Sunday, December 10, 2017

Book Review: Ripples in Spacetime

Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy
Govert Schilling

I liked a little over half of this book--the second half. The first half is wasted on me, and probably on most other readers, because it wastes a lot of time explaining basic science. Folks, if you write a book entitled Ripples in Spacetime, you can probably assume that your audience doesn't need a lot of background on what a neutron star is. Furthermore, while plain English and helpful analogies are great, slipping over the line from "colloquial" into "cutesy" is not. 

Once we finally get to the actual subject matter of the book, things even out. There's some good info on laser interferometry, a description of the various projects underway, an intelligent discussion of how you detect a tiny gravitational signal, and an argument for why it matters. I don't think the argument entirely makes its case--and I'm a former astronomy student!--but it's still interesting. 

So, on balance, okay. Schilling needs to trust his readers more, and have a stronger hold on what it is he's actually trying to express. It's possible that Ripples in Spacetime would work better as a series of articles than as a book. I ended up learning some things, though, and that's the main objective.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Book Review: Huế 1968

Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
Mark Bowden

I've been watching Ken Burns's series The Vietnam War, which is excellent, but (necessarily) synoptic. Huế 1968 makes a good companion piece: it's written almost exclusively from a ground-level view. There's virtually nothing about Vietnamese high-level actors, either north or south. American leaders are spotlighted periodically only to emphasize how little they had to do with what was going on.

Which is part of the point.

This is not a book for the squeamish, fans of General William Westmoreland, or anyone who chooses to believe that war is somehow "glorious." It's gut-wrenching. Bowden doesn't flinch from the sheer awfulness of urban warfare. He's not an obtrusive stylist; he uses good, solid, journalistic prose, mostly showing what the men (and a few women) on the ground are seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, and feeling.

It's a visceral combination. Every time Bowden introduced a new character into the narrative, I found myself worrying about what would happen to him; one of Huế 1968's major themes is how random and chaotic death is in war, and how little control the average grunt had. The fighters weren't all alike--Bowden's viewpoint characters have different backgrounds, different characters, different motivations, different views on the war--but they had this in common: they were raw material. Over the course of the book, they're fed into the hopper.Where and how any one of them comes out of the machine is beyond anyone's control.

Bowden empathizes with the Marines. He doesn't venerate them. War turns people ugly, and Vietnam was ugly to begin with. If there are any heroes in Huế 1968, they're the journalists, who risked their lives under horrible conditions to do the best job they could.

Huế 1968 has its limitations. It isn't about arrows on maps; Bowden gives just enough strategic and operational information to follow the overall shape of things. He never strays long or far from the individual view. This eventually starts to get fragmented--there are a very large number of viewpoint characters, and it's sometimes hard to remember who's who. It doesn't help that there are many different units involved, in multiple places, across a period of weeks. I wouldn't have minded reading more of the Vietnamese soldiers' side of things, either, but I suppose that the practicalities of interviewing veterans (not to mention the book's likely readership) tilted things towards the U.S. side.

 Nor, to be for, does the book pretend to be particularly objective. Bowden believes (as do I, for what that's worth) that the Vietnam war wasn't winnable--that it was a gargantuan American blunder, conflating Communism with nationalism, that put the Marines in Huế in the first place. If you're among those people whose response is "But from a strictly military point of view it was an American victory!", consider this: the South Vietnamese people, as a generalization, never embraced their government. (Why should they have?) They merely accepted it. It was a fact. Huế and the Tet offensive showed them that it didn't have to be a fact. "Winning" a battle doesn't count for much if there's nobody in particular whom you're winning it for.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: Artemis

Andy Weir
Science fiction

In the beginning there was Andy Weir's self-published book The Martian. And the self-published book The Martian beget the mega-hit novel The Martian, which begat the Oscar-nominated movie The Martian. And I looked upon these things, and saw that they were good, and also that Andy Weir made a ton of money. Which, to be fair, he richly deserved.

