Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Review: Mad Enchantment

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
Ross King
Art, Biography, History

Ross King has written several lovely books. His best-known is Brunelleschi's Dome, which beautifully mixes art and architecture and politics and late-medieval history. I also liked The Judgment of Paris, chronicling the birth of Impressionism through the vitae parallelae of Ernest Meissonier (then famous, now obscure) and Edouard Manet (then obscure, now famous).

Mad Enchantment doesn't rise to that level. King's writing isn't the problem; it's his choice of subject matter. Justly famous though the Water Lilies series is, the story around it isn't really all that remarkable. In particular, a big chunk of Mad Enchantment involves the years-long negotiations surrounding Monet's donation of an indeterminate number of paintings to France. The unfortunate fact is that bureaucratic wrangling--however artistic the domain--is just not dramatic.

As Tracy Kidder has observed, "the techniques of fiction never belonged exclusively to fiction." The best parts of Mad Enchantment involve Monet himself: his tantrums, his fits of furious energy, his personal tragedies, his life at Giverny, and most especially his friendship with Georges Clemenceau (who was Prime Minster of France during World War I, among other things). Those parts make a story. The remainder. . . eh.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Only Five Four Months Until Opening Day

Over Thanksgiving I got to talking about Norman Rockwell's illustration "Tough Call" a.k.a "Game Called Because of Rain".
(Image hosted by the Rockwell Museum)
The painting tells a story! A little more detail is here.

The three magisterial umpires have always reminded me of this:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Book Review: Noise

Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening
David Hendy

I was thinking of this as a companion book for Bruce Watson's book Light. (I bought it in the same very fine bookstore, too.) By comparison, Hendy's book--though very engagingly and conversationally written--is refreshingly free from Light's literary pyrotechnics. It's also, to give a linguistic point back to Bruce Watson, less focused. That's sort of appropriate. Light is specific; we see what's in front of us. Sound is general; we hear what the world sends us.

I'm not going to try to untangle David Hendy's theses. They're present, but they're not really central to the book. The ubiquity of sound means that Hendy has to ignore as much as he includes. His organization is chronological: he proceeds through time, picking up a sound-related theme in each chapter. It's a good structure, as long as you don't pretend to believe that the theme was the meaningful sound-related thing going on at that time. There would always have been others; it's just that to make room for them Noise would have to have been three hundred thousand pages long instead of three hundred.

As an instance, take chapter 22, "The Beat of a Heart, the Tramp of a Fly". Spatially, it falls about two-thirds of the way through Noise. It begins thus:
In January 1780, a sixty-year-old Edinburgh man walked slowly through the streets of his home city, wheezing and puffing rather alarmingly. As he reached Infirmary Street, just to the south of the Old Town, he turned into Surgeon's Square.
This leads into the development of the stethoscope, with  further excursions toward amplification of sound in general. It's a nifty little essay. The only caveat is that it's only one tiny facet of what was happening in The Wonderful World of Sound (1780-1850), and that therefore there's a lot being left out. Hendy chose to write this particular chapter, in other words, and in so doing chose not to write about the neighs of horses or the chuffing of early steam engines or the clatter of the first telegraph keys or the thunk of the guillotine during the French Revolution or the thunder of the buffalo herds in the last days of their glory or . . .

Understand, I'm not nitpicking because I disliked Noise. On the contrary: I love this stuff! There's a companion BBC radio series which I plan to listen to. Read the book as a sampler rather than pretending that it's really any kind of true, connected "history" and you'll be fine.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review: The Path

The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
Michael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh

The Path is based on an introductory course at Harvard. As such it's, well, introductory. That's appropriate for me because I know next to nothing about Chinese philosophy. However, The Path is maybe a little too introductory.

To begin with, in its eagerness to draw a contrast with Western philosophy, it oversimplifies. Puett and Gross-Loh make a bunch of grand historical generalizations ("the West is/was . . . " this, that, or the other). Many of these are, at best, hard to substantiate. Some of them struck me as kind of dumb. For example: it may be true that the emergence of philosophical writing occurred at roughly the same time in China and Greece, and that war epics emerged at about that time in both regions, but it's a stretch to suppose a causal connection between the epics and the philosophy. Rather, the connection is literacy: there are no war epics from 8th-century-BC Britain because there's no written literature from 8th-century-BC Britain.

