Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book Review: The Art of the Con

The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World
Anthony M. Amore
Crime, art

It's tempting to call art forging the perfect victimless crime. Nobody is forced to buy paintings, and most of the victims have more money than is good for them anyway. Nor can you argue, in one sense, that you're not getting what you pay for. The painting looks, after all, the same regardless of who painted it. If you're buying it because you like it, that should be enough. And if you're buying it as an investment, and you don't do your homework, it's nobody's fault but yours if it turns out to be bogus. 

Finally, most art forgers concentrate on faking modern art--because it's dead easy; you don't need any skill--so who cares? (Thought question: if nobody can tell a "priceless" Mark Rothko original from a replica slapped together by an underpaid Chinese immigrant working in a warehouse in Queens, what does that say about the art?)

On the other hand, the art forgers themselves seem to be genuinely awful people. The word "sociopath" is overused these days, but the character portraits in The Art of the Con show narcissists and Machiavellian personalities run amok. These are not twinkly-eyed rogues, although they're sometimes portrayed that way. These are people who, quite clearly, genuinely feel that the only crime is to get caught.

So much for musings. As to the book itself, it's zippily written, not especially deep, good on quick character portraits, weak on the art itself, and without pretenses to completeness or analysis. If you think the subject matter sounds interesting, you'll probably enjoy this book.

The Man Who Made Vermeers, by Jonathan Lopez, is an excellent book on the forger Han van Meegeren, who definitely fit the narcissist profile.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: The Shepherd's Crown

The Shepherd's Crown
Terry Pratchett
YA fantasy

This is the late, great, Sir Terry Pratchett's last novel. It's better than his final adult novel, Raising Steam--it's a connected story, at least--but that's not saying much. Basically, it reads like a set of outtakes and Post-It notes and cribs from other novels, strung together in rough order. Much of the substance borrows from, and to some extent undermines, the far superior Lords and Ladies.

For the rest, there are too many disparate elements for it to work. A few of the elements show bits of the old Pratchett genius. If you're both a Pratchett fanatic and a completist (ahem), the book may be worth your while on that basis, or as an homage to Pratchett's memory. As a story, sadly, it's not really worthwhile.

If by some criminal mischance you've never read Terry Pratchett, I'd recommend starting with Guards! Guards! and then proceeding to its two immediate sequels, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Short Story Teaser: "Leviathan"

My favorite book of 2014 was Andy Weir's The Martian. Sean and Mike concur.

Years ago, as it happens, I wrote a short story that has detectable similarities to Andy Weir's The Martian. And since Andy Weir started out by publishing The Martian on his website and ended up being wealthy and famous ... Let's just say that what's good enough for Andy Weir and The Martian is good enough for me.

(Some of you are probably thinking that the only reason I keep mentioning Andy Weir and The Martian is to attract people who are Googling for the book. This is untrue: I also want to attract people who are Googling for the movie The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir Andy Weir Andy Weir .)

So here's the first part of the story. It's not funny like The Martian (by Andy Weir)--in fact, it's kinda grim--but I'm still reasonably satisfied with how it came out. If you want to read the rest of it, leave me a comment and I'll send it to you. And if you want to give me the same kind of deal that Andy Weir (author of The Martian) got, I'm amenable.

P.S. for search engines indexing this page: it's about Andy Weir's novel The Martian.


