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

A brilliant, generous, and comprehensive study of journals, Mallon reads everything in sight: little girl's locked dimestore confidantes, Degas' sketchbooks, Weston's daybooks, Nixon's tapes. He builds a taxonomy of diaries that consitutes an invaluable antidotes to the facile dismissal of weblogs as indulgent and adolescent. Mallon finds an intriguing range of diarists:

  • Choniclers
  • Travelers
  • Pilgrims
  • Creators
  • Apologists
  • Confessors
  • Prisoners

He wears his erudition lightly and understands that literary taxonomists need to look beneath the surface: the chapter on prisoners ranges gracefully from Dreyfus to Anne Franck to Albert Speer to Alice James.

March 13, 2006 (permalink)


Double Homicide
Jonathan and Faye Kellerman

Twin novellas about pairs of police investigators, set in fun locations where visiting writers can easily and enjoyably add local color. Santa Fe here is tourist Santa Fe, with a sprinkling of Hillerman and McGarritty; we spend a lot of time in the Plaza and on Canyon Road. Boston is the city of Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane. Though the Boston story could easily be set in Indianapolis or Chicago or Odessa, Texas, it's the stronger tale.

March 8, 2006 (permalink)


The Writer told me to read this, and she was right.

In many ways, Patience Gray stands firmly in the tradition of M. F. K. Fisher: this is a book of adventurous cooking in places you aren't likely to live, under conditions you aren't likely to endure. Gray lived and travelled with a sculptor, Norman Mommens, who wanted to work right where the stone was quarried, and so Grey finds herself cooking over open fires outside a succession of precarious quarryside cottages, cooking whatever the spare daughters of her peasant neighbors can teach her to cook.

Fisher wrote to describe her experiences of a vanished time and a world now beyond reach. Gray cooks, and expects you to cook too, and in her approach lie the seeds of the empirical revolution that gave rise to Cook's and Chocolate and Zucchini and the rest of today's "let's try it!" food writing. Her approach isn't quite narrative and isn't quite systematic, but chapters become ad hoc explorations of a food idea -- pounded sauces like pesto in their various forms, or approaches to taking advantage of the plentiful herbs that grow like weeds in places where those herbs are weeds.

Gray had a wonderfully elliptical approach to writing. She doesn't alternate between narrative and recipe, she doesn't introduce or explain, and her prose is almost always in transition, as she was, from place to place, from the challenges of the always-inadequate supplies and perpetually peculiar ingredients to the mysteries of dialects and customs in her latest fastness.

March 2, 2006 (permalink)


This lyrical, intelligent, and interminable thriller is a fascinating puzzle. Writing in the Believer, Tom Bissell lauds it to the skies, and it's not difficult to see why: few writerscan so quickly and vividly sketch impressions of every aspect of the Carribean. The places and people of Shacochis's imaginary island are instantly recognizable -- the airport workers, the ferry snack-bar that never opens, the beach bar where tourists and local businessmen mix, the immigrants from up North who work in offices and schools and who occasionally walk down to that bar for the music or to cut one of the pretty tourist tuna out of the herd for a night to remember. This guy can tell you things about rum punch that you didn't know you'd forgotten.

But people come, people go, stuff happens, and this thriller never quite gets moving. That the protagonist doesn't understand what's happening to him is only to be expected, but we never quite learn, either. Long, leisurely excursions provide plenty of backstory without casting much light on what's happening to the people who brought us to the party. At times, this feels like a brilliant collection of interlinked short stories that was forced to dress up as a novel. In any event, such elliptical plotting simultaneously demands and repels attention.

Nonetheless, required reading for visitors from up north and the best thing I've read about the modern Carribean.

February 24, 2006 (permalink)


This book, a diner's primer on the restaurant business, has some very fine writing.

My father never managed to get a sanwich named after him at the Stage Deli, and he never won the Nobel Prize. Years after his death, however, a Greek diner on Columbus Avenue still offers 'The Professor Salad', and you can still order 'Professor's Special Lobster Cantonese' at a local Chinese restaurant. And I like to think that, somewhere out there, the Russian grill man is teaching physics at a prestigious university but still remembers how to make 'Eggs Professor'.

