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

This complex and lyrical police procedural, set in and around Edinburgh, features three distinct investigators. One of them is a 13-year-old orphan. Two serial killers are involved, and (I think) two doctors named Hunter, only one of whom is being hunted. This could have been a train wreck or a leaden postmodern experiment, but Atkinson makes it all seem as straightforward as a day at the office.

December 14, 2012 (permalink)

This satisfying volume presents an extended essay about food, food writing, and restaurants that ranges from wartime French bistros to the Adriá brothers. Gopnik is ultimately interested in the way thoughtful eating lies at the intersection of animal nature and the mind. Much depends on dinner.

December 7, 2012 (permalink)

This charming romp begins when an unemployed, RISD-trained graphic designer lands a night-shift job at an all-night North Beach bookstore. The tiny store is perched next to a strip club, and turns out to double as a private circulating library. The day clerk assumes the books are hollow and filled with cocaine. Our designer expects pornography. It turns out they’re filled with encrypted, secret, ancient wisdom.

Who doesn’t like a puzzle? Our hero likes them fine. So does the brilliant Google employee Kat Potente, who also likes our hero. Along with a high-school D&D friend who made a fortune modeling female breasts for video game companies, they set out to break the code and to penetrate the secret cult that surrounds it. The cultists are not always thrilled at the idea. There’s lots of great typophilia here, and a ubiquitous historic typeface, Gerritszoon, of which you’ve never heard. There’s a reason for that.

The book gets its tech right, and its tech characters nearly right. There’s still a sense that too much skill or knowledge must be bought off with a crippling physical or emotional disfigurement, but we’ve come a long way from Ellen Ullman’s The Bug, where a brilliant programmer had to be, by turns, autistic and dead. We should be past the time when scientists had to pay for wrecking the world with nuclear missiles and beyond this sentimental reflection of the Victorian convention that sexually competent female characters had to die. (“But when I saw her laid out like a queen/She was the prettiest corpse I’d ever seen.”) Look at Allegra Goldman’s Intuition. You don’t need to dirty up your characters; just let them get into their own troubles and the dirt will come. You don’t need to do the Lord’s work yourself, and sufficient unto the day is the day’s evil.

The book has been advertised at The Deck, the trendy design blog network. Someone at Farrar, Strass & Giroux is a very bright bunny. The ancient wisdom has been that advertising individual titles is usually ineffective, unless the goal is to convince bookstores to stock and display the title. Perhaps that Old Knowledge is changing, too.

December 1, 2012 (permalink)

The middle volume in White’s compendium of exhaustive studies of every facet of London in the 20th, 19th, and 18th centuries. Fascinatingly, White began with the 20th-century volume. I discovered the series because TLS lauded the newly-arrived book on the 18th century.

Each chapter follows a street that provides a focus for its topic: Spring Gardens for government, Broad Sanctuary for school administration, Flower and Dean Street for common lodging houses and the very poorest laborers. If you want to know how the administrative structure of the Metropolitan Sanitary Commission affected the growth of London and the health of its residents, this is the book for you. White delves into fascinating detail about how things actually worked, from land speculation in Belgravia to prostitution in the back of the music hall. This is not an anecdotal account, and White generally focuses on streets and highways; we learn about offices and institutions, clerks and magnates, but hear less of what went on inside those offices or where people ate lunch. At 624 pages, there’s not much space to lament what was left out, and even the administrative histories of the London School Board and the New Police provide a certain narrative satisfaction.

November 24, 2012 (permalink)

In this daring and dazzling overview of the field and its history, Stephen Lekson interweaves the history of the Southwest and the history of Southwestern archaeology. This dual narrative turns out not to be an affectation, for our ideas of how Anasazi and Hohokam people lived were deeply shaped by personalities and institutional histories. In particular, the presence of a border between Mexico and North America has separated Chihuahua from Arizona and New Mexico in a way that would have been invisible and absurd to the fourteenth century.