The same is true of the book's take on philosophy itself. The Path claims to draw contrasts between the Chinese and occidental philosophical traditions, but it mainly talks about the latter in terms of pop psychology straw-man arguments. It doesn't really engage with European thinkers at all. Take this summation of one Chinese tradition:
Living in a capricious world means accepting that we do not live within a stable moral cosmos that will always reward people for what they do . . . We should always expect to be surprised and learn to work with whatever befalls us. If we can continue this work, even when tragedies come our way, we can begin to accept the world as unpredictable and impossible to determine perfectly . . . We can go into each situation resolved to be the best human being we can be, not for what we'll get out to it, but simply to affect others around us for the better, regardless of the outcome.
OK, great. Only . . . doesn't it sound kind of similar to this?
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth.
The second one isn't a Chinese sage talking. No, that's Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome and one of the last great Stoic philosophers. Other "revolutionary" concepts in The Path sound a lot like Epicureanism, or even like classical skepticism (which is a little different from the modern understanding).

Finally, to the extent that The Path accurately represents Chinese philosophy, I don't like Chinese philosophy. It's empirically true that, for example, brain scans show that we make a lot of so-called "rational" choices based on intuition, prejudice, emotion, and sloppy thinking. It does not follow that we should therefore embrace intuition, prejudice, emotion, and sloppy thinking. On the contrary: these facts make it a positive moral duty to strive to become better, more rational decision makers. That's my interpretation of, for instance, this:
A monkey trainer was handing out nuts, saying, "You get three in the morning, and four at night." The monkeys were enraged. So he said, "All right, then, you get four in the morning and three at night." The monkeys were thrilled.
This is meant to argue that it's better to adjust your way of thinking than to make yourself unhappy. That's nice. As a Westerner, though, I believe in the power of reason. It is better to have the trainer's rational understanding than the monkeys' non-rational sentiments. 

Being non-rational isn't hard. There are many people who, like the philosopher Zuangzhi, have "trained [them]selves to become 'spontaneous' through daily living, rather than closing [them]selves off through what we think of as rational decision-making". A lot of them end up spontaneously launching pogroms, overdosing on heroin, committing vandalism, and voting for demagogues. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Book Review: Original Sin

Original Sin
P. D. James

I have always thought that P. D. James was vastly overrated. She'd have been a better mystery writer if she'd practiced what she preached. However, I've been doing some (dare I say) professional investigations of mystery writing--reading analytically, in other words, with an eye towards how it all works. I hadn't read any of James's work in decades. She's considered an important writer. So . . .

The first thing that struck me is that I can see why James was the darling of the lit-crit types. She focuses heavily on character. Every single significant character, and a number of the minor ones, gets five to ten pages of backstory. The backstory inevitably some lugubrious tale of how life, fate, daddy, poverty, religion, etc. etc. etc. made the character miserable and insecure and neurotic. They're all differently neurotic, but they're all neurotic. (Except for some characters who are Not of the Correct Social/Professional Standing, who are permitted to be ordinary.) A good deal of it strikes me as faintly absurd, as for example:
She yearned for his love and approbation. She had listened dutifully, had asked the right questions, had instinctively known that this was an interest he assumed that she would share. But she realized now that the deception had only added guilt to her natural reserve and timidity, that the river had become more terrifying because she could not acknowledge its terrors and her relationship with her father more distant because it was founded on a lie.
This is, as the British put it, over-egging the pudding.

But, okay, the writing itself is generally pretty good. Sometimes it's very good, particularly when James is doing description and mood. The setup is good. The pacing flows along nicely. We have a variety of motives and a variety of suspects and some alibis. I was starting to enjoy myself.

Until page 504. That's when the murderer reveals himself. The detectives don't do anything. The killer just pops out and says, in effect: hi, I did it. For all the good they do, Adam Dalgliesh and his high-powered team of investigators might as well have stayed home polishing their backstories.

I am not exaggerating here. The body is discovered on page 141. From the narrative point of view, nothing that occurs in the next 363 pages makes any damn difference whatsoever.

In fact, the only thing our detectives actually detect is the motive. This they eventually discover by the brilliant deductive technique of sitting down and reading the documents in the room where the body was found. Having made this Socratic leap of intellect, they promptly use the discovery to FAIL TO PREVENT ANOTHER MURDER.

Gad! The master criminals of England must be quaking in their boots!

Oh, and that motive? It's one of these. (Discovering the motive will probably spoil the book for you; if you still want to read it, don't follow the link!)

Original Sin is, for all its literary aspirations and elegant writing, pretentious drivel. It does precisely the things that P. D. James herself said that a mystery novel ought never do. Let me use her own analogy against her: if you are a poet, and you make the deliberate decision to write a sonnet, you should then actually follow the rules of the form. Don't whinge about how you can't express yourself in fourteen lines. Don't go around boasting that you've expanded the possibilities of the form by writing a limerick and calling it a sonnet. You  made the decision to write in this form. Do it or go away.

