Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: San Andreas

San Andreas
Alastair MacLean

Alastair MacLean Thriller checklist:

  • Excellent pacing: ✅CHECK
  • Man! Versus! Nature!: ✅CHECK
  • Great Scott! There's a traitor on this ship / mission / airplane / submarine / Morris Dance team!: ✅✅CHECK
  • Hard to tell minor characters apart: ✅CHECK
  • Careless with minor facts: ✅CHECK
  • Plot makes very little sense if examined dispassionately: ✅CHECK
What can I say? When you're in the mood to eat popcorn, you eat popcorn.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Return of the Special Guest Reviewer!

As with last year, we are fortunate to have the 2015 book reviews of Mr. Mike Phipps. For reference, among Mike's books, I have read the following within recent memory:

Backroom Boys
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?
Paris Reborn
The Courtier and the Heretic (not nearly as good as Wittgenstein's Poker, in my opinion)
Stuff Matters
American Lion (a good book; another view of Andrew Jackson is in Daniel Walker Howe's Pulitzer-winning What Hath God Wrought)
Rust (one of my favorites of 2015)
Is That a Fish In Your Ear? (I liked this much more than Mike did)
The Lions of Al-Rassan
Dead Wake
The Wright Brothers (another of my favorites of 2015)
Thinking, Fast and Slow
The Shepherd's Crown
Beyond Numeracy
The Road Not Taken
The Violinist's Thumb
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

Mike's taste and mine are often similar but not identical. Read and ponder!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book Review: The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Andrea Wulf

Alexander von Humboldt is probably the most famous person you've never heard of. And that's a shame. There's a reason the man has a couple of mountain ranges, an ocean current, a species of penguin, a bay, a glacier, a disappearing river, at least twenty U.S. places, etc. etc. etc. named after him. He influenced men as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and Henry David Thoreau.

Andrea Wulf does a good job bringing von Humboldt out of the shadows as a person, and of documenting his influence. She does only a fair job at explaining the scientific aspects of his journeys, and at explaining why he was so influential to such a diverse group of readers. The substantive descriptions of Humboldt's findings are also spotty; her description of the Casiquiare River, for example--which splits and flows into two separate drainage basins--is pretty unclear (and the accompanying map is just plain wrong).

Where The Invention of Nature really shines, though, is as an intellectual biography. Wulf brings a pleasing coherence to von Humboldt's ... philosophy? way of thinking? worldview? What distinguished him, at least in Wulf's telling, was that he was one of the earliest thinkers to consider the world holistically, in terms of interconnected systems. He lived at the cusp of the Enlightenment/Romantic divide, and his though partakes of both traditions. He collected, he measured, he documented; but equally he explored, he thrilled, he synthesized.

The Invention of Nature doesn't quite make it onto my "everyone should run right out and read this" list. However, it's intriguing and readable and occasionally eye-opening; it commits the laudable feat of appealing equally to natural-history enthusiasts and biography mavens; and it gives its hero the credit he's due. Overall, a fine job.

I've read quite a lot of books in this general sector. Here are three that stand out:

  • The Invention of Air, by Steven Johnson, is an extended study on the theme of connectedness disguised as an excellent biography of the chemist Joseph Priestley. Johnson also wrote the superb The Ghost Map, which I mentioned here.
  • The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, is an amazing and beautifully written book about the Romantic era and its embrace of science.
  • The River of Doubt, by Candace Millard, recounts ex-President Theodore Roosevelt's jaw-dropping exploration of the Amazon basin.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Book Review: Touch

Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind
David J. Linden

Some books have it. Some books don't. Touch is among those that don't.

The "it" in question is the ability to take a big heaping pile of facts and make a connected structure out of them. Touch gets as far as coherent chapter topics, and each chapter begins with a nice clear introduction to the subject. Beyond that, it gets muddled. Every chapter is divided into sections, and the sections don't always connect up. Here, for example, are the first lines of the sections in the chapter on "Pain and Emotion":

  • On his fourteenth birthday, eager to perform an especially daring trick to impress his friends, a boy jumped off the roof of his family's house in Lahore, Pakistan.
  • It usually starts soon after birth, often with the first bowel movement.
  • Imagine that you're walking around the house without shoes and you slam your toes into a heavy wooden chair leg.
  • There is no single brain area for registering pain.
  • When I was a child, sunburn seemed like sympathetic magic.
  • Francis McGlone, a well-known researcher on tactile perception, is fond of asking, "Why is it that there is chronic pain but no chronic pleasure?"
  • On April 13, 2003, Private Dwayne Turner, a U.S. Army combat medic, was with a small unit that came under attack as they were unloading supplies in a makeshift operations center about thirty miles south of Baghdad.
  • When patients are given a sugar pill or some other placebo and told that it will relieve pain, many will indeed experience a degree of pain relief.
  • Torturers are all too aware of the cognitive and emotional  modulation of pain perception, which they exploit in horrifically dehumanizing ways to heighten pain and fear and leave their victims leaving powerless.
  • Pain and negative emotion are deeply intertwined.
That semi-random grab-bag of sentences is pretty representative of how the chapter reads.

