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

by Karen O’Brien and Brian Young, eds.

In Catalonia for the Hypertext Conference, we saw plenty of Roman ruins. Some, like Tarragona, I expected, but others (Emporias!) were a remarkable surprise. On the way home, I had a nice dip into the Decline and Fall. One night, wanting to look beyond my familiar reading stack, I grabbed this. What fun!

Gibbon published the start of The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. His cadences have the resonance of that era’s best writing, and he is a subtly funny writer, the master of adding a footnote or choosing an extra adjective to turn a statement on its head. This volume is filled with finely-written, accessible and engaging pieces on such topics as Gibbon’s style, his library and note-taking practices, and his knowledge of the city of Rome. More fun than a book like this has any right to be.

Dec 22 2 2022

Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren

The engaging autobiography of a paleo-botanist, Lab Girl is really the best portrait I know of the reality of contemporary research. Jahren is filled with doubts: the book opens with a dedication to Jahren’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that Jahren and her mother never got along. Jahren faces more than the usual share of academic obstacles, as she endures periodic episodes of psychosis in addition to conventional sexism on the way to tenure. Jahren emphasizes the poverty of so much contemporary science; through much of her career she was unable to pay her lab tech anything like a living wage, so he spent years teaching at major universities while sleeping in his car or under a lab bench. There’s a wonderful set-piece tribute to homemade scientific instruments, really the only thing I know that comes close to capturing the reality. “Do not over-tighten me,” says a tag on one fastener, a label of poetic conciseness to those of us who have been there.

by R. F. Kuang

A well-crafted alternative history of the British Empire and its industrial revolution, in which steam power only becomes practical after scholars have harnessed the magical powers of silver. Silver in this world has the ability to release the missing elements that separate words in different languages but share common roots: French treácle (antidote): English treacle (sweet), for example, is medicinal. Four young Oxford undergraduates arrive from the corners of Empire: Calcutta, Canton, Port-au-Prince, and the daughter of an admiral. Two are women. Two are black; the boy from Canton can sometimes pass. They are to be trained to supply the magic power that powers the empire.

The catch here is that the students know too many post-colonial ideas, and too little history. They’re entirely convincing until they speak about the political and economic ideas at the heart of the story. When they do, they suddenly sound like contemporary undergraduates at top schools who have learned to problematize and interrogate from a tender age. Kuang is absolutely convincing on 19th-century Oxford slang, and if anything minimizes its racism. But we’re a half-century before Shaw’s first plays — and Shaw saw himself as a radical. At the time of the novel, Frederick Douglass was only at the start of his career. The students are intended to be brilliant, but they seem to know W. E. B. Du Bois decades before his birth.

I was interviewed by information architect Jorge Arango on The Informed Life.

Oct 22 4 2022

Leaks

Leaks

Here’s an interesting example of software development in practice.

A customer was experiencing intermittent Tinderbox crashes. I asked to see the crash logs and any future crash logs. This question sometimes clears up a problem, because sometimes the crashes stop! But not this time; over a few days, we accumulated a few logs.

The crash logs varied a bit, but all seemed to involve export. “Did it crash while you were exporting?” The user didn’t think so. (That was a head scratcher. It’s not uncommon for users who experience a crash to have no idea what they were doing before the crash, but Export is fairly unusual and sometimes takes a while because you might be building a site with hundreds of pages. You’d probably remember if you were waiting for Tinderbox to finish and instead it quit. Hmmmm.)

A number of the crash logs revealed a crash in TbxProgressBar. That was interesting, because it's not usually a place where Tinderbox has trouble. I studied the code, and there’s a reason for that: as far as I can make out, TbxProgressBar simply cannot crash. I bullet-proofed the code, which was already bullet-proofed. I wrote some tests. I hoped for the best. No luck!

This left some twilight zone possibilities. Was something fouling up the TbxProgressBar object? I remember one pesky bug, ages ago, that was tracked down to a faulty memory chip right where one object tended to wind up. Could I be looking at the wrong version of the TbxProgressBar code? Was this a time-bomb crash, somehow planted by code that ran earlier? (Time bombs used to be really common, back before OS X. I haven't seen one in years, but who knows?)

After far too long, I asked the customer to take a look at Activity Monitor. What was Tinderbox’s memory footprint? The footprint was huge. Now, worrying about activity monitor is often pointless: Tinderbox uses a lot of memory because you have lots of memory to use. You have lots of memory and not enough time. This was said to be a complicated document, but nonetheless, the footprint was too big.

Finally, wiring up the document to the profiler, the answer emerged at once: a memory leak in ExportPathAttribute. This is a seldom-used, read-only attribute that tells you where this page will wind up if it's exported to disk. For years, each use of ExportPathAttribute has leaked — not much, but a drip. If you were editing a weblog and then exporting to your server, well, you might have wasted some kilobytes, but you wouldn’t notice that at all.

In the last year or so, however, a new approach to Tinderbox notes has become popular; people write their notes in Markdown or HTML, and when they read their notes, they use the Preview pane. This Preview-led Tinderbox isn’t what I’d designed, and it sometimes feels like Obsidian-in-Tinderbox or something like that, but in skilled hands it can be pretty cool. And this customer was really skilled!

So, we had a complex Tinderbox document with lots of actions and lots of agents, that was spending a lot of time in Preview. That meant Tinderbox was responding to changes from rules and agents and running a new Preview every few seconds. Preview was reaching out to rebuild a complex page by assembling lots of individual notes in a big overview. A few kilobytes every 3 seconds is a few megabytes every 5 minutes. Leave that cooking for a day or two, and hilarity is bound to ensue.

Why TbxProgressBar? Because Tinderbox updates the progress bar a lot during preview. Too much, clearly, but again: if preview is fast enough, who cares if it's updating a hidden progress bar and doing extra work? But that’s where we often were when we wanted to reach for some memory and the system said, “More? You want more?

And why did we have a leak in the first place? A decade or more back, Tinderbox adopted an optimistic approach to concurrency: agents ran in the background, and most of the time everything was OK. But “most of the time” isn’t really good enough, and perhaps four years ago I started to put this on a sounder basis. That meant taking a lot more care to make sure that we weren't writing a value in one thread at the same time we were reading it in another thread. That process has tests for all the common and tricky attributes like $Text, and most of the attribute classes are designed to handle everything themselves. But, somehow, ExportPathAttribute never got the memo.

It simply didn’t matter, until it did.

 
Mark Bernstein
chief scientist, Eastgate Systems, Inc.
:
134 Main Street
Watertown, MA   02148
USA
work +1-617-924-9044
42.367131-71.187311

designer of Tinderbox. (CV)

Eastgate

Made with Tinderbox
Made with Tinderbox 9.5.1

Email

bernstein@eastgate.com

Twitter

@eastgate

3rd edition

The Tinderbox Way

Tinderbox Way

Exploring not only how to use Tinderbox but also why it works as it does. $34.95 (492 pages, eBook). Read more.

 

Intertwingled

Intertwingled

New media in the age of Trump. From the revolution in retail politics when nobody goes to the diner or answers their doorbell, to responsible AI research, to a yarn about an actual holodeck on an actual starship . $29.95 (130 pages, paperback). Read more.

 

Reading Hypertext

A new anthology of the best papers about the future of reading.

Reading Hypertext

Literary foundations of Storyspace, Tinderbox, and the Web. Bernstein, Greco, Joyce, Landow, Moulthrop, Walker – classic essays and fresh insights. $39.95. Table of Contents

Now available.

 

Selected Research

Latest Book Notes

Thoughts on my recent reading. Mouseover the covers for notes.

The engaging autobiography of a paleo-botanist, Lab Girl is really the best portrait I know of the reality of contemporary research. Jahren is filled with doubts: the book opens with a dedication to Jahren’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that Jahren and her mother never got along. Jahren faces more than the usual share of academic obstacles, as she endures periodic episodes of psychosis in addition to conventional sexism on the way to tenure. Jahren emphasizes the poverty of so much contemporary science; through much of her career she was unable to pay her lab tech anything like a...

(close)

A well-crafted alternative history of the British Empire and its industrial revolution, in which steam power only becomes practical after scholars have harnessed the magical powers of silver. Silver in this world has the ability to release the missing elements that separate words in different languages but share common roots: French treácle (antidote): English treacle (sweet), for example, is medicinal. Four young Oxford undergraduates arrive from the corners of Empire: Calcutta, Canton, Port-au-Prince, and the daughter of an admiral. Two are women. Two are black; the boy from Canton can sometimes pass. They are to be trained to supply the ...

(close)

At once accessible, engaging, and comprehensive, this history of the great fire of 64 brings together textual scholarship and archaeology to paint a remarkably comprehensive picture of the disaster and its aftermath. Our main literary sources for Nero are uniformly hostile, and the Flavians who eventually took over the Roman Empire after Nero’s fall (and a year of chaos) had good reason to blacken Nero’s reputation. Barrett’s study of the passage in Tacitus on Nero’s persecution of the Christians is brilliant, lending new weight to a 19th-Century suspicion that the essence of this account is a much later interpolation. Heartily recomme...

(close)

An accomplished and very intriguing school story about deaf education, and the status of deaf culture. The 19th-century school story ended in graduation, the 20th-century school story ended in the dissolution of the school. This 21st-Century school story heads to unexpected places.

(close)

A fascinating and very strange book about a man, of scholarly bent, whose world is a vast — perhaps endless — labyrinth of grand marble halls and vestibules, all lined with monumental statuary. He calls this The House, and he is the Beloved Child Of The House. It provides for him: the seas that flow through the lower halls provide fish and mussels and nutritious seaweed. Fresh rain can be collected from the misty upper halls. He knows of one other living person, whom he calls The Other and whom he meets by appointment, twice a week. He tells us ear...

(close)

A witty and authentic recollection of startup life in 21st-Century Silicon Valley. Wiener had been working in the lower rungs of New York publishing when she seized an opportunity to join a startup. That didn’t work out, but there were plenty of startups. In the end, she spent much of her time at the “open-source startup”, but lots of her friends worked at “the social network everyone hated”; in the end, her open-source startup is bought by “the highly litigious Seattle-based conglomerate” and she returns to writing with a nice nest egg. There’s a lovely little passage the recounts how her Terms Of Se...

(close)

Reimagining the Munich Agreement of 1938, seen here with as much sympathy for Neville Chamberlain as it is possible to muster and narrated from the perspectives of two minor diplomatic officials — one British, one German — who had known each other at Oxford. Critics were unusually skeptical of this Robert Harris foray, which confronts structural difficulties with an array of suspense-generating machinery, much of which doesn’t quite work. Harris has a point: if war was coming, it might have been better to delay it — though not, of course, better for the millions of Nazi victims who might have escaped...

