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: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2017/02/22/on-the-matter-of-empathy-for-horrible-people/

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.