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.

941 Books: by author | by title

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Codex
Lev Grossman

An early book by the author of The Magicians, this thriller thrusts a timid and rather bored young Wall Street broker into the race to locate a mysterious ancient book. There’s an immersive video game in the mix, too — one that seems peculiarly tailored to the pursuit of this tome, and there’s an icy but beautiful young scholar, a beguiling duchess, and a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. A castle, too. What’s not here, unfortunately, is the wonderful mix of street grit and wonder that occasionally illuminates The Magicians; too often, this is just an American Possession without the scholarship.+

January 17, 2018 (permalink)


I’ve been interested of late in some moral questions raised by immersive fictions. For example, in Hamlet on the Star Trek holodeck, can one marry Ophelia? Can Holodeck Ophelia possibly give her consent?

Haley’s 2013 play, The Nether, explores an older vision of immersive fiction. She imagines a world in which Second Life has become a widespread escape from ecological and spiritual disaster, and place to which damaged people retreat for solace or to indulge their darker fantasies. It’s an AOL chat room gone mad. Yet, after all, it’s all just imaginary. No one is harmed, everyone has chosen to be where they are. The blood isn’t real, and the tears — well, what do tears signify in a construct?

It’s an intriguing inquisitorial drama, expertly propelled by the propulsive force of interrogation. It also does a superb job of handling a problem that drove me up the wall in Those Trojan Girls: how do we approach a story in which unspeakable things may happen to children? We could choose not to imagine such things, to be sure, but that’s untrue — and it betrays all those on whom such harms are, in fact, inflicted.

To some extent, Haley’s problem is Plato’s: since fiction is a lie, what is to prevent us from simply telling ourselves stories that make us feel good? Might those stories keep us from actually doing things that are necessary if we are to make a better world? I’m more concerned, I think, with our impact on the imagined world: does acting badly in a story make you a bad person? Sometimes, I think, it might.

December 26, 2017 (permalink)


This vast and lavish two-volume set seeks to locate every building in Ancient Rome for which we have good evidence, from Rome’s origins to the collapse of the ancient world. This is an attempt to rebuild the Marble Plan of Rome, allowing additionally for a temporal dimension. It’s a gorgeous pair of books, and though costly, these volumes are a pinnacle of modern bookmaking.

What’s often missing here is the question of uncertainty, of what we might not know and exactly how we know what we do. Mary Beard writes in TLS:

Here there are thousands of things which are reliable and useful, and many hundreds that are tendentious and contentious – and even experts will sometimes be challenged to tell them apart.

Despite the lavish printing and exquisite production, the translation of the essays from their original Italian strikes me as very indifferent.

December 26, 2017 (permalink)


Peculiar Ground
Lucy Hughes-Hallet

A fascinating, strange ghost story, this tale of a stately house and its grounds begins with the 17th-century construction of its storied gardens and then proceeds to sexual entanglements in 1961 and their aftermath in 1989. Eery, intriguing, and lyrical.

December 26, 2017 (permalink)


This fascinating novel revisits Lyra’s Oxford, in the months before Lyra is born and during the great flood that followed. As was the case in The Golden Compass, it’s not clear just where Pullman is going with this. But in the older books, we didn’t know that Pullman was going anywhere — far less that he was headed for a refutation of Narnia and a refutation of the Bible. I think we can already see shadows of great, dark things in this pleasing and pleasant adventure.

December 26, 2017 (permalink)


What’s hard to imagine about the aftermath of the Occupation, and what Beevor captures wonderfully, is the extent to which everything seems to have improvised at the last minute. Everyone was terrified that they’d be accused of collaborating; everyone who stayed, after all, had in some sense collaborated. No one knew whether the Occupation would be replaced by a new Occupation by the Allies, or by something else — and if the latter, whether something else was a new republic or the old one.

Someday, Trump will be gone. It makes sense to think about how we can restore our damaged land.

The other fascinating argument this close look at Paris after the war makes is that these years were necessarily a response to the failure that became Vichy, and that the response itself was a failure. Rather than address the legacy of the war, France (after some years of toying with Communism and related dithering) chose to adopt a comforting myth, and to adhere to that myth until it collapsed in the wake of 1968. Beevor thinks 1968, too, was a failure. Most people do. But 1968 transformed the way way think; the triumph of rock and irony, the rise of postmodernism, liberation theology are all built on the foundation of 1968.

1968 gave us, in the end, the collapse of the Iron Curtain. It also have use truthiness and Trump. We’re still living in the ruins.

December 26, 2017 (permalink)


Mark Anderson lent me the superb audiobook reading by Robert Hardy, an fine performance of an intelligent abridgment. Yet, naturally, that led to rereading the whole wonderful story. If you have missed these, do not persist.