There are very few people who know how to write classical-form mysteries nowadays. Right now only Aaron Elkins and Steve Hockensmith are on my list. If you discover another, please let me know.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Uncharted Waters

WARNING: politics ahoy.

I am not a historian, but I do read a good many history books. What follows is my best attempt at analyzing what's going on in the wake of Donald Trump's election. I'm specifically trying to be factual rather than polemical, but obviously my prejudices will color my conclusions.

So now what? Well, whatever else it may be, Trumpism is manifestly:

  • Nationalist, in that it it embraces an "America First" ideology;
  • Populist, in that it stokes up and harnesses anger directed at elites; and
  • Authoritarian, in that an admiration for "strength" seems to be a core belief both for Trump and for his followers.
Regardless of whether you believe these things are good or bad, that's an empirical capsule description of Trumpism.

The United States has never before had a mass nationalist-populist-authoritarian political movement--at least, not one with this kind of power. Andrew Jackson came close, but Jackson in the 1820s was at least in harmony with his own political party. Huey Long took some steps in that direction before he was assassinated. The 19th-century "Know-Nothings" were profoundly nativist, and (briefly) had significant political power, but they didn't have the other characteristics.

So, as the title says: we're in uncharted waters.

However: other nations have had, and continue to have, nationalist-populist-authoritarian political parties. Historical comparisons are unavoidably fraught with emotion, but there are plenty of current examples. Consider Hugo Chavez in Venezuala, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and (no avoiding this one) Vladimir Putin in Russia. To find out what's in store for the U.S., we can look at these. I draw these conclusions:
  • These regimes tend to become repressive over time. The weaker the nation's civil and political institutions, the faster the repressiveness comes. If anyone has an example of a nationalist-populist-authoritarian regime which has not tended toward repression, please leave me a comment.
  • A core constituency develops whose members will never under any circumstances turn on the leader. It doesn't matter how far the leader goes or in what direction. As long as they feel that the Strong Man stays strong, his adherents will follow him.
  • When I say "the leader," I mean "the leader." It's not a group or an explicit ideology that animates the movement. It's hero-worship of a particular man. (I can't come up with a single female example off the top of my head.)
  • The leader usually surrounds himself with loyalists. They may be competent or incompetent; that's neither here nor there to the boss. They are never strong enough to stand up to the autocrat in their own right, but they often use their position to build up their own power bases.
  • Once in power, the regime takes steps to remain in power. Opposition politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and so forth are removed or neutralized. Non-core or borderline supporters are forced to choose: join the movement, or be purged. The vast majority of them join.
In our case, I expect that the last bullet point will occur first. Trumpism is the new normal in the Republican Party. This would (in my opinion) surely have occurred if Trump had lost, but now it will happen faster and more thoroughly. A few formerly-mainstream Republicans will make ineffectual gestures towards resistance, but the rank and file will go along.

The third bullet is another interesting point. Trump is seventy years old. Strong-man leaders don't have a great record of transferring their authority to anyone else (Nicolas Maduro and Dmitriy Medvedev are cases in point). We're probably still too early in the process for him to pull off a family dynasty a la North Korea or Syria. Prognosis: unknown.

Finally, the U.S. has generally had strong civil institutions. It may be that they will check the repressive tendencies of the neo-Republican/Trumpist movement, or at least slow it down--through sheer inertia, if nothing else. Barring a major policy blunder, however, I think we are likely to see our politics dominated by mobs of insecure and angry white people for some time to come.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Book Review: A Burglar's Guide to the City

A Burglar's Guide to the City
Geoff Manaugh
Architecture, crime

This is a good book for anyone who likes heist movies and caper plots--or, since I know my audience, anyone who plays games that invoke heist movies and caper plots. It's also one of those books whose structure mirrors its subject matter. Whether that's a good thing or a bad one is a matter of taste.

Manaugh starts with a simple premise: burglary--that is, stealing stuff from a structure--requires architecture, and architecture shapes burglary. Burglars see the city differently. They'll do things like camp out in a dumpster for the purpose of putting a hole in an adjacent wall. They'll burrow in at the north end of a row of connected buildings in order to steal something at the south end. Where you and I see streets, they see escape routes.

