Monday, April 18, 2016

A trio of book reviews: Longitude, Sub-Mariner & Welsh castles

Quick thoughts on some books I finished recently...

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
I liked Longitude well enough; it's a quick and worthwhile read for those who are interested in history. I learned a good bit about clock-making and astronomy, and it also reinforced the idea, true throughout all history, that politics, power and greed stand as barriers to science, innovation and progress.

Strangely, while this is about as short as a non-fiction book gets (about 60,000 words), it felt a bit redundant and padded at times. Maybe the tale would have been best served as a long-form magazine article. Richard Preston's "The Mountains of Pi" and Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" aren't any lesser accomplishments because they were only magazine articles.

Another note: I was disappointed that Sobel portrayed some early anecdotes about Clowdisley Shovell [as Sobel spells his name] and the 1707 sea tragedy involving his fleet as fact, when there remains much mystery and difference of opinion regarding precisely how the tragedy unfolded. The liberties that Sobel took with that early material made me wonder if later details, especially regarding individuals and motives, were tweaked to suit the narrative.

All that said, I recommend this book, especially if you'd like to learn a bit about the history of sea navigation and the concept of longitude.
Marvel Masterworks: The Sub-Mariner, Vol. 1
This is probably just for die-hard fans. Late Silver/Early Bronze is my favorite era of Marvel comics. These Imperius Rex tales get a little repetitive, though. Sub-Mariner gets either his woman or his kingdom stolen from him, and then goes ballistic in the most alpha-male way possible. His narcissism and failure to ever approach a problem at an intellectual level gets a little tiresome by the end of the volume, especially given how many "misunderstandings" drive the plot.

Also, for someone who says he wants peace between humans and Atlantis, Sub-Mariner is never willing to try the "have an actual conversation" approach with the land-lubbers for more than a single panel before the fists start flying. Finally, Lady Dorma probably represents the worst of the female stereotypes foisted upon comics readers of this era. She is nothing other than the star of The Perils of Pauline, waiting for Sub-Mariner to rescue her and then grant her absolution for sins she didn't even commit.

I will say, though, that the inclusion of the Marvel Comics #1 Sub-Mariner tale from 1939 is a nice treat to start the book. I might be more interested in going back and checking out those early Golden Age tales before diving into (no pun intended) more mid-1960s solo adventures of Namor.
Welsh Castles, Gardens & Ancient Houses by Jeanette Dixon
This short book is, at least, more readable than Welsh Ancient Industries and Handicrafts, the previous volume I tackled in the 1970s Viewing Wales Series. But it's still a clunker. The author of this one, Jeanette Dixon, weaves in a few juicy historical anecdotes about Wales' many castles and fortresses. But it's still far too dry, even for a 32-page booklet with eight pages of pictures.

And the grammar and punctuation are maddeningly bad. The only defense I might be willing to permit is that the book was perhaps translated from Welsh to English by someone for whom English was not their first language.

If Welsh castles truly have a colorful and compelling history (and I'm sure they do), you wouldn't know it from this book. Nearly every short section boils down to this: Castle X was built in XXXX, changed hands in XXXX, and was then captured by Owain Glyndŵr, who held possession of it for X years.

Glyndŵr and his men got around Wales quite well, it turns out.

As for the summary of Welsh gardens seemingly promised by the book's title, forget it. Dixon pretty much gave up at end and offered only a cursory list of garden locations, with no history whatsoever. I guess Glyndŵr never conquered those.

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