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

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

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

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

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.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Book Review: The Keeper of Lost Causes

The Keeper of Lost Causes
Jussi Adler-Olsen

It's frequently reported that the Scandinavian countries are the happiest in the world. You couldn't prove it by their burgeoning crime-fiction scene, though. The standard Scandinavian mystery has a morose lead character with some kind of dark past and/or present, a crime with bleak psychological overtones, a steady drumbeat of depressive prose, and a downbeat conclusion.

The Keeper of Lost Causes delivers on all these fronts. It's a police procedural rather than a whodunit or a thriller, so there's not much of a puzzle. As an experienced mystery reader, I spotted what was going on at page 123; I was confirmed in my analysis--which was not a very startling one--on page 300. 

In between, the book relies on pacing. This isn't a bad strategy. There are some good scenes. Plot developments happen with some regularity. It's interesting to watch the main character following the thread from plot point to plot point. I could have done with less of his pointless and feckless personal life, personally; his assistant is a more interesting and appealing character than he is.

In summary: The Keeper of Lost Causes was OK. It would be a good book for an airplane ride, or for anyone who likes the standard Nordic mystery, or for genre readers who aren't looking for anything new or challenging. I liked it enough to finish it in a few sittings. I didn't like it enough to look for any other books in the series.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Review: The Voices Within

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
Charles Fernyhough
Cognitive science

The Voices Within is an outstanding book--for the right sort of reader. That reader is someone who's interested in science, who's not put off by a modest dusting of scientific terminology, who's interested in the nitty-gritty details of experiments.

That's me, needless to say. If it's you, read The Voices Within. Your reward will be a wealth of fascinating and thought-provoking detail. Some of these are simple eye-openers: I would never have guessed, for example, that a non-trivial fraction of people report that they never think in words. Some of them are more food for thought: Fernyhough devotes quite a lot of space to exploring the connection between ordinary train-of-thought inner speech and the experience of people who hear voices. If the conclusions he draws are sometimes tentative, well, that's science for you.

In fact, Charles Fernyhough is a novelist as well as a scientist. The Voices Within doesn't always feature novelistic prose, although it does so in spots. There is, however, a short but interesting segment on how writers "hear" their characters' voices. The humanist connection comes through most clearly is in the deeply sensitive treatment of voice-hearers (Fernyhough avoids terms such as "auditory hallucinations"). The case histories that he cites are touching and memorable, as well as being illuminating. 

This is a science that's still in its infancy. Only recently have scientists had the tools (fMRI, mainly) to investigate inner speech in any but the most rudimentary fashion. Even the questions themselves are still being refined. I hope that future books will be as enlightening as this one.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The West: Arches and Canyonlands

Double Arch, Arches National Park
Landscape Arch
Delicate Arch
La Sal Mountains
Grand View Point, Canyonlands
Canyons and badlands

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The West: Bryce Canyon

The amphitheater
Rainbow Point (elevation 9115')
Queen Victoria (left)
Hoodoos from the hiking trails
Late afternoon

Monday, March 20, 2017

The West: Zion National Park

The Narrows
Virgin River
Upper Emerald Pool
Canyon floor from the West Rim
Canyon wall
Looking back from the park's east entrance
This is what happens to trees out there

Book Review: The Devil in Music

The Devil in Music
Kate Ross

Historical mysteries are tricky. Some authors seem to believe that their primary goal is to impress the reader with how much they know about the period. Others use characters who are obviously modern people with modern attitudes in period drag. A non-trivial number simply don't know how to write a mystery plot.

Kate Ross did it better than most. Her period is the 1820s, and her characters are of their time (her detective. Julian Kestrel, is an English dandy in the mode of Beau Brummel). She's got a deft hand with period detail; instead of inserting a factoid every few paragraphs, or smothering the reader under periodic infodumps, she works it seamlessly into the narrative. The Devil in Music is a historical mystery that actually feels historical.

It does not, perhaps, feel quite so mysterious. The central twist in the murder plot is taken from a classic Dorothy Sayers novel. There's also a more intrigue-oriented side to the plot, and that's more satisfying. Without spoiling anything, there's one very clever and completely appropriate piece of misdirection that deserves some kudos. Finally, the resolution involves some pretty good character development.

So: The Devil in Music didn't make my jaw drop, but I quite enjoyed reading it. We already own the first book in the series, Cut to the Quick; now I want to read the others.