(close)

Books Bought (Last 45 Days): Recent additions to my reading stack, including review copies, loans, gifts.

Upcoming Talks

All dates subject to change. Want to arrange a talk? Contact Eastgate . A list of some previous talks is here.

Books

1078 Books: by author | by title

2021 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2020 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2019 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2018 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

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

Hypertext Theory

Also Relevant

TEKKA

HypertextNow

XML
BOOKS
GeoURL
Tinderbox

Interviews

Jorge Arango, The Informed Life, November 2022

Em Short, Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative, April 2016

Alex Strick van Linschoten and Matt Trevithick, Sources and Methods (podcast), October 2014

James Fallows, “How You’ll Get Organized”, The Atlantic (July/August 2014)

Judy Malloy, "The History of Hypertext Literature Authoring and Beyond"

Claus Atzenbeck, "Hypertext Research", ACM SIGWeb Newsletter (Summer, 2008) (pdf)

Lawrie Hunter, "No Reason not to link", Information Design Journal + Document Design 13:3, pp. 229-237 (2005)

Jakob Klein, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (24 July 2005)

Linton Weeks, Washington Post (on eBooks; paywall)

D. C. Dennison, Boston Globe (on Eastgate)

Jim Whitehead, The Cyberspace Report 

F. L. Carr, English Matters

Joe Lambert, Digital Diner

Jennifer Ley, Riding The Meridian

Susana Pajares Tosca, Hipertulia

Roberto Simanowski, Dichtung-Digital

Talks
 
MarkBernstein.org

Talks

A partial list of some talks, meetings, symposia, lectures, and readings I've done in recent years.

Intl. Conf. On Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS), 11/3/20202, Bournemouth UK. Closing keynote: Why Do We Study Interactive Digital Stories?

Web Studies 3. 10/15/2020. Hamamet, Tunisia (virtual). Invited Talk: In Spite Of Ourselves: our duty to our slaves of steel.

ACM Hypertext 2020. University of Central Florida (virtual). Bad Character: who do we want our hypertexts to be? (Winner, Blue Sky award)

Narrascope, 5/24/2020, Champaigne-Urbana (virtual). Characters and Automata: a review

Web Science 2013
ACM Web Science 2013 and Hypertext 2013, May 1-4, Paris France. I’m program chair for Web Science.

First International Conference on Electronic Literature and Virtual Art, Madrid, Spain. 4-6 October 2012. I’ll be speaking about the challenges of Storyspace III and Storyspace for iPad.

Digital Humanities Kolkata
Digital Humanities, September 24-25, 2012. Presidency University, Kolkata (Calcultta), India.
Narrative and Hypertext
Narrative and Hypertext, June 25, 2012, Milwaukee. (I’m presenting a paper, “Gothic,” in the form of a dramatic dialog.)
Tinderbox Weekend Boston
Tinderbox Weekend Boston. Feb. 4-5, 2012.
Tinderbox Weekend Hamburg
Tinderbox Weekend Hamburg, Germany. May 19-20, 2012.
Tinderbox Weekend SF
Tinderbox Weekend SF, Hotel Rex, San Francisco. December 10-11, 2011.
Dangerous Readings
Dangerous Readings: strange hypertext and narrative play. The Second Intl. Web Art Science Campe, an unconference on new ways of reading. November 19-20, Boston.
Web Science 2011
Web Science 2011, June 14-17, Koblenz, Germany. “Flocks, Herds, and Stories: temporal coherence and the long tail.”
Hypertext 2011
Hypertext 2011, June 6-9, 2010. Eindhoven, The Netherlands. I’m co-chair with Frank Nack of a track on Interaction, Narrative, and Storytelling.  I’ll also be presenting a paper, “Towards a Vocabulary of Spatial Hypertext.”
Hypertext 2010
Hypertext 2010, June 13-16, 2010. Toronto, Canada. My paper is, "Criticism."
Archive and Innovate
ELO Archive and Innovate, "Generalized Stretchtext", June 3-6, 2010. Providence, RI, USA

Tinderbox Weekend, May 8-9 2010.

Tinderbox Weekend Boston
Tinderbox Weekend, March 13-14, 2010. Accent on Law, Journalism, and Policy Analysis.
First International Congress on Web Studies
First International Congress on Web Studies, March 3-5, 2010. Toluca, Mexico.
Future of Digital Studies
Futures of Digital Studies, Gainesville, Florida, USA, 25-27 February 2010. I’ll be talking about NeoVictorian Computing and the Literary Craft.
eLitCamp
eLitCamp — a weekend crafting new media narratives, December 12-13, 2009. Boston. Interested in joining us? Email me.
Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco
A few seats are left — and the lineup is fantastic. Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco, November 21-22, 2009.
Hypertext '09
Hypertext 2009, June 29-July 1, 2009, Villa Gualino Convention Center, Torino. My paper is titled On Hypertext Narrative and discussed a generalization of stretchtext implemented in Tinderbox and Javascript. I'm co-chair, with Antonio Pizzo, of the track on Hypertext and Community — including (among much else) weblogs, social networks, fiction, and drama.
IVICA
IVICA: 2009 Symposium on Interactive Visual Information Collections and Activity, Austin, Texas, June 17, 2009. My talk: “A Narrative, a Picture, and a Link Walk Into a Bar”
Tinderbox Weekend London
Tinderbox Weekend London. May 9-10, 2009. With Mark Bernstein, Michael Bywater, Mark Anderson, and more...
Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco
Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco. November 22-23, 2008. Hotel Rex (Union Square).
WikiSym '08
WikiSym '08, 8-10 September 2008, Porto, Portugal. (I'm Program Chair)
PodCamp Boston 3
The Intellectual, Artistic, and Sexual Concerns of Wikis, Weblogs, and Linked Media, 19 July 2008, Joseph Martinc Conference Center, Harvard Medical School, room 214
The New Knowledge Forge
The New Knowledge Forge : a one-day colloquium on wikis, links, and social software. Porto, Portugal. With George P. Landow, Stewart Mader, and J. Nathan Matias. June 30, 2008.
Tinderbox Day Pittsburgh
Tinderbox Construction. 22 June 2008, Omni William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh PA.
Hypertext 08
Hypertext '08, Pittsburgh, PA, USA. June 19-21, 2008. (I'm track chair)
BlogTalk
BlogTalk 2008, March 3-4, 2008, Cork, Ireland. "NeoVictorian, Nobitic, and Narrative: ancient anticipations and the meaning of weblogs"
SRI AI Center
SRI AI Center Lecture Series, NeoVictorian Computing, 4 December 2007. SRI E building, room EJ228, 4pm.
UCSC
University of California at Santa Cruz, Department of Computer Science, December 3, 2pm.

Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco, December 1-2, 2007. Focus: Tinderbox Management.

Tinderbox Weekend Boston, November 17-18, 2007. Focus: Tinderbox for Writers.

Hypertext '07
Hypertext '07, 11-13 September, 2007. Manchester, England (I'm chair of Hypertext, Culture, and Communication)
OOPSLA '07
OOPSLA '07: NeoVictorian Programming: intimate information for everyone's everyday tasks. Thursday, October 25. (The list of invited speakers is inspiring)
WikiSym
WikiSym 2007, 21-23 October 2007, Montréal, Quebec, Canada. (I’m panels chair)
Cafe Scientifique
Cafe Scientifique, Cafe Muse, Manchester Museum, 12 September 2007 18:30, Unlinked and Entangled: how codex technology and contemporary critical theory contributed to the breakdown of the Anglo-American Occupation of Iraq.
Tinderbox Weekend UK
Tinderbox Weekend, 21-22 April 2007, St. John’s College, Cambridge, England.
Qualitative Computing
Advances in Qualitative Computing, 17-20 April 2007, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Tinderbox Weekend Boston
Tinderbox Weekend Boston, 28-29 October 2006, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
IVICA
Interactive Visual Information Collections and Activity (IVICA), October 20-22, 2006. College Station, Texas

October 3, 2006. University of Sydney, Digital Cultures and Sydney Humanities and Social Sciences E-Research Initiative.

OZ-IA
September 30-October 1, 2006. "False Intentions and the Fallacy of Finding", OZ-IA, Sydney, Australia.
WikiSym 2006
WikiSym 2006: August 21-23, Odense, Denmark. "Intimate Information: organic hypertext structure and incremental formalization for everyone's everyday tasks"
Tinderbox Day Chicago
Tinderbox Day Chicago, 22 April 2006.
Tinderbox Weekend Boston
Tinderbox Weekend Boston, 13-14 May 2006.
BlogHui
BlogHui, 17-18 March, 2006. Wellington, New Zealand.
eNarrative 6: Creative Nonfiction
eNarrative 6: Hypertext and Creative Nonfiction. January 21-22, 2005. Boston MA USA
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Software Aesthetics: On Criticism, 12:00-14:00, December 19, 2005. Free University Brussels, CLWF room D1.06
Tinderbox Weekend San Francisco
Tinderbox Weekend, November 18-20, 2005 San Francisco, CA.
Tinderbox Day Seattle
Tinderbox Day Seattle, November 16, 2005
BlogTalk Downunder
BlogTalk Downunder (pdf), 20-21 May 2005. Sydney, Australia.
Tinderbox Weekend Paris
Tinderbox Weekend Paris: April 16-17, 2005. AUP, Paris, France
Natl Art Education
National Art Education Association, "When Research Sparks a Tinderbox", Boston, MA USA, March 5, 2005
Tinderbox Weekend Boston
Tinderbox Weekend Boston: February 12-13, 2005. Boston, MA, USA
BlogWalk Chicago
BlogWalk, January 22 2005. Chicago Illinois USA.
Tinderbox Weekend West
Tinderbox Weekend West: October 2-3, 2004. San Francisco, California, USA.
BlogTalk 2
BlogTalk 2: July 5-6, 2004. Vienna, Austria. keynote: Deeply Intertwingled: The Social Physics of the New Weblog
Tinderbox Weekend
Tinderbox Weekend: May 22-23, 2004. Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Texas A&M
April 22, 2004. Humanities Informatics Distinguished Lecturer Series, Texas A&M, College Station, Texas, USA.
EdBlogger 2003
EdBlogger, San Francisco, November 22-23, 2003
Semantic Distance
Nov 10-12, 2003: Semantic Distance Workshop, NIST, Gaithersburg, MD
American University of Paris
September 29, 2003. American University of Paris.
H2PTM
September 24-26, 2003: H2PTM: Creating Meaning In The Digital Era, Paris, France.
Nottingham, England
August 26-30, 2003: Hypertext '03. University of Nottingham.
Waltham, MA
September 13, 2003: Readercon. Why We Like Buffy. Waltham, MA
Sedona, Arizona
12-15 June 2003: Digital Storytelling Festival  Sedona, Arizona
Maastricht
13 May 2003 (20:00) Personal Publishing Pandemonium, Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht
IA Summit
"Hypertext Gardens, Architecture, and IA", Information Architecture Summit, 22-23 March 2003, Portland, Oregon, USA.
Oxford, England
March 27-29, 2003: Dust Or Magic, Wadham College, Oxford
AWP
February 27, AWP/CLMP Web Fair, Baltimore, MD, USA

March 29-30: Hypertext '03 Program Committee Meeting. Nottingham, UK.

