Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
A. O. Scott
Literature, culture

I wanted to read this book for obvious reasons: I take some pride in these book reviews, and I want to make them better. I was hesitant, though, because Scott is a film critic. I don't watch many movies. I figured that Better Living Through Criticism would be full of references that I wouldn't get.


Surprise! Better Living Through Criticism is almost devoid of specifics. Instead, it's virtually 100% at the level of (broadly speaking) theory--maybe even philosophy. Scott barely touches on movies. Heck, he barely touches Earth. He's too busy reeling off a checklist of intellectual touchpoints. Aristotle! Ranier Maria Rilke's sonnet Archaic Torso of Apollo! The appalling Edmund Wilson! Susan Sontag! Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment!

The weird thing is that Scott eschews the one thing that one would expect from a critic: drawing a conclusion. Is Kant right? Is Sontag wrong? Scott doesn't say--or, rather he says both no and yes. He proceeds by a relentless, repetitive cycle of Hegelian synthesis (see, I can be an intellectual name-dropper too). Here's a juicy but totally typical example:
The impulse to conserve and move slowly, to build incrementally and protect what has already been done, is an honorable one. So is the drive to start again, to bend the energies of creation towards an unseen future. But this is also to say that both sides are wrong. Each one's error is inevitable, since it reflects an ineradicable fact of the human predicament. We live at the mercy of time and can only fail in our efforts to master it, to speed it up or slow it down.
Uh, okay, A.O. If you say so. It's not clear that this helps me think about art, pleasure, beauty, or truth, though.

Scott's devotion to the theoretical is just baffling. He quotes with evident approval a long piece of poetical lit-crit that is, basically, one giant failure of basic logic. He loves good critical writing, but he doesn't seem to care whether it makes much sense or has anything material to say about How to Think About Art etc. Better Living Through Criticism has some neat if slightly self-conscious postmodernist prose, but the overall effect is that of watching someone else play a complicated and largely pointless game of solitaire.

Book Review: The Great Iron Ship

The Great Iron Ship
James Dugan
History, engineering

I don't think I can put it any better than the back cover.

This [the S.S. Great Eastern] is the ship that 
  • Killed her designer
  • Drowned her first captain
  • Logged four mutinies
  • Killed thirty-five men
  • Survived the Atlantic's weirdest storm
  • Laid the Atlantic Cable
  • Sank four ships
  • Made six knights
  • Caused sixteen lawsuits
  • Was six times at auction
  • Boarded two million sightseers
  • Ended as a floating circus
Aside from that, The Great Iron Ship is well-written, occasionally sardonic, briskly-paced, not exhaustively deep, and well-structured as a narrative. I think Dugan pays maybe a little too much attention to the so-called "jinx" on the Great Eastern. To my mind, the real story is not the jinx but just how astonishingly it was, in the mid-19th century, people getting randomly killed or maimed in fights or crowds or just weird stuff. (Imagine someone getting killed nowadays by an accident when firing a 21-gun salute, for example. It wouldn't just be waved off!) And, of course, I want more engineering! Still, a very good book.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Book Review/Essay: Behind That Curtain

Behind That Curtain
Earl Derr Biggers
Mystery

This was my first exposure to Charlie Chan. I'd never read any of the books, nor seen any of the movies. I came in with no strong personal opinion, but with the knowledge that the character is often regarded as a racist caricature.


That view isn't wrong, but it isn't complete either. Charlie Chan is a comic character, but then many fictional detectives are comic characters. Think of Lt. Columbo, or the early Lord Peter Wimsey, or--most especially--of Hercule Poirot. Like Poirot, Chan says and does things that are funny, or he says and does them in funny ways. He's full of minor malapropisms. Behind That Curtain came out in 1928; so did Christie's masterpiece The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Here are some quotes from each book.

ChanPoirot
A four-horse chariot could not have dragged me in an opposite direction.The good dog, he does not leave the scent, remember!
I am torn with grief to disagree.I demand of you a thousand pardons, monsieur.
This last story illuminates darkness.The affair marches, does it not?
Your words have obscure sound.The word exact, you are zealous for it.

In similar fashion, Chan has a collection of eccentricities and fussy little habits. He often emits little bits of faux-Chinese wisdom. He addresses others with exaggerated humility (in one case, indeed, it's obviously sarcastic). All this is typical of a comic-detective character, like Columbo with his car and his raincoat and his "There's just one more thing . . ." shtick.

