starlady: An octopus solving a Rubik's cube.  (original of the species)
Gopnik, Adam. Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

This year marked the bicentennial of Darwin and Lincoln's birthdays (they were born in the same year, a coincidence upon which Adam Gopnik constructs an impressive edifice that is a gem of a book), and in celebration of these two figures--one a naturalist, the other a president--Gopnik offers a nuanced, persuasive, wonderfully well-read meditation on the impact on us of their actions and their ideas.

Gopnik has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for the past 23 years, and he succeeds quite well in keeping the tone of his book at about the level of an essay in that magazine (too well, really; I could have done with a more expansive bibliography, since I recognized Gopnik adapting material from more writers than he cited explicitly). Part of his skill is that he's read the right books, not only by and about Darwin and Lincoln but about literature and history in general. He has a genius for summing things up in a witty turn of phrase that gets right to the heart of the matter. It's a brief book, and I shall try to honor that by keeping this review short as well. I can only say that I'd recommend it to any one interested in either man, since Gopnik succeeds in explicating some bit of the meaning of life out of the life of each.
starlady: (compass)
Thomas, Hugh, Baron Swynnerton. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2003.

I bought this book because I decided I needed background on Caribbean history for my writing, and because I knew that it had been favorably reviewed in The New York Times. Having read the book, I cannot imagine what kind of crack the reviewer was smoking, but evidently it was good.

For glory, God, and gold, and the Catholic Kings! )
starlady: (coraline)
First off, some Dreamwidth-related news: I have granted all active mutual friends access to my DW journal via OpenID (so, yourusername.livejournal.com). Of course my DW and LJ accounts are mirrors, but this enables you to comment on my DW posts in your LJ guise, once you create your OpenID.

That said, I will have some (not sure how many) DW invite codes to hand out on April 30, when Dreamwidth enters open beta. If any one would like an invite code, please leave a comment to this entry or message me.

Rubinstein, Julian. Ballad of the Whiskey Robber. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2004.

I'd heard good things about this book upon its original publication, and I managed to score a copy for $3.99 as part of Borders' ongoing "let's sell all our stock in a futile attempt to stave off bankruptcy though it was our stock that made us better than B&N" sale. Semi-annual my foot. At any rate, Rubinstein, a reporter at large, recounts the dozen-year saga of modern Hungary's most notorious thief, Attila Ambrus, epithet "the Whiskey Robber" due to his habit of knocking off banks, post offices and travel agencies while more or less completely sloshed. Rubinstein is a hugely entertaining writer--I laughed out loud at multiple points in his book, which isn't something that happens often--though his strength is at least partly his pitch-perfect timing of pithy phrases, even cliches. It's sort of like sitting down in a bar with a friend who tells good stories. I've actually been to Hungary, and spent a few days in Budapest, which gave the story an addtional resonance for me: while the action the book recounts was ended by the time of my visit, it's certainly a cogent reminder of all the realities tourists almost never know exist in countries they visit, let alone see. I think anyone can sympathize with modern Hungary's tribulation-filled transition to capitalism and democracy, as well as with the transparent way the Hungarian elites went easy on themselves and came down hard on outsiders to the system.

Troll's Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, eds. New York: Viking, 2009.

My library came through for me with this book, and while the fact that it's aimed at "middle readers" means that it's rather slight, the star-studded cast of authors overall delivers. Among others, Peter S. Beagle, Delia Sherman, Garth Nix, Ellen Kushner, Neil Gaiman, Catherynne M. Valente (yuki_onna) and Kelly Link turned in excellent efforts. If I had to pick one favorite story, I'd say Link's "The Cinderella Game" and Sherman's "Wizard's Apprentice" were my favorites, because they both completely inverted the distinction between heroes and villains: in these stories, everyone is both.
starlady: (utena myth)
Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.

So. Everyone remembers Marie Antoinette as an icon of style, but no one remembers exactly what it meant that she was an icon of style, or for that matter, how she became that icon and what her motives were for doing so. Caroline Weber's biographical history of the Queen's fashion traces how Marie Antoinette's revolution in clothing became a Revolution in truth--and, paradoxically, how the same styles that were deplored by court and commoners alike on the Queen became the only acceptable clothing for patriotic citoyennes after the end of the monarchy.

