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.

963 Books: by author | by title

2018 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

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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 22, 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)


In the New York Times, Tina Brown hit this one on the head. “Oh no! Not another book about the Mitfords! That was my instant reaction,” she began, only to begin the next paragraph, “How wrong I was. “The Six” is riveting.”

The Mitfords were six famously beautiful daughters (plus a son, whom everyone always forgets), born to Lord and Lady Redesdale between 1904 and 1920. They knew everyone. They went to the best parties. They wrote. They quarreled, and because they wrote books about their quarrels, everyone eventually knew everything.

What Laura Thompson gets right here is that the group story of the sisters is a story of an unhappy family, and so the biographer’s chief task is to explain their specific, differentiating unhappiness. This makes the pivot of the tale the fourth sister, Unity Valkyrie Mitford, who became an ardent Nazi and who, when England declared war on Germany, shot herself in Münich’s Englischer Garten for love of Hitler. Unity tends to be an afterthought in other Mitfordiana, but of course her story is central: if this had been a large family of obscure Canadians, her tragic suicide would naturally be the central issue and her Nazi affinities the central problem. (Mom and Dad were pro-German anti-Semites, though that might have been a gesture to humor the girls: it’s nice to take an interest in your adolescent hobbies, and if your adolescent’s hobby is Hitler, well, you’ve got a handful, don’t you? Big sister Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Little sister Jessica started as an ardent Communist and wound up a Berkeley, California journalist and civil rights activist. Nancy, the oldest girl, spent most of her life as the paramour of DeGaulle’s chief of staff. Whatever olive branches and indulgences were attempted, they didn’t work.)

What Tina Brown overlooks, however, is that Laura Thompson’s own sympathies lead her repeatedly to excuse the fascist Mitfords while denouncing Jessica’ milder and less consequential sympathy for Communism. Time and again, we are reminded that Stalin (whom Jessica implicitly supported) was monstrous. Jessica’s elopement with communist Esmond Romilly was inconsiderate — for some days, her parents didn’t know if she was alive or dead — but marrying an aristocratic British leftist is not, as Thompson seems sometimes to believe, even worse than falling ion love with Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s enormity goes without saying, but Stalin’s is constantly asserted in a way that seems almost to excuse Unity’s absurd infatuation and the rest of the family’s fawning socializing with the Nazi ministry.

March 26, 2018 (permalink)


Saltation
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Sequel to Fledgling, we follow Theo to University where she studies to be a pilot. It’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays in space, with a modest measure of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower for good measure. Lee and Miller are more interested in genre and style than in speculative fiction or form, but they’re very good at genre. I’ve read a bunch of school stories, but this is good.

March 23, 2018 (permalink)


Novelist Gish Jen sets of into the world of armchair sociology to distinguish the Western psyche — the “avocado-pit self” — from the more collectivist Eastern flexi-self. There’s some good plain sense here, and some gross generalization of concepts that Jen, the author of Mona In The Promised Land, can address with more safety and confidence than most.

The title comes from the protagonist of its framing story. A Chinese girl applies to Milton Academy. She has great test scores, a fluent essay, great recommendations. She’s admitted. When a school representative meets her plane, though, the student is nothing like her application. Eventually, it emerges that her sister got those scores and wrote that essay. What, Jen asks, made her (or her sister, or her parents) think this a good idea?

The problem with this story is it’s the best and most interesting part of the book. Another high point is a sociologist who went to visit Dafen, the Chinese town that’s dedicated to making copies of oil paintings. A civic leader praises the visitor’s interesting topic, and offers to write her dissertation for her; after all, he reasonably says, he is a good writer and knows Dafen and its painters intimately. Just tell him how she’d like it organized, and he’ll have it ready in a couple of weeks.

These are fascinating confrontations — just as good as Mona with her realization that she wants to convert to Judaism because the Jews, even more than the Chinese, have this minority thing figured out. But the language of nonfiction pop psych flattens everything, and because we’re making generalizations we spend a lot of time explaining that yes, there are lots of exceptions. Usually a stylish writer, Jen here develops a fondness for rhetorical questions to which she supplies an immediate, and usually obvious, reply. I’d have preferred a novel.

