I picked this book up a week ago, just after seeing a northerly section of the Hudson - near Saratoga Springs and the Saratoga battlefield in upstate...moreI picked this book up a week ago, just after seeing a northerly section of the Hudson - near Saratoga Springs and the Saratoga battlefield in upstate New York - and hoping that the book would offer a decent history of the river. Lewis certainly fulfills that hope, writing a wonderful overview of the discovery and settlement of the river, which was unusually important in early American history (from about 1600 to 1850), and not only because it was the waterway which New York City could use as its highway into the continent. Among other topics, Lewis discusses Henry Hudson, the river's European discoverer; early Dutch settlers up and down the river; the coming of British dominance and then Britain's loss of the river to the new United States; and the centrality of the river in 19th c. American visual and literary art. A concluding few sections treat, somewhat less satisfyingly, 20th century topics such as environmentalists' battle against Con Ed's plan to destroy Storm King Mountain for a hydroelectric project. (I expected more on the environmental history of the river, but there is relatively little such content.)
All in all, this is a wonderful, fluently written, and satisfying look at the history of the river. My only regret is that I didn't read this before my trip, or I'd have known to have seen the river further south, along the great fjord that begins south of Albany. A cruise up the Hudson from New York to Albany sounds like a future dream vacation.
The book is full of excellent, illustrative anecdotes, but this is my favorite one: "On a cool and brilliant June day in 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England arrived at Hyde Park for a weekend visit. Roosevelt and the king drank cocktails in the library, spent an afternoon chatting on the lawn overlooking the Hudson, and the following morning attended services in St. James' Episcopal Church. Afterward Roosevelt escorted the royal couple up to Top Cottage, a new fieldstone structure he had designed. There everyone feasted on American luncheon favorites, Virginia ham, turkey, and hot dogs. It was said that George --for by this time the presidnt had abolished formalities between them completely--ate two. Later, Anglophile criitcs said that hot dogs were not the dish to serve a king and queen, and certainly no one should address the royal couple the way the president had. But Roosevelt brushed the criticism aside. After all, he said, his family had lived in New York for centuries longer than the royal family had lived in England. In the Hudson Valley, where his great-grandfather had settled until [sic:] 1813, he counted himself (through his wife) a descendant of Robert Livingson. Compared with the Roosevelts, the Windsors were mere arrivistes."
This book is hard to review in that it's exactly what the jacket copy and other online reviews suggest: a cogent, informative, well-written narrative...moreThis book is hard to review in that it's exactly what the jacket copy and other online reviews suggest: a cogent, informative, well-written narrative about London's 1854 cholera epidemic, which was caused by the giant city's pathetic sanitation system and ended when a brilliant scientist, John Snow, figured out that the disease was being transmitted through the (foul) water being consumed in one impoverished neighborhood. Along the way, Johnson describes the recycling economy of mid-nineteenth century London, the battles between those who thought disease was spread through the air and those who didn't, the invisible importance of modern sanitation, the workings of bacterial diseases like cholera, and a host of other topics. I highly recommend the book.
I have only two cautions. First, much of the last chapter and all of the epilogue serve as an extended exercise in extrapolation - to modern megacities and to bioterrorism, chiefly - which would have been much more powerful at half the length. The book effectively ends midway through the last chapter, on the origins of the titular map, which is justifiably famous for visually summarizing the causes and effects of the outbreak.
Second, you should not read the book while eating. The details about London's sanitation system and cholera are literally stomach-turning - though they also made me glad to live in a time and a place where my shit literally vanishes down the tubes and I can get clean, cold water at any time.(less)
This is an excellent overview of the science and biology of seeing, especially as related to modern art. The author, Margaret Livingstone, a neurobiol...moreThis is an excellent overview of the science and biology of seeing, especially as related to modern art. The author, Margaret Livingstone, a neurobiologist, skillfully presents the scientific material, though some of it is nonetheless pretty tough going. Livingstone, is very good at using a wide range of spectacular diagrams, photos, paintings, and other illustrations to advance her exposition and argument.
This argument - and its applicability to how we make and see art - rests on a critical distinction between our two overlapping systems of vision. Though colorblind, the older "Where" system of vision is good at detecting small changes in brightness (or what is technically called "luminance"), motion, spatial position or depth, and the general configuration of a scene. The evolutionary newer "What" system, present only in primates, is slightly slower and less sensitive to brightness but is capable of recognizing objects and their characteristics, including color and details. Livingstone's discussion of the Where/What systems roams over topics ranging from the structure of the eye and the arrangement of visual ganglia to the functions of cones and rods and the critical "center/surround" neurons which are sensitive to sharp changes or breaks in luminance, rather than subtle shifts. She also comments more or less in passing on the evolutionary failings of the eye and human vision. We cannot, for instance, see colors in dim light or in darkness: without quite a bit of light, all colors look like black or gray to us, even though one would imagine that an Intelligent Designer would have been able to endow us with the ability to see colors at sunset.
