Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: Appleby and the Ospreys

Appleby and the Ospreys
Michael Innes
Fiction

Like Black Land, White Land, this is an older book that I picked up at the very fine Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Unlike Black Land, White Land, it was a pleasure to read. Michael Innes, in private life, was the Cambridge don J.I.M. Stewart (and as a youth studied under J. R. R. Tolkien), and he wrote with donnish wit and donnish elegance about donnish murders. Appleby and the Ospreys is, I believe, the very last of his Sir John Appleby mysteries (1986). It's not a major work, and the mystery is not extremely mystifying, but there's one quite clever bit--involving hidden treasure, forsooth!--and the writing is quite up to snuff. Overall, a quick and enjoyable diversion.


Innes wrote several well-regarded novels; Hamlet, Revenge! is perhaps the best-known.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
David Grann
Crime, History

David Grann's previous book, The Lost City of Z, is an extraordinary saga of Amazon exploration, lost civilizations, and mystery--one that wouldn't be out of place in a pulp adventure, except that it really happened. Killers of the Flower Moon is likewise almost too good to be true, but it's a darker and harder story: not adventure, but noir.

At first blush, the two books might seem wildly disparate. What do lost pre-Columbian jungle cities have to do with Oklahoma in the 1920s? At a closer look, though, there are things that unite them. Like its predecessor, Killers of the Flower Moon has an iconic, little-remembered central figure (the lawman Thomas White). It has some searching detective work and follow-up by David Grann himself. Most crucially, it shares a theme--the theme of Euro-Americans' blind persistence, and persistent blindness, in trying to force this continent's natives into a particular narrative mold.

I don't want to go into more detail, because I don't want to spoil the book. David Grann is a terrifically kinetic writer; like The Lost City of Z, Killers of the Flower Moon goes from zero to unstoppable within a chapter. He also has a gift for describing highly colorful events without resorting to highly colorful prose, while still bringing out their full dramatic--and, in this case, genuinely shocking--resonance. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is not a cheerful read, but it's a good one. It's a real-life detective story. It's a sad but illuminating look at an almost-forgotten episode. It's hard to put down. It's harder to ignore.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: Black Land, White Land

Black Land, White Land
H. C. Bailey
Mystery

There's a well-known Agatha Christie work, Partners in Crime, in which each chapter riffs on one (or more) fictional detectives of the 1920s. Some of the riff-ees are still famous; many are now forgotten. Among the latter group is Mr. Reginald Fortune. Even I had never spotted him in the wild--until now.


I'd love to be able to report that this literary oblivion was undeserved, a wrong in need of righting, a deuced shame, and an all-around blot on the old escutcheon. I can't do it--not, at any rate, on the basis of Black Land, White Land. The writing is distinctly period, with the word "arch" nudging irresistibly to mind. There's no attempt at characterization. The detection is somewhat confusing to follow and not all that surprising.

In short, this is a book whose interest is mainly historical. I'm glad to have found it on that basis. I might prowl around for some of the Mr. Fortune short story collections, which are reputed to be more characteristic. For the general run of mystery reader, though, this is at best a curio.

A genuinely unjustly-neglected writer, of a slightly later period, is the clever and understated Cyril Hare. Try Tragedy at Law or Suicide Excepted.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Review: Abbadon's Gate

Abaddon's Gate
James S. A. Corey (pen name)
Science fiction

Short version: same as the first.

Long version: same as the second, except no space zombies.

Series summary: Firefly meets Aliens.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.


The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
Neal Stephenson, Nicole Galland
Science fiction, fantasy

[I can't speak to coauthor Nicole Galland's contribution; I don't happen to have read any of her books.]


Okay . . . see . . . Neal Stephenson writes these books that are . . . it's kind of hard to explain, but it's . . . well, the ideas are always . . .

Let's start again.

Did you ever want to read a book in which, for perfectly logical reasons, there is a beautifully-done alliterative poetry Norse Saga entitled "The Lay of Walmart"?

So, yes, it's deadpan funny. Other Stephenson touches: 
  • multiple points of view
  • multiple timelines
  • sarcastic takes on bureaucracy
  • historical exegetics
  • not maybe the strongest ending in the world
For the rest, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is fast-paced, very readable, and decently if not deeply characterized (the characters are maybe a little more likable than is common in N.S.-land). The elements it's assembled from are a trifle, ah, shopworn; it will remind genre readers of, among others, some of Connie Willis's novels, except not pointlessly and interminably muddled. Within the Stephenson ouevre, it's not far in plot and complexity from Reamde, but funny; a longer and less-gonzo Zodiac is perhaps a fair comparison. I enjoyed it very much, but it's a book that will stand or fall on whether you enjoy the actual writing.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: The Delirium Brief

The Delirium Brief
Charles Stross
Fantasy, horror, humor

In which the Laundry goes pear-shaped.

Really, there's not much more to say about this one. It's black humor, heavy on the black. It features our original protagonist, Bob Howard, and shows the ways he has and hasn't changed. It's quite definitely on the arc towards the series climax.

If you like the series, you'll like the book. If you don't know the series, this is quite probably the worst place to start, since it's bringing together threads from not one but several previous entries. (The author suggests starting with The Atrocity Archives or The Rhesus Chart.) If you haven't tried the series . . . how does a paranoid cynical Lovecraftian bureaucratic comedy spy thriller satire pop-culture horror novel sound to you? 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: Victoria

Victoria: A Life
A. N. Wilson
Biography

[That's Queen Victoria, in case you were wondering. Not, say, Victoria's Secret. Crossovers are left to the imagination of the reader.]

The reviewers loved this book. I liked it quite a bit. I didn't quite love it.

The good parts are easy to identify. Victoria is very well written: easy to read, sometimes witty, quick-moving, and thorough. It has a large cast of characters and generally manages to keep them straight, which is really hard and thoroughly admirable. It's sometimes insightful and always entertaining.

Thematically, one of Victoria's strengths is how thoroughly it brings out the connection between Victoria and the royal breeding population of Europe--and, especially, Germany. She herself was three-quarters German, her husband was German, her daughter married the son of King-subsequently-Kaiser Wilhelm I, she had native-level fluency in the language, German was often spoken around her household . . . honestly, a mid-19th-century observer who heard that the 20th century would feature two major European wars could have been pardoned for predicting that they'd involve England and Germany as allies. This is not new--readers of Robert Massie, for example, will know the particulars--but it's well presented.

A second major thematic strand involves what we might term the domestication of the crown--Britain's transformation, over the course of the 19th century, into a modern democratic/constitutional monarchy. Wilson's analysis here is mildly toasted with academic Marxism, in the sense that he sees everything through the lens of class:
. . . Melbourne and all the Whigs would have fought to the death to defend themselves against radicals, plebeians, trades unions--anything which diminished their power in any way. Their only reason for siding with the liberals was self-preservation.
Fair enough; but I don't think that Wilson's case is as strong here. He wants to argue that Victoria was indispensable to the process. By his own precepts, the changes in power and in wealth that occurred between 1837 and 1901 made change inevitable. Victoria's role, while certainly not passive, doesn't seem to me to have been crucial in shaping it.

