Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Review: In the Garden of Iden

In the Garden of Iden
Kage Baker
Science fiction

I've sampled Baker's work before now. I always thought she was a good writer, often witty, with good characterization--but that she wasn't clear on exactly what that "story" thing was all about.

In the Garden of Iden did nothing to change my mind. There are some good bits--the opening chapters are particularly effective. Overall, though, it's more or less the same non-story as Connie Willis's Domesday Book, although I didn't spot any major historical errors in this one. I didn't dislike it, but it didn't convert me from "sampling" to "seeking out."

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Book Review: Priceless

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Masterpieces
Robert Wittman
Art, crime

A quick read: breezily written, exciting, somewhat shallow, moderately informative, unapologetically subjective, and written (I feel sure) with one eye on a future TV or movie deal.

I'm tempted to compare Priceless to Bringing Down the House, except that Bringing Down the House is heavily fictionalized.

For actual fiction, Aaron and Charlotte Elkins have written two good series of art-crime mysteries. The Chris Norgren books (A Glancing Light, A Deceptive Clarity, and Old Scores) are straight mystery/thrillers. The more recent Alix London series (A Dangerous Talent, A Cruise to Die For, The Art Whisperer, and The Trouble With Mirrors) edge over toward the "romantic suspense" category.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book Review: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China
David J. Silbey
Military history

A confession is in order. I developed an unreasoning dislike for The Boxer Rebellion on page 11. The twin reasons:

  • Sibley asserts that the 1857 Indian Mutiny led to a sea change in British attitudes towards colonized peoples. As evidence, he cites Rudyard Kipling: "The difference between . . . 'Gunga Din' and . . . 'The White Man's Burden' was the difference pre- and post-mutiny." 
    • In 1857, Rudyard Kipling was negative eight years old. (He was born December 30, 1865.) If he ever had a pre-Mutiny attitude, he must have gotten it from a time machine.
    • "Gunga Din" was published in 1892, thirty-five years after the Mutiny. "The White Man's Burden" was published a mere seven years later, and in any case is subtitled "The United States and the Philippine Islands". I don't believe that the period between 1892 and 1899 represented a major shift in attitudes, especially not a major shift attributable to an event in 1857.
  • Furthermore, says Sibley: ". . . what the colonized, the 'subalterns,' thought of this was rarely considered" (emphasis added). A subaltern is not a colonized person. A subaltern is a junior officer--a first or second lieutenant, in modern terms. If you're going to make sweeping pronouncements, you should show evidence that you've gotten your basic facts right.
(Furthermore, the maps in this book are absolutely wretched. They're nothing more than small reproductions of period sketches, stuck in among the illustrations.)


With that off my chest, I can say that The Boxer Rebellion is in general a clear and straightforward military history. It touches on larger social and political forces, but mainly to set the context for the fighting. Silbey is generally pretty fair and pretty scrupulous in his facts and in his more quantifiable interpretations.

He goes off the rails somewhat when he tries to draw larger conclusions. For example, he goes to some trouble to establish that the Boxers were not a random force of nature, but a perfectly comprehensible response to the existing situation in China--a way for the Chinese people to make sense of what was happening, consistent with their understandings and traditions. As such, then, the Boxers were a mass movement with mass popular support. But Silbey also castigates the invading Western forces for treating every Chinese person as an enemy. If you grant his original conclusion about the nature of the Boxers, then the attitude of the invaders becomes perfectly rational. 

I'm not saying that it was moral. Shooting unarmed people en masse is never moral. But if the Boxers were indeed a mass movement with mass popular support, then an us-vs.-them attitude on the part of the invaders is--just like the Boxers themselves--a perfectly comprehensible response to the situation.

Also, I don't think Silbey establishes his basic point. He's trying to  argue that, in the words of the back-cover blurb, "the Boxers came much closer to beating back the combined might of all the imperial powers than is commonly thought." His own facts fail to support the argument. On page 150, for instance, we learn that "The British . . . had lost fourteen killed and fifty-three wounded in . . . two weeks" of "near-constant fighting". For a nation of 400 million to inflict fourteen fatalities in fourteen days does not argue a high degree of military competence or enthusiasm.

For that matter, why should the Chinese have displayed any enthusiasm? Silbey fails to say this, but in fact the state they were nominally defending was cruel, venal, corrupt, incompetent, autocratic, and unjust. A system where the punishment for being on the wrong side of a policy decision is execution--regardless of whether the policy itself turns out well--is a bad system. (This isn't to justify the colonial attitude, which seems to have been that it's OK to burgle your neighbor's home because his locks are flimsy.)

Finally, there's a moral question here that Silbey doesn't recognize. He's trying to treat the Boxers in a neutral, non-judgmental fashion. A laudable goal? Perhaps. But I can think of another, much more recent popular movement that
  • seemingly blew up out of nowhere;
  • is a popular response to corrupt and dysfunctional official governments;
  • is violently anti-foreigner;
  • brutally persecutes locals who happen to be of a different religion;
  • has as its aim the "restoration" of past (largely imaginary) imperial glories;
  • enjoyed a shocking degree of initial success.
If the Boxers' actions are morally neutral, in other words, then are not the actions of ISIS equally morally neutral?