So Chan is funny; but he's not being made fun of. The characters in the book don't condescend to Chan. On the contrary, they refer to him as a genius, as a great detective--indeed, as a respectable peer for Sir Frederic Bruce, former head of Scotland Yard. The exception is the one character who's depicted negatively: an American policeman. Needless to say, it's Chan and not Inspector Flannery who solves the case.

Nonetheless, there's an element of racism. Poirot is foreign; Chan is alien. Poirot is eccentric because he's from another country. Chan is different because he is "a Chinese". This is the kind of book that takes it for granted that you can say "The Chinese are . . . " (as well as "The Americans are . . .") and have it generally applicable: "The Chinese are a nocturnal people." Americans "smile", but Chinese "grin". However admirable he may be, Charlie Chan is other in a way that Hercule Poirot is not.

This wasn't an uncommon attitude in the 1920s, even among so-called progressives. The idea that race was a real and immutable thing, rather than a gauzy psycho-social fiction, was mainstream. Liberals tended to argue, not that other races were like Europeans, but that they were different yet equivalent. Not just white Americans, but black Americans, gave voice to this in the U.S.--the classic book When Harlem Was in Vogue has some startling examples.

In the end, I personally was able to read Behind That Curtain through mental corrective lenses. I found that I could give Earl Derr Biggers credit for trying to portray a Chinese detective in a positive way--certainly in contrast to a lot of contemporary literature--and de-escalate the bits that grate against a 21st-century sensibility. I wouldn't blame anyone who felt otherwise, though.

As a book qua book, it's readable. The writing is at a young adult level: simple sentences, not too much description, no mood, strongly one- or zero-dimensional characters. The story moves along at a good clip. There are a few too many characters, and the final resolution depends a bit too much on coincidence, but it's not without cleverness. Although Earl Derr Biggers was no Agatha Christie, I've read substantially worse.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Review: How the Post Office Created America

How the Post Office Created America: A History
Winifred Gallagher
History

This is a book that wears its heart on its sleeve. Winifred Gallager admires the Post Office. She wants you and me and everyone else to admire it, too.


And there's much to admire! Until the Civil War, the local post office was virtually the only direct contact most Americans had with their federal government. As such, it played a considerable part in making it possible to keep the nation together at all. Not only that, the deliberate decision to offer incredibly low shipping rates on newspapers led to an explosion of publishing and the growth of an informed electorate. Not only only that, but the P.O. was responsible for a whole series of innovations in what we now call communications technology.

Great stuff, right? Except that it wasn't all great. Gallagher glides a little bit too lightly over the non-great parts. There was the part where the Post Office was actually censored, forbidding it from carrying anti-slavery mails, for example. The spate of violence that gave us the phrase "going postal" isn't part of How the Post Office Created America. The occasional use of the department as a patronage piggy bank receives but a passing mention.

(There are also some research malfunctions. The absolute best is when Gallagher describes Terry Pratchett's Going Postal--a novel which includes, among other things, a golem postman; a sorting machine that produces letters that haven't been written yet; explosive cough drops; a young man who was raised by peas; cabbage-flavored stamps; and Anoia, Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers--as "noir". To be fair, a good bit of How the Post Office Created America directly reflects bits of the novel, thus validating Pratchett's claim that he never really had to invent anything.)

Gallagher does do a good job of limning the central philosophical question around the post. Is it a business, to be run with an eye towards profit and loss? Or is it a service, meant to provide value to every citizen? It's not an abstract question: FedEx and UPS, for example, would go broke if they had to provide one-cost shipping that covered both profitable urban areas and money-hemorrhaging rural ones. There are respectable historical and present-day arguments for both views. How we answer determines what the venerable P.O. will become in the 21st century.

Going Postal is a great book, even though it isn't actually noir. More on-topic, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought is a terrific history of the early Republic, when a lot of the drama around the Post Office played out.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Book Review: Rightful Heritage

Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America
Douglas Brinkley
History, biography

The Roosevelt who usually gets all the good conservation press--not without merit--is FDR's fifth cousin Theodore. If Franklin gets any credit, it's usually for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Rightful Heritage is Douglas Brinkley's exhaustive attempt to rebalance the historical scales.


