A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: The Lost Art of Reading, David L. Ulin

Ulin's long essay in book form (I'll estimate it's about 40,000 words) makes some good points about reading in the age of Twitter and texting and the pull of near-constant connectedness, and I certainly agree with his claim that what one might call "traditional" reading (that done with a paper book, not a device that can "do things," like look up words, log on to Facebook, or check e-mail) is important for the ways it cultivates and develops deep thinking and long attention spans. I was heartened that he does not cast the internet and e-readers and all things digital as the Devil, as some of conservative mind on this subject do, because I think doing so is unconscionably shortsighted and unhelpful. In one of the most interesting parts of the essay, Ulin references studies that show how internet usage actually changes our brains and discusses the likelihood that the initial rise of reading did so as well. There's no question that we're living at a cusp; we're changing ourselves, and we know we're doing it.

But for all of the good points and the interesting bits, The Lost Art of Reading is somehow unsatisfying in the end. I often felt as if Ulin were wandering away from his thesis, and while wandering can often be quite fruitful in an essay, sometimes he just didn't quite get anywhere useful. And while there were many moments in the text where I nodded and made little checks of agreement in the margin, there were also many places he didn't go that I thought the essay begged to get to. For example, he talks about how distracting hyperlinks can be to a reader of a digital text and discusses how this fragments one's reading but treats this as if it were a new experience in the digital age without making any reference to the long-familiar and (to my mind anyway) quite similar experience of reading a paper book that is densely footnoted. I also would have liked to have seen a fuller discussion of how "traditional" reading does that which other activities cannot do. Ulin calls literature a "voice of pure expression" (25), and makes a case for the act of reading as training for the kind of critical thinking necessary for anyone who hopes to engage in or understand political discourse. He seems to imply that that these things require "traditional" reading, but does not really explore why. Perhaps I am asking too much of this essay, perhaps I am asking it to do things it did not set out to do. But Ulin has jumped into turbulent waters here, and, while I agree with his conclusions, I'm not sure he's done enough to keep them afloat.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: The Vesuvius Club, Mark Gatiss

If Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle somehow had a baby, and then sent it off to be raised by Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe, it might have grown up to be Lucifer Box, the hero of Mark Gatiss's The Vesuvius Club.   Box is an Edwardian-era secret agent, who, when he's not off saving the Realm, is a painter and a much- sought-after guest at all the best parties.  Box narrates his own story, and the result is irreverent, witty, knowing, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.  Many reviews of the novel toss around the word "pastiche," and that's fair--it's impossible not to think of James Bond, of Sherlock Holmes, even of Bertie Wooster and maybe Edward Gorey while reading--but Gatiss is doing something of his own, too.  Box is unapologetically bisexual and from there stems some of what is most interesting about the book; in their review of The Vesuvius Club, The Times Literary Supplement says that Box is "revealed to be bisexual" at the midpoint of the story.  I'd say rather that, if you've been paying attention, he is gleefully affirmed to be bisexual at the midpoint of the story.  Only a few of the other characters in the book know this about Box (it is early twentieth century England, after all), but between Box-as-narrator and the reader, his bisexuality is treated as a perhaps slightly-shocking-fact at first, but never as something shameful, dirty, or prurient (or at least not any more prurient than anything else--the whole book is delightfully nudge-nudge-wink-wink).  It is then taken as given, and Box's sexual interest in valet Charlie is treated as no more remarkable than his sexual interest in drawing-student Bella.  And that, itself, I think, is remarkable, even (especially?) today.  The novel is not about Box's bisexuality, and in not being about that, somehow it becomes about just that.  And I love it for it.

I suppose I should say something about the plot--the novel is a mystery story, and the plot does trip along.  Lots of fairly ridiculous incidents, competently written action, and it all hangs together well enough in the end.  But really it's about the humor, the wit, and the pastiche.  And a certain amount of (somewhat surprising) heart.  It's clear that Gatiss had a brilliant time writing this, and if you are in any way inclined toward liking The Vesuvius Club that delight will pass over into your reading experience.  That being said, this book is probably not for everyone.  There's an element of the send-up here, of going over-the-top, of taking something to such heights of badness that it becomes irresistibly good, and if that's not your thing, this may read flat.  But.  If you like that sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing you will like.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.