Weber's history restores to Marie Antoinette an agency and an intelligence that is often written out of accounts of her life in the context of the fall of the ancién regime, but at the end of the book it's painfully clear that while the Queen was anything but innocent of a role in her own undoing, and that of the monarchy, she remained an innocent in many ways, too many of them political. Weber's brilliant analysis also makes clear that the deep-seated misogyny of French society in general and of the court at Versailles in particular simply could not condone the idea of a Queen who abrogated to herself the role and funds of a royal mistress, even after she fulfilled her only duty as queen by providing the dynasty two male heirs. This same misogyny was part of the potent forces that condemned the Queen to death at her sham show trial--to say nothing of xenophobia and chauvinism--and it gives a painful lie to the male revolutionaries' pretensions to Equality (more on that below). The other disturbing point Weber makes implicitly is that Marie Antoinette's true transgression in the eyes of the Paris Mobility--which became the heart and soul of the Revolution and the Terror--was her equalizing herself to them by adopting explicltly non-royal styles and wandering around Paris shopping like a haute bourgeoisie. They hated her for dressing down, and then when she started dressing up again, they hated her for emphasizing her superiority through the ancient sartorial codes. What the Revolutionaries did to her was exactly what she had done to herself, what they had hated her for doing but what they now forced her to do, and still could not exorcise their hatred, which led directly to her being taken to her execution in a plain white chemise, much the uniform of the Revolution, equal to them at last. And yet that very appearance of sartorial equality gave the lie to the idea of equality, for it was her inequality as Queen that required her to die--but after her execution, women in Paris started wearing thin red ribbons around their necks, for her execution had shown that her fate could be theirs: real equality at last.

The other takeaway points are that Louis XV was probably the most irresponsible king in the history of irresponsible kings (and, conversely, history might be very different if Marie Antoinette had married him rather than the future Louis XVI). Another disturbing idea is that the power of the French monarchy was exactly as strong as its images and illusions: Louis XIV convinced the realm that he was pre-eminent, and constructed Versailles to foster that illusion, but Louis XV had little interest in maintaining the smoke and mirrors and Louis XVI was pathologically incapable of doing so, which led Marie Antoinette to attempt to re-incarnate the Sun King's prestige in her own person, with fatal results. She transgressed roles of both class and gender through her fashion, and her very ease in transgressing them gave the fatal lie to the central conceit of monarchy in France.
starlady: (justice)
Or, Abraham Lincoln: Cooler Than You Since 1809.

Miller, WIlliam Lee. Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography. New York: Viking, 2002.

I received this book as part of being given my high school's Phi Beta Kappa Award my senior year, and lo these six years later I finally cracked it open and read it...and boy am I glad I did. There have been many, many, many books written on our sixteenth president, but I daresay this one is one of the best, probably precisely because it looks at Lincoln's entire life from the perspective of his ethics. We don't talk about ethics, virtues or morals much anymore (and when we do we only speak of "morals," which personally I hate; you will hear me speak of ethics, though not knowledgably), but all these concepts were alive and well in Lincoln's time, and comparing his ethics and his ideas about ethics and principles in politics to his fellows' is fascinating. To put it briefly, he may well have been the best man ever to occupy the office of President: while the Founding Fathers did well, Abraham Lincoln did right.

Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. )
starlady: (compass)
I just finished reading Alex Ross' monumental survey of the twentieth century through its music, The Rest Is Noise. Ross received a MacArthur "genius grant" last fall, in part because of this book, and it's obvious from the first pages of TRIN how richly deserved the award was. I can't say how the book reads to someone completely lacking in musical background, because I have a decent base knowledge of musical theory and a long history in performance--I've played some of the more normalized twentieth-century repertoire, which gave me a thrill while reading--but Ross makes music legible and comprehensible to the average reader, and I've never read anyone who has a better gift for describing sound. It's necessarily synaesthetic to an extent, but I don't think that's an undesirable thing. Aside from the writing about music itself, Ross credibly follows all the political, sexual and ideological undercurrents and conflicts of the twentieth century to ground, but he never loses his twenty-first century perspective, if that's possible. For me I think the central issue of the book (and of the twentieth century itself) is the issue of fascism and democracy, since fascism of course was spawned from democracy by modernity, and as Harry Harootunian says elsewhere, fascism lurks within modern democracy still, and will until things change radically--perhaps through the intellectual fusion Ross envisions. But to say that is to valorize music beyond its capacity, which Ross demonstrates is the cardinal sin of totalitarianism vis-a-vis culture. At any rate, anyone who likes contemporary music, or who likes non-contemporary classical music and wants to understand contemporary fare, will find this book essential.

I went to a funeral yesterday. I find it disturbing when people say they're jealous of the deceased because the deceased is in heaven with the Lord. I think they're missing the point, not of death but of life--or at least the point as I understand it.
starlady: (a sad tale's best)
All right, first of all, I'd just like to take 30 seconds to point out that all the indignation of the past forty-eight hours over Blago's sole power to appoint President-elect Obama's replacement in the Senate has been brought to you by...the Progressive movement. That's right, folks, until those wonderful teetotallers showed up advocating prohibition, silver, and popular election for Senators, governers appointed whoever the hell they wanted to the Senate, and the Senate sat them, unless it didn't, and those Senators stayed in office in perpetuity. So when people whine about Caroline Kennedy as a potential Hillary replacement, or call the governor of Delaware appointing a longtime Biden aide to, essentially, a caretaker two-year term so that Beau Biden can run for the Democratic nomination "tacky," I find all the hand-wringing and pontification to be irritatingly ignorant of history. The new New York senator will face two elections in the next four years, in particular, and Delaware and Illinois' replacements will also be up for election in 2010. So these people will be forced to prove their mettle in short order, and they will take their appointments knowing that. This is why the Founders distrusted the Mobility.

