Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: Mysteries of the Mall

Mysteries of the Mall: And Other Essays
Witold Rybczynski
Architecture, sociology

Witold Rybczynski is a deep-thinking cultural critic as well as an architect; this collection, however, is a shallow one, and mostly somewhat antiquated. There are some good bits in here, particularly in the essays that plumb the neglected intersections of architecture, art, and engineering. Overall, however, I'd have been more impressed if the book had been more ... analytical? argumentative? Something like that.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Book Review: The Zig-Zag Girl

The Zig-Zag Girl
Elly Griffiths

You know how sometimes you eat something, and it tastes pretty good, but you end up vaguely deflated? You feel like, yeah, I kinda liked doing it, but I'm never going to get those calories back. It doesn't mean you might not eat it again. But it does make you think about how much better it could have tasted.

That, as I'm sure you're anticipating, is The Zig-Zag Girl. There was a lot I liked about this book. The writing was pretty good. The characterization was better than that--the characters were not merely types, but individuals. And the setting was outstanding. Griffiths does a terrific job evoking the shabby-glamorous, world-within-a-world atmosphere of the last days of the old English music-hall circuit. The pacing isn't half-bad, either, although I was mildly irritated to find the police doing routine legwork on page 250 that they should have been doing on page 25.

But, dear God, the cliches! There's not a twist, not a turn, not a revelation that's not a hackneyed two-bit standard. In particular, there's this plot that English mystery scriptwriters follow with messianic devotion. It goes like this: some time ago, something bad happened to someone. Now, years later, someone connected with the bad event has suddenly gone bat-shit obsessive insane, and goes around murdering everyone involved according to some bizarre thematic scheme (the victims are slain based on the lines of a song, a writer's books, astrological signs ... ). The police, meanwhile, stand around watching bodies pile up until finally some revelation from out of the blue tells them who the killer is.

This has been the plot of, I kid you not, the last seven British TV mysteries that I have watched. (If you're keeping score, these would be the Midsomer Murders episodes "The Dagger Club," "Murder By Magic," "The Ballad of Midsomer County", and "A Vintage Murder", and the Lewis episodes "Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things", "Wild Justice", and "The Gift of Promise".) Regrettably, Elly Griffiths has imbibed whatever drug makes British writers think that this is a great idea, as well as all of the standard Murder 101 Gimmicks that they use to dress it up. If you can't guess the complete plot by the middle of the book, you're not trying.

I won't say I didn't get pleasure from reading The Zig-Zag Girl. I might even pick up another one by the same author. Hey, sometimes you're in the mood to stuff yourself with Twizzlers and Cheetos. I won't feel great afterwards, though.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review: War of Two

War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation
John Sedgwick
Biography, history

This vitae parallelae is a good companion piece to Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton, which I read last year. War of Two focuses specifically on the relationship between Burr and Hamilton. As a history, it's decent; when it's dealing with the two main characters, who are positively novelistic in scale, it's first rate.

One of the pleasures of reading history is that it gives perspective. Aaron Burr, vice president of the U.S., not only killed Hamilton; he also had a shadowy plan to set himself up as a sort of trans-Appalachian emperor. Some modern historians have expressed doubt about how serious the matter was, but War of Two doesn't give me any reason to doubt its scope. Whatever you think about the current crop of candidates, this seems an unlikely development (well, in most cases).

This gives rise to my only substantive gripe about the book. Hamilton thought Burr was a menace: unprincipled, utterly self-interested, and devious. Sedgwick presents this as an unbalanced obsession ... but why? Not only did others think the same, but Burr's later career tends to lend credence to Hamilton's warnings. It's reasonable that War of Two should be less partisan than the Chernow biography, but this smacks of a novelist's misreading of the evidence, in order to portray the two men's lives as more parallel than they were.

Otherwise, War of Two is a pretty good read. This war wasn't a war of ideas (unlike Hamilton's tussles with Jefferson and Madison), possibly because Burr was largely devoid of any ideas other than the good of Aaron Burr Esq. It was a bitter personal feud, pure and simple. So if the story seems a little soap-opera-ish ... that's how it really happened.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: SPQR

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard

To call SPQR a history is deceptive. This isn't a chronicle of events and dates. The only way you'd know that there was a First Punic War, for example, is that the book talks about the Second. In truth, SPQR  assumes that you already know the history, at least in outline.

