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

Here's what I've been reading lately.

I try to write a short note on each book I read. This helps me think more clearly about what I'm reading — and about what I haven't found time to read. It's also a very handy way to find half-remembered titles.

I use Tinderbox agents to build pages for some of my favorite essayists, including Roger Ebert, David Mamet, and Louis Menand.

985 Books: by author | by title

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This insightful local history of the Malden MA, an early satellite city north of Boston, focuses on the city’s ethnic groups and their attitudes toward the depressing. Klaymann’s central character here are Malden’s Jews, whose arrival he chronicled in his earlier monograph The First Jew.

Malden had begun as a colonial-era village became a moderate industrial center in the mid-19th century, with a major rail line and big factories making rubber shoes, gym shoes, dyed fabrics, and furniture. From the beginning, Malden had a tiny Black community down the road in its 7th Ward, and when Eastern-European immigrants began to arrive in the late 19th century, lots of them moved into that quarter of the town. Jews weren’t averse to Black neighbors, and the Irish often were.

Malden’s conflicts of the depression era were essentially ethnic. Yankee Protestants ran the Republican Party, but were declining in numbers as wealthier members moved farther from the city. Irish-Americans ran the Malden Democrats, who still meet in the Irish-American Club even though that club has never had a Black member or a female officer. Much of the Irish agenda was focused on preserving their dominance, typically by opposing the aspirations of the growing Ward 2 Italian-American community. Throughout, Malden High was integrated but reserved class offices (and major roles in extra-curricular activities) for Yankee Protestants.

Though all this, Malden’s large population of Jews shlepped through the depression. The kids often did well in school: so well, in fact, the community opposition to academic excellence became a movement. When the WPA planned to build a big and greatly-needed new school, the city dithered for years over the question of whether it should be beige or brick. The Jews didn't care about the color.

The depression created a tight-knit community but carried the seeds of its dissolution. Immigrant Jews had accents and knew a world of pogroms; their kids didn’t. The immigrant generation built delis and shops and tenements, but the Depression deferred maintenance and redlining suppressed values and the kids moved to newer, nicer suburbs.

February 18, 2019 (permalink)


Wisconsin was settled in the mid-19th century by emigrants, chiefly from Sweden and Norway, who were inclined by background and experience to place a very high value on community. In the early 20th century, Wisconsin became a bastion of Progressive politics and the laboratory of social democracy. No state excelled Wisconsin in respect for the environment.

In the 21st century, Scott Walker rolled back all that. Wisconsin, heavily gerrymandered to create a permanent Republican majority, became an anti-union hotbed. The legislature repealed almost all meaningful environmental restrictions on mining and pollution, and gave billions of dollars to Foxconn for the promise of a new factory that might never open.

This sad, but not entirely pessimistic, overview of Wisconsin politics is a superb starting point for anyone interested in taking back our nation from the minions of ignorance and greed.

February 6, 2019 (permalink)


Making Oscar Wilde
Michele Mendelssohn

In 1882, Oscar Wilde was little-known Oxford graduate, a young man who had a done well in school (partly by virtue of having don't it twice), had indifferent success socially. He had received a little journalistic attention, and had far too little money. He parlayed this into an 1882-3 lecture tour of the United States.

It did not go smoothly. Wilde’s promoter, it turns out, was chiefly interested in drumming up publicity for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, and for that purpose was content for Wilde to make a fool of himself. Wilde walked into a complex thicket of racial humor — the minstrel show — as well as the ancestor of drag. The doubtful racial status of the Irish in America complicated everything. Somehow, Wilde managed to preserve some dignity, avoid fatal missteps, and to return home with some profit and a considerable-enhanced reputation.

