Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sunday Reviews

From the Times

Three reviews caught my eye this morning. The first is a review of a biography of Samuel de Champlain, titled "Champlain's Dream" and written by David Hackett Fischer:
(Fischer's) thesis in “Champlain’s Dream,” which these days might be considered daring, is that Champlain was an admirable, heroic figure — a stance that runs counter to the recent trend in historiography to debunk and demean most “dead white males,” especially those who were explorers and settlers. Many of them richly deserve this opprobrium for slaughtering and otherwise mistreating the indigenous peoples they encountered. But Champlain was different. He was more interested in learning from and cooperating with Indians than in exploiting them. He treated most of those he met with “dignity, forbearance and respect,” and, Fischer writes, they largely reciprocated: “He had a straight-up soldier’s manner, and Indian warriors genuinely liked and respected him.”
Next is a review of Miriam Toews's new novel, "The Flying Troutmans." The reviewer, Tom De Haven, didn't care much for it:
Finally, nothing about “The Flying Troutmans” feels authentic, not the characters and not their psychology, and certainly not the American landscape they blast through, leaving dust in the slipstream, but very little else.
Last is a review from the business pages of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, "The Outliers." It sounds to me as if the problem's with Gladwell's theories are amplified in his latest:
By way of equalizing the field, Mr. Gladwell suggests grouping school classes and youth sports leagues by birth months. “We cling to the idea,” he writes, “that success is a simple function of individual merit.” We? Who actually thinks that way? Not the parents holding their late-month-born children back a year before they enter kindergarten. Not those involved in wrestling or other sports that group individuals by weight.

If some points border on the obvious, others seem a stretch. Asian children’s high scores at math, Mr. Gladwell would have us believe, derive from work in rice paddies. Never mind that few of the test takers or their urban parents in Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo have ever practiced wet-rice agriculture. Noting that math test scores correlate with how long students will sit for any kind of exam, Mr. Gladwell points to an Asian culture of doggedness, which he attributes to cultural legacies of rice cultivation. (Paddies require constant effort.)

Here as elsewhere, Mr. Gladwell promotes a cultural explanation for success no matter how indirect the causal mechanisms.
It'll be interesting to see if book buyers think the same.


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