Artemis is Weir's first novel since. (It's not a sequel.) Its plot is quite unlike The Martian's, but the writing is quite similar. It's deployed in service of a caper story rather than a survival story, which makes it a fun, fast read. Weir's humor is still humorous, his science is still scientific, his events are still eventful. It took me a while to warm up to Jazz, our protagonist, but I liked her better as the book went on.

Really, what Artemis is is a Heinlein juvenile, except with an older main character, some off-screen sexual references, and swearing. It reminded me quite a bit (very minor spoiler coming up) of Podkayne of Mars. It's jolly good fun. Go read it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Book Review: Grant

Ron Chernow

Ulysses Grant owned one slave in his lifetime: William Jones, a gift from Grant's obnoxious father-in-law. This was in 1858, and Grant was down and out. He'd resigned from the army under a cloud. He'd failed in business, was failing at running the farm he'd named "Hardscrabble," eking out a living by selling firewood on street corners, reluctantly taking handouts from his wealthier relatives. The gift of a slave was a substantial windfall. Grant could have sold Jones for a good $1,500 (and in 1858 money, $15 a month was a living wage).

So Grant freed William Jones.

I've plucked that anecdote from Grant's rich soil not just because it's admirable--although it is--but because it seems to me that it illustrates one of U.S. Grant's fundamental character traits: he lacked duplicity. One can only guess at his reasoning, but plausibly it went something like this:
  1. I own a slave.
  2. I don't like slavery [Ron Chernow documents this thoroughly].
  3. Therefore I should free my slave.
That same clear-eyed assessment of the facts served Grant well as a general. While others were havering about what the enemy might do, or quoting learned authorities about Napoleon, Grant simply observed that he had an army and a duty to use it. He was not a stupid man or an unsubtle tactician, in spite of what later (mostly Southern) writers said, but he didn't delude himself either. War means fighting.

Before and after the Civil War, though, this trait served Grant badly. He consistently lost money by trusting dishonest men. The corruption of his presidency never touched him personally, but he had immense difficulty in understanding that his associates were conniving, scheming, self-seeking manipulators. Over and over, in Ron Chernow's telling, Grant assumed that other men were like him: straightforward, candid, and consistent. It ruined him, eventually, and it did his posthumous reputation no good either.

You'll gather that I liked this book. It's 959 pages long, and I finished it in a couple of days. Like its hero, it has its flaws; but, again like its hero, its flaws are in many ways merely the defects of its virtues.

Chief among these virtues is the astoundingly complete and consistent portrait of Grant as an individual. Ron Chernow deftly picks out the major-key themes that defined Ulysses Grant--his modesty, his quiet humor, his odd combination of clear thinking and naïveté, his battle with alcoholism--and threads them through the narrative. Sometimes it gets repetitive; about the eight time that we're given a dissection of when and why Grant fell off the wagon, for example, we could reasonably take the explanation as a given. But as a character study, it's absolutely convincing.

A character study is what it is, too--not an examination of historical trends or an academic exercise in thesis-proving. Rather, Grant is most certainly an example of the great-man school of history. Some people may well deplore it on those grounds. It's not an unfair point--noble white males have been decidedly oversold in the past--but, as a matter of plain observable fact, sometimes the person on the ground really does make a difference. Grant certainly did; you need only to contrast his behavior with that of other Union generals to see as much.

The occupational hazard that comes with the great-man school of history is a tendency to be a little too kind to your subject. Chernow doesn't fully resist; I think he makes Grant out to be a bit more steely-eyed in the defense of southern freedpeople than he really was, for example. On the other hand, the former "definitive" biography (by William McFeely) was quite certainly far too harsh. Much as with Chernow's other works--you may possibly have heard of this one?--the portrait that emerges is that of a flawed, great, and ultimately sympathetic man.

