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.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: The Winter Fortress

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

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


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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: Blackett's War

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

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


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

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


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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Review: Avengers of the Moon

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: Egyptomania

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

The very last sentence of Egyptomania is this:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Review: Making It

[WARNING: long and slightly polemical.]

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review: Castles of Steel

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review/Essay: You Say to Brick

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

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


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

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

The Buildings

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


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

The Writing

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

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

Prove me wrong.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Support Your Local Author

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