If you could somehow combine Kate Ross with Susan Spann, you'd get something spectacular. Spann doesn't have Ross's writing chops, but she's a better technician.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: The Rise of Athens

The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilization
Anthony Everitt

The Rise of Athens is a pretty good general history, concentrating sixth through the fourth centuries B.C. It isn't particularly ground-breaking; Everitt himself stipulates that he's relied heavily on such familiar sources as Herodotus and (especially) Thucydides, and anyone who's familiar with these sources won't find much that's novel in the large-scale picture. (Practically speaking, what else is there?)

On the other hand, if you're not versed on the subject, The Rise of Athens would be a good place to start. Everitt strikes a good middle ground between being hyper-skeptical and completely credulous when it comes to using those sources. The book is written in a pleasing conversational tone. The organization is basically chronological, so it's easy to follow. The main actors are scrupulously identified (and we're reminded periodically of who was who), so it's unusually easy to follow--kudos for this. There are a number of insightful asides into such topics as hoplite warfare, the cost of maintaining a galley, ancient Greek homosexuality, red-figure and black-figure pottery, and so forth. 

On the third hand, The Rise of Athens follows its sources in being largely a politico-military history. It doesn't give a lot of space to Athenian drama, for example, and it gives rather less to Athenian philosophy--both areas of some significance. I also suspect that Everitt over-emphasizes the traditional Clash of Civilizations/Greeks vs. Persians/Freedom vs. Subjugation aspects of his story.

As regards the subtitle: it's hyperbole--but it's pardonable hyperbole. If you read The Rise of Athens you will occasionally be reminded that the past is an alien country. Far more often, though, you'll be struck by the similarities. The questions that the ancient Athenians grappled with--the proper relationship between the state and religion, for example, or the demands of maintaining an alliance against a common foe--are still with us. The extraordinary credit due to the Hellenes is that they were the first people whose answers to those questions are, however greatly mutated, still with us as well.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Back Again

Blogging has been light because I have been conducting certain highly-sensitive investigations in a Secret Undisclosed Location code-named "The West." To my loyal readers (a group whose size--and I do not mean to brag here--reaches the exalted plane of "several"), I say: fear not. I have returned.

As a result of my investigations, I can divulge that "The West" is large and contains many brightly-colored rocks.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Empire Games

Empire Games
Charles Stross
Science fiction

In theory, Charles Stross ought to be one of my favorite authors. He writes idea-oriented science fiction. He's not postmodernist or relentlessly pessimistic or anything-punk. He's a friend of John Scalzi. His "Laundry Files" series is funny and imaginative.

And yet . . . I find that most of Stross's novels have something off-putting about them. Sometimes I just don't like the main character(s). Other times Stross is so busy stuffing ideas into the story that the characters have nothing much to do. And once or twice I've hit something that just makes me say "Ew. Do not want to read."

Empire Games is my favorite non-Laundry-Files Stross so far. It's a sequel to his earlier "Merchant Princes" books, but it's not necessary to have read those first. (However, Empire Games is full of spoilers for the earlier books; you'll lose something by reading them in reverse order.) I liked the protagonist, at least when she wasn't being wimpy. The central idea is a familiar one--Harry Turtledove used it in his "Crosstime Traffic" YA series, to take one contemporary example--so Stross doesn't have to spend all his time riffing on it. The pacing is outstanding; I'd even go so far as to dub Empire Games a page turner.

My chief quarrel with Empire Games is that it takes the main characters all the way up to page 262 to do something they should have done on page 30 or so. Yes, there's plenty of in-story justification for it, but that doesn't make it not irritating. It happens (I think) because of the political metaphysics Stross is using. I won't attempt to characterize his personal politics--he can do that for himself--but in Empire Games there's an unstated assertion which I find both tedious and contrafactual. Namely: There are no good governments. There are only bad governments, some of which oppose one another.

I'll hold off on critiquing this idea in detail. Suffice it to say that it (a) is deployed to prevent the characters from acting rationally, and (b) makes it very hard to care which side comes out on top, or even whether either side survives at all.

Happily, there is a caveat to my caveat. This is the first book of a series. I do plan to read the next one; see prior remarks re: pacing. Hence, I reserve my final judgment. Watch this space.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Book Review: Death Ship

Death Ship
Jim Kelley

Death Ship is an unremarkable British police procedural. The setting is fairly well rendered; the main characters are pleasant but forgettable; the plot is quotidian, and regrettably partakes of the great ur-plot of modern British mystery fiction. Death Ship could serve as an episode of Midsomer Murders, except that it lacks the farcical trimmings that ultimately ruined the TV show. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Book Review: The Private Lives of the Impressionists

The Private Lives of the Impressionists
Sue Roe
Art, biography

This is a pretty good collective biography. It is, if anything, stronger about the relationships among the Impressionists than on the inner lives of the individuals. It's detailed, though not exceedingly deep--at the level of a good magazine article, say, only at book length. Upon looking at the endnotes, I saw without surprise that it's mainly based on material that's appeared in other secondary sources; there are no startling revelations culled from Monet's sensational secret diaries or anything of that sort. I didn't find the book "emotionally stirring," to quote a back-cover blurb quote, but tastes vary. 