Conversely, Wilson doesn't give Victoria quite enough credit for something that really was attributable to her personally: she made the monarchy Respectable (capital R intended). Nowadays people tend to think of royalty as a thoroughly bourgeois institution, and act shocked when Prince X or Princess Y does something even mildly scandalous. Royalty, it is now thought, should confine itself to its traditional duties of smiling, waving, supporting worthy causes, wearing funny hats, opening shopping centers, etc. Anyone who knows anything about European history should recognize how absolutely wildly novel this idea is! Victoria's predecessor, William IV, cohabited with an actress for twenty years and ten illegitimate children, and that wasn't even especially scandalous. Wilson touches on this facet of QV's reign, but he leaves it only half-explored.

Wilson also has some authorial, um, idiosyncracies. He has a tendency, particularly in the earlier chapters, to wander away from his topic into some side issue, and thence into another side issue, before (sometimes) zooming abruptly back to his main point. There I was, for instance, reading peacefully about Lord Palmerston; then, suddenly, I found myself deep in the background of the painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter. 

Finally, Wilson is writing for insiders. He refers to issues, interpretations, characters in abbreviated form, assuming that his readers already know what he's talking about. On the micro level, he doesn't think it worth his while to translate quotes from French into English, and he loves his offhand literary-historical references. On the macro level, he has a tendency to explain how he's affirming or reviewing some conventional historical view, which is only interesting if you actually knew already what that view was.

So I had a few reservations. At the same time, I want to emphasize that this was a spiffing effort, well done that man, top hole, and all in all a jolly good read. That makes up for any number of sins.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book Review: Descartes' Secret Notebook

Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe
Amir Aczel
Biography, mathematics, philosophy

I've enjoyed many of Amir Aczel's books, but this one was a letdown. Mostly it's a capsule biography of René Descartes, written in young-adult prose. The titular notebook is only discussed for maybe twenty-five pages out of 200+, and its contents don't prove to be tremendously revelatory. The explanations of Descartes' union of algebra and geometry were good; there should have been more of them, though. Aczel also wastes a lot of time on what seem to me to be decidedly peripheral questions--whether Descartes was a Rosicrucian, for example. I expect the book would be better for younger readers, or readers with virtually no familiarity with the subject matter.


The same author's Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science is one of his many good books. For a good Descartes book, try Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders
Anthony Horowitz
Mystery

For aficionados of the classic mystery, Magpie Murders is just glorious. Anthony Horowitz--he of Foyle's War, among other fine works--knows his stuff. He's aware of the limitations of the form, he respects them, he borrows respectfully, and he's a jolly decent writer. Magpie Murders, furthermore, is something of a tour de force, in that it presents not one but two interwoven puzzlers. There's nothing tongue-in-cheek about it, thank God, in spite of what a couple of seriously obtuse reviewers seem to have thought. It's catnip. It's the literary equivalent of an ice-cream sundae. 


To say much more would be to spoil it. Just go read it, OK?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: Piero's Light

Piero's Light: In Search of Piero della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science, and Religion
Larry Witham
Art, philosophy, biography

The thread that ties Piero's Light together is Plato. Larry Witham--himself clearly a Platonist--makes the argument that the rediscovery of Platonic idealism in Quattrocento Italy is not only crucial to understanding Piero's art, but important for understanding the role of art in general.


Me, I'm pretty much an Aristotelian. I don't discount Piero's Light on those grounds, but I'm doubtful of some of Witham's conclusions. It's one thing to argue that the Platonic search for absolutes informs Piero's art. It's another thing to lose your grounding on those pesky Aristotelian facts and start rhapsodizing about stuff that, arguably, isn't actually there.

Rather than write a long detailed screed, let me just focus on one particular claim: the claim that Piero della Francesca was a particular master of a kind of meaningful stillness, of what the art snob connoisseur Bernard Berenson called the "inarticulate", a serenity that passeth understanding:
Image hosted by Wikimedia
That this painting is beautiful is hard to dispute. That it displays a kind of formal, posed quality in the figures is also fairly evident. That the latter is the cause of the former, and that it represents Piero's astonishing artistic genius, is a much more complex proposition. As a counterexample, consider this snippet of a later work:


(Image from Wikimedia)
This is clearly an attempt to represent action, not stillness. But--and I say this as someone who's done non-trivial quantities of both art and illustration, including for pay*--it's not successful. The rearing horse isn't serene; it's just stiff. Believe me, rendering action is hard. Piero, it seems clear, was pushing both the limits of his own technical skill and the limits of the conventions of his time. It's no discredit to him to point out those limits. It's perfectly reasonable to admire the result on its own terms. Equally, however, it's not right to credit him with an "innovation" that he himself would probably have rejected.

As to the larger claims in Piero's Light, they are for the most part unconvincing. Witham's understanding of science is not a strong point, and his "revolution in Art" is compromised by his unwillingness to call out the art historians he's quoting when they're talking obvious nonsense. (They do this quite a lot.) His writing is clear, but it lacks humor or vividness; "pedestrian" is a little too harsh, but it's heading in the right direction. As a result, Piero's Light is a book for Piero enthusiasts, period. If you're looking for a book that transcends its genre and nominal audience, look elsewhere.

*We're talking "pizza money" pay scale, as opposed to "massively overrated modern art" pay scale.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Book Review: The Ground Beneath Us

The Ground Beneath Us: From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us About Who We Are
Paul Bogard
Nature, philosophy

Back in December, as my many regular readers may recall, I read a book called Of Beards and Men. I disagreed with most of the author's conclusions, but I liked the book anyway. With The Ground Beneath Us I had the opposite reaction. There's scarcely a sentiment--scarcely a sentence--I disagreed with. But I didn't like the book.

The basic problem is that The Ground Beneath Us is a purely Romantic exercise in prose styling. It's long on lyricism, it's long on passion, but it's quite devoid of intellect. Bogard is the kind of author who thinks that name-checking famous writers (Thoreau! Muir!) is enough to qualify him as profound. He likes scare quotes. He cites big frightening-looking numbers without giving any context. He believes unquestioningly that "indigenous" is an exact and infallible synonym for "noble". He uncritically parrots false equivalencies.

And he abuses statistics. In my book, this is an unforgivable sin. For example, there's this:
While the percentage of population density increase in the United States since 1940 has been 113 percent, around national parks it has been nearly double that, at 224 percent . . . 210 percent around Glacier and 246 percent around Yellowstone . . . 3,000 percent around Mojave National Preserve . . .
Here's the thing. National Parks, for some strange reason, tend to be located in sparsely populated areas. So a small increase in the absolute number of houses will seem like a large percentage. To take an extreme case, imagine that where there was one house in 1940, there are now six. That's a 500 percent increase! OMG! To the barricades! Or, to use Bogard's own example: one of the towns adjoining Mojave National Preserve is Baker, CA, population 735. For Baker to have grown by 3,000% since 1940, it would have had to have added about 700 houses. If you had added those same 700 houses to, say, Chicago, what percentage growth would that represent?

