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

Game designer and VR guru Brenda Laurel ran Purple Moon, a company that made computer games for girls, until the dotcom meltdown led its jittery investors to sell out to Mattel. This slender pamphlet, elegantly over-designed by Denise Gonzales Crisp, explains not so much what happened as why Laurel thinks the game is worth the candle. She is, at heart, a humanist, and she holds onto the ideals of hard thinking and hard research in support of the common good with a ferocious good nature.

The whole apparatus of critical/ postmodern/ cultural studies ... never managed to excite me into action in the same way those original, if bruised ideals did. I return to humanistic values, which for all their misinterpretations and misapplications, validate humanity's ability to create a better future, and which offer both an ethical ground and a methodology for setting about it."

March 27, 2000 (permalink)

I love The Spanish Prisoner, and was eager to see the screenplay, to know if the film changed much in shooting. It didn't: the Rolls dealer originally sold shotguns, a few lines changed. Hardly anything. The central problem (how do they work the switch) isn't clarified in the screenplay, alas. No news here (and it's a tough screenplay to read, since it's filled with descriptions of shots with no dialog) but it's a wonderful story.

May 19, 2002 (permalink)

These delightful essays from the brilliant playwright visit favorite Mamet topics with a directness not always possible onstage. Deer hunting, gambling, writing captions for dirty magazines, diners, it's all good and it's all lively. "The Jew For Export" is at once a fascinating look at the ambiguous place of Jewish actors -- Theda Bara, Lauren Bacall, Winona Ryder, Cary Grant, Paul Newman -- in film (see Brustein on Jews in the theater); Jews are everywhere, but "how would one know if one did not know." Mamet segues from this observation into a scathing, intriguing attack on Schindler's List, which he argues takes the same attitude toward the Jews that the stock melodrama adopts toward the pretty girl tied to the railroad tracks.

May 19, 2002 (permalink)

The Wailing Wind
Tony Hillerman

Few writers can match Hillierman's sense of place. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police joins his retired ex-boss, the legendary Joe Leaphorn, to solve a puzzling shooting, vaguely connected to legends of a lost mine. Hillerman is, I think, at his best when he stays with the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni, far from the cities and towns and the belagana, so this isn't Hillerman's best. But it's always nice to hear from Leaphorn and Chee.

March 7, 2013 (permalink)

Mystic River
Dennis Lehane

Almost every scene of this gritty, realistic mystery takes places within a few miles of my house, but I've rarely seen them and I confess the terrain of Pen Channel and Buckingham are as distant, for me, as the Sentier or Keams Canyon. This mystery starts slow and then bogs down, as terrible things happen slowly to people who deserve better (and sometimes worse). The novel is redeemed in the end by a brilliant epilogue, for once the mystery is resolved Lehane is finally free to let his characters live,

May 12, 2002 (permalink)

An informal history of a language once spoken throughout a big slice of Eastern Europe. Weinstein opens with a moving elegy for a lost world and a promising future blighted. It's nicely done, but then Weinstein can't shake off the gloom, and even back in the Medieval era the Nazi specter overshadows this readable account of the development of the Yiddish language and literature. What Weinstein misses, alas, is the patience to explore aspects of Yiddish thought and habit -- the strange obsession with the evil eye, the development of what Americans think of as "the Jewish joke" -- all of which are (apparently) part and parcel of the Yiddish blossoming of the 19th century.

I once asked a scholar, "What was Yiddish literature like in 1812?" There wasn't a Yiddish literature yet in 1812. It was a rich literary Spring -- Peretz, Alecheim, Singer, and all that theater -- but it all happened very suddenly and, of course, was extinguished almost overnight.

Eskimos and Icelanders, famously, possess a rich vocabulary for snow and ice. Yiddish has a wonderful vocabulary for people and personality. In Yiddish, you've got schleppers and schlemiels and schlemazels and schnorrers and more, all in one crowded corner of the stage.

May 4, 2002 (permalink)

The Mouse Driver Chronicles
John Lusk and Kyle Harrison

Lusk and Harrison left Wharton with their MBA's, the plans for a computer mouse that looks like a golf club head, and just enough capital to launch a novelty gift business. This lively, likable account of the first two years of MouseDrivers serves as a strange postscript to the dotcom era. Lusk and Harrison are acutely aware that Mouse Drivers is not a dotcom, that their enterprise is froth at the rim of the internet cauldron. They take some pride in this; they have a business model, they make money, they manufacture things people want. But, in the end, the whole idea is predicated on the dotcom bubble, as is the ease with which they raise their capital, the assurance with which they launch their business, and the willingness they seem to have felt throughout to envision the failure of the whole thing. A very welcome antidote to CEO-porn, the unfounded adulation and (more recently) ridicule that pervades so much popular writing about business.

March 4, 2002 (permalink)

Aaron Elkins

Benjamin Revere, former curator, former Harvard professor, former entrepreneur, tracks down the true owner of a truckload of Old Masters that disappeared in the waning days of WWII. Despite his charmed career, Revere is drawn as a schlemiel, a lonely, friendless bumbler who has drifted into a vocation as an art cop and who finds himself far over his head trying to pick up girls in a Back Bay cafe, much less dodging Mafia thugs in Budapest. This its protagonist, this book is complicated, relentlessly competent, and less interesting that it has any right to be: having filled the scene with the a host of wonderful backstories (imagine a Russian Milo Minderbinder, fifty years later), Elkins spends most of his time with a plodder.

April 14, 2002 (permalink)

Empire Falls
Richard Russo

HBR listed this novel as one of the year's best business books. This well-wrought novel offers some quietly fine writing, and Russo paints the decaying Maine town of Empire Falls with a compassionate sensitivity of which Proulx might justly be jealous. But a handful of realistically-considered paragraphs about the business of diners and bars hardly make this a business novel.

The absence of realistic business life from current literature is remarkable. Babbit and Death of a Salesman cast a long shadow, but both are now relics of a distant era. Glengarry Glenn Ross is a fine play and a wonderful portrait of desperation in the sales department, but it, too, is a story of a passing generation. We visit the groves of academe and the writer's lonely study all the time, but we seem rarely to drop into the conference room or the cubicle, and when we do it's rarely to think about the work people do or the way they feel about it.

March 12, 2002 (permalink)