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 wonderful country house mystery, set in a Britain that accepted the Hess mission and made peace with Germany in 1942. Six years later the Continent is Nazi, the Wehrmacht is still bogged down at Kursk and Stalingrad, the US is isolationist, and Lucy Eversley, niece of a Duke and daughter of a cabinet secretary, has married a Jew. She's home for one of Mummie's political house parties, but things are getting awkward for Jews in England. When one of the guests is murdered, suspicion soon falls on the son-in-law.

It's a wonderfully well-imagined world. Walton makes occasional blunders: at one point we think the Cook, a Polish refugee, is being blackmailed by Bolshevik terrorists when Poland must actually be occupied by the Germans. I can envision the USSR collapsing, and I can see them grinding down the Wehrmacht single-handed, but could the war bog down this way, six years on the same front? Only, I think, if winter were perpetual or if Russia some technological change negated the armored division.

I'm concerned by the position of terrorists in this world. This is, after all, a social history of a terrible, sudden slide into right-wing extremism where Jews and union leaders are pariahs, Labour is outlawed, and the politics have become, essentially, a Kabuki combat between the right (Churchill), the extreme right (Eden's government), and fascist aristocracy (the heroine's family). The parallel to contemporary America is frightening , but Walton muddies the issue by making treating terrorism as a myth. Her terrorists pick off occasional targets with Molotov cocktails and popguns; they're less effective than the IRA. That cannot be right.

It's a fine mystery, engrossing and intelligent.

September 26, 2006 (permalink)


As he watched the monks amidst the ruins of the Capitoline, Gibbon saw a tale of decline and fall. Recent historical fashion has tried instead to visualize a continuous process, a gradual transformation from late Roman Antiquity to Germanic rule and the early Middle Ages.

Ward-Perkins makes an elegant and convincing argument that the new fashion is fundamentally wrong. This was no gradual transformation where things changed, sometimes for the better and perhaps sometimes not. Things fell apart. The transition was, for almost everyone in the West, a prolonged misery. Fourth century Roman peasants, from Spain to Syria, lived in solidly-built stone houses with good tile roofs. Even poor folk cooked with imported olive oil, drank imported wine, and ate off well-made, imported tableware. A few centuries later, few kings could say as much, and tech didn't get back to Roman-era standards for nearly a thousand years.

September 23, 2006 (permalink)


I'm writing a talk on hypertext style and the way we write history. I took this book down from the shelf to check a quote, and spent much of the weekend reading it again from cover to cover. Lekson's thesis -- that the early Southwestern regional capitals of Chaco, Aztec, and Paquime are linked -- has not been widely accepted, but it's brilliantly argued here and deserves careful thought.

We do not know, and probably cannot know, just what happened at the end of Chaco. Something happened at Mimbres too, at just about the same time. Something bad enough that a culture that had always decorated pots with elaborate designs and sacred figures suddenly switched to making pots that were unpainted, polished, and black. This was more than fashion: something was being rejected or embraced. We see the symbols but we don't know the slogans or the platform.

The north-south alignment might be a coincidence, but Lekson has a good point: these three sites are unique, and their uniqueness is significant without reference to the other sites. Each was the center of a regional system. Each was constructed shortly after construction ceased at the other two. The symbols and technologies and material of each site differ -- we're talking about a 500 year span here, the distance from Marathon to Actium or from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn. Lekson's argument is intriguing without the alignment; it might even seem stronger since alignments have such an unsavory New Age tinge.

The endless joy of this volume, though, is Lekson's wit. He's writing to catch the attention of his colleagues, and he's writing to exclude wannabes while including the serious amateur and scholars from allied areas. In place of the customary retreat to jargon, he adopts an elegant casualness, filled with puns and significant allusions that professionals will recognize and students can politely ignore.

Does all this sound anthropologically familiar? If I were describing a neolithic center in Turkistan or Shansi or Wessex or Bolivia or Illinois, what would we think? Chaco was socially and politically ‘complex’ — that is, a hierarchy with definite haves and have-nots. Hierarchy, not heterarchy: A few people at Chaco regularly and customarily directed the actions of many other people, and those few lived in more expensive houses and had more baubles (at least in death) than the many. Were they chiefs, priests, kings, queens, duly-elected representatives? Who knows? And, for now, who cares? They were elite leaders, Major Dudes: that much seems clear. If ever anyone in the Pueblo Southwest were elite, it was those two guys buried in the famous log crypts of Old Bonito. Those boys had power. (p. 26)
The Chaco Meridian

September 18, 2006 (permalink)


Acelerando
Charles Stross

If The Merchant Princes is Stross's Amber, this is his response to Clifford Simak's City. More broadly, Stross is recreating old themes and visions of the future, but approaching them in light of what we learned from Gibson, from cyberpunk generally, and from the computer age.