On the other hand, the sentences are pretty intriguing, aren't they? That's Touch's strong point. Did you know that there are four different types of touch-sensing skin cells? Or that there are fast and slow neuron channels? Or that scientists have identified separate genes for sensing when it's too hot vs. too cold? Or that it's possible for someone with a severe itch to scratch ... never mind, that one's disturbing. It's all really interesting, though.

Touch is a good read, in other words. You could read it off and on in sections and be not much the worse. You'll pick up some real conversation-stoppers for your next dinner party (that should tell you what my dinner-party skills are like). You might even learn something. If you find yourself regretting that Daniel J. Linden didn't get the full attention of a top-notch editor, well, blame the state of publishing today.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Book Review: Battling the Gods

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World
Tim Whitmarsh
Philosophy, history

When you're talking about the intellectual life of two thousand years ago, a degree of speculation is inevitable--even desirable. Nonetheless, there are limits; the absence of evidence against a proposition is not evidence for it. Tim Whitmarsh, at times, seems bent on blurring that line. Take this quotation, which asserts with sublime confidence that a certain passage of poetry was intended to be understood as subversive of divinity:
For some listeners the general point will have been clear enough: their king is more than human, in a way that mere language cannot capture. For others, the failure to specify exactly where Ptolemy sits in the hierarchy will have been a sign that Theocritus was not sure.
 Or this:
Could it be that Metrodorus was prompted by the atheistic arguments circulating in the Academy to propose a new type of history of Rome's rise, one that stressed the absence of benevolent divine influence?
Well, sure, Tim, it could be that way. Or it could be some other way. 

There are a lot of other examples. Academic or semi-academic authors tend to use this kind of "it is not implausible that ... " argument as a way of bolstering up some thesis, in the hopes that enough not-implausible assertions will eventually acquire the force of a convincing argument. Whitmarsh seems to be doing that; however, I'm not quite sure why. From the body of Battling the Gods, I understand that:

  1. Among the elites of the ancient world there existed a wide variety of religious views.
  2. Loaded terms like "atheist" meant different things to different people.
Which is fine. I never doubted either statement. The same could be said for comparable societies, such as early modern Europe.

Whitmarsh also makes some fitful stabs at a more argumentative thesis: that religiosity is not necessarily normative. Perhaps it's wrong to see religious societies as "normal", in other words, and atheism as therefore fundamentally "aberrant", in need of explanation. That's a more interesting position, but most of Battling the Gods kind of slants the other way. The fact that ancient authors compiled lists of thinkers identified as atheos, for example, or that "the Atheist" was not-infrequently given as a kind of epithet, or that atheistic philosophers were sometimes satirized in Athenian drama. suggests that those people were thought of as out of the ordinary. Nobody compiles lists of thinkers with brown hair, or refers to a rival as "the notorious Anaxipygion the Moderate".

Where Battling the Gods does excel is as a kind of field guide to ancient skepticism. When Whitmarsh isn't trying to make a point, he's terrific. The threads of non-theistic philosophy are laid out clearly. The writers are well identified and categorized. The description of the the place of atheism in classical, Hellenistic, and Roman society is excellent. The arguments are clearly and interestingly described. Perhaps best of all, Whitmarsh makes it obvious (without saying it explicitly) that these were some very smart men, and that we shouldn't give ourselves airs on our smartness by virtue of mere modernity; may of the doctrines and ideas being debated in Athens c. 400 BC have close counterparts here and now.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Christopher Dickey
History, biography

This is the story of Robert Bunch, Britain's consul in South Carolina from 1853 to 1863. Bunch was personally revolted by slavery, and particularly seethed at some Southerners' unvarnished desire to not only expand it but to reopen the Atlantic slave trade. He faithfully and repeatedly hammered home these views to his superiors. But he also had to do his duty (representing his country's interests), which meant remaining on civil terms with slaveholders.

That's pretty much it for Our Man in Charleston. Bunch wasn't a secret agent in any real sense of the term. He wasn't in urgent danger, in spite of Christopher Dickey's attempts to play up the tense atmosphere. He didn't do anything that wasn't his job. Granted that some other British consuls don't even seem to have done that, Bunch's performance doesn't seem worthy of more than ordinary approbation.