Mary Beard is trying to do something harder. She's trying to get us to engage with the Romans, to see ourselves in them--or, in some cases, not--and to talk about Roman approaches to what it means to be a world-wide, urbanized civilization. As a result, she spends a lot of her time on the nebulous concept of Romanitas, "Roman-ness". Instead of dates, you'll find a discussion of institutions. Instead of an exclusive focus on The Lives of Great Men, you'll find a diligent effort to understand the everyday experience of Roman citizens (as well as Roman subjects and Roman enemies).

This approach can be brutally boring. SPQR is often argumentative, and it's consistently skeptical of the "Just-So Stories" approach to history, but boring it isn't. It's very well written without sacrificing academic rigor. I especially like the way Beard shows that ancient people were not stupid, and that they--or at least the intelligentsia--approached some of the same questions we'd have with some of the same attitudes. The only kvetch I have is that Beard is occasionally so skeptical that I was left wondering whether anything happened at all.

Don't read this as an intro. Do read it if you're trying to dig deeper.

If you are looking for an intro, one good place to start is Tom Holland's Rubicon. (The sequel is just out; it's on my list.) And, of course, this.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Book Review: The Triumph of Seeds

The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History
Thor Hanson

I read a lot of books that might be described as "natural biography". These are the ones where the author takes some physical object and explains how it changed/made/shaped/remade history. Some are really good (SaltThe Box, Rust). Most are so-so. I expected The Triumph of Seeds to be another IYTTSMSIYPETB.

I'm happy to report it's much better than that. Thor Hanson has the knack of putting his observations together so that they flow smoothly, creating a coherent whole rather than a series of vignettes. He has a nicely-rendered set of characters (mostly scientists) whom he talks to, an engaging way with an anecdote, and the admirable habit of periodically looping back to connect what he's writing to what he's written before. He brings in just enough of his own life to make it personal, without straying off into memoir territory.

As to the subject matter, it's interesting and enlightening. Seeds are really complicated. They're alive, and yet they're metabolically inert. They're highly and variously evolved. They have an extraordinary variety of adaptations--colors, alkaloids, hard shells, soft bits, you name it--and a complex evolutionary history. 

Also, I learned many entirely useless facts, such as what guar gum really is. (Did you know it's used in fracking?) So that made me happy. 

In short, what's not to like? Seeds is short, well-written without being pretentious, and informative. Even if you don't think the subject matter sounds interesting, you might like this one.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: 1944

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History
Jay Winik

I've read a lot of World War II history. I'm often a little chary about reading any more, as it's relatively uncommon for me to learn much. I made an exception for this, in part, because I enjoyed Winik's earlier April 1865.

I didn't learn all that much that was new in the large, but I liked 1944 anyway. Jay Winik knows how to put the story in history, which is important. This, it turns out, is the story of how the U.S. and Franklin Roosevelt responded to the slow, unspeakable realization of the truth of the Holocaust. The general history of the year is secondary; Winik treats 1944 as the fulcrum of his story: balanced to the fore with an exposition of how events reached that point, and aft with the knowledge of how they turned out.

The truth is bleak: we did very little. It's not likely that we could have done more; by 1944 the extermination was largely complete. But we should have tried. In saying and doing as little as possible until late in the war, we showed a complete moral failure. I expect that, in similar circumstances, we'd do the same today. It could be argued that we already are.

The other thing that 1944 does masterfully is to make real the absolute monstrosity of the Nazi industrial death machine. I've occasionally heard the opinion that Hitler & Co. didn't really believe their own antisemitic propaganda--that it was just red meat for their ignorant followers. That's not true. 1944 makes it brutally clear that the Nazis, from the top down, were genuinely devoted to doing their job, and to doing it with as much rational efficiency as they could manage. They kept doing it right to the end. Even as the Reich crumbled, and the tanks rolled towards Berlin, Germany devoted scarce resources to keeping the trains rolling and the gas chambers working overtime.

So this is not a light read. It's a good one, though.

The last time I was happy to have broken my own guidelines re: WWII reading, it was for Rick Atkinson's unbelievably good An Army at DawnThe Day of Battle and The Guns at Last Light. Read them if you have any interest at all in the subject.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Book Review: Lingo

Lingo: A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe
Gaston Dorren

The subtitle gives a good idea of what this book is like. For all intents and purposes, it's a hobbyist's identification guide, much like the ones I had as a kid for identifying rocks and seashells. The chapters are short, the facts are interesting, the writing is amusing. There's not much in the way of an overarching thesis or an argumentative stance. In short, IYTTSMSIYPETB. (I liked it very much.)