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

In this second volume of His Dark Materials, Pullman shows his hand. This long, beautiful, and ambitious tale turns out to be nothing less than a sequel to Milton: the old war is going to be fought again, and this time, we're going to win. The wit and excitement of Harry Potter, with real ideas and real feelings, this is an extraordinary book.

This three-volume set is clearly a single, large novel. Tolkein, of course, meant for his work to be a single volume too.

And, to think that I would never have heard of it if a Tinderbox user hadn't sent me an essay of Pullman's on educational theory.

March 6, 2004 (permalink)

A very pleasant little volume of personal recollections, embedded in a stroll through the centro storico. This is part of a series of short volumes of Walks: Frank Conroy in Nantucket, Roy Blount, Jr. in New Orleans, James Macpherson in Gettysburg, Edwide Danticat in Port au Prince. What a brillian idea!

March 6, 2004 (permalink)

Retreat, Hell!
W.E.B. Griffin

The weakest volume of Griffin's series on The Corp, this is our second trip to Korea. The novel is set between Inchon and Chosin, and for some reason there's not much happening. Griffin normally excels at times like these -- he's best at describing soldiers at rest, and (like Patrick O'Brian) he often skips over the battles and ceremonies in order to show the prelude and aftermath. Here, McCoy and Zimmerman run around the boondocks, Fleming Pickering spends lots of time on large airplanes, and Pick is a pain in the ass.

Griffin always explains all the backstories, and the accretion of plot summaries of previous books drags later volumes in each series down. I sympathize: Griffin's point, in the end, is to explore how the choice of a moment shapes a career. But he desperately needed an editor, early on, who could have taught him to say by repeating less; he'd also sell more copies of the earlier volumes.

March 6, 2004 (permalink)

A memoir of a young writer who finds himself slightly out-of-place and out-of-sorts at a New England prep school where one chosen boy, each year, gets to spend a golden hour alone in the headmaster's garden with a literary lion. Robert Frost and Ayn Rand arrive and depart, and now Hemingway is coming, and his imminent arrival sets the old boys -- and the obscure Masters -- on edge.

An interesting companion to Wallace Stegner's Crossing To Safety, a very different book that is also a long look back by a successful writer who wonders if, after all, he has always played too safe.

February 24, 2004 (permalink)

This highly readable monograph collects several fascinating studies that extend our knowledge of Roman city life by bringing together all sorts of scattered data. We know a little about Roman real estate law and fire regulations; this tells us some fascinating things about the guilds of Ostia -- for example, the guilds usually owned the shops that faced the streets of their headquarters, because the wall construction would have been illegal unless the shops and the guild hall were part of the same property. The fire brigade of 19th century Constantinople, described by condescending British travelers, explains precisely what the Ostian vigiles did and how they might have been organized: like the Roman baths that became Turkish baths, the Roman fire department survived in Constantinople for a very long time. Best of all, perhaps, is a study of all the bars of Ostia. Want to know where business is done? Hermansen has a brilliant solution: find the bars -- which we can recognize because they needed special water arrangements and because the bar and the bar shelves were often built in stone -- and the offices and shops cannot be far away.

February 23, 2004 (permalink)

Many Tinderbox users find this volume extremely attractive; it's easy to see why. The core of Allen's advice is: list all your tasks and projects. Having established an external, reliable list of everything you need or want to do, you can spend less energy trying to remember what you fear you might forget; with less stress and anxiety, you can focus on the task at hand.

And, yes, Tinderbox is a nice tool for keeping those trusted lists. Allen urges people not to get too caught up in technique and not to make the note system too arcane or too elaborate; Tinderbox provides enough support to be useful, its openness and accessibility make it a trustworthy place to keep vital information, and the leverage of swift search and agents -- combined with maps for brainstorming and reorganizing complex projects -- work very nicely within Allen's approach.

February 23, 2004 (permalink)

Roman Ostia
Russell Meiggs

A brilliant, readable, and wonderful discussion of everything we know about one Roman town. Meiggs discusses every aspect of Ostian life, from its foundation when Rome was a village squabbling with its neighbors through the years when Ostia was the port at which the commerce of the world docked -- and then through the long decline and abandonment. Meiggs weighs the literary evidence, archaeology, inscriptions, carefully laying out what we know, what we need to study more closely, and what we perhaps can never rediscover.

Everything is closely argued and carefully sourced, yet each page is pleasant to read. Meiggs, uniquely, had the knack of writing simultaneously for scholars and students, for professional historians and for casual readers. There is never the slightest suspicion that arguments have been simplified for the benefit of students, yet every section of the book is lively and energetic.