Accelerando follows four generations of a family (and their friends, habitats, and pets: this world is filled with things that think) across the Singularity and into a distant future where the descendants of humanity have become incomprehensible computational agents. As a story, it's strongest in the early years. The first story, "Lobsters", is the most interesting vision of ubiquitous computing I've seen, and is also an able and interesting defense of extreme Open Source ideology.

Tales of the very far future are always a problem, because it's very hard to find a story in a world where the actors are so smart that they're incomprehensible. "Elector" has its moments, to be sure -- especially a political campaign conducted by forking millions of computational copies of the candidate, so each copy can sit down for a chat with each individual voter. And the final story, "Survivor", is a wonderfully twisty conclusion.

September 15, 2006 (permalink)


I ran across Elmore Leonard's good old Ten Rules of Writing the other day, and that got me thinking about literary hypertext and its many discontents. Leonard's goal is "to remain invisible when I'm writing a book." I wonder what that kind of invisibility would like like in a reflective and self-aware hypertext?

As Tishomingo Blues shows, it's a prominent kind of invisibility. We don't have much folderol here, and we've got some truly wonderful bits of dialogue. Here, two Mexican gunmen, pistols casually on a table in the hot Mississippi sun, are confronted by a Arlen, a redneck ex-deputy.

Hector turned his head to Tonto. "Fucking High Noon, man."

Arlen said, "I didn't hear you."

"I tole him," Hector said, "you want to pull your guns, but you don't have the nerve."

The one with the tobacco stains in his beard said, "What'd he say?"

But the one, Arlen, was louder, telling them, "You think that's what we come here for? To shoot you? Jesus Christ."

"Our Lord and Savior." Hector said. "No, I don't think to shoot us. Maybe scare us so we go home."

A circus high-diver, a small-town hit man, the Dixie Mafia, and some dudes from Detroit all get mixed together in the midst of a Civil War reenactment. It could only be Elmore Leonard, but he's carefully invisible.

September 8, 2006 (permalink)


Kate Martinelli is Laurie King's contemporary, San Francisco detective. She's been pushed into the background in recent years by King's more recent creation, the stunning Mary Russell who, as a young woman, befriends and marries the aged Sherlock Holmes. In this adorable novel, Martinelli is faced with the unsettling murder of a man who was a passionate collector of Sherlockiana; one of the central hints is a beautifully-composed lost story that might be the work of Conan Doyle himself.

September 5, 2006 (permalink)


Writing last May in the TLS, T. P. Wiseman compared three recent books on the assasination of Julius Caesar and its aftermath. It's a fine review, showing in turn what each writer set out to do and explaining where they strayed from the path. The review gets off to a tremendous start:

It was a run of more than 500 metres, with a steep little climb at the end of it, from the Senate-house in Pompey's Portico, where Julius Caesar had been murdered, to the Capitol. It can't have been easy to run in a blood-soaked toga while brandishing a sword and shouting out that the tyrant was dead and freedom restored. The adrenalin must soon have been spent when the cheering crowds failed to materialize. What sort of freedom, and for whom? And what sort of tyrant had he been, anyway?

The book Wiseman admires is this this one, and indeed it's a masterful new study of a singularly well studied decade. Osgood does a wonderful job of using every available textual source, from Appian and Cicero or Horace and Vergil. Indeed, he uses the poets to terrific effect; I've never seen so much historical evidence wring from this kind of literature before. Archaelogical and epigraphic evidence are brought to bear as well, along with good sense and a generous breadth of focus that includes the losers as well as the winners, and the infantry as well as the officers.

This is a distinguished book, influenced by Fussel's The Great War and Modern Memory. But where Fussell shows how poetry changed the way we remember the war, Osgood uses poetry to recapture how people thought about the proscriptions and the civil war and its aftermath. What happened to Italians who lost their farms so that veterans could be resettled on their lands? It turns out we know. We've always known. Who knew?

