lection gilbert for 2009

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november 2009

Walt Whitman and the Civil War: America's poet during the lost years of 1860-1862. Ted Genoways. California, 2009. A book about an American poet and the Civil War, you figure I'd be all over that. But while it's stocked with interesting bits of information, Walt Whitman and the Civil War suffers from a problem of audience. It's not a thorough study of Whitman and the war, but as the subtitle suggests, it's about two years for which little documentation of Whitman's whereabouts and activities survives. As a result, we get a lot of filling-in of stray and tangential details, often wandering well afield from Whitman, and very little narrative line or focussed argument. Whitman specialists might be intrigued, and students will want to return to this volume to consult its archival research, but it's not a book that bears reading straight through. [11.23.09]

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum discovered the great American story. Evan I. Schwartz. Houghton Mifflin, 2009. It's not every week I get to be disappointed by two biographies of L. Frank Baum. Schwartz's Finding Oz is a great deal livelier and more direct than Loncraine's Real Wizard, at least. But it's direct in a frustratingly tunnel-vision kind of way. Just about everything that ever happened to L. Frank Baum prefigures the first Oz book, and not just that book but the 1939 M-G-M movie. (Schwartz barely mentions Baum's other books.) All this prefiguration is in the service of unabashed fandom; Schwartz simply loves the movie to death, and sees it and Baum's novel as the unchallengeable pinnacle of American popular culture for children. An actual literary biography with some critical distance from its subject, and a balanced treatment of his entire achievement, very much remains to be written, even after these two big contributions in 2009. [11.18.09]

The Real Wizard of Oz: The life and times of L. Frank Baum. Rebecca Loncraine. Gotham, 2009. I was disappointed by The Real Wizard of Oz, to say the least. Baum's creations are fascinating and his life is a real slice of Americana. But unsatisfied with the story at hand, Rebecca Loncraine pads her biography of Baum with every possible relevant or irrelevant bit of historical context. Amid the padding, the book wanders around like me looking for my car keys in the morning, doubling back on itself, mentioning the same things over and over, spinning digression off digression. I found myself reading diagonally across pages looking for some mention of L. Frank Baum, and after 70 or 80 pages of that, found so few mentions of the protagonist that I thought I'd better cut my losses. [11.16.09]

september 2009

Identifying Citizens: ID cards as surveillance. David Lyon. Polity, 2009. Sometimes overlooked in concerns over national identification cards in many countries are two disturbing facts about such documents: (1) You're not just carrying a card with name and number on it; you're being tracked by a much larger database system of which the card is a mere token; (2) It's not usually a benevolent, accountable government that devises and runs such database systems, but most likely, nowadays, a for-profit transnational ID "card cartel" devoted to expanding markets for its dubious "services." Lyon makes these points briskly and forcefully in a few pages, but then starts repeating himself over and over. He's also prey to a fault of many academic books, more interested in drawing attention to subtle originalities in his theories and methodologies than in exploring and illustrating his material. [09.10.09]

august 2009

The Link: Uncovering our earliest ancestor. Colin Tudge with Josh Young. Little, Brown, 2009. Tudge and Young write briskly and pleasantly about "Ida," the engimatic but beautifully preserved primate fossil that has been touted as the latest "missing link." Their book is somewhat padded and frankly shows signs of being slapped together, as when we move from chapters by Young to chapters by Tudge, and basic information is repeated as if we'd never heard it (see p. 68, for instance). Yet Tudge is always worth reading, and as an introduction to the ecology of the Eocene, you could do a lot worse than The Link. The value of Ida herself is both overblown and understated, it seems to me. As a specimen, and as a data point in the gathering picture that science is developing of primate evolution, she is extremely exciting. As "the" missing link, as "our" ancestor, as the key to all paleontological investigation, she's slightly overstated. (One scientist says "when we publish our results, it will be like an asteroid hitting the Earth" [35]. Cue Bruce Willis!) The problem is that paleontology, especially when it veers anywhere near the human lineage, is afflicted with overstatement. A single fossil can tell us an amazing amount, but guys, it's a single fossil. Lots more will be found; many more asteroids will hit; if one thing can be predicted with utmost certainty, it's that the evolutionary picture will change rapidly over the next half-century, to be almost unrecognizable from today's perspective. And that, even then, it will still be desperately fragmentary. But I think one reason why these finds are so ecstatically trumpeted is that constant pressure from the creationist masses makes these fossils into what Young ironically calls "the holy grails of science" (13), as if Da Vinci Code readers would actually be won over to Darwin by looking at the remains of a 47-million-year-old primate. [08.08.09]