December 5, 2017 (permalink)


Peter Guillam, no longer young, is summoned from retirement to the new offices of the old Circus. British intelligence, is seems, is being sued by the heirs of agents and officers, long dead, and soon we are back with Alex Leamas, Toby Esterhase, the young Connie Sachs, and George Smiley. This might have been merely a pleasant final bow, but it’s not: a thoughtful and sensitive re-evaluation of a war that, suddenly, seems very distant.

December 4, 2017 (permalink)


The author of the wonderful Everything I Never Told You returns in a new tale of suburbs gone wrong. In placid Shaker Heights, Ohio, the placid house of the Richardson family is afire. Lexie, Trip, and Moody were all away from home. Mr. Richardson is at work, of course, and Mrs. Richardson woke up in plenty of time and she’s fine.

No one knows where the youngest daughter, Izzy, has gone.

Like Ng’s first book, Little Fires Everywhere argues that parents don’t know their kids. Sometimes languorous, this book is beautifully designed and told.

November 11, 2017 (permalink)


A fascinating oral history of Soviet women at war. When war came, an astonishing number of women ran to the defense of a country that no longer exists and of a dream that now seems forgotten. Studs Terkel at the front, this masterfully-crafted volume deserves the Nobel it won for its author.

October 27, 2017 (permalink)


Second reading of this charming romp about an unemployed, RISD-trained graphic designer who lands a night-shift job at an all-night North Beach bookstore that is, of course, more than what it seems. So, too, is the craft of this novel, for beneath the genre pastiche lies some lovely lyricism, surprising insight into the magic of technology, and a flair for drawing character or, more precisely, for depicting the narrator’s emotional response on encountering that character.

October 27, 2017 (permalink)


Jane Unlimited
Kristen Cashore

Jane is invited by her former tutor, in town for a college reunion, to visit the family house for a holiday gala. Depressed by the recent death of the aunt who raised her, Jane takes her up on the offer and they arrive at the old family mansion, somewhere off the coast of Maine, where everything is always in an uproar. Jane doesn’t know where to look or what to believe.

Like Cashore’s Bitterblue, this book is filled with strangeness and a coyly theoretical sophistication. Cashore’s characters, whatever their stated ages, seem very young: they are impulsive enthusiasts who have no patience and who seldom know themselves. Jane is an accomplished and original artist, yet somehow has never had occasion to give much thought to her own sexuality or to anyone else’s feelings. This lends many scenes a mythic quality, a sense of meeting archetypes, that frequently works very nicely; elsewhere, as when we sit down for a nice chat at dinner, it feels like nobody knows how to behave.

The first encounter with the old family mansion is handled very well. (It’s described as being off the coast of Maine, but this place is more San Simeon or I Tatti than the old summer cottages of the richly rusticating gilded age.) You’ll like the dog, too.

The book had a long genesis, was originally written in second person, and is filled with complex story play. If Bitterblue sometimes seemed a refraction of Beckett through modern medievalesque fantasy, Jane Unlimited feels like David Mitchell or Jennifer Egan performed in the key of Neil Gaiman.

October 27, 2017 (permalink)


Ricks wrote a fascinating account of the construction of this book for The Atlantic. His editor, Scott Moyers, warned Ricks at the outset against writing “an extended book review that leaned on the weak reed of themes rather than stood on a strong foundation of narrative.” That’s exactly the draft he originally sent in. This book is the revision.

In principle, narrative is strong. In practice, there’s not much real narrative here. It often seems that all the 20th-century English writers and journalists knew each other intimately. Take any two writers: if they hadn’t been at school together, the odds are good that one gave the other the pram now sitting in her foyer. Yet Churchill and Orwell never seem to have met; Churchill read some of Orwell’s books, but Churchill read everyone. Orwell admired some of Churchill’s war speeches: who did not? Both Orwell and Churchill entered old age as failures and then achieved the success for which they had been preparing for decades. That’s interesting, but it’s not a narrative.

I loved Ricks’ Fiasco, his superb book on the Iraq disaster. On more familiar ground, Ricks’ touch is less sure. His interpretation of Churchill rests heavily on Manchester’s superb biography, and explaining the history of the second world war tends to crowd out any but the most straightforward thinking about the wartime speeches. Yet if Churchill and Orwell are to be compared, it is these war speeches that matter; Churchill may not have been a great strategist or an ideal negotiator, but Orwell had nothing to do with strategy or negotiation at all. Some interesting points are made about the literary qualities of the war memoirs, but this is not enough — and our interest in those memoirs rests, in the end, on the success of those speeches as well as the success of the war.

