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

It’s hard to remember that this was (in 1958) new, that Sean Connery was not yet the real James Bond. I suppose the real James Bond was Peter Fleming, Ian’s big brother.

Roger was walking along Gower Street. He had passed the School of Tropical Hygiene. He had passed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In one minute, in less than one minute, he would have reached the Slade.... so I called across the street: "Roger, come to Brazil."

"What?" said Roger: playing, I dare say, for time.

"You’d better come to Brazil” I said, getting into a car.

“Why?” said Roger cautiously (or perhaps incautiously), also getting into the car. We set down Gower Street: past the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: past the School of Tropical Hygiene. I talked rapidly. At the end of Gower Street Roger got out.

“I'll let you know for certain on Monday,” he said.

The book has superficial faults. The casual racism can be forgiven, the way we excuse Dickens and Dorothy Sayers, though by 1958 Fleming might have known better, and – considering this is James Bond – the sexism is not as bad as we might fear. I’m less sanguine about the concluding action sequence, which seems to take a very long time to accomplish very little.

Bond’s concept of a workout – he employs a personal trainer to get in shape for the mission – is quaint: 3 1-mile jogs interspersed with hours of sunbathing is considered a real workout. It’s also striking how much richer the rich have grown since 1958; the fantastic Dr. No has a palace/control center that’s not much nicer than a large law firm’s offices, its walls are adorned with lithographs and reproductions, and Bond thinks the appropriate bribe to offer a henchman to betray the operation is $10,000 and an airplane ticket.

June 10, 2011 (permalink)

Jernau Gurgeh is a professional Player of Games, to the extent that anyone in the far-future Culture may be said to have a profession. Pan-humankind, alongside a plethora of sentient machines (including giant space ships with such wonderful names as So Much For Subtlety and Unfortunate Conflict of Evidence) has plenty of tech and no shortage of anything. This poses an obvious obstacle to writing a novel, since no sensible person in the Culture is likely to want anything badly enough to generate a novel. Iain M. Banks overcomes the difficulties with style, starting with the introduction of a sentient machine – the wonderfully unpleasant Mawhrin-Skel – who was created to be a soldier-diplomat, turned out to be entirely unsuitable for the job, but who very badly wants his old job back.

May 31, 2011 (permalink)

I came across this lighthearted – but far from superficial – book in a Kensington bookstore last year. I didn’t buy it then, thinking I wouldn’t really want to carry it around all day, and that perhaps it was a momentary whim. It stuck somewhere in memory, though, and – wonders! marvels! – the public library has a copy. So here we are.

Plenty of people are Sunday painters, Fry observes, and we all think that playing an instrument is a nice thing to do for fun. Why not verse? Fry takes a look at the nuts and bolts of writing poetry, especially using very traditional forms for comic effect.

Lesbian Sappho made this form

 With neat Adonic final line

Her sex life wan’t quite the norm

   And nor is mine.

Want to write an amusing sestina, or dash off a memorable ballad? Fry is your guy.

May 21, 2011 (permalink)

True Grit
Charles Portis

Ebert’s review observes that the excellent recent remake of the movie adheres closely to the novel, which Ebert clearly admires. Clive Sinclair, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, reminds us that Portis’ story of a 14-year-old girl’s vengeance is a Vietnam novel, a tale of 1968. The film makes an interesting double feature with Apocalypse Now, and the book is not out of place beside “Heart Of Darkness.” Conrad was interested in evil, and in the contrast between London businessman and the jungle; Portis accepts evil, like discomfort, as a bothersome burden that a sensible person should oppose when possible, just as one ought to dispatch a rattlesnake if you have a sharp hoe ready to hand.

Portis’ judgment of the war is sound and subtly argued: Rooster Cogburn has fought in wars before, and will go on to fight in wars again. He is a good man. He has true grit. And he has always, always, found himself fighting to the bitter end for the wrong army.

February 17, 2013 (permalink)

In this Pulitzer-winning novel, every chapter begins with a timeshift and a new point of view. What might seem a tedious experiment in late postmodernism becomes, in Egan’s hands, a natural way to tell a complex, compelling story about the intersecting lives of a group of friends and acquaintances over the span of many years.

