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.

974 Books: by author | by title

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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)


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)


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)


Amy Bloom explores to weird and moderately wonderful half-sisters, daughters of a minor con artist, making their way together through the America of the second world war. Iris is glamorous, Eva works hard and learns fast. Amy Bloom can create interesting characters at will, but I’m not entirely certain why she chose these particular people.

August 11, 2018 (permalink)


A delightful collection of interviews with truckers, bargemen, and railroad engineers.

July 17, 2018 (permalink)


Less
Andrew Sean Greer

Pulitzer-award winner, this is a novel about 49-year-old Arthur Less, a man whose long-time partner has just decided to marry someone else. When the wedding invitation arrives, Arthur does the only thing possible: he accepts every invitation to read, speak, retreat, or interview he can find, just as long as they get him out of the country. The chronicle of Arthur’s jaunt around the world is a delight from “Less at First” to “Less at Last.”

June 14, 2018 (permalink)


The Dry
Jane Harper

A top-drawer debut mystery. Aaron Falk, a Melbourne-based Federal Agent specializing in financial investigations, returns to the small Australian town from which he and his father fled twenty years ago. Back then, a girl from the high school had drowned and the townspeople had decided that either Aaron or his dad had something to do with it. Now, Aaron’s best mate from those years has shot his family and himself. The local cop has been on the job for a week; Aaron is persuaded to lend a hand. Fine sense of place, good minor characters, good plotting.


May 23, 2018 (permalink)


After reading in Draft Number 4 how McPhee puts things together, it seemed a really good idea to go back and look at the practice. A wonderful book, the epitome of the New Yorker profile that talks at considerable length about a subject of no particular interest, written with such wit and craft that it’s enthralling. Terrible Terry Harmon and Dirty Shirt George Price: McPhee draws amazing portraits in short gestural strokes. McPhee is not afraid of repetition:

Lead-in and Dirty Shirt and Terrible Terry — they did not back off from anyone. I learned from them to maintain a gulf between yourself and the other officers. I learned, Never cross that gulf. I learned, Don’t act like the other officers, dress like them, or socialize with them. I learned, Don’t be like them. Whatever they are, be different. Never waver in your dealings with them. Don’t vacillate. I learned, Never chastise people in public, even if they have earned it. I learned, Don’t alibi, don’t complain.

May 15, 2018 (permalink)


The narrator of this Hugo-nominated novella is a construct — a cyborg security agent. He works for the company, and (though he doesn’t know it) he owes a lot to Hammett’s Continental Op. He doesn’t like his work: he calls himself “murderbot”. He doesn’t like the company, and he certainly didn’t like the way the company could control him through his governor module. So, he disconnected it.

Most android stories follow Pinocchio in assuming that a nearly-human construct would want to be human, and want people to accept them as human. Murderbot doesn't. He doesn’t like people: his clients are stupid and stubborn, they tell him what to do, they inconvenience him by getting into danger when he’d really much rather be watching episode 297 of Sanctuary Moon. He doesn’t want to be more human; he wants humans to leave him alone.

Very well done, and pertinent to my Hypertext 2018 paper on “As We May Hear: our slaves of steel II” which explores some new questions on how we treat computational agents and environments.

May 15, 2018 (permalink)


Our latest visit with Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito does not disappoint. The leader of an outdoor enrichment program for troubled kids has vanished in the rugged, volcanic malpais between Zuni and Acoma, on the day Manuelito was supposed to give a talk to the kids. A small mystery and a small book, but one in which real people face real problems.

April 25, 2018 (permalink)


Damage Control
Denise Hamilton

A contemporary LA Noir thriller, as experienced by a dolt.

The 21st-century procedural mystery has two core concerns. First, the range of protagonists has expanded greatly, both in terms of the characters themselves and in terms of their vocations. Second, where once a flawed but unquestionably good and capable knight strolled down these mean streets, recent writers have increasingly explored the flaws and the unreliability of the protagonist.

Here, Maggie Silver is a PR agent, specializing in damage control. She’s drifted into this profession because she is herself so damaged, and because from her high school days to he nearly middle-aged present she has always believed that befriending glamorous people will make her glamorous. She’s an expert at rare perfumes, for which she scours eBay and LA thrift stores in time stolen from a 24/7 job and a lonely mother whom, recovering from breast cancer, has moved into Maggie’s little house.

Everyone plays Maggie. She has the street smarts of a fire hydrant, and the question is not whether she will be betrayed, but how often.

April 23, 2018 (permalink)


An intriguing look at Afghanistan, which I grabbed because Tom Ricks pointed to it as a key book about logistics. As the Trump madness grows, I fear it makes sense to learn what we can about the wars that are coming.

Jeffrey Clement was a second lieutenant in Northern Afghanistan, in command of a truck platoon. He argues that the command of a truck platoon is the very best job a Marine can have, if not the absolute pinnacle of human happiness. That in itself is interesting.

Early in the first convoy Clement led, he sighted an isolated observer watching the convoy in the distance. He prepares to shoot the man if the man does anything hostile, while hoping he would not. When nothing happens, Clement is relieved but confident that he was in fact a “bad guy” and that he would have killed him if necessary. This is strange: Clement was there and he was a professional and I am a civilian with an yellowing 1-O card, but Clement cannot actually have know whether this man was a “bad guy”. He might have been curious. He might have been undecided in his allegiance. He might have been Lawrence of Fucking Arabia. Clement doesn’t discuss this further, but it seems to me this epitomizes a constant and growing problem in both our military and our police.

April 13, 2018 (permalink)


John McPhee collects his recent New Yorker essays on his writing process. The key here os the first essay. , Progression, which addresses the large-scale structure of McPhee’s work, and Structure, which looks at starting places, end points, and at the Kedit text processor on which McPhee has long depended.

I do wish that Tinderbox had been around for McPhee back in the day.

I wish I knew more about some details — especially, a feature that highlights overused words. I’ve just written a paper with Clare Hooper about “A Villain’s Guide To Social Media And Web Science.” When writing about bad guys, some words and phrases do tend to recur. Wicked, vile, repellent, nefarious: use them once, you’re on a roll, but use them twice and you might be turning into Donald Trump. This sounds like a useful tool, but simply doing a word count with a stoplist of common words seems far too clumsy. I’d like to know how McPhee did this, and I’d like to know whether there’s now a better way.

April 13, 2018 (permalink)


After so much indulgence in the Mitfords, I wanted to revisit Jo Walton’s fine mystery of Nazi England. (I also have two writing projects in hand — one of them The Villain’s Guide To Hypertext And Web Science — for which some Jo Walton techniques might come in handy.)

Farthing is the best of the Small Change series, not least because its heroine is the most interesting. Jon Clute’s critique of the series is sensible: we never do learn how England’s sensible classes so readily acquiesced in fascism. It could perhaps happen, and we do see how some silly aristocrats could be persuaded, but Farthing doesn’t really show how stolid, sensible working folk would come to fall for it.

Then again, Clute was writing in late 2008, during the Obama transition. Reading Farthing while the Trump family loots the treasury (and sacks the Republican Party), at a time when our city’s unofficial Facebook forum is rife with anti-Semitism, the whole thing seems a lot more plausible.

March 27, 2018 (permalink)