july 2009

Farewell, My Subaru: An epic adventure in local living. Doug Fine. Villard, 2008. If Thoreau had had his own reality-TV show, the results would have been something like Farewell, My Subaru. Journalist and NPR commentator Doug Fine goes to the New Mexican outback to live sustainably with some goats. One is never quite sure why, except that it seems like an assignment. Thoreau comes across as genuinely craving some alternative to civilization; Fine instead comes across like some guy whose editor or producer sent him off on a mildly irksome project that might land him a book contract. (It also occurs to me that sustainable initiatives incidental to getting or fulfilling a book contract are tax-deductible, which is possibly why only those who are fixing to write a book about sustainability ever do go all solar with goats.) Fine approaches his situation with good-natured griping and doofus humor, mainly about goats and his own sex life. I find this enormously tedious, though if you find the persona charming, YMMV. [07.30.09]

may 2009

A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators. Stephen J. Walker. Pocol, 2009. Nobody would have the slightest interest in the 1969 Senators if Ted Williams hadn't managed them. Yes, they were surprisingly not terrible after the franchise had languished for several years. But there aren't going to be any books written about the 2003 Royals or the 2005 Brewers. Walker faces the uphill challenge of trying to generate interest in a baseball team that finished fourth of six teams in its division, only ten games over .500. It's of mild documentary interest to learn how well Darold Knowles pitched that year, or to follow accounts of how Mike Epstein found his home run swing. And after another 40 years, we will probably be glad that someone wrote in so much detail about an otherwise forgotten ballclub. But there is not much intrinsic interest in Walker's material. [05.25.09]

march 2009

Chief Bender's Burden: The silent struggle of a baseball star. Tom Swift. Nebraska, 2008. Swift's biography of the great Philadelphia A's pitcher complements Money Pitcher, the recent biography by William C. Kashatus. Swift's research is thorough, and adds emphases that Kashatus lacks: Bender's stellar career as a champion trapshooter, for instance, or the relative lack of Native cultural heritage within Bender's immediate family. (Where Kashatus likes to use Bender's Indian name "Mandowescence," Swift avers that this was a childish nickname that Bender himself never used.) There is much to be gleaned from Chief Bender's Burden, but I find the book overwritten and portentous, insistent on trying to convey the moment-by-moment emotions of slenderly-documented events now approximately a century past. [03.31.09]

The Phoenix: St. Paul's Cathedral and the men who made modern London. Leo Hollis. Weidenfeld, 2008. Specifically, Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Robert Hooke, John Locke, and Nicholas Barbon. That range of names gives some indication of the ambitions of Hollis's book. Wren, Hooke, and Barbon were directly involved in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, as architect, surveyor, and builder respectively. But Evelyn was mainly an observer (as an important diarist), and Locke is kind of a random fifth wheel in the set, as an important thinker whose famous notion of a "tabula rasa" bears affinities to the razed ground of London after the fire. As a result, the book wanders away from the main business of rebuilding the city, and suffers from the fallacy of portentousness, as in so many current nonfiction books: it isn't enough to discuss interesting events; those events have to be a crucial watershed in making the world "modern." [03.25.09]