It works very well, at the level of partisan investigative journalism. That is, Rightful Heritage is a long catalogue of who, what, where, when, why. The who is usually FDR, and the what is usually working the politics of conservation. You can open the book to pretty much any page and find out that on [date], FDR was working towards establishing the [Soandso National Wildlife Refuge/Park/Forest]. The focus is on his first two presidential terms, but--as Brinkley makes clear--this was a lifelong passion, curtailed but not stopped even by the Second World War.

That, by the way, is one of Rightful Heritage's better accomplishments: it gives Roosevelt some credit for both personal consistency and intellectual heft. FDR was a notoriously protean man, and various observers have derided him for it. He was "a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament" (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). Or he was "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president" (Walter Lippman). Theodore Roosevelt's acid-tongued daughter Alice called him "Miss Nancy". However, Brinkley's research makes an overwhelming case that conservation was for FDR a lifelong, serious, and consistent passion, one to which he gave his full attention and of which he had an excellent intellectual and policy grasp.

The overwhelmingness of the case gets to be too much sometimes. That's the limitation of investigative-journalistic writing. Many of the pre-presidential chapters read like diary entries: each paragraph is complete of itself, but completely lacking in connective tissue to what's around it. (I believe I once counted seven consecutive paragraphs with totally unconnected topic sentences.) There isn't much analysis or depth in Rightful Heritage (the ever-present tension between "wise use" conservation and "forever wild" conservation is described, but never really explored), and Brinkley makes his partisanship pretty glaring. And let's face it: six hundred pages of who, what, etc. can't help but be repetitive.

So Rightful Heritage is not entirely for the faint of heart. If your interest in FDR or conservation would be met by a Wikipedia article, best go there. If you're opposed to conservation or to Roosevelt himself or to Rooseveltian political ideas, this book will just make you angry. On the other hand, it doesn't require any special background knowledge, it's nicely readable prose, and it does exactly what it sets out to do: give Franklin Roosevelt the respect he should have as an effective conservationist activist politician.

This book crosses not one but two Ken Burns documentaries: The National Parks: America's Best Idea and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. I recommend both of them highly, particularly the latter. (Seriously, if you're the kind of person who likes this blog, you need to watch Ken Burns documentaries.) 

On the written side, The Man He Became by James Tobin is a very fine and focused chronicle of Roosevelt's polio, his paralysis, and how his response to it changed him. There's a respectable argument that Roosevelt was something of a lightweight--specifically, that he was something of a Cousin Teddy Roosevelt wannabe--and that his response to his illness was one of the things that forced him to become his own man.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Book Review: The Book of Spice

The Book of Spice: From Anise to Zedoary
John O'Connell
Food

The Book of Spice is similar in spirit to Lingo. That is: it's a quick tour d'epicerie jaunt around the culinary back streets. It provides a good capsule overview--history, uses, legends, science, care, feeding, etc.--for a large number of entries. It's not deep, but it's entertaining. It shouldn't be read on an empty stomach. It makes me curious about vast swathes of ethic cuisine of which I know little to nothing. (Also, it would be of some practical use as a reference book.)


One caveat: John O'Connell is writing from and for a British-Isles perspective. He spends an extraordinary number of words on curry, while short-changing the New World. Aside from a good section on the chili pepper, there's virtually nothing about Mexican or other Latino cuisines. There's even less about (for example) barbeque, or Cajun, or Creole. On the other hand, some of those curry ideas sound pretty enticing.

Spice: The History of a Temptation is a deeper look at the use, sociology, and economics of the spices and the trade.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review: Death of an Airman

Death of an Airman
Christopher St. John Sprigg
Mystery

This is another British Library Crime Classic reprint. I approve thoroughly of the project--resurrecting Golden Age mystery fiction--but my prior foray into the product was not a complete success. 


I liked Death of an Airman much better. It's not a work of staggering genius, and it owes a little debt to a certain Dorothy Sayers classic, but it's a decent fair-play mystery with an unusual setting. The writing is clear, the characters are adequately delineated, and the pacing is good. There are, perhaps, too many minor characters, as well as too many detectives, but overall I'd recommend the book to anyone who enjoys the traditional mystery novel.