I don't usually recommend anything but books in this space, but all the hype about Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War is 100% true. For written Civil War history, try James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom or Bruce Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Book Review: The Republic for Which It Stands

The Republic for Which It Stands: The United states During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896
Richard White

On its own terms, The Republic for Which It Stands is a pretty good book. I don't recommend it, because I don't like the terms.

I'll stipulate that it's decently written, with a few flashes of wit. White has a knack for finding the telling quote, the stiletto statistic, and the sardonic aside. He's got a few consistent themes, which he follows through the three decades of his story. He's even got a central character of sorts in William Dean Howells.

He's also got an agenda--actually, several overlapping agendas. Though the language is the vernacular, the text is clearly designed to engage the academic world. The Republic etc. is a book by a professor whose purpose is to advance that professor's theoretical framework and impress other professors. His mission, broadly speaking, is deflationary. He's here to rescue us from the triumphalism of past historians, and get us to embrace a more nuanced understanding of the past, to wit: Everything Sucked.

No, that's now how he'd put it. He'd probably say that the theme of the book is how one vision for the republic--a kind of updated Jeffersonian utopia of independent freemen--failed, and a different one--industrial wage-earner capitalism--took over. But as he writes it, the real message is: Everything Sucked.

I'm not saying that White is wrong. (It's certainly true that the Heroic White Male Theory of History is pretty threadbare.) I'm saying that, right or wrong, he's just not very interesting--not, at any rate, for the general reader. The horse he's beating is dead a long time before the book ends.

You can get a sense of the book's lopsided shape just by looking in the index. Thomas Edison gets roughly the same amount of ink as the immortal Stephen Field. White mainly mentions Edison, in fact, in order to sneer at him. (White is big on sneering.) You don't have to buy into the Edison mythology to note that White is, in fact, far off base

Similarly, Mark Twain receives a few transient mentions, but is vastly outdone in word count by such unforgettable luminaries as Frances Willard and Thomas A. Scott. The impeachment of Andrew Jackson gets a couple of pages; federal land policy in the West with respect to the railroads gets a long, slow, screed-y chapter. You'll find precious little in TRfWITS about art, entertainment, engineering, science, music, middle-class culture, the transportation revolution, the first national parks, newspapers, or even the women's suffrage movement. No doubt too much loose talk about such things would have left the readership in danger of forgetting that Everything Sucked.

Historical revisionism, then, is the agenda. White sticks to it with messianic fervor. He's long on facts, but he's not always scrupulous in his treatment of them. For example, in deflating the story of the Cattle Kingdom, he observes that there were always fewer cattle west of the 98th meridian than east of it, except for the "burgeoning herds" of California and Texas. Which is to say, if you exclude the places where there were a lot of cows, there weren't many cows. By that same logic, more people speak English than Mandarin, if you don't count China.

It almost goes without saying that White holds religiously to the Standard Academic Liberal Catechism of History. That, by itself, wouldn't necessarily offend me--it is, to be honest, close enough to my own prejudices. White's technique, however, is to simply decline to engage with any ideas that don't fit the aforementioned Catechism. He just reiterates that Everything Sucked, owing to people and ideas that weren't as enlightened as Richard White. For example, White--quite rightly!--calls out Southern whites for their savage, revolting, contemptible, nauseating, anti-American, and ultimately successful campaign of anti-black terrorism. When it comes to violence done by people whose politics he likes, though, it counts as "achieving retributive justice". Or, at worst, it's rationalized by saying that the perpetrators "had learned, with good reason" to hate their enemies.

(You could make a drinking game out of White's pet phrases, too. Try taking a shot every time you encounter "contract," "the home," and "gendered". You'll be to soused to continue before you finish chapter 3. This probably counts as a win.)

