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.

916 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

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A middle-school teacher bids farewell to her class after a very difficult year. The teacher’s daughter, a toddler, drowned in the school swimming pool. She calmly explains to her class that the tragedy was not, in fact, an accident: her daughter was murdered, and the murderers are sitting in this very classroom.

This is a very clever, topsy-turvy mystery, a Rashomon with multiple points of view and a mystery that opens with the detective’s closing revelation.

July 22, 2017 (permalink)


A delightful conceit of this 1903 time travel tale is that the year 2000 is populated by an entire colony of refugees from 1900, all of them hack novelists who leapt ahead to get the scoop on the future, and who are now stranded there. Hack writing at its finest, by the author of Plotto.

July 20, 2017 (permalink)


A century ago, Greek sponge divers found an ancient wreck that held a cargo of statuary, luxury good, and the corroded, smashed remains of a bronze gizmo with lots gears off the coast of Antikythera. This contraption, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, has confounded historians of science ever since. Now, after lots of study and the advent of modern radiography, we know what it was.

The Antikythera Mechanism was a complex gearbox that demonstrated, with considerable accuracy, how the solar system works. It’s geocentric, and that makes things hard, but the ingenious inventors of this machine were up to the challenge. The machine’s instructions were engraved in brass on its covers, and much of those instructions survive. It had lots of dials and pointers, did a nice job of predicting eclipses, and even had a pointer to keep track of the Olympic Games.

This has been a proverbial mystery for ages. Now that we know what it is, we even have sources (including Cicero!) that describe similar machines. There can’t ever have been many of these, but it’s terrific that one survived.

July 19, 2017 (permalink)


A pleasant little book by the founder of Levengers, the estimable mail-order company. Leveen, who founded a company that sells tools for readers, is not himself as much of a reader as he wants to be, and he’s anxious about that.

The bulk of the book is a proposal to create a library of books you might want to read someday, alongside your library of books that you’ve already read. Planning your reading is, of course, a theme to which I return often; my own haphazard journey from title to title seems undisciplined and arbitrary. A good list of prospects makes sense, and the advent of ebook readers means that you can carry those shelves of books to read eventually with you all the time.

Leveen is a big fan of audiobooks, and to me he’s preaching to the converted.

What’s missing here is systematics: how might we think about shaping a month’s reading, or a year’s, rather than focusing exclusively on what you will read next. Surprisingly little has been written about this important and perplexing question.

July 13, 2017 (permalink)


Collin, who grew up in Cambridge and dropped out of art school, is waiting tables at Grendel’s Den. At one of his tables sits Nina, who grew up in a better part of Cambridge and who is now doing her best to teach high school English Literature. Collin draws a fast portrait of Nina on his dup pad. They fall in love. It turns out that Nina’s father and uncle run an immensely successful game studio that can always use a great new artist.

Aidan is nominally in Nina’s class, but he spends all his time playing the wonderful new beta of EverWhen, called UnderWorld. In EverWhen, he’s a powerful water elf and where he doesn’t have to memorize Emily Dickinson. His twin sister Dianna wishes people would stop looking at her all the time, and also misses her brother. Their Mom, a nurse, thinks it’s basically an addiction. And then there’s the mysterious Daphne, the secret EverWhen marketing guru who is infinitely lovable and who recruits teenage boys to graffiti their school with the tag CU, alluding to the launch slogan: UnderWorld: See You In Hell.

Goodman, whose Intuition is the best description I know of what research is actually like, captures the dream of gaming perfectly here, the sense that there’s a second world where things matter differently.

She was a Tree Elf named Riyah. He was a Water Elf, Tildor. They came from different realms, but for the past three nights they’d qwested, traded and killed together. They had hunted basilisks, slain dragons, and retrieved two diamonds, which Riyah carried in the bag hanging at her waist. She was an amazing marksman, and beautiful, even for an Elf, her eyes huge, her body supple. Her breasts swayed as she ran, her quiver bouncing behind her.

All this gets interrupted when his mother demands, “Do you know what time it is? Do you even know what day it is? Aidan? Look at me when I’m talking to you!” This is a fascinating book about representation, and also a ton of fun.

June 26, 2017 (permalink)


A beautifully-wrought story about some Manhattan girls, out on the town at the end of the Depression. Katey Kontent (!) and her roommate pick up a wealthy young stranger in a second-rate nightclub. He falls for Katy, ends up dating both girls, and then drives into a messy accident that makes their romance impossible. Naturally, that’s far from the end of the story. Katey turns out to be more resourceful than we knew. The book has a wonderful sense of place, with a nice knack for how new the past always seemed. Seeing Carrie Clapboard, a young beauty at a track with her tycoon fiancée, Katey receives some friendly advice from an older woman. “I were your age, I wouldn’t be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie’s shoes — I’d be trying to figure out how to get into Jake’s.”

June 25, 2017 (permalink)


A collection of club stories by the author of Greenmantle and The 39 Steps. Lots of familiar material in Buchan is familiar because he wrote it first and then everyone re-used the story material; even when you know where things are headed, these genial stories are good fun.

