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 1943, a small group of Norwegians volunteer to fight for Germany against the Bolshevik menace. Two years later, the war is over and the survivors serve jail terms for betraying their country. Years pass, and in 1999 detective Harry Hole, depressed and alcoholic, pursues a serial killer whose life seems impossibly tangled in this forgotten corner of the war. An accomplished mystery, perhaps over-plotted but nonetheless filled with energy and incident.

July 16, 2011 (permalink)

It is 1944. The Eastern Front has collapsed, a rushed landing at Normandy has been repulsed, and Britain is facing invasion. Its government is calling on citizens to stand firm, struggle on, and perhaps to perish in the common ruin. Late one night, all the men from the seven farms that occupy a remote valley on the Welsh border leave their beds and vanish, leaving behind puzzled wives, one daughter, a guerilla manual disguised as an almanac, and far too many farm chores. This sophisticated but disarming tale of the first winter of the Occupation displays exquisite sympathy for each of its many characters.

March 9, 2010 (permalink)

A good introduction to the American election campaign of 1912. Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt led a third-party crusade to seek to recapture the White House from his former protegé William Howard Taft, facing Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson and a serious socialist candidate, Eugene Debs. Chase is strongest in taking Debs seriously and giving a careful airing to his views and constituency; we know now that this was the Socialist Party’s high water mark, but in many ways it seemed as if the Socialists were gradually moving to greater and greater strength and that their future role might be more like the British Labour Party than the fringe element they became.

Chase draws an interesting portrait of Wilson, whom he views as dangerously incurious, rigid, and personally volatile. In fact, this Wilson seems to share many of the failings of George W. Bush while lacking Bush’s talent for seeming to be likable. We are left to wonder how Wilson managed to be taken seriously by anyone, and this judgment seems to require either moderation or more enthusiastic defense.

March 8, 2010 (permalink)

A Bintel Brief
Isaac Metzker, ed.

This collection of letters written to the advice column of Forvertz, the Yiddish-language New York daily, offers a lovely snapshot of the concerns and trials of immigrants in the early 20th century. A striking letter, for example, records the problems of a freelance Jewish detective hired by the NY police in 1908 to investigate a restaurant that was serving liquor without a license. "I ordered a complete dinner and a schnapps,” he recalls. “I finished the meal, the drink, paid the sum of eighteen cents to the man, and looked around. I saw the owner’s seven children with their pale, emaciated mother, and I felt I could not be so heartless as to take the father away from them.” Can a good socialist and a good Jew work for the police? The Forward editors said, “Run from the job as from a fire.”

March 4, 2010 (permalink)

Whose Body?
Dorothy L. Sayers

The first Lord Peter mystery, revisited after many years, is surprisingly good. This is far from the flights of Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night, but it’s a taut and well-crafted mystery. All of Sayers, really, is on display here, from her chaste adoration for Lord Peter to her embarrassing (but, I think, mostly harmless) anti-Semitism. There's nothing here in any case that a quick dip in Walton’s Farthing won’t wash off. I’d forgotten that the Dowager Duchess, one of Sayer’s finest characters, has a nice role here.

February 23, 2010 (permalink)

An intriguing collection of essays by the brilliant social historian who became Harvard’s librarian. Darnton oversaw Harvard’s confrontation with Google Books, but he is no technophobe and is, in fact, planning an ambitious interactive history of the early book trade. Indeed, his plans are an indispensible credential, showing that he's not merely obstructing technology but actively striving to push it toward more useful channels.

As a nod to his planned historical hypertext,(and perhaps to blogging) the essays in this book are anti-chronological, moving from speculations on Google and the future of scholarship back toward the early history of printing and bookselling. The historical chapters are stronger because they are fresher; our Google anxieties have already been extensively aired, and Darnton’s ambitious hypertext, for all its promise, is still unrealized. From its description here, it’s not entirely clear that the contribution to hypertext (as opposed to its contribution to History) will eclipse the pioneering historical work of Landow and Ayers and Rosenzweig.

But I found myself strangely eager to see how book smuggling actually operated to get Voltaire into the hands of Montpellier readers, and we have lots to learn from (and about) the early book trade.

February 22, 2010 (permalink)

Louis Menand got involved with Harvard’s latest attempt to craft a core curriculum, and this engaging book is the result. Menand explores the intellectual foundations of curricula and disciplines, and carefully shows how disciplinarity helps and mars the university. Most interesting, perhaps, are his insights into the prehistory of the American university and the key role a few institutions and a handful of college presidents played in creating the familiar landscape of departments, degrees, and professional schools. The core problem of the humanities, he argues, is that they have become very good at training ABD’s, the all-but-dissertation cadre of inexpensive teaching assistants, adjuncts, and composition instructors on which contemporary American colleges rely.

February 19, 2010 (permalink)

After Theory
Terry Eagleton

I grabbed this terrific volume after asking around about what I most urgently needed to read to understand modern criticism. It is, when you come right down to it, more about philosophy than criticism. I sometimes felt I was back at Swarthmore, trying to keep up with Richie Schuldenfrei. Great fun, for some values of fun.