Lekson builds his conjectural history from a number of fundamental assertions, some of which differ dramatically from American archaeological convention. He asserts that “distance could be managed” – that people knew a lot about what was happening hundreds or thousands of miles away. Their knowledge wasn’t exact and it wasn’t current, but because people doubtless heard stories and repeated them, Lekson assumes that the Anasazi knew something about Mesoamerica far to the South, and also something about Cahokia far to the East. When “the Turk” led Coronado and company from Pecos out into the great plains, Lekson thinks, he knew exactly where he was going and what they would find on the banks of the Mississippi – he just hadn’t received the memo that the great Mississipian city had collapsed a few centuries ago.

Similarly, Lekson is very reluctant to accept temporal coincidences. If two events happen in sequence, he is happier to assume a causal sequence or a common antecedent than to posit mere coincidence.

The historical (rather than methodological) idea that really matters here is a fresh interpretation of Pueblo IV as a deliberate ideological rejection of the Chaco phenomenon. The Pueblos were not always peaceful and egalitarian; as Lekson wrote in The Chaco Meridian,

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.

Lekson rejects the language of critical theory as emphatically as the heirs of Mimbres rejected its traditional iconography. That’s interesting, and he has developed a supple and flexible informality that combines precision and concision with a disarming accessibility. This is in many ways a brave book, one whose conclusions will not always suit its readers’ politics. Lekson’s history may not be the past that contemporary Southwesterners would like to imagine, but this fascinating and beautifully-argued reexamination of the evidence restores to the Southwestern past the possibility that history happened there.

November 20, 2012 (permalink)

This fresh collection of Hornby’s superb book columns from The Believer is just as much fun as its predecessors (here, here, and here). Each month’s entry begins with a list of Books Bought and a separate list of Books Read. Both are very much worth reading, even though they seldom overlap much. This time, there’s a lot of Muriel Spark, with whom I’m going to have to get better acquainted.

November 15, 2012 (permalink)

Veronica Roth

I was out of commission, flat on my back, and going nowhere. I had finished Insurgent and quite liked it, and so I was lying in bed and shaking with chills and wondering where I had put volume 1. As it turns out, volume 1 was on my iPad, just like volume 2, and so it was easy to spend the day revisiting it. And, while in principle that day might have been more profitably spent with, say, Eagleton’s After Theory, I wasn’t sure that the fever dreams of critical theory would mix well with the fever dreams of fever.

The book holds up better than I had feared. The pacing of the opening is superb on rereading, and the boot camp sequence is wonderfully done. There’s nothing much to learn from the romance, but we don’t usually read about the love of a pre-teen girl for a boy two years older in order to seek instruction or wisdom. I’m not sure I like the rest of the plotting, and I think Roth is so good at building worlds that she destroys them before actually putting them to use. This is wasteful and unsound, but I suspect that the great Moral of this series is that invented worlds are a renewable resource.

October 16, 2012 (permalink)

In 1972 Serena Frome, fresh from Cambridge, spends a summer with her aging donnish lover. At the appropriate moment, he passes her in due course to employment in MI5 where she files reports and types bold memos about which her superiors soon have second thoughts and which they will never send. In one memorable pinch she’s sent to clean a safe house in Her Majesty’s service,.

And then, of course, she is given a shot at responsibility: recruiting a young novelist in a program to steer “culture” in directions that will promote Britain in the Cold War.

Ian McEwan here channels Le Carré, and does it remarkably well. He then turns the story on its head and lets it hare off in the way McEwan stories (Atonement, Amsterdam) will do. As Chesil Beach seemed to be a story about sex and turned out, on second thought, to be a story about art, this is a story that is not chiefly concerned with what its narrator thinks is her obsession, nor yet with the fate the reader fears will ensnare her.

October 16, 2012 (permalink)

Veronica Roth

This is volume two of a projected trilogy that starts with the excellent Divergent. Like Hunger Games, this young adult romance starts from a schematic premise — a dystopian ruined world that is rigidly organized along the lines of personality tests — and accomplishes surprising things. This is not the book that Divergent was, but few books are.

