Sunday, December 10, 2017

Book Review: Ripples in Spacetime

Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy
Govert Schilling
Astrophysics

I liked a little over half of this book--the second half. The first half is wasted on me, and probably on most other readers, because it wastes a lot of time explaining basic science. Folks, if you write a book entitled Ripples in Spacetime, you can probably assume that your audience doesn't need a lot of background on what a neutron star is. Furthermore, while plain English and helpful analogies are great, slipping over the line from "colloquial" into "cutesy" is not. 

Once we finally get to the actual subject matter of the book, things even out. There's some good info on laser interferometry, a description of the various projects underway, an intelligent discussion of how you detect a tiny gravitational signal, and an argument for why it matters. I don't think the argument entirely makes its case--and I'm a former astronomy student!--but it's still interesting. 

So, on balance, okay. Schilling needs to trust his readers more, and have a stronger hold on what it is he's actually trying to express. It's possible that Ripples in Spacetime would work better as a series of articles than as a book. I ended up learning some things, though, and that's the main objective.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Book Review: Huế 1968

Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
Mark Bowden
History

I've been watching Ken Burns's series The Vietnam War, which is excellent, but (necessarily) synoptic. Huế 1968 makes a good companion piece: it's written almost exclusively from a ground-level view. There's virtually nothing about Vietnamese high-level actors, either north or south. American leaders are spotlighted periodically only to emphasize how little they had to do with what was going on.


Which is part of the point.

This is not a book for the squeamish, fans of General William Westmoreland, or anyone who chooses to believe that war is somehow "glorious." It's gut-wrenching. Bowden doesn't flinch from the sheer awfulness of urban warfare. He's not an obtrusive stylist; he uses good, solid, journalistic prose, mostly showing what the men (and a few women) on the ground are seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, and feeling.

It's a visceral combination. Every time Bowden introduced a new character into the narrative, I found myself worrying about what would happen to him; one of Huế 1968's major themes is how random and chaotic death is in war, and how little control the average grunt had. The fighters weren't all alike--Bowden's viewpoint characters have different backgrounds, different characters, different motivations, different views on the war--but they had this in common: they were raw material. Over the course of the book, they're fed into the hopper.Where and how any one of them comes out of the machine is beyond anyone's control.

Bowden empathizes with the Marines. He doesn't venerate them. War turns people ugly, and Vietnam was ugly to begin with. If there are any heroes in Huế 1968, they're the journalists, who risked their lives under horrible conditions to do the best job they could.

Huế 1968 has its limitations. It isn't about arrows on maps; Bowden gives just enough strategic and operational information to follow the overall shape of things. He never strays long or far from the individual view. This eventually starts to get fragmented--there are a very large number of viewpoint characters, and it's sometimes hard to remember who's who. It doesn't help that there are many different units involved, in multiple places, across a period of weeks. I wouldn't have minded reading more of the Vietnamese soldiers' side of things, either, but I suppose that the practicalities of interviewing veterans (not to mention the book's likely readership) tilted things towards the U.S. side.

 Nor, to be for, does the book pretend to be particularly objective. Bowden believes (as do I, for what that's worth) that the Vietnam war wasn't winnable--that it was a gargantuan American blunder, conflating Communism with nationalism, that put the Marines in Huế in the first place. If you're among those people whose response is "But from a strictly military point of view it was an American victory!", consider this: the South Vietnamese people, as a generalization, never embraced their government. (Why should they have?) They merely accepted it. It was a fact. Huế and the Tet offensive showed them that it didn't have to be a fact. "Winning" a battle doesn't count for much if there's nobody in particular whom you're winning it for.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: Artemis

Artemis
Andy Weir
Science fiction

In the beginning there was Andy Weir's self-published book The Martian. And the self-published book The Martian beget the mega-hit novel The Martian, which begat the Oscar-nominated movie The Martian. And I looked upon these things, and saw that they were good, and also that Andy Weir made a ton of money. Which, to be fair, he richly deserved.

Artemis is Weir's first novel since. (It's not a sequel.) Its plot is quite unlike The Martian's, but the writing is quite similar. It's deployed in service of a caper story rather than a survival story, which makes it a fun, fast read. Weir's humor is still humorous, his science is still scientific, his events are still eventful. It took me a while to warm up to Jazz, our protagonist, but I liked her better as the book went on.

Really, what Artemis is is a Heinlein juvenile, except with an older main character, some off-screen sexual references, and swearing. It reminded me quite a bit (very minor spoiler coming up) of Podkayne of Mars. It's jolly good fun. Go read it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Book Review: Grant

Grant
Ron Chernow
Biography

Ulysses Grant owned one slave in his lifetime: William Jones, a gift from Grant's obnoxious father-in-law. This was in 1858, and Grant was down and out. He'd resigned from the army under a cloud. He'd failed in business, was failing at running the farm he'd named "Hardscrabble," eking out a living by selling firewood on street corners, reluctantly taking handouts from his wealthier relatives. The gift of a slave was a substantial windfall. Grant could have sold Jones for a good $1,500 (and in 1858 money, $15 a month was a living wage).