It's fascinating stuff. Manaugh serves up a feast of anecdotes and a wealth of extraordinary tidbits. Like his burglars, he tunnels from one thing to another. You can never tell where he's going to pop up next. Safe rooms, legal quiddities, an aerial view of Los Angeles, tips from a retired (?) burglar, forced-entry techniques, hobbyist lock-pickers, you name it: it's all here. As I was reading A Burglar's Guide to the City, I kept thinking: "This is more like a series of connected blog posts than a book". And lo and behold, once I got to the footnotes, I discovered that that's how it began.

I have a boundless appetite for useless knowledge. I enjoyed A Burglar's Guide to the City quite a lot. It's not ultimately as informative as it might be, though, because the random globs of information never really cohere. Arguably it should have stayed in the blogosphere . . . but if it had I'd probably have missed out on the useless knowledge aforesaid, and that would be a shame.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Book Review: Of Arms and Artists

Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters' Eyes
Paul Staiti
Art, biography, history

Paul Staiti has an interesting idea. He wants to talk about the uses and meanings of art in a time of revolution. He doesn't completely pull it off, but it's a worthwhile try.

The biggest problem with Of Arms and Artists is that it's kind of all over the map structure-wise. It's sort of chronological, but not exactly. It sort of examines each artist in turn, but skips around a lot (somewhat inevitably, since the artists in question lived interconnected lives). It's thematic in places, but not consistently; the themes--art-as-propaganda, art-as-documentation, art-as-mythmaking, art-as-politics, art-as-history--surface and disappear and resurface.

All the same, these are pretty interesting notions. In an age before photography, a portrait of George Washington would never convey a message as simple as "This is what General Washington looks like." Every portrait, every history painting, every genre painting, was not just an image but an attempt to influence. Staiti is at his best when he's decoding the messages in the paintings. There are often a great many levels of meaning, and some of them are largely lost to a modern viewer.

Also, the art itself is wonderful. Look at the confident glow in John Singleton Copley's portrait of Elkanah Watson, as America's independence is confirmed:

Or Washington's cool, crossed-legged insouciance in Charles Willson Peale's portrait:
It's hard to go too far wrong with this kind of source material.

An odd little book that covers some related territory from a different angle is The Painter's Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Book Review: Death's End

Death's End
Cixin Liu (author), Ken Liu (translator)
Science fiction

Death's End is the third in an ambitious SF trilogy originally written and published in China. The first, The Three-Body Problem, won a Hugo Award; I generally concurred. The second, The Dark Forest, was less successful; I ultimately found it worthwhile, with reservations. Death's End, regrettably, has all of the drawbacks and few of the virtues of The Dark Forest.

Some of the drawbacks may be cultural. It's clear that readers' expectations differ widely across the world. In English fiction, for example, there's the famous shibboleth "show, don't tell." Like all hard-and-fast rules it's often overblown, but it's still there: it's part of the expectation. This expectation is blatantly violated in all three of Liu's books, and The Dark Forest is perhaps the worst of the three.

Similarly, I have strong reservations about (for example) a chapter that consists of twelve pages of dense descriptive text with a single lonely line of dialogue--or, strictly speaking, monologue--on page three. It's jarring at best and absurd at worst. 

It's especially absurd when Liu spends his word count describing large-scale social changes which have no effect on the actual plot. For example: at one point, we're told that there's a large-scale religious revival--so much so that a giant illuminated cross is placed in orbit. About a quarter-inch of book (and some years of timeline) later, we're told that the revival has faded and they're dismantling the cross. That's all we hear about the matter. 

The biggest problem by far, however, is characterization. One of three things is going on:
  • People in China are just extraordinarily unlike Americans. (Unlikely. I've had many co-workers from China. They're people.)
  • Cixin Liu is a very very strange man with very very strange ideas about people. (Possible.)
  • The conventions of fiction are incompatible.
In Liu's world, people don't have recognizable human motivations--or, if they do, they're only peripheral. Instead, they act in ways that appear to be more symbolic/stylized than anything. For instance, does this paraphrase sound like a reasonable proposition to you?
Character 1: Hey, how about you give me all your money and everything you've built up and basically your entire life, and go into hibernation for a while. Do it for the sake of the human spirit. 

Character 2: Okay! Sounds like a plan!
That's a nice compact example, but it's far from the weirdest one.

Now, none of this is without parallel in the English-speaking SF world. The largely-unread classics of Olaf Stapledon are one example. More recently, I'd cite the inexplicably popular Stephen Baxter, whose books are all basically travelogues. If you like either of these guys, particularly Baxter, go ahead and read Death's End. (It's not a slog, for what that's worth. I was, much of the time, eager to find out what happened next.) Otherwise, I'd only recommend this to readers who liked both of the first two books and want to know how it all turns out.