lection gilbert for 2011

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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 . . .

november 2011

The Moral Lives of Animals. Dale Peterson. Bloomsbury, 2011. I got about a third of the way through The Moral Lives of Animals, which impressed me with its intelligent insights into how deeply our fellow mammals participate in behavior which we must characterize in moral terms: not because we're anthropomorphic, but because we are mammals too, and mammalian social structures are governed by a morality deeply woven into our inherited fabric. So why didn't I read the whole book? Without being padded exactly, Peterson's writing here is prolix. He never makes a good point without backing up to tell you some story, usually an anecdote of his travels around the globe in search of mammals to observe. He doesn't wander off topic or drop the thread; he just seems incapable of using threads, preferring great twisted ship's cables of narrative strands. It's a shame, because I find the argument of the book (rooted, of course, in evolutionary psychology) to be both plausible and, in the best tradition, humanist: especially in its implications for the moral stance we should adopt toward animals. [11.18.11]

.45-Caliber Desperado. Peter Brandvold. Berkley, 2011. I am a great fan of pulp westerns, of course, but within any genre there are regions of sub-genre that a fan must navigate to find what really attracts him. .45-Caliber Desperado, the latest in Brandvold's ".45-Caliber" series, is from the all-violence sub-genre. It starts with a fistfight to the death and launches into Gatling-gun mayhem, followed by murder from horseback, and gets worse from there. Westerns wouldn't exist without copious gunplay, but more bullets fly in the first few chapters here than in several Civil War battles, and one just ceases caring about situations lived so far out on the edge of survivability. .45-Caliber Desperado is also full of NC-17 language and constant racism and sexism – all delivered by the bad guys or lovable scamps, none by our hero Cuno, the .45-caliber guy – but it's one of those popular entertainments that gets to represent mindless prejudice while officially eschewing it, and I don't care much for that kind of fiction either. [11.06.11]

august 2011

Rawhide Down: The near assassination of Ronald Reagan. Del Quentin Wilber. Holt, 2011. I was really disappointed in Rawhide Down. It may even be a pretty good true-crime story, and may become a definitive source of information on the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. But hagiography takes over from reportage within a few pages. Reagan, says Wilber, "gave the American people an indelible image of his character. . . . [The assassination attempt] revealed Reagan's superb temperament, his extraordinary ability to project the qualities of a true leader, and his remarkable grace under pressure" (4). OK, so the thesis of a journalistic investigation, involving research into much recently declassified material, is "Homage to a Great Man." This bodes ill. Wilber goes on to discuss the President's code name, "Rawhide." The discussion is terrifically confusing. The Secret Service chose the name apparently because it fit Reagan's self-image: "the good kind of cowboy and the brave face of America" (6). But as Wilber notes, Reagan himself admitted that he didn't get to make many Westerns and didn't tend to get the steely-hero role when he did. (In fact his most famous Western part was that of Custer in Santa Fe Trail, but no way in hell was the Secret Service going to nickname him "Custer.") So his bodyguards appropriated a name, "Rawhide," that didn't even fit Reagan's fictional image: the title of a film starring Tyrone Power and a TV series starring Clint Eastwood, the kind of fantasy profile Reagan only fantasized about having. Wilber goes on to wax rapturous about Reagan's greatness some more, and then I had to put the book down. Not simply because I don't admire Ronald Reagan, mind you. I really don't like bullshit about Abraham Lincoln or FDR, either. And so far in American historiography, the image and achievements of Reagan seem puzzlingly inextricable from bullshit – even, as in the case of his code-name, conscious, manipulative, and fulsome bullshit. [08.07.11]

Killer Colt: Murder, disgrace, and the making of an American legend. Harold Schechter. Random House, 2010. I enjoyed Harold Schechter's Devil's Gentleman, and was looking forward to his saga of the triumph and tragedy of the 19th-century Colt family. And it's a well-researched book in stylish prose; I just think there's slightly less than a volume-length true-crime story here. Samuel Colt, inventor and marketer of the revolver, had a brother named John who wrote a successful accounting textbook – and was a notorious murderer. This is stranger-than-fiction Americana. But Schechter tends to digress for several pages into the backstory of each new character who appears. They are all interesting digressions, but after half-a-dozen of them one begins to begin to suspect that there may not be that much "there there" in the main story. [08.07.11]

