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

Hillerman tries his hand at a bit of narrative experimentation -- in this case, a mystery thriller told entirely in flashback, as Joe Leaphorn tells Jim Chee and his new wife Bernie about what Leaphorn was doing while the newlyweds were enjoying their Hawaiian honeymoon. Hillerman's sense of place is unmatched, and continues to be the principal delight of his writing. The plot, this time, has holes, but it's nice to see Hillerman again turn outward from his heroes' psyches and look around the rest of the reservation.

December 22, 2006 (permalink)


An intriguing, incoherent book from a great writer. Mamet has long argued that anti-semitism is alive and vital -- not merely amongst the poor and ignorant but also -- perhaps especially -- among educated and sophisticated circles. His attack on Schindler's List ("It is to my mind Mandingo for Jews") strikes me as provocative and worthwhile: it might be right, it might be wrong, it is certainly worth hearing. His portrait of Jews in film, "The Jew For Export" (in Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances) is essential. Here, his discussion of the real meaning of Santa Claus (and the real reason parents delay telling the kids the truth about Santa) is well worth the price of admission.

But this book, which tries to expose the wickedness of the "wicked son" of the Passover Haggadah, the son who asks "What does this mean to you?" , founders because Mamet cannot bring himself to sympathize, even distantly, with the son. Mamet tells us that the son is wicked because he is aggressively removing himself from the family, the community, the tribe, under cover of "simply" asking a question. And this might indeed be wicked if the son were removing himself because he believed he'd receive some benefit from electing himself out of the family, if the son dishonestly chose to pretend that he did not belong to this family even while feasting at the family table.

What Mamet affects not to understand -- what he doesn't even mention -- is that the wicked son need not be the sullen teenager trying to distance himself from the family he is trying to disown. He may instead be asking a pertinent question. "You say that you are doing these things to commemorate the intervention of The Eternal One in a labor dispute long ago and far away. This is patently improbable, and such evidence as we possess has clearly been contaminated by many generations of political tampering in support of causes and kingdoms long forgotten. We have known this in our family for generations: the only thing that anyone remembers of my great-great grandfather was that 'he was a learned man,' and his descendants read and studied and wrote. When you study Rosa Luxemburg or Abe Lincoln or Pericles, you apply different standards than you are applying tonight. What makes this night different from all other nights?"

December 19, 2006 (permalink)


Delightful fun. this slender volume collects Norby's witty columns from The Believer in which he describes what books he's been buying, and reading, each month. The lists seldom coincide.

December 14, 2006 (permalink)


The Romans had central heating, a form of banking based on capitalist principles, weapons factories, even spin doctors, whereas the barbarians were simple agriculturalists with a penchant for decorative safety pins. So, while the barbarians had something to do with it, they couldn't really have caused the fall of the Empire. Surely the barbarians merely took advantage of more fundamental problems rife within the Roman world.

But did they? This book will reopen one of history's greatest mysteries: the strange death of Roman Europe.

The end of the Western Roman Empire was not a mere political experiment. A vast zone of economic prosperity and artistic innovation suddenly collapsed and vanished, leaving Europe to centuries of grinding poverty.

Heather builds a compelling argument that the barbarians were responsible — not because (as Gibbon thought) the Romans were so indolent and decayed that they could no longer resist, nor because the Germans were such great warriors, nor yet because Roman taxes were too high. The barbarians destroyed the Empire because they wanted so urgently to join it.

Rome's frontiers expanded to the edges of the ancient West because, in the end, people on the frontier wanted to be Roman. This expansion benefited everyone for centuries: the new Romans got central heating and theater, and the Romans got an every-growing economy. What stopped expansion in the East was a superpower. In the North, what stopped expansion were the Barbarians — people so poor, in lands so cold and barrent, that the Roman economy couldn't make any headway. You could make a denarius from British pottery or Spanish wine or North African wheat, but what could you do with safety pins?

It was clear to the Romans that the ledger sheet would never work, that at some point they'd be trying to turn a profit in frozen wastes. But that didn't help the folks left on the outside. They wanted to be inside; the more frozen the wastes, the better that central heating sounded. It was, in short, a mess.

The mess was tolerable as long as life on the outside remained tolerable. What changed? The Huns . We don't know much about the Huns — not even what sort of languages Hunnish might have been — but we do know that nobody wanted to live anywhere near the Huns. Germans, caught between Horde and the Roman police, opted to face the police and try asylum. The Romans couldn't keep them out, and the Huns had force-fed their political development until the Germans had become formidable, unified forces. Those German politicians wanted their own tax bases, and the whole central edifice collapsed.

Our best sources for the late empire are roughly as good as our worst sources for the Augustan age. We often have to rely on epitomes and summaries written centuries after the event, or on biased polemics intended to prove theological or political points in which we no longer have much interest. Worse, many of our sources are simply unattractive. You might not have wanted to vote for Cicero but he'd be an interesting guy to have to dinner. You might not want your teenage daughter to be dating Juvenal or Catullus or Ovid, but you can see why she might have other opinions. But Symmachus and Cassiodorus are difficult at best, florid and flyblown. For many things we ought to know (who were the Huns, anyway?), we simply have no sources.

