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

Shopgirl
Steve Martin

A pleasant, gently, and nicely observed little vignette about a quiet young woman who, in her 20's, grows up. Martin is best when teasing out the humor in small confrontations -- a Japanese tourist at the glove counter at closing time, a fashion-counter diva who sets out to lure away a rival's date and winds up with the wrong guy. A pleasant and diverting confection from a celebrity writer who, despite his celebrity, has real talent.

October 14, 2003 (permalink)


A fine, though perhaps overambitious, historical novel set in three terrible times: the collapse of the Western empire, the Black Death, and Occupied France. Pears's portrayal of the last Roman philosopher as he tries to salvage some fragment of civilization is perhaps the most convincing picture of the Dark Ages I've seen. Pears reaches for an extraordinarily complex structure with all sorts of complex resonances between times. Occasionally, the results seem precious but on the whole it's extraordinarily well done.

September 30, 2003 (permalink)


Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams
Ton DeMarco and Timothy Lister

Highly regarded -- Joel Spolsky loves this book -- and nicely written, this management guide proposes a new approach to building and managing development teams. DeMarco and Lister place great value on teams and on the importance of promoting good teamwork. They also understand the costs of minor savings: bad office space makes people less effective, and people are very expensive. Peopleware likes offices with doors and windows -- even shared offices. Peopleware despises PA systems.

As with many business books, the evidence is anecdotal and the authors tend to throw claims around rather loosely: "Someone who can help a project to jell is worth two people who just do the work."

June 16, 2003 (permalink)


Death By Hollywood
Steven Bochco

Exactly what you'd expect in a first novel from the creator of Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. Bochco has a superb sense of what we want to know about the inside of secret societies -- the station or the studio, big difference. He's got a great knack for plotting. And he's got a terrible weakness for characters who are esoteric (Belker) and a fondness for characters and subplots that are so far beyond the pale that they twist everything in the scene out of shape (Howard Hunter). The book has too many blow jobs and too little description, but it's a fine first outing.

If he wants, Bochco could easily build a successful mystery series, and though Death By Hollywood might not be the obvious starting point, it could be done. It's not clear why, with access to the television audience, he'd want to pursue this, but I rather hope he does.

September 26, 2003 (permalink)


The Hundred Days
Patrick O'Brian

For those who think people don't read like they used to, the success of Patrick O'Brian's wonderful Aubrey-Maturin novels must be inexplicable. Twenty volumes of highly technical (but delightful) prose. I'm doling out the last previous volumes as a special treat; now that my sister is out of the hospital, I thought it was time.

December 23, 2012 (permalink)


The Thai Amulet
Lyn Hamilton

Review forthcoming in The Drood Review. A good idea for a mystery, piled on top of another good idea, piled on top of an idea that strikes me as less good but might, in other hands, have worked. The resulting pile of ideas, however, doesn't.

September 23, 2003 (permalink)


This sparkling biography covers the Diary years, what happened before, and what came after, with equal zest and delight. Whatever Pepys did, he enjoyed, and Tomalin enjoys Pepys and sometimes matches his love of the telling detail.

September 13, 2003 (permalink)


Revenge
Stephen Fry

A dazzling stunt. Fry takes The Count of Monte Cristo and sets it in immaculately modern dress. Our hero, son of a Tory minister, is headed for Oxford, marriage to the beautiful and talented Portia, and a brilliant career. It all goes very wrong, and ultimately he sees his way through. The novel never seems archaic, each step is thoroughly thought through, and everything in this superficially-implausible tale is told with such clarity and imagination that we readily believe it all.

September 4, 2003 (permalink)


The first sentence of this book is a marvel: "This book is the first full-scale study of libraries in the ancient world."

Think about that. People have been talking about libraries since there were libraries. People have been talking about Ancient Libraries since the Renaissance -- and the ancients talked about them, too. Nobody's written a book, collecting what we know, Until now.

I miss working in a field where, if someone makes a claim like this, you can take it to the bank.

Here, neatly laid out for us, is everything we know about libraries West of the Ganges and East of the Ocean, from the invention of writing to the development of the Christian monastery. Casson's volume is compact, written with simplicity, directness, and charm. It's got the traditional anxiety about footnotes -- classicists are going to love hypertextual writing once they get the hang of it -- and the appendices are therefore too short for amateurs like me, who don't have ready access to a first class library and to the four modern (and two ancient) languages without which, we were taught, one never leaves the house.