October 23, 2017 (permalink)


A psychopath goes to Harvard, and finds himself perfectly at home: this is a strange and unsettling reply to Love Story, Goodbye Columbus, and Portnoy’s Complaint. The Loner follows David Federman, a colorless grind, to Harvard. A good deal of the local detail is good, but Federmans, lacking much color or vast money, seldom get to Harvard these days. David’s physics-loving roommate belongs at MIT, and his intellectual girlfriend probably got into Brown but might well have gone to Smith or Williams. Then again, Federman’s beloved, his own private Daisy Buchanan, really does belong at Harvard. So do her friends. They probably deserve each other.

October 1, 2017 (permalink)


I wanted to revisit this classic in part because I have Wouk’s memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, on my stack. In addition, I’ve been struggling all summer (along with Morgan Macri) against the problems of telling a story that requires a large cast, and of course this was Wouk’s specialty.

I remember my surprise on my first reading how the book is much larger than the (wonderful) movie, and how it is far more interested in Ensign Keith than was the film. Queeg, of course, is wonderfully drawn, and it’s interesting that Wouk did not return to that theme in The Winds Of War or The Hope.

September 20, 2017 (permalink)


Her Majesty’s Dragon Temeraire, having concluded his diplomacy in China, is dispatched to the Ottoman Court in order to pick up some extremely important dragon eggs. Inevitably, troubles (and Napoleon’s forces) interfere.

September 5, 2017 (permalink)


An extremely interesting and detailed look at vanished American institutions that once grounded the nation’s political life. Mason, Odd Fellows, Elks, the NAACP: until quite recently, these formed the center of much life in America’s towns and cities. Local organizations had officers, competition for honors was keen, and these organizations were designed to ensure that anyone, rich or poor, could rise to office and could be sent to represent their local at state and national conventions.

The center of my town is filled with relics of these structures: Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias. Many local organizations didn’t accept many (or any) Jews or Black people, so parallel organizations were created for Blacks and Jews.

They had parties, ceremonies, rituals. They had big dinners. They sponsored lectures. They got together and offered insurance policies; indeed, some survive as insurance companies long after the ceremonies and rituals have withered. But Skocpol argues convincingly that these were places where old folks and young people, workers and capitalists could all gather on a fairly equal basis, where mayors and bricklayers could discuss the issues of the day on an even footing, and maybe you’d wind up sending the bricklayer to Washington to tell your Senator just what your town was thinking.

After the War, this world was replaced in politics by professional lobbying organizations, and its place in civic life was taken by television.

Our sad little Democratic City Committee holds its meetings in the husk of one of these organizations, an Irish-American club with a wall of yellowing photos of the jovial old (and white) Irishmen who have been its president, a policy that forbids women from membership, and two separate bars in its small headquarters. The local Democrats still think, in their heart, that they’re another social club or a subcommittee of the Irish-American, a place for old people to get together a couple of times a year and talk about their grade-school teachers and my, how the world has changed.

August 30, 2017 (permalink)


The Circle
Sara B. Elfgren

An intriguing story that, in essence, takes the American YA formula of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and translates it to Sweden. We have no Chosen One (though everyone expects one): we have a group. They are all essential to the survival of the world, but they only learn this fact after they learn they are chosen, and by then one of them is already dead. The collectivization of the hero is schematic at heart, but Elfren hides that capably by supplying each of her heroines with a plausible and interesting background. Above all, the Chosen Ones don’t like each other, but they recognize that they might need to put all that aside, at least until the world is saved.

August 28, 2017 (permalink)


An interesting novel about a graduate student in the department where I earned my degree. Some of the details are excellent; at one point, the narrator was describing the difficult relationship between graduate students and demanding advisors and I found myself thinking, “that sounds just like ____,” an advisor who was fairly notorious on this score. A paragraph later, I realized that she had ______ specifically in mind.

What is missing here, I think, is the love for science that’s almost certain to be shared by anyone who is likely to find themselves in that particular field at that particular school. Wang’s narrator doesn’t quite have that. To be fair, her boyfriend recognizes that, and so, eventually, does her advisor; they just don’t know what to do with that knowledge. Neither does the narrator.

August 25, 2017 (permalink)


Susan’s husband is away at a conference, where he is entertaining a prestigious job offer that Susan doesn’t welcome, and where Susan’s husband may or may not be entertaining his young secretary, with whom he is (supposedly) no longer having an affair. A box comes in the mail, containing the manuscript of a thriller by Susan’s first husband.

This novel takes the play-within-a-play to its logical extreme; the interior thriller is fully fleshed out, is very fine indeed, and comes with Susan’s own interesting critical commentary.

August 20, 2017 (permalink)