non-fiction is trickier than reviewing fiction. Both require that you describe what's in front of you clearly enough that even readers who might not share your particular enjoyment/dislike of it will still be able to recognize the thing itself and decide whether it's worth a look. For non-fiction, you have the additional job of judging the accuracy or reliability of the work. And when you consider the target audience (of the book and the review), you get another set of considerations to juggle--how technical and detailed and specialist does the review need to be?

A biography is an interpretation--a reading--of its subject's life, which makes a review of a biography a reading of a reading. There's an inevitable multiplication of viewpoints and agendas and parallax corrections (which is one reason there's more than one review venue in the world). I think I read the bio with sufficient care that I can judge other reviews, and both the LA Times and TLS pieces are pretty reasonable takes, short of the kind of evaluation one would expect from, say, a specialist scholarly review, which would approach a peer-review level of evaluation. In Saler's review I recognize the book I read, and I can see how Saler read it, and how he chose to characterize it for his audience. It is necessarily a different take on the subject and the book and, implicitly, on part of the book's implied audience, but it's a rather sympathetic review, considering the venue. (For the usual UK secular view of science fiction, see the "As Others See Us" department of Ansible. But then Saler seems to be a Yank, and one interested in popular culture at that.)


Tue Dec 14, 2010 10:52 am
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Heinlein Nexus

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Post Re: Reviews
David, that was my thought. While I can buy the Clarke argument -- 2001 and Clarke's tv series -- why say that about Asimov?!?

It is a mix of solid perception and weird jumps. It's a good review, by and large. I see no reason not to be glad it's there.

Still and all, if the general reviews we've read have been so off, makes me wonder why I bother trusting any review.


Tue Dec 14, 2010 10:55 am
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: Reviews
DavidWrightSr wrote:
BillPatterson wrote:

Robert A. Heinlein was perhaps the most influential science-fiction writer of the twentieth century. Although never as famous as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke,.....

.... after two years he was voted the most popular SF author in America.

Hmm. Not as famous, but most popular.

I guess the question is, famous to whom? It would be interesting to see how he formed this opinion.

If he's a Brit, ACC was much more famous over there than here, because he had a couple of well-regarded (forsome values of well-regarded) TV shows for which he was a weekly host. However, I don't quite get why Asimov might be more famous over there than Heinlein.


Tue Dec 14, 2010 6:45 pm
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Post Re: Reviews
RLetson wrote:
Reviewing non-fiction is trickier than reviewing fiction. Both require that you describe what's in front of you clearly enough that even readers who might not share your particular enjoyment/dislike of it will still be able to recognize the thing itself and decide whether it's worth a look. For non-fiction, you have the additional job of judging the accuracy or reliability of the work. And when you consider the target audience (of the book and the review), you get another set of considerations to juggle--how technical and detailed and specialist does the review need to be?

A biography is an interpretation--a reading--of its subject's life, which makes a review of a biography a reading of a reading. There's an inevitable multiplication of viewpoints and agendas and parallax corrections (which is one reason there's more than one review venue in the world). I think I read the bio with sufficient care that I can judge other reviews, and both the LA Times and TLS pieces are pretty reasonable takes, short of the kind of evaluation one would expect from, say, a specialist scholarly review, which would approach a peer-review level of evaluation. In Saler's review I recognize the book I read, and I can see how Saler read it, and how he chose to characterize it for his audience. It is necessarily a different take on the subject and the book and, implicitly, on part of the book's implied audience, but it's a rather sympathetic review, considering the venue. (For the usual UK secular view of science fiction, see the "As Others See Us" department of Ansible. But then Saler seems to be a Yank, and one interested in popular culture at that.)

One of the many frustrations I've had over the course of the reviews is that most of the reviewers are not actually doing anything with the book, they're making a statement about Heinlein. This is one of the more extreme examples of that sort of thing, as he has the nonsensical "secular religion of SF" trope.

I printed out Saler's 2008 review of Chabon's Maps and Legends to read on the way home from work, but he's taking a long long time to get to Chabon at all.


Tue Dec 14, 2010 6:48 pm
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Post Re: Reviews
Gary K. Wolfe at Locus Online:

http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/2010/12/gary-k-wolfe-reviews-william-h-patterson-jr-s-robert-a-heinlein-biography/
Quote:
There are, in other words, many of the warning signs of an impending hagiography.