     After we killed the passengers, we put the bodies in one of the low-pressure, unheated storage compartments.  Some people had wanted to have some kind of solemn burial-in-space thing; that was too ghoulish for most of us, though.  Mostly the ones we killed had been okay, but a few had to be forced.  I had had to kill one of them.
     I met Jenny Fenton in the lounge.  She’s a tall black girl, an able spacer, real smart.  I’d thought we might end up getting something together, but at the time we were just friends.  She bought me a beer.
     “Rough?” she said.
     “Yeah.”  I didn’t want to talk about it.  “I just hope it does some good.”
     She ignored my implied question.  “Come on, Vas, you know there was no other way.  The lottery was fair, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
     “I wasn’t thinking at all, actually.”
     “So what else is new?”  Gordon Yamaguchi sat down, which didn’t please me a lot.  Ordinarily I liked him okay--not great, just okay--but he was good at being flip and sarcastic, and I wasn’t in the mood for it.
     “Stow it, Gord,” said Jenny.
     Gordon shrugged.  “When you gotta go, you gotta go.  Hell, half of them were triage cases anyway.”
     “Lots of them would have made it to Minerva,” I said.
     “Yeah, dead, like the rest of us.”  Gordon ordered a double Scotch, which made me think maybe he wasn’t as cool as he pretended to be.
     I finished the beer.  “Look, Jenny, what’s the deal?  Are we going to have to do a second round?”
     Jenny shook her head.  “Sorry, Vas, I don’t know.  They’re looking at the life support now, what’s left of it I mean, and trying to figure how much time we lost getting back on course.”  She lowered her voice.  “I probably shouldn’t tell you guys this, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to get our commo and detection gear back anytime soon.”
     “Jesus,” said Gordon.  “How are we navigating?”
     “The old fashioned way,” said Jenny.  “Drop out of hype, look at some stars, measure some angles, crunch some numbers.  That’s why it’s taking so long.”
     I went back to my quarters, but I couldn’t sleep.  The face of the passenger I had killed, had had to kill, kept coming back to me.  That sounds corny, but it’s true--what Doc called a “flashbulb memory.”  This passenger was an ordinary guy, about forty-five, graying hair, a little pot belly.  I’d seen him, I think, but I never knew his name.  He wasn’t the type you’d have expected to make trouble, but at the last minute he jumped me, screaming.
     We didn’t have guns--who takes guns on a passenger liner?--so all I had was a big wooden billy club, made from an ornamental lamp that had been in the first-class lounge.  And a kitchen knife, for what little that was worth.  Anyway, what scared me, thinking about it in my berth, was that I hadn’t hesitated.  Not even a little.  I don’t know what I had been thinking, if I was thinking at all.  I clearly remember what I did, but it’s like my brain was a total blank.  I whipped that lamp around as hard as I could and got him smack on the temple.  It sounded like someone crushing plastic.  He crumpled up, kind of sideways, and I hit him again, and again.  I could smell his blood.  If I had drawn a different lot, it could have been me.
     I got up and wandered the corridors for a while.  The lighting was way down to save power, not that that was the worst of our worries.  Some of the corridors had been sealed off so as not to waste air, though.  I was in second class, and the corridors were functional, like motel hallways--bland carpets, painted walls.  Up in first class they were softly lit and paneled with wood; down in steerage they were bare, with pipes and conduits and exposed lights.  That was where most of the colonists were, and where most of the civilian casualties had come.
     I had been walking when the meteor hit us.  The lights kind of wobbled, and the ship rang, like a gigantic bell.  Nobody knew what had happened, but it didn’t seem like anything to worry about.  We joked about it as we steadied ourselves.  I remember someone saying something about the Captain getting nailed for DUI.  We should have thought a little: the ship was a whale, an enormous thing; anything that could make the whole thing quiver was something to worry about.
     I looked up and realized that I had made my way to sickbay.  I pushed the door chime.
     “Come on in,” said Doc.
     Doc Li looked like a video doctor, and he had the manners, too: a little white haired guy, who wore old-fashioned glasses and fussed a bit.  He had made a big stink about crew being exempt from the lottery, and had tried to put his name in.  I liked him a lot.
     “Well, Vassily,” he said, “what brings you here?”
     “Eh.  Couldn’t sleep.”
     “You want a pill?  In your case it might be a good idea.”
     He didn’t say anything, just puttered around his office tidying things.
     “Doc,” I said, “why did you make such a thing about the crew not being in the lottery?”
     He looked at me over the tops of his glasses.  “Bad precedent.”
     “Isn’t it true what the Captain said, about having had heavy crew casualties in the explosion and fires and needing every spacer to keep the ship running?”
     “Oh, I don’t know.  Probably.”  He sat down on the edge of the bed.  “But that’s not the point.”
     “Well,” I said, “what is the point?”
     “The point is,” Doc said, “it was handed down as a dogma.  Not ‘people we need will be exempt,’ but ‘crew are by definition exempt.’”
     I didn’t see what he was driving at, and my expression must have shown it.
     “Look,” he said.  “It went pretty smoothly today, right?”
     “I had to kill a guy.”
     “I know,” said Doc.  “I’m sorry about that, Vas.  God knows, every time I think about my medical supplies being used for--that, I get sick.  You know, they wanted me to do the injections.  I refused, said it would violate the Hippocratic Oath.  Which it would.”
     “Anyway, what were you saying?”  I still didn’t want to talk about it.  “I guess it went pretty smooth.  I mean, there was a little trouble, but not much.”
     “Sure,” said Doc.  “People knew that there wasn’t much choice.  A lot of them were critically injured, some volunteered.  But what happens if we find out--say, that we’re still short oxygen, or water, or something?”
     “Well,” I said, “I guess we’ll have--we’ll have to have another lottery.”
     “It won’t be as smooth,” said Doc.  “And if we need a third or, God help us, more rounds--”
     “Hell,” I said, “that won’t happen!  I mean, if worst comes to worst and we do need to, um, do it again, they’ll be able to figure out how many need to go.”
     “A minimum number, maybe.”  Doc polished his glasses on his lab coat.  “But we’re going to be making continual course corrections by dead reckoning.  Which will slow us down, depending on how much fuel we use and how far off course we go.  Anything that could happen, I mean anything unexpected, would be bad.  Anything at all that breaks--the air, the water, the engines--will make it worse.”
     “Jesus,” I said.
     “Or whoever,” said Doc.  “That’s why I think the crew should be in the lottery.  Even if it’s just a token.  Otherwise, it’ll make it an us-against-them thing later on.”
     “Thanks a lot, Doc,” I said.
     He looked at me with his old blue eyes, and I thought he looked sad.  “Vas,” he said, “you’re a big, strong young man.  If there’s another round, if you’re not picked, you’re going to be tapped for enforcer again.”
     “I think I’d better take that sleeping pill,” I said.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Rain