july 2011

We, the Drowned. [Vi, de druknede, 2006.] Carsten Jensen, trans. Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. We, the Drowned is a highly-regarded Danish novel that I read on the highest recommendation, but it defeated me two-thirds of the way through. My fault, not the book's: it's of as high a quality as advertised. Jensen's saga treats several (fictional) generations in the (real) Danish coastal town of Marstal. One of my failings as a reader (and teacher of literature) is my inability to keep up with multi-generational sagas. I seem to demand more unity of time and action than the genre is willing to give me. Perhaps I'd read them more readily if they were sold as trilogies instead of single-volume stories? We, the Drowned lost me when protagonist Albert Madsen died. Albert appears on the novel's first page, rolling a cannonball around his parents' kitchen floor at the age of four; he dies somewhere north of seventy after a frustrating love affair with an ambitious young widow. The story catapults forward into the lives of the widow and her son, Albert's quasi-stepson Knud Erik, but it was as if I'd finished two volumes of a trilogy and had little momentum to propel me into a third. The pattern for such novels is of course Gabriel García Màrquez's Cien años de soledad, which I've read once and with due admiration; but great a novel as Cien años is, I doubt if I'm going to pick it up again in this lifetime. [07.31.11]

Punching Out: One year in a closing auto plant. Paul Clemens. Random House, 2011. Why do I keep reading "voice"-driven nonfiction if I don't like it? In the case of Punching Out, I knew in advance that it would be a story of people, not (really) of machines or factories or industries. So my eyes were open ahead of time. I accepted a certain amount of author-as-character in the person of Paul Clemens reflecting on the problems of writing a book about the closing of a venerable auto-body plant in his native Detroit. I stopped reading this one not because it turned into a string of dialogue with "characters" (in several senses), but because the organization of Punching Out is somewhat desultory, and its exposition typically too light-handed. Clemens writes lightly and deftly, but also elliptically, almost as if he doesn't want to patronize the reader by telling his story in too much detail. It's an oddly flawed piece of non-fiction on a potentially interesting and vital subject; if you know more about the dying factories of Detroit to begin with, you may find it a masterpiece. [07.23.11]

Popular Crime: Reflections on the celebration of violence. Bill James. Scribner, 2011. Talk about ADD: Popular Crime makes Moby-Duck look like the Summa Theologica. Bill James, one of the most innovative and accomplished of all writers about baseball, takes his short-hops writing approach to the field of true crime. He feels compelled to synopsize every true crime account he's ever read, interjecting opinions (often vitriolic and half-thought-out) every few paragraphs, before losing interest and proceeding to the next famous crime. There's no overall thesis except that the rhetoric of crime is important, meaning that the "so what" of the book is basically "so there." The tone is piquant enough might just have succeeded as a series of columns in a mystery magazine, where no continuity or variety would be needed. But even at that, James's tone is so aggressively ignorant that I found it hard to stomach. Here's James on why he hasn't looked into scholarship on crime:

I am sure that in some corner of the academic world there hides an intellectual who knows vastly more about these issues than I do and has written 208 published articles about them, which none of us have ever heard of, probably because he writes like a troll, or, not to be sexist, she writes like a troll or trollette. (9)
Well, that's just great. "I think there's knowledge relevant to my topic, but I'll just assume it's crap and never seek it out." If James had taken that approach to baseball, he'd be sitting around in a bar saying "I just know that Joe Carter's a clutch hitter, and if you try to feed me some fancy-schmancy Runs Created 'statistic' that says otherwise, you can blow it out your spreadsheet, troll." [07.15.11]

Moby-Duck: The true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them. Donovan Hohn. Viking, 2011. It's a fascinating topic: whimsical flotsam drifting along in the global currents, polluting and concentrating other pollutants, inspiring children's picture books and eccentric students of eccentric phenomena. Unfortunately Donovan Hohn's treatment of the topic, while sometimes lyrical and intense, has two strikes against it for me. It's character-driven, so that the author himself occupies a large part of the story, and the wacky folks he meets while researching his story take up most of the rest; and God help me, I just find the plastic toys themselves more interesting than the people interviewed. And on top of that, Moby-Duck displays literary ADD. No sooner do we pick up one thread than another distracts us, and another and another, and then back to that other thing but what about this one. It is undeniable that 28,800 fugitive bath toys can involve practically every other topic known or unknown to man, but at the rate of two or three new ones per page, exhaustion gets the upper hand. [07.15.11]