The only other book I've read that treated the Boxer Rebellion is Walter Lord's The Good Years. Like all of Lord's books, it's a ripping good yarn. It's written from a more traditional Western viewpoint, though, and it focuses very heavily on the siege of the foreign legations in Beijing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd
C. S. Forester
Naval fiction

There's a long and honorable tradition of destroyer-vs.-submarine novels. (One of the all-time great Star Trek episodes, "Balance of Terror," is for all intents and purposes the same thing.) The Good Shepherd is one of the best–and most realistic. It's written in dry, clipped, matter-of-fact prose . . . and it's hard to put down. It works as a war story, but it also works as a subtle character study.

I read The Good Shepherd in high school. I was pleased to discover that I like it just as much today.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: Iron Dawn

Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Battle That Changed History
Richard Snow

This is another book that reminded me of the pure, unadulterated joy of reading. Iron Dawn reads like a novel, but it's all true. Richard Snow has crafted a tightly-focused and wholly convincing story, complete with momentous implications and a ticking-clock countdown.

It's particularly a pleasure to salute Snow's technique. The first half of the book, especially, is organized by character. Each chapter focuses on a particular person, while also advancing the story inexorably forward. This is a hard trick to pull off, but when it works it's a brilliant way of organizing a large cast of characters--it entirely avoids the "wait, who was he again?" phenomenon--while still making overall sense of events.

For anyone who's interested in naval history, or the Civil War, or technology, or ships, or who just likes a good old-fashioned exciting story, it's hard to imagine a book that would push more buttons better than Iron Dawn. It doesn't require any particular specialist knowledge to read, but it could easily give you the desire to acquire some.

There are quite a number of distinguished books that come to mind as companion pieces. Iron Dawn would pair well with:

  • For an eye-popping history of a crucial naval battle that reads like a novel: Incredible Victory, by Walter Lord, which is one of the best histories ever written of anything.
  • For the Civil War in general: anything by Bruce Catton, one of Richard Snow's predecessors at American Heritage magazine. This Hallowed Ground is a good place to start.
  • For a similar use of the progress-by-character technique, with the additional feature that it's a closely related topic: Robert Massie's Dreadnought, which chronicles the Anglo-German naval rivalry leading up to World War I. I may have to reread this now.
  • For a Civil-War topic that finally got the detailed investigation that it turned out to deserve: Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire richly chronicles the British response to the war.
  • For naval history that's true but also works like a countdown-style thriller: Erik Larson's Dead Wake.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: Einstein's Greatest Mistake

Einstein's Greatest Mistake: A Biography
David Bodanis
Physics, biography

It's perhaps odd to describe a book about general relativity and quantum physics as being "written for young adults," but that's the sensation I kept getting while reading Einstein's Greatest Mistake. David Bodanis explains everything in simple language--even such common terms as "light year" are glossed in short words. I suppose that it's probably a Scylla-and-Charybdis problem. On the one hand, Bodanis doesn't want to write a popular-science book; he wants to write about Einstein the person, and how Einstein thought, and how his enormous genius could lead him to spend the last twenty years of his life barking up blind alleys. On the other hand, he can't do that without explaining the scientific breakthroughs that made Einstein so (over-) confident in his genius in the first place.

There's not a lot that's new here for anyone with a decent level of scientific literacy, but it's still a good story. The story in short: Einstein reluctantly included a clunky fudge factor in general relativity in order to conform with the experimental evidence. Ten years later, it turned out that the experimental evidence was incomplete. Einstein, his intuition vindicated, doubled down on it by never accepting quantum theory.

Einstein's Greatest Mistake lays out the whole sequence clearly and convincingly. It's a good book if you want to get a fairly qualitative yet still useful introduction to Einstein as a thinker. Personally, I'm going to check out the author's website, where he promises a 22,000-word outtake that goes into the science in more detail. But that's just me.

I thought Bodanis's earlier book, E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, did a good job of pulling the pieces together. (That's special relativity, which--believe it or not--can be understood pretty well using high-school algebra.) Walter Isaacson wrote a very fine and readable biography of Einstein back in 2007; it's well worth reading.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Book Review: Razor Girl

Razor Girl
Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen writes fiction in exactly one vein: the South-Florida bunch-of-whackos black humor almost-but-not-quite surrealistic crime novel. Razor Girl is no exception. It has a cast consisting mainly of Hiaasen stock characters, a Key West setting . . . and not much else.

One thing it doesn't have is a Plot--the capital P indicating that there's nobody that has any kind of plan or goal or sustained intention that drives the book. As a result, it doesn't have much in the way of lower-case-p plot. A bunch of characters run into each other in various combinations. Some hilarity ensues. There is a crime, but it's kind of an accident.

Another thing it doesn't have is anyone who's particularly likable. The nominal protagonist is hardly better than the villains: self-centered, short-sighted, ego-driven, obsessional, a poor friend, and all in all a loser. The most sympathetic character is a mobster. In earlier Hiaasen, you could usually count on there being at least one person who a non-insane reader could identify with. You also got your share of nutjob-but-on-the-side-of-the-angels characters; those you could at least admire from a distance. In Razor Girl, it's jerks all the way down.

There are some funny bits. There are some clever bits. There are some bitingly sarcastic bits. The prose flows smoothly. The setting is well-rendered. That's what you get.

If you don't like Hiaasen, don't read this. If you've never read Hiaasen, don't start here. If you do like Hiaasen, you might use this one for an airplane ride; it will help pass a couple of hours. Don't expect much more.

If you're new to Hiaasen, I'd suggest starting with one of his earlier books: Tourist Season, Double Whammy, Skin Tight, Native Tongue, or Strip Tease.