So Grant freed William Jones.

I've plucked that anecdote from Grant's rich soil not just because it's admirable--although it is--but because it seems to me that it illustrates one of U.S. Grant's fundamental character traits: he lacked duplicity. One can only guess at his reasoning, but plausibly it went something like this:
  1. I own a slave.
  2. I don't like slavery [Ron Chernow documents this thoroughly].
  3. Therefore I should free my slave.
That same clear-eyed assessment of the facts served Grant well as a general. While others were havering about what the enemy might do, or quoting learned authorities about Napoleon, Grant simply observed that he had an army and a duty to use it. He was not a stupid man or an unsubtle tactician, in spite of what later (mostly Southern) writers said, but he didn't delude himself either. War means fighting.

Before and after the Civil War, though, this trait served Grant badly. He consistently lost money by trusting dishonest men. The corruption of his presidency never touched him personally, but he had immense difficulty in understanding that his associates were conniving, scheming, self-seeking manipulators. Over and over, in Ron Chernow's telling, Grant assumed that other men were like him: straightforward, candid, and consistent. It ruined him, eventually, and it did his posthumous reputation no good either.

You'll gather that I liked this book. It's 959 pages long, and I finished it in a couple of days. Like its hero, it has its flaws; but, again like its hero, its flaws are in many ways merely the defects of its virtues.

Chief among these virtues is the astoundingly complete and consistent portrait of Grant as an individual. Ron Chernow deftly picks out the major-key themes that defined Ulysses Grant--his modesty, his quiet humor, his odd combination of clear thinking and naïveté, his battle with alcoholism--and threads them through the narrative. Sometimes it gets repetitive; about the eight time that we're given a dissection of when and why Grant fell off the wagon, for example, we could reasonably take the explanation as a given. But as a character study, it's absolutely convincing.

A character study is what it is, too--not an examination of historical trends or an academic exercise in thesis-proving. Rather, Grant is most certainly an example of the great-man school of history. Some people may well deplore it on those grounds. It's not an unfair point--noble white males have been decidedly oversold in the past--but, as a matter of plain observable fact, sometimes the person on the ground really does make a difference. Grant certainly did; you need only to contrast his behavior with that of other Union generals to see as much.

The occupational hazard that comes with the great-man school of history is a tendency to be a little too kind to your subject. Chernow doesn't fully resist; I think he makes Grant out to be a bit more steely-eyed in the defense of southern freedpeople than he really was, for example. On the other hand, the former "definitive" biography (by William McFeely) was quite certainly far too harsh. Much as with Chernow's other works--you may possibly have heard of this one?--the portrait that emerges is that of a flawed, great, and ultimately sympathetic man.

I don't usually recommend anything but books in this space, but all the hype about Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War is 100% true. For written Civil War history, try James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom or Bruce Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Book Review: The Republic for Which It Stands

The Republic for Which It Stands: The United states During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896
Richard White
History

On its own terms, The Republic for Which It Stands is a pretty good book. I don't recommend it, because I don't like the terms.


I'll stipulate that it's decently written, with a few flashes of wit. White has a knack for finding the telling quote, the stiletto statistic, and the sardonic aside. He's got a few consistent themes, which he follows through the three decades of his story. He's even got a central character of sorts in William Dean Howells.

He's also got an agenda--actually, several overlapping agendas. Though the language is the vernacular, the text is clearly designed to engage the academic world. The Republic etc. is a book by a professor whose purpose is to advance that professor's theoretical framework and impress other professors. His mission, broadly speaking, is deflationary. He's here to rescue us from the triumphalism of past historians, and get us to embrace a more nuanced understanding of the past, to wit: Everything Sucked.

No, that's now how he'd put it. He'd probably say that the theme of the book is how one vision for the republic--a kind of updated Jeffersonian utopia of independent freemen--failed, and a different one--industrial wage-earner capitalism--took over. But as he writes it, the real message is: Everything Sucked.

I'm not saying that White is wrong. (It's certainly true that the Heroic White Male Theory of History is pretty threadbare.) I'm saying that, right or wrong, he's just not very interesting--not, at any rate, for the general reader. The horse he's beating is dead a long time before the book ends.

You can get a sense of the book's lopsided shape just by looking in the index. Thomas Edison gets roughly the same amount of ink as the immortal Stephen Field. White mainly mentions Edison, in fact, in order to sneer at him. (White is big on sneering.) You don't have to buy into the Edison mythology to note that White is, in fact, far off base

Similarly, Mark Twain receives a few transient mentions, but is vastly outdone in word count by such unforgettable luminaries as Frances Willard and Thomas A. Scott. The impeachment of Andrew Jackson gets a couple of pages; federal land policy in the West with respect to the railroads gets a long, slow, screed-y chapter. You'll find precious little in TRfWITS about art, entertainment, engineering, science, music, middle-class culture, the transportation revolution, the first national parks, newspapers, or even the women's suffrage movement. No doubt too much loose talk about such things would have left the readership in danger of forgetting that Everything Sucked.