I know of no better study of an ancient place.

February 13, 2004 (permalink)

A delightful bedtime story, and so the perfect tale to hear each morning on the way to work, and each evening driving home after a long day of coding. Lyra is eleven or twelve, and she's grown up as the ward of Jordan College, Oxford. One day, she and her demon sneak into the Retiring Room, that sanctum sanctorum into which only the senior dons are admitted. She hides in a cupboard, hears things she should not know and witnesses astonishing and abominable acts.

The comparison with Harry Potter is, I suppose, inevitable. But there are dark things -- and ideas -- that hover at the margins of this trilogy, things that never seem to worry people in the land of the muggles.

I heard this in the unabridged Audible edition, read by Pullman (who has a lovely voice) with the assistance of a large and talented cast.

February 13, 2004 (permalink)

An American tragedy of real-estate gone terribly wrong. Kathy Nicolo has lost her inherited house to a surprise (and unjust) tax sale, Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Shah's air force and now employed as a garbage picker, buys it, and sheriff Lester Burdon tries to untangle the mess with care and love. In this California, there really is neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,

January 25, 2004 (permalink)

Review forthcoming in The Drood Review of Mystery. Rarely have I been happier to see the final page of a novel.

January 11, 2004 (permalink)

Special Ops
W.E.B. Griffin

The old gang are back again, as W.E.B. Griffin revives his Brotherhood of War series. This was Griffin's first series -- at least under this particular pen name -- and in many ways it's a rehearsal for The Corps. But it's still fine entertainment, and it provides a sympathetic picture of Republican Middle America in the mid '60s when Lyndon is president, Vietnam is ramping up, the movement is beginning to simmer -- and none of these people particularly notices.

Don't be misled by the flap copy that promises lots of action; combat, in Griffin, is almost always offstage and the real enemy is chicken shit.

This volume is marred by Griffin's need to explain everything that's gone before -- he (or his editors) simply can't trust the reader to accept that characters have histories, and if someone earned a medal five volumes back, Griffin has to find a way to explicate the backstory here. Like Clancy, Griffin has his little axes to grind -- he's always defending Norwich and VMI from West Point. The women of The Brotherhood never were worth much (and only Ernie Sage in The Corps is worth the paper she's printed on), and that unbalances a book which is, in the end, about warriors at rest. Still, it's vastly entertaining, a holiday treat.

August 17, 2013 (permalink)

The crucial point this catalog for an exhibit of American Orientalist painting and the advertising ephemera that followed in its wake is that the Orient, in America, is not the same place as the Orient in 19th century France. To Gérôme, the Orient may have been the North Africa and Middle East of Said's imperialist Orientalism, a land of sensual richness to be explored, conquered, and brought home to mother. To America, though, it's another world entirely. The people whose grandparents thought themselves a city on a hill saw the landscapes of the Holy Land (and its archaeology) as a mirror or a rough draft. The people whose parents fought at Shiloh and Manassas (and Wounded Knee) saw ancient lands as a parable, and lands unknown as an exemplar, for what they had recently endured and what they hoped they were about to achieve.

But the point is the painting, which is gorgeous, sumptuous, and beautifully observed. Because the scenes are different, we see them clearly as we cannot see, say, yet another 19th century leftover breakfast tray. Many of the paintings depict slaves and serving women; in the years after the Civil War and preceding the Progressives, slavery and servitude were much on people's minds.

December 21, 2003 (permalink)

The Thin Man
Dashiell Hammett

An old friend gave this to me to reread. I'd forgotten how good it is.

Everyone remembers that this is the end of Hammett's writing career, that he's turning in this book toward frivolity and the silver screen, and that he's not going to write another Maltese Falcon or another Dain Curse. And, no, this doesn't have the grit and torment of Red Harvest, which is such a wonderful example of what a great writer in a truly foul mood can accomplish.

But, taken on its own, The Thin Man is a fine and interesting book. It's not fluffy, the way the films were, there's steel just beneath the veneer, and you really wonder what Hammett could have done if the publisher's of his era weren't quite so prissy about unconventional sex. Nora Charles is a revelation; we know her well, now, but in her day she must have been an original, and a shock.

December 20, 2003 (permalink)

Review pending at Tekka. A fascinating study of Trajan's great public building complex -- its construction, eventual disappearance, and gradual rediscovery. The centerpiece of this work is a detailed and thorough computer reconstruction of the forum and its buildings, a marvelous combination of jigsaw puzzle-solving and architectural reasoning.

December 20, 2003 (permalink)