March 23, 2018 (permalink)


Grant
Ron Chernow

A comprehensive but pleasant biography, Grant never bogs down. That’s a challenge for the biography of any general, but especially challenging for Grant because his life before the war was far from notable and his postwar life was not entire successful. The axis of this book, it seems to me, revolves around the disastrous Johnson administration and its strenuous efforts to give the defeated South what it could not win in battle. The calamities of the Johnson era, in which one cabinet member barricaded himself in his office to prevent his replacement, are strikingly resonant today.

March 23, 2018 (permalink)


Fledgling
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Theo, a charming, isolated daughter of two professors, lives on a planet dedicated to scholarship. This has advantages; everyone understands why tenure matters. It has disadvantages, too: Mom and Dad are splitting up in order to improve Mom’s academic visibility, the whole planet is governed by the Safety Committee, and because Theo is sometimes clumsy and sometimes just a bit too assertive, Mom’s rivals think it might be a good idea to sedate her for everyone’s safety. It’s a space opera, and if it’s not really adventurous science fiction, it’s a skillful exploration of coming-of-age with spaceships and telepathic bears.

March 18, 2018 (permalink)


Borderline
Mishell Baker

A Jason Snell recommendation and Nebula finalist, this faery noir saga pits a young film director with borderline personality disorder (and without legs, which she lost jumping off her dormitory roof in a failed suicide attempt) against a frightening magical conspiracy.

March 13, 2018 (permalink)


A fascinating, nimble play in which two Asian-American high school sisters, L and M, find that their plans to both attend The College are in trouble despite their 2400 SATs, amazing softs, and impeccable grades. (M, “the smart one,” has a 4.8/4 weighted GPA. L only has 4.6/4.) They’re both double-minority. But each year, The College only accepts one, and this year the fat early-decision envelope fell (from the heavens) on a classmate with a slight claim to American Indian descent and a brother with cystic fibrosis. Macbeth ensues.

March 13, 2018 (permalink)


This skillful, puzzling, deceptive book about deceptive people starts with a clever feint. We’re trying to locate our absent father. Mother never wanted us to know anything about him, but she’s gone now. The clues are scarce. We hire a private investigator, but even the expert urges us to give up. The story, it turns out, has nothing at all to do with our missing father, but we’re going to see a lot of that shamus.

March 13, 2018 (permalink)


This polished, intriguing, and formally-innovative mystery brings a collection of interesting and colorful rich people together in a modern locked-room, country-house mystery. A small private jet crashes on a hop from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro, NJ. Something or someone caused the crash. Everyone wants to find out — the anchorman on the cable news empire whose owner chartered the jet, the NTSB chief investigator, the FBI whose had planned to arrest another of the passengers the following morning for money laundering. Scott Burroughs, who somehow swam to safety, and the network head’s 4-year-old boy whom he rescued, are the only survivors. Hawley takes an Agatha Christie format and updates it with a vengeance; his minor characters are sometimes synthetics but they’re detailed and though through.

March 13, 2018 (permalink)


A Wrinkle In Time
Madeline L’Engle

This 1962 novel, arguably the origin of the modern YA novel, was a hole-filler for me. It’s very good.

February 23, 2018 (permalink)


This is an inspiring book, in the sense that the shortcomings of this early novel are so well overcome in Abbott’s You Will Know Me and Dare Me. As in these later novels, The End Of Everything is a story of a family that is other than happy, but here the unhappiness — actually the unhappiness of two or perhaps three unremarkable suburban families — is so slight that it’s hard for Lizzie, Abbott’s thirteen-year-old narrator, to explain what’s wrong. Characteristically, Lizzie explains what she doesn’t understand at great length.

Lizzie copes with the abduction of her inseparable friend and next-door neighbor, Evie Verver, by trying on theory after theory, each less plausible than the last. Meanwhile, she’s also trying to help her divorced mother cope with everything while trying to repair the pain of the kidnapped girl’s desolate father.

At the heart of this novel, there’s a terrific short story struggling to emerge.

February 23, 2018 (permalink)