Historical revisionism, then, is the agenda. White sticks to it with messianic fervor. He's long on facts, but he's not always scrupulous in his treatment of them. For example, in deflating the story of the Cattle Kingdom, he observes that there were always fewer cattle west of the 98th meridian than east of it, except for the "burgeoning herds" of California and Texas. Which is to say, if you exclude the places where there were a lot of cows, there weren't many cows. By that same logic, more people speak English than Mandarin, if you don't count China.

It almost goes without saying that White holds religiously to the Standard Academic Liberal Catechism of History. That, by itself, wouldn't necessarily offend me--it is, to be honest, close enough to my own prejudices. White's technique, however, is to simply decline to engage with any ideas that don't fit the aforementioned Catechism. He just reiterates that Everything Sucked, owing to people and ideas that weren't as enlightened as Richard White. For example, White--quite rightly!--calls out Southern whites for their savage, revolting, contemptible, nauseating, anti-American, and ultimately successful campaign of anti-black terrorism. When it comes to violence done by people whose politics he likes, though, it counts as "achieving retributive justice". Or, at worst, it's rationalized by saying that the perpetrators "had learned, with good reason" to hate their enemies.

(You could make a drinking game out of White's pet phrases, too. Try taking a shot every time you encounter "contract," "the home," and "gendered". You'll be to soused to continue before you finish chapter 3. This probably counts as a win.)

Finally, there's a problem with White's own ostensible thesis. The notion that the later 19th century represented a conflict between two differing visions of the American future implies that there was some chance that the alternative vision--an America of sober independent freemen, where wage labor was but a way station on the way to independent producerhood, without extremes either of poverty or wealth--was anything other than a pipe dream. That's another one of White's unexamined assumptions. Other western nations were going through similar transitions at the same time, and in none of them did anything even remotely resembling this neo-Jeffersonian utopia show any signs of appearing. It's hard to accept this as a fundamental conflict when one of the combatants is a purely notional one.

Oh, and don't forget: Everything Sucked! When White, late in the book, concedes that the economy had grown rapidly for much of the period, it comes as a considerable surprise. Not to worry, though: this is just a way of leading into the depression of 1893. Every anecdote, every statistic, every character portrait, is carefully chosen for its nastiness. Because Everything Sucked.

Well, OK. Quite possibly almost everything did  suck. But this is history without story, history without characters, history shorn of everything interesting. White demonstrates no gift for descriptive writing, doesn't care about narrative structure, and (with a few exceptions) has little insight into into character. I started this book because I wanted to learn some things. I finished the book because I did learn some things. But one of the things I learned is not to read any more books by Richard White.

White refers many times to William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis. The latter, although also aimed at academics, is a far more enjoyable book.

Part of the reason I was disenchanted with The Republic for Which It Stands is that it's part of the Oxford History of the United States, and the previous volumes that I've read have been outstanding. Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought (1815-1848) won a Pulitzer, and richly deserved it. So did James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (the Civil War). Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty (1789-1859) was a finalist. I'd recommend all of these without hesitation.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: Churchill and Orwell

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom
Thomas E. Ricks
Biography

Churchill and Orwell is an audacious attempt at an interleaved dual intellectual biography, showing the parallels and cross-connections not just of its two subjects' lives, but of their thoughts. It doesn't entirely succeed, but it's a worthwhile attempt.

Churchill and Orwell never met, though they had acquaintances in common. (Given the chummy closeness of the British politico-literate classes, it would have been surprising if they didn't.) Ricks, therefore, tries to highlight two things: the ways in which their personal story arcs reflected each other, and the ways in which their thinking--specifically, both men's hatred of cant and unyielding defense of freedom--ran in parallel. When he sticks to this program, he's doing something really interesting. 

He just doesn't stick to it strenuously enough. Both threads of Churchill and Orwell spend a bit too much time in basic biographical detail, the kind you could get anywhere. It's all interesting, but it's not all deep. Ricks quite rightly magnifies the episodes that he considers most formative--particularly Orwell's experience in the Spanish Civil War and (inevitably) Churchill's triumphal return from political exile from the late 1930s to 1941. But he doesn't entirely solve the problem of making that stuff his exclusive, concentrated focus.

Still, I'd rather read an ambitious book that doesn't quite pull it off than an unambitious success. At its worst, Churchill and Orwell is entirely readable. At its best, it's thought-provoking. If you any interest in the 20th century's intellectual response to the problem of totalitarianism, this is a good book for you. Sadly, the matter is still relevant.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Book Review: Caesar's Last Breath

Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us
Sam Kean
Science

This is one of those "a thousand and one fascinating facts about [fill in noun here]" books. I like books of this sort, I like Sam Kean's writing, and I liked this. It's not a thorough scientific study; it won't give you a sound theoretical basis for anything. Instead, Caesar's Last Breath romps lightly but intelligently over the ideal gas law, nitrogen fertilizer, weather, ballooning, fallout, volcanoes--anything at all that fits into this generously-sized topic. This includes fart jokes. The overall style is strongly reminiscent of James Burke's classic TV series Connections, in which pulling on a thread leads on to unexpected places and extraordinary vignettes. What's not to like?


Much more constricted in scope--but also much more intellectually ambitious--is Steven Johnson's thought-provoking meditation on connectedness, The Invention of Air; the latter overlaps some with Madison Smartt Bell's Lavoisier in the Year One. For more fart jokes, as well for writing that will appeal to anyone who likes Sam Kean's style, read Mary Roach's Gulp.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: Words on the Move

Words on the Move: Why English Won't--and Can't--Sit Still (Like, Literally)
John McWhorter
Language

All John McWhorter's books are fun reads for language mavens. This one is arguing that there is no single, unalterable standard for what makes "correct" language. There are a lot of interesting examples of how words and pronunciations that we now consider standard were once considered solecisms. There's also a good, non-technical description of how vowel shifts happen, specifically in the context of the zaniness that is English orthography.


I have a few quibbles with specifics--I think McWhorter's discussion of the modern "like" is incomplete, for example. That didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the book. It probably won't change your life, but it's an enjoyable work on a thought-provoking topic. If you're a strict prescriptivist in matters linguistic, though, it may provoke you to wrath. If so, you're in good company--just not very effectual good company.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Book Review: The Race Underground

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway
Doug Most
History, engineering

I expected to like this book. It has trains, engineering, urban design, history, and a city I'm familiar with. And I did like it. I'd have liked to have liked it more, though.


My problem with The Race Underground is that it reads as though it was written in haste and never received the attention of a first-rate editor. For one thing, the prose is often distinctly middle-schoolish:
"Dling, dling, dling," the bell rang out, and the car pulled away again.
For another thing, there's too much information that's badly presented, ill-phrased, eyebrow-raising, or just plain wrong. None of it is essential information, but there's enough of it to make me uneasy. For example:
  • Springfield is not "an hour west of Boston," even today--much less in 1826. (Google gives the distance as 90.9 miles.)
  • On page 302, workers are getting paid $2 for an eight-hour day. Four pages later, these same workers at the same time are getting paid $2 for a ten-hour day.
  • Most thanks "Several living ancestors of Henry Whitney". This is quite a trick, since Whitney was born in 1836.
There's more, but you get the picture.

So much for the bad. On the plus side, Most has an interesting story to tell--even if it's not nearly as dramatic as the subtitle would suggest--and he tells it at a nice quick pace. The characters are deftly sketched out, their interactions are clear, and it's always easy to tell who's who (this last being an underappreciated feat). It's especially interesting to see the variety of attitudes that 19th-century people had toward the very idea of a subway. It's equally interesting, if mildly depressing, to note that it was no easier to get essential transportation works done then than it is now.

Most importantly, by choosing the two Whitney brothers as the poles of his book, Most gives his narrative a shape and a structure. I'm big on structure, in which I'm in excellent company. I wish Doug Most had given his book another once-over--or that he'd had a really good editor. But the first and most important task for a non-fiction author is to get the reader to want to turn the next page. I'll forgive a lot for that.

The ne plus ultra of this sub-subgenre is David McCullough's The Great Bridge. Also worth mentioning is Jill Jonnes's Conquering Gotham--twenty years later, crossing the other Manhattan river, and going under rather than over, but very much related.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
Stephen Greenblatt
Religion, art, philosophy

This is a pretty good, readable account of the purposes to which people have put the Adam and Eve story. (As a person with no religious background whatsoever, I found some of it decidedly odd.) Greenblatt is at his best when he resists the temptation to theorize; happily, the bulk of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve takes the form of good, clear, interesting accounts of what other people have thought.

The account is perhaps a little uneven. There are big chunks devoted to St. Augustine and to John Milton, for example, but there's not much in between them. I didn't mind, particularly--a comprehensive survey would surely have been unreadable--but it's of a piece with Greenblatt's other books, which make it clear that in his mind everything between Rome and the Renaissance was a mistake. The book also digresses from Adam and Eve in spots, but the digressions are interesting, so I didn't mind that either. Pay attention and you may learn a little bit about paleoanthropology, a certain amount about art, a few snippets of poetry, and (in a surprisingly moving closing essay) something significant on chimpanzees.

This is, then, the kind of book that's ideally suited to the pondering classes. It's not a deep philosophical-theological dive. It's not an exhaustive history. You could call it a highlights reel, picking out some key ideas and interpretations of the Adam and Eve fable. No doubt readers who are more theologically sophisticated than I will find little new here, but I quite liked it.