Tris Price, who says she is 16 but whom we understand to be a good deal younger, was born to abnegation and born for dauntless: her parents were members of the Abnegation faction but, on Choosing Day, she chose to join the Dauntless faction. Rejecting her parents’ beliefs was tough. Winning acceptance in her new faction was brutal. And now that she has gained that acceptance, now that she is a member of society, the whole thing has fallen apart and the whole known world (which encompasses central Chicago and perhaps some of Lake County Illinois) is falling apart as the factions fall to war.

Of course, there is a young man in the case, and that young man has problems — not the least of which is that Tris insists on setting tests for his love that no one could pass.

A misfortune of Roth’s schematic premise is that Tris is a Romantic heroine in both senses: not only is this the story of her awakening to love, but this is the story of heroism to which, and for which, she was literally born. She triumphs because of her intrinsic wonderfulness, and since Roth is doing SF, we’ll eventually learn that this is not an accident.

Some details annoy. The story takes place in a nicely-drawn Ruined Chicago, but too much of the geography is either unclear or wrong. It sounds like Erudite Headquarters is the Old Public Library, which makes lots of sense. But the description actually sounds more like the Gage Building, or maybe the Metropolitan Tower beneath its Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Or is it the Santa Fe Building? The choice doesn’t matter (although details of each building could lend resonance to certain scenes if you let them), but the lack of specificity blurs what would otherwise be a very nice sense of place. Similarly, there are lots of trains, running endlessly along ancient tracks, never stopping. Dauntless use those trains to go places. The homeless live on them. But these don’t seem to be running on tracks we know; why, before the disaster, would Chicago have torn up all its transit and replaced it with new transit? One suspects instead that the author assumes there’s a train that goes wherever her characters need to be.

Still, Tris is an impressive young lady. She’s been through a lot. So has poor old, beat-up Chicago. It’s time to see what happens when we move out into the larger world. The name of volume three has not been announced, but surely it’s bound to be Emergent?

October 16, 2012 (permalink)

The four Macdonald sisters appeared at first to be completely unremarkable Victorians, daughters of a long-forgotten Methodist preacher. One married a successful ironmonger. One married an artist from a fairly good family, and another married an artist from no family at all. The fourth married an art teacher.

Or, in other words, one sister was the wife of Burne-Jones, another was married to the head of the Royal Academy and of the National Gallery. The third was Rudyard Kipling’s mother, and the fourth was the mother of Stanley Baldwin, thrice Prime Minister. But these were not the Peabody sisters, excelling their peers in reading and feeling, nor were they the Mitford girls, awash in a sea of wealth and beauty. They had scant money and none of their talents seem exceptional, and still things turned out as they did. Flanders explore the story of their interconnected lives, trying to discover the answer to the unknowable question: what made these seemingly unremarkable sisters the focus for so much success?

October 9, 2012 (permalink)

This is that very rare bird, a Readercon recommendation that became a best-seller. This terrific first novel seems to me to be, in essence, a response to the Punchdrunk production of Sleep No More: how magical would immersive theater be if you had access to real magic? Readable yet adventurously written, the book has a complex timeline, a sub-thread in second person present, two sets of twins, and (of course) a wonderful travelling circus.

October 4, 2012 (permalink)

This indispensable, idiosyncratic book for the Western visitor to Calcutta/Kolkata leads visitors away from the familiar, colonial-era monuments and into the vibrant streets of this city. All of Calcutta is astonishing, but my experience was that Humphrey is exactly right in thinking that Western visitors will, in fact, be much more at home (and receive a much more interesting and, presumably, real impression of the city) in the vast swaths of the city where they are unexpected than in the handful of places where they are.

On nearly every stroll near New Market, for example, I was at least occasionally engaged by aggressive beggars or by tourist touts. (Hello again, Shakil!) This didn’t happen anywhere else; at most, if I was studying my cell phone map, someone might ask me if they might help. And even on the day of a massive public demonstration against American disrespect for Islam, I felt nothing but welcome (and curiosity or puzzlement) when walking through either Moslem or Hindu quarters.