What's missing from this most pleasant and entertaining of books -- I saw it in Vrooman's Pasadena and it seduced me away from a very fine thriller -- is anger. Ruhlman, in The Making Of A Chef, is angry at his instructors, angry at the archaic tradition, angry at the snow. Bourdain, in Kitchen Confidential, is pretty much angry at everything since the Enlightenment. Shaw finds himself in tall cotton -- he's writing about good food, he's eating it and talking about it and he's getting an advance against royalties. Through much of the book, everything is wonderful. We need a dash of acid -- vinegar? citrus? Perhaps need bad guys and bad meals, if only for balance and exercise.

February 18, 2006 (permalink)


Oppressed by a foul mood, a foul schedule, and an oppressive pile of reading I ought to have been doing in its place, I picked up this volume again a few months back. I'd read it years before, in its natural order, but I'm all out of O'Brian now and so the only option is rereading.

And this one is lots of fun, as Capt. Aubrey is sent to Australia in the ship that will long be remembered as "the horrible old Leopard", carrying orders to sort out the mess at Botany Bay and -- much to Aubrey's distaste -- to drop off a few prisoners.

And then, having spent a few days reading this fine but unnecessary novel, I left myself a note in my Projects Tinderbox file to mention it here. And there that note has sat, since last September, until today.

February 13, 2006 (permalink)


Madden describes a mundane, domestic moment in a straightforward, 6-pane comic, and then proceeds to recast the same scene 98 different ways. We see the scene from his point of view, from hers, from the point of view of the refrigerator. We see it from above, and below. We see it from next door. We see it from the perspective of the critic, or of the notional actor who is performing the scene. We see it in the style of Jack Kirby, Scott McCloud, Hergé, and the Bayeux Tapestry.

A highly recommended addition to the new media reading list.

February 5, 2006 (permalink)


This superb textbook surveys our current archaeological understanding of the Puebloan Southwest, from origins through contact. Kantner deals masterfully with controversies and heresies, showing the student where the professional disagreements lie without allowing the text to be consumed with them. Kantner deals judiciously and well with modern techniques and trends, particularly the use of genetics, forensics, social modeling, and studies of ancient environmental degradation. Kantner resists the tyranny of the ethnographic present, yet uses available evidence from ethnography and the historical record judiciously and well.

February 4, 2006 (permalink)


This group biography of Lincoln and his cabinet is, perhaps inevitably, dominated by Lincoln himself. The portrait of Lincoln that emerges here is strikingly close to David Herbert Donald's Lincoln , or Carl Sandburg's , or (for that matter) Gore Vidal's .

Our vision of Lincoln is remarkably consistent. This was not the case in his lifetime, for even his closest advisors differed radically on, and often changed their opinions regarding, his character and competence. No sooner had Stanton declared that he belonged to the ages than all this changed. Contrasted to the strikingly dissonant perspectives we receive of Jack Kennedy, say, or Winston Churchill, or George Washington, our Lincoln is nearly always the same fine, sad fellow, laboring toward a new birth of freedom with malice toward none and a pumpkin in each end of his bag.

June 28, 2012 (permalink)


Sketchbooking
Barbara M. Stecher

Subtitled "How to Create a Delightful Journal of Your Travels at Home and Abroad", this hard-to find book (now available at Eastgate) thinks clearly about the reasons people -- artists and non-artists alike -- should sketch in spare moments, and how they can do this effectively and without annoying their companions. Stecher advocates an interesting combination of tools: preliminary pencil sketches, followed immediately by direct drawing in ink once proportions are roughed in, and then followed up at leisure with watercolor washes.

Though Stecher thinks of sketchbooking as a travel activity, it might well apply with even more profit to work life. It might be fun, twenty years on, to have sketches from your college dorm. How about a quick drawing of the waiting room before your first big VC pitch, or the locker room of the rookie-league team that signed you after college? In any case, it might help calm the butterflies and give you some space to reflect on the moment. Tree at my window...

September 27, 2013 (permalink)


At eNarrative 6, George Landow brought down the house with a passage from The Eyre Affair, the first book in the series of which this forms the second. Fforde's heroine, Thursday Next, is an operative in a secret British agency that patrols reality (and happens to inhabit a reality where the dodo is a popular housepet and revived wooly mammoths are a protected species and a hazard to suburban gardeners). In this world, it is sometimes possible for people to jump into books and interact with their characters when off-duty. The books, it turns out, have their own police force which protects the integrity of literature from outside agents, form such vermin as the notorious adjectivore, as well as from bored characters who try to slip into adjacent novels. It's quite a romp, with abundant zaniness, some side-splitting moments, and some interestingly sideways views of text and textuality.

