The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

by Herman Wouk

I wanted to revisit this classic in part because I have Wouk’s memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, on my stack. In addition, I’ve been struggling all summer (along with Morgan Macri) against the problems of telling a story that requires a large cast, and of course this was Wouk’s specialty.

I remember my surprise on my first reading how the book is much larger than the (wonderful) movie, and how it is far more interested in Ensign Keith than was the film. Queeg, of course, is wonderfully drawn, and it’s interesting that Wouk did not return to that theme in The Winds Of War or The Hope.

I walked out of my office yesterday to find a sign, advertising a reading that very night at the Watertown Free Public Library. It’s a nice library. It has Harriet Homer’s sculpting tools, and some nice wood panelling in the old part of the building. They have public meeting rooms.

Tonight, the library was featuring a Nazi.

That’s not just my opinion. The Forward has an essay specifically about him: “The Jewish Left Needs To Call Out Real Anti-Semites.” The Daily Beast headlined him as “ Jew-Hater.” Medium has an entire guide for organizations like my library: “Oops: Your Guest Is A Nazi,” showing this fellow posing with his new book on the platform of Berlin-Wannsee — the suburb where, you will recall, his predecessors had a pleasant weekend retreat where they finally solved the Jewish Problem.

I could go on.

Somehow, this is now acceptable in the US. It’s just an opinion. Yes, it’s an opinion that I ought to be boiled down into soap — but hey! Free speech!

The trustees of the Watertown Free Public Library should be ashamed of themselves. The director should resign.

by Helene Tursten

A Diane Greco recommendation, in honor of Women In Translation Month. At a small private hospital in Goteborg, the power is suddenly cut and the emergency generator disabled. A nurse is found to have been strangled, a patient dies during the power outage, and one of the senior nurses is certain that she saw the hospital ghost, a nurse who committed suicide in the attic in 1945. This highly-competent police procedural focuses on a puzzling crime but is at its best when it spares a moment for its protagonist’s family problems.

by Maomi Novik

Her Majesty’s Dragon Temeraire, having concluded his diplomacy in China, is dispatched to the Ottoman Court in order to pick up some extremely important dragon eggs. Inevitably, troubles (and Napoleon’s forces) interfere.

Aug 17 31 2017

Tinderbox 7.2

Tinderbox 7.2

Tinderbox 7.2 is now available.

The big effort behind this new release is far behind the scenes. Tinderbox documents help organize themselves: they follow your rules and enforce your constraints, and they do this without interrupting you. That’s tricky; we’ve worked hard to make sure different parts of Tinderbox don’t tread on each other’s toes.

There’s plenty of stuff you can see, too. Markdown support for those who want it, with built-in preview and with hooks for adding your own markup engine. (LaTeX anyone?). Even nicer typography, with better superscripts and subscripts. Tinderbox 7 offers lots of new import options like BibDesk, and improved import from plenty of old favorites including calendar and email programs.

As always, updates are free if you’ve purchased or upgraded in the past year, and just $98 from any previous version of Tinderbox. (It’s always special fun to hear from people who are upgrading from 2002’s Tinderbox 1!) No need to worry about your old codes or anything; we’ll have your records. Order here.

by Theda Skocpol

An extremely interesting and detailed look at vanished American institutions that once grounded the nation’s political life. Mason, Odd Fellows, Elks, the NAACP: until quite recently, these formed the center of much life in America’s towns and cities. Local organizations had officers, competition for honors was keen, and these organizations were designed to ensure that anyone, rich or poor, could rise to office and could be sent to represent their local at state and national conventions.

The center of my town is filled with relics of these structures: Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias. Many local organizations didn’t accept many (or any) Jews or Black people, so parallel organizations were created for Blacks and Jews.

They had parties, ceremonies, rituals. They had big dinners. They sponsored lectures. They got together and offered insurance policies; indeed, some survive as insurance companies long after the ceremonies and rituals have withered. But Skocpol argues convincingly that these were places where old folks and young people, workers and capitalists could all gather on a fairly equal basis, where mayors and bricklayers could discuss the issues of the day on an even footing, and maybe you’d wind up sending the bricklayer to Washington to tell your Senator just what your town was thinking.

After the War, this world was replaced in politics by professional lobbying organizations, and its place in civic life was taken by television.

