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.

930 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

2011 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2010 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2009 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2008 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2007 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2006 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2005 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2004 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2003 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2002 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2001 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2000 Fall | Summer | Spring


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)


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 8, 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)


Night Rounds
Helene Tursten

A Diane Greco recommendation, in honor of Women In Translation Month. At a small private hospital in Goteborg, the power is suddenly cut and the emergency generator disabled. A nurse is found to have been strangled, a patient dies during the power outage, and one of the senior nurses is certain that she saw the hospital ghost, a nurse who committed suicide in the attic in 1945. This highly-competent police procedural focuses on a puzzling crime but is at its best when it spares a moment for its protagonist’s family problems.

August 10, 2017 (permalink)


November is a cute little satire about an incredibly bad president who is running for reelection and who threatens to pardon every fucking turkey in the whole fucking country if the Turkey Lobby doesn't pony up. Events overtook the play, obviously.

Race is a nifty little legal thriller.

The Anarchist, though, is the real gem here, a two-hander in which an old, retiring prison warden has her last of many interviews with her prize pupil, a woman who, many years ago, robbed and killed for social justice. It’s a brilliant play.

August 10, 2017 (permalink)


Under Fire
W.E.B. Griffin

A pleasant little diversion in the wake of American Caesar, Manchester’s magisterial biography of Macarthur.

Griffin (a pen name) is a talented writer. I’m a progressive, a conscientious objector, and a pronounced military skeptic: he’s not, and you would not think he’d be my cup of tea, and yet Griffin does a nice job. He’s chiefly interested, I think, in a nuanced view of the masculine, and though everyone here is in the Marines and there’s a war on, violence seldom has anything to do with it. “You don’t have to practice being uncomfortable,” Ken McCoy assures his raw sergeant. “When it’s time for you to be uncomfortable, the Marine Corps will arrange for you to be uncomfortable.”

August 4, 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 30, 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.”

July 30, 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.

July 30, 2017 (permalink)


Landline
Rainbow Rowell
A nifty story about Georgie McCool, who writes television comedy. She’s married to Neal, a really nice fellow. They have a delightful kids. They’re supposed to go to visit family in Omaha for Christmas, but there's a crisis on the show and Georgie stays behind to work. Alone for the holidays, Georgie discovers a phone that she can use to call her husband — not today, but back when they were first married. Georgie discovers that her life isn’t nicely settled as good as she’d thought. Perhaps not as interesting as Fangirl, but nicely written.

July 30, 2017 (permalink)


The title essay of this slender volume — purchased as signed at Readercon but, as far as I can see not signed — is a pleasant-enough piece about Mary Anning, an impoverished little girl who learned to hunt fossils and who became a prominent, if unschooled, paleontologist and who also opened the world’s first rock shop. The great centerpiece of the book is a nifty short story, “The Pelican Bar,” which does a wonderful job of exploring and exploding punitive schools for difficult kids. A fine interview, too, with the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

July 30, 2017 (permalink)


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)