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.

889 Books: by author | by title

2017 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2016 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2015 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2014 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2013 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2012 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

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2001 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2000 Fall | Summer | Spring


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)


In recent years, more than a thousand Americans who were serving long prison sentences have been freed because, as it turned out, they were demonstrably innocent.

The criminal justice system is absurdly stacked against people who, for one reason or another, were wrongly convicted. It’s not enough to cast doubt on the conviction; in some states, convicts must show that no reasonable jury could possibly have convicted them. Convicts have had to sue to force the state to disclose that it possesses evidence that could exonerate them, and then must sue again to force the state to permit that evidence to be tested. Prisoners released on parole at the end of their sentence benefit from programs intended to prevent repeat offenses; because the exonerated never committed a crime in the first place, they can’t receive any of these benefits.

This book offers a number of close looks at some people who spent a long time in prison for crimes with which they had nothing to do. Some of the people are remarkable. Many are worthy of emulation.

The book’s one flaw is that it lacks a call to action. Our treatment of exonerees is unjust; finding it so, we should put a stop to it. Where do we begin?

January 3, 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 2, 2017 (permalink)


This 2011 history is large and was well-received, but I’m not convinced I see the point. A 21st-century history of the US Navy in the Solomons necessarily starts in the shadow of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, specifically his Volume 5 on the Guadalcanal campaign. Morison had formidable advantages: he was a Harvard historian, he was a sailor, he had personally met every US president since Teddy Roosevelt and in the war he held a presidential commission to record its naval history. Morison knew the senior officers, he had staff to track down survivors and documents, he was a terrific writer, and he’s still in print.

Hornfischer relies on Morison for a number of anecdotes and accounts. He adds some details and skips some others. He takes pains to emphasize the surface fleet, but Morison is hardly unjust on this score. Hornfischer a little bit more frank in drawing character sketches of the senior officers, but only a little. Morison actually knew these people; Hornfischer has to rely on the record, though Hornfischer need not worry about running into them at parties and reunions.

One problem with Morison, which Hornfischer repeats, is that almost every mistake and shortcoming is committed by the losing side, which in almost every case is the side with the least metal. In August, the US Navy can’t get out of its own way; lookouts don’t look out, radar doesn’t work or is installed in the wrong ships, admirals express themselves poorly. By November, it’s the Japanese navy that has all the bad luck. This is an illusion of causality: the losers remember the inept lookout and the wrong turn as a lost chance, but the winners forget them.

I wonder, for example, whether Ghormley got a raw deal. The contemporary verdict, which Hornfischer largely endorses, is that he was a timid commander, and perhaps a negligent one, a micromanager who approached a nervous breakdown before his relief by Bull Halsey. That could be right, but could you argue that Ghormley was under overwhelming pressure to account for every paper clip, to lose nothing, expend nothing, and above all not to lose?

Hornfischer is critical of Capt. Howard Bode of the Chicago, but Bode’s 1943 suicide makes him a safe target.

If you’re going to write a new account of Guadalcanal, it seems to me you need to take advantage of our more distant perspective. In 1949, the emphasis was naturally on violence and suffering, because the audience had been there or had known people who were there, and they wanted to know what it was like. Today, we might spend a little more time on why and how. All those freighters and support ships, base personnel and clerks were indispensable. That was a tough sell in 1949, but now we’ve all seen Mr. Roberts (about a freighter) and 12 O’Clock High (company clerk) and The Caine Mutiny (junior officer on a minesweeper that never sweeps a mine). Remember: they didn’t have computers or calculators; they didn’t even have ball-point pens.

The other thing you could do in a new account is to recognize that today’s audience doesn’t necessarily know the difference between a light cruiser and a destroyer, what either was supposed to do or how they did it. We’re almost half as far from Guadalcanal as Guadalcanal lay from Trafalgar. We also understand how the stereotyped language of gallant sailors and heroic deeds can mask the ghastly reality, and to look more squarely at some less-than-noble actions from which Hornfischer still prefers to glance away as soon as he decently can.