Boston
April 12, 2002: NEMO Music Conference: New Media Showcase. Suisshotel, Boston. 2:30-5.
Boston, MA, USA
May 10-11, 2003: eNarrative 5, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Held in cooperation with the Boston Public Library, in conjunction with the 2003 Boston Cyberarts Festival.
Waltham, MA, USA
April 29, 2002: Brandeis University
College Park, MD, USA
June 11-15, 2002: Hypertext 2002, College Park, Maryland, USA. (My paper this year has a very short title: Storyspace 1)
Los Angeles, CA, USA
April 4-6, 2002: Future of Publishing Symposium, Los Angeles. Sponsored by ELO.
Boston, MA
March 16-17, 2002: Hypertext/Education/Storyspace: the 4th eNarrative roundtable.
San Francisco, CA USA
January 19-20: eNarrative 3 , San Francisco
Singapore
December 12-January 17, 2002: Senior Fellow, National University, Singapore
Southampton, UK
November 6: University of Southampton. Card Shark and Thespis: two exotic tools for hypertext narrative.
Erfurt, Germany
September 26-9: p0es1s. " Cause, Consequence, Sleepless Nights -- exotic tools for hypertext narrative." The reason we woudn't want to meet Hamlet on the Holodeck, and the mysterious absence of tragedy and comedy from hypertext literature"
Aarhus, Denmark
August 14-18: Hypertext 2001
ReaderCon
ReaderCon, July 7-9, Burlington MA
Antioch University LA
Guest Residency, MFA in Creative Writing Program
New York, NY
22 May 2001, TextOneZero, Brooklyn
Boston, MA
eNarrative 2: Hypertext, Narrative, Flash
College Station, Texas
12 March 2001, Where Are The Hypertexts, Again? Texas A&M University
Boston, MA
eNarrative 1
Singapore
30 July 2000, "Where The Hypertexts Are", National University of Singapore
San Antonio, Texas
30 May 2000, "MORE THAN LEGIBLE: On links that readers don't want to follow", Hypertext 2000, San Antonio, Texas
Swarthmore, PA
7 April 2000, "Where are the Hypertexts?", Swarthmore College
Hypertext '04
Hypertext '04: Santa Cruz, California, USA, August 9-13, 2004. I'll be a guest at the Blogging Tutorial. (I'm also panel chair)
Honolulu, Hawaii
25 October 1999, "Taking Hypertext Seriously" (invited plenary), WebNet 1999.
Toronto, Ontario
20 June 1999, "Beyond Bibliolatry", Canadian Library Association
Boston, MA
10 April 1999, Davis Symposium, Emerson University
Providence, RI
9 April 1999, Technology Platforms for 21st Century Literature, Brown University
Denver, Colorado
27 May 1999, Cybermountain Hypertext Workshop, Denver, Colorado
Darmstadt, Germany
21 February 1999, Where Are The Hypertexts? (opening keynote), Hypertext '99, Darmstadt, Germany
Crested Butte, Colorado
Tales from Fifteen Years of Hypertext Publishing, Digital Storytelling Festival 4
Paris, France
Chasing Our Tails, "Tous les saviors du monde" Colloquium on the occasion of the opening of the new Biblioteque de France
Peabody, MA
12 April 2001, The Craft of Hypertext, North Shore Computer Society

home | lecture notes | email me!

2021 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2020 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | MarFeb | Jan

2019 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | MarFeb | Jan

2018 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2017 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2016 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2015 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2014 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2013 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2012 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2011 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2010 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2009 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2008 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2007 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2006 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2005 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2004 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2003 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2002 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | Aug | Jul | Jun | May | Apr | Mar | Feb | Jan

2001 Dec | Nov | Oct | Sep | old

1078 Books: by author | by title

2021 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2020 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2019 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2018 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

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

Mark Bernstein: Quotes
MarkBernstein.org
 

Quotes

He married out of love a woman out of legend. – William Goldman, The Lion In Winter

"We don't have to worry about making it interesting; all we have to worry about is getting rid of the pig." -- David Mamet, On Directing Film

“You’d think the purpose of a roof is to keep rain off the television.” – Bob Frankston, on the net industry's fixation on entertainment.

“The unconsidered hypertext is not worth reading.” – Nancy Kaplan

“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

“What we need to teach students most, in my opinion, is how to directly experience an artwork, not how to invent theories about it.... The education system has signally failed to create the great audiences that might understand, support, and maintain great works of art.” – Robert Brustein, The Siege of the Arts

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow.

– Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

“All these memories will be lost in time like tears in the rain.” – David Wojnarowic, “When I put my hands on your body”

“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

Mark Bernstein: Designing A Conference: Details
May 14, 2013
MarkBernstein.org
 
Follow me on Twitter

Designing A Conference: Details

Some details might help Tinderbox novices follow “Designing A Conference With Tinderbox.” If you haven’t read that post already, you should probably read it first.

Prototypes For Papers

I seldom build a tree of prototypes in Tinderbox, but this task is an exception.

Designing A Conference: Details

We have a prototype Paper that represents a submitted research paper. It has the key attributes you’d expect: author, title, submission number, reviewer scores, and the email address of the corresponding author.

We then have a bunch of prototypes that inherit from Paper and represent various categories of accepted paper. These prototypes do two things:

Agents For Double Checking

Web Science ’13, like many conferences, uses the EasyChair Web application to coordinate reviewers. EasyChair is a headache, but perhaps less of a headache than the old days where we photocopies every paper four times, stuffed and mailed a hundred envelopes, and collated reviews on paper tally lists.

EasyChair gives you a convenient count of the number of acceptances you’ve sent. Obviously, we want to be confident that our own records and EasyChair’s are in sync. One way to increase our confidence is to check that the number of accepted papers in each category matches the number of EasyChair acceptances. An agent can make short work of this.

Designing A Conference: Details

We simply look for all the notes that have the appropriate prototype, count them up, and check the total against the number of acceptance emails. If they don’t match, you know you’d better go hunt down the discrepancy!

Even then, you never know. One author of an accepted paper didn’t read his email with sufficient care, and assumed his paper had been accepted for a workshop. He came, read his paper to the workshop, and left Paris. Only as he used the train’s wifi on the return voyage did he realize his mistake. That was awkward, but not as awkward as the encounter would be with a researcher who has travelled a long distance at great expense, only to find their presentation is not on the program.

Trial By Fire

Using the prototype Tinderbox Six to manage the program was a risk. Through the process, the software changed from day to day, and it was not unusual for progress on the conference to require a quick fix to the software. Many details of the screen layout in these examples will therefore look a bit strange to today’s Tinderbox 5.12 users, and they’ll doubtless seem quaint when Tinderbox Six is actually released.

I also kept my conference notes in Tinderbox Six, such as they were — program chairs have many distractions, I was on stage a lot and it’s hard to take notes when you’re on stage.

Designing A Conference: Details

As usual, the left margin is reserved for notes to myself — especially notes about #Tinderbox features that I wanted as I made the notes. For example, the test version I was using didn’t understand that double-clicking an adornment should create a new note, just like double-clicking in the background of the map. This is the sort of thing that Test Driven Development doesn’t catch (it’s a dog that didn’t bark in the night) but that is still very good to know about. Tinderbox Six was well behaved through the conference, giving us a little more confidence as we approach the widening of the circle.

Questions? Email me.

Mark Bernstein: Designing A Conference With Tinderbox
May 13, 2013
MarkBernstein.org
 
Follow me on Twitter

Designing A Conference With Tinderbox

At the close of Web Science 13, conference chair Prof. Hugh Davis said some very kind things about the construction of the program. During the final deliberations, he was in Southampton and I was in San Francisco. When we made the final decisions late in the Southampton evening. it seemed we had a big bundle of ill-assorted papers. When Hugh awoke the next morning, all the papers were neatly sorted into sessions and assembled into a draft program.

Though Tinderbox isn’t designed for this task, it turns out that Tinderbox does it quite well. I’d like to walk through it in some detail — perhaps too much detail — because the task is itself not uncommon or unimportant, and because lots of other scheduling have similar properties.

The Nature Of The Problem

You never have enough time to plan the program for a peer-reviewed conference.

On the one hand, the deadlines for submitting papers and for submitting peer reviews need to be as late as they possibly can be. You want the latest results at the conference and the best results of the moment – not the best of last year. These days, researchers tend to submit late, and reviewers are even less punctual. While it’s possible to take a firm line with authors, reviewers have the upper hand and they know it; they’re important and busy people and you need their reviews more than they need you.

But once the reviews are in, there’s lots of pressure from the other end to have a final program. The Proceedings Chair wants the list of papers, yesterday. The Publicity Chair needs a program to publicize. The Powers That Be are always very edgy at this moment; they’ve committed to almost all the conference expenditures at this point and they’re terrified that no one will come. It never fails: the grizzled and ultra-competent Professor who has done this dozens of times before will, inevitably, wake up at this point in a cold sweat and email everyone to demand a finished program right away.

What You Can Do In Advance

In the nature of things, the Venue and the Powers That Be will dictate the shape and duration of your conference. For this conference, these constraints included:

Now, other conferences have different constraints, and some of these constraints might be finessed. Computer Science conferences, for example, never have evening sessions. Biochemistry conferences do, and that’s an arrow for our quiver if we need one.

All these constraints can be hard to keep in mind, but it’s easy to write them down in the form of a quickly sketched schedule.

Designing A Conference With Tinderbox

Each box is a Tinderbox adornment. Each label is an adornment, too. This doesn’t need to be precise or drawn to scale: it’s just a sketch. (Of course, it’s much larger and easier to read on your screen).

Looking at this, we can see that we have eight sessions to plan. Each session runs 90 minutes and so can accommodate 3 long papers, 6 short papers, or some combination of long and short papers. So, we could possibly accept as many as 48 short papers.

Special Events

Web Science always has a poster session as part of the main program. It’s unusually strong, featuring good work from senior researchers. It’s tough to get experienced people to do posters, which in other conferences are dominated by student work, so we need to give posters a large and prominent slot. But we already have two keynotes on day 1! We’ll put the posters on Day 2, and give them 2 hours. But then the coffee break — which is again fixed by the venue contract — falls at the end of the posters. So, we’ll move lunch a little earlier, split the morning session in half, and now the coffee break falls conveniently at the midpoint of the poster session. We’ve got an odd space at the end of the day, but I’ve got some ideas for a setting up an invited panel anyway in the name of program balance.