There's a strong connection between The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve and Born Bad, which I read in 2015. Greenblatt's book is better, though.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Book Review: Time Travel

Time Travel: A History
James Gleick
Literature, science

As far as anyone can tell, there isn't any history of actual time travel. This book is, accordingly, a history of the idea of time travel. It's fairly light on physics, discursive, playfully written, and enjoyably meandering. What it lacks in mass, it makes up in range. There can't be all that many books out there, for example, that quote T. S. Eliot and Commander Spock within a few pages of one another. (Admittedly the comparison is a bit unfair; Eliot's cultural influence is comparatively minor.) There are some mind-bending asides, some witty aphorisms, some unexpected cultural crossovers. All in all, a fun read.


Much of Time Travel is about the fictions of time travel. In the process, the fictions themselves are described in some detail, which would rather spoil them for anyone who hadn't read them already. Read Asimov's The End of Eternity, Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" and "--All You Zombies--", before you read Time Travel.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Review: Atomic Adventures

Atomic Adventures: Secret Islands, Forgotten N-Rays, and Isotopic Murder--a Journey into the Wild World of Nuclear Science
James Mahaffey
Science

This could more accurately be titled Atomic Anecdotes. It's like a Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not compendium of nuclear physics. The stories are a semi-random mix of

  • Outright scientific quackery (Ronald Richter)
  • Scientists who were honestly deluded (the titular N-rays, cold fusion)
  • Stuff that was scientifically fine but not practical engineering (atomic-powered aircraft)
  • Stuff that was scientifically and practically fine, but killed by politics (nuclear-thermal rockets)
  • Tales of the true but obscure (the Japanese atomic bomb program)
To put it another way, Chapter 1 is 36 pages long and contains 39 footnotes, all of which are anecdotes or sidelights that Mahaffey couldn't squeeze into the text but couldn't bear to leave out. 

Also, the writing assumes a quite substantial understanding of physics--not at the degree level, perhaps, but certainly above the interested-amateur grade.

Personally, I enjoyed the book. It's funny, and the individual components are all well-written. More importantly, I have a bottomless appetite for this kind of useless information, and I also have the requisite scientific knowledge. The story of how the author got caught up in the cold-fusion debacle is particularly good--amusing, personal, and lively. I'd be cautious about picking this up if you don't fit my profile, though.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Review: Miracle Cure

Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine
William Rosen
Medicine

Miracle Cure is the last book by the late author of the superb Justinian's Flea. There's a sad irony in the title: Rosen died of cancer after finishing the manuscript. For him, there was no miracle.


But less than eighty years ago, curing pneumonia or typhoid or plague or any of dozens of other bacterial infections would equally have required a miracle. Before then, it's quite likely true that no healer of any stripe had ever cured anyone of any disease whatsoever--except, perhaps, accidentally. If you got sick, you got better on their own. Or you died.

Miracle Cure isn't quite the achievement that Justinian's Flea is. Its scope is narrower. It requires somewhat more in the way of background knowledge. I spotted a few places where the copy editor should have caught a problem. There's a rather large cast of characters, although Rosen is pretty good at giving the major ones a few vivid identifying characteristics.

It's still a darned good read, though. The pacing is excellent--almost novel-like--and the substance fully justifies the title. Rosen puts together a clear, connected narrative that starts with Louis Pasteur and winds its way almost seamlessly to the 21st-century drug-resistant-bacteria crisis. Along the way he makes it breathtakingly clear how massively, how thoroughly, and how phenomenally fast everything about disease changed. In 1942, half the nation's supply of penicillin was used to treat one patient. By 1956,  Aureomycin (a tetracycline version) was making a roughly $40-million-dollar annual profit for its maker . . . and that's just one of dozens of drugs that were on the market.

I'm sorry that William Rosen won't be writing any more books. As valedictions go, though, Miracle Cure is nothing to be ashamed of.

The classic older work in this area is Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters. On cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies is unbeatable.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Book Review: Grocery

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
Michael Ruhlman
Sociology, Food

The blurb describes Grocery as a "mix of personal history, social commentary, food rant, and immersive journalism." That's a pretty good capsule description. It leaves out the fact that some of those components are better than others.

The food rant is the worst. It's nothing but a combination of conventional foodie wisdom and personal prejudices. It talks a lot about trends in food, in a way that's very convincing if you ignore that fraction of the American public that doesn't happen to live in Brooklyn. You will not find, for example, any acknowledgment that organic accounts for all of 4% of U.S. food sales. What you will find is Mr. Crankypants-style assertions like "Canola stands for Canadian oil association--that's not food," which blithely disregards the fact that "canola" is in fact nothing more than a conventionally-bred form of the ancient crop traditionally known as rapeseed.

By contrast, the glimpse inside the day-to-day working of a modest-sized regional grocery chain (Heinen's, in the Cleveland area) is fascinating. Ruhlman got a tremendous level of access and cooperation from the Heinen family, and he does a great job of walking us through the things that they deal with. How do you set up the store? How do you compete with bigger chains when everyone has the same corn flakes? How is food buying and food selling changing? To give you an idea of how enticing this is, I now kind of want to go to Cleveland in order to go to a grocery store--specifically, this grocery store.