December 28, 2016 (permalink)


24 through 28 May, 1940 were the critical days when Britain might have fallen down the slippery slope, when Hitler might have won. On the 24th, the British Army was encircled at Dunkirk and Churchill’s ten-day-old Ministry was tottering. Five days later, it was not yet the beginning of the end, but Hitler had not won and never would.

After Trump, the danger of collaboration is very much in the air. Plenty of people said, in 1938, that things might turn out. Plenty of people said, in 1939, that sensible German ministers would eventually set things right. Plenty of people said in 1940 that things would be fine, until the same people said that all was lost.

December 19, 2016 (permalink)


This novel shares a lot with Winter’s Bone: the same Ozark terrain, the same hardscrabble existence, the same concern with an absent father. Yet Winter’s Bone is wonderfully taut while this slender novel seems about as flabby as its thirteen-year-old narrator. In the end, this unsympathetic boy’s life revolves around the stellar, erotic figure of his dissolute mother, but the mother is the character we don’t see from the boy’s perspective. From the wrong angle, all love is love gone wrong.

December 9, 2016 (permalink)


A fascinating and detailed look at the politics of 1606 and how they impacted Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear. In 1606, James I was trying to get Parliament to agree to uniting England and Scotland. It was a tough sell, and that echoes through all three plays. Ben Jonson did a costly, elaborate court masque to help sell it; that didn’t really work, either, but “the throne she sat on” echoes down through centuries in which masques have been forgotten. It’s fascinating how many topical references from 1606 we can trace in the plays.

December 1, 2016 (permalink)


Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and Gatherum, is no longer the Whig leader or the Prime Minister. After the first chapter, he is no longer the husband of Glencora, the center of his universe and the axis around which these stories revolve. His eldest boy has been thrown out of Oxford and has entered Parliament as a Conservative. His daughter wants to marry a many who is entirely unsuitable, and this has led him into a quarrel with his late wife’s closest friend.

Note to Amazon: how does someone search for "a real, actual edition of this important Victorian classic, rather than a fly-by-night print-to-order rehash of the Project Gutenberg scan? Some readers might conceivably spring for a decent hardcover set, were there one to be found among the frauds and scams.

November 28, 2016 (permalink)


What a lovely book! This is the source, of course, of the superb movie that made Jennifer Lawrence a star. The book is even better; taut, lyrical, efficient. Rhee Dolly is sixteen. Her Mom is crazy, her two little brothers are too young to care for themselves, and her dad, a meth cook, has vanished after pledging their house as collateral for bail. She has a week to find him and, while nearly everyone in this forgotten corner of the Ozarks is some sort of relative, ancient family disputes mean that every hand is against her.

November 28, 2016 (permalink)


Soho Sins
Richard Vine

A clever mystery that hangs neatly on a realistic postmodern peg. Amanda Oliver has been murdered, and her husband, software tycoon and art collector Philip Oliver, has confessed. The problem is that Philip is suffering from early-onset dementia, and while he sincerely believes he did murder his wife, he’s awfully fuzzy on the details. Philip’s life is messy – he had a daughter by wife #1, was divorcing wife #2, and has already proposed to wife #3. Fortunately, Philip’s art dealer has an unexpected flair for detection.

November 26, 2016 (permalink)


A very interesting book, originally recommended by Michael Ruhlman, whose superb Twenty this echoes. Notionally, Cal Peternell provides twelve general recipes with two things in mind:

  • To show how easily and rapidly one can go from not cooking to cooking quite well.
  • To show how readily and broadly a recipe can be varied, once you understand the idea behind the recipe rather than simply repeating the specified steps.

The first chapter, for example, is “toast” and runs from plain toast properly done through salad croutons, gratin topping, and more. The second, “beans,” points out that there’s really pretty much one way to make beans: you soak them, you cook them in water with some aromatics, and then you eat them alone or with something else. That takes you from pasta e fagioli to refritos, from lentil dahl to Boston baked beans. I don’t much like beans myself, and that chapter alone has led me to place two orders with the redoubtable Rancho Gordo.