Occasionally, Heather tries to relieve the rhetorical excesses of the age by reaching for an informal tone. Often, this works, though I do think the word "consequences" is generally superior to "knock-on effect". I'd love to have a little more archaeological detail and to hear a little more about the evidence, but the text already runs to 459 pages with another 100 of apparatus and a couple of dozen plates. This is an admirable book: readable, sensible, thorough, and level-headed.

December 9, 2006 (permalink)


A terrific novella can be found here, perched uncomfortably at the end of an 800-page chapter book for adults.

In Clarke's England of 1811-1814, magic is a memory but not an impossibly distant one: in the Middle Ages, Northern England had been conquered by a Faerie King and the modern United Kingdom now holds the North in stewardship for the absent Northern monarch. Faerie is thus historical memory, lost in much the same way as Welsh independence or the barony of Calais. Spells actually worked in the Middle Ages, and 19th century antiquarian societies avidly collect old manuscripts of magic instruction.

When Gaiman calls this, "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years," he pays himself a disservice because his American Gods is a much better (and far more concise) novel. Perhaps American Gods is too American and not quite English enough, and perhaps Lord of the Rings is not precisely a novel. (Seventy years is a strange number: what happened in 1936? The Once and Future King? Lud In The Mist?)

Hundreds of pages are spent on forgettable episodes of mildly amusing magic, vaguely reminiscent of Harry Potter but written in a slightly more ambitious tone. I enjoy long narratives, but Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell cost me weeks of reflection on the issue of abandoning a book in midstream. It seemed, literally, interminable.

And then, at the very end, we witness a transformation. The nature of magic itself changes: instead of vague and mysterious gestures, the magicians of the title seem suddenly to be studying a real subject and thinking about the properties of something complex and poorly understood but nonetheless important and tangible. They sound less like Harry and Hermione and more like Watt and Stirling -- and that must be precisely what Clarke set out to do in the first place. Instead of cardboard antagonisms, we have a real reconciliation of two enemies who find themselves together in a country house on a desolate moor under Perpetual Darkness. They neither trust nor understand each other, but they will work together because there is work to be done.

November 28, 2006 (permalink)


A refreshing and readable mystery with a fine sense of place and superb characters, major and minor. Walt Longmire, a veteran sheriff in small-town Wyoming, is hoping to retire from a fractious department when a body is found on nearby BLM land. Johnson is funny without silliness, bizarre without absurdity, and captures the West without sentiment or contempt. The Cold Dish merits consideration as one of the best mysteries of the year, in what seems to be a strong year.

November 4, 2006 (permalink)


I've been thinking again about plot and energy in hypertext narrative, and grabbed this along with the Elmore Leonard.

Jack Torrance is an alcoholic. So is Stephen King, but while King now writes casually and humorously about the time when he simple couldn't sleep, knowing that there was a bottle of beer still not drunk somewhere downstairs, Jack Torrance is grimly on the wagon, without humor and unable to laugh at, or forgive, himself. Jack, in other words, is awfully tough on himself, and King sure is hard on Jack. Inserted into a horror novel, this guy never has a chance.

October 26, 2006 (permalink)


A gloss on McCloud's essential and insightful Understanding Comics , this book addresses novices who want to make comics. Naive manuals appear regularly, teaching people how to imitate various comic drawing styles; McCloud seeks to go deeper and to explore in somewhat greater depth the craft of telling stories in words and sequential art.

Some of his points are new and important. In a single frame, for example, he sums up beautifully why simple immersive media wouldn't accomplish everything we want, if only we all had holodecks at our disposal. In it, he draws Kelly Donovan with a word balloon in which he introduces himself as the actor who played Xander Harris's evil twin in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. You can't say this in images: it's inherently symbolic. (I've argued this in talks for years, with reference to Euclidean geometry, organic chemistry, and macroeconomics. McCloud's example is much better.)

McCloud's subject is visual storytelling, not the mechanics of drawing cute manga babes or men in tights. His discussion of facial expression is brilliant and, I think, unmatched. (Jane Espenson, who has a new blog, agrees.)

What I miss here is a fuller treatment of story construction. What do you show, and what can you leave unshown? Mamet has a terrific lesson in On Directing Film , walking a class of film students through the process of finding the shortest and most direct way to convey "arriving early for an important meeting" to the audience. There's much to explore: where do you place the viewer? Where do you place the characters? What must you show, and what can be omitted? How, for example, do you indicate that we are arriving early? You could have a shot of a clock. You could have someone tell us that it's early. But there are better answers.

I'm confident that there are interesting matters of craft that McCloud omits, perhaps because they seem too technical or too theoretical or simply too detailed for the notional novice reader. I miss the details. Playwrights, for example, learn that they need to either give a character something to do or get them offstage, because it's remarkably difficult to do nothing and say nothing convincingly for more than a minute or two.