Dickey may be over-faithfully following the analysis laid out in Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in America's Civil War. Foreman lays a lot of stress on William Seward's erratic behavior towards Britain, particularly in 1861-1862. If not for antislavery sentiment, goes the argument, Seward might have provoked Britain into intervening for the South, with consequences that would have been truly unspeakable. Therefore, anything that fanned the antislavery flames in London (by reminding people just how genuinely revolting the Confederacy was) was crucial.

Well, maybe so. I'd be interested in a less obviously derivative argument, and there were surely other people than Robert Bunch who had some impact. Our Man in Charleston is a very readable book, and it brings its subject and its time vividly alive. It also does a valuable service in reminding us all of how truly loathsome were the views of many white southerners in the 1860s. All the same, I'd have to rate this as a good read for the Civil War enthusiast rather than as a book for general consumption.

In spite of any counterclaims expressed herein, Foreman's book is truly wonderful, and can be read with pleasure by anyone who's even moderately interested in history.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Book Review: Dynasty

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Tom Holland
History, biography

No, not the cheesy old TV series. The story of Rome's first emperors is equally soap-operatic, and infinitely more lurid.

It's interesting to contrast Dynasty with Mary Beard's recent SPQR. (Others have done the same.) The books are almost mirror images of one another. SPQR  is cerebral; Dynasty is visceral. SPQR is analytic (though a good read); Dynasty is narrative (though well-researched). SPQR  avoids the Great Man view of history; Dynasty  embraces it. SPQR  is extremely reserved about accepting what the Romans themselves wrote about their history; Dynasty  leans heavily on ancient sources.

In other words, Dynasty is an eye-popping, page-turning, ripping good yarn. If you liked Holland's previous history (the outstanding Rubicon) you'll like Dynasty. I read through the whole thing in a couple of sittings. It's vivid. It's immediate. Above all, it's astoundingly personal; it makes the people and events of two thousand years ago seem like the people and events of today, only writ large.

How accurate it is is another question. I'm not among those who believes that we should disbelieve ancient writers on principle because they were credulous (they weren't) or partisan (they were, but so are modern writers). Nor do I believe, as some writers seem to, that nobody ever actually said anything witty, or did anything theatrically over-the-top, or indulged in some reprehensible appetites. 

All the same, Holland--while acknowledging frankly his struggle with the "Scylla and Charybdis" of extreme skepticism vs. extreme credibility--chooses to lay on the gory details with a broad brush. I think Holland's aim (aside from making narrative sense, which is difficult and worthy in its own right) is to give us some sense of Roman history as the Romans might have understood it. He recounts Roman origin stories that are clearly mythical, for instance, in the same authorial voice that he uses for biography.

So don't look for anything about the daily lives of the populace, or the economics of slavery, or the remarkable engineering infrastructure. This is old-fashioned blood-and-thunder storytelling. Take it for what it is, and enjoy.

Holland's Rubicon, while no less readable, is somewhat more judicious. If you're only going to read one of the two, read that one.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book Review: Pandemic

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond
Sonia Shah

"But." It's such a powerful, deflating little word. It's like kryptonite for whatever goes before it. "He's a nice guy, but ..." "The food is good, but ..."

Well: Pandemic is a good book, but ... it suffers from narrative tunnel vision. By which I mean that Sonia Shah has a narrative, and by gum she's going to ram every piece of evidence she can find into that narrative, whether it fits or not. The effect is to make Pandemic into a series of Just-So Stories.

Sometimes this takes the form of blinkered research. For example, thirty seconds with Google would have informed Sonia Shah that the fable of "medieval Europeans never took baths!" is, at best, a wild oversimplification. But she has her narrative, and she sticks to it, and her narrative requires this fable in undiluted, un-nuanced form.

In other cases, Shah takes one of several competing scientific theories--the one that fits the narrative--and runs with it. She's careful not to present it as fact, but all the same the reader is left with a strong impression that, yes, this is how the whole overarching epic ought to go. For example, disease resistance is one of several competing explanations for why sexual reproduction evolved out of the boring old asexual variety. From Pandemic, you could be forgiven for thinking it's the consensus. It's not. (Just a few weeks ago I recall reading an article that made a credible alternative case for heat resistance as the driving force, at least in yeasts.)

Finally, this particular tocsin ("bad diseases are coming to destroy us all!") has been sounded before now. I read Laurie Garrett's* The Coming Plague in 1994 and Richard Preston's The Hot Zone in 1995. That doesn't mean that Shah's book is not true. It does mean that a more balanced, less narrative-tunnel-vision presentation might have been in order.