Finally, even granting the righteousness of Bogard's propaganda, he's absolutely lacking in any concrete intellectual proposals. Agreed: global warming bad, urban sprawl bad, resource depletion bad, habitat loss bad. So what? What should we do about it? Bogard's answer to this appears to be some kind of mystical transcendence involving "knowing the connections that keep us alive". The word "sacred" gets thrown around a lot. (It's probably indigenous.) What this amounts to is a refusal to face up to the plain facts: 

  • People in the developed world are not going to voluntarily go out and move en masse into organic free-range low-impact yurts.
  • People in the developing world are not going to nobly and indigenously turn their backs on the kind of high-energy, high-impact Westernized lifestyle that they see people like me leading.

Failing that, Bogard's only logically consistent position would be to hope for a plague that kills off a good fraction of the human race. I bet he won't own up to that one, though.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Revenge of the Special Guest Reviewer!!

Yet again, by special arrangement, we bring you the book review stylings of Mr. Mike Phipps! These are late, but it's my fault rather than Mike's.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: Go Figure

Go Figure: Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know
Tom Standage (editor)
Economics

I dote upon useless information. Go Figure is a lovely compendium of . . . not trivia, exactly . . . oddments from the magazine The Economist. Many of these follow a standard four-paragraph format: setup, background, explanation, implications. Deep it is not; intriguing, however, it is. Perhaps you've never asked yourself "Why are there so few road deaths in Sweden, anyway?" or "How did India Pale Ale get so popular all of a sudden?" or "What's with the big cadaver shortage I keep hearing about?" or "Why does everyone in Korea seem to be from the Kim family?" Well, you should have. If you're not curious about stuff like this, you're reading the wrong blog.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book Review: Spade and Archer

Spade and Archer
Joe Gores
Mystery

A very good prequel to The Maltese Falcon, giving Sam Spade a backstory that makes him a little more likable than in the original. The Hammett-esque language is a pleasure to read, and the mystery (or mysteries, to be pedantic) are more involved than most of the imitators can manage. Recommended for noir fans of all stripes.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: Lawless Lands

Lawless Lands
Emily Lavin Leverett, Misty Massey, Margaret S. McGraw (editors)
Science fiction, fantasy, Western

Big disclaimer up front. One of my closest friends in the world has a story in this collection. Furthermore, I read and commented on an earlier draft thereof. There's no way I'm feeling impartial about that one; I think it's really good.


So let's talk about the collection as a whole. I don't like to damn it with faint praise, but it's decidedly a mixed bag. A number of the stories are all written from basically the same plot outline--several of them are near-clones of one another. There's a lot of dark fantasy/horror, which I personally don't find very interesting or imaginative; your mileage may vary.

There are some ups as well as some downs, I'm happy to say. Among these I'd single out:

  • Seanan McGuire's "Pixie Season," which offers a welcome relief from the general diet of gloom & doom & gritty & despair & earnest & more doom & more gloom.
  • Dave Benyon's "The Stranger in the Glass" doesn't, much, but it has a neat idea at its core.
  • Laura Ann Gilman's "Boots of Clay" has a more interesting cast of characters and a decidedly different kind of conflict.
I will say that Mr. B.S. Donovan--"Old B.S." to his friends--has undeniably achieved a different voice than any other story in Lawless Lands. I can't imagine that this will be his last sale.

P.S. In case you somehow managed to miss it, there's also this.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book Review: Cattle Kingdom

Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West
Christopher Knowlton
History

Cattle Kingdom is a flat-out amazing read. Christopher Knowlton has written a book that switches almost seamlessly from the level of the individual cowboy--particularly E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott, whose memoirs I now have to read--to the ranch owners to the system as a whole. He does a great job at every level. Whether you want to know what it was really like to be a cowboy, or what drove the great cattle barons, or how the great cow towns flourished and faded, or what larger economic forces drove the whole thing, this is the book.


There are a few places where Knowlton wanders into asides, which could have been relegated to footnotes or appendices. Other than that, my only complaint about Cattle Kingdom is that, at 350-odd text pages, it's too short.

I have the impression that Cattle Kingdom hasn't gotten the attention or promotion it deserved. I heard about it by accident, on the radio, and I had some trouble finding it in the bookstore. That's a real shame. Read this one.

This is as good a time as any to remind everyone that Steve Hockensmith is resuming his "Holmes on the Range" series. The titular first book, in particular, is a great fictional depiction of exactly the milieu of Cattle Kingdom.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: The Winter Fortress

The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb
Neal Bascomb
History

This is a well-known tale that suffers nothing in the retelling. Neal Bascomb doesn't revolutionize anything, but he's done a lot of research using the diaries and family members of the saboteurs, so his account has a pleasingly personal feel. Overall it reads, not in a bad way, like one of the better Alastair MacLean novels (complete with MacLean's trademarked Man Versus Nature! scenes). Plus--kudos to Bascomb!--the book has adequate mappage and a cast-of-characters list right up front.


The Winter Fortress would be an especially good read for someone who's not a history maven. I liked it too, but then again I have a high threshold for re-reads and recapitulations.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: Blackett's War

Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats
Stephen Budiansky
History, biography, mathematics

Round about page 100 of Blackett's War I started thinking: "This is great stuff, but it's all background. Where's the foreground?" It turns out that the whole book is like that. The facts are fascinating, the writing is excellent, the detail is good, and the math is accessible; it's just that the book reads as a collection of anecdotes rather than as a whole.


This is a case where a simple chronological organization doesn't necessarily work well. The eponymous Patrick Blackett sidles into and out of the story, never remaining on-stage for long. Other characters do similarly, as do a succession of political intrigues, military-technical debates, and side stories (including, naturally, the many-times-told Enigma tale). If I'd been editing this material, I might have advised a thematic approach. What Blackett and his colleagues accomplished is really interesting in its own right: the ideas, not the people, are arguably the main characters.

What makes those ideas so interesting is that, in many cases, the key insight was that someone had to ask the question. Once the question was asked, answering it didn't require a Bletchley Park--just basic math and statistics--and yet the answers were no less consequential than the work of the codebreakers. Do larger convoys require substantially more protection? (No.) Why is the line to clean mess kits so long? (Washing takes longer than rinsing; you need three wash tubs and one rinse tub, not two of each.) What's the right depth setting for an air-dropped depth charge? (Shallow. Once your target sub has reached 100' depth, it's also had time to turn, so it won't be where you're aiming anyway.) Should we use bombers to attack cities, or to attack submarines? (Submarines.)


That last one was an obvious fact, by the way, which was ignored. That's the other reason the idea content of Blackett's War needs to be promoted: the staggering arrogance, incompetence, and all-around stupidity of the military men whose job it was to win the war, but whose hobby was insisting that everything they already knew was correct and that being smart was bad. Sir Henry Tizard, for example, had a meeting with a senior naval officer who sniffily explained that it simply wasn't possible to put radar on warships, my dear fellow . . . because there was no space for another aerial on the mast.

