Thursday, August 30, 2012

One Of Ours

by Willa Cather

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is the story of Claude Wheeler, an American farm boy who grows to manhood convinced that there is something more “splendid about life” than the quotidian existence he sees around him, that will be his future.  Frustrated at his inability to attend anything but a small religious college, and entranced by glimpses of a more daring family who engage in intellectual debate and love the arts, he gets married but finds that his wife, too, lives only for Christian missionary work; sex and making a family mean nothing to her.  He volunteers when World War I breaks out, and finds what he is looking for overseas.  He becomes convinced he has found his true place in the world when he reaches the French countryside, despite the fierce fighting and disease that he faces.

It’s a slow-moving, lyrical novel, a portrait of a rural, agricultural, unsophisticated, isolationist, labor-intensive America, an America on the cusp of modernity, with no more wilderness to tame but without the worldliness and comforts of the post-WWII boom.  I believe the book has been criticized for its third-hand scenes of war, but I found nothing particularly jarring or awkward about them as a reader; indeed, I was impressed with Cather’s ability to write so easily about this very male world.  In all it’s a good book, perhaps a bit dated now and so not apt to change the reader’s life; but this very American tale of redemption and risk, of a man making his own way in a stifling world, is enhanced by Cather’s strong, romantic prose.

three stars

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Soul Circus

by George Pelecanos

The third Derek Strange novel.  Because of some guilt over the long-buried past, Strange feels obligated to get to the bottom of charges against a drug dealer (Granville Oliver, the same one arrested at the end of Hell To Pay, now facing the death penalty).  One brave young woman with a small child is willing to speak up, simply because she doesn’t appreciate being threatened, and Strange tries his best to keep her safe while balancing his new-found happy family life and work.  Meanwhile his hot-tempered white partner, Terry Quinn, is happy with his relationship and helping his girlfriend out with a missing girl case, unwilling to do anything that might exonerate Oliver, who is certainly a bad guy.

As usual, Pelecanos creates a grim tableau of the modern city and its culture of poverty, crime, and drugs: hard-eyed, armed young men who kill each other over a slight, and mock anyone and anything that doesn’t fit in their narrow understanding.  Much of this book’s tone and background are of a piece with his earlier writing: big-breasted women who never need foreplay, men who are fixated on said breasts, big muscle cars, tape decks, gun culture, the streets of Washington, ethnic eateries. At times, again, Pelecanos’ ultra-macho writing slips into defensiveness, as when he has Strange watch a woman’s ass as she walks off “without guilt,” even though she was a friend, because “he had to,” because he “was a man,” even a happily married one.  Or, in a debate about guns, he has a character who is for banning handguns in DC qualify his position with, “I’m a man.  I like the way guns feel in my hand” – as if, in either of these passages, he needed to assure his readers that these characters were totally manly hetero men, man.  There’s no problem with having Strange watch a woman’s ass, but I question Pelecanos’ apparent need to justify the scene, or justify a character’s political stance, without beating the reader upside the head with their manliness.  But that’s just a distracting aside; Pelecanos’ gritty city streets are compelling, and he certainly knows how to throw the reader a curveball – no one is bulletproof.

four stars

Monday, August 20, 2012

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies

by Tyler Cowen

The author, a professor of economics, writes about everything food-related, from “how American food got bad” (answer: Prohibition, watered-down immigrant food, the modern mania for catering to kids’ tastes) to eating great barbecue, from the delusion of the locavore movement to how to shop astutely at small groceries, from tips on finding a great restaurant (answer: find a hole in the wall with low overhead and loyal customers) to why Mexican food tastes better in Mexico (answer: America’s ingredients are fresher and safer but perforce blander due to transport, regulations and freezing; Mexico’s cheeses are richer and unpasteurized so banned in the USA).