At one point, a successful music producer is taking his kids and his (very) personal assistant on an African safari. His sulky daughter Charlie, one night, joins a dance around the fire and launches us through time:

He wants to grab his daughter’s skinny arm and yank her away from these black men, but does no such thing, of course. That would be letting her win. The warrior smiles at Charlie. He’s nineteen, only five years older than she is, and has lived away from his village since he was ten. But he’s sung for enough American tourists to recognize that in her world, Charlie is a child. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather’s hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight.

It should not come as a surprise that, much later, we will meet Lulu once more, or that she will play an important (if unconscious) part in resolving an injustice that appears in the book’s earliest chapter (though not its first) and which no one seems to have noticed.

May 16, 2011 (permalink)

Dirda steered me to this brilliantly readable and extensive biography of the British editor and critic of the Mitford-Waugh-Auden-Spender generation. Eton and Oxford, Connolly was a strange fish, an ardent homosexual who discovered women in early mid-life, adored them, had three wives and nearly always had a second woman nearby. He had wonderful taste in food and wine, adored the gentry, was always desperately short of money, and could never quite manage to make himself sit down and work. Still, he managed to create an important magazine, write several significant books, and to retain the friendship of the cadre of difficult men with whom be romped at school and who shaped the artistic taste of a generation.

May 13, 2011 (permalink)

Theodore Holm Nelson

Available from Lulu.

"IN A WHARTON LOUNGE A LITTLE MORE THAN 50 YEARS AGO, a Swarthmore student named Ted Nelson tried to compose a difficult seminar paper. He was overflowing with ideas and awash in distractions, and e was intensely frustrated that these ideas could not be easily organized on paper. He wondered if the recently invented computer might play a role in solving the problem and sketched out some ideas for how a literary machine might facilitate better term papers, better libraries, and indeed a better repository for the world's documents. The pursuit of that idea changed the world."

Read my discussion of Possiplex: Ted Nelson ’59 and the Literary Machine in the Swarthmore College Bulletin.

May 10, 2011 (permalink)

In perhaps the great political reversal in the history of democracy, the year 1864 transformed Lincoln’s legacy. Entering the year, his administration was hapless, its policies discredited, its personnel were considered inept and its military strategy was a disaster. Lincoln himself seemed destined to be remembered as one of the worst one-term presidents in history, a western comic unfit for the office. Eleven months later, he was reelected in a landslide and his party became forever the Party Of Lincoln.

What happened? Flood believes the crucial moment was Atlanta, where Sherman’s conquest reversed an unending flow of bad news. This seems incomplete, for the Union had won victories before, and it’s not clear to me that a contemporary who was unconvinced by Vicksburg, Gettysburg and the Wilderness campaign would be converted by the fall of Atlanta. I have no doubt it was true, but I’m not certain I understand why it was true, or what contemporaries knew about it.

An unfortunate transformation wrought in the 20th century White House is the complete isolation of the president from people with commonplace concerns. In 1864, if you could afford a decent suit, you walk right into the White House on New Years Day and shake the president's hand and say a word or two. Lincoln kept office hours, and people frequently brought him constituent problems of all sorts – lost army paperwork, pleas to pardon loved ones, inventions, or simply wanting to look him in the eye and see the face of the man whose pen had freed a people.

April 1, 2011 (permalink)

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe François

I am not generally a fan of cookbooks that promise incredible shortcuts. Preparing food sometimes takes a little time and a little skill, and books that promise wonderful results without effort or expense seldom deliver food worth eating.

But this book has an idea, and it works out the ramifications and consequences of that idea with determination and good sense. The central proposal, simply, is to make one large batch of dough – enough to last two weeks – and store it in the refrigerator, removing just enough to bake a small loaf when you want some fresh bread. From that, everything else follows.

Let’s begin from first principles. Freshly baked bread is much better than bread with preservatives that let it sit on the shelf of your supermarket. Preserved bread, in turn, is better than stale bread. And stale bread is better than no bread at all, or bread that just costs too much.