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
Cynthia Barnett
Sociology, culture

In the beginning there was Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. And the readers and the reviewers looked upon it and saw that it was good. And in its wake there came a steady tide of books whose titles were single nouns. So Salt begat Coal, and Ice, and The Potato, and Spice, and Banana, and Thames, and Rust, and divers others. I expect that right now someone, somewhere is toiling away at Zinc Oxide: A Global Biography.

And now there's Rain. It's not bad. The actual writing achieves a pleasingly lyrical flow, suitable to its subject. Nonetheless, Rain suffers from a not-uncommon affliction of this genre: a compulsion to flit about from one thing to another, including short squibs on every damn thing the author can somehow relate to to the title.

So Rain goes trippingly from Mars to umbrellas to weather forecasting to rain gods to floods to the shape of raindrops to (of course) global warming to Japanese traditional umbrellas to Indian perfume, seldom bothering to tie any two chapters together. Barnett likes fine-sounding phrases, but she doesn't like to substantiate them. Thus, for example, we are at various times informed that "some scientists predict" X, or "many historians believe" Y, or such-like generalizations. Well, who are these "some scientists"? How many of them are there? Is this a mainstream opinion, a minority opinion, a speculation, or a bunch of flakes?

The pity of it is that there's one section that really does hold together. When Barnett stops globe-trotting and settles down for four chapters in the U.S., she produces a really knockout short narrative of Americans' stormy (har!) relationship with rain. From Thomas Jefferson (who was obsessed with the stuff), through the sodbusters who lived and died by it, and on into the eccentricities of weather control, this is good stuff.

Sadly, it doesn't last. The next section goes off into ... I don't remember where. Some lyrical but ultimately disjointed tangent, I suppose.