I enjoyed this book, some sections more than others.  His long chapter on barbecue covered some very old ground gone over years ago by Calvin Trillin; his “finding great food anywhere” section is disappointingly vague (London is expensive if you’re not eating fish and chips; you can get good ingredients in Germany thanks to the EU).  The chapter on Mexican food, with its discussion of Mexican traditions of dry aging (again, largely considered unsafe in the USA) and fresh though limited ingredients, was highly informative.   And although I’m not sure his claim that Prohibition hit American dining so hard is still valid today, he makes a thought-provoking case about American blandness.  Despite the title, much of this book might have been written by anyone who enjoys food and travels a lot.  That’s too bad, because Cowen is most interesting when he uses economic arguments.  For example, he makes a case for GMOs (which lower overall food prices); attacks the locavore movement by noting that food transport costs are very low and what would really help the planet would be eating less meat, not fewer French cheeses; suggests that eating sardines has ecological value because they are at the bottom of the food chain; and advocates the spread of modern agribusiness giants to combat starvation.  I don’t agree with it all, but it’s always interesting to see things from a new angle.  I would have liked to have read less of Cowen’s salivating over barbecue and more economic analysis of the politics of food. 

three stars

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics

by Steven E. Landsburg

Windbaggery follows.

The author, an economist and columnist, uses cost-benefit analysis to tackle some thorny social issues, from the polygamy of the title to such varied topics as giving to charity, overpopulation, euthanasia, the global preference for baby boys vs. girls, disaster relief, the benefits of being tall and/or beautiful, the American propensity for self-denial, flaws in the justice system, and outsourcing jobs.  Not only does he apply the principle of costs vs. benefits to these issues, he argues that this is the only rational way to approach them, dismissing in most cases such flimsy notions as patriotism or religion or human compassion.  (In fact, he would say that cost-benefit analysis is the only compassionate route in the case of, say, taking a comatose woman off a respirator, since that respirator is then freed for someone who will presumably gain more benefit from it).   He’s an intelligent writer who argues deftly, and his writing has the cocksure tone of the experienced professor, mixed with the somewhat defensive attitude of one who has heard many counter-arguments and gotten a lot of mail about his opinions before.  The crux of his political thought is that if you’re not “footing the bill” (in various ways, not always with actual dollars), what others do is none of your business; this free-market libertarianism allows him to argue that, for instance, companies are doing the right thing by outsourcing jobs, as the jobs in India are just as “valuable” in an economic sense as an American one.  That this should not be true to an American is lost on him.

Reading this book, which of course I found much to disagree with about, I was reminded of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge, which makes a distinction between Humans, who do not always act rationally and have preferences for things that sometimes are not valuable, and Econs, who think everyone always knows what their neighbor is doing and include all available data in their calculations before acting.  Landsburg is the consummate Econ – absolutely uncompromising, equating rationality with validity in every case, and nearly pod-like in his refusal to understand why his solutions would not work in the real world of irrational, patriotic, religious, humans, who cry over a picture of one hurt puppy but don’t blink at news reports of human massacres.  This leads Landsburg to some bizarre conclusions, such as his argument that the world needs more people or that the world’s oil will not be over-used: since over-population and oil use must, according to Econ-style analysis, be voluntary, it will always serve our needs.  (This is, of course, total nonsense; even if there was one person in the world and one can of oil, he could burn all his oil in one day and then be cold for the rest of his life, thus over-using it; and in the real world no one knows what others are doing with their oil use.)  Landsburg’s Econ analysis also leads him to appear creepy and off-putting, as when he describes his daughter as a “cost.”

At times he is being jocular, as when he suggests that firefighters should be paid in the loot they save from fires; at other times he seems to be serious when he suggests the President of the USA be paid in land grants across the country, as if anyone becomes president for the big cash salary.  All the time, his insistence of every action being a “cost” makes him appear downright obtuse, as when he claims that while a polluter might be costing a swimmer the ability to swim, the swimmer is costing the polluter the chance to dump gunk in the water!  He really goes off the rails when he equates conservation with robbing the poor (people today) to give to the super-rich (our grand-children, who will surely be more prosperous than us!) – he seems truly unable to understand that a conservationist is not interested in transferring income but slowing consumption.  Finally, although he’s clearly a very smart guy, he cheats on some of his own arguments, as when he claims that a husband who wants to bury his brain-dead wife is “preventing” the woman’s parents from feeding her and thus the parents have the greater claim – but he never classifies the parents as the “preventers,” who are stopping the husband from enjoying his right to bury.  He also ignores his own respirator argument from earlier in the book: in feeding the daughter, the parents are selfishly “preventing” others from benefiting from the respirator, but he never mentions this.  In short, some of Landburg’s arguments made me consider my assumptions.  Some made me want to be in his class so I could ask follow-up questions.  Some made me want to punch him in his stupid face.  This must be, then, a very successful book: it captivated me and made me think about some things from an angle I’d never considered.  I was engaged and enraged, and isn’t that a good thing? 