Stealing Lincoln's Body. Thomas J. Craughwell. Belknap, 2007. In 1876, a gang of rather inept crooks, intent on getting something valuable to hold hostage so that one of their number could be sprung from prison, broke into the vault in Springfield IL that held Abraham Lincoln's remains. They didn't succeed, but the case remains memorable enough to be part of Lincoln lore. Craughwell's highly readable book, now in paperback, gets Lincoln from the Petersen House to the Springfield vault briskly enough. But then it makes a 40+ page excursus into the history of counterfeiting (the would-be Abenappers were counterfeiters by trade). Other extraneous stuff follows. I won't say that Stealing Lincoln's Body is padded, exactly, but at 210 pages it has way too much space on its hands. Of the making of many Lincoln books there is no end, but some of them intrinsically don't merit more than a feature article. [03.08.09]

february 2009

Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us). Tom Vanderbilt. Knopf, 2008. Traffic drew much acclaim, as Vanderbilt bid fair to become the Steven Pinker of the automotive world. Traffic is loaded with information about the culture and cognition of driving. I tired of it after a Gilbert-like interval because the pace of the information was unvaried: counterintuitive claim, surprised rhetorical question, research study showing why counterintuition is valid, and so on the the next claim. Perhaps better dipped into than read straight through, but worth a look: Vanderbilt assembles a huge amount of data about a part of our lives we accomplish mostly unconsciously. [02.20.09]

Looking for Lincoln: The making of an American icon. Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. Knopf, 2008. Huge coffee-table book with substantial and scholarly text, presenting images and narratives related to the forming of a received wisdom about Abraham Lincoln. The images are fabulous, including very many that I have never seen before. Their arrangment, though chronological, is heavily eclectic, and there is no organized narrative or thematic approach. A volume better glanced through than read. [02.19.09]

january 2009

Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign. Peter Cozzens. U of NC Press, 2008. Every Civil War buff knows about Jackson's amazing campaign in the Valley, which drained the life from McClellan's Peninsular campaign. But studies of the Valley campaign are few, and tend to focus exclusively on Jackson himself. For a new century, Cozzens offers a new, more balanced version, covering the Union reaction to Jackson as much as Stonewall himself. The idea is fascinating and necessary, but the execution, I found, was somewhat allusive and fragmented. Perhaps this is a story that needs a fixed perspective and, even, a hero. [01.16.09]

Delaying the Dream: Southern senators and the fight against civil rights, 1938-1965. Keith M. Finley. LSU Press, 2008. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s has been studied from the perspective of those who fought on the winning side, but what of those who performed a rear-guard action against integration and justice? The more florid of the segregationists are familiar – Orval Faubus, Bull Connor – but what of the most anodyne and pragmatic of the anti-civil-rights forces, the Senators who led the long delay? Finley's book is a careful documentation of their work, though it lacks a strong central narrative and its characters (unsurprisingly) are somewhat interchangeable, given that they all enacted similar roles and strategies. [01.15.09]

Death with Interruptions. José Saramago; trans. Margaret Jull Costa. Harcourt, 2008. "The following day, no one died": so this newly-translated novel by Saramago follows the model of his great novel Blindness, in which a fantastic epidemic inflicts itself on a community. Not that there's anything so terrible, perhaps, about not dying; but it's far from the usual procedure. Unfortunately, as in Saramago's Seeing, the initial hook gives way to a puzzling and somewhat sterile fascination with official government rhetoric, which I just can't get past. Blindness was about existence, but its avatars are about talking about existence. [01.11.09]

Do You Make These Mistakes in English? The story of Sherwin Cody's famous language school. Edwin L Battistella. Oxford UP, 2008. In the first half of the 20th century, Sherwin Cody plastered the pages of highbrow broadsheets and pulp-fiction zines alike with the unnerving suggestion that our English might not be what it ought. Battistella's book reaches into areas of the popular psyche that are rarely explored by academia even in this heyday of cultural studies: the not-very-progressive business of the latter-day conduct manual. The volume is mostly expository, not a gripping narrative or argument, but it documents the "Do You Make These Mistakes" phenomenon solidly. [01.10.09]