February 19, 2010 (permalink)

The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald

I spent Friday at Gatz, the 7-hour production of The Great Gatsby staged by Elevator Repair Service at the American Repertory Theater. It’s a staged reading: a fellow comes back to a dingy office, his PV won't boot, he opens up his 5" floppy disk case and finds a battered paperback. He begins reading.

Every word. Other people around the office work, they wander in and out, and from time to time they pick up bits of dialog. This really makes a difference — it makes it theater. Jordan Baker (Sibyl Kempson), Nick’s golf-star girlfriend, lounges around the office practicing her swing, reading golf magazines, and looking at Nick; it’s a quiet part, but Kempson is a terrific clown in the best sense of the word, and with a toss of her head and a twist of her shoulders she transforms herself from a a short, dark worker in a dingy, dark office to the sleek, rich, blonde who might have been Nick’s Daisy Buchanan.

There are too many standing ovations these days — Linda and I pointedly sit through at least half of them — but it’s impressive to get a standing O after seven hours of watching a guy read a book. Brilliant.

April 4, 2013 (permalink)

Visiting Paris, Adam Gopnik asked his hosts why they always went together to Cafe Flore and never went next door to Les Deux Magots. The answer wanders from their foundations in the 1870’s to the characters of long-dead proprietors, the nature of French fashion, the drinking preferences of Sartre. But the core answer seems to be, simply, that in the early 1940’s the Magot was too often filled with German tourists, and so fashionable Paris grew to prefer Flore.

Ever since reading this bravura passage, I’ve longed for a rich, anecdotal account of life in Occupied Paris and its echoes. This is a fine book, but it’s not Marianne in Chains and it’s not quite the book I wanted. Glass uses the American community as a microcosm of Paris, one that has a conveniently rich historical record because lots of Americans (and the American government) were naturally eager for news of Americans trapped in the occupation. The subjects of this group biography are varied, ranging from Shakespeare & Co. bookseller Sylvia Beach to the Comtesse Clara de Chambrun, a cousin of the Roosevelts who was also Laval’s mother-in-law.

Glass’s approach strikes me as essentially Marxist: in his account, poor but educated Americans tend to be leftist and joined the Resistance, while rich Americans were inclined to support Vichy and public order. Glass clearly wants to engage questions of loyalty and treason: was it treasonous or commendable for Charles Bedaux, for example, to promote a pipeline that would benefit French West Africa without much regard for who happened to be running France at the time? But these questions are difficult to address in a history, and we’re left with sketchy apologies. Glass accepts the success of the resistance without much scrutiny, and seems to accept collaborator’s accounts at face value as well. In the end, there’s lots of institutional history of the American Hospital and the American Library

January 26, 2010 (permalink)

Dictionary Johnson’s tricentenary has already been the occasion for at least three major new biographies; This one was recommended as the best for Johnson and his milieu, and it turns out to be a pleasant, convivial, and engaging read. Johnson started slow – he was middle aged before he was much of anything. He was always short of money but no one could be more ready than he to provide you with a glass of wine, a dish of tea, a spare half crown, and a memorable quip.

January 24, 2010 (permalink)

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell rose from nowhere to counsel the king He rose through Wolsey’s household — Wolsey himself was a butcher’s boy — and became Henry VIII’s chief advisor and Thomas More’s rival. Mantel charts his rise, and subtly argues that Cromwell’s character holds a key to the centrality of tolerant intelligence in British political culture.

This is, in some ways, a strange choice for the Booker Prize. The present volume is clearly a prologue, ending suddenly as Cromwell turns (for the first time) to Wolf Hall, the residence of the Seymours, and the second volume might well transform the first. Further, the opening chapter on Cromwell’s boyish struggles with his father strikes me as clumsy, providing an invented source to explain invented character notes. McEwan did this more neatly in Chesil Beach by leaving childhood events in murky offstage shadows. We can never know what really happened in childhood, and in any case what happened isn’t what matters: this child is beaten, raped, abandoned and grows up fine, while an unkind word leaves another child with a lifetime of therapy. But the rest of Wolf Hall is very fine indeed:

Thomas More comes to Austin Friars. He refuses food, he refuses drink, though he looks in need of both.

The cardinal would not have taken no for an answer. He would have made him sit down and eat syllabub. Or, if it were the season, given him a large plate of strawberries and a very small spoon.

I envy the fierce, deniable malice in that plate of strawberries.

January 24, 2010 (permalink)

Three intriguing short essays explore aspects of literary theory that might be illuminated by quantitative methods. The “graphs” here are Cartesian graphs and the “maps” are primarily geographic maps; the book limits itself to elementary analytical techniques. The chapter on “graphs” chiefly explores the growth in the publication of new novels, and specific genres, over time, observing that there is an important, qualitative transition when the rate of novel publishing ensures that there will always be plenty of new things to read. The chapter on maps features a fascinating map of 19th century Paris, locating their protagonists (chiefly in the 5e) and the objects of their desire (chiefly in the 7e and across the Seine).

January 7, 2010 (permalink)