Designing A Conference With Tinderbox

So now we have six sessions of research papers. I’m not happy that three of them fall on Day 3, but decide that can’t be helped.

Pecha Kucha

We’re still well in advance of making program decisions at this point. Reviewers are reading and pondering their assignments. We’ve got a lot of submissions — 198 — and lots of interesting topics. My own impression, though, is that we don’t have many papers that stand head and shoulders above the rest. Making decisions will be difficult.

In addition, I’ve been worried for years about the quality of presentations at research conferences.

Cons, or Why We Are Unhappy At Conferences

I work at my talks, but I have to: I have the legacy of a speech impediment and the handicap of choosing topics that are usually unfamiliar. Lots of researchers are not especially talented presenters, but there’s no reason to expect they would be. You wouldn’t expect researchers to be especially good singers or right fielders, either.

Pecha kucha talks (about which I’ll write more later) are usually considered a risk-averse programming technique, a way of minimizing the damage one lousy presentation can do. That’s not my concern here; we’ve got the whole arsenal of peer review to cover that. But the discipline of 20 slides, changing every 20 seconds, helps bring out the strengths and hide the weaknesses of academic presenters. No one uses enough slides: here, the format insists on it. Too many presenters forget to speak up; here, they’ve got the adrenaline rush of summing up years of research in 400 seconds. Students, especially, tend to get lost in a forest of detail, but with only 20 seconds per slide, they’re constantly reminded of the need to explain the big picture.

I want to try this. I sense that other people on the committee aren’t exactly enthusiastic about the idea, but sitting in the chair has some perks. We drop that into Day 1, session 2. That gives us 11 pecha kucha talks, and I make a mental note to ensure that some really good papers and reliable presenters are among them

Designing A Conference With Tinderbox

When discussing which papers to accept, I make a point of asking whether an accepted paper might be suitable for the pecha kucha session. By the time we’re done, we’ve filled the pecha kucha roster. (In the end, one of the best-paper winners and two runners up came from the pecha kucha session.)

The Talks

The peer review process identifies acceptable talks. Every paper is read by at least three reviewers. I try to mix expertise and disciplines in assigning reviews, so we often have very different people discussing the same paper. Difficult or contentious papers get additional reviewers. Some have five or six. The goal is to accept every paper that is acceptable, but none that are not.

In addition, we have some tight constraints. Wall space limits us to 45 posters. Our five sessions can fit 15 long papers or 30 short papers. We’ve already lined up the 11 pecha kucha papers.

Posters and Presentations

Lots of conferences use posters as a training ground, but at Web Science we want them to be a first rate venue. Some papers lend themselves to posters.

The last point bears some elaboration. Occasionally, conferences receive papers that are difficult to evaluate because they are methodologically unorthodox. Reviewers are not confident that the results are wrong, but strong doubts are expressed. Discussion will improve the underlying work, but how can you arrange for that discussion? Referee reports may not be enough, especially not if the author simple assumes the the reviewer is hostile or has failed to understand their work. A paper presentation might not work, either, because even a carefully prepared question might get bogged down in details in which most of the audience isn’t interested. Posters are perfect for this; you can meet with people and establish that (a) you’re a reasonable fellow, (b) you understand their work, but (c) they could be more convincing if only they addressed some objections.

Conversely, some topics lend themselves to presentations.

Lots of people will bypass a poster titled “Dogs bite!” assuming that it is student work, confirming what everyone already knows. Sometimes, this sort of research cleverly demonstrates what everyone knew but nobody could actually prove. Sometimes, we demonstrate what everyone thought they knew, but could not really have known before our new experiment. This rhetoric is more effective in a dramatic presentation than in a poster; the poster has to disclose the punchline at the outset where the presentation can build up to it properly.

So, at the end of the day we have about 30 papers destined to be posters. Now we start to build up some sessions.

Building Sessions

Designing A Conference With Tinderbox

The hard work of pulling together 700 reviews of nearly 200 papers led to a very complicated workspace that I used during program committee meetings. Every review was read, every paper examined, and most papers were discussed in some detail. In the end, we had a list of papers that were clearly acceptable, papers that clearly needed more work or that would find a better audience at a different conference, and perhaps a dozen papers on the bubble. It was time too build some sessions.

I had to start somewhere. I picked up Harry Halpin’s “Does The Web Extend The Mind?” It’s got to be a presentation — it’s a philosophy paper, it’s dense, there’s no obvious visual hook. Halpin’s got a panel on Day 3, and I’m not sure this paper is ideal in the leadoff spot on Day 1. So it’s the opening act on Day 2. We don’t have any other papers on the same topic, but we’ve got two papers that harmonize nicely with its psychological concerns.

Designing A Conference With Tinderbox

The mechanics of this are really easy. I make an alias of the paper’s note from the program committee workspace and then paste the alias onto the program adornment. The original note carries metadata like paper number and author email addresses, so those are carried along with the alias. We’ve only got an hour in this split session, so we pencil in one long and two short paper sessions, and we give the session a title.

Going back to the pool of accepted papers, I notice a study about people’s attitudes toward user-contributed reviews. This concerns ownership of crowd-sourced material, and Cory Doctorow, slated to close Day 1, is a renowned intellectual property activist. So, it would be nice if this paper were on Day 1, but not so close to the keynote that it steps on its toes. But this one can bat leadoff – it’s classic Web Science material. Again, there’s nothing else much like it but we have lots of papers about user-contributed material and also lots of papers about crowdsourcing. It’s easy to imagine a session.

Designing A Conference With Tinderbox

Most of the other sessions are equally easy to assemble. The session on Journalism and the News assembles itself. Another collects interesting papers about affinity, ranging from financial sentiment on Twitter and general concepts of privacy to gender in Facebook profiles. The remaining papers break down fairly neatly into those chiefly interested in networks and those concerned with representing data (or people). Suddenly, we’re done.

Cleaning Up

Much of this could be done in a graphics package like Visio, or OmniGraffle. But in Tinderbox, because each of those notes already has the title, author list, and lots more metadata, it was easy to write a quick export template to format the draft program, including the pecha kucha session and the list of accepted posters. All this went straight into Pages (I might easily have used Scrivener) where I fixed the formatting and made sure everything was right.

It was also easy to write agents to do simple checks. How many papers and posters were in the program? How did they compare to the number of acceptance emails we had sent? At this point, I noticed that the program showed we had accepted one poster too many. Were we listing as accepted a poster we had actually rejected? It turned out to be a clerical blunder — I’d made two aliases of one poster and hadn’t noticed the spare. But Tinderbox made it easy to check the number of papers and posters in the program against the number of acceptances we had sent out. It would be awkward to have rejected a paper and then have the researcher show up at the conference empty-handed, only to be asked to do a presentation. Double-entry accounting is your friend.

So, a few hours after the final decisions were made, we had a nice draft program ready for discussion. Additional changes would be made, but the bones of the program were all in place. When changes were needed, moreover, it was easy to move papers in the Tinderbox map and see the impact on the program.

Mark Bernstein: Too Much Philosophy?
May 9, 2013
MarkBernstein.org
 
Follow me on Twitter

Too Much Philosophy?

The program at Web Science 2013 was diverse. For example, here’s the roster for the pecha kucha session:

From technical solutions to impetuous twittering to methodological questions in using Amazon Mechanical Turk to the nature of online prayer, we’re covering a lot of ground.

In the end, we have no choice. There are plenty of people who study some facet of the Web. Web Science studies the Web as an entire phenomenon. It’s not just the plumbing and it’s not just the sociology and its not just philosophy. Web Science it the place where philosophy informs the plumbing.

This makes for nifty sessions — you’ve got to love the transition between papers 5, 6, and 7 — but it also creates real tensions. A paper on the nature of trust, for example, simply cannot be correct in the way that a paper on information retrieval can. Then again, lots of people will be able to follow at least part of a paper about trust, but if you’ve forgotten what an eigenvalue is or why the intentional fallacy is false, it’s not hard to get lost in a paper whose author considers the argument straightforward.

In one of my first talks, I got a Nobel laureate completely confused about the elements of my experiment. That was a useful lesson: everyone has a hard time with hard ideas. You’ve spent months or years alone with your problem in a dark room, but your audience hasn’t met it before. Take it easy; they won’t be bored with a few minutes review and they won’t think you’re dim.

One significant problem at Web Science right now is a failure of imagination: how do our small studies suggest great consequences? This is not to say that writers should claim too much or write incautiously. But consequences that might rock your own province can strike people from other fields as obscure, and can seem pedantic or worse to people who have work to do.

Web Science is still not very good at working with people who build Web sites and invent Web apps, the very people we ought to be serving and to whom we ought to be listening. For that, we need every eigenvalue, every statistic, and every construct in our toolbox.

Mark Bernstein: WebSci13 Reporting
May 7, 2013
MarkBernstein.org
 
Follow me on Twitter

WebSci13 Reporting

Web Science 2013 trip reports and other wrap-up:

Mark Bernstein: Choosing The Best
May 6, 2013
MarkBernstein.org
 
Follow me on Twitter

Choosing The Best

Eight years ago, I wrote a post about a colleague’s protest about the lack of women in a conference program. Since then, the post has been sitting in the penalty box — the place where volatile posts go to cool off. (Regular readers may be astonished that I possess such a thing.)

Of course, that conference has been over for years. I think, though, that there’s a useful idea here, one that casts some light on what I call the Treaty For Web Science, about which I hope to write soon. So I’ve rewritten and extended the post here.


2005: My friend had written that

There is no such thing as selection from strict quality criteria and nothing else.

Here, I think we've wandered into the swamp or stepped off the end of the pier. If there's no such thing, for example, as selecting from strict academic quality, then universities are just social clubs where some lucky people get to distribute lots of money to their attractive and well-connected friends. That can't be right.

One could, I think, assemble a technical conference program from purely objective criteria that would likely correlate with "quality". We might need to fine-tune our metrics; that's why this is hard. It doesn't mean it can't be done.

Is it possible to select the best baseball player ever, selecting strictly from on-field performance and nothing else? I think so. Can we ask, "Was Babe Ruth a better player than Willie Mays?" We can, and the answer is yes -- even though most people seem to like Mays and lots of people thought Ruth was a jerk. (Update: Eight years later, a more effective comparison would be Barry Bonds and Mays. Or load the deck even more: Barry Bonds or Jackie Robinson. Jackie’s number 42 has been retired from baseball and Bonds might never get into the Hall, but no one is going to argue that Bonds wasn’t a better player.)