August 30, 2006 (permalink)


A charming and delightful book in which five women, plus one inexplicable man, form a book club for the purpose of rereading all of Jane Austen. Fowler draws the characters with sympathy and quiet elegance. They all discuss books -- mostly, but not exclusively, Jane's books -- all the time, but they do it so naturally and sensibly that nothing seems like a college seminar. As the volume reaches its conclusion, we realize that we've spoken a great deal about Austen, but that Austen was never the point.

August 1, 2006 (permalink)


The Space Opera Renaissance
David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

This massive volume collects a range of exciting science fiction that shares an interest in vast scale, great events, and baroque emotions. The editors observe that the term "space opera" was, until quite recently, a term of abuse, meaning in essence "bad science fiction". Some early writers like Leigh Brackett (who wrote the screenplay of both The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back) did embrace the term, but the embrace is tinged with modesty and self-deprecation. The early space opera was closely allied to the Western; it was deeply interested in the frontier, in the relation between independent individuals and the mass of society, and in the beneficial effects of resolute action, improvisation, and violence.

In the seventies, the term was revived to stand in opposition to the excesses of the New Wave, and more recently still it has been adopted by writers, many of them British and Australian, who explore a future not patterned on the American model, a future with a leftist sensibility to set against reactionary American militarism.

Reviewing the collection in Hartwell and Cramer's own forum, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford argues that this historical vision is mistaken and incomplete. Speaking at Readercon a few days before publication, Hartwell himself voiced doubts concerning the overview, and uncertainty regarding the appropriate definition of space opera itself.

The great interest I find in the volume lies not in the historical and critical perplexities but in the way it uncovers and explore a remarkable political division in current space opera. Much of the rest of the world, it appears, views current American science fiction as right-wing and militaristic. The Americans, in turn, seem to have reacted by becoming even more defiantly reactionary, all the way to David Weber's "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington" which is, very literally, Horatio Hornblower in drag. Baxter's "The Great Game" is a savage picture of the Bush administration's fervid pursuit of war .

August 15, 2006 (permalink)


Young historians learn quickly that some excellent and important questions cannot be answered because nobody made records of things which, once, everybody knew. Now, no one knows, and we seem to have no way of learning.

Jonathan Rose sets out to ask one of these questions: what did Victorian working-class people -- miners, servants, factory girls, pickpockets -- like to read? And what did they think about it? We know what the professors and critics read, but what about poor kids in Welsh coal towns?

This brilliant and astonishing book poses an unanswerable questions and then proceeds to answer it thoroughly, precisely, and sympathetically. Though working people did not write literary criticism, they did sometimes write journals and diaries and autobiographies. Rose has read most of the roughly 2000 memoirs that survive. He examines library records to find what working class libraries purchased, how they chose their collections, what books were borrowed and which sat on dusty shelves. He looks at bookselling and magazine publishing for clues about what people liked -- and what they thought of it. He explores the records of schools and mutual-improvement societies and lecture series, the schedules of concert halls and policy debates of radio networks. Rose finds a wealth of evidence where it seems none could exist, and sorts that evidence carefully.

Above all, Rose is always vigilant to discover what people actually thought and how they actually responded to things they read. It is easy to imagine how working people must have responded to advertising and propaganda, but such imaginings often turn out to be contradicted by the evidence. Unschooled people, it seems, were surprisingly intelligent consumers of advertising and propaganda; they were happy to extract things they wanted and to reject messages they disliked. The treacly literature of girl's magazines, for example, had less impact on girls' education than might be imagined because girls overwhelmingly read (and preferred) stories for and about boys. The racist imperialism of so much bad Victorian fiction seems to have little impact on workers until very late; miners and navvies adored Uncle Tom's Cabin and, even though Labor papers generally sided with the Confederacy, workers themselves identified the cause of the South with the cause of the Bosses.

Rose shows the intellectual roots and reasons for tendencies we can easily see in fiction, but which seem arbitrary and inexplicable. Why were poor people so culturally conservative? Why, in particular, did they so strongly dislike the moderns and the Bohemians? This tension forms the background of many familiar stories, from Howard's End to Upstairs Downstairs and The Remains of the Day; Rose explains it. Small-town religious anxiety over sexual mores plays a smaller role, and the class consciousness and snobbery of the leading moderns a larger one, than I would have anticipated.

August 14, 2006 (permalink)


This delightful little commonplace book collects inspiring (and unexpected) passages, and offers entertaining and thoughtful advice, on life's large questions and small puzzlements. His generous and engaging temperament is impatient with junk but finds fine work everywhere, from oft-dreaded classics to contemporary genre fiction. Dirda is especially wonderful when offering guidance on problems to which people seldom give much thought, and his advice on how best to furnish a guest-room bookshelf should be studied without delay by every owner of a bed-and-breakfast or country inn.

