Briefly noted: Underground Airlines — Ben H. Winters

You may have seen the good reviews, but I gave up after 50 pages, many of which look like this:

Underground Airlines

The premise is clever—the Civil War is averted and slavery persists in four states up to the present day—but the writing is not. One wishes to read instead Elmore Leonard, who is a master of the kind of style attempted here. Almost every page is overwritten. Many of the pieces in Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliche apply here too.

Good books I read in 2016

A reader pointed out that I didn’t write a “best of 2016” post, which is correct, but “best of” strikes me wrong, so I’m going to write about good books that I happened to read in 2016 and that you should read too.

* The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis, probably the best book I read all year, except maybe for Blindsight, but that is so different that the two aren’t really comparable.

* Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen, another narrative nonfiction book, though this one emerged and escaped my notice in 2009.

* The Map and the Territory by Houellebecq, still weird and likely always weird; Houellebecq has his misses, especially The Possibility of an Island, but his hits are strong, weird, and different—with “different” too often meaning “bad,” but not in his case.

* Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, one of those amazing books worth re-reading whenever you can’t find a new book to read.

* The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is novelistic in detail and beautifully reported. I didn’t fully know where the music everyone listens to comes from and now I do.

I’ve been having trouble finding really good novels, though my tastes are idiosyncratic and I don’t have rules for what makes a good novel besides the tautological, “Be really good.” If you have suggestions drop me a line.

The most-visited post I wrote last year is “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

Links: Software, divorce from the practitioner’s perspective, problem cops, Vienna, and more!

* “Writing software is hard,” an important point often not understood by those outside the industry.

* Divorce lawyers explain that divorces are much more similar than different, and yes, they all know that “your ex is an asshole,” just like everyone else’s ex.

* Why some problem cops don’t lose their badges.

* How Vienna produced ideas that shaped the West.

* The Twin Prime Hero: Rags, riches, and fame in mathematics.

* Robin Hanson’s idea trade engagement. I feel bad that I can’t think of good ideas he should blog!

* How Watership Down was written.

* “When city retirement pays better than the job: One in four El Monte residents lives in poverty. Yet taxpayers pay a steep price to fund bonus pensions and other perks for city workers.” I try not to post outrage reads, yet sometimes I can’t resist.

* The red Solo cup is a marvel of modern engineering.

* Women Who Count: 3 Smart STEM Romances.

* On The Fever by Megan Abbott.

The Trespasser — Tana French

I don’t remember where I first learned about French, but “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” inspired me to read The Trespasser. The novel is not bad and if you like the genre you might dig it—it’s not offensively written—but halfway through one feels like nothing much has happened, the dead girl, Aislinn, remains a cipher, and maybe a bunch of stuff will add up to something but maybe it won’t. Comparisons to Gone Girl are not quite apt because in that novel something changes virtually every chapter, and around halfway through the big reveal occurs.

trespasserIn The Trespasser things meander to no particular end. From a marketing perspective the endless comparisons to Gone Girl makes sense, but from a narrative perspective they rarely do. Gone Girl does seem to break the narrative pattern in a way that’s difficult to repeat, and that may help explain why it is so read and still so good.

Still, reading a competently executed book is refreshing, and there are crisp descriptions like, “Breslin likes thinking he’s Mr. Indispensable; he’ll show up just as fast for a shitty domestic as he would for a skin-stripping serial killer, because he knows the poor victim is bollixed until he gets there to save the day.” Arguably the part of the sentence before the semicolon could be omitted, with the reader left to infer it, but one gets a sense of someone whose virtue is motivated by self-love more than caring for mankind. We also get a lot of standard detective-fiction patter, like “I didn’t use to be like this. I’ve always had a temper on me, but I’ve always kept it under control, no matter how hard I had to bite down.” Why are tempers always under control and not over control? What does control of a temper mean, versus a temper having control? The kinds of standardized language one finds in the novel never gets to those questions. It’s actually hard to find really characteristic quotes because The Trespasser doesn’t stray far enough from its genre:

The point is, this isn’t the telly, where cops are all blood brothers and anyone who gets on the wrong side of a cop ends up dead in a ditch while the rest of us lose the evidence. I don’t have any squad loyalty.

The writing is often good but not quite good enough to justify the plot. I still await “the next Gone Girl.”

A surprisingly large amount of the novel describes the bureaucracy of police departments (which is a surprisingly large amount of many contemporary detective novels and maybe novels set more generally in offices). Bureaucracy may be the characteristic fact of life. See also “Bartlebys All.”

The Second Avenue Subway, opening day

We have entirely too few epic engineering projects; to finally get to ride one is fun! Today the Second Avenue Subway, a century in the making, opened:

second avenue subway

The subway stops don’t feel like typical subway stops because they lack the grime that usually marks them in the same way cold marks the winter solstice.

second avenue subway 2

The active part of this round of subway construction began in 2007; while the subway should’ve opened years ago, it is nice to see it open at all. One gets a sense of the sublime from epic engineering works, and, as Zero to One argues, we’ve collectively lost faith in our ability to build big things and tackle serious problems. The new subway is evidence to the contrary.

Still, one hopes the next phase of the line goes better. Matt Yglesias explains some of this phase’s problems in “NYC’s brand new subway is the most expensive in the world — that’s a problem: The tragedy of the Second Avenue Subway.” On a per-mile basis the Second Avenue Subway is the by far the most expensive subway in the world, and it’s by far more expensive than similar projects in crowded first-world cities like London, Paris, and Tokyo. We’re not getting much bang-for-the-buck and that needs to change.

New York has so far been “Slow to Embrace Approach That Streamlines Building Projects.” Management and labor have been eagerly lining each other’s pockets. That’s particularly unfortunate because the infrastructure is desperately needed and has been desperately needed for decades if not longer.

Second Avenue Subway 3

To be sure, the stations are much more functional than most others, and their mezzanine levels impress. One wishes, however, for fewer mezzanines and more total stations.

Second Avenue Subway selfie art

As you can see above, someone thought through the selfie-friendly art that lines the stations.

Today is still a historic occasion and one does not so often get the chance to participate directly and obviously in history. It may be churlish to note this, but my train spent five to ten minutes waiting due to “train traffic ahead of us” between 63rd Street and 72nd Street. Some things may be new but others are too familiar.

%d bloggers like this: