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.

903 Books: by author | by title

2017 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

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In the 1890s, the Harvard College Observatory began to employ a group of talented female assistants to help compute orbits and measure stellar positions on the glass plates in which that observatory specialized. Over the coming decades, this group gradually emerged as leaders in astronomy and astrophysics – especially in the spectral characteristics of variable stars, a subject that held the key to measuring the size of the galaxy and the universe. At the same time, these women gradually broke barriers that kept women out of the sciences. Sobel does a nice job of focusing on the lives of these women and their discoveries; there’s not really enough of the science here – these women must all have loved the science, because they certainly weren’t paid enough to do the work otherwise – but I already knew the outlines of the Main Sequence and the Cepheid stories, anyway.

When at 70 years of age Dr. Annie Jump Cannon won the Ellen Richards Research Prize, she used the prize money to endow a new prize, and for years augmented the modest cash value of her prize by commissioning an astronomically-themed brooch from a female Boston goldsmith.

(When I was took Introductory Astronomy at Harvard Summer School in 1973, I spent many, many nights with what I believe was Miss Draper’s 8" Bache Refractor and one long, delightful night making a plate of the Andromeda Galaxy with the big reflector at Oak Ridge.)

April 26, 2017 (permalink)


American Caesar
William Manchester

I adored the final volume of Manchester’s life of Winston Churchill, and I’ve long revered his underrated memoir and history, Goodbye Darkness. It was time to take on his massive biography of Douglas MacArthur.

In lots of ways, MacArthur and Churchill seem similar but aren’t. Both alarmed their subordinates in the Second World War by taking unnecessary risks,but it seems clear that MacArthur was suicidal while Churchill just wanted to be part of the fun. MacArthur would have rather liked to have gone out like Mickey Marcus, leading his men under fire and into immortality; had that happened to Churchill, he’d have been astonished, and rather put out.

Both men were brilliant, but Churchill read widely and wrote unforgettably; MacArthur didn’t. Churchill made money (eventually, and after lots of effort); MacArthur married it. MacArthur remained fit and energetic into old age; Churchill was fat and inclined to potter. MacArthur seldom accepted a drink and even more seldom finished one; Churchill expected his first drink to arrive when he awoke, and drank day and night.

Manchester fought under MacArthur – far, far under – but it’s clear that Manchester’s sympathy (and that of Paul Reid, the coauthor who did much of the work for the crucial final volume after Manchester’s stroke) lies with Churchill. Winston may have manipulated, but MacArthur lied. Winston saw a need to save his country and sought power to do it; MacArthur loved the power and, to get it, MacArthur would be a Liberal in Japan and then a Ultra-Conservative at home. Churchill in opposition was cantankerous and curmudgeonly; MacArthur was frequently paranoid and always insubordinate. He became an old soldier very young – arguably at West Point – and for a very long time he refused to fade away.

April 20, 2017 (permalink)


The Truelove
Patrick O'Brian

Back we go to Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, for a study of sustaining dramatic focus while your characters are busy waiting for things to happen. These adventures sustain their energy and tension admirably while their protagonists play Boccherini in C and write letters to their absent wives. Fascinating as ever.

April 18, 2017 (permalink)


Our Hearts Were Young And Gay
Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Two young American ladies, fresh out of Bryn Mawr, set sail for a summer in London and Paris. They have a good time and quite a few adventures in this witty, effervescent volume that was once incredibly famous.

It’s hard to believe, but apparently actually true, that two sophisticated college girls could have had no idea at all about how sex worked before they travelled abroad together and puzzled it out, one afternoon, at the Musée de Cluny of all places. But this was, apparently, the case.

It’s hard to believe that two flapper undergraduates in Paris, just three years before The Sun Also Rises and within a year (at most) of Ulysses would have drunk so little in Paris. Hemingway had three martinis and three bottles of wine with lunch; Skinner and Kimbrough think a single Alexander at the Ritz Bar the pinnacle of debauchery.

April 5, 2017 (permalink)


An earnest guide to writing interactive fiction, in the style of “choose your own adventure,” using Scrivener. La Ronn explains that the book relies heavily on examples drawn from the author’s own interactive fiction “because my style of interactive fiction is unique.” Exactly where La Ronn disagrees with other IF writers remains somewhat vague.

One key decision (though far from unique) is avoiding second-person narrative, based in part on a simplified version of my old My Friend Hamlet argument. Second person, he argues, “turns the reader into the hero.” Children like that, he says.

But grownups don’t want to imagine themselves in a novel. Most of the time, they work crappy day jobs and they read for pleasure.

Ouch.

Some trivial accidents are distracting.

Let’s say you have a hero who is an archaeologist. He gets a phone call in the middle of the night to come to Arizona immediately because a team of scientists just found some cool fossils.

OK: we’re a little hazy on the distinction between archaeology and paleontology, but that can happen to anyone. The real question is: what paleontological discovery can’t wait until morning? Those fossils have been waiting in the ground for millions of years, yet we have a Michael Crichton phone call and must head to the airport in the middle of the night. Clearly, the game is seriously afoot, and that’s a mystery to which I’d love the answer.

April 3, 2017 (permalink)


A rollicking adventure that approaches the zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie. Melanie, otherwise known as Test Subject 1, is a young girl, one of a handful of zombie kids who – when they’re not actively pursuing and devouring people – remain clearly sentient. Scientists race to figure out whether Melanie’s partial resistance to zombification holds the key to saving humanity. There was one thing they had forgotten.

April 3, 2017 (permalink)


The old main streets of the old suburban city where I live is filled with big, ornate buildings that used to be owned by fraternal organizations. The Masons had a huge building. The Odd Fellows had one even bigger. The Knights of Pythias were a little smaller and built their outpost a few blocks away in Maplewood Square. All the neighboring towns have similar buildings; some are still used by Masons or Elks or Knights of Columbus.

In the 19th century and much of the twentieth, these societies were huge, and were central to American civil life. Crucially, these societies drew their broad membership across social classes, and often their officers were men of modest means. Most only admitted men, and black Americans usually had to create their own parallel organizations like the Prince Hall Masons and the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, not to mention the NAACP. When representatives of in local lodges convened at grand state and national conventions, the delegates might be comparatively poor.

These organizations shrank vastly and suddenly after WW2. Skocpol’s lively account argues that our civic life lost something with their passing.

March 16, 2017 (permalink)


When Libyan assassins come to a small Vermont town, seeking revenge for a covert US Intelligence operation some thirty years ago, they find that this old man has a good deal left in the tank. To a considerable degree, this is the companion of James Grady’s Six Days of The Condor – the song of Experience to the older book’s paean to innocence, not least because Perry finds a way to redeem the older thriller’s creepy but indispensable sequence of kidnapping and seduction. Plenty of loose ends remain at the end, but perhaps that’s part of the point: stuff goes wrong – often very wrong – and you try to continue with whatever you’ve got.

March 7, 2017 (permalink)


The Sun Also Rises, it turns out, really happened. Hemingway took a bunch of jaded Parisian emigres fishing, and then took a bigger bunch to see the bullfights in Pamplona. They really did get into fist fights. They really did get into each others’ beds, and each other’s wallets. The stuff with the wineskins really happened. We don’t actually know that Hemingway had three martinis before lunch and then drank three bottles of wine himself, but there’s not a hell of a good reason to doubt it.

Lesley Blume has tracked down enormous detail about the months before and after this trip, months during which Hemingway’s first marriage broke up and Hemingway moved from promising but scarcely-published struggling artist to literary lion.

March 1, 2017 (permalink)


This is Hemingway’s masterpiece, and an important hole filled. It’s a nifty little book, though its spareness (which must have been striking in 1926) no longer comes as the shock it must have seemed then. I’m less clear how surprising Brett, the woman in the case, really seemed when this book was new; she exercises sexual autonomy and regrets the narrator’s incapacity, and since this was two years before Lady Chatterly that incapacity was fresher then. Was Waugh thinking of this when he wrote Vile Bodies (1930)?

February 21, 2017 (permalink)


A Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara

This weighty and much-praised book, a Booker nominee, recounts the friendship of four prosperous New York men – a lawyer, an actor, an artist, and an architect – over several decades.

I have not been so giddily happy to see the end of a book since Little Dorrit, and that was back in 1973.

The characters are well drawn, the language is interesting without being self-consciously lyrical, but while there’s plenty of incident, there’s remarkably little story to propel this long, long character study. While the narrative spans decades, we’re focused so intensely on the changing characters that nothing much changes in the city or the world. The characters’ few changes are telegraphed long, long in advance, so they are in effect described before they are demonstrated.

February 8, 2017 (permalink)


Hag Seed
Margaret Atwood

Latest in the stellar new Hogarth Shakespeare series, Margaret Atwood takes The Tempest and sets the story at a Canadian Shakespeare festival that is about to oust its brilliant, distracted director. He goes into a long, rural exile, alone with the memory of his dead three-year-old Miranda. Now, he’s teaching drama in a prison a thirsting for revenge.

February 1, 2017 (permalink)


Dear Daughter
Elizabeth Little

I snapped up this mystery after reading a New York Times column by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in which French was asked for a list of the best contemporary crime writers.

Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, Stef Penney, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott — and two of my favorite up-and-comers are Jamie Mason and Elizabeth Little.

At first, this novel – a first-person caper about a Kardashian-like celebrity suspected of having murdered her ghastly mother – seems an unlikely choice. French draws characters quietly and with great care, while many of Little’s characters are off-the-rack. French cares a lot about setting, but here the twin ghost towns of Adeline and Ardelle could, give or take a tapped-out ore deposit, lie anywhere from North Dakota to Pedernales, from Vermont to Ouray.

And yet, in the end, the book works. The character concepts may come straight from the department store, but they're nicely accessorized and, by the time we approach the finale, we’re actually going to miss some of them.

January 26, 2017 (permalink)


This Edgar Award-winning mystery is an accomplished formal experiment, a quadruple-mystery with a half twist. Wyatt, a private investigator, takes a quick trip from his Las Vegas base to his old home-town, Oklahoma City, to find out who is harassing the new owner of a local rock bar. Wyatt avoids Oklahoma City like the plague because, as a teenager, he'd been caught in the bloodbath of a movie theater robbery; he can’t resist looking into that as well. The poor guy has PI written on his sleeve, so much so that total strangers walk up to him and ask him to look into stuff for them. Wyatt unwisely tries to do a favor for one of these strangers. And then we have Julianne, a nurse who has nothing to do with Wyatt except that she, too, found herself at the edge of a terrible, mysterious crime in those long-ago days.

On the whole, it’s done pretty well. Knitting together four braids is hard, and sometimes the seams show. Some of the red herrings aren't quite as interesting as they need to be, given the amount of business required to keep the machinery moving. Still, an exemplary story.

January 23, 2017 (permalink)


An accomplished graphic novel, the work of several hands, recounts a country week in which a group of young artists set to creating a graphic novel about the death of the artist. In the end, neither the artists nor we really come to grips with the absent artist, and the varied media employed – loose watercolors, photographic comics, contemporary high-style comic art – sometimes tug uneasily at each other.

January 16, 2017 (permalink)


Night Witches
Jason Morningstar

A table-top role playing game (and sophisticated study of the nature of narrative) by Jason Morningstar, author of the insightful narrative game Fiasco, which explores the dynamics of the caper movie, and Grey Ranks, a game about the Warsaw ghetto uprising that achieved things we did not think games could achieve.