August 25, 2003 (permalink)


The Kappa Child
Hiromi Goto

Greatly praised at Readercon, and justly so, this story of a strange family of Japanese immigrants struggling to settle in the arid prairie of Western Canada in a Canadian American Gods, looking East where Gaiman looked to the mysteries of Old Europe. This is a more writerly book than Gaiman's, though I am not quite certain that it is a better one, It is, in any case, a very fine (and very strange) novel.

July 31, 2012 (permalink)


London Walks, vol. 2
Andrew White, ed.

This anthology of discursive walks -- essays wrapped around the premise that you're reading them as you follow an itinerary through a London neighborhood -- is an intriguing idea.

Finding myself at Goodge Street and finding my hotel unprepared, I spent a few hours with novelist Bonnie Greer following in the footsteps of Rimbaud. Though Rimbaud is not generally my cup of tea, I went lots of places I'd never been, some of them famous, some obscure, one of them recently disappeared beneath new construction. I saw places where Marx had been, and the Rossetti's, and Louis Armstrong (to whom "muggles" referred to marijuana), and a lot of other interesting people. Reading while walking around a strange city while people drive speedily on the wrong side of the street is strenuous but, in the end, good company has its rewards.

August 25, 2003 (permalink)


Simple: Web Sites
Stefran Mumaw

Simple: Web Sites is, in the end, a survey of HTML Minimalism. Mumaw does a nice job of the task, marred only slightly by his apparent belief that HTML Minimalism is the dominant style in the post-bubble era. Budgets are down, but depressions love baroque and rococo. Interestingly, Simple Web Sites tend to be horizontal Web sites, Web sites that resist vertical scrolling. An enigmatic book, in short, but not unthoughtful, and its systematic inclusion of design sketches from client meetings and Information Architecture brainstorming sessions is a valuable and instructive step that deserves much more attention that it has received.

January 1, 2003 (permalink)


The Moon's Shadow
Catherine Asaro

It's fun to meet an old classmate in such an unexpected context; it's been a long time since Chemistry 242 -- Dudley Herschbach's masterful course in Quantum Mechanics and the physics of rainbows, glories, and other scattering phenomena.

Asaro is known for getting the science right, but this book doesn't have enough science to make it pay. The central romance is handled nicely, and the books conceit is not without interest: a space-opera monarchy controlled by a weak, young king who takes a dangerous, older wife for protection and finds her an unexpected partner. This was probably the wrong entry-point for me in the Skolian Saga.

The appendix, on the dynamics of the 14 moons of the planet Glory was a nice touch. In a way, Glory's tides deserve a story of their own. "Night Falls", and "The Tide Comes In"?

August 10, 2003 (permalink)


A lost opportunity, this review of the history of music theater from operetta to rock opera turns into a recitation box office runs. There's no insight here into the dynamics of the business or the trajectory of the art. The musical selections seems awfully heavy on waltzes, there's not much attention to dance or technique or, indeed, to the audience.

August 19, 2003 (permalink)


Pattern Recognition
William Gibson

The most important study of new media today to appear this year. The center of this story if the quest for The Footage -- a set of strangely evocative snippets of film that have been appearing sporadically on the Web and which have gained an international cult following. Gibson gets Web culture exactly right, and gives us a glimpse at the culture's aspirations as no writer has done before.

April 19, 2003 (permalink)


In this extraordinarily well-written and even-handed biography. D'Este superbly handles a difficult problem: his subject is often the least interesting person on stage. Eisenhower was smart, capable, persistent, and successful. Where many others could not have held the fragile alliance together, Eisenhower charmed, cajoled, and kept incompatible generals in harness. Where others would have thrust themselves into the foreground with disastrous consequences, Eisenhower staid away from the spotlight yet kept control of the war. In a world populated by orators, polished (Churchill, Roosevelt), insidious (DeGaulle, Montgomery) and wild (Patton), Eisenhower spoke a flat and graceless midwestern. "I'm going to command the whole shebang," he told his wife at the summit of a meteoric rise from the ruins of an apparently-failed military career.

It's a tough challenge for a biographer, and D'Este's energetic prose manages to keep focused on Eisenhower without letting the more colorful and forceful subordinates crowd him out.

August 10, 2003 (permalink)


Sedaris is a very funny fellow. Perfect for a morning drive, these little vignettes are cheerful and strange.

July 30, 2003 (permalink)


This very fine academic mystery pits two grad students against a newly-discovered letter that might throw new light on the authorship controversy -- if it's not a forgery. Review forthcoming in Drood.