Globish: How the English language became the world's language. Robert McCrum. 2010. Norton, 2011. Globish delivers something different, and less, than its paperback cover promises. McCrum, co-author of the well-known Story of English, has written Globish to extend that story twenty years forward, into an age when English has become fused into the infrastructure of the global economy and culture in myriad, unforeseeable ways. His first chapter promises an insightful discussion of these globalized, pidginized, hi-tech, and highly volatile Englishes. And then, all of the sudden, we are back with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, retelling the story of English again for well over 200 pages, till some brief afterthought chapters give some information on what promised to be the book's main subject, 21st-century global English. I'd say I want my money back, but the publisher sent me this one for free. [07.14.11]

june 2011

Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East. David Stahel. Cambridge UP, 2009. Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin: The Eastern Front, 1941-1945. John Mosier. Simon & Schuster, 2010. Two recent books about the war between Germany and the USSR start with distinct (and distinctly different) metahistorical claims. David Stahel finds that Hitler's war effort was doomed from the start; the possibility of German victory was and is largely a rhetorical construct. John Mosier says that "Hitler came very close to winning that war, and on the Eastern Front, his soldiers came within an ace of winning outright" (4). For Mosier, the inevitability of Stalin's victory is the rhetorical construct, and the Soviet triumph a Pyrrhic one that doomed their empire to eventual collapse. Both books are well-written for the general reader, though Mosier's Deathride is more popular, Stahels' Operation Barbarossa more academic, in conception. I stopped reading them not because they are weak books, but because as one of the mass of readers that both authors observe knows too little about the Second World War in Eastern Europe, I found their metahistory and the historical narrative too much to process together. I'd like to return to both books some day, or at least to read more purely narrative histories in the light of their ideas. But can 21st-century historiography ever be "purely narrative" anymore? [06.09.11]

may 2011

Winged Obsession: The pursuit of the world's most notorious butterfly smuggler. Jessica Speart. HarperCollins, 2011. Nature cop meets nature crook in this nonfiction novel. The method, not the matter, drove me away from this one. What seems like an interesting cross between nature writing and true crime falls prey to stylistic overload: translating research and expository narrative into the stuff of third-person "reflector-character" narration, so that we are constantly privy to Special Agent Ed Newcomer's thoughts, free associations, and momentary spurts of emotion. I don't know why this kind of writing puts me off so much: as I've said before, I like personal literary nonfiction very much, and I'll gladly read crime novels. There's something about the blend that irks me, though my attitude may be just the literary-critical equivalent of "get off my lawn." Editors and writers are increasingly turning to fictional techniques to personalize nature writing, in an attempt to lure readers who would scramble at the sight of technical information. [05.10.11]

Insectopedia. Hugh Raffles. 2010. Random House, 2011. An intriguing collection of essays, given its order by the alphabet. (For another example, see the alphabet chapter of Michael Welland's Sand; for an archetype, think of Primo Levi's Il sistema periodico, which uses a similarly arbitrary heuristic to present thoughts on natural and human themes.) Though I found the topics fascinating, I didn't get far into Raffles's alphabet. His prose style tends toward the rapturous; he's an accomplished writer, but I just prefer something more astringent. YMMV. [05.02.11]

february 2011

How Vertebrates Left the Water. [Systématique, paleontologie, et biologie évolutive moderne: l'exemple de la sortie des eaux chez les vertébrés. 2008.] Michel Laurin. U of CA Press, 2010. In translating his Systématique, paleontologie, et biologie évolutive moderne: l'exemple de la sortie des eaux chez les vertébrés into English, Michel Laurin left off the main title and used only the subtitle. The result is somewhat misleading, and accounts for why I abandoned the book early on. Before getting to the story of how vertebrates left the water, Laurin drives economically through a lot of basic taxonomic systematics, the principles of paleontology, and evolutionary biology. How Vertebrates Left the Water is a textbook – a succinct, clear, forceful – textbook of general evolutionary ideas, with the case of the "conquest of land" used as an example of how thinking about descent with modification has taken on more objective forms in an age of computer analysis and large datasets. The book begins with a crystalline presentation of the principles of cladistics (how scientists now group species and other populations by descent from common ancestors). But I was after something both more specific and more elaborative, and the telegraphic nature of the book showed me that it's a text for biology classes, not a treatise for more general readers. [02.04.11]

january 2011

Eels: An exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the world's most amazing and mysterious fish. James Prosek. HarperCollins, 2010. There's nothing particularly wrong with Prosek's Eels, which was widely reviewed to general acclaim. It's just that it's another interview-driven book. Its major idea is to present facts about eels, and that's something I can get behind. But it presents them by narrating Prosek's trips to visit Joe Soap, eel scientist, Jane Camay, eel rancher, Jeff Zest, eel fisherman (not their real names) and thereby trying to engage us readers in the human stories behind eels. The only thing is, I don't want to know about colorful human beings, I want to know about eels. Richard Schweid's Eel remains a vastly better book. (Prosek doesn't cite Schweid, who covered the territory earlier and better, but I doubt Eel was available yet when Eels went to press, so there's nothing fishy going on.) [01.27.11]

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