Our ancestors bought bread from the baker. They didn’t make bread themselves, unless they lived in the middle of nowhere, far from the baker. The reasons were economic: in towns and cities, fuel was expensive and, once the oven was hot, it would bake one loaf or dozens equally well. So, instead of everyone having their own oven, you’d pool together and have one big oven and everyone would share it, or you’d have a designated baker who made bread to everyone.

This is not our problem: lots of Americans have ovens and they don’t think twice about turning it on. Our problem is, nobody has time to mix dough, knead it, let it rise, shape it, let it rise, and bake it. Not every day.

Hertzberg and François address this problem neatly by thinking it through. You make one big batch of dough – enough to last you for two weeks. You keep it in the refrigerator. Two weeks of dough will fit into your refrigerator, and your yeast won’t run out of tasty flour (or catch an infection) in two weeks of refrigerated storage. Every day or two, you grab a handful of dough, shape it, and throw it into a hot oven to bake. The trick is to keep the bread dough on hand, in the refrigerator, all the time.

This wouldn’t work for a commercial baker. First, there’s no point: you’ve got to show up to sell the bread every day, and you’ve got to bake it every day. Mixing is easy enough, and it doesn’t take much labor to watch bread rise. Even if you wanted to use this method commercially, the refrigeration costs would be absurd. Worse, commercial cooking is all about consistency, and holding dough for two weeks is going to lead to gradual changes in the sourness and flavor of each loaf. The method tends to make lots of little loaves, each slightly different, and while that’s a fine thing at home it can be difficult in the store, where Ms. Smith is always going to suspect you’re giving Ms. Wesson the good loaf. Tears will ensue.

The underlying idea – keeping the dough around for a very long time – has a bunch of consequences, which Hertzberg and François work out neatly. To keep it going that long, you need lots of water, and so this dough is very wet – they’re working with hydration that starts at 75% and heads north to the 80’s. All that water, and days (or weeks) of development, means there’s no need to knead if you don’t want to: mix thoroughly and time (and yeast) will take care of the rest. The very slack dough means shaping techniques need to be rethought pretty thoroughly. And small, daily loaves mean shorter baking times (and fresher bread), which will confuse Americans accustomed to weekly groceries.

But the real news here is an approach to bread that is simple and, within limits, consistent. I’ve found that the difficulty of baking bread is wildly exaggerated in any case – at least if you approach your bread with a bit of flexibility and don’t insist that every loaf be identical in every respect. But this approach is incredibly simple: grab a handful of dough, shape it into a ball, let it rest for 20 minute, and bake for 30. You’re done.

My first loaves have turned out pretty well, with excellent crust and promising crumb. Intriguing variations here range from the expected (whole wheat, rye, herb bread) to eyebrow-raising bagels and bialys and pecan rolls.

The book itself is sometimes repetitious, as most recipes repeat the same essential steps with minor variations in dough or shaping technique. It’s written to encourage people who don’t bake, and while this might be a good commercial tactic it doesn’t lead anywhere or give them a hint that there’s more to know. All the measures are by volume, for example, because lots of American cooks are accustomed to that, but it’s the wrong way to do it and the book makes no effort to explain this or to accommodate people who own scales. The authors know this is wrong, and their recipes are all working back from a notional 5oz “cup” of flour, but to find out I had to ask them through Twitter.

March 27, 2011 (permalink)

This readable introduction to iPhone application development pays attention to the details. Hockenberry discusses in considerable depth the mechanics of provisioning and submitting applications and of shepherding them through the approval process, matters that might quickly go out of date but that are, for now, tricky and not widely discussed.