This is the story of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an all-woman force that flew more than 1000 combat mission against invading Germans. As in Grey Ranks, the outlook is grim: we are flying obsolete bombers against a superior enemy, our own Army despises us because we are women, and our government is perpetually suspicious of success and of failure. Amidst the brutal carnage and foolishness, we can perhaps find friends and lovers among the women of the regiment – but of course such particularity may be unsocialist revanchist perversion.

The center of Night Witches and its underlying brilliance lies in what we would call, in other circles, its collection of writing prompts. For example, when the 588th arrives at its first duty station, the players are asked:

Which officer of the 588th was in no condition to fly when the Regiment arrived in Trudgen Gornyaka? What is being done to keep livestock off the runway, and why isn’t it working?

You’ve got to love this. We’re still early in the war, we’ve already got pilots in love with other pilots, pilots in love with their airplanes, the NKVD snooping around our beloved Captain, a critical shortage of gaskets. We’ve got the Germans. And now we’ve got goats on the runway! And there’s a Mysterious Reason that the goats keep getting onto the runway. Improv: go!

Morningstar (along with fellow narratives game designers the Paul Czege and D. Vincent Baker) teaches us a lot about the interface between games, hypertext fiction, and old media.

January 13, 2017 (permalink)


Booker-award nominee and early work by the author of the current sensation, Hot Milk. Two London couples (and a teenage daughter) share a villa in France. Beset by the usual woes – growing boredom, diminishing talent, looming bankruptcy – their uneasy friendships are strained when a stranger, Kitty Finch, turns up naked one morning in the swimming pool and is invited to stay.

This ought to work. The writing is enviable. Somehow, I missed the turnoff.

January 12, 2017 (permalink)


Red Harvest
Dashiell Hammett

Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, which became a great movie, and The Thin Man, which spawned one of the first movie franchises, but this is his great novel.

An operative of the Continental Agency (we never learn his name) is dispatched to Personville, California, a small city. People in the know call it Poisonville. His client is murdered before they can meet, and we begin single-handedly to wrest the town from the control of an unsavory league of industrial goons, booze smugglers, beer distributors, and a police department they jointly own. In the middle of everything is Dinah Brand, a woman whom everyone loves: the long line of her lovers soon includes the Continental Op, but that doesn’t change his plans.

The body count is formidable, so high in fact that at one point the investigator himself goggles at the total. So many characters die so quickly that Hammett has a hell of a time helping us keep everyone straight. This is the novel that changed American mysteries and from which film noir springs.

It ought to have been the start of a long line of books. Whiskey and Hollywood got in the way, but we’ll always have Poisonville.

January 8, 2017 (permalink)


A witty, self-deprecating memoir by the late actress, this slender and likable volume reflects on what it was like to live in the fishbowl of celebrity. It was tough enough to be Debbie Reynold’s daughter, still harder to be Eddie Fisher’s child. That would’ve been plenty, but Fisher was bipolar to boot. “If my life wasn’t funny,” she writes, “it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

January 5, 2017 (permalink)


Frederica Hatch is a daughter of the regiment – the regiment in the case being Deming College where her parents, Professor Hatch and Professor Hatch, teach and oversee the faculty union. She was raised in a dormitory, the daughter of houseparents and the special darling and mascot of a women’s college. When she herself goes off to college, she notices the professors’ labradors and golden retrievers, beloved and fussed over by lonesome and homesick students. She says, “the dogs reminded me of me.”

One day, Frederica learns that her father had been briefly married before he met Freddy’s mother, and finds the prospect of this mysterious, shadowy figure of his past fascinating. Then, the ex-wife comes to Deming to serve as the houseparent, and difficulties ensue. By the author of The Inn At Lake Devine, who is not to be confused with Laura Lippman, this was an especially fortunate find at the redoubtable Big Chicken Barn.

January 4, 2017 (permalink)