Finally, there's a problem with White's own ostensible thesis. The notion that the later 19th century represented a conflict between two differing visions of the American future implies that there was some chance that the alternative vision--an America of sober independent freemen, where wage labor was but a way station on the way to independent producerhood, without extremes either of poverty or wealth--was anything other than a pipe dream. That's another one of White's unexamined assumptions. Other western nations were going through similar transitions at the same time, and in none of them did anything even remotely resembling this neo-Jeffersonian utopia show any signs of appearing. It's hard to accept this as a fundamental conflict when one of the combatants is a purely notional one.

Oh, and don't forget: Everything Sucked! When White, late in the book, concedes that the economy had grown rapidly for much of the period, it comes as a considerable surprise. Not to worry, though: this is just a way of leading into the depression of 1893. Every anecdote, every statistic, every character portrait, is carefully chosen for its nastiness. Because Everything Sucked.

Well, OK. Quite possibly almost everything did  suck. But this is history without story, history without characters, history shorn of everything interesting. White demonstrates no gift for descriptive writing, doesn't care about narrative structure, and (with a few exceptions) has little insight into into character. I started this book because I wanted to learn some things. I finished the book because I did learn some things. But one of the things I learned is not to read any more books by Richard White.

White refers many times to William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis. The latter, although also aimed at academics, is a far more enjoyable book.

Part of the reason I was disenchanted with The Republic for Which It Stands is that it's part of the Oxford History of the United States, and the previous volumes that I've read have been outstanding. Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought (1815-1848) won a Pulitzer, and richly deserved it. So did James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (the Civil War). Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty (1789-1859) was a finalist. I'd recommend all of these without hesitation.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: Churchill and Orwell

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom
Thomas E. Ricks

Churchill and Orwell is an audacious attempt at an interleaved dual intellectual biography, showing the parallels and cross-connections not just of its two subjects' lives, but of their thoughts. It doesn't entirely succeed, but it's a worthwhile attempt.

Churchill and Orwell never met, though they had acquaintances in common. (Given the chummy closeness of the British politico-literate classes, it would have been surprising if they didn't.) Ricks, therefore, tries to highlight two things: the ways in which their personal story arcs reflected each other, and the ways in which their thinking--specifically, both men's hatred of cant and unyielding defense of freedom--ran in parallel. When he sticks to this program, he's doing something really interesting. 

He just doesn't stick to it strenuously enough. Both threads of Churchill and Orwell spend a bit too much time in basic biographical detail, the kind you could get anywhere. It's all interesting, but it's not all deep. Ricks quite rightly magnifies the episodes that he considers most formative--particularly Orwell's experience in the Spanish Civil War and (inevitably) Churchill's triumphal return from political exile from the late 1930s to 1941. But he doesn't entirely solve the problem of making that stuff his exclusive, concentrated focus.

Still, I'd rather read an ambitious book that doesn't quite pull it off than an unambitious success. At its worst, Churchill and Orwell is entirely readable. At its best, it's thought-provoking. If you any interest in the 20th century's intellectual response to the problem of totalitarianism, this is a good book for you. Sadly, the matter is still relevant.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Book Review: Caesar's Last Breath

Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us
Sam Kean

This is one of those "a thousand and one fascinating facts about [fill in noun here]" books. I like books of this sort, I like Sam Kean's writing, and I liked this. It's not a thorough scientific study; it won't give you a sound theoretical basis for anything. Instead, Caesar's Last Breath romps lightly but intelligently over the ideal gas law, nitrogen fertilizer, weather, ballooning, fallout, volcanoes--anything at all that fits into this generously-sized topic. This includes fart jokes. The overall style is strongly reminiscent of James Burke's classic TV series Connections, in which pulling on a thread leads on to unexpected places and extraordinary vignettes. What's not to like?

Much more constricted in scope--but also much more intellectually ambitious--is Steven Johnson's thought-provoking meditation on connectedness, The Invention of Air; the latter overlaps some with Madison Smartt Bell's Lavoisier in the Year One. For more fart jokes, as well for writing that will appeal to anyone who likes Sam Kean's style, read Mary Roach's Gulp.