It is difficult to imagine who this book envisions as its ideal reader. The opening chapters – about a third of the volume – introduce Objective C and the Cocoa Touch framework. Little prior knowledge is expected, not even rudimentary object-oriented programming, about which readers are urged to visit Wikipedia. Hockenberry’s breezy, casual style is not notably concise, and so these 100 pages strike me as far too elementary for an experienced programmer, too incomplete for a novice, and too cursory for an advanced student or a Java coder to grasp. One of Cocoa’s most distinctive features, delegation, gets two or three pages, and these pages don’t make any attempt to place delegates in the context of related Smalltalk, Java, or PowerPlant concepts. Questions any CS major would ask immediately – call by reference or value? ordered or labelled arguments? – go unanswered. Some valuable hints about the debugger are a promising start, but that topic is then abandoned and nothing much is said about profiling, leak detection, or exception management. The treatment of collections is equally sketchy, and while a few Cocoa objects are described a bit, whole catalogs of capability go unmentioned.

The treatment of design as a separate and superior activity to programming is, I think, misguided. The author is a designer and is writing, I think, for people who are not; he urges them to hire themselves a designer and then do what the designer says. Since the book clearly envisions individual developers or very small teams, this model may be unrealistic. Design and code are not separate things, and attempts to separate them are misguided. At times, the author’s contempt for the audience is palpable:

As a developer, you tend to look at problems from the implementation outward. A designer thinks about the final product and works inward toward how it’s constructed. When the logical left side of your brain encounters the designer’s artistic right side, great things can happen.

This is completely misguided – the flip side of the hard-nosed managerial outlook that always wants to control the creatives, suspecting that they only want a budget in order to buy cool clothes and then persuade each other to take them off. Everyone knows you’ve got to design the final product, just as everyone knows you’ve got to design a product that can be built. This preaching is wasted space, but since nobody is really going to be deceived by it, it’s harmless.

In any case, we hear a good deal of a designer’s thoughts on good coding practice and on the importance of employing designers, where I’d have preferred to hear more about graphic design.

The sample application developed here is an elaborate flashlight app. This might seem a placeholder, but it seems to me the choice is well considered: this is a book for people who want to write iOS applications which do almost no computation.

March 22, 2011 (permalink)

In 1952, Julia Child read an article in Harpers about the shortcomings of stainless steel kitchen knives. She agreed wholeheartedly, and sent the author – public intellectual Bernard DeVoto – some inexpensive French knives. Her reply came not from the author but from his wife and secretary, Avis:

I hope you won’t mind hearing from me instead of from my husband. He is trying to clear the decks before leaving on a five weeks’ trip to the Coast and is swamped with work, though I assure you most appreciative of your letter and the fine little knife. Everything I say you may take as coming straight from him – on the subject of cutlery we are in complete agreement.

Bernard had indeed appreciated the gift, and had appropriated it for the cocktail hour. But Avis turned out to be a fine and lifelong correspondent, and because Avis had terrific contacts in publishing, this letter turned out to be a crucial step in securing the eventual publication of Mastering The Art of French Cooking.

Joan Reardon has collected much (but not all) of the surviving correspondence between this first contact and the publication of the book, some eight years later. It makes a fascinating record, not only of an intricate editorial process but also of the intellectual and political world of the 1950’s. The DeVotos were at the center of the Hub. The Schlessingers lived next door and came regularly for drinks. So did the Dean Rusks. Paul Brooks, Dorothy De Santillana and the Houghton Mifflin crew were close friends, May Sarton was down the street, Albert and Blanche Knopf were close as well. DeVoto, though not well known today, was a titan who was banqueted alongside Robert Frost and Sam Morisson, Bill Faulkner and Rachel Carson at a ceremony for the great writers of the century. Child, married to a State Department official, was posted far in the periphery, unknown and greatly in fear of McCarthyist witch-hunting.

There’s not much in Julia’s letters that we didn’t have in her own recollections and her biography. DeVoto, on the other hand, is a fine discovery and a terrific writer. There’s not much to learn here about cooking, but tons to discover about sexual politics and social life and household economy. I wish the footnotes gave us a little bit more background about people the letters mention – the footnotes are not the match of Charlotte Mosley’s – and I’d have gladly read some of the later correspondence, omitted here, from later years when the widowed Avid DeVoto became one of Child’s assistants. Still, these are delightful letters that brim with enthusiasm, spirit, and the patience to nurture a large and difficult creation.

March 21, 2011 (permalink)