Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review: The Rituals of Dinner

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

Rituals of Dinner is the sort of charming book that feels like a palate cleanser between scholarly tomes.  That is just a facade, though.  Margaret Visser has crafted a soundly built exploration of our table manners that supports her elegant tableware.

That said, Rituals abides in an odd niche.  It’s scholarly, but not academic, informative but not authoritative, and traces the roots of ideas without being historical.  In addition, Visser does not pretend to be unbiased.  Her reasoned support for both the Emily Post and Miss Manners traditions warms this etiquette nerd’s heart.  It’s not an etiquette manual, either.

It is an informed depiction of the range of behavior at the table focused on but not limited to American and European traditions.  If you’ve ever wondered why knife etiquette involves where the weapon, er, utensil is pointed this is a book for you.  Visser has spent many hours in the library.

The erudition would fall flat under lesser writing.  She hits an impossible tone with perfect pitch. Digressions are just long enough and deep enough.  The main narrative moves along briskly.  Her organization lends itself to spending a few hours or a few minutes.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Janesville

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Amy Goldstein has crafted quite a kaleidoscope in Janesville.

In 2008 GM closed the manufacturing plant that was the anchor of the city’s economy which had huge effects on everyone in the town.  Goldstein brings a journalist’s eye and compelling research to follow those waves and then ripples into 2016. The reporting is powerful and enlightening.

I have never lived through such a focused economic upheaval as an adult.  Elmira has certainly seen a steady economic contraction over my lifetime, but never the kind of hammer blow that Janesville did. I fancied that the result was the sort of economic crater from which the population just scattered, though I know that never happens.  Lives don’t move that suddenly.  Janesville gives a fantastic view of this from the ground to the Speaker of the House.

I thought about this a little more and I want to be a little more concrete about Goldstein’s multi-faceted portrayals.

Because Goldstein presents the lives of many folks who play different roles in how Janesville takes the blow, she presents the effects on both the people playing those roles and the institutions in action.  The federal government is far away and somewhat aloof; vague promises never become concrete and many efforts are misguided.  Worker retraining at the local community college is difficult to get funded and over the years its effects are a mixed blessing.  (Goldstein includes a compelling study on the efficacy of their retraining as an appendix, so data nerds (guilty) can compare her conclusions with theirs).

To be fair, neither the college facilities nor its funding structure was built to absorb demands like the ones this crisis presented. That is part of the larger point that Janesville is a small city that takes an enormous blow.  This plant was the majority employer for the city and it vanished over months.  Most of the civic structure was adapting to cope with the slow sort of decline my home town had, if they were planning for decline at all.  While the blast of trouble more clearly reveals the cracks in the people and the institutions, its magnitude almost certainly overwhelmed institutions and humans who could have adapted to smaller shocks.

In addition to showing one view of civic institutions in crisis, Janesville also illuminates larger societal trends in concrete terms.  After 8 years the reader can trace see the decline of union influence, increased income disparity, and shifts in social strata through the individual stories of those living it.

Goldstein’s tapestry is well crafted from strong threads that resolve into an enlightening picture.


Review: Enemies and Neighbors

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

I was hoping that Ian Black’s Enemies and Neighbors would enlighten me about the Israeli/Palestine conflict and give me some hope about the future. Well, I understand it better.

That’s not an indictment of Black’s work.  He’s done a fine job digging through more than 150 years of historical records to hear the voices of the people in the middle of this ongoing storm.  I believe everyone has biases when they look at the world and when they tell others what they think. Situations like this conflict bring out strong opinions and biases. As far as I can tell, injustices abound here and that angries up the blood.  Outsiders like me do want to find out what those injustices are, and less biased writing helps.

Fortunately Black does great service. He’s not without bias – of course – but he does cast a wide net for facts and presents them fairly even-handedly.  His biases are detectable if your antenna is up, but mostly he presents facts and evidence. He does come out and say that he believes that both major parties have completely incompatible stories of the conflict. Sad and sobering.

As with most quality education, it made me smarter bur not happier.

The work covers the situation well and as fairly as possible.  It’s important to understand. Strongly recommended.

Review: Terror of the Autumn Skies

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

Fun fact: All pilots have a period of aviation that made us fall in love with the idea of flying, often before we ever have the opportunity to fly ourselves. For me, that’s World War I.  I’m going to find something cool about any WWI aviation book including Blaine Pardoe’s Terror of the Autumn Skies.  My bias aside, Pardoe’s subject, Frank Luke, is well worth knowing about.

Luke’s a remarkable character whose story I hadn’t heard.  His credentials are impeccable: briefly US Ace of Aces, multiply decorated including the Medal of Honor, and arguably America’s most accomplished balloon buster in WWI.  Luke was a larger-than-life character who anyone who has seen a popular film with fighter pilots in it will recognize.  He’s a westerner (Arizona) who shows up in his squadron boasting and irritating his flight mates.  Though he backs that up – on one occasion calling his shot on a distant observation balloon a la Babe Ruth – he frequently disobeys orders and is continually at odds with his commanding officer.  He forms a tight bond with a fellow outsider with a complementary personality who becomes his wingman.  His life of outlandish risk and selfless bravery ends in a hail of wartime bullets.

It’s a great story, and Pardoe’s research in telling it is exemplary.  He hunts down military records, personal letters, and contemporary news accounts and interprets them all well.  He makes a clear story of these fragments.

The writing is a little episodic and has spots where a bit more editing would help.  Overall, I’d call it solid if not inspiring.  Interested readers will find an interesting story here, though it may not draw outsiders in.


Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

For my money Celeste Ng is one of the most complete writers working today.  She always spins an interesting yarn that sucks you in.  She’s more than just a raconteur, though.  When I look at her work more broadly, the plot structure is clear and concise.  The key points are all balanced and adorned with just enough ornamentation for relief and contrast.  The sections, chapters, and paragraphs all serve the story.  And the whole story is built from charming – occasionally gorgeous – prose.

