lection gilberthome authors titles dates links about
lection's "new and noteworthy" page is named after Gilbert, in Oscar Wilde's "Critic as Artist," who opines:
To know the vintage and quality of a wine one need not drink the whole cask. It must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient, if one has the instinct for form.On the lection gilbert page, I present occasional brief notes on recent books that I've picked up and tasted. I try to read enough of each book to deliver some sense of its "vintage and quality," while at the same time some sense of why I didn't keep reading. My not keeping reading is not to be counted against a book, of course. Vita brevis . . .
Bruegel. Philippe & Françoise Roberts-Jones. 1997; translated 2002 as Pieter Bruegel by "Translate-a-Book." Flammarion, 2012. I wanted to know more about Bruegel, who appears as touchstone and illustration in my Western Civ courses. My ignorance of Bruegel is extreme, extending even to how many Bruegels there were and what they all had to do with one another. The whole family seems to have stepped out of a Woody Allen movie, where Bruegel the Elder is younger than Bruegel the Younger, and such. Unfortunately Flammarion's new "Master Artists" volume on Pieter Bruegel won't help me at all, and for a reason new in the annals of non-reading: I can't make out the font! The designers of this 2012 edition put lavish care into wonderful illustrations, and then consigned the text by Philippe and Françoise Roberts-Jones to minus-4-point sub-cubic-zirconium tininess. This is just a weird fault in this day and age, when you can change type sizes across an entire book with one click of a button. But perhaps that was the problem: editors used to instantaneous size changes, particularly in virtual documents, didn't realize they'd be condemning print readers of this book to weeks of squinting. [12.18.12]
Embassytown. China Miéville. 2011. Del Rey, 2012. Intrigued as I was by China Miéville's City & the City and Perdido Street Station, I couldn't get through Embassytown. The novel has a tremendous setting, and is one of the most interesting SF ideas (the science being primarily linguistics) that I've ever come across. But as my reading consultants warned me, it lacks the narrative energy that made the other two Miéville novels I'd read hang together. Avice Benner Cho is an interplanetary adventurer who figures as a "simile" in the language of a species at the ne plus ultra of human exploration of the Universe. When one of the few human Ambassadors who can speak that language says some weird things, the Host species goes haywire, and the delicate balance of Embassytown disintegrates. Cool, except that after about the halfway point, Avice begins to tell her story in the generic first- and third- person plurals, describing events that sweep over her planet in disinterested fashion, introducing characters we never care much about and then killing them off in plausible but uncompelling ways. As I always say, the bedrock necessity for a plot is to feature characters you care about, who want conflicting things. It worked for Homer and Aeschylus, and it works, at his best, for China Miéville. [10.12.12]
The Art of Fielding. Chad Harbach. Little, Brown, 2011. I tried to read The Art of Fielding – it was incumbent on me as a bibliographer of baseball fiction to read possibly the most-promoted and most-acclaimed baseball novel ever – and I was looking forward to it. When I finally borrowed a copy, I found the first 15 pages intriguing, the next 50 readable, and the next 120 a kind of stationary pattern waiting for a plot to take shape, and finally I decided, with regrets, that life was too short. Even with the attitude "this is work and I just have to suck it up and get through it," I couldn't justify the hours that the novel was taking from my life.
What specific kind of disappointment is The Art of Fielding? The book is certainly good in many respects. The writing is fluid, the characters attentively drawn. The baseball in the book is plausible enough, and the game scenes purposefully and accurately depicted. But it's more than a baseball novel, and though that's a good thing for marketers, it's not good for the novel intrinsically. It's also a campus novel and a study of families and friends. They all seem to be these witty, high-verbal, gently eccentric characters we love to get to know. And they don't do anything (at least as far as I read): they mill around in search of some action or conflict – some plot – that might justify their existence in a novel. Perhaps this plot develops at some point after page 185, but there comes a point when a reader is throwing good energy after bad. It might be simplest to say that this book is not to my taste. Bad as I am at remembering or using plots, I crave them in fiction; I go nuts in the presence of lifelike characters who can't put it together to do something, whether that something is formulaic or eccentric. I will say that The Art of Fielding is a first novel from someone who really writes well. I might pick up his second novel, but it will take a lot of motivating to get me back into his first. (But ultimately, I was so motivated.) [02.15.12]
Seeing through Music: Gender and modernism in classic Hollywood film scores. Peter Franklin. Oxford UP, 2011. I often join my local classical-music station mid-broadcast and think "that sounds like a movie score." It usually isn't; it's Brahms or Tchaikovsky instead of Korngold or Rósza. But the Romanticism of early film scores is a distinctive adaptation of high Romanticism in music generally. I picked up Seeing through Music intrigued by a possible discussion of this lush music and its thematic relationship to the movies. And it's there somewhere; it's just well-padded beyond an extensive literature review that stakes out Peter Franklin's intellectual territory among the other academic books on film music. There's nothing wrong with this kind of writing; I suspect this is a fine academic book. But it points to the essential difference between academic and general audiences. General audiences want to know about a topic; academic audiences want to know where you stand rhetorically vis-à-vis other academic commentators on a topic. The proportion of meta to matter in such writing deters me more and more as I get older and more thirsty for knowledge. [02.02.12]
Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The oceans' oddest creatures and why they matter. Ellen Prager. U of Chicago P, 2011. I would seem to be the target audience for a book about sex, drugs, and sea slime, but unfortunately not for Ellen Prager's book about all three. Prager writes engagingly and knowledgeably about everything under the sea, but the book is hard to slog through precisely because it's about everything under the sea. She deals with dozens and dozens of interesting creatures, devoting about two pages and not enough illustrations to each one. The result is a compendium of topics without the energy or coherence (or style) that can redeem such compendia. [01.18.12]
JFK Assassination Logic: How to think about claims of conspiracy. John McAdams. Potomac, 2011. On a roll after reading Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History, I picked up John McAdams's JFK Assassination Logic expecting to be edified on many small points and large theoretical implications that I hadn't gotten from Bugliosi's magnum opus. Come to find that McAdams, while very sharp and very sensible, adds almost nothing to Bugliosi's analysis. In fact, he only refers to Bugliosi once, in qualified terms (175), even while debunking many of the same conspiracy theories that Bugliosi debunks, in similar terms. This is not to suggest that McAdams's work is cribbed from Bugliosi's. (Or vice versa; though Bugliosi claims rather crabbily not to own a computer, he cites McAdams's splendid website The Kennedy Assassination approvingly from second-hand knowledge, and Bugliosi's treatment is far-ranging and independently sourced.) If you don't have time for Reclaiming History or even its redaction Four Days in November – or, perhaps, if you are taking a different tack on the JFK assassination, like treating it in terms of logic for a college course – JFK Assassination Logic is a useful book; but it brings little new material (as of 2011) to the discussion. Though perhaps its virtue is just to add more weight to the anti-conspiracy side of the scales. [01.13.12]