The illustrations are quite good, which is rather a sine qua non for a book about Art. They don't illustrate every painting described in the text, but they hit the high points, and of course they're very striking in their own right. It might not have hurt to have included a few examples of conventional "Salon" art, to demonstrate what the Impressionists were rebelling against. I was particularly struck by this:
The Floor Scrapers, Gustave Caillebotte
(hosted by Wikipedia)
What makes this "Impressionist", one might ask? It's not the style; it's the subject matter. There's no grand historical drama, no romantic views of mighty Nature, no mythology, not even any elegant persons of the painting-purchasing classes. It's just a bunch of ordinary lower-class working Parisians sweating away at a hard job. The Floor Scrapers was deemed "vulgar."

I do think that a who's who right up front would have been a big help, particularly for readers who are perhaps less familiar with the Impressionist canon. If you're one of those, The Private Lives of the Impressionists will probably hold a good many "Wait, which one was Pissarro again?" moments. This is especially true once the various wives, sweethearts, mistresses, children, parents, and business associates come into the picture.

I might have liked Mad Enchantment more if I'd read this first, for background. More distantly, there's some crossover with David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Thought Exercise: Red Bus, Blue Bus

Suppose you want to leave town. You're deciding whether to hop on the Blue Bus or the Red Bus.

You go to the driver of the Blue Bus and ask where it will take you. Says the driver: "Well, we'll pull out and head south on Chandler Road. That'll take us to U.S. 20 west, which should be OK at this time of day, but if the traffic's bad we can take a detour onto Simms Street. Five miles down we'll get onto the interstate, only we'll have to be careful to stay in the left lane, because there's a lot of construction going on down around Snowville.

"Now, one of our passengers would like to swing by Wal-Mart, so we'll get off for a while at exit 12. And there's a lady who really wants a Borscht Burger, so we'll make a ten-mile detour to the Burger Czar out by Hamptonfield. Then there's a rest stop after exit 21, where we can . . ."

So you go to the driver of the Red Bus and ask the same question. This driver says: "We're going to Vegas. Eighty miles per hour the whole way, no stops. It'll be great. Hop on."

Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, the driver of the Blue Bus is still droning on about the New Jersey Turnpike.

Now, maybe Vegas isn't your top destination choice. You might be skeptical that you can do the whole trip at eighty with no stops. You might even think that the Red Bus driver is kind of full of it.

But here's the thing. When you came to the bus station, you needed to make a choice. You now know that the Red Bus driver has a destination in mind. He has expressed clearly where he is going and why he wants to go there. That's a positive reason to hop on the Red Bus. By contrast, the Blue Bus driver has not given you any reason to choose the Blue Bus--unless you happen to like Borscht Burgers.

The application to recent politics is left as an exercise for the reader.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book Review: Against Empathy

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
Paul Bloom
Psychology, philosophy

I think of myself as being not particularly empathic. I suspect that's a big reason why I don't enjoy mainstream literary fiction; I just don't care about the travails of ordinary people in ordinary situations. In consequence, I'm predisposed to like a book a title like this.

Surprise: I liked it. Against Empathy is, as you'd expect, thought-provoking. It raises important questions. Bloom's argument, in a nutshell, is that empathy is an emotion; that, like all emotions, it's subjective; that it misleads us as often as not; and that reasoned kindness is better than instinctive kindness. The empathic response of a KKK member, for example, is to favor a white over a black person. Even for those of us in the non-white-sheet-wearing-classes, empathy warps our decision making; that's why we don't do much to stop things like genocides in Rwanda and famines in Sudan.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that Against Empathy is as strong or as well-thought-out as Paul Bloom thinks it is. First, he spends too much time qualifying his alleged position. Second, some of his arguments are, shall we say, open to refutation.

To begin with, to make his argument Bloom has to make a very precise definition of what he means by "empathy". He's talking, specifically, about the feeling that something that's happening to someone else is happening to you. If you cringe and whimper when someone else describes his painful root canal, that's Bloomian empathy.

Bloom argues for the distinction by separating empathy from sympathy and/or compassion. If a small child is terrified of the sound of thunder (he would say), I am not myself terrified--I do not feel empathy--but that doesn't mean I can't be sympathetic.