Michele Mendelssohn uncovers the story of Wilde’s lecture tour — and the fascinating competitors and parodies rival promoters launched at Wilde — from local newspaper accounts that, until recently, would have been virtually inaccessible. Of particular interest are wildly popular performers who have been lost to us, like The Only Leon — Francis Patrick Glassey — a drag ballerina who danced the lead in “Patience Wilde; or the Ten Sisters of Oscar.” Callender’s Colored Minstrels performed a Wilde parody, The Utterly Too Too’s, as a minstrel show, using the novel dramatic approach of having actual black people perform. Nor were the minstrel parodies merely irritants to Wilde: Mendelssohn observes interesting parallels between minstrel show staples and Wilde’s dramatic repartee.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)


This delightful old book was a pleasant companion during my recent visit to Santa Fe. It’s the story of two young men who are caught up in an act of terrorist violence and who head out to even the score. Other men spend a week or a month on the trail, but these two — for reasons they themselves can’t quite fathom — never stop. The underlying crime — the abduction of a young girl who is raised by and ultimately joins her captors — is handled less badly here than you might have expected for a book of this era. Now that the US had concentration camps for toddlers and is in the business of stealing migrant babies, it’s frighteningly pertinent.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)


The issues of this moment, in which the President of the United States, frustrated by a Congress unwilling to fund The Wall, is threatening to circumvent the Constitution and to build a Wall without congressional appropriation, is starkly reminiscent of 1640. This accessible, compact history of the Civil War era is pleasant and modern in its viewpoint, and does a nice job of pointing to major historical and historiographical controversies.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)


Having been felled by a Dublin cold once I returned from Interactive Digital Storytelling, I sought refuge in a volume of Nancy Mitford’s letters I’d been saving for a rainy day. Those letters led me to this biography of Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston Churchill.

As a rule, biographies often are written about people who did important things, occasionally about people who were simply well liked, and occasionally about people who committed notable crimes. Randolph did none of these. He very much wanted to be in Parliament, but aside from one uncontested wartime election he never could win a seat. Everyone knew him, and few liked him. He came to parties, charmed the ladies, drank too much, said and did appalling things, and left. A young Nancy Mitford says in a letter that “Randolph tried to rape me, it was funny. This is a secret.”

This chatty, anecdotal, and sympathetic portrait was written by a relative who, like Randolph, grew up in a castle but without enough money. In a circle where, by current standards, everyone drank like fish, Randolph was prodigious: his father, who started drinking with breakfast and continued throughout the day, though Randolph drank far too much. So did Evelyn Waugh, even in the years when Waugh’s criterion for friendship was wit when drunk.

Leslie argues that Randolph deeply wanted to be liked. But his mother never really liked him, and in her view Randolph recreated that relationship endlessly. A simpler interpretation is that Randolph lacked anything like empathy: he expected service and demanded an audience, and seldom care very much how other people felt about that. That, after all, was someone else’s problem.

January 4, 2019 (permalink)


Brilliant, vivid, indispensable. This book is destined for the shelf which The Souls Of Black Folk has so long had to itself.

December 26, 2018 (permalink)


The narrator, a synthetic cyborg developed to provide security for planetary explorers, thinks of himself as a murderbot. He exists to protect people, but he has no high opinion of people and he heartily disliked them. Really, he’d much rather be left alone to watch videos than have to risk his life for these unpleasant creatures. Still, he’s not happy about a job that requires him to kill so often, even if it’s necessary to save his clients.

December 26, 2018 (permalink)


One day in April 1903, a bunch of school kids in the small city of Kishinev started throwing rocks and slogans at some houses where Jews lived. That wasn’t unusual. But things got out of hand this time: three nights of rioting follower, 49 Jews were killed, hundreds were raped, and the whole world was watching. Correspondents poured into Kishinev from London and Dublin and New York. Hayyim Nahman Bialik composed an epic poem, In The City of Slaughter, that would become a staple of Hebrew studies for generations. At the same time, a far-right newspaper editor in Kishinev concocted an imaginative libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that captured a lot of attention as well. Zipperstein captures the time and place with care and intelligence.

December 26, 2018 (permalink)


Everything you need to know — and more — about the history of Jewish humor, with a special emphasis on the 20th century US. When you were in the writers’s room, the whole world was Jewish.

December 18, 2018 (permalink)


The Dime
Kathleen Kent

From my position in the hallway — on my ass, head pressed against the door frame, legs drawn up with my gun held two-handed against my sternum — I try to recall the layout of the room: three sets of bunk beds, four corpses sprawled across bloodied sheets, my partner, shot three times, lying motionless next to the nearest bunk, and, somewhere in there, one lunatic, a screaming infant in one hand and a semiautomatic pivot in the other. The last time I sneaked a look around the open doorway, he fired at me, the bullet knocking a crater in the wall opposite. He followed up by threatening to shoot the baby and then himself.