Calcutta is made up of a complex tangle of streets and alleys, through which large automobile boulevards have been driven at infrequent intervals. Many streets have two names, a colonial name and a newer one; in some cases, the new name has stuck and in others, everyone uses the old name. The tangles and warrens themselves have occasionally been rationalized; sometimes, a street will end in one place but will start again someplace else. Finally, an address may apply to an entire building complex or an entire block rather than to individual shops or houses. Nonetheless, the tangle is the place you generally want to be.

Humphrey has a nice mix of interests in people, in history, and in occupation. He gives himself space to tell stories and to conduct quick interviews with letter-writers, astrologers, with squatters. Even with these interludes, this is a real guide to be carried in the hand as you travel, not merely to be read in your armchair.

The book is readable, even for walks you don’t actually to take. I didn’t get to Tagore Castle, for example, scared away by reports of endemic dengue, but it’s just one of bunches of odd sidelights Humphrey describes that the usual guides ignore. It’s an early 19th century palace that is now a slum tenement.

For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world

Two prerequisites of flânerie, however, are knowing what you are seeing and feeling at least a little bit at home. (For a pale six-footer, to remain hidden here is improbable.) That there should be a lot that I didn’t understand is unsurprising; after all, here I’m illiterate and unversed. I don’t know where to be and where to look, and some introductory material might be helpful here. I repeatedly saw couples on the street or in restaurants, for example, who were engaged in intense discussion, and was never able to tell whether the couple was breaking up or comparing the merits of different economic policies. I don’t understand the significance of distinct clothing styles that must be meant to broadcast their significance. And I don’t know how to avoid an intrusion that veers from odd (“why on earth is a tourist here?”) to intrusive (“how am I supposed to work with that idiot blocking my light and scaring away the customers?”) or offensive (“what is he looking at?”).

For example: when hot and tired, I sometimes stand with my hands on my hips. Don’t do this on a Kolkata street: it makes you too broad, and people will keep bumping into you. Kolkata is crowded, and Kolkatans stand compactly.

Conversely, in a city plagued by brutal economic inequality, one where political and ethnic feeling runs high and has in the past spilled into terrible violence, street crime does not appear to be much of a problem.

One problem with this edition is that the maps are not quite adequate. Unable to have original maps drafted, Humphrey has licensed some existing street maps that cover the areas for each walk, but this often requires three or four overlapping maps, printed with different scales and different orientations, to cover a single walk. The proposed routes are not marked on the maps, but things the traveler doesn’t care about, such as ward boundaries, are prominent. Worst, the actual route is not drawn. It would have been far better to simply add a route line, if only with a ball-point pen, than to leave the audience to puzzle things out on a crowded corner, dodging rickshaws, appeasing dogs, and getting in everybody’s way.

September 29, 2012 (permalink)

Kristin Cashore

Highly praised at Readercon’s The Year In Novels, this is the strangely improbable fantasy of young queen Bitterblue whose court is filled with ministers who behave very oddly. Everyone, she observes, is a crackpot. Her subjects commit absurd crimes, like swapping a field of watermelons for a a cemetery full of headstones. Her ministers conduct absurd policies. Nothing makes sense, but then Bitterblue has never known anything else.

It’s difficult to know just what to think of this novel. I suspect that Cashore may be trying to remediate Dada here; instead of starting with two old men in the park and ending with Waiting For Godot, we start with Godot and drag the absurd back into the fields we know. There’s an undeveloped subplot about an underground network of storytellers that suggests some theoretical sophistication. If that’s the agenda, it turns out to be tricky because almost none of the characters is much more than an idiosyncrasy, an affectation, or a power.

An alternative interpretation starts from the chronic lie of contemporary YA fiction: almost all female characters (Pullman’s Lyra being the exception) are far younger than they claim. Queen Bitterblue says she is in her late teens, and her ministers are much older, but if this were their fantasy — if we were to understand all of this to be a fantasy of six- and eight-year-olds imagining being grown up, having boyfriends and planning revolutions, it might make sense.

Or perhaps it’s simply a fantasy world that doesn’t quite work, an idea that the writer couldn’t quite pull off.

September 23, 2012 (permalink)