As a person with a scientific background, I applaud the desire to define terms exactly. This particular hair, however, is being split exceedingly finely. Maybe I'm not afraid of the thunder, but that doesn't mean I've never been irrationally terrified of something. The echo of that fear is what I feel, and it's that echo that brings me to feel compassion. The difference--arguably, at least--is of degree rather than of kind.

Then there's the imprecision in Bloom's term "rational compassion." A truly rational person would not be compassionate. To act in a genuinely compassionate manner is to do something that is against your own self-interest. This is never rational. The motivations that Bloom cites for behavior that he admires are, again, just watered-down versions of the empathy he's arguing against.

Finally, there's a double standard going on here. Bloom makes both of these arguments

  • Empathy is something that we humans don't do well. We shouldn't rely on it.
  • Reasoning is something that we humans don't do well. We should strive to do it better.
I'll give Bloom credit for at least recognizing the problem. His final chapter tries to get to grips with it--by, among other things, arguing that our cognitive biases are neither as fixed nor as strong as they've been represented to be. The marvel, he asserts, is that we can think straight if we choose make the effort--and that when it comes to moral issues we must make the effort.

OK. Only . . . why bother? I'm the very last person to cast doubt on the merits of rationalism, but there's nothing that's obviously privileged about moral issues when it comes to thinking clearly. To assert that it's especially important that we overcome our innate illogic in the case of moral and ethical decisions is simply to say that Paul Bloom has emotively assigned a high value to moral and ethical decisions. I have to suppose that that's because he feels that these decisions are especially important (as, to be fair, I feel as well). You see where this is going, don't you?

Closely related:

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book Review: In the Garden of Iden

In the Garden of Iden
Kage Baker
Science fiction

I've sampled Baker's work before now. I always thought she was a good writer, often witty, with good characterization--but that she wasn't clear on exactly what that "story" thing was all about.

In the Garden of Iden did nothing to change my mind. There are some good bits--the opening chapters are particularly effective. Overall, though, it's more or less the same non-story as Connie Willis's Domesday Book, although I didn't spot any major historical errors in this one. I didn't dislike it, but it didn't convert me from "sampling" to "seeking out."

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Book Review: Priceless

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Masterpieces
Robert Wittman
Art, crime

A quick read: breezily written, exciting, somewhat shallow, moderately informative, unapologetically subjective, and written (I feel sure) with one eye on a future TV or movie deal.

I'm tempted to compare Priceless to Bringing Down the House, except that Bringing Down the House is heavily fictionalized.

For actual fiction, Aaron and Charlotte Elkins have written two good series of art-crime mysteries. The Chris Norgren books (A Glancing Light, A Deceptive Clarity, and Old Scores) are straight mystery/thrillers. The more recent Alix London series (A Dangerous Talent, A Cruise to Die For, The Art Whisperer, and The Trouble With Mirrors) edge over toward the "romantic suspense" category.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book Review: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China
David J. Silbey
Military history

A confession is in order. I developed an unreasoning dislike for The Boxer Rebellion on page 11. The twin reasons:

  • Sibley asserts that the 1857 Indian Mutiny led to a sea change in British attitudes towards colonized peoples. As evidence, he cites Rudyard Kipling: "The difference between . . . 'Gunga Din' and . . . 'The White Man's Burden' was the difference pre- and post-mutiny." 
    • In 1857, Rudyard Kipling was negative eight years old. (He was born December 30, 1865.) If he ever had a pre-Mutiny attitude, he must have gotten it from a time machine.
    • "Gunga Din" was published in 1892, thirty-five years after the Mutiny. "The White Man's Burden" was published a mere seven years later, and in any case is subtitled "The United States and the Philippine Islands". I don't believe that the period between 1892 and 1899 represented a major shift in attitudes, especially not a major shift attributable to an event in 1857.
  • Furthermore, says Sibley: ". . . what the colonized, the 'subalterns,' thought of this was rarely considered" (emphasis added). A subaltern is not a colonized person. A subaltern is a junior officer--a first or second lieutenant, in modern terms. If you're going to make sweeping pronouncements, you should show evidence that you've gotten your basic facts right.
(Further furthermore, the maps in this book are absolutely wretched. They're nothing more than small reproductions of period sketches, stuck in among the illustrations.)


With that off my chest, I can say that The Boxer Rebellion is in general a clear and straightforward military history. It touches on larger social and political forces, but mainly to set the context for the fighting. Silbey is generally pretty fair and pretty scrupulous in his facts and in his more quantifiable interpretations.

