lection gilbert

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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 . . .

february 2015

The Secret Life of Sleep. Kat Duff. Atria / Beyond Words [Simon & Schuster], 2014. The Secret Life of Sleep is a thoroughly documented and wide-ranging cultural and natural history of human sleep. I was enjoying it well enough till, every chapter or so, an allusion would crop up that suggested that the author entertains notions of the supernatural. ("Given what is known at this time, we cannot rule out the possibility that there are spirits who find us when we are most vulnerable," 14.) This is not a wacky New Agey spiritualist book by a long shot, but its openness to ghosts and evil spirits rang warning bells in my head, and I couldn't concentrate on its more rational and agreeable side. [09.25.14]

september 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling. J. K. Rowling [as Robert Galbraith]. Mullholland [Hachette], 2013. I was a couple of chapters into The Cuckoo's Calling, enjoying its mildly-boiled private-eye story, when I reflected that I'd never read anything by Robert Galbraith and should look at the flap copy to see if this was his first book. Apparently I'd been under a rock the past couple of years, because I'd read seven previous books by the author, who is in fact J.K. Rowling. The latest in a set of eminent authors who have turned to pseudonymous crime fiction, Rowling shows in The Cuckoo's Calling a deft touch for characterization, some poignant detail, and no sense whatsoever of how not to bore a reader out of his tiny mind. Nah, that's harsh. Some people like their mysteries leisurely and hyper-explained, with minute chronologies and a panoply of suspects. They'll like The Cuckoo's Calling. [09.25.14]

august 2014

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. Christopher Clark. 2012. HarperCollins, 2013. Like Sean McMeekin's July 1914, Clark's even more highly-regarded study bogs down in endless details of how one great power used a minor one as a catspaw to pull its chestnuts out of the fire in Livonia while another was sampling the fruits of cooperation with its rival in partitioning Slobbovia. Clark notes that "contingency, choice and agency are squeezed out of the field of vision" (362) of most histories of the summer of 1914, which stress interlocking mechanisms of alliance and vast structural conflicts in imperial/colonial Europe. "The story this book tells is, by contrast, saturated with agency. The key decision-makers – kings, emperors, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders, and a host of lesser officials – walked toward danger in watchful, calculated steps" (xxix). And oh my do we hear about all those men (and they were all men) and their calculated steps. In fact, their calculations were so deliberate that one wonders why Clark's book is called The Sleepwalkers. But I guess a book called The Perspicacious Deliberators wouldn't hook potential readers. [08.09.14]

march 2014

The English Breakfast: The biography of a national meal with recipes. Kaori O'Connor. Bloomsbury, 2013. This is a curious volume – almost entirely made up of three reprint cookbooks from centuries past, and rather diplomatically reprinted at that, with their original indexes and such taking up a lot of room. O'Connor herself, author of the estimable Pineapple for Reaktion Edible, appends a somewhat disparate short essay on English culinary traditions. Your interest in the book will depend on how much of a cookbook collector you are, or possibly how fond you are of kippers and kedgeree. [03.09.14]

december 2013

Sugar and Spice: Grocers and Groceries in Provincial England, 1650-1830. Jon Stobart. Oxford UP, 2013. Sugar and Spice is an excellent book; I just don't have the time or expertise to post a review that does it justice. Stobart, an academic with an astonishing list of publications on the history of shopping, documents an under-examined phenomenon in the "long 18th century": how people went around to grocery stores, what they bought there, how the stores themselves were provisioned. Historians had known a lot about the rise of various foodstuffs and their connection to class, economics, power, and empire; what they hadn't known till now was how ordinary folks got those groceries and used them. [12.20.13]

november 2013

Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American architecture, 1925-1956. David Smiley. U of Minnesota P, 2013. How American cities and suburbs got their various layouts, adapting older grids to auto traffic and creating newer housing and shopping centers along more "organic" lines, is a fascinating topic. It's well illustrated in Pedestrian Modern but somewhat less well told. David Smiley's book is above all academic: it deals with the intermeshed networks of careers, aesthetic theories, and criticism that surround the building of mid-20th-century America. It doesn't have a governing polemic, and it sure doesn't patronize readers; both of these are admirable traits. But since it lacks those audience-conscious qualities, its thesis becomes somewhat esoteric. For Smiley, the history of modern architecture per se, as a discipline, is more important than the history of modern America. No harm in that; he's an architecture professor. But Pedestrian Modern is mainly for graduate students of architecture. [11.28.13]

July 1914: Countdown to war. Sean McMeekin. Basic [Perseus], 2013. Highly regarded by reviewers and academic historians alike, and highly readable, July 1914 just wasn't the book I wanted to read at the moment. The immediate events that led to the First World War, between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the first troop engagements, are a compelling and agonizing theme. McMeekin approaches them via the personalities and motives of many (many, many) high government officials, who really did behave in the summer of 1914 as if they were playing a game of Diplomacy for unserious stakes rather than turning Europe into an abbatoir. I'd simply like to read a more "meta" treatment of how such insanity could flourish, rather than a play-by-play of its workings-out. [11.10.13]

october 2013

Revolver: How the Beatles reimagined rock 'n' roll. Robert Rodriguez. Backbeat [Hal Leonard], 2012. Revolver is a perfectly good book; it's just so detailed that any commentary seems superfluous. Beatles completists will want to get it, to ensure that there isn't a single stray fact about the album "Revolver" – composition, content, reception – that escapes them. Rodriguez is not very critical, either in the negative or the disinterested sense: he champions the Beatles against the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones and anyone else you want to mention, and he's also adamant that "Revolver," not "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," is the Beatles' magnum opus. [10.14.13]

july 2013

Architecture of Canterbury Cathedral. Jonathan Foyle. Scala, 2013. I'm fascinated by buildings that have accreted over a long time. And I have some personal experience of Canterbury Cathedral, a frequent destination and landmark for my travels across Kent over the decades. Architecture of Canterbury Cathedral is a beautiful book, and caught my attention immediately from my library's new-book shelf. But it proves impossible to read. Text and illustrations don't match well; usually, you can't tell what you're reading about from the illustrations that supposedly accompany it. The text rambles, and though the book is apparently for beginners, it assumes a level of knowledge that the Archbishop himself probably doesn't possess. (He was nice enough to write a preface for the book anyway.) [07.03.13]

december 2012

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]

october 2012

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]

february 2012

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]

january 2012

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]

gilbert for 2011

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gilbert for 2009