The upshot, then, is that I was fully interested and engaged--but I'm not sure that a general reader would be. I'd recommend Blackett's War for readers who have an interest in the Battle of the Atlantic and/or mathematics and/or military stupidity. If you're expecting a character-driven biography, you may be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Review: Avengers of the Moon

Avengers of the Moon: A Captain Future Novel
Allen Steele
Science fiction

An enjoyable retro-pulp adventure, but I think you have to have a deep fondness for the original--at least the general style and genre--to fully savor it. Steele updates the science, but he doesn't (much) update the writing conventions, and the result has a certain hokey quality. It reminded me of nothing so much as Isaac Asimov's "Lucky Starr" novels; if you're looking for books that a typical mid-teenage reader might like, Avengers of the Moon fits the bill.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
James Shapiro
History, literature, biography

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is a very good book with a great introduction. In fact, the intro is so good it's worth quoting at length. Like this;
The commonplace that dramatists are best understood in relation to their time would go unquestioned if the writer in question were Euripides, Ibsen, or Beckett. But only recently has the tide begun to turn against a view of Shakespeare as a poet who transcends his age, who write, as Samuel Coleridge put it, "exactly as if of another planet."
And this:
Those committed to discovering the adult Shakespeare's personality in his formative experiences end up hunting for hints in the plays that they then read back into what little can be surmised . . . But the plays are not two-way mirrors: while Shakespeare perfectly renders what it feels like to be in love, betrayed, or crushingly disappointed, it doesn't necessarily follow . . . that he "must have loved unhappily like Romeo, and like Hamlet not have known for a time what to get on with next."
And a disclaimer which all such writers should engrave on their hearts:
 And as grounded as my claims are in what scholars have uncovered, a good deal of what I make of that information remains speculative. When writing about an age that predates newspapers and photographic evidence, plausibility, not certitude, is as close as one can come to what happened. Rather than awkwardly littering the pages that follow with one hedge after another--"perhaps," "maybe," "it's most likely," probably," or the most desperate of them all, "surely"--I'd like to offer one global qualification here. This is necessarily my reconstruction of what happened to Shakespeare in the course of this year, and when i do qualify a claim, it signals that the evidence is inconclusive or the argument highly speculative.
Bravo!

In the end James Shapiro can't--quite--live up to his promises. Multiplying weasel words creep past his guard--yes, even the despicable "surely". He indulges in the two-way-mirror fallacy: "Only someone who had seen the effects of crop failure could write so poignantly . . .", and "Only a writer who had partly believed in the possibility of heroism could have turned so sharply against it . . ." He sometimes bends facts to suit his purposes: the claim that by 1599 "only on Accession Day did knights still dress in otherwise rusting armor" would have startled the armored men who fought the English Civil War in the 1640s.

But AYitLoWS is still a really good book. Where it shines is in its mission statement: explaining to modern readers what Shakespeare would have had on his mind when he was writing plays, and what his audiences would have had on theirs while watching them. Some of these insights are small but telling: a reference in Henry V to "a beard of the General's cut" would have been understood as a reference to the distinctive square-cut beard of the Earl of Essex.
Others are large-scale and reflect on the plays' themes and meanings. I had had no idea, for example, that in the summer of 1599 England underwent an invasion scare due to (unfounded) rumors of a second Spanish Armada. Even the better-known facts are effectively marshaled: it is . . . ahem . . . surely true that an Englishman seeing Julius Caesar would have been reminded of the uncertainty concerning the succession to the aged, childless Queen Elizabeth (an uncertainty wherein the aforementioned Earl of Essex played a large part).

This is great stuff. A Year etc. is full of it. There's far more than I can summarize here, and it's genuinely enlightening. So James Shapiro gets a full pardon from me for falling off the wagon relative to his introduction. I'm sure he'll be relieved.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: Egyptomania

Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy
Ronald H. Fritze
History, sociology, archaeology

The very last sentence of Egyptomania is this:

Why Egypt is so attractive in popular culture remains something of a mystery, but its existence is undeniable.
That's on page 377. Three hundred seventy seven pages is an awful lot of book to write (or read) without reaching a conclusion. Egyptomania is, basically, a 1.5-inch-thick Wikipedia "In Popular Culture" section. There are paragraphs, sections, and one entire chapter that could have been deleted without much loss. If the book isn't quite a list of everything everyone ever said or wrote or filmed about Egypt, it's not for want of trying. 

As a compendium, Egyptomania is not without its charms. Fritze, although an academic, writes in good clear English rather than in High Academicese, and he displays an excellent sense of humor:
In the case of Isis Unveiled, the Masters provided precipitated pages of text The problem was that many of the precipitated pages had been copied from works by other writers without attribution. Someone had plagiarized and that person was either Blavatsky or one of those Masters. Since an ascended Master would never stoop to plagiarism, that leaves Madame Blavatsky.
But I have to wonder what its editor was doing. For one thing, Egyptomania has a raft of basic copy-editing errors, including serial abuse and neglect of the common North American semicolon. For another, some of the book's assertions should have been gently fact-checked out of existence, such as the frankly bizarre statement that The Hound of the Baskervilles "drew its inspiration from the curse of the 'Unlucky Mummy.'" For a third, there are some exceedingly abrupt logical breaks and grammatical solecisms. Look again, for example, at that closing sentence quoted above. Grammatically, the "it" in "its existence is undeniable" can only refer to Egypt itself. While Egypt's existence is indeed undeniable, I don't think that's what Fritze meant to say. 

Finally, there's a lot of repetition. Also, things get repeated a lot. Not only that, the same basic facts are reiterated over and over. Halfway down page 134 we learn that "Renaissance Rome was the one place in the Europe of that era where a visitor could see and study a large number of Egyptian monuments and artefacts." At the bottom of the same page, we find out that "Rome was the one place in Europe where people could see a large amount of Egyptian artefacts without having to travel to Egypt." It's not just individual factoids; whole paragraphs are rehashed--if not quite so blatantly--two or three times over. This was vexing in Istanbul; in Egyptomania it's completely out of control.

As a resource for scholars, Egyptomania is admirably thorough. As a book for general readers, it's in need of some serious editorial TLC. It's not an unenjoyable read on the tactical level; as a whole, though, it will appeal mainly to the sort of reader who likes reading catalogs.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Review: Making It

[WARNING: long and slightly polemical.]

Making It: Why Manufacturing Still Matters
Louis Uchitelle
Politics, sociology

At the center of Making It there is an extremely acute observation: there is no such thing as laissez-faire manufacturing. There's always some kind of governmental support. This was true two centuries ago, when Samuel Slater avoided a British ban on exporting the designs of spinning machinery by memorizing how it worked. It was true in the 19th century, when tariffs protected U.S. industry and land grants supported the railroads. It's true now, when cities offer massive tax incentives to lure corporations.


To have no policy is itself a policy. That's what the federal government does now. As a result, the existing subsidy system is an incoherent mess of states and localities, all competing against one another. When companies build plants by looking for the biggest windfall, the result is not to create new jobs; it's just to move jobs from one place to another. This being the case, why not try to have a rational policy that promotes the common good?