All of this neurobiology is adduced to a clear and powerful explanation of why and how certain kinds of art - centrally painting, especially the Impressionists and their master, Monet - work visually. In short, focused sections, she explains, for instance, how Monet achieved remarkable effects such as flowers that seem to sway in the breeze or water that seems to flow or why Ingres' stunning portraits are believable even though he often painted or drew his subjects' faces in far more detail than their bodies or clothes. Three chapters on depth perception effectively show how skilled artists use both artistic rechniques such as perspectival drawing and neurobiological concepts such as stereo vision to achieve depict three-dimensional scenes on a two-dimensional page or canvas. While 2-D depth is itself an illusion, many chapters also include one or more entertaining optical illusions which take advantage of our neurobiology - for instance, the sequential processing of our Where and What systems - to mess profoundly with your mind. (I was impressed by the experiences and the explanations of the perspectival illusion on page 102 and the "scillintiliating grid" illusion on page 56 and the endpapers.)(less)
This is a mind-bending book that blends excellent history of science with excellent history of art. The core of the book is examination of the origins...moreThis is a mind-bending book that blends excellent history of science with excellent history of art. The core of the book is examination of the origins and early use in visual art of optical perspective, the technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane. The book has a good account of the invention (or at least rediscovery) by the Florentine craftsman and architect Brunelleschi of perspective in 1425, when he created two works (both now lost) that were the first effective, rigorous, and theoretically sound uses of perspective since at least antiquity. The section on Brunelleschi were wonderful, not least because they placed the reader in early-Renaissance Florence. The idea - much less the historical fact - that perspective was invented defies common sense, but Edgerton shows that while everyone does see perspectivally, representing the world in perspective required a genius like Brunelleschi.
Edgerton goes on to describe - with somewhat less surety - Renaissance artists' use of perspective to make religious art seem more lifelike and therefore more powerful: a good perspectival painting could make the viewer feel that he or she was actually inside the space occupied by, say, the Madonna and Christ Child, or the crucified Christ. Edgerton goes even further than this, linking perspective in art to the development of the "perspective tube" - the device we call the telescope - and to the use of the telescope by Galileo to discover that the moon is actually lumpy, not smooth. Here, Edgerton is on firmer ground again: Galileo was an excellent artist, and was able to determine, based on his views of the moon in 1509, that the patterns of light and dark were actually sunlit and shadowed regions on the moon's surface - a realization he made because he understood perspectival effects - and because he could render objects - even lunar craters viewed through a telescope - with perspectival techniques.(less)
I wound up really liking A Man in Full, against my better judgment. I'd read Bonfire of the Vanities years ago, and enjoyed that, but had not read mor...moreI wound up really liking A Man in Full, against my better judgment. I'd read Bonfire of the Vanities years ago, and enjoyed that, but had not read more than a few of Wolfe's essays since. Here, Wolfe's politics color the whole story, but what a story - a sort of neo-Dickensian tale of real estate chicanery, race relations, generational divides, and class warfare, all set against the backdrop of Atlanta. It was very entertaining, and presents a fairly coherent vision of America in the 1990s.(less)
Like The Box, I was inspired to read this book by reading William Gibson's Spook Country. Pollak's book is compulsively readable, a travelogue of his...moreLike The Box, I was inspired to read this book by reading William Gibson's Spook Country. Pollak's book is compulsively readable, a travelogue of his journey from Hong Kong to New York on the containership Colombo Bay. The book is balanced evenly between Pollak's equally skillful descriptions of sailing on the behemoth ship (and getting to know its crew) and his fascinating excursions into related topics, from piracy and the primacy of the Strait of Malacca to the terrible conditions under which most merchant mariners work. His bit on how to describe the use of an anchor is especially wonderful (pp. 159-160). I can't remcommend this book enough.(less)
I picked this book up after reading William Gibson's brilliant Spook Country, in which a shipping container figures prominently. Levinson's book is an...moreI picked this book up after reading William Gibson's brilliant Spook Country, in which a shipping container figures prominently. Levinson's book is an excellent overview of the rise of the modern shipping-container industry, with American entrepreneur Malcom McLean at the center. Levinson is good at showing how "containerization" disrupted old shipping patterns and ports (the city of New York fared worst of all), and created the conditions for the fast, cheap international shipping that underpins globalization. (The chapter on the importance of the war in Vietnam to the emergence of trans-Pacific shipping is especially interesting.) If the book has one drawback, it's that there are no illustrations and just a few tables, even as Levinson - an economist - digs deep into quantitative data and technical matters that practically beg for graphics.(less)
An exceedingly interesting book, which I'm happy to finally have read. Gladwell's core ideas are interesting and even useful - in short, that unconsci...moreAn exceedingly interesting book, which I'm happy to finally have read. Gladwell's core ideas are interesting and even useful - in short, that unconscious decision-making (that is, "snap judgments" or, as Gladwell puts it, "thin-slicing") can be enormously useful - and his torrent of evidence is uniformly engaging.
But it seems to me that his brief for "thin-slicing" is misplaced, as almost all of the best "thin-slicers" in the book are also people who are operating on the basis of staggeringly deep experience: the art historian with a career's worth of knowledge about Greek statues, the Marine with a half-century of combat and leadership behind him, the cops who have spent years onthe streets.
In short, Gladwell claims that "thin-slicing" can work for everyone, while I think his evidence seems instead to suggest that it will work best in places where you already have enormous amounts of knowledge. Then, all you need to do - and this is the trick, because it's very hard - is to *not* use that knowledge consciously, but instead to let your subconscious process it and apply it to the situation at hand - in a blink.(less)