Monday, August 16, 2010

Still Life: adventures in taxidermy

by Melissa Milgrom

I was going to complain about finding "Bilboa" where it should have said "Bilbao," but it's been too long since I read this book for me to muster the necessary indignation, or to recall why this particular mistake was the straw that broke my back, or if it was emblematic of some steadier thread of idiocy.

Thinking about it now, I just recall an informative, entertaining and reasonably well written book about the history of taxidermy (curiosity cabinets, natural history museums, etc.) and the contemporary culture of artistic animal preservation. I didn't care much for the chapter about the woman who does dead animals for Damien Hirst, mostly because I think he's a hack; the woman in question is actually quite an interesting character in her way. The book presents a fair number of additional oddballs and plenty of bizarre historical details. (If you happen to be at an estate sale and see a diorama of stuffed kittens in an old-fashioned schoolroom, or some similar freakishness, buy it for me and I'll pay you back!)

Not a great book, but solid. If you read voraciously, go for it. If you're only going to read a few books this year, you can do better.

Nurtureshock: new thinking about children

by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

This is absolutely not a parenting book. There's plenty in it to interest parents (and a big notes and references section to point the way to more details), but it's probably more interesting for someone not in the midst of raising a child. I say this because the book is a whirlwind tour of the most intriguing tidbits culled from recent scholarship on child development and psychology. Although thoroughly researched, it's quite superficial and kind of sensationalistic, so it might make parents freak out and feel overwhelmed.

Which is ironic, since the authors opine in the introduction that news media tend to present current research and discoveries as infotainment and fail to provide sufficient context or follow up. They also make a big deal about the false assumptions and misleading instincts we adults have about child psychology and neurological development and learning, etc. Seeing through or beyond those prejudices was the key to most of the "new thinking" presented in the book, they say. Because they're presenting so many stunning insights so rapidly and shallowly, it would be all to easy to forget their caveats and leap to unfounded conclusions, turning these seemingly counter-intuitive ideas into the new false assumptions. It's not a huge criticism, in the end, because I found the book enjoyable, interesting and easy to read. Ultimately, I think, it's down to the fact that the book is more a collection of articles (they're magazine writers by trade), and in any case written for an educated but not necessarily statistically savvy or scientifically inclined audience.

Anyway, a few morsels to whet your appetite: praise can backfire, lying is a sign of intelligence (kids) and respect (teens), educational television programs can teach more bad lessons than good, and kids who seem "gifted" at 3 are quite likely to be ordinary five years later.

Bleak House

by Charles Dickens

Wow-wow-wow-wow-WOW! I can't believe how good this book is. I've read some other Dickens, including the obligatory A Tale of Two Cities in high school, but I wasn't able truly to appreciate the genius of Dickens until adulthood.

I think it's important to want to read Dickens, because if you don't, and you read it lazily or quickly or superficially — the way I did most of the books I read for high school, and even college — you miss so much just in the simple facts of the plot, let alone the more intricate details. I mean, how did I manage to "read" every single word in A Tale of Two Cities and then immediately afterward fail to recognize names of characters or major plot points? Sloppy, careless reading, that's how.

Now that I'm older and I have more patience, I'm not only able but also enjoy being able to read closely and to savor the challenge of Victorian grammar and circuitous tact. The perfect example, one that I shared with several people while still reading this book, is when one of the characters dies of spontaneous combustion: if you weren't paying attention, you could breeze right through the four-sentence paragraph explaining it and only realize half a page later that something important happened that you totally missed. It's an important event in terms of the plot, but also by its very nature — spontaneous freakin' combustion! — and yet Dickens' description seems restrained and ambiguous to a modern reader accustomed to straightforward language and artless fiction.

Like most of Dickens' novels, Bleak House is a social critique (lambasting, in this case, the legal system), but it's also a suspenseful mystery and a love story (or several love stories, technically). It's also widely regarded as Dickens' most mature work, whatever that's supposed to mean. After reading the novel, I read both the introduction to this edition and the appendicized G.K. Chesterton intro to an earlier addition. Both agreed about the supposed maturity of the work, but for rather different reasons. Either way, this is one gee-dee fantastic book. Two plot twists made me gasp out loud, and at several points I had to cover the pages to stop myself from skipping ahead — it's that good. (Tempting to put it in the Top 10...)