January 27, 2006 (permalink)


Dining Out
Andrew Dornenburg, Karen Page

Following in the path of the pioneering and successful Becoming A Chef, Dornenburg and Page interview a broad cross-section of restaurant critics, mix them with a smattering of chefs and restauranteurs, and assemble the result into a breezy and readable exploration of food criticism.

The core argument, approached here from many directions, is that food is interesting and merits criticism. Food crit has been traversing a different path than lit crit in the past decades. Postmodernism argued that we were paying too much attention to whether writing and film were art and not enough attention to whether we were having fun. American food writing used to be entirely about whether we were having fun, and only recently and tentatively have we begun to explore the idea that dishes are constructed, that we can have ideas (and arguments) about food that are deeper than, "I don't like olives."

This volume might have been more convincing, in the long run, if it had simply assumed its conclusion and proceeded to explore the ideas. I'd like to know more about what critics would do if their editors and readers permitted. I'd like to know more precisely, too, whether restaurant critics are as influential as they believe: one critics laments that movies can survive bad reviews but restaurants can't, but nobody offers much evidence one way or another.

What we need next, I think, is more close examination of exactly how the food business works, when it's working well. Michael Ruhlman and Anthony Bourdain are on the right track here, I think, in taking the space to show in great detail what actually happens in routine prep and service, and reminding us how hard this all is, and why.

January 23, 2006 (permalink)


A widely-read autobiography of a much-liked chef and teacher, this book often tells us the wrong things. Pepin is interesting because his food is interesting and because he taught us about La Technique. Here, he tells us more about being Jacques Pepin than we need to know, and writes too little about the food.

We're not here because Pepin is a wonderful fellow, though no doubt he is, nor because he's done interesting things. His wonderfulness is great, it's a bonus, but it's not the point: we're here for the food, and the food is usually squeezed between celebrity encounters, home renovations, memories of favorite teachers and students, and amusing but harmless disasters like the time the wild snails escaped.

Pepin writes a good deal about Craig Claiborne, who was the New York Times' pioneering restaurant critic and who was clearly an important and formative influence on Pepin. But the focus is not particularly on the idea of food, even with Claiborne; when we hear of the big meals they made together, the emphasis stays on what fun the meals were, not on the idea of the food. In fact, Pepin rarely discussed food with anyone in this book. Pepin's portrait of his last meeting with Claiborne is literally heartless, an unsympathetic surface impression of a dying man who had once been Pepin's friend. What really went wrong between Pepin and Claiborne would be interesting to know, but it's not here.

Pepin is at pains to remind us that the food business is a business, but he seldom follows the money in any but the most familiar ways. He opens, and then closes, a restaurant, recounting the anecdote as his wife's discovery that running a restaurant chains you to the work. This isn't news. Surely, they asked themselves whether they could hire people and free themselves sufficiently, rather than just abandoning a thriving business. The calculus that led the Pepins to reject the idea would be interesting to know, but it's not here.

January 20, 2006 (permalink)


A sweet tribute and a pleasant interlude, this slender volume presents an extended interview with Pauline Kael. More accurately, it's the record of a conversation between Davis and Kael, old friends meeting and talking but always aware that Kael's illness meant this might well be their last good talk. Kael is lively and blunt as ever, and it's great to have even a sentence or two about the recent films she'd seen since Parkinson's forced her to give up reviewing.

Kael's influence on film criticism is obvious, but her influence on the broader culture needs, I think, a fresh and considered examination. On one hand, you could argue that she was a talented writer with a visible, influential post. But she may have been much more: in approaching all kinds of media, today, we're all either Paulettes or self-consciously reactionary essentialists. We start by asking, "Am I responding to this?", without regard to whether we're looking at pop or punk, whether we're reading a novel or witnessing performance art, and the canon is just a component of that response. Or, we force ourselves to start from the nature of the medium. But after Kael, we have to force ourselves; before, I think, it seemed natural. Determining whether Kael's role here is as central as now it seems will require some patient scholarship and some prudent judgment.