So I had reservations, but ... Pandemic is a great read. Shah has a brilliant structure. She takes cholera, about which a great deal is known, and which is a relatively new disease--the first mass outbreaks date to the early 19th century--as her explanatory device. Every chapter deals first with some known aspect of cholera: where it came from, what it does, how it spreads, etc. It then applies this to the emerging diseases of the 21st century. The result is a superb synthesis: here's what we know, and here's what that tells us about what to expect.

Should you read it? Absolutely, if you're interested. The prose is good, the level of scientific detail is about right, there are some engaging personal touches. Just remember: Sonia Shah has a seamless narrative, but ... it might not be true. Then again, it might.

P.S.: this.

*Incidentally, Garrett wrote a review of Pandemic that is so utterly wrong-headed and sour-grapesish ("Why didn't Sonia Shah write the book I wanted her to write?" seems to be the theme) that it made me think better of the present book.

One of the best books I've ever read on this sort of thing is Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, on the London cholera epidemic of 1854. Do not miss it if you're at all interested in the subject matter.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Book Review: The Killing in the Cafe

The Killing in the Cafe: A Fethering Mystery
Simon Brett

Simon Brett has done some good work before now. This isn't it. It's a purely perfunctory exercise. There's a slimmed-down version of the UK Mystery Writer's One True Plot, redeemed only by the fact that there's thankfully just one murder (and hence no theme). Other than some snarky commentary, there's nothing more to see here.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Review: The Road Taken

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure
Henry Petroski

I can't help but admire a book that not only takes its title from a certain poem, but every single chapter title as well--and gets them in order. Also, I'll read more or less anything by a man who had the chops to write a wonderful engineering history of the pencil. This one is a little less successful than it might have been. The writing is uncharacteristically stiff--not dry, nor unreadable, but somewhat more formal than it needs to be. Perhaps that's because many of the chapters were originally essays in a trade magazine; presumably that's the reason why there's less of a narrative thread here than I'd have preferred. Finally, the relentless focus on roads and road bridges is a bit of a lost opportunity for a broader and more thematic take.

Still: a good book, enlightening and judicious. It's descriptive, but it's also prescriptive: the most eloquent passages are the arguments in favor of infrastructure, of engineering, and of not taking either for granted. I particularly liked the chapters on those portions of highway infrastructure that webarely even register, such as street markings and traffic lights and curbs and guardrails. Humble they may be, but they're all important ... and they're all engineered.

Two good related books: Earl Swift's The Big Roads (about the Interstate Highway system), which Petroski references freely here, and Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic (accurately subtitled "Why We Drive the Way We Do"), which he doesn't.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review: The Sugar Season

The Sugar Season
Douglas Whynott
Biography, sociology

Next weekend I'll be going out to my ancestral homeland to visit the sugarhouse. We do this most years. I've been doing it for almost half a century now. It's been going on a lot longer than that; the first English settlers learned the art of maple sugaring from the Abenaki. It's fun--the kids are all excited; everyone's happy; you get to see the guys boiling down the sap, and breathe in great clouds of sweet steam--and in a way it's also deeply symbolic, almost ritualistic. It's the sign of the change of seasons, when the back of the winter has broken. It's an old tradition that's constantly reinventing itself. It's a Yankee thing.

It's also dying. In another half-century, maybe less, it'll probably be gone. There's the unending suburbanization of New England to contend with. There's the relentless march of the high-fructose-corn-syrup glop that everyone buys in the supermarket. And, most inexorably, there's climate change. Maples are cold-weather trees. When New England's climate is more like North Carolina's, there will be no more sugaring.

All these things make The Sugar Season a poignant as well as an interesting book. It'll appeal to fans of Tracy Kidder; it follows Kidder's model by taking a single protagonist and using him to draw a portrait of a whole sub-society. There's more to sugaring than tradition--it's big business--and it's not all Norman Rockwell redux. Douglass Whynott does a nice job bringing out the various, and sometimes contradictory, facets of the world of maple. I think he spends a bit too much time on the business end of things; but that is, perhaps, misplaced nostalgia on my part.

If you have kids, by all means take them to the sugarhouse. They may not get the chance to do the same.

An essential part of the great cycle of nature is the annual newspaper story. Every year, compelled by some mysterious urge, the Boston journalist rediscovers the sugarhouse. Though these shy creatures seldom venture far from their suburban habitat, their annual telephonic buglings reach even to the wild, untamed regions outside of Route 495.