Shaw didn't get this memo and sometimes leaves actors hung out to dry for ten or twenty minutes at a stretch while others discourse on labor relations and the obligations of management. This is hard to see in a good stage production and almost impossible to see on the printed page, unless you know to look. A good stage production will have anticipated the challenge and taken it into account in casting and rehearsal, and on the page you don't see the characters who have no lines.

McCloud does offer some fascinating insights on the effect of different compositional choices, and especially on the more subtle differences between US, European, and Japanese styles and how these elements might be blended to good effect. I'd like to see much more.

October 17, 2006 (permalink)


As Scott was welcoming us to the Inn at Weston last weekend, he pointed to a well-stocked bookcase in the library. "Take whatever you like," he urged us. "If you don't finish it, take it along with you and mail it back." A good bookshelf is important to a country inn. And so, under the influence of Australian jet lag, I found myself rereading this charming tribute to the Public School and its schoolmasters.

I had thought this an old classic, like Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857 ), though I had mentally shelved it next to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1962). But though To Serve Them All My Days seems closer in spirit to Tom Brown than to the Brodie set, its copyright date is 1972. That's strangely disturbing.

Writing in the current New Yorker about a new revival of A Chorus Line (1975), John Lahr observes that the shadow of Vietnam is not far offstage.

Seeping into its cutthroat dance-off was not just a new look but a new sound—the post-Vietnam sound of retreat. Cassie’s spiritual fatigue reflected the culture’s nostalgia for a simpler, happier life, one undamaged by the nation’s imperialism, one that would replace the destiny of me with the destiny of we. A Chorus Line’s sense of abdication spoke subliminally to its time; it is also what makes the musical so pertinent to the present, disillusioned generation.

If Vietnam casts any shadow over Bamfylde School, it is in the concluding chapter and its catalog of Old Boys who are lost in the Second World War, just as the headmaster at the center of the book was nearly lost on the First. To the end, the book's hero remains deeply convinced that the important things about a school are sympathy and sports, and that the really vital task is to make sure that the young men grow up willing to pitch in and to clean up after others. It's a world of sentimental domesticity, and the boy who goes off to fight Franco is dispatched as simply doing his bit, a bit too soon.

But it's a fine world nonetheless, a pleasant read for a crisp autum morning

October 14, 2006 (permalink)


Heat
Bill Buford

New Yorker editor Bill Buford spent a year in a celebrity chef's kitchen, and then studied butchery in an Tuscan hill town. This is a book reminiscent of Ruhlman's Making of a Chef and Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. It should have worked. It doesn't.

In his review, Alwin Hawkins observes that the underlying premise is tinged with an awkward arrogance.

Think of the hubris of an amateur, untrained chef stepping into the harsh, hot, unblinking world of the commercial kitchen of one of the great restaurants in New York.

This is one of the differences between Buford's book and its predecessors, and it's telling. Ruhlman begins by surreptitiously changing into the uniform of a student and reports to Introductory Skills Kitchen, and when he gets there he immediately finds that he's late, he's violating the dress code, and he doesn't hold his knife properly. Bourdain is quietly proud of his cooking -- those frites at Les Halles! -- but he's proud, too, to tell you about all the dives he's worked on the way up, and all the ways his kitchen falls short. Buford's always tight with Mario, and if he sometimes cuts himself and sometimes gets into trouble at the pasta station, he's still comfortable.

Bourdain, in the end, is about the contrast between the refined, polished, and expensive front of the house and the rough-and-tumble kitchen. Ruhlman is about how very hard it is to cook well and professionally, since professionals need to be absurdly fast and numbingly consistent. But Heat is caught between them. Buford gets close to the celebrity chef, then veers into kitchen labor problems but never gets to their resolution. He touches on business issues but averts his gaze whenever money gets in the way of romance.

It's a fun book, with a nice sense of connection to history and to vanished kitchens. Even then, there's too much of the Medici and too little of the rustic common sense that lies at the core of the history of cooking. People used to wonder about the invention of bread, but bread is what happens if you leave the porridge too long because little Billy has wandered away or that cute little brown bear has wandered too close. Bread-thickened stews and pasta are just two ends of a continuum: we have some cereal product here and some sauce there and there's nothing else to eat. What do you suggest?

October 12, 2006 (permalink)


Jo Walton tackles the guilty pleasures of the Victorian sentimental novel, the charming and ever-popular tradition that runs from Austen to Galsworthy. These novels are all about sex and money, but the way characters behave about sex and money are unreal. Walton addresses the problem by creating a richly-imagined world in which the conventions are real and biologically necessary. Her Victorians are dragons. They need money: the only really comfortable bed is a bed of gold. Landowners need to exploit their tenants, because landowners are entitled to eat weak hatchlings of their tenant farmers and dragons can only grow by eating dragonflesh. Dragon maidens need to be very careful around men, because a few minutes alone with a male will make a golden maiden blush -- that is, it will turn her permanently pink, and no one will marry a pink dragon unless she's pink because she's already betrothed to him.

And so we have a rolicking good time with balls and assignations, duels and mothers-in-law, titles and livings, all captured with pitch-perfect tone and adapted to a world in which the conventions are not a facade for Society but, quite simply, the way things are.

October 4, 2006 (permalink)