July 29, 2006 (permalink)


My Life In France
Alex Prud'homme and Julia Child

Perhaps the most striking thing about Julia Child's life was how late it started. She was born in 1912, in the midst of the great Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson election campaign. Mastering The Art Of French Cooking didn't appear until 1961, and the first episode of The French Chef ran in 1963.

M. F. K. Fisher was only 4 years older than Julia, but Serve It Forth appeared in 1937. By the time Julia Child began to cook, MFK Fisher had published five volumes. Elizabeth David was a few months younger than Julia; by the time Julia's first book was published, Elizabeth David's writing career was just about over.

It's important, too, to remember that Julia Child's influence is much greater than the mere discovery that Americans would watch television shows about cooking. Before Julia, most Americans thought cooking a menial chore and preferred food that was familiar, safe, and unchallenging. The French Chef was an extended argument that food should be something more, and that you yourself could take some good ingredients, work with diligence and attention, and make something much better than your mother could have made.

Without Julia, I think, there would have been no real audience for Chez Panisse, and hence no Alice Waters, no restaurant-farmer nexus, and the modern generation of American chefs would have be very different indeed..

This pleasant and engaging posthumous volume can't always decide to focus on people or places or on food. At times, anecdotes and letters are tossed in a bowl -- plop! -- and then briskly whisked to a froth. But never mind: it's all suffused with Child's voice, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Bon appetit!

July 18, 2006 (permalink)


Like the author's brilliant Fingersmith, this historical novel wraps a lyrical and detailed historical fiction around a formal experiment. Waters has a superb feel for historical detail, and her interest in understanding the varieties of Lesbian experience in the era before Stonewall illuminates the book. The formal experiment in Fingersmith was intriguing, although in retrospect we might wonder whether it grows organically from the needs of the story. In The Night Watch, the formal experiment almost seems grafted on. Perhaps there's a point about our generation's experience of the War. The war was the cradle of our world, and so all our cradle stories flow backwards.

July 15, 2006 (permalink)


Stross undertook the series of The Merchant Princes in order to have a very big story to tell, and this third volume of the big story is caught in the middle. It can't have the joys of introducing the new world, because after two volumes we can assume that introductions have been made and we've all got something to drink. But we don't have the joys of resolution -- not yet, at any rate. Everything has to hang on incident, and on our interest in the characters.

That's enough: Miriam Beckstein, who is the Countess Helga when she's visiting her other home, is good company for a summer afternoon.

July 2, 2006 (permalink)


Radio: An Illustrated Guide
Jessica Abel and Ira Glass

A fascinating little pamphlet, this comic book looks behind the scenes at The American Life. Starting from the surprising assertion that radio stories need more visual texture than print, Abel and Glass dissect the storymaking process. Lots of important lessons for podcasters.

June 28, 2006 (permalink)


The Historian
Elizabeth Kostova

This ambitious, intriguing, and unsuccessful book follows the paired quests of a historian who is seeking to free his graduate advisor from what he fears to be a living vampire in the 1950's, and then the quest of his teenager daughter to find the historian, in much the same circumstances, in the 1970's.

Kostova's premise is terrific. The framework of the braided thriller should generate plenty of energy, and that energy could, in turn, illuminate a close exploration of the meaning of history to historians, amateurs, students, bureaucrats, and peasants. Occasionally, everything does come together: there's a lovely chapter composed of commentary on an invented 15th-century monk's journal that captures, for a moment, what history can be like. But the historians here are fixated on the plot; they care too much about danger and too little about evidence and interpretation.

For a book about history, The Historian expresses scant interest in the passions and pursuits of historians beyond a vague interest in old stuff. When one famous historian receives a Faustian opportunity to have the run of an amazing archive of rare and lost manuscripts from antiquity to Machiavelli, it never occurs to him that risking his moral purity might be a sensible sacrifice. Everyone in this book is deeply interested in Vlad III Tepes, known as Dracula, and yet none of these historians ever proposes a revisionist or even sympathetic interpretation of his career, none of them ever questions the authenticity of what is patently a hostile tradition. We follow generations of historians, yet we never get a whiff of the winds of change: no economic history, no social history, no hint of postmodernism, no trace of the narrative revival or the culture wars or even of academic ambition.

June 23, 2006 (permalink)