I’ve been a cop for five months, one week, and nine and a half hours.

Sure is a fine way to kick off a police procedural.

December 18, 2018 (permalink)


Washington’s Crossing
David Hackett Fischer

The American Revolution nearly failed. At the end of 1776, the President sent New Year’s wishes to General Washington, hoping that the new year would be nothing like the horrible year they had just endured.

All that was about to change. In fact, it had already changed with Washington’s daring Christmas expedition across the Delaware. In the following weeks, Washington’s winter campaign in New Jersey invigorated the sagging spirits of liberty, dismayed the British and Hessian professionals, and changed the world.

December 1, 2018 (permalink)


I still think that this is stronger than the first book — itself a remarkable achievement, since middle books have intrinsic problems that I have always thought intractable. I'm even less surethat the usual consensus, holding this to be stronger than The Amber Spyglass, is correct; if we didn't know the marvels that were coming, would this book be quite so fine? In the end, it’s only the end of The Amber Spyglass that justifies this book.

The sly, slow disclosure that life here is not entirely fun and adventure is literally wonderful.

December 1, 2018 (permalink)


I’ve been reading Pullman’s new collection of essays, and that led me to revisit this magnificent trilogy. The first volume of His Dark Materials, barely hints at the wonders to come and yet is itself a delightful story of childhood adventure.

December 1, 2018 (permalink)


Roger Ebert was a great film critic and a newspaperman at the end of one of the great City Rooms. In his later years, cancer surgery deprived him of the ability either to eat or to talk. Ebert turned to blogging and became the greatest voice of the weblog era. This autobiography is his authentic Web voice.

From Mike Royko’s hat stand (a relic of the old Wacker Street Daily News newsroom) to John Wayne’s boat, Robert Mitchum’s wrong turn, or the meeting of Ingmar Bergman and David Lean, Royko has the story. The central chapters on drinking and not drinking are unmatched, the pinnacle of the confessional weblog, written with immediacy and yet avoiding convention and sermonizing.

November 20, 2018 (permalink)


In 1947, Charlotte St. Clair, a well-heeled American college student, is heading to Switzerland with her mother in order to take care of a little problem. She ditches her mother in Southampton in order to pursue a clue to the whereabouts of her wonderful French cousin Rose, who disappeared in the war. The clue leads her to the dilapidated house of an alcoholic WWI British spymistress who threatens to shoot her. The game is soon afoot.

Based on an actual WWI spy network, the story alternates in time and point of view between the first war and the aftermath of the second. Charlie is a good character in a good predicament, and she gets the story off to a good start. Later, the situation takes over and things become too easy; contrast Simon Mawer’s haunting Trapeze.

October 19, 2018 (permalink)


A swashbuckler, reminiscent of The Count Of Monte Cristo, with a difference: our rakish 18th-century hero is accompanied on his journey toward virtue by his best friend, who is black, and by his sister, who is a feminist and who is secretly studying medicine. A rollicking frolic is had by all.

October 19, 2018 (permalink)


Through much of the twentieth century, American comedy — standup, skit, theatrical, cinematic or on television — was chiefly Jewish comedy. Jeremy Dauber surveys this scene and ties it to ancient writings and medieval tradition. A thorough and fascinating study.

October 12, 2018 (permalink)


A lovely graphic novel of the author’s search for an explanation for her unhappy Vietnamese-American family. Bui started this book as an alternative to her dissertation, which explored the history of Vietnamese refugees in their historical context but failed to get at the emotional core of her experience. An exceptional and concise portal into a complex history, rich with nuance and unexpected gentleness and complimented by Bui’s wonderful portraiture and deft watercolor work.

September 5, 2018 (permalink)


E. C. Ambrose, author of Elisha Barber, dips a toe into the thriller in this joyful gallivant that springs from a chance encounter of a graduate student of ethnomusicology and a mercenary entrepreneur who is trying to set up a squad for protecting valuable archeological relics. From rooftop snipers in Somerville MA to fast horses on the steppes, we’re on the track of history and treasure — while the full power of China is out to stop us.

September 4, 2018 (permalink)