Making It documents this observation with a wealth of statistics and facts. It documents, as well, the damage that the decline in manufacturing employment has wreaked. Unfortunately, it doesn't do nearly as good a job in analyzing what it's documented. The book's logic is a semi-random stew of non-sequiturs, circular arguments, and absurd prescriptions--and prescriptions is the word: Louis Uchitelle seems to be enamored of the top-down, there-oughta-be-a-law, Five Year Plan approach. He ought to be thinking in terms of incentives, not mandates. Mandates don't work. Incentives do. (Not, admittedly, always as designed.)

For instance, consider this excerpt (emphasis added):
. . . in accepting the move to ATS [an outsourcing company], the mechanics lowered the odds that the two hundred or so assembly line workers they had left behind would have the leverage to organize a union and then bargain for higher wages and job security. While still on staff, the mechanics were in a position to support the assembly line workers by striking if the latter did, or by not striking but engaging in a work slowdown--dragging out repairs--if the company brought in outsiders to replace the assembly line workers. Without willing mechanics, a machinery breakdown can halt an assembly line in any factory and even shut it down. The Oplers [the company owners] understood this. "In our negotiations with ATS we specified that having skilled mechanics on all shifts and at all times was the reason for going with that company . . . We found that we could hold ATS to a higher standard than we were able to attain on our own."
Do you see the trick here? The bolded sentences are being deployed to imply that the company moved its mechanics to ATS specifically in order to weaken employees' ability to strike. But the speaker doesn't say that. He just says that outsourcing gave them better availability. This is an artfully arranged synthesis, meant to support Making It's propaganda goals. It's not logic.

Here's another one:
Harley-Davidson . . . publicly declared in 201 that it would move some factory operations from Milwaukee, where it is headquartered, to a lower-wage city such as Stillwater, Oklahoma, or Kansas City, Missouri, if its hourly workers in Milwaukee failed to accept certain concessions . . . In the end, the regulars . . . gave in and ratified the contract, fearful they might lose their jobs altogether if Harley-Davidson carried out its threat to relocate. The city's taxpayers, however, were given no say in the matter--no opportunity to bat down Harley's threat--although their taxes helped to subsidize the company's operation in Milwaukee . . . [their] taxes should have given them a right to amend Harley's plan, and even to veto it by withholding subsidies from the company.
Seriously? What does Louis Uchitelle imagine that the taxpayers could do? Pass a city ordinance forbidding Harley-Davidson from moving any jobs? Threaten to soak them with extra taxes on their Milwaukee operations? (That would go well, I'm sure.) Confiscate their HQ?

Those flaws are specific. Others are endemic. Making It repeatedly faults manufacturers for moving out of central cities, for instance, but its only proposed cure is this: ". . . government money . . . could have been used to keep manufacturers and distributors rooted in the cities by helping them pay for their operations." Except that, just a few pages earlier, a factory owner says flatly that even with these subsidies, "No, I would not move back. The biggest cost is attracting and training a workforce, and then once I've got three hundred people in place in St. Louis, someone's going to say, 'Let's organize a union'." In other words, the book is promoting a plan that by its own testimony wouldn't work.

Let's face reality: we're in a competitive, profit-driven economy, with every company in the world in the same race. The companies that don't make money go under. If Apple can't make a profit manufacturing cell phones, Apple will stop manufacturing cell phones. If Apple starts charging an extra $50 per phone to support a stateside factory, it will lose market share to their competitors that don't. If we could somehow mandate that every cell phone sold in the U.S. be made entirely in the U.S., then the U.S. will end up with overpriced, crappy cell phones, because every company on the planet will have a positive incentive to not sell their wares here.

(Aside: Louis Uchitelle depends a lot on argument by anecdote. Well, here's a counter-anecdote for him. My very own wife is a mechanical engineer who works in a factory. Her group is currently competing with a state-supported company in Italy, one with very much the kinds of policy supports that Uchitelle seems to prefer. Her outfit can't compete on price, because of the subsidies. Nonetheless, they're winning business from those competitors, because those competitors make lousy products.)

If Louis Uchitelle had gotten a tough-minded and thoughtful critique of his manuscript, Making It could have been a book with a lot of impact. Instead, it's a book that will appeal entirely who readers who already agree with its conclusions. Uchitelle is a reporter, and the reportage is excellent. The thinking is not.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review: Castles of Steel

Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
Robert Massie
History

I've recommended Robert Massie's book Dreadnought a couple of times in these electrons. I particularly like its biography-based structure. Starting in the mid-19th century, every chapter of Dreadnought focuses on one or two people, gives them a wonderfully vivid biography, and uses them to move the story forward by a few years. It follows these interleaved lives right up to the eve of World War I.


Castles of Steel is the follow-up. It must have been a much harder book to write. The leapfrogging-biographies approach works brilliantly over a period of decades; there's not so much scope for it in just four years. Not only that, Massie had to deal with the fact that very many of the actors from Dreadnought return prominently in Castles of Steel: do you reintroduce them for new readers at the risk of boring the returnees, or do you carry boldly forward and risk leaving the new readers behind?

But the biggest challenge for Castles of Steel is that there's a lot of nothing happening. Most naval histories of World War I focus on the German submarine campaign. That's because the U-boat war was strategically vital (as it would be in World War II), and encompassed a lot of action. By contrast, the surface-ship war consisted of a few small actions, one very large but inconclusive battle, some side-shows such as Gallipoli, and an enormous amount of shadow-boxing.

All true, and yet Castles of Steel is gripping. It's an absolute textbook case of how genuinely great writing can make all the difference. In Massie's telling, this isn't shadow-boxing; it's fencing. The British fleet was larger, but preserving it was a matter of life and death--without it, the seas would have been swept clear of British shipping, and the nation would have starved. The German fleet had a protected anchorage, but it couldn't come out without risking annihilation. Massie turns these facts into a kind of naval chess game, while keeping the main strategic narrative firmly in view the whole time, move and countermove, personality vs. personality, feint and thrust, all leading up to and illuminating the book's twin climaxes: the Battle of Jutland and Germany's final desperate resort to unrestricted submarine warfare--the latter, ultimately, a tragic decision, as it brought the U.S. into the war. The description of Jutland, in particular, is almost movie-like in its pacing, clarity, and tension.

It's probably better to read Dreadnought first; its people-oriented narrative is hard to beat, and it provides context that you'll otherwise miss. Also, these are not small books; they're each about four inches thick. If you have even a slight interest in the subject, don't let that stop you. And if you don't . . . I challenge you to pick up Dreadnought and read the first few chapters. You may get hooked.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review/Essay: You Say to Brick

You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn
Wendy Lesser
Biography, architecture

In some ways I am the wrong reader for this book. I knew that going in. Louis Kahn was a modernist, and I'm not a fan of modernism in any artistic form. For that matter, I didn't know much about Kahn other than his name; the only Kahn building I've been in is the Kimbell Art Museum, and I can't say that the building itself particularly struck me one way or another.


But then I thought: knowledge is what you're supposed to get out of a book, not what you're supposed to bring into it.

By that measure, You Say to Brick was a partial success. I learned a good deal about Louis Kahn himself, his family, and his architectural practice--none of it especially deep, but all of it informative. I learned some about what Kahn himself thought he was doing. I did not learn to love Kahn's buildings. I also did not learn to love Wendy Lesser's writing, which is itself an example of some of the failings of modernism.

