lection gilbert for 2010

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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 . . .

july 2010

On Thin Ice: The changing world of the polar bear. Richard Ellis. Knopf, 2009. I am a big fan of Richard Ellis's early books on fabulous sea creatures (Monsters of the Sea, The Search for the Giant Squid). The polar bear has equally fabulous potential, but it isn't realized here. Ellis seems to have set himself (or, just possibly, a staff of researchers) to collect every published fact about polar bears. The result is an old-fashioned formless tome, a commonplace book of the bear that is mostly quotation. Certainly a good purchase if you are a bear-book completist, but hard to get through in a straight line. [07.26.10]

june 2010

High Heat: The secret history of the fastball and the improbable search for the fastest pitcher of all time. Tim Wendel. Da Capo, 2010. High Heat is a "voice-driven" non-fiction book. This category, where the author features as a character on every page and roams around cheerfully admitting observer bias, includes most of the greatest literary non-fiction (Susan Orlean, Bruce Chatwin, Stanley Crawford, Oliver Sacks) and some of the most tedious. Tim Wendel has an engaging voice, and is well-informed about an interesting topic, but High Heat is tedious because it's desultory. The author wanders around the country, visiting this place and that place, chatting up this guy and that guy, picking up small bits of information and backtracking to repeat others he's forgotten to add. This is all very well, but in the process the material on fastball pitchers becomes attenuated, and there's little mystery or wonder in a discussion of how the author accumulated his information. I wonder a little about editors who insist on this kind of presentation: do they think that readers would be put off by straightforward "objective" exposition? I have to think just the opposite: if you've got an interesting topic, just write about it. Don't meta-write about it unless the meta is wild and beautiful in itself, as in Orlean's Orchid Thief. [06.21.10]

may 2010

Why Translation Matters. Edith Grossman. Yale, 2010. Early in this book, the author fires a pre-emptive blast at reviewers:

So few of them have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation. . . . It seems to me that their inability to do so is a product of intransigent dilettantism and tenacious amateurism, the menacing two-headed monster that runs rampant through the inhospitable landscape peopled by those who write reviews. (32)
Oooh, snap! As an intransigent dilettante myself, I'll just note that this potentially intriguing topic (the rationale for literary translation, as explored by a premier literary translator) devolves quickly into constant whining. Grossman whines about reviewers, publishers, English professors, comparatists, and just about anybody else whinable. I stuck with the whining for 45 pages, waiting for it to stop, and then when I ran across the Nth iteration of the same whine ("bare-faced chauvinism and unforgivable, willful know-nothingness," 45), I decided life was too short. [05.10.10]

february 2010

The American Civil War: A military history. John Keegan. Knopf, 2009. Distinguished military historian Keegan, best known for his books on the World Wars and intriguing comparative studies like The Mask of Command and The Face of Battle, here tries his hand at a single-volume history of the Civil War. The problem is that the American Civil War is perhaps the most-studied of all historical events, so it's almost impossible for a non-specialist to keep all its elements in balance. The research in The American Civil War is very patchy; at times Keegan seems up on some current scholarship, and at times he seems to rely on Gone with the Wind. I dealt with the unevenness for a while, but howlers kept pulling me up short. (e.g.: on [31] Keegan asserts that Abraham Lincoln would be "prosecuted under federal law" today for uttering the things he said in 1860, a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment; on [42] he calls Tennessee a "border state," though he probably means Kentucky, and so forth). The book is a big disappointment, but its failures put into perspective the extraordinary accomplishment of James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, a book that managed, in 1988, to incorporate current learning on all major aspects of the War into a highly readable narrative. [02.16.10]

gilbert for 2009