Finally, Ruhlman also does a wonderful job mixing in his own personal narrative. Chapter 1, entitled "My Father's Grocery-Store Jones," opens like this:
Rip Ruhlman loved to eat, almost more than anything else. We'd be tucking in to the evening's meal when he'd ask, with excitement in his eyes, "What should we have for dinner tomorrow?" Used to drive Mom crazy. And because he loved to eat, my father loved grocery stores.
This touching family story is threaded neatly through the book. It makes up for the boring food rant segments. It makes Grocery more than the sum of its parts. It's about the grocery business, yes, but it's also about what food means to us.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Review: Beyond Infinity

Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of Mathematics
Eugenia Cheng
Mathematics

This reads like My Big Little Book of Advanced Mathematics. It would be a good introduction for someone who's seriously intimidated by math; it's engagingly written, sprinkled with personal anecdotes and useful analogies. If you're mathematically literate, however, this is at best a quick diversion.

Everything And More covers very much the same territory. It's by David Foster Wallace, so it decidedly does not read like a book for middle schoolers.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Book Review: Scale

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies
Geoffrey West
Science

With a subtitle like that, you expect that "modest" is not going to be what you get. And you don't.

In most of these reviews, I try to avoid too much recapping of what the book's contents actually are. That's what the back-cover blurb is for. For Scale, however, my reaction only makes sense in the context of Geoffrey West's argument. So, briefly:

  1. It's long been known that larger animals have slower metabolic rates--lower heartbeats, longer lives, and so forth.
  2. Empirically, the relationship between animal size and metabolic rate is a three-quarters power law
  3. Many other biological features also show three-quarter-power scaling, or one-quarter-power scaling, or occasionally one-half-power scaling.
  4. Geoffrey West has come up with a theoretical explanation for this surprising profusion of multiples of 4.
  5. This theory allows him to make testable, quantitative predictions for various biological features, which agree closely with observations.
  6. Cities have some animal-like features, but they also have some differences. For example, the number of patents per capita more than doubles when a city doubles in size.
  7. With some alterations, West's theory can be used to make somewhat looser predictions about cities. 
  8. Companies also can be compared to organisms.
  9. With some further alterations, Wests theory can be used to make somewhat looser yet predictions about companies.
My reaction is: intriguing, but unproven. For one thing, West isn't necessarily the first to have made the connections he makes, although he may well be the first to do so in a formal, testable fashion. For another, his ideas seem quite strongly supported in the biological realm, but increasingly speculative outside it. For a third, some of the non-biological examples smell a bit like fishing. By that I mean that any two quantities that both grow exponentially--say, the adoption of telephones after 1880 and the salaries of baseball free agents after 1980--will have some power-law relationship, and some of these relationships will fit with whatever theory you propose.

That doesn't mean I didn't like the book; I did. It reminds me of Edward O. Wilson's Consilience. (Wilson is a better writer, but West makes his case more convincingly.) There's also a close connection to Edward Glaeser's very good book Triumph of the City, and a more distant one to the outstanding The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson. 

The connection here, if it wasn't obvious, is that these are all big-picture-thinking books: books that try to perform synthesis on a heroic scale, making sense of many disparate facts under one intellectual umbrella. Scale isn't the best such book I've ever read--I wouldn't recommend it to a reader who doesn't have some tolerance for scientific writing, for example--but it's pretty good. In particular, it's a paean to the value of interdisciplinary thinking, and that's a subject dear to my heart.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Review: A Mind at Play

A Mind a Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age
Jimmy Soni, Rob Goodman
Biography, computers

Claude Shannon was the Isaac Newton of information theory--and that's not an exaggeration; he reified and measured the concept of "information" much as Newton made sense of force and acceleration. Unlike Newton, he seems to have been a genuinely playful and sweet-natured man. After revolutionizing communication, he rode unicycles, taught himself to juggle, and built whimsical machines--like the box with the switch on top; when the switch was turned on, a mechanical arm emerged, turned off the switch, and retracted.


A Mind at Play is not a super-dense book, either as biology or as mathematics. Its core is a very nice summary, very light on mathematics, of just what it was that Shannon did. I think the authors missed a couple of tricks for the more knowledgeable reader--the deep connections between information entropy and physical entropy go unacknowledged--but the book is well-written and provides a good, sympathetic character portrait.

Among the good books that overlap with A Mind at Play are:

  • The Innovators, Walter Isaacson
  • The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner
  • The Information, James Gleick (much more technically rich)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Book Review: A Death by Any Other Name

A Death by Any Other Name
Tessa Arlen
Mystery

I sometimes feel as though I ought to give new authors a chance, and not just stick to my old favorites. In this case, I was swayed by the back-cover quote: "pitch-perfect classic whodunit."