The Buildings

One of these buildings was acclaimed as a Kahn masterpiece, "the most consequential building constructed in the United States". The other is the #11 Google image result of a search for "ugliest building ever". Can you tell which is which?


How about these? They're both educational institutions. One is described in You Say to Brick as Kahn's crowning achievement. The other comes from a Travel and Leisure article entitled "America's Ugliest College Campuses".
If you're not certain, You Say to Brick will offer no clarity. It offers nothing more than bare assertions about the wonderfulness of Kahn's designs. To be fair, a good deal of Lesser's enthusiasm goes towards the interiors, rather than the exteriors. However, that leads me to . . .

The Writing

The body of the book, to be honest, is fine. It's a straight biography, a bit light on analysis, but perfectly clear. There are, however, two major things that I found objectionable.
  1. Between major sections of the book, Lesser puts descriptions of a number of Kahn interiors, which she writes in the second person present. "You" enter here, "you" see this, "you" react this way. This is pointless, stupid, and irritating. In the first place, it's not true; it's just Wendy Lesser's way of experiencing the building, not mine. In the second place, it's a condescending way of dictating an aesthetic experience. In the third place, it's unverifiable. In the fourth place, it's hard to read. The use of the second-person present adds nothing, conveys nothing, explains nothing.
  2. Kahn had scars on his face. Lessing mentions this right up front, and alludes to it occasionally in the text, but doesn't explain what caused it until the very last page. (He was burned when he was three years old.) For the love of God, what purpose is served by this cutesy trick? This isn't Citizen Kane; we're not waiting with bated breath for this sudden flash of illumination that changes everything that has gone before. The scars don't seem to have figured heavily in Kahn's life; they didn't stop him having children by three different women in parallel, for example. There is literally no earthly reason to save this information to the end except to try to impress the reader with how clever your technique is. Once again: it adds nothing, conveys nothing, explains nothing.
I'm harping on these venial sins because they're an example of what's wrong with modernism. In Wendy Lesser's mind, apparently, it's no longer enough to write a book that's clear and informative and readable. Equally, it's no longer acceptable to design buildings that mere commoners will enjoy looking at, or write "classical music" that sounds like classical music, or paint pictures that look like anything whatsoever. Doing any of those things lets ordinary people criticize the substance of what you've done. If you draw a portrait of Benjamin Franklin and it ends up looking like Bozo the Clown, some pedant is sure to kvetch. Who wants that? The modernist idiom turns the tables: it lets you criticize anyone who fails to understand your brilliance, on the basis that they're obviously bourgeois, middle-brow, anti-intellectual, old-fashioned, counterrevolutionary, not transgressive, timid, etc.

Very well. I give you, then, my own architectural design. I warn you in advance that it is not merely transcendantly brilliant, but radical, daring, and visionary. It will challenge you. It vastly outstrips the outmoded and petty concepts of Le Corbusier, Kahn, and van der Rohe, to say nothing of such populist parvenus as Pei, Libeskind, and Gehry. It is nothing less than post-post-postmodern, ironic, witty, reverential, breathtaking, and--in the most overworked adjective of the last architectural century--iconic. If you disagree, you clearly have no artistic taste whatsoever.

Prove me wrong.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Support Your Local Author

No, not me. My close friend and esteemed colleague B. S. has arrived. Please do support him by buying the anthology, if you haven't done so already. I've read his story (in an early draft) and can testify that it's a good one.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: Caliban's War

Caliban's War
James S. A. Corey (pen name)
Science fiction

Short version: same as the first.

Director's cut: I found myself getting irritated at some of the authors' quirks. For instance, they tend to create throwaway characters--characters who come on, get named, do something important for one chapter, then die or wander off. Also, the characterization is even less convincing than in Leviathan Wakes, and there's even less to think about. On the other hand, I read it in a few large gulps, so it's still got the space opera thing going for it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Margot Lee Shetterly
Biography, history, science, space

It should be easy to like Hidden Figures. A group of talented women who overcame the insults of a truly vile system and helped make the United States great are story-telling gold. The fact that they've been unjustly ignored just makes it that much more important. Throw in the Second World War, the Cold war, politics, and the space race, and you've got major drama going on.

All true . . . and yet Hidden Figures suffers from two big weaknesses. In the first place, Shetterly spends so little time on the actual facts--especially the science, the engineering, but also the politics and history--as to give the impression that she doesn't understand them. It's hard to argue that what the black women mathematicians did was important if you do not, in fact, describe what it was. In the second place (and, I think, more fundamentally), the book is absurdly overwritten. The prose is purple, the praise is fulsome, and the nuance is nonexistent. Shetterly ladles adjectives over her protagonists like hot fudge on a sundae--all, naturally, laudatory; you could hardly guess from Hidden Figures that these women could ever have had character flaws, or failings, or disagreements.

Hidden Figures, in short, could have been much better. One way would have been combine a more nuanced tone with a wider intellectual scope. Another would have been to have allowed these women to speak for themselves, in their own voices--a harder task, given what's surely a vast lack of documentation, but one more suited to the subjective approach that Shetterly seems to want. Lacking either, this book reads like a series of baseball cards: such-and-such many hits, All-Star selections, awards, batting championships, standing ovations, newspaper headlines, and so forth. These women deserve better.

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns suffers from a somewhat similar case of authorial logorrhea, but it does effectively analyze a major tide in American history (the Great Migration). A much better book specifically about science and race is Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Book Review: The Horror of the Heights

The Horror of the Heights and Other Tales of Suspense
Arthur Conan Doyle
Fantasy, science fiction, horror

Conan Doyle was a full-fledged genius story-teller; you only have to read the work of his competitors to realize that. Well . . . even Homer nods. The tales in The Horror of the Heights are largely forgettable and largely forgotten. To be fair, these stories would have seemed much more original and shocking when they were first published. On balance, though, these remain minor works. 

The exception is the remarkable short story "Danger!", published a few months before World War I broke out, in which Doyle forecast--with breathtaking and uncanny accuracy--the U-boat strategy that Germany would follow. Apparently a number of admirals reacted: they huffed and puffed and pooh-poohed about how it would never happen, the whole thing was balderdash, jolly bad show . . . but it happened anyway. The collection is worth having for this story alone.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes
James S. A. Corey (pen name)
Science fiction

Ah, the good old-fashioned solar-system space opera. You know what you're going to get when you open the book. The only question is how well is it's done.

Pretty well, is the answer. The pacing is great. The science is plausible--not rigorous, but easy to swallow. The characterization is basic, just enough to propel the plot. The plot itself is, let us say, heavily recycled; also, to be honest, some of the fundamentals don't make a lot of sense if you think about them too much, except that you probably won't. There are exploding spaceships (always a plus; Henry James, for example, didn't have nearly enough exploding spaceships in his work). The language is snappy. 