November 20, 2016 (permalink)


A very strange new mystery, in which the protagonist, Livia Lone, is a beautiful, sympathetic, and competent Seattle cop who is also a serial murderer. She has good reason, or at least good rationalizations, for these killings; the victims are rapists and sex traffickers, and Livia – born in Thailand and sold by her parents – has reason to despise these men. It's also her sex kink.

In the wake of the Trump election, we might want to think twice about righteous murderers seeking vengeance for past crimes.

November 18, 2016 (permalink)


The concluding volume of Rick Atkinson’s biography of the US Army in the Second World War shares many of the strengths of its predecessors: generosity, vision, and expanse. This volume covers the campaign from Normandy to Berlin, a story now so familiar and so heavily fictionalized that some historical episodes, such as Patton’s ill-fated and ill-advised effort to rescue his captured son-in-law, Lt. Col. John Knight Waters, are confusing to read because we know the fiction so well.

What made the first book, An Army At Dawn, so compelling was that it saw the flaws and errors of the new American army so clearly, and described them so well. There’s less of that here, in part because it’s hard to see problems in the glare of victory. When an army is losing narrowly, the blunders and missed opportunities are clear. When it’s winning, no one notices lapses in training and attention.

One thing that’s getting hard to appreciate is the scale of logistics in WW2, all managed without calculators or computers. The Army was running a supply operation with 800,000 SKUs, all shipped overseas at enormous expense, and any of which might be urgently needed almost anywhere. Sorting this out would have been hard enough if there hadn’t been a war on; the story of this success is less fun than it might have been because the leadership of the supply operation was unpleasant and a good deal of the day-to-day operations were, perhaps inevitably, corrupt.

November 2, 2016 (permalink)


Key West Luck
Laurence Shames

I heard Shames give a reading, ages ago, at a Miami Book Fair where I was on a panel about hypertext fiction. He’s a very impressive reader, and this is a funny but impressive book. Phoebe has purchased a snow cone truck, which would be a good thing to have in Key West except that she bought it on contract from a sleazy guy who is out to steal her down payment and repossess the truck before the tourist season gets going. He is going to succeed. Meanwhile, a bunch of mob guys – some too young, some too drunk – are trying to smuggle a valuable paper out of Havana. All of this is witnessed a bicycle tour guide who likes Phoebe, and a pair of homeless drifters who live in a derelict hot dog truck.

October 31, 2016 (permalink)


I was in Savannah recently. Linda was giving a conference lecture for the Textile Society of America, which meant I could have a trip without much cost and see a city I’d never visited. Tourist Savannah is dominated by this book in a way you don’t often see these days; even the rural New Zealand focus on The Lord Of The Rings is really about the movies, not the books. It was time to revisit the book.

Time has been kind to this 1993 nonfiction account of Savannah society and its tribulations. Berendt was ahead of the curve in his (fairly) sympathetic account of the transexual performer, Lady Chablis, and more broadly in his treatment of gay sex as simply another colorful thing. In technique, this book broke new ground, but that ground is now shadowed by Erik Larson’s more ambitious Devil In The White City.

Berendt’s attention to race is split between the radically-transgressive Chablis and a radically-retro voodoo practitioner; there’s no voice like that of the (superb) guide at Savannah’s Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, who was careful to place the city’s famous black boycott as a generous gift from the black community to the nation. “We didn’t need those downtown department stores,” she reminded us, and the old ladies in the tour group with me – all black – nodded in agreement and said “No, ma’am.” “We had a thriving black business community right here: shops, lunch counters, banks. We had it going. But there was the principle of the thing.”

During the trip, we took out one day and worked the Hillary Clinton booth at Savannah’s Gay Pride. Things change. Still, it’s a good book.

October 26, 2016 (permalink)