four stars

Friday, August 10, 2012

Daniel Boone

by Jame Daugherty

The 1940 Newbery winner, this biography of the Kentucky frontiersman is a mixture of fact and probable legend.  It tells of Boone’s life in bits and pieces, from his birth in Pennsylvania to his trapping and trading and Indian-fighting in the wilderness of Kentucky.  The picture Daugherty paints is of a bluff, honest, uncompromising but friendly figure.  The Boone this book gives us is a family man, patriot, and resourceful hunter, and little else.  He fights against the British and the Indians, is captured by Chief Blackfish and is adopted into the Shawnee tribe, but escapes and returns to his countrymen, of course.  He founds a frontier town in Kentucky, Boonesborough, and works as a pathfinder in the wilderness.  A simple man who can read and write, but not nearly as well as he can shoot and hunt and track, Boone tries his hand at farming, public office, soldiering, even land speculation (though he is far too kindhearted and na├»ve to make money at it, and loses all the land he fought so hard to claim).  Poor for much of his life, hunting skins to make a living, stoic about the death of his son Israel, he is portrayed here as the consummate early American: tough, proud, self-sufficient, uncomplaining.

Daugherty has a way with words and there are some quite lyrical passages.  It also can be bombastic, reveling in what Daughtery considers natural glory but what the modern reader might consider land-grabbing colonialism. At times the book tries so hard to be home-spun and aw-shucks and evocative of frontier spirit (“they waddled west as soon as they could stagger… they wrassled the wild cats and they romped with wolves”) that it comes of as totally charmless.  But it also has some charm, as when, for example, Daughtery quotes Boone as saying he was never lost, “but I was right bewildered once for three days.”  

three stars

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome

by Steven Saylor

An epic biography of the city, spanning a thousand years from the first meeting of traders across the as-yet unnamed hills to the rise of Augustus Caesar.  Legendary figures such as Romulus and Remus are made historical, and Saylor even gives one possible source for the birth of the legends of Hercules and his vanquishing of the monster Cacus.  Obviously, with a tome this vast, the narrative skips staccato-like over decades and centuries, but Saylor makes stops at all the high and low points: the rise and fall of the hero-turned traitor Coriolanus; the sack of Rome by the Gauls; the invasion of Hannibal; the attempt of the Gracchi to reform the class system and their subsequent assassination; the rise and death of Julius Caesar.

I was mostly disappointed in this book.  In many ways it reminded me of Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, also the epic biography of a city that follows the rise and fall in fortunes of very old families in the city.  This book has some of Sarum’s flaws, as well, especially its didactic, lecturing tone.  I’m a fan of Saylor’s Sub Rosa series, and sadly, I didn’t get that feel of being totally immersed in a  time and culture that I do in the Gordianus books.  For the most part, these characters don’t visit the baths or watch gladiators or visit slave markets or play ancient dice games or walk dusty streets shoulder to shoulder with slaves, soldiers, and philosophers; they sit around and explain their surroundings.  It’s understandable that Saylor wants to keep the readers abreast of the years of history he must perforce glide over, but the result is a book that is often dry and extremely exposition-heavy, particularly between eras.  I found myself wondering how it would sound if in a novel set during, say, World War II, a character were to say to another, “You know, of course, how Germany’s dictator, Hitler, has invaded Poland, and that our current leader, Churchill, advocates nothing but total war, in stark contrast to his predecessor Chamberlain, who is popularly regarded as an appeaser.”  It would sound forced and wholly artificial, just as Saylor’s quite similar explanations do.  Even worse, his exposition is not limited to historical forces.  Saylor has characters saying such things as “My son, Gaius, and my two daughters…” to people who are their close friends.  Given the length of the book and the number of personages in it, this is understandable and perhaps the most efficient way to introduce new concepts and characters, but, again, it has an artificial ring.  For these reasons, I enjoyed the book best when Saylor was sticking to history that was educated guesses (the very early days shrouded in legend), or the later, Augustian, years when everything had been established.

three stars