In other news, I finished Tom LaMarre's Uncovering Heian Japan this morning. I'm not sure if this is the book Frenchy described as "difficult," I found it wonderfully complex and well-considered, but not difficult to understand. In fact, LaMarre does an excellent job of making the Heian order seem comprehensible--whereas the attitude of people like Ivan Morris, for one, is way more "yes, those silly Heian aristos, all they did was lay around and write poetry and talk about mappo." Which we already know is partly crap. At any rate, LaMarre returns poetry to its central place in the Heian world, and does an excellent job explicating how that world worked (through poetry). Now I want to track down a copy of his book about Japanese cinema. And I will be first to pre-order his new book on anime from the U of M Press.

Spike and I took the train to Philly to see "Let The Right One In"--the other vampire movie--this afternoon. It's been a while since I've seen a foreign film (unless you count Japanese movies), and midway through I caught myself thinking, "Ah, yes, charmingly like anime in its refusal to explain almost everything!" In brief, the story follows bullied Oskar and mysterious Eli, both apparently 12 years old, in the suburbs of Stockholm in the 1980s. It snows a lot in Sweden, which seems fitting for the story, and the laconic deliberation with which it unfolds. It was particularly interesting to see vampirism displaced onto the female half of the couple, and to see her caught at such an impossible age as 12, with all the implications of that number for various harsh realities. The movie skated perilously close to camp at times (in showing the experience of one vampire victim in particular), but all in all it was quite excellent. I would venture to say, though, that it comes no closer to explicating the vampire's undying appeal than "Twilight," or any other incarnation of the mythos. Another movie mini-trope of 2008: half-melted faces of hospital patients (if "The Dark Knight" had stuck closer to canon, they'd both be because of acid, too); for my money the patient in here looked more horrific (though not more shocking).

The more things change in Greece, it seems, the more they stay the same. Four years ago when I was in that benighted country along with [livejournal.com profile] olewyvern  and several others, the students were rioting against the government's attempts to make a Greek diploma worth more than the paper it was printed on by tightening up the university standards and curriculum. Now anarchists, students, workers and everyone are rioting because they can't get a job and their education is useless. I wish I could say my emotions were more enlightened than "A plague on both your houses!" But Greece remains one of the countries that I dislike based on personal experience, and I just can't quite muster the enthusiasm to wish them well. I do wonder, though, if this year's Olaf interim will go through.

I also read an excellent short story by Garth Nix in B&N tonight, "Old Friends." Designer coffee as libations for summoning! Tree people! Genius!
starlady: (the wizard's oath)
Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
This is one of those books (and before I forget, it's by Anne Applebaum) that absolutely everyone ought to read. Seriously, if you think that human rights are worth a damn at all, or hope that the mass butchery of the 20th century will not be repeated, you owe it to yourself and to humanity to read this book. Applebaum explores in exhausting, illuminating detail the birth of the Gulag system in Russia from its tsarist roots to its final, still ongoing manifestations in China and in North Korea, exploring every aspect of camp life and making excellent use of the memoirs of those who survived, as well as of declassified Soviet records themselves. The stories here are harrowing. They are also so grim and horrible that the only way I could deal with them was to laugh, though it wasn't funny laughter, and at times I wished I was the sort of person who cried at this stuff instead, as that is a vastly more appropriate response. How many lives did the Soviet system (of which the Gulag was merely the worst part) destroy? Impossible to say. Forty million? Fifty? It's probably easier to count, in some way, everyone who lived in that country from the Bolshevik Revolution onwward as a casualty, but that perhaps is a bit too metaphorical for most people's taste. What's certain is that Josef Stalin was the worst mass murderer in history--not that he was really qualitatively different from other totalitarian dictators (Alan Bullock's excellent Hitler & Stalin makes that creepily clear), but the sheer size of Russia gave him a much bigger canvas of people to destroy. No one ought to find anything about the Soviet Union funny. And the Cold War, though there was certainly a lot of mistakes made on our side (the scene with Indy and the FBI agents in Crystal Skull was queasily like a scene that could very well have taken place in a communist state), was necessary. Inglorious, but necessary. In other words, Applebaum does an incredible job.

Jesse Helms died yesterday, the bigot. Here's hoping he was the last of his kind.

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