Our sad little Democratic City Committee holds its meetings in the husk of one of these organizations, an Irish-American club with a wall of yellowing photos of the jovial old (and white) Irishmen who have been its president, a policy that forbids women from membership, and two separate bars in its small headquarters. The local Democrats still think, in their heart, that they’re another social club or a subcommittee of the Irish-American, a place for old people to get together a couple of times a year and talk about their grade-school teachers and my, how the world has changed.

Aug 17 28 2017

The Circle

by Sara B. Elfgren

An intriguing story that, in essence, takes the American YA formula of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and translates it to Sweden. We have no Chosen One (though everyone expects one): we have a group. They are all essential to the survival of the world, but they only learn this fact after they learn they are chosen, and by then one of them is already dead. The collectivization of the hero is schematic at heart, but Elfren hides that capably by supplying each of her heroines with a plausible and interesting background. Above all, the Chosen Ones don’t like each other, but they recognize that they might need to put all that aside, at least until the world is saved.

Aug 17 25 2017

Chemistry

by Weike Wang

An interesting novel about a graduate student in the department where I earned my degree. Some of the details are excellent; at one point, the narrator was describing the difficult relationship between graduate students and demanding advisors and I found myself thinking, “that sounds just like ____,” an advisor who was fairly notorious on this score. A paragraph later, I realized that she had ______ specifically in mind.

What is missing here, I think, is the love for science that’s almost certain to be shared by anyone who is likely to find themselves in that particular field at that particular school. Wang’s narrator doesn’t quite have that. To be fair, her boyfriend recognizes that, and so, eventually, does her advisor; they just don’t know what to do with that knowledge. Neither does the narrator.

It has not yet been widely recognized, but I believe Charlottesville represents an epoch in this presidential administration, and quite possibly in the history of this country.

In Charlottesville, a private, heavily-armed, uniformed militia patrolled the streets, unmolested by police. Demonstrators called for the extermination of the Jews. Heather Heyer was murdered because she opposed them. And the president said there had been violence “on many sides.”

For seventy years, we have debated whether or not it could happen here. That debate is over. It has happened here.

It’s not just the president. In our little city of Malden, one of the candidates for City Council insists that he is completely even-handed in his view of the Boston rally in the wake of Charlottesville, expressing no preference for either the fascists or the 40,000 Bostonians who turned out to shame them. After protracted discussion, he wrote on his Facebook page that he had “disavowed Nazism,” though, as best I have been able to discover, he has not actually done so. (This delightful fellow is considered a moderate centrist in his three-way race.).

The question before us is no longer how to prevent fascism: the question is how to face it, stop it, and end it.

Aug 17 23 2017

Throne of Jade

by Naomi Novik

Novik was one of the Guests of Honor at Readercon this year, and gave a fascinating interview on her migration from fan fiction to novels. Writing slash sex scenes, she explained, was good practice for dragon-borne aerial combat; you have to keep track of what’s where, and you can’t fall back on pronouns (because they’re all the same) or props (because nobody’s wearing clothes).

This is the second volume of Novik’s series about Temeraire, which here is not just the second-rate of Trafalgar fame but also a dragon, one of exceptional size and intelligence, captured from a French frigate and impressed into the royal Air Force. The series is a tribute to Patrick O’Brian’s great Aubrey-Maturin stories and captures some of their language and verve, though Novik is less formally adventurous and tends to spell out combat scenes that O’Brian would simply omit.

No one shares O’Brian’s facility with archaic nautical terms, but Novik sometimes gets badly tangled up; for example, in her dragon transport Allegiance she describes the ship’s dragon deck

“that flowed out at the front of the ship, stretching from the foremast forward to the bow.”

Sailors repeatedly descend from the dragondeck to the quarterdeck, but a quarterdeck by definition is a partial deck at the stern. Dragons are heavy — Temeraire needs to take special care not to overset the ship when taking off or going for a swim — which makes the naval architecture difficult and perhaps impossible. If dragons are that big and your ship is in trimmed with dragons, she’s going to be badly down by the stern when the enemy shows up and the dragons take off.

Still, it’s good fun, and dragons at sea have lots to talk about.

Aug 17 20 2017

The March

50 Nazis. 40,000 protestors.

They deserve to be shamed, and we shamed them.They deserve scorn, and we scorned them. But they also deserve to be safe, so we escorted them when they wanted to go home.