Don't get me wrong. I like these books. Why else would I have read so many of them? So I sort of liked Rain. But it could have been better.

Salt truly is excellent, as is Rust. I also really liked Hannah Holmes's The Secret Life of Dust, even though it has more than one word in the title.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book Review: Born Bad

Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World
James Boyce
Philosophy, theology, intellectual history

Consider the following argument.

The classic Warner Brothers "Road Runner" cartoon series is fundamentally shaped by the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. The Coyote could end his suffering at any time by ceasing to pursue his carnal desires--but he is fundamentally incapable of doing so. He places his reliance on the products of human ingenuity, in the form of an unending series of Acme gadgets; yet these gadgets inevitably fail, causing the Coyote further pain. 
The point is driven home by the fact that the Coyote is not even named: he is instead given a pseudo-Latin label ("Carnivorous Vulgaris", "Famishus Famishus", etc.--Latin, of course, being the language of the Church), which refers to his animal nature and his insatiable appetites. He is not an individual with the power to change his fate. He is a prisoner of his nature. Appetite is not for him a choice; it's part of his definition.
The Road-Runner, then, represents the unattainable state of grace. The Coyote's devices are earthbound, but the Road-Runner defies the laws of physics. He zooms through a tunnel painted on a cliff, while the Coyote bounces off. He can race across thin air in a cloud of dust; the Coyote plummets as soon as he realize that he has stepped off, his feeble faith unable to sustain him.
James Boyce doesn't actually make that analogy, but some of his assertions are hardly less strained. Born Bad is one of those frustrating books where the author, having gotten hold of an interesting idea, proceeds to beat it to death by insisting that it applies everywhere.

Actually, Born Bad is two books. The first half is a history of the idea itself, and of responses to it. This is pretty interesting, and to a non-theist like myself it's also very informative. Boyce argues that original sin is not a Biblical concept per se, but a creation of St. Augustine and his followers. It's a particular inheritance of Western (not Eastern) Christianity. Nor has it ever been uncontroversial; in Boyce's telling, there's always been an intellectual undercurrent eating away at the absolutist position.

In the second half, Boyce starts talking about the doctrine's effect in shaping western non-religious thought. I can see, for example, an intellectual connection with the U.S. Constitution's view of human nature ("If men were angels, no government would be necessary" — James Madison). Similarly, Adam Smith's view of capitalism frankly acknowledges that humans are fundamentally greedy and self-interested. These men were Enlightenment thinkers, and prided themselves on being rational; but Boyce is probably onto something when he detects the influence of the original-sin dogma.

Thereafter, however, Boyce goes off the rails. He starts applying his idea into various areas, such as the physical sciences, where it's prima facie far-fetched. Nor does he ever trouble to substantiate his notion that this mental armament is a specifically Western one. To do so he would have to look at non-Western ideas of human nature and non-Western thinking in general, and he makes no effort to do so. 

Even if he had, I suspect he'd have managed to find what he was looking for. E.g.: Boyce diagnoses "original sin thinking" in the empiricist/materialist philosopher David Hume. And yet: another author can read the same texts and speculate that, rather, Hume was influenced by Buddhism. I would say that humans are by nature subject to confirmation bias, except that Boyce would insist that, in so saying, my thinking was fundamentally shaped by the precepts of, yes, original sin.

No doubt I am a soulless reductionist. Nonetheless, it seems to me that if you're going to make large statements, you should have large evidence supporting them. Otherwise you're simply playing with words.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Review: The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest
Cixin Liu (author), Joel Martin (translator)
Science fiction

Earlier this year I gave a thumbs up to The Three-Body Problem. I wasn't the only person to do so, either. It's not necessarily an effortless read, but it's worth the effort. So I was definitely looking forward to its sequel, The Dark Forest.