Is it possible to select the best 5 novels of the year, arguing strictly from literary quality and nothing else? Most people think this is a plausible enterprise, though it's bound to be difficult. The National Book Award, the Booker, the Pulitzer – they'd mean nothing if people thought they were rigged or jobbed or arbitrary.

As it happens, the last National Book Award (i.e. 2004 or 2005) ended up short-listing five novels. All five were written by women. All were "small" novels. None sold very well. A number of other novelists (Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe) wrote books that were eligible, but weren't nominated. If we neglect the questions raised by Middlesex, we'd expect that all five books on the short list would be written by people of one gender or the other about once every fifteen years, just from luck. It's possible that Roth's maleness worked against him, it's possible that judges thought he was already sufficiently famous, or that having already won the prize, he didn't need another shiny object. It's possible that the judges simply liked the other books more.

Writing in The Believer, National Book Award chairman Rick Moody – no slouch of a writer – said that's just the way it turned out. Moody thinks the resentment is, at core, anti-intellectual: famous writers should create the best books, right? He's got a nice polemic on how anti-intellectual spleen has no place in the National Book Award, and how the media furor surrounding the award infantilizes the American book-loving public.


2013: What I didn’t appreciate sufficiently in 2005 is the way this disagreement illuminates a disciplinary boundary. My friend is a humanist steeped in postmodern thought. My background lies in the physical sciences. We seem to be arguing politics, but we’re really arguing disciplinary faith.

My friend’s position, I think, is that all these judgments are necessarily embedded in social contexts and understandings. We can’t truly know which novel was the best of 2013; it’s not really a question that makes any sense. The best we can hope to do is suggest which novel would be the best one for you to read right now. Someone else, at some other time, might find it dull or trite or impenetrable. And if we can’t choose the best novel, how can we choose the very best conference speaker? And might not being female sometimes in itself make one person a more effective speaker than another?

Suppose you’re having a dinner party. Seven guests have been invited; your table can manage eight. Is there one best person to invite? Context is everything here, and it’s entirely possible that balancing genders, personalities, and interests will lead to the best answer.

But science cannot work this way. As Curie said, in science we talk about things, not people. Considering a talk at a scientific conference, we can easily ask (and, one hopes, answer) questions that would confound us in literature:

No one can read a new novel and tell you with confidence whether it’s going to inspire lots of novels or not. For plenty of computer science papers, on the other hand, this is immediately apparent. In literature, it might be interesting to hear someone with talent expound a position that’s almost certainly wrong: Edmund Wilson’s case against The Lord Of The Ring, or Jane Smiley’s rejection of Huckleberry Finn. This is even more true in History, which thrives on energetic defenses of such seemingly-indefensible positions as “our sympathies should lie with Sparta, not Athens” or “it might have been better for everyone if Britain had let Germany win WW1.” Even if it turns out that the new argument doesn’t quite hold up, the attempt may well repay some time and effort by giving us a broader understanding and deeper sympathy.

But in science, wrong is wrong. And few things would be more wrong than preferring paper A to paper B because the author of A, though he’s clearly made a blunder this time, is an important fellow while the author of B is an unknown student from a backwater. To take the speaker’s podium away from B and give it to A would, in the sciences, be a revolting crime and a scandal. It’s unthinkable.

A fairly precise parallel can be found in the Anglo-American legal tradition. Suppose Smith, a beloved movie star, has committed a serious crime. He is immensely wealthy. He is head of prominent charities and is considering running for office. Thousands of workers depend on him and would lose their jobs if he weren’t available to make his next film. May we excuse the crime? The Romans would have answered without hesitation, “yes.” But the Anglo-American tradition is unambiguous: though the sky fall, let justice be done.

Now, even in the sciences we may have tough decisions. We might not catch a mistake. We might not know that something has already been published, especially if the first publication was obscure or if it used a different notation. Reasonable people can disagree over whether a given result is intriguing or rather dull. Committees can err. But, obviously, they must not commit crimes.

Now, scientists are not (always) dim or parochial. They understand that people are fallible, and they understand that in other fields to ask for a judgment of whether a conclusion is wrong is to ask too much. It’s impossible to apply the standards of physical chemistry to a paper on ethics or narratology. But to consider persons, not facts, when choosing conference papers is going to make scientists very, very uncomfortable.

Mark Bernstein: Preamble
May 2, 2013
MarkBernstein.org
 
Follow me on Twitter

Preamble

Websci this year received a lot of work.
One ninety eight submissions were reviewed
By more than seventy program committee folk,
And in the program we managed to find space 
For forty talks and more than forty posters
By squeezing every minute,every meter,
And plotting out the pecha kucha show
I hope you’ll all enjoy right after lunch today.

I emphasize we always separate
The mode of presentation from publication.
Some of the papers we thought best became
Posters or short talks because we we thought
They’d show to best advantage in a smaller space.

So we might think ourselves well pleased,
A happy conference, prosperous and strong.

This year, you gave this conference many frights.

We waited for your papers anxiously
And feared too few would come, 'til at the end
They all poured in at once, and more came late.
The deadline for extended abstracts came
And went, and papers still rushed in. Reviews
Were also plentiful but very slow,
Terser and more shallow than I’d wish.

And so I take a moment here to ask
You all to slow down all of your reviews, 
To water them and let them grow a bit.
Move carefully but well beyond your comfort zone,
And show your work. Tell what you understand
And how. 

	We do not care as much as you 
Just what you like — and don’t. We need to know
More clearly what you thought about, and why. 

❧ 

Disciplinarity is harder than you think.
In school it seems to be for most
A question of departmental boundaries,
One that good-natured friends with ease
Should overcome. Alas, this turns out not
To be the case. Our disciplines
Encode our rules of evidence, and worse
Encode what we think good, and bad, and wrong.
Last night, in fact, I was awake past two
To settle one last vexing argument.
Simple things like how we submit work
And then review it raise question and tempers too.
What seems straightforward in one field
Another finds intolerably wrong.

❧  

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.					

But still, my friends, this isn’t good enough.
The writing we received is really far from good,
Making all allowance for the fact
That we all come from different states and fields.

I don’t complain of trivial mistakes.
I am myself a very sloppy writer,
And almost every paper I submit
Has missing words and blunders. It’s not these 
That makes our papers so damn hard to read, 
But rather imprecision in our choice of words
And absence of concision in our prose.
You need not hammer home the structure of your work
If it's the same old structure we have read
Since we were undergrads. 

	But if you write
About the antelopes that roam the Web
It does behoove you well to know exactly what
An antelope might be, and to distinguish them
From beavers, boojums, snarks and ocelots.
You need not argue ocelots are bad!
We simply want to know how your ideas fit
With what we all already do and know.

Precise word use and thorough scholarship			
Are even more important when, as here,
The audience is drawn from many disciplines.

Our topics — timid, inoffensive, mild –
Will seldom cause  great outrage or surprise.
The times are bad, the provost even worse,
I understand how fear of a false step
Can tempt us to tread light. But still,
It’s not just me: a bunch of you sent mail
To ask about the timing of your talk
So you might fit it in your travel plans
And rush away to give another talk.
I don’t recall a single message sent
To ask about a colleague’s Web Sci work,
And when their talk might be. 

	Why do we come
To conferences like this? To please our dean?
To earn a meager line on our CV?
That’s not the point. 

	I hope we come to learn
To find the best of what is being done
And thought about this complicated Web.

So thanks for coming. Please enjoy the show;
I look forward to learning what you all newly know.
Book Notes
 

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

The Cambridge Companion To Edward Gibbon
Karen O’Brien and Brian Young, eds.

In Catalonia for the Hypertext Conference, we saw plenty of Roman ruins. Some, like Tarragona, I expected, but others (Emporias!) were a remarkable surprise. On the way home, I had a nice dip into the Decline and Fall. One night, wanting to look beyond my familiar reading stack, I grabbed this. What fun!

Gibbon published the start of The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. His cadences have the resonance of that era’s best writing, and he is a subtly funny writer, the master of adding a footnote or choosing an extra adjective to turn a statement on its head. This volume is filled with finely-written, accessible and engaging pieces on such topics as Gibbon’s style, his library and note-taking practices, and his knowledge of the city of Rome. More fun than a book like this has any right to be.

January 7, 2023 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Lab Firl
Hope Jahren

The engaging autobiography of a paleo-botanist, Lab Girl is really the best portrait I know of the reality of contemporary research. Jahren is filled with doubts: the book opens with a dedication to Jahren’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that Jahren and her mother never got along. Jahren faces more than the usual share of academic obstacles, as she endures periodic episodes of psychosis in addition to conventional sexism on the way to tenure. Jahren emphasizes the poverty of so much contemporary science; through much of her career she was unable to pay her lab tech anything like a living wage, so he spent years teaching at major universities while sleeping in his car or under a lab bench. There’s a wonderful set-piece tribute to homemade scientific instruments, really the only thing I know that comes close to capturing the reality. “Do not over-tighten me,” says a tag on one fastener, a label of poetic conciseness to those of us who have been there.

December 2, 2022 (permalink)


A well-crafted alternative history of the British Empire and its industrial revolution, in which steam power only becomes practical after scholars have harnessed the magical powers of silver. Silver in this world has the ability to release the missing elements that separate words in different languages but share common roots: French treácle (antidote): English treacle (sweet), for example, is medicinal. Four young Oxford undergraduates arrive from the corners of Empire: Calcutta, Canton, Port-au-Prince, and the daughter of an admiral. Two are women. Two are black; the boy from Canton can sometimes pass. They are to be trained to supply the magic power that powers the empire.

The catch here is that the students know too many post-colonial ideas, and too little history. They’re entirely convincing until they speak about the political and economic ideas at the heart of the story. When they do, they suddenly sound like contemporary undergraduates at top schools who have learned to problematize and interrogate from a tender age. Kuang is absolutely convincing on 19th-century Oxford slang, and if anything minimizes its racism. But we’re a half-century before Shaw’s first plays — and Shaw saw himself as a radical. At the time of the novel, Frederick Douglass was only at the start of his career. The students are intended to be brilliant, but they seem to know W. E. B. Du Bois decades before his birth.

October 31, 2022 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

At once accessible, engaging, and comprehensive, this history of the great fire of 64 brings together textual scholarship and archaeology to paint a remarkably comprehensive picture of the disaster and its aftermath. Our main literary sources for Nero are uniformly hostile, and the Flavians who eventually took over the Roman Empire after Nero’s fall (and a year of chaos) had good reason to blacken Nero’s reputation. Barrett’s study of the passage in Tacitus on Nero’s persecution of the Christians is brilliant, lending new weight to a 19th-Century suspicion that the essence of this account is a much later interpolation. Heartily recommended.

August 10, 2022 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Book Notes
 

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

The Idiot

A sensitive, sweet, well-observed story of a Turkish girl at Harvard. She has no particular reason to be there, and no particular plan for what to do while she’s there. Yet, it has its moments.

May 24, 2022 (permalink)


An accomplished and very intriguing school story about deaf education, and the status of deaf culture. The 19th-century school story ended in graduation, the 20th-century school story ended in the dissolution of the school. This 21st-Century school story heads to unexpected places.

May 2, 2022 (permalink)


Piranesi
Susanna Clarke

A fascinating and very strange book about a man, of scholarly bent, whose world is a vast — perhaps endless — labyrinth of grand marble halls and vestibules, all lined with monumental statuary. He calls this The House, and he is the Beloved Child Of The House. It provides for him: the seas that flow through the lower halls provide fish and mussels and nutritious seaweed. Fresh rain can be collected from the misty upper halls. He knows of one other living person, whom he calls The Other and whom he meets by appointment, twice a week. He tells us early on that he knows that there have been at least 14 other persons who have lived in the history of the world, as he cares for their skeletons and brings them offerings of food and water. His knowledge of The House and its statuary is encyclopedic, and he keeps a journal using a calendar of his own devising.

This is a fascinating study of the idea that Primitive Man thought differently, and experienced the world in ways we do not, carefully elaborated because Primitive Man was not stupid. Was there a time when people were not alienated? Perhaps. I think I disagree with Clarke: my intuition suggests that, back when people were running on the savannah, the institutions we are tempted to call “the cave-bear clan” and “the winter sodality” were more like “The Royal Institution For Nutrition” and “The Department Of State.” Still, Clarke thinks things through, and the writing is often delicious.

February 9, 2022 (permalink)


A witty and authentic recollection of startup life in 21st-Century Silicon Valley. Wiener had been working in the lower rungs of New York publishing when she seized an opportunity to join a startup. That didn’t work out, but there were plenty of startups. In the end, she spent much of her time at the “open-source startup”, but lots of her friends worked at “the social network everyone hated”; in the end, her open-source startup is bought by “the highly litigious Seattle-based conglomerate” and she returns to writing with a nice nest egg. There’s a lovely little passage the recounts how her Terms Of Service team came up against the early days of Gamergate, and then her astonishment a few years later to see the same tactics employed in the early days of QAnon. A co-worker turns to her. “‘Oh, my sweet summer child,’ he said. ‘They are absolutely the same people.’”

February 3, 2022 (permalink)


Munich
Robert Harris

Reimagining the Munich Agreement of 1938, seen here with as much sympathy for Neville Chamberlain as it is possible to muster and narrated from the perspectives of two minor diplomatic officials — one British, one German — who had known each other at Oxford. Critics were unusually skeptical of this Robert Harris foray, which confronts structural difficulties with an array of suspense-generating machinery, much of which doesn’t quite work. Harris has a point: if war was coming, it might have been better to delay it — though not, of course, better for the millions of Nazi victims who might have escaped. I’m not wild that the minor character who represents The Jews has been so bludgeoned and damaged that she is silenced. Still, a fine and readable historical novel in which a collection of villains meet: if Chamberlain did not rise to the occasion, he was far from the worst.

January 24, 2022 (permalink)


A spy thriller in a determinedly-realistic mode, without Le Carré’s gloom. It’s 1966 and it’s Argentina. The KGB is thought to be muddying the waters. A coup is brewing, and Vera Kelly is eavesdropping on government offices from the attic of a fancy bakery. In her spare time, she’s infiltrating a team of left-wing students who, it seems, are building a bomb. Winner of 2021 Edgar Award.

January 8, 2022 (permalink)


Chernobyl
Serhii Plokhy

A very fine account of the disastrous explosion of Chernobyl’s unit #4, which blew up during an ill-considered test. In the immediate aftermath, no one was sure what had happened, what was happening, or what to do about it. The effort to manage the disaster was a triumph of engineering under the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

January 8, 2022 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Age of Wonders
David G. Hartwell

This amiable, expert look at the world of science fiction as it was in the mid-1990s runs from the history and economics of the genre to the unique genre fandom that shapes expectation and reception. I was surprised to see the weight that Hartwell, a consummate insider, accords to the fan phenomenon, which has always defined itself as outsider and — very much unlike Hartwell — anti-literary. Yet the influence is undeniable, and Hartwell shows why that matters. The superb annotated bibliography is helpful.

What I miss here are the sensible discussions about trends and mechanics that Hartwell used to write for The New York Review Of Science Fiction. I remember, for example, a fascinating column discussing how a genre in which short novels flourished in the 1960s — remember Ace Doubles? — came to demand thick bricks (and treble volumes) shortly afterward. Perhaps this seemed too much inside baseball, and too far from the book’s argument for the seriousness of science fiction.

December 1, 2021 (permalink)


I’m working on a book chapter about the challenges of publishing interactive narratives, and this has offered a chance to get Gottlieb’s fine autobiography off the reading stack. Gottlieb started at Simon and Schuster, then led Knopf, and then replaced the legendary William Shawn at The New Yorker. He’s a terrific writer, too. Gottlieb recalls the joke that “all editor”s memoirs basically come down to the same thing: ‘So I said to him, ‘Leo! Don’t just do war! Do peace, too!’” He is not wrong, but it’s a lot of fun anyway. It is fascinating to hear about changes in the book world that are seldom discussed: the declining effectiveness of book advertising in the 60s, the invention of the author tour in the 80s.

November 17, 2021 (permalink)


I asked my Twitter followers to suggest some non-fiction books from the past decade that had become proverbial, in the way that Hersey’s Hiroshima and Carson’s Silent Spring were books that everyone knew and that shaped everyone’s conversation. This was one of the suggestions from Mark Paul.

It’s a terrific book, a vivid look at the 2008 collapse and the forces that drove it. The book brightened my commutes, something I greatly needed. It’s very occasionally repetitive, but that’s likely inevitable in a book that necessarily deals with financial derivatives. It certainly makes me furious, which is the intended effect.

November 12, 2021 (permalink)


Hernando Colón was the illegitimate son, traveling companion, and biographer of Christopher Columbus. He amassed a vast library, perhaps the last effort in the West to create a library that would contain everything. The remnant of that library still exists, and though many of the books have been lost to time and the Inquisition, we still possess much of the catalog. Colón didn’t have much precedent for how to manage a library of some 15,000 volumes; no one did. The catalogs alone are a fascinating window into the transition for the medieval to the early modern mind.

November 5, 2021 (permalink)


No et Moi
Delphine de Vigan

A delightful novel about Lou, a sophisticated 13-year-old student who has to do a term paper on teen homelessness. Lou walks over the the train station and interviews a homeless girl, No, who is just a little older and is willing to be interviewed in exchange for a drink or two. The girls get along well. More meeting follow; Lou is something of a loner, and her parents are miserable after the sudden loss of Lou’s infant sister. Lou asks if No can come live with them, and (astonishingly) her parents say, “Oui.”

This is the first book I have read in a language that is not English, which I read simply because I wanted to.

November 2, 2021 (permalink)


A fun and fascinating school story set in a college for magicians. In Novik’s world, young magicians are in terrible danger from a host of supernatural beings that want to feast on their magical power. Babies and mundanes are safe, because they’re not very nutritious. Grownups are fairly safe because they’re t0ugh and leathery. But college students have plenty of nutrition, and taste like they’re coated in crunchy sugar shells. Despite lots of wards and precautions, roughly half of each class gets eaten before they graduate.

If the death toll recalls The Hunger Games, this book’s atmosphere is different because its superbly-drawn protagonist is very different. Galadriel “El” Higgins doesn’t want to get eaten by unspeakable monsters, even if that would mean she could blow off her term papers. She has a hard time making friends in college. There’s as reason for that: each magician has a special aptitude for some kind of magic, and her aptitude is for spells of mass destruction. She doesn’t enslave multitudes, but everyone can see in her face that she could. This doesn’t encourage people to hang out. In addition, El was raised in a commune and her mother has no use for money, but magic school is intensely class-conscious: rich kids have good equipment and a head start, and so they’re less likely to be eaten by unspeakable horrors.

October 14, 2021 (permalink)


A collection of fine short stories about life in the US Army during the later years of the occupation of Iraq. Now that the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, we can perhaps reflect on how, at great expense, they wrecked the American military and destroyed the standing of the United States across the globe.

October 25, 2021 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

A fascinating history of a training operation in World War II. A retired naval officer, Gilbert Roberts, was tasked to find a way to train destroyer captains to cope with submarine wolf packs. Because his superiors thought this a waste of time (and because there was no time to waste), he was assigned people nobody wanted — in particular, he got assigned a bunch of women from the Women's Royal Naval Service, the WRENS. Together, they devised a simulation of sufficient depth that not only could captains learn new doctrine, but they could (and did) learn it from women.

October 1, 2021 (permalink)


The Ship
C. S. Forester

The Good Shepherd, Forester’s WW2 novel which was adapted for the movie Greyhound, is a fine novel. This earlier novel, about a light cruiser on Mediterranean convoy duty in 1942, is propaganda, intended to give people back home a sense of what their menfolk were doing and Why We Fight. Still, it gives an interesting picture of a crew with all its faults and oddities.

October 1, 2021 (permalink)


This intriguing British police procedural uses lots of points of view to examine a fascinatingly complex crime. Manon Bradshaw wants a relationship and she wants a solution to the sudden disappearance of a Cambridge postgraduate student. No one really seems to care what she wants.

September 8, 2021 (permalink)


Perestroika is an intelligent and curious 3-year-old filly. Earlier today, she won a purse to the great pleasure of her trainer. So pleased was the trainer that she left Paras’s stall unlatched, and left her purse — presumably the very purse the filly had won! — nearby. So, Paras takes the purse and heads off into the night to see what may be seen. By morning, she’s made her way to the Jardins du Trocadéro, where she befriends a very fine stray dog and an erudite raven. A charming winter’s tale.

August 24, 2021 (permalink)


Mona is 14. She has a magical knack for baking, in a world where such knacks are not unknown. It’s handy; she has a half-sentient sourdough starter named Bob in the basement that makes superb rolls, and she can remind the muffins not to burn. One day, she goes to open the bakery and there's a dead girl on the floor; someone is hunting the magicians. A witty late-night escape from my nutty neighborhood Democrats.

August 23, 2021 (permalink)


A delightful novel, with sequels, of the daily life of an intelligent middle-class English woman in the 1930s. The Provincial Lady has servants, and eventually has a flat in London. She also has an overdraft, and the pawnbroker knows her by sight. She has, at any one moment, perhaps three presentable dresses and not quite enough hats and shoes to furnish those dresses for all occasions. In company she is gracious and courteous, though she frequently regrets her courtesy. These diaries are propelled by wit and good nature, and that turns out to be more than enough. (Also, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, and The Provincial Lady In America.)