I read them because I want to understand framing stories. You’d think that frames would make stories less exciting; for example, you know that Marlow survives his adventure in the Heart Of Darkness because here he is, on the deck of a yawl becalmed in the Thames, spinning yarns for the Director and the corporate Attorney. Yet Conrad’s story certainly moves. So do Sherlock Holmes’s Adventures, and they’re pretty thoroughly framed as well.

Buchan has a knack for letting the characters who told previous stories offer remarks and advice to those who come later. Again, that’s a trick you wouldn’t expect to work. It does.

Published in 1928, this is also a memoir of the very last moment when London could view itself as the absolute center of the modern world, a place where the good fellows at the club were only resting from labors that might include leading a regiment, spending years behind enemy lines, negotiating a treaty, writing a new edition of Quintillian, or becoming a revolutionary Muslim prophet.

June 15, 2017 (permalink)


An impressive experiment that approaches magic realism, in 1936, written with style and sympathy. Vere and James Buchan are twins. They have an older sister who, they quickly learn, is not as bright as they; in time, they appreciate that there’s something wrong but don’t know what. Their mother, a widow, is unhappy and unreliable; their grandmother is clearly a monster, but that doesn’t really explain anything. Something very bad happened in grandmother’s house in Lowndes Square, long ago; now it’s 1916 and Vere, a modern girl, is determined to find out.

A lot of this is very well done. Vere and her twin brother are immensely engaging. Vere gives us buckets of exposition, but they're so sweet and true we don’t mind. And then there’s the element of Fantastika, the bits of magic realism that float through Vere’s London.

Rachel Ferguson would eventually become a reclusive and bitter conservative, and here already you can see the seeds. Vere likes the theater and she likes actors, and we wind up with a big set piece deploring the state of the stage generally and the decline of musical comedy specifically from its late Victorian heights. This novel was published in 1936; in the years immediately before, New York saw the first run of Porgy and Bess (Gershwin), Anything Goes (Cole Porter), Face The Music (Irving Berlin), Ziegfield Follies (Josephine Baker), and Jumbo (Rogers and Hart). Harburg and Arlen wrote “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and much else. In London, Rise and Shine had Fred Astaire, Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 was at the Phoenix, Ivor Novello would open in Careless Rapture. The theater is always in trouble, but if this era makes you go all James Forsythe, the problem isn’t on stage.

But that’s just a cloud on the horizon; Ferguson is largely forgotten—I found this through a review in TLS premised on her having been forgotten—but Very and James are exquisite.

June 6, 2017 (permalink)


A skeptical but intelligent survey of postmodern thought. Butler assumes that postmodernism is over and concludes that, overall, it lost its argument with liberal realism while teaching important lessons about gender, identity, and power. He is, interesting, quite sympathetic to postmodern literature while clearly well out of sympathy with much postmodern art; I’d have liked a bit more discussion of architecture and (especially) cinema, where Louis Menand’s article on Pauline Kael seems very much at odds with Butler’s emphasis on politics rather than anti-formalism.

June 5, 2017 (permalink)


The Big Sleep
Raymond Chandler

This is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the most enigmatic. A dying old man, a former general who made money in oil and who had daughters far too late, believes he is being blackmailed. His elder daughter is working on her third divorce, and the general rather liked son-in-law #3, a rakish mobster whose thorough unsuitability rather appealed to the general’s humor. A plot-driven adventure that, characteristically for Chandler, pays remarkably little attention to the details of plot; everyone cares deeply what’s going on right now and they behave as if everything makes sense, and we go right along. A brilliant portrait of the America the bred Trump.

June 1, 2017 (permalink)


Tabletop: Analog Game Design
Drew Davidson and Greg Costikyan, eds

A nicely varied assortment of intelligent essays about the design and distribution of contemporary tabletop games. Greg Costikyan has a superb discussion of the ways that production, marketing and distribution shape games today; for example, it’s very important that game components by light in weight because the publisher, not the retailer, pays the freight. Chris Klug has a memorable not on the dramatics of rolling dice, and Richard Garfield contributes a number of sharply-observed design lesson from poker.

May 21, 2017 (permalink)


Rereading the conclusion to Grossman’s The Magicians because I reread The Magician King for craft, and to figure out why Grossman’s crack-house magic scene seems so compelling and fresh. I still think my original impression was sound.

When seven years of epic struggle and the release of untold magic energies (at terrific personal risk) restore lost Alice to life, all she can manage is the request for a glass of Scotch with a single large ice cube. The Magician pours his neat. Neither really wants the whiskey.

May 13, 2017 (permalink)


Shittown
Sarah Koenig et al.
Shittown

This fascinating original audio novel describes an unpleasant small town in Bibb County, Alabama, home of John B. McLemore. John repairs antique clocks, worries constantly about global warming, police corruption, racism, tattoos – and everything. He has 120 acres. He has a maze on his land that you can see in Google Earth. One day, he calls This American Life and pitches a story – this story – which is lovingly crafted by the creators of This American Life.

May 12, 2017 (permalink)


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)