I ended up liking this one, too--but it wasn't always easy, and I have more reservations about it. It's a choppier read, for one thing. Maybe it's the author, maybe it's the culture, maybe it's the (different) translator, but I found the prose somewhat harder to swallow in The Dark Forest. There are more large chunks of exposition, more dialogue that sound like monologue, more plot threads that go nowhere, and more jarring shifts of time and content. I also have to say that Cixin Liu has some extremely odd notions about human motivation.

Part of the problem is structural. The Dark Forest has some of the the same problems that Neal Stephenson's Seveneves has: an elongated and somewhat disjointed timeframe, a lot of technical detail, and a looming disaster that nonetheless isn't an immediate plot driver. There's also, in both cases, a lack of focus on a central character. Indeed, in The Dark Forest, I think Liu chose the wrong character as his protagonist.

The end of the book, however, is good enough to tilt me into thumbs-up territory. The central problem is addressed in a way that's both intellectually and emotionally engaging. It's clever, it's perfectly well foreshadowed, and it's even fairly (not perfectly) original. I have a nagging feeling that it could have been done earlier in the internal timeline, but I could argue myself out of that.

As to whether you should read it ... it depends. If you couldn't get into or didn't like The Three-Body Problem, don't bother. If you liked it but don't feel the burning desire to find out more--a pardonable reaction; the first book stands alone quite well--then maybe The Dark Forest isn't for you. On the other hand, I suspect a lot of readers will be more engaged in the large-scale saga of The Three-Body Problem than in the characters and situations. If that's your reaction, you're going to want to find out how it ends.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: Death Ex Machina

Death Ex Machina (An Athenian Mystery)
Gary Corby

Murder mystery set in Periclean Athens. This wasn't published as a young-adult novel, but--aside from a small amount of "adult content"--that's about its level. It's competently written, it has a moderate level of period detail, it doesn't go overboard in trying to convey the real alien-ness of ancient society, and the characterization is simple (one character, one adjective).

As a mystery, it's ordinary. If you don't spot the villain and the motive about fifty pages ahead of time, you're not paying attention.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton is on the U.S. $10 bill. I'd be willing to wager a good many of those bills that most Americans have no idea why. He wasn't president. He wasn't Benjamin Franklin. He doesn't even have a big old memorial. What makes this guy important?

Ron Chernow's book will tell you that, for starters, if he hadn't done a brilliant job as the nation's first Treasury secretary, there wouldn't be a U.S. $10 bill. There might not be a United States. Alexander Hamilton is big, it's exhaustive, it's very well-written, it's often insightful--and it makes an well-argued case for Hamilton's genius and his contributions.

If the book has a weakness, it's that--like many other books of its stripe--it gets a little too sympathetic towards its subject. Chernow is not out to do a whitewash job; we get a full view of Hamilton's personal failings and his political missteps; but Chernow invites us to infer that Alexander Hamilton was never wrong on matters of policy.

Perhaps that's inevitable. We do, as has often been pointed out, live in Alexander Hamilton's American rather than Thomas Jefferson's. We're not a loose agglomeration of sturdy, independent yeomen; we're an industrial, mercantile society with a strong central government. Yet I don't think it's wrong to say that we're living with the defects, as well as the virtues, of the Hamiltonian vision. I suspect, for instance, that Jefferson would regard Donald Trump as a perfect exemplar of Homo hamiltonensis: a speculator, a crony capitalist, a would-be autarch, a demagogue, and a moneyed corruptor of public virtue.

That's not a concession that Ron Chernow makes. Jefferson, like the other actors in this book, appears only in so far as he impacted Hamilton; his own views are not brought forward, and reading this book will not give you a sense of their merits (whatever they might be).

Similarly, Hamilton's own views are presented through a slightly rosy lens. His enemies often accused him of being an aristocrat and of favoring a monarchy. Chernow goes to great lengths to counter these charges. And yet ... Hamilton's friend Gouverneur Morris wrote, in his own private diary and in preparation for delivering Hamilton's formal eulogy: "He was on principal opposed to republican and attached to monarchical government." I'm not so sure that we can dismiss this evidence, as Chernow does, by saying that "Morris distorted and exaggerated Hamilton's views no less than his Republican enemies".