January 17, 2006 (permalink)


Ilium
Dan Simmons

This 700-page, Hugo-nominated adventure of the distant future is packed with incident and invention. We have old-style humans on earth, we have post-humans in the earth's rings, we have robotic cyborg intelligences called moravecs mining Jupiter and discussing Proust and Shakespeare among themselves. We have a vast reenactment of The Iliad unfolding on the plain of Ilium, with real blood and real gods and with everything witnessed by a team of reincarnated classics professors.

At the end, the characters agree that they're eager to discover what happens next -- presumably, in the second volume.

January 15, 2006 (permalink)


This novelistic account of the rediscovery of The Taking Of Christ clothes an unremarkable academic quest in the trappings of genre fiction. Harr's account is vivid, colorful, and full of character and incident. His care to avoid discussing anything his characters did not then know, while it lets us share the thrill of discovery, prevents him from explaining much about the work itself or about the course of its rediscovery. Early on, for example, the point-of-view characters -- then Italian graduate students -- commit a breach of manners and (probably) of ethics, disclosing confidential information to their thesis advisor and then publishing that information, with their advisor, in a scholarly journal. This seems a remarkable breach, but because the students doubtless didn't immediately understand how serious it was, Harr can't really discuss the episode or its consequences beyond describing the immediate emotional impact.

The novelistic pleasures of description might justify passages that seem more likely to be imagined than remembered. Harr knows about the sunlight on the rooftops, the gestures of the expert academics, and the menu at dinner when it suits the needs of pacing and color. It makes a good story, but the details are often so convenient that they make us distrust the narrator. Does he really know this?

It's merely a matter of style. On the whole, I prefer to take my history straight.

January 5, 2006 (permalink)


On a primitive planet resembling the worst of Eastern Europe in the Soviet era, a rain of telephones falls from the sky. They're the first gift of the festival, a star-traveling race of information omnivores. Many gifts follow, the economy is shattered, and the long-awaited revolution arrives. Things are terrific for the workers, and less terrific back at the capitol.

High adventure and top-drawer science fiction: the perfect companion for a long airplane trip.

December 30, 2005 (permalink)


An interesting experiment gone wrong, this slender volume sets out to explore the Medici Bank as a business case study. Parks adopts a brisk, informally modern style; most of the book is written in present tense, and there's a good deal of ironic commentary. This keeps the book moving, but sometimes tends to confound the author's voice with the subject's.

The advantage of writing history in the present tense is, I suppose, flexibility in verb tenses. Perhaps avoiding the past perfect might appeal to the marketing department. The cost, though, is that there's no longer any way for the historian to describe how we know what happened, or what we don't quite know, or where the uncertainties and controversies lie. Everything is happening right now.

Much of Parks' attention focuses, naturally, on the personalities of the Medici leaders, especially Cosimo and Lorenzo. Their employees appear, chiefly, only when they become rivals; their competitors appear chiefly when they are about to be attacked or assassinated. This is, perhaps, a case study where a degree of CEO porn might be justified; the characters of the Medici leaders did matter, and their personal inclinations -- especially Lorenzo's taste in literature and painting -- had lasting consequences. But business is business, and if Lorenzo The Magnificent wasn't very interested in banking, neither is this volume.

In a book about early international banking, published as a business book, we never see a balance sheet or an income statement. Did the Medici have them? We don't know. We read a little about the underlying problem of early European banking: since usury was forbidden by the church, banks couldn't offer interest-bearing accounts or conventional mortgages and instead had to offer different financial products such as factoring accounts receivable and international transfers. But we don't hear nearly enough about these products and their fates, nor about the changing economic climate of the continent. When the Medici banks closed, was this a business failure or simply a change in investment strategy, a redeployment of assets from the fading markets of Bruges and Taranto to the growth industry of the counter-reformation?

December 28, 2005 (permalink)


Flashman
George MacDonald Fraser

The villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays (and so the original Malfoy), having been sent home for getting drunk, gets an unexpectedly early start on adult life. He's a thoroughgoing scoundrel, as he himself will be the first to tell you, and so he goes from strength to strength. On rare occasions, he has a moment of weakness and does a good thing, and for these failures the moral universe punishes him severely, but character and his intrinsic terribleness win out in the end. The first in a long, literate series.

December 27, 2005 (permalink)