Notably, the world-building is solid--not original, but solid. You got your scheming megacorporations. You got your prickly independent asteroid miners. You got your characters who are enough like us to identify with, but a little different. You even got your outer space monsters, sort of, although these would be definitely tricky to depict with a guy in a rubber suit.

I've used food analogies before for this sort of thing. It would be easy to label Leviathan Wakes as literary junk food. That would be wrong. It's more like comfort food. This is your-mom's-mac-and-cheese science fiction. It's turkey-dinner-with-all-the-trimmings adventure. It's the all-night diner of the mind. I may or may not review the other books in the series, but I'm virtually certain to read them.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Book Review: Istanbul

Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World
Thomas F. Madden
History

The place that's now Istanbul has been a city, continuously, since 667 BC. That's a lot to fit into one 300-page book. Thomas Madden approaches the problem by paring down his focus. Istanbul is almost entirely about a few topics: politics, in the form of influential individuals rather than movements; building(s); and violence.


Authorial focus is good, except where it isn't. Istanbul is curiously blinkered. The Byzantine-Bulgarian wars, for example, lasted for over half a millennium, by most accountings, and were hugely consequential. Their page count in Istanbul: zero, because they didn't much impact the city of Constantinople in these very specific ways. There's an extremely good, extremely revealing account of how the Fourth Crusade ended up conquering the city--an event that, out of context, seems inexplicable--but to give it, Madden has to use up something like 10% of the book. Any larger sense of social evolution is only brought in where it involves a change of dynasty, an edifice, or a riot.

Also, there are some things that are just plain irritating. Over and over and over, Madden explains that ancient thing X still stands in Y Street, or was where the Z Building is now. This would be useful to a person intimately familiar with the city (as Madden is). It might be useful if there were, say, more than three small maps. Lacking either case, it's merely vexing. Madden also has an annoying habit of repeating the exact same fact twice, thrice, or more. These aren't just reminders; Madden obviously forgets, or doesn't care, that he's already said these things.

Within its limitations, Istanbul is useful enough. Those limitations, however, are pretty severe.

Justinian's Flea is outstanding, though it only deals with a short time period. For a longer view, Lost to the West, by Lars Brownworth, is a good synopsis of Constantinople's role in the transition from Roman antiquity to and through the Middle Ages. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Book Review: Butter

Butter: A Rich History
Elaine Khosrova
Food, science, history

Ah, the now-classic single-noun-titled biography of a substance. We already own Salt and The Potato. Getting this one felt kind of inevitable.


Butter's not bad. It's somewhat scattershot in its approach, touching on its subtopics--buttermaking, history, nutrition, and so forth--in no very particular order. I think Khosrova would have been wiser to have started with, at minimum, a definition of terms. No doubt in her foodie bubble everyone is born knowing the exact distinctions among butter, butterfat, milk solids, cream, whey, and so forth, but I wasn't. On the other hand, the vigorous defense of butter's healthiness was (if nothing else) heartening.


If you're ever in Cork, Ireland, don't miss the Butter Museum. Really.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book Review: Letters to a Young Scientist

Letters to a Young Scientist
Edward O. Wilson
Science, biography, essays

A love letter to science, framed as epistles to an imaginary recipient. Letters to a Young Scientists is beautifully if simply written and often quite touching. It really gives a wonderful feel for how much Wilson adores science--indeed, for the love that any good scientist feels--as well as giving some of Wilson's own biography. (Incidentally, there are also many fascinating facts about ants.)


If you're a scientist, or if you're interested in how scientists feel about what they do, this is the book for you. If you're not interested, you should maybe read it anyway; you may well be fascinated before you finish.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book Review: A is for Arsenic

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie
Katherine Harkup
Medicine, literature

This book is aimed squarely at a particular demographic: fans of Agatha Christie who are also interested in forensics. Given that Christie has sold somewhere north of two billion books, that's not as narrow a target as you might think. Needless to say, I'm in it.


A is for Arsenic
 is more about the science than about the literary criticism. Every chapter picks a separate poison and discusses its chemical properties, how it works, its symptoms, antidotes (if any), how to detect it, real-life cases, and (finally) how Christie used it in fiction. It's an extraordinarily informative book--good enough for aspiring mystery authors to use as a reference. The tone might have benefited by being more sprightly and less stately; Harkup periodically reveals a sharp sardonic wit. The writing is very clear, though, and should be accessible even to non-scientists. A non-mystery-loving reader won't find much in A is for Arsenic, but for the right-thinking remainder of us it's a lot of fun. 


WARNING: Katherine Harkup does her best to avoid spoiling the books, but it's an impossible task. In some cases, just knowing that book X features poison Y--or any poison--is a spoiler. Read the books first. If you've already read them, read them again.

An excellent companion book is Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook.

Agatha Christie published something like eighty books over a 50-plus-year writing career. Naturally, not all of the books are of equal quality. My semi-subjective list of the absolute best would include (in no particular order):

  • And Then There Were None
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • The ABC Murders
  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • Death on the Nile
  • Cards on the Table (warning: contains a spoiler for Murder on the Orient Express)
  • Evil Under the Sun
  • Sleeping Murder
  • A Murder is Announced
  • Thirteen at Dinner
  • Curtain
  • Five Little Pigs
  • The Patriotic Murders
  • The Moving Finger
If she'd written any one of these, it would certainly have been considered a classic, one of the absolute best books of the puzzle-mystery genre. To have written all of them, plus twenty or thirty others that are almost as good . . . well, it's just plain unfair.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: Compass

Compass: A Story of Exploration and Innovation
Alan Gurney
Science, history, nautical

If you think the subject matter sounds interesting . . .

Actually, Compass is a bit better than the label would indicate. It's comprehensive, it's informative, it's detailed, and it's colloquially written. It might not appeal to readers with a low tolerance for minutiae, and it lapses once or twice into Nauticalese ("Lady Nelson . . . had lost dagger boards"). That aside, it's an agreeable read into an important and oft-overlooked piece of technology.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: Colonel Roosevelt

Colonel Roosevelt
Edmund Morris
Biography

Like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt is too large and varied a figure to be easily encompassed. This is the man who, while campaigning for President against his own chosen successor, was shot in the chest and then proceeded to give his scheduled speech anyway, with the bullet still in him. This is also the man whose collected published writings ran to twenty-four volumes; who explored an uncharted river through the Amazon rain forest; who won the Nobel Peace Prize; who made American conservationism a reality . . .


It's not surprising, then, that TR couldn't be captured in a single book. Colonel Roosevelt is the third and final volume of Edmund Morris's epic biography (the first two are The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex.) The adjectives it demands run towards "magisterial," "monumental," and "definitive." It's also vivid, multifaceted, and elegantly written in a sinuously literary register.

It's not an overblown newspaper report. Morris's aim is to be judicious, rather than impartial. As a writer with some evident pride in his own authorial chops, Morris feels free to critique Roosevelt's written output. Here a speech shows "Roosevelt's contempt for legalistic justice"; there another speech has "few passages of eloquence"; the book America and the World War has "some passages of real power," but "browsers glancing through its table of contents felt that they . . . would gain little by reading further." Outside of the literary, Morris's editorial specialty is the well-honed word or phrase, as when Woodrow Wilson "flee"s the White House, or is "professedly" bedridden.