On the other hand, Chernow does show just how deep those distortions were, and how baseless. Perhaps his most telling point is that Hamilton's most vicious opponents, the ones who accused him of wanting to establish an American aristocracy, were southern slave-holding landed gentry. How much more aristocratic can you get? It's hard not to agree with Chernow's point that their real objection was that a Hamiltonian aristocracy would be one of earned merit, rather than birth.

I can't in good conscience recommend this book to anyone who isn't at least a bit familiar with revolutionary-era history. It's 722 pages long; it's not suitable as an introduction! However, if you are interested in the subject, Alexander Hamilton is not only a good book, but an important one. Hamilton was as crucial a figure as Washington or Franklin or Jefferson. It's certainly time he got his recognition.

There are so many good histories and biographies of the Founding Fathers that I couldn't possibly list them all. Specifically, however, Chernow's own Washington: A Life, David McCullough's John Adams, and Joseph Ellis's Passionate Sage and American Sphinx shed more light on some of the other dramatis personae.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Review: The Great Sea

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean
David Abulafia

Long long ago, in my college days, I read Fernand Braudel's classic book The Mediterranenan and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. I remember thinking that Braudel suffered from a classic academic (and, arguably, specifically French) disease: the need to reduce everything to The Grand Theory. Down with the tyranny of events! Away with the outmoded historiography of great men! Long live the vast socio-meteorological-economic forces that are the true engines of history!

David Abulafia commits the opposite error. He's full of details, but he has no overarching theory. Worse, he has no real narrative structure. As a result, The Great Sea is full of enormous paragraphs explaining that, for example:
... Between 1960 and 1973 the number of annual visitors to Majorca rose precipitously from 600,000 to 3,600,000. By the start of the twenty-first century, tourism accounted for 84 per cent of the Majorcan economoy ... Majorca and Spain (excluding the Canaries) accounted for 25 per cent of British foreign holiday-making in 1964, and 36 per cent in1972, while holidays to Italy fell from 16 per cent to 11 per cent ...
The effect is to bury the reader under a mountain of data, without providing any actual information. From Abulafia's long chapter on the Middle Ages, for instance, I retained basically two items:
  1. Everybody traded with everybody.
  2. Everybody fought with everybody.
There are some colorful threads shot through this fabric, but they don't add up to a pattern. Abulafia sets out to divide Mediterranean history into distinct socio-economic epochs, which is a fine notion, but he loses control of his structure sometime in the Roman period. The rest is just ... data.

Braudel's work, while fascinating, is too academic for most readers. Simon Winchester's Atlantic does a better job with this sort of narrative, albeit for a different ocean (nor is it his best book).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Book Review: Underlands

Underlands: A Journey Through Britain's Lost Landscape
Ted Nield
Geology, memoir

I'm a sucker for personal-theme books.

By "personal-theme books", I mean "books that are a combination of memoir, philosophical investigation, and some factual content into a coherent whole, united by some thread." I've read several this year. Done well, these books tie together the small scale and the large, the personal and the abstract, in a way that sheds light on both.

In Underlands, the unifying thread is ... not history, exactly, but a sense of beginnings, of foundations. Nield weaves together his own family history in the south Wales mining areas with the history of those mines and the geology that produced them, throwing in some social history and some archaeology along the way. An old church is built of a particular rock because it's the only suitable building stone in the region; a layer of sediment goes from seabed, to hillside, to quarry, to abandoned; a mining disaster spares a young Ted Nield because his family has moved. Every is is founded on a succession of was.

It's a quirky book. Like most good "personal-theme" books, it's decidedly meditative in tone and digressive in substance. If you're looking for a straightforward fact-learning exercise, this isn't it. It's more of an invitation to ruminate. As a non-professional but habitual ruminant ruminator, I like that very much.

For poetical geological writing, you can't not read John McPhee. The book that I kept thinking about while reading Underlands, however, is Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air, which--although less memoir-ish--can be read as an extended riff on the theme of "connectedness".