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.