I should have remembered the rules.

A Death by Any Other Name is just plain badly written. It's not entirely Tessa Arlen's fault; there are a lot of problems that would have been caught by any competent copy editor. Consider:
  • "Fraulein" is several times misspelled as "Frauline."
  • A chafing dish is used to warm food. A chaffing dish, if there were such a thing, would have to either convert food to inedible husks, mock it in a good-natured fashion, or confuse its radar.
  • One character--an educated man--says that France has been England's foe "since time in memoriam". The phrase Arlen is looking for is "since time immemorial."
  • Only other servants would have referred to the butler as "Mr. Evans." The family and guests would have called him "Evans." 
Then there's the wooden dialogue. This is supposed to be a man speaking with "simple conviction", having forgotten his "showy manner":
She brought refinement to the dishes she prepared that far outshone anything I have had from French chefs in more prestigious establishments.
Try saying that out loud and sounding natural. There are plenty of other solecisms as well--run-on sentences, misused commas, paragraphs that have unattributed dialog from two different characters, and an implacable devotion to telling what the characters are feeling rather than showing. Nor does Arlen understand that the "action" of a whodunit takes the form of "information is revealed" (either to obscure or to enlighten), so the pacing is nonexistent too.

At this point, one of my regular readers is already mouthing the question: "So why did you keep reading it, then?" The answer is that I still hoped that A Death by Any Other Name might prove to be interesting as a whodunit--that is, as a puzzle, a technical challenge, an ingenious piece of misdirection. Alas, I was disappointed in this as well. The whole of the deductive process displayed boils down to this (SPOILER, if anyone cares):
  1. This piece of paper, which we found quite by accident, has a 7 written in the continental fashion, with a bar through it: 7.
  2. X is French.
  3. Therefore, X is the murderer!
Not only is this feeble, it's not even original.

I'm not happy to have to pan this book. It's the kind of thing I'd like to like, and the publisher is one I'd like to support. But the author didn't do her job, and the editor didn't do theirs.

My usual suspects for whodunits are Steve Hockensmith, Aaron and Charlotte Elkins, and sometimes Anthony Horowitz. If you find any others, let me know.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Review: Empire of Things

Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Frank Trentmann
Sociology, economics

At the end of Empire of Things you'll find 107 pages of densely-packed, small-print end notes. You'll also find an apologetic note from the author:

. . . these are only the tip of the research iceberg on which this book rests. Readers who wish to delve deeper . . .can browse my 260-page working bibliography at: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/frank-trentmann/empire-of-things/.
This, mind you, after 692 pages of text. These aren't light, fluffy pages, either. It's like you're walking into Dr. Trentmann's Famous Museum of Consumer Facts. Imagine a long room, lined with glass cases, each of which is crammed with exhibits, and where each exhibit has an explanatory plaque which you're expected to read. A semi-random trawl through the book's first half furnishes some examples. Page 175:
In 1800, Paris and London made do with a few thousand oil lamps . . . By 1867 . . . Paris was lit by around 20,0000 gas lamps. By 1907, it had 54,000; London had as many as 77,000 lights . . . each burnt 140 litres of gas a night. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Paris was seventy times brighter than during the 1848 revolution.
Page 212:
A typical local Varieté cinema in 1904 showed moving pictures to around 70,000 viewers a week . . . Lexington, Kentucky had two cinemas for its 25,000 inhabitants . . . By 1914, Britain had 3,800 cinemas. London alone had almost five hundred, with seating for 400,000, more than five times that in music halls . . . 250,000 Londoners went to the cinema, every day. In New York City, the weekly attendance was closer to a million . . .
Page 239:
. . . a factory worker typically earned $590 in 1890 . . . almost a million new homes were constructed in 1925 alone . . . In New York and Philadelphia, 87 per cent and 61 per cent were renting in 1920. In 1930, this was down to 80 per cent and 42 per cent.

Page 326-327:
. . . in the early 1960s, public expenditure was 36 per cent of GDP in France (33 per cent in the UK; 35 per cent in West Germany); by the late 1970s it had reached 46 per cent in all three . . . In the USSR, consumer durables grew at a rate of 8 per cent a year . . . the Hungarian government promised its people 610,000 TVs, 600,000 washing machines and 128,000 fridges within the next three years . . .
It's not that the facts aren't interesting; they are. It's not that Empire of Things is badly written, either, although someone should let Frank Trentmann know that it's no longer a flogging offense to use a contraction now and then. It's just that there's so . . . damn . . . much of it. Even the most dedicated reader isn't going to retain more than a tiny fraction of this information. Empire of Things would have been so much more memorable if it had only concentrated on telling a story. (The second half, which is organized by concept rather than chronologically, is a bit better than the first.) But if there's a theme running through the book, it's one that only really becomes clear in the final 20 pages or so. The book is intriguing in spots, and enlightening in spots, but as a whole it's something of a blur.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Review: The Red Thumb Mark

The Red Thumb Mark
R. Austin Freeman
Mystery

Another old-school classic, of sorts, found at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. The Red Thumb Mark (1907) is the first of Freeman's "Dr. Thorndyke" series. Freeman was very well-known and well-regarded back in the Golden Age of Mystery; he has a fair claim to have invented the scientific-legal thriller, in which the detective uses genuine scientific or technical knowledge to identify the criminal.