At one point, I was standing next to a young woman with stars painted on her cheeks. “It seems like we do this every week,” she said. But before last November, it had been a long, long time. At one point, I was walking along with a young reporter from the Associated Press. She climbed over a Jersey barrier: no problem. I followed; my joints protested, my muscles strained, and five bystanders immediately leapt to assist. Oh dear.

A very talented fellow with a straw hat, a New England beard and an Omega button in his straw hat reminded me how effective a calm voice can be when things begin to get out of hand. Once, for example, a trans fellow got into a very heated argument with an antifa kid wearing a black bandanna: “Why are you hiding behind a mask when we cannot? You can suck my trans dick!” It threatened for a time to get crazy — and they were, after all, on the same side.

One guy in a red hat was surrounding by a bunch of people shouting “Shame!” He started to argue — I couldn’t hear — and in response a woman got right up into his face: “My body: my choice.” Good theater. After a time, though, the point has been made: it was time for him to go, and we got him safely to the police barrier where they checked him thoroughly and let him inside.

At one point, I was standing by a lonely woman whose sign called on her fellow Republicans to turn away from Trump. Not twenty yards away, the American Community Party was urging, basically, the same thing. The logical of the moment was not lost on any of us.

What good I did, though, I think mostly came from work a few of us did to help Nazis get into their little confab and then out again. They were shouted at: that was right and proper. They were denounced: what else can they expect? They were scorned. But peace and justice and the American way require that they not be assaulted, and sometimes what a moment needs is an old, dorky fellow reminded people to take a step back.


The March

The Boston Police and the many cooperating departments were mostly sensible. During the demonstration, their visible presence was limited to the bicycle team, which sent the right message: “We’re the Scandihoovian police today; we have smiles and bicycles and short pants, pony tails and some traffic rules. Do not hit us.”

Afterward, the powers that be lost their bearings. Some of the police took out their batons, which was neither necessary nor productive. Worse, the police told nobody what they wanted to do; this meant, for example, that they spent fifteen minutes pushing people around and getting them worked up, when all they wanted to do is turn a van around. This went on for a very long time, with a huge crowd in the middle of the street; if there were effective provisions against a copycat running through a blockade and ramming into the crowd, I didn’t see them.

There was one fellow in black tactical gear, truncheon at the ready. His beard was grizzled; he must have been sixty years old. He was, generously, 5'6. I very much wanted to ask him, “aren’t you a little short to be a storm trooper?”

A few people wanted to throw water bottles; I was not alone in urging people to put a lid on that right fast. When the police vans with the departing Nazis finally pulled out, a bunch of people started to throw stuff. “Shit!” I shouted, before I figured out that there was only one water bottle and everyone else was throwing flowers. OK: I guess we can live with flowers.

The crowd was on the side of the police — at least, it had been on their side when they were the bicycle police, some of them with a flower in their lapel. When you have helmeted black knights waving truncheons around for no apparent reason while protecting racists and fascists, well, then the situation begins to read differently.

by Austin Wright

Susan’s husband is away at a conference, where he is entertaining a prestigious job offer that Susan doesn’t welcome, and where Susan’s husband may or may not be entertaining his young secretary, with whom he is (supposedly) no longer having an affair. A box comes in the mail, containing the manuscript of a thriller by Susan’s first husband.

This novel takes the play-within-a-play to its logical extreme; the interior thriller is fully fleshed out, is very fine indeed, and comes with Susan’s own interesting critical commentary.

Emily Short reviews Chris Crawford’s new edition of Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling.

by David Mamet

November is a cute little satire about an incredibly bad president who is running for reelection and who threatens to pardon every fucking turkey in the whole fucking country if the Turkey Lobby doesn't pony up. Events overtook the play, obviously.

Race is a nifty little legal thriller.

The Anarchist, though, is the real gem here, a two-hander in which an old, retiring prison warden has her last of many interviews with her prize pupil, a woman who, many years ago, robbed and killed for social justice. It’s a brilliant play.

by Helene Tursten

A Diane Greco recommendation, in honor of Women In Translation Month. At a small private hospital in Goteborg, the power is suddenly cut and the emergency generator disabled. A nurse is found to have been strangled, a patient dies during the power outage, and one of the senior nurses is certain that she saw the hospital ghost, a nurse who committed suicide in the attic in 1945. This highly-competent police procedural focuses on a puzzling crime but is at its best when it spares a moment for its protagonist’s family problems.