It bears emphasizing that this linguistic scalpel is deployed carefully, and is not confined either to praising or to damning TR. The opinions of Roosevelt's foes, as well as his admirers, are given thoughtful weight, and in all cases the basis for their judgment is manifest. Thus, the naturalist John Burroughs can say
Roosevelt would be a really great man if he could be shorn of that lock of his hair in which that strong dash of the bully resides.
and we know exactly what he means, just as we can simultaneously appreciate the tributes of Teddy's unabashed partisans. All in all there's no reason to doubt a contemporary journalist: Roosevelt was "the most interesting American."

Ken Burns's recent documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a superb introduction to Rooseveltology, though of course it's much less detailed than Morris's three-volume, 2000+-page biography. For Roosevelt's adventures in South America, don't miss Candace Millard's The River of Doubt.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Book Review: I Contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Ed Yong
Biology

Sometimes you get a book that demands adjectives. I'm talking "mind-blowing," "wondrous," "astounding" . . . you know, the usual tepid endorsements you've come to expect from this blog.


Part of the wondrousness of I Contain Multitude is simply a matter of content. For anyone with even a passing interest in biology, it would be hard to write a dull book given Yong's factual starting points. Did you know that . . .
  • There's a species of mite that contains no less than five bacterial symbionts, none of which can survive without the others (or the mite itself)?
  • Your personal biome influences how attractive you are to insects?
  • The desert woodrat can digest the toxic leaves of the creosote bush because of its gut microbes?
  • The microfauna on your left hand are probably quite unlike what's on your right hand?
  • It may be possible to prevent the spread of viruses using mosquitos' own bacteria?
And that's just the start.

Life, in other words, is gloriously amazingly complicated. We humans tend to view it simplistically: it's a pyramid, we're at the top, and microbes are enemies to be eliminated. I Contain Multitudes effectively and enthusiastically demolishes that view. Along the way it treats the reader to an unending cornucopia of wonders, even as Ed Yong conscientiously documents the ways in which science is ever-changing and tentative and unsettled (especially in new fields such as this). Yong's writing is chatty, often sly, always clear, sometimes surprisingly eloquent. He has no choice, given the scope of his subject matter, to jump around somewhat--from researcher to researcher, from problem to problem, from organism to organism--but he's usually pretty good about reminding us where he's coming from.

I find it hard to imagine any reader who wouldn't enjoy this book, except possibly for the pathologically science-phobic. How much you take away from it, in terms of facts, is a separate question; there's just too much information for anyone to remember it all. Trust me: you won't care.

Though wildly different in tone and structure, Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies is similar in that it's a great read full of can't-miss content.  

An interview with the author is here.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Book Review: Isaac's Storm

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
History, meteorology

I expected to really like this book. Erik Larson is a master of non-fiction with the pacing and drive of fiction. The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake in particular are great reads--histories that read like thrillers.


Isaac's Storm reads like fiction, too. In fact, it reads a little bit too much like fiction. Larson's reach exceeds his grasp. He's trying to achieve a kind of profundity; he wants to say something about hubris, about technology, about society, about the turn of the century, about nature. But in his eagerness to present these greater themes, Larson--at best--distorts and embellishes his facts.

A certain amount of license is permissible in a book like this. If you know that the eponymous Isaac Cline took a carriage ride, and you know that the roads were surfaced with oyster shells, it's OK to say that "The wheels of Isacc's sulky broadcast a reassuring crunch as they moved over the pavement of crushed oyster shells." It's a little less forgivable in my book to describe--poetically, and without attribution or citation--how things looked and felt and seemed to the people involved, but it's a venial sin. There's too much of it in Isaac's Storm, and it gets rather purple on occasion, but I could forgive it.

However, when part of your attempted theme involves blackening people's reputations, it's not acceptable to make up stuff about those people. For example:
There were dreams. Isaac fell asleep easily each night and dreamed of happy times, only to wake to gloom and grief. He dreamed that he had saved [his wife]. He dreamed of the lost baby.
Only if you happen to look in the end notes will you find this:
248. There were dreams: I base this observation on human nature. What survivor of a tragedy has never dreamed that the outcome had been different.
And, similarly, this:
232. Isaac checked: what Isaac Cline did in the days immediately after the storm is a mystery. I have based this paragraph and others that follow on my sense of Isaac's character . . .
And this:
258. Isaac kept the ring: Isaac nowhere states this. It is conjecture, purely, but I base it on a number of things, particularly: Isaac's essentially romantic character . . .
These all come near the end of a book in which Larson uses Isaac Cline (who was the resident Weather Bureau meteorologist) as a symbol and exemplar of Man's Hubris in the Face of Nature; casts doubt on his personal accounts of the event; downplays his role in warning the city of Galveston; plays up his rivalry with his brother Joseph; and dramatizes his mistaken decision to trust in the solidity of his house. He may well be in the right, but his technique is not kosher. It's one thing to ornament the documentation if you're not trying to make value judgments--if, let us say, you're presenting an allegedly-straight recitation of events. When you do make value judgments, and then support those value judgments with truthy factoids that you made up, the term for what you're doing is no longer "nonfiction"; it's "propaganda".

I really did want to like Isaac's Storm. Instead, it substantially lessened my confidence in Erik Larson as an author.

Isaac's Storm has a strong crossover with The Weather Experiment, which details 19th-century scientists' first attempts to understand and predict weather. Another hurricane history--and in my opinion a better book--is R. A. Scotti's Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire
John Scalzi
Science fiction

This reads exactly like a political space opera written by John Scalzi. Which it is.


What, you wanted more in the way of a review? Fine. The Collapsing Empire combines John Scalzi's strengths and weaknesses as a writer with the strengths and weaknesses of the political-intrigue space opera as a genre. If you like these two things, you'll like the combination.

That's still not enough for you? Okay, here's the checklist. The Collapsing Empire has:
  • Funny, snarky dialogue.
  • A great opening scene, which is unfortunately a little bit disconnected from what follows.
  • Intrigue, politics, a scheming villain, several reasonably-appealing protagonists.
  • Adequate but shallow characterization.
  • Less idea content than in a typical Scalzi book. The best idea--build an interstellar empire that stays peaceful because no planet in it has the resources to survive without the others, due to legal monopolies--isn't really built out.
  • A bit of action.
  • A strong whiff of Dune--not in the setting or in the writing, but in the machinations. (Look what I found after having drafted that sentence.)
  • A 34th-century setting in which the characters are nonetheless recognizably people like us.
  • A lot of profanity.
  • Some non-explicit sex.
  • Infodumps.
  • Not much in the way of description. I have no clear idea of what the characters look like, for example.
  • Quick pacing.
  • A story with a beginning, middle, and end, but one which is nonetheless unmistakably setup for the main story.
I read half the book riding a train to work, and the other half riding a train home. I'll read the next one. The Collapsing Empire isn't the strongest of Scalzi's novels. On the other hand, it scratches the itch for Classic Style Science Fiction, and that's good enough for me.

For a somewhat different reaction, look here.