On that level I have no quarrels with The Red Thumb Mark. The science is detailed, well-explained, and (as far as I can judge) sound. The expository dialog is a little stiff, but it's not bad for all that. The trial scenes are entertaining, too.

When Freeman is writing about anything other than science or law, though, his prose takes on a distinctly mauve shade. It's not quite purple, but . . . well, just look.
I glanced from time to time at my companion, and noted that her cheek still bore a rosy flush, and when she looked at me, there was a sparkle in her eye, and a smiling softness in her glance, that stirred my heart until I trembled with the intensity of the passion that I must needs conceal. And while I was feeling that I must tell her all, and have done with it, tell her that I was her abject slave, and she my goddess, my queen; that in the face of such a love as mine, no man could have any claim upon her; even then, there arose the still, small voice that began to call me an unfaithful steward and to remind me of a duty and trust that were sacred even beyond love.
The actual dialogue I will spare you. On his worst day, Conan Doyle (to take one instance) could not possibly have written this stuff.

It must also be said that Jervis, the narrator, is phenomenally dim-witted, while Dr. Thorndyke himself is colorless and one-dimensional. O tempora! O mores! The prose of 1907 is not the prose of 2017. I fear that, unlike such distinguished contemporaries as The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), The Red Thumb Mark must now be regarded mainly as a period piece.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: The Dispatcher

The Dispatcher
John Scalzi
Science fiction

A novella rather than a novel, The Dispatcher is an intriguing concept executed with a kind of minimalism. There are some cool ideas here, but they're outlined rather than developed. It's heavy on dialogue, and the dialogue is somewhat less flagrantly Scalzi-esque than usual. I liked it. It's very much in the old-school SF mode. I kind of hope Scalzi develops the idea further, though.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: The Crash Detectives

The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World's Most Mysterious Air Disasters
Christine Negroni
Engineering, transportation

This book was a disappointment. In the first place, it's not about any actual crash detectives. Mainly it's a jumpy, incomplete, and speculative smorgasbord of miscellaneous air disaster stories, some of which don't even conclude. Furthermore, it's glib, it's shallow, and it indulges in after-the-fact finger-pointing. Finally, it spends way too much time expounding Christine Negroni's theory about Malaysia Airlines flight 370. (The theory itself--hypoxia--is reasonable enough.) Avoid, and avoid the author unless she gets a competent editor.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book Review: Iron Horses

Iron Horses: America's Race to Bring the Railroads West
Walter R. Borneman
History, trains

Imagine reading a play-by-play recount of a sporting event--one of Roger Angell's classic baseball essays, for example. If you're totally uninterested in baseball, then even a really good account isn't going to flutter the cockles of your heart. If you're a fan, that's a different story.


So it is with Iron Horses. There's a brief introduction to the time and the place (the American Southwest, 1850 and after) and to some of the main characters. Then we're off. Here's Cyrus K. Holliday coming up for the plucky underdog Santa Fe ... and he's secured his federal grants! He's setting out for the state line, building track. And here comes the Kansas Pacific, pushing him from the north! Those grants come with a deadline! It's an epic race, folks, and let's not forget "General" Palmer and his Rio Grande system stirring around near Denver--

I liked Iron Horses a lot. It's fast-paced, lively, quite well-written, and does a fairly good job at handling a large cast of both men and railroads. It's got scope. It's got engineering and local color and finance and tycoons and a couple of actual, honest-to-god gunfights. It even has, just barely, enough maps.

But, then, to continue the sporting analogy, I'm already a fan. I have model trains in my basement and train pictures on my walls and a ton of history books upstairs. I'm not convinced that Iron Horses--good though it is!--would translate to the non-fan community. Borneman's writing for readers who have some idea of the geography and railroads of the West, who already know the difference between a 4-4-0 and a 2-8-0.

It's instructive to compare Iron Horses with Cattle Kingdom. They overlap in space and time. They're both nicely readable. They both have a major story arc with various offshoots. They both work well at the macro scale: politics, finance, rich guys, trends, and so forth. Cattle Kingdom does a better job in shifting to the micro scale, though--the scale of individuals working on the ground--and that gives it an extra measure of appeal. Iron Horses has, if anything, more in the way of conflict and competition; and yet, ultimately, its stars are railroads more than people.

There are two good books about the building of the first transcontinental railroad: Nothing Like It in the World (Stephen Ambrose) and Empire Express (David Haward Bain). Ambrose's book is very readable, but has been criticized on accuracy grounds.

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.