July 18, 2003 (permalink)


The Murder Book
Jonathan Kellerman

Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis are wonderful characters. Who could mess up a mystery series starring a retired child psychologist and a sympathetic gay cop? But Kellerman is writing the same book, over and over again. Here, it's done pretty well, with lots of good backstory on Milo's early struggles on the force. Still, the same hand-wringing leads to the same psychologist-in-peril. Seriously: if Dr. Delaware really needed the adrenaline rush of being nearly killed every year or so, wouldn't he just join the force, or the foreign legion, or get help?

July 21, 2003 (permalink)


Lessons Learned in Software Testing
Cem Kamer, James Bach, Bret Pettichord

More than two hundred notes on software testing, ranging from abstract epistemology ("how would one know that the software worked?") to concrete management ("how do you convince the programmers it doesn't work without making them try to get you fired?"). Review forthcoming in Tekka.

July 1, 2003 (permalink)


A New Way To Cook
Sally Schneider

Sensible, thoughtful recipes that work, this is a really good cookbook that's also interesting and thoughtful. The core of the book is teaching you to improvise; instead of giving you lots of recipes, it describes a base technique (e.g. "braising small fish"), explains what the parameters are, and shows lots of variations. It's like a jazz book for classical pianists; Schneider assumes you know the basics and shows you how to improvise.

One of the most interesting things here is Schneider's treatment of fats and sugars as something to be relished, not as a plague. Growing up, I was taught to abjure saturated fat and sugar with a nearly religious fervor. Schneider tries to step back and consider, to think about exactly why we like some foods and what it means to us when the food we like isn't good for us.

For example, let's think about crispy fried onions. Tasty, but bad, right? Schneider says, go ahead. But, instead of treating the dish as an indulgence or trying to make a bad imitation without the fat, Schneider has you use a pastry brush to coat each and every onion piece with extra-virgin olive oil (or, she suggests, duck fat!) The upshot is, you use less fat, and it all goes where it'll do the most good. (You sweat the onions for 5-10 minutes under a tight cover, and then you saute them to drive the water off; this gives you the effect of deep frying without the oil bath). Schneider likes to encourage you to enjoy lots of different fats and sugars, evening out the dietary strain, and she treats them like expensive ingredients, things to be carefully doled out, savored and treasured.

July 6, 2003 (permalink)


A concise introduction and reference manual for an interesting, concise, and powerful new programming language. Ruby brings thoughtful and consistent object-oriented design to the AWK/Perl/Python lineage of languages -- all the string power of Perl with the clean lines of Smalltalk.

I do wish, though, that programming manuals for professionals were written for professionals. Wouldn't it be nice, for example, to have an introduction (or an appendix) that summarizes the language briefly for people who have the necessary background? "Everything is an object. Every object has a class. Class names are begin with uppercase letters, methods begin with lowercase letters. and instance variables begin with '@'. Objects are automatically allocated by their #new method and automatically deallocated and garbage-collected when no longer referenced. Variables (and function parameters) are always references to objects. Single inheritance (like Smalltalk), plus mixins (takes you back, doesn't it?). Built-in classes include strings, regular expressions, numbers (including Bignums), arrays, hashes (Perl), and closures (LISP and Smalltalk) among others, and the standard library provides threading, network protocols, and unit testing. Ruby has been widely adopted in Extreme Programming." This is doubtless Greek to lots of people, but should be easy reading to someone with a few years of undergraduate computer science -- and could save the educated reader a lot of time.

July 1, 2003 (permalink)


The Bug
Ellen Ullman

Review forthcoming in Tekka. An artless novel about the software industry, set in the mid 1980's, in which the narrator -- undoubtedly modeled on the author's younger self -- is nearly the only character treated with sympathy or kindness. The technical details are right, and explained rather well. I correctly guessed the nature of the bug half-way through the book, but I understand why the characters didn't find it sooner. The author, alas, is less generous than I.

June 26, 2003 (permalink)


Making Movies
Sidney Lumet

Ebert loves this book, recommending it as the best all-round introduction for the movie-goer who wants to know more about the way movies are made. Lumet doesn't gossip; he just sits down and explains how things work: screenwriting, directing, lighting, camerawork, even a little bit of focus group marketing.

Some of this is perhaps a bit too elementary, and some its perhaps too compressed. I'd have liked, for example, to understand where Lumet's approach to directing differs from, say, Hitchcock, or Coppola.

I read this just after reading Mamet's On Directing Film. Perhaps that was unfortunate. My first impression was that Making Movies was not particularly well written, but on review I think it's just a matter of lacking Mamet's luster.

May 31, 2003 (permalink)


Charming, witty, and amusing travels of an American who, having lived for many years in England, takes one last swing through it isle before taking his family off to the U.S.

June 29, 2003 (permalink)