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

[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

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.