It comes as something of a pleasant surprise, then, that Patterson has not only written a quite readable (though at times skimmable) biography, but that he has developed a number of coherent narrative arcs in the details of Heinlein’s early life, some of which are clearly planting seeds that will likely come to fruition in the much-anticipated (and likely far more challenging) second volume. [...]

It’s hardly the last word on Heinlein – Patterson has barely started on the phase of his life that would turn him into a controversial cultural icon – but it’s a truly impressive feat of research, and I can’t imagine anyone who reads it not waiting eagerly for the second volume.

Prof. Wolfe wishes for a bit more discussion of Heinlein's fiction, which, if my understanding is correct, is the sort of thing Tor's editors encouraged Bill Patterson to cut out. But it's a darned favorable review.

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Wed Jan 05, 2011 10:07 am
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Post Re: Reviews
I agree that the Locus review is generally favorable. The main problem I have is the author's assertion that Leslyn is treated in the biography as a "tragic figure," and that she is depicted solely (as a result of Ginny's influence on Bill) as a victim of "alcoholism, depression, rages, and 'psychotic episodes'." It seemed to me that Bill gave a much fuller picture of Leslyn than the critic asserts and that his source material was drawn largely from RAH's own correspondence and that of his friends and acquaintances - pre-Ginny. Robert and Leslyn were married for many years and, based on Bill's account, the vast majority of those years were happy and fulfilling for both.

There is absolutely no doubt, based on Bill's writing, that Robert adored Leslyn, depended on her and admired her. The divorce is depicted as a traumatic and undesired event in his life, even if Robert asserts in one of his letters that he probably hung on two years too long. The only question I had as I read the account of their final years together is what percentage of Robert's desire to split with Leslyn was based on his difficulty in dealing with Leslyn's drinking, and what percentage was attributable to his desire to be with Ginny. We'll probably never know.

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Wed Jan 05, 2011 11:49 am
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Post Re: Reviews
JackKelly wrote:
I agree that the Locus review is generally favorable. The main problem I have is the author's assertion that Leslyn is treated in the biography as a "tragic figure," and that she is depicted solely (as a result of Ginny's influence on Bill) as a victim of "alcoholism, depression, rages, and 'psychotic episodes'."

I don't understand this. A number of the critics, including Fred Pohl, have claimed this and I just don't see how such a claim is justified.


Wed Jan 05, 2011 12:18 pm
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Post Re: Reviews
Well, Leslyn IS a tragic figure, falling from great heights....

Not sure Bill presented her as such, but I certainly did.

What needs to be said -- somewhere, perhaps on Bill's website, perhaps in the next volume -- is that the critical analysis was cut for space reasons. He's getting pilloried for something that had to be left out.


Wed Jan 05, 2011 12:27 pm
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Post Re: Reviews
Gary wrote: "what we know of [Leslyn] seems heavily colored by Virginia Heinlein’s own reminiscences–and much of that involves alcoholism, depression, rages, and 'psychotic episodes' leading to an unpleasant divorce and a sad deterioration afterwards." This is a reasonable, if incomplete description of the Leslyn thread of the narrative--and it is prefaced by a reference to the "wood sprite" photo and to her "critical intellect," which suggest a descent from happiness.

The combination of incomplete documentary evidence and the filter of Virginia's recollections--especially in the case of Leslyn--will be noted by any thoughtful reader or reviewer. The posts on Fred Pohl's blog, for example, recount a correspondence with Leslyn ("sad, wistful, lonesome letters") that included memories that he did not share, and which contribute to the proposition that the last part of her life was not quite happy. And his review of the bio points out that Virginia did indeed sanitize some of RAH's correspondence, which supports the proposition that Virginia's recollections, though necessary, may not be sufficient for a complete picture of Heinlein's life.

While the bio's documentation does not dodge this issue, some readers will consider the narrowing of sources as affecting the completeness or even the reliability of the picture of Leslyn. My own reaction is that, given the research challenges, the book offers a sympathetic and convincing portrait of the complex relationship(s) of complex people. And that it is necessarily and inevitably not the last word on the topic.


Thu Jan 06, 2011 9:54 am
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Post Re: Reviews
JackKelly wrote:
The only question I had as I read the account of their final years together is what percentage of Robert's desire to split with Leslyn was based on his difficulty in dealing with Leslyn's drinking, and what percentage was attributable to his desire to be with Ginny. We'll probably never know.

A great question ... though I doubt that RAH himself knew the answer.


Thu Jan 06, 2011 6:27 pm
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