August 23, 2021 (permalink)


The 1955 book on which Tom Hanks’s Greyhound was based, and a very fine book, among the best of the destroyer/submarine genre.

August 23, 2021 (permalink)


2034: A Novel of the Next World War
Eliot Ackerman and James Stavridis

A retired admiral indulges in strange, sentimental daydreams of noble soldiers and perfidious policy-makers. All civilian officials are stupid, ineffectual, or treasonous. Every soldier and sailor is noble. This book is a recipe, and excuse, for the sort of coup that Trump attempted and for which his supporters still dream.

All speculations on future warfare rest on sand, but this one is often ridiculous. “They have better cyber!” is the problem, and that can be interesting: Tom Clancy did that in Debt Of Honor, his entertaining if implausible effort to imagine a second war between the US and Japan. Here, apparently, someone in China presses a button and nothing works: it neutralizes every communication system in three Aegis destroyers (and every US satellite) just like that. Everything else, too: the destroyers never get off a shot.

The US solution? Tear out the avionics in their fighter planes so everyone can use WW2 tech and fly by the seat of their pants.

Oh — and someone else, it turns out, has even better offensive cyber capability than the Chinese do.

This is an admiral’s book. The lowest-ranked individual with a speaking part is a single chief petty officer who is on hand — in the radio room, on the flight deck, in CIC. We never learn the name of the President. We never meet China’s civilian leaders. We contrive to break an Iranian brigadier general and make him a lieutenant commander in the Iranian Navy because establishing a new character would be too much work.

July 23, 2021 (permalink)


The Plot
Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is a very strange book, almost a thriller and almost a mystery, but not quite.

Jacob Finch Bonner teaches writing at an inferior low-residency MFA program in Vermont. His first novel was mildly successful; his short story collection was not, and now he is badly blocked and dispirited. His students are unpromising, and one of this year’s students is an annoying, arrogant jerk. The first chapter’s of this jerk’s projected novel are, if not very good, not terrible. Bonner tries to offer good advice, but the annoying student tells him not to bother: the plot of this novel is so good, he doesn’t need writing tips. The student is insufferable — but right.

It’s a good premise, and the execution is not bad. One difficulty is that Jake is a dolt. It’s like watching a slasher movie: one is constantly shouting at the protagonist, “No! Don’t do that!” This isn’t played for laughs; it's entirely earnest. It’s not bad.

July 26, 2021 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

I mentioned on a family Zoom call that I was reading Saul Bellow. One cousin was impressed. Another said, “I took a class with him. What an ass.”

This is a novel by a great writer, but it’s not really a novel. It’s a series of essays and studies, some of them interesting, on subjects ranging from Old Chicago (which, Chicago being what it is, is not as old as one might think) to life with authoritarians. (The Dean’s December was published in 1982, and everything in Romania would change a few years later, but of course that change wasn't everything it seemed, either.)

June 23, 2021 (permalink)


A memoir of a young woman who has lost her Korean-American mother and who is estranged from her Irish-American father, told primarily in terms of food. The food doesn’t really sing the way Bourdain’s did, or Mandy Lee’s does, but it's an intriguing story.

Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart. For those of you who don’t know, H Mart is a supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food. The “H” stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to “one arm full of groceries.” H Mart is where parachute kids go to get the exact brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home. It’s where Korean families buy rice cakes to make tteokguk, a beef soup that brings in the new year. It’s the only place where you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because it’s the only place that truly understands how much garlic you’ll need for the kind of food your people eat.

June 23, 2021 (permalink)


The Understudy
Ellen Tovatt Leary

This is a strange project: a 2020 novel, presumably partly autobiographical, about a young Broadway actress in the 1970s. This is a strange version of the 1970s — self-conscious about its lack of cell phones (though sometimes you have to be: not being able to call people whenever you wanted was a real problem!) but omitting Studio 54 and Elaine’s, Vietnam, AIDS, Stonewall, and the Women’s Movement.

The bulk of the book sets out to dramatize every Broadway clichém and does a fine job of it, only occasionally indulging in buckets of exposition. Perhaps because the author is not yet focused on romance, the protagonist, Nina Landau, is nicely drawn as a 1970s woman who is entirely comfortable in her body, a woman who had no need to read Erica Jong’s 1973 Fear Of Flying because her fucks are already zipless aside from the her boyfriends’ occasional hangups. People actually say, “Away we go!” Someone actually says, “the show must go on,” in a context where it’s a sensible thing to say. It’s that kind of movie.

For some reason, the book ends with a romantic coda involving a move to Los Angeles, marriage, and a shift in aspirations from Broadway to the Taper Forum. The marriage plot is unconvincing, as it hinges on our heroine’s paralyzing guilt about having been date-raped while doing a summer stock revival on the Cape and her suspicion that this constitutes infidelity. We say very little about what she cannot have missed: that the work is also something she loves, and if she’s completely devoted to her man she’s unfaithful to the work.

Her beloved, a Hollywood heartthrob and soap star, might have strayed once in the course of a separation of many months, and this, too, tears Nina apart. This might be true to the author’s experience, but I do think a Smith College graduate, Broadway star and lifetime New York girl might have reflected just a bit more on the sexual politics of the whole mess. But that’s beside the point. Fifty years have passed: what do we think of all that, now?

June 5, 2021 (permalink)


Reading a fantasy novel in French translation poses some interesting problems. When you don’t know a word, is that because it’s a written in an imaginary language, because it’s an invented word describing alien concepts or science, a specialized word from sailing, trading or from underworld slang, or simply an everyday word that you don’t know? You can spend a lot of time discovering that druskelle is not to be found in your French dictionary, and just as much time learning French words for thief, burglar, brigand, thug, sniper, card-sharp, and con man which, while useful for getting through this enjoyable caper, and perhaps not essential vocabulary for reading about the intellectual history of literary computing — the goal of this mad enterprise.

Yet, here we are, reaching the end of this delightful new take on The Hidden Fortress in a barber shop without internet. This might yet work.

June 5, 2021 (permalink)


Revisited after many years as part of my study of the prehistory of hypertext. This exploration of the end of the Roman Empire through the lens of science fiction remains intriguing and readable, even if the dialogue sometimes limps. It is striking and embarrassing, however, that a book of Foundation’s breadth could have been imagined almost entirely without women. Though Asimov thought a lot about artificial intelligence, he doesn't do that here: there are no robots, no positronic brains, scarcely any electronics, and people still worry about changing tubes after they blow out.

May 10, 2021 (permalink)


Once when she was a girl, Chloé’s friend Denise urged her to pull her wavy hair back into as pony tail. Chloé thought this uncomfortable. Denise, more fashionable, argued that discomfort was that lot of women: “you look like a Jew.” I doubt poor Denise knew that Chloé was, in fact, a Jew. Chloé didn’t say anything.

This is a meditation on contemporary racism in France, mediated by the memories of the Occupation. Those memories are fascinating.

May 16, 2021 (permalink)


In 1949 or 1950, my mother won the Mademoiselle Magazine Essay contest. With 14 other “guest editors” from colleges across the country, Patsy flew to New York (from Colorado College) to spend a month at the offices of Mademoiselle. All the guest editors stayed at the Barbizon Hotel For Women, 63rd and Lexington. A few years later, Sylvia Plath would be a guest editor, too: when she wrote about the experience, she called it the Amazon. A few years later, Ali McGraw was a guest editor, and made the cover.

This is an intriguing institutional biography, a study of a hotel and a magazine. The program was a clever idea: Mademoiselle could have its pick of promising young writers as interns and cheap models as well as — crucially — and annual focus group to keep the permanent staff in touch with their ideal readers. Mademoiselle was always led by women, and the program gave them a pipeline to some of the best.

Some other institutions intersect: the Katie Gibbs secretarial school rented several floors of the hotel for decades, the Powers Agency urged its models to stay there, and some of the young women who moved into the hotel in the 1930s as a way station to romance found that the world had other plans and would still be there, thanks to rent control and persistence, at the end of the century.

This is a good book. Occasionally, Bren’s word choices are imprecise. Occasionally, she repeats anecdotes. Bren is fascinated by Sylvia Plath, and I think her focus on Plath gets a bit out of hand: you've got lots of other fascinating women, some of whom stuck around long enough for interviews. (The girl who had the room next to Sylvia’s said that Plath had saved her life: now, if she killed herself, she’d always be the other girl from ’53 who committed suicide.) I’m not entirely sure that this wouldn't work better as fiction, and it might have worked better as a thesis book. But this is what we have, and it’s great to have it.

May 16, 2021 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel

A fascinating account of the impact that a fictionalized version of Bernie Madoff has on the people in his orbit — not only his investors but even more his employees, casual acquaintances, girlfriends, and daughter. “Money is its own country.”

April 8, 2021 (permalink)


This fluffy mystery begins with a truly wonderful setup: two very different people have each booked the same AirBNB. Neither is pleased about having a roommate, and both are curious how this could possibly have come to pass. The apartment, it turns out, belonged to a painter they each admire greatly, and so they begin to investigate this unusual painter and the problem of his missing late canvasses. This leads, in turn, to the tragic murder of the painter’s young son shortly before the painter’s sudden death.

I’m not usually a stickler for procedural authenticity in mysteries, but when an ex-NYPD cop breaks into a private school without much hesitation, one wonders. Still, it’s fun to see the U.S. from the perspective of French pop culture.

April 17, 2021 (permalink)


This strange and fascinating little book examines an aging writer who is deeply curious about his upbringing and, at the same time, would rather not know. He constantly visits and revisits details of a woman he once knew, her shady partner, her murdered girlfriend. She once gave him a folded piece of paper with his address inside, labelled “So you don’t get lost in the neighborhood.” He is completely devoted to this shadowy maternal replacement, of whom he has heard nothing for decades save that she is said to be in prison.

April 2, 2021 (permalink)


A frothy but good humored romance that takes its characters seriously, in which even minor characters have ideas. Chloe is a girl on wheels. Sanji is a wealthy young businessman from Mumbai, a fellow with a plan to chip away at caste restrictions through social media. They meet cute on a bench in Washington Square in Manhattan. Chloe lives in a nearby apartment building, a building in which Sanji’s uncle works as an elevator operator. It’s that sort of movie.

French is still a hard slog, but perhaps it’s gradually coming together.

March 28, 2021 (permalink)


This is the first book I have read in another language that I have not read before in English. It goes slowly, but it goes: six weeks ago, I could barely make my way through the sly fox and the vain crow.

Like the other Antoine Laurain novels I have read, this is a sunny book that, for all its sunshine, is not entirely without shadows. Violaine Lepage is a publisher, in charge of her firm’s slush pile. This is an intimate portrait of a publishing industry that is somewhat removed from reality as I understand it today, and is perhaps intended to be read as a portrait of how the world ought to be rather than how it is. Indeed, the book opens with Violaine waking up in a hospital room in the aftermath of a terrible plane crash, and finding that her visitors include Marcel Proust, Michel Hoellebecq, Georges Perec, Patrick Modiano, and Virginia Woolf.

It’s really a lot of serious fun.

March 19, 2021 (permalink)


Morwenna
Jo Walton, trans. Luc Varissimo

This is the first book that I have read in French. Le Petit Prince preceded it, but that’s not much of a book. Among Others is about children, in a way, but it’s not for children. It took a long time, I made a steady stream of blunders, I relied too much on the dictionary and on Bing Translate for help. But I made it.

I was surprised to find how intensely reading Morwenna in French recalled to me the experience of learning to read English. My dyslexia made that a long struggle. I remember one first-grade morning when Mrs. Boardman had us each reading our own copy of Fat Sam and Thin Anne, and I found myself pausing after a particularly difficult decipherment to say to myself, “I can manage this, but it’s very hard and it goes very slowly.” Adults I knew could do this instantly and without apparent effort, but for me to learn that seemed as distant and as improbable as learning to play second base like Don Buford.

Being forced to read at the pace of a hobbled first grader has some benefits. I’ve read this twice in English and had never noticed that Morwenna recalls plays dolls with her sister, and how they would invent stories of rescuing dragons from evil princesses. It’s easy to miss that sort of thing. The end, too, benefits from taking it slowly, which was necessary since “flaming javelin,” “extra-terrestrial space turtle” and “dagger” were not really part of my introductory vocabulary.

March 9, 2021 (permalink)


Le Petit Prince
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Today, I read a book in a language that is not English, for only the second or third time in my life.

I’ve been working on a project on the intellectual roots of hypertext and the Web, an inquiry inspired by a class to which Andy van Dam and Norm Meyrowitz invited me to speak last year. I’ve been asking lots of people for advice on sources for various questions. One suggested a multi-volume work which seems eminently pertinent, but which is only available in French.

After some prevarication, I realized that if a graduate student in this pickle came to me for advice, I would likely say, “Learn to read French, or start over on a different topic.” With my hearing problems, I’m never going to manage to speak, but reading might be possible.

I asked my eminent cousin, “Suppose you had a graduate student to whom you had said, ‘go away and come back and talk when you have an adequate reading knowledge of French.’ When would you expect to see this student next?” She said, “Six months: three months intensive coursework, three months in France.” I can’t manage that. There’s work to do, and we’re still in the midst of pandemic. But perhaps we can get somewhere, and perhaps my eminent cousin has high standards.

Reading on the iPad is great because the dictionary is a joy to use. And, do I use it! Even for this famously easy little children’s book, I’m puzzling out the simplest little things. (We do have some esoteric vocabulary: boas (open and closed), baobabs, switchmen, and lamplighters for starters.) This is a profound book but an odd one for children, perhaps even sadder than Charlotte’s Web which was read to me once and remains unbearable to think about.

Next up, I’m going to attempt Jo Walton’s Among Others en Français, where it has a different title but will still, I hope, be tons of fun.

February 24, 2021 (permalink)


V2
Robert Harris

Robert Harris returns to form, or at least to good cheer, in this pleasant melodrama about the V2 missile program and the British photo-analysts who tried to find a way to thwart it.

March 2, 2021 (permalink)


An ambitious and interesting story of the end of the world, as seen from the perspective of an observer to whom anxiety is deeply alien. Candace Chen’s parents had come from Fuzhou and wound up in Salt Lake City. Candace moved to New York where she facilitates the manufacture of Bibles in Chinese factories, and then at the end of the world fled to a shopping mall in Indiana. There’s a lot of emigrating going on, and lots of new worlds, and also a good deal of formal experimentation. I respect the craft and I find myself in sympathy with its bleak vision, but in 2021 I’d hope for Station Eleven instead.

January 25, 2021 (permalink)


Miss Seeton, a retired art instructor, occasionally helps the local constable with police sketches. She has a certain knack, and the newspapers like her. A Swiss banker, finding his bank entangled in apparent fraud, sends for her and, although she has never been abroad, she hastens to oblige. A light-hearted and light-headed confection.

January 25, 2021 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Riddle Of The Rosetta
Jed Z. Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefewicz

A compelling and masterful examination of the arduous effort to understand what hieroglyphics are and how to read them. The Rosetta Stone was only the beginning of the solution, because it was not clear what sort of writing the other two scripts were using, and what sort of language they represented. The problem attracted many of the best minds of an age replete with fine minds, and sadly also attracted more than its share of academic jealousies. Everything was made worse because the aftermath of revolution engaged the involved scholars in politics, and then embroiled them in troubles. Nobody with sense had nearly enough money. The successful solution was partly premised on an assumption that later turned out to be false, but was nevertheless sufficient to advance the solution until the goal was within sight. Naturally, it all begins with a dinner party.

November 28, 2020 (permalink)


Oh, how I wanted this to be another Night Circus! It’s a fine book, a weird book. It will make a lovely stablemate with Sussana Clarke’s Piranesi. Morgenstern creates a vast, dark hidden word, but for my money it’s just too big and too dark and too much. I can’t wait for her next book.

August 27, 2021 (permalink)


A collection of essays and articles about fiction today — especially about genre fiction and the plight of the short story.

Chabon originally thought that short stories were his strong suit and in the earliest of these essays he carries the guidon in the assault on the dominance of The New Yorker story and its privileging of everything but plot. This was the central front in a generational and philosophical assault against the armies of high modernism and postmodernism, and now that those battles have been lost and won the flags are of historical interest. Discussions of Sherlock Holmes, M. R. James, Will Eisner are fascinating, and a bravura exploration of golems in the modern world is terrific.

December 17, 2020 (permalink)


Wonder Boys
Michael Chabon

Revisiting the book in the wake of the Intl. Conf. On Interactive Digital Storytelling, for which I delivered the closing keynote and from which I departed (virtually, of course) with an idea for a new sort of hypertext story or game for which Chabon’s techniques seem especially attractive. It’s impressive work and lots of fun, and it’s also a picture of the great modern argument over the purpose of writing.

November 17, 2020 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

One of my favorite holiday-weekend activities is to read a conference volume about an interesting and active topic that is far, far outside my field. This is a delightful collections of studies of tourism in the American West, written by professors of Tourism. Some of those professors understand why, at parties, people laugh when they explain their vocation.

People have been traveling to see the mountains, the desert, the cowboys and (especially) the Indians for a very long time. This is problematic: everything is problematic, naturally, but all this is especially problematic because the underlying racial questions can neither be avoided nor cured.

There's little here that can be operationalized beyond a sensible consensus that it’s always wise to follow the money and the observation that, if you follow the money you will find it tends to wind up in distant and unexpected places. Leah Dilworth has a lovely paper on Fred Harvey, the company that provided food and souvenirs for the Santa Fe Railroad, and the Indians. Marguerite Shaffer also has a fascinating look at novels about tourism in the early 20th century, which seems to be the best way to capture not only what tourism does but also what it is trying to do. The evil that tourists do persists after they leave in mounds of litter and mountains of slights and injustices. Much of the good goes home with the tourists in the form of a wiser, better society and a more democratic nation.

September 7, 2020 (permalink)


Free Air
Sinclair Lewis

A neglected classic of which I’d never heard by the author of Babbit and It Can’t Happen Here. Claire Boltwood is a young Brooklyn woman whose wealthy, widowed father works far too much. In 1917, Claire takes matters into her own hands and undertakes to drive with her father from Minneapolis (where Dad was vacationing by running the Western branch of his company) all the way to Seattle. They are not even out of Minnesota when they meet a helpful small-town mechanic, Milt Daggett. He gets their car out of the mud, and instantly falling in love with Claire, decides to get into his own little car and head for Seattle as well. The farther West we go, the more Claire travels beyond her conventional gender role, and the more Milt transcends his class. This is, in short, an American sentimental romance.

What is striking here is the conviction that Americans are fundamentally (if not universally) good, decent, and sensible — and that small-town America in particular is — despite some bad and selfish apples — pretty good and tolerably smart. In this America, hardly anyone has much education but every country lawyer and small-town doctor is a missionary of enlightenment. This is not the rural, small-town America that inflicted Donald Trump upon the rest of the country and the world, or that persists in spreading COVID and destroying the planet.

September 7, 2020 (permalink)


Military journalist Thomas E Ricks (Fiasco) mentioned on Twitter that this is a novel that everyone in the military knows and that most admire. It follows small-town Nebraskan Sam Damon from his enlistment just before the First World War up through Vietnam.

It’s not a bad book, though it’s very long, and it indulges in lots of set-piece essays that pretend to be after-dinner dialogue. Indeed, we have (at least) two characters — one of them Sam Damon’s wife! — that serve primarily as a means to inject essays into the narrative. Sam Damon, once he gets going, is a fine characters; you can see why this would make an attractive assignment at West Point.

The obvious comparison is with W.E.B. Griffin and his serial novels on the Army and The (Marine) Corps. Griffin wrote later: Once An Eagle was published in 1968. The great subject for both writers is the soldier’s fight against stupid, greedy, and vain superior officers. Myrer’s book is bitterly anti-war and deeply mixed about the military; Griffin carefully sidesteps war as a subject. Myrer despises war profiteers and suspects that all rich civilians are either profiteers or parasites; Griffin is fascinated by wealth (and by the Old South). Both writers have a strange relationship with their Jewish officers. Griffin particularly admires the scrounging and chicanery that lets junior officers and non-comms get what their troops need; Myrer’s not really interested.

Unlike Griffin, Myrer’s conclusion is bleak. We aren’t going to settle down on the Carolina Shore; the war will never end.

August 18, 2020 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

The passion and care that animated The Hunger Games has been worn away by the sequels, the films and the hoopla. This prequel examines how the Hunger Games got started and how they became the reality show we all came to know. I had always thought that Collins could write a fine book about Mentors, and this novel tries.

The Katniss novel is told in the first person, which creates a technical problem: there’s lots that Katniss doesn’t know, and lots that she knows so well that she’d never give it a thought. Those constraints helped Collins build a rich world, one where much was half hidden in the shadows. This time, she sticks to third person, perhaps to provide some distance. There is, in the end, so much distance that the shadows are wiped away.

June 18, 2020 (permalink)


The Enchanted April
Elizabeth van Arnhim

Two married women live in Hampstead, shop in London, and are members of the same uncomfortable club on Shaftesbury Avenue. They know each other by sight. Mrs. Wilkins reads an advertisement in The Times:

To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria And Sunshine. Small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

It is a rainy February day in London, and Mrs. Wilkins thinks that yes, she does appreciate Wisteria And Sunshine. She proposes to