That narrative comprises themes and imagery amplified by repeating motifs. These school below the surface, reinforcing the ideas and emotions without distracting from them.  The themes Ng explores are complex and powerful enough that her multicultural and multifaceted views find plenty of traction.  She lights new ideas in those themes and points out the path to long standing takes.  She lays out a solid intellectual meal.

Her thematic exploration is literary and lively. Metaphor and imagination rule here.  Her precise prose leads readers through these oblique and attractive path to the underlying ideas without detracting from the literary scenery.  She is masterful in both her choices of images and her execution.

I worry that when I praise a writer like I’m an English teacher I turn potential readers away.  Fires is interesting and dramatic to read.  It’s fun.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Race and the Early Republic

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Race and the Early Republic is an excellent introduction to how US society reacted to citizens and slaves who were outside the early ideas of what constituted people.  Of course, the term in use was “white men” – a more honest phrasing than many in common use today. Michael Morrison builds Race from a collection of scholarly essays on relevant topics and enlists the authors to cross-pollinate (and cross reference) one another.  It forms an interesting and cohesive collection. It is academic enough that it is a little dry for my tastes.

Though I find the presentation sterile, the ideas are compelling.  Essays address different aspects of how European immigrants, indigenous people, and slaves found their way in the new country.  Importantly the authors look out from the groups as well as in from the majority and historical point of view.  The collection acknowledges what the dominant population encoded into the historical narrative as well as the actions and reactions of  the people themselves.  The resulting book brings more texture and understanding of the period and how it meshes with what comes before and after.

Review: The Second Coming of the KKK

Friday, December 29th, 2017

The three incarnations of the KKK each have a distinct character wrapped around manifestation of the parts of American society that resist change and exploit fear. My description may sound a little timid for an institution that is universally reviled – and I revile it – but the strongest elements of Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK explain how Klan leaders presented it to the nation as a normal institution.  The second (major) incarnation was the most visible and politically influential one.  At a time when our leaders openly demean citizens based on their race, or their origin, or similar sources of otherness, Gordon’s study of the history is essential.

The current xenophobic forces in the country and world are not the KKK, but the tools and motivations that its leaders used to expand the institution’s influence are all clearly visible in today’s news.

Gordon’s history is extensively researched and clearly articulated.  She breaks out her analysis topically rather than chronologically. That helps separate the concerns but does somewhat obscure the narrative arc.  That said, exploring the mechanisms and driving forces of the expansion are telling.  The 1920’s KKK (the second coming) was equal parts fraternal organization, terror group, and multi-layered marketing scheme.  She picks each of these elements (and a couple more) apart deftly and cleanly. Watching and understanding those wheels is enlightening.

Of course the most mortifying thing about both the 20’s KKK and the current fear-mongering is that citizens embrace it.  To me, the elements that the Klan leaders present are combinations of rationalizations, appeals to avarice, raising false fears, and appeals to the herd mentality.  On the other hand, people – and I’m a person – always respond to them.  I would be delighted if Coming presented some kind of remedy, but the 20’s Klan pretty much burned itself out.  There’s some solace in that, but I’d rather have a clearer path.

In any case, there is much to learn from Second Coming.


Review: Victorian Los Angeles

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

Until I sat down to write this review, I hadn’t noticed that Chris Epting is also the author of Teddy Roosevelt in California, which I also enjoyed reading.

Victorian LA is a combination of tour book and historical retrospective mostly set in downtown.  LA has a reputation of being a Mid-century Modern, Art Deco, Jet Age kind of city, but this work highlights Victorian buildings and their origins.  Epting’s enthusiasm and knowledge shines through.  His prose is clear and compelling.  Overall a great book to plan a trip downtown (and other older neighborhoods) to scope cool architecture.


Review: Prisoners of Geography

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography, is an old had covering foreign policy for the BBC et al. He’s been around the block physically and philosophically and Prisoners does an excellent job showing readers how those link.

The theme of Prisoners is relating the physical shape of nations to their goals and actions as collective entities.  Marshall is not the first to make those kind of connections. His experience with both the reporting and reality of foreign policy sparks Prisoners into something special.

His discussions of how geography shapes the goals and actions of China, America, and Europe are clear and enlightening.  The first place his expertise deepens the analysis is in the discussion of  Russia’s long term motivations. His explanation of  how those motivations shaped Russia’s/Putin’s choices in the recent annexation of the Crimea sparkle. There is nothing like hearing the motivations of the nations, their leaders, and their people from someone who has done the hard work to understand them beyond a surface level.  The Crimean situation and Russia’s perspective are much clearer to me.

As good as the description of Russia is, the chapters on the Indian subcontinent and on Japan and Korea really shine. In particular, my understanding of the players and moves in Pakistan and Afghanistan is much, much clearer.  I’m interested in foreign policy and my eyes glaze over when experts try to explain the relationships in Pak-/Afhgan- istan.  Marshall sifts the facts to identify the key players – who only partially conform to the borders on the map and completely to the shape of the land – to illuminate their motivations, and to lay out their actions.  Actions that seemed random then seem direct now.  The descriptions of the history and motivations on the Korean peninsula is in the same league.


Review: The Unexpected President

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

I admit an unhealthy affinity for Chester A. Arthur and his presidency.  To me, he is the epitome of a man who rose from corrupt beginnings to grow into decency when thrust into the office.   The Unexpected President is Scott Greenberger’s biography of Arthur.

Greenberger tells the story in a solid, scholarly, readable way.  He describes the man and the times clearly and gives the reader the space to draw their own conclusions.  Or paint one’s own picture, I assume.