He goes off the rails somewhat when he tries to draw larger conclusions. For example, he goes to some trouble to establish that the Boxers were not a random force of nature, but a perfectly comprehensible response to the existing situation in China--a way for the Chinese people to make sense of what was happening, consistent with their understandings and traditions. As such, then, the Boxers were a mass movement with mass popular support. But Silbey also castigates the invading Western forces for treating every Chinese person as an enemy. If you grant his original conclusion about the nature of the Boxers, then the attitude of the invaders becomes perfectly rational. 

I'm not saying that it was moral. Shooting unarmed people en masse is never moral. But if the Boxers were indeed a mass movement with mass popular support, then an us-vs.-them attitude on the part of the invaders is--just like the Boxers themselves--a perfectly comprehensible response to the situation.

Also, I don't think Silbey establishes his basic point. He's trying to  argue that, in the words of the back-cover blurb, "the Boxers came much closer to beating back the combined might of all the imperial powers than is commonly thought." His own facts fail to support the argument. On page 150, for instance, we learn that "The British . . . had lost fourteen killed and fifty-three wounded in . . . two weeks" of "near-constant fighting". For a nation of 400 million to inflict fourteen fatalities in fourteen days does not argue a high degree of military competence or enthusiasm.

For that matter, why should the Chinese have displayed any enthusiasm? Silbey fails to say this, but in fact the state they were nominally defending was cruel, venal, corrupt, incompetent, autocratic, and unjust. A system where the punishment for being on the wrong side of a policy decision is execution--regardless of whether the policy itself turns out well--is a bad system. (This isn't to justify the colonial attitude, which seems to have been that it's OK to burgle your neighbor's home because his locks are flimsy.)

Finally, there's a moral question here that Silbey doesn't recognize. He's trying to treat the Boxers in a neutral, non-judgmental fashion. A laudable goal? Perhaps. But I can think of another, much more recent popular movement that
  • seemingly blew up out of nowhere;
  • is a popular response to corrupt and dysfunctional official governments;
  • is violently anti-foreigner;
  • is equally anti-modern;
  • brutally persecutes locals who happen to be of a different religion;
  • has as its aim the "restoration" of past (largely imaginary) imperial glories;
  • enjoyed a shocking degree of initial success.
If the Boxers' actions are morally neutral, in other words, then are not the actions of ISIS equally morally neutral?

The only other book I've read that treated the Boxer Rebellion is Walter Lord's The Good Years. Like all of Lord's books, it's a ripping good yarn. It's written from a more traditional Western viewpoint, though, and it focuses very heavily on the siege of the foreign legations in Beijing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd
C. S. Forester
Naval fiction

There's a long and honorable tradition of destroyer-vs.-submarine novels. (One of the all-time great Star Trek episodes, "Balance of Terror," is for all intents and purposes the same thing.) The Good Shepherd is one of the best–and most realistic. It's written in dry, clipped, matter-of-fact prose . . . and it's hard to put down. It works as a war story, but it also works as a subtle character study.

I read The Good Shepherd in high school. I was pleased to discover that I like it just as much today.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: Iron Dawn

Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Battle That Changed History
Richard Snow

This is another book that reminded me of the pure, unadulterated joy of reading. Iron Dawn reads like a novel, but it's all true. Richard Snow has crafted a tightly-focused and wholly convincing story, complete with momentous implications and a ticking-clock countdown.

It's particularly a pleasure to salute Snow's technique. The first half of the book, especially, is organized by character. Each chapter focuses on a particular person, while also advancing the story inexorably forward. This is a hard trick to pull off, but when it works it's a brilliant way of organizing a large cast of characters--it entirely avoids the "wait, who was he again?" phenomenon--while still making overall sense of events.

For anyone who's interested in naval history, or the Civil War, or technology, or ships, or who just likes a good old-fashioned exciting story, it's hard to imagine a book that would push more buttons better than Iron Dawn. It doesn't require any particular specialist knowledge to read, but it could easily give you the desire to acquire some.

There are quite a number of distinguished books that come to mind as companion pieces. Iron Dawn would pair well with:

  • For an eye-popping history of a crucial naval battle that reads like a novel: Incredible Victory, by Walter Lord, which is one of the best histories ever written of anything.
  • For the Civil War in general: anything by Bruce Catton, one of Richard Snow's predecessors at American Heritage magazine. This Hallowed Ground is a good place to start.
  • For a similar use of the progress-by-character technique, with the additional feature that it's a closely related topic: Robert Massie's Dreadnought, which chronicles the Anglo-German naval rivalry leading up to World War I. I may have to reread this now.
  • For a Civil-War topic that finally got the detailed investigation that it turned out to deserve: Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire richly chronicles the British response to the war.
  • For naval history that's true but also works like a countdown-style thriller: Erik Larson's Dead Wake.