The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Recent Reading

Although it seems to me that just about all I do is read things (and form half-baked opinions about them,) the list of books I've read lately isn't as long as it has sometimes been. One reason is that I don't tend to count things I read on-line, since they're somehow insubstantial. Another factor is that I've had a couple of fairly weighty tomes to get through. And, for methodological research purposes, I re-read the entire output of a well-known mystery writer. Anyway, here are a few entries, restricted to a) actual books, b) books I hadn't read previously, and c) those with something useful to be said about them.
  • The Black Hawk War of 1832, Patrick J. Jung. A while back, I summarized another book about an obscure Indian/Indian/European conflict, The Fox Wars. Those events, if you recall, ended up with the Fox Indians fleeing from Wisconsin, and eventually getting pushed off to the western edge of Illinois and over the river into what we would now call Iowa. Their friends the Sauk Tribe, were already there.

    All that was early on, and other things (including the American Revolution and the now two-hundred-year-old War of 1812 intervened. But by the 1830s, America was pushing right up to the Mississippi and beyond, and the Sauk and what was left of the Fox people were getting the shaft again, since they were caught between the Yankees on the east and several groups of traditional native enemies on the west and north.

    To make a long story short, an individual named Black Hawk refused, under arms, to cooperate with seizure of his ancestral village. Although it wasn't much of a war, from a shooting standpoint, it was a disastrous defeat for Black Hawk and his folks, and did a great deal to convince the remaining mid-western Indians that whatever else they did, fighting the whities was not a success-oriented strategy. Since opening casinos was not yet in the cards, they were forced to acquiesce in removal to reservations, rampant missionarism, and (let's just come right out and say it) strong drink.

    This isn't a book you'll enjoy, necessarily, but it fills in another chapter in the long history of abominable behavior on the part of just about everyone which seems to be a fascination of mine.

  • Ghosts of Empire, Kwasi Kwarteng. This is a splendid book, chatty and full of gossip, that addresses the horrific consequences of Britain's Empire, as seen by a Cambridge-educated gentleman of Ghanaian parentage, now a conservative member of parliament. His thesis is that the empire was less an empire than a work-relief program for the sons of clergymen, and that the worst ills (at least of the ones he takes up) were the result of some one, lone eccentric governor, making a bad decision and having no effective supervision to correct him. It's the Oswald-acted-alone theory of empire, and he makes a strong case for it, while introducing you along the way to a raft of wild and wacky imperialists.

  • The Table Comes First, Adam Gopnik. Oh dear, oh dear. This is an astonishing book, if only in the author's ability to be so absolutely right or wrong, with no in-between, on any given page. For the defense: he doesn't like post-modernists; he doesn't buy Safron Foer's idiocy about vegetarianism; and you do get the sense that, when he isn't in some way agonizing over it, Gopnik really does like food. The prosecution offers in rebuttal sentences like this one: "In life, as on the plate, there is a constant interchange between fashion and value, between 'surface' and 'substance' -- and taste is what carries the charge between them." Utter nonsense, and something that a man who really cooked, day in and day out and shopped for the ingredients and kept the cellar stocked, and cared about the goddam table (like in the title of his book) would never, ever say or think.

    Part of the problem with Gopnik is that along the way, he caught philosophy and caught a particularly nasty form of it, including Thorstein Veblen and Adam Smith and even, saints preserve us, Rousseau ("That mumping villain," P. O'Brian). The chapters in which he attempts to beat their ideas, which were as far removed from his subject as it's possible to be -- imagine any of the classical philosophers caring a whit about a food writer and his angst regarding the fate of French cooking, for God's sake -- are the second-least readable in the book. The absolutely least readable are the cloying "E-mails" to the long-dead English food writer, Elizabeth Pennell. If he'd been texting her pictures of his Anthony Wiener, it couldn't have been less attractive.

    Still, the book has some useful historical content. The discussion of the origin of restaurants and some of the debunking of food trends and food trendies is worth the time. Finally, though, it's going back on my shelf, along with a Marcella Hazen cookbook (Gopnik thinks Hazen is cool) and other silly productions of the food writing biz.
And that, leaving out a lot of other things that flowed under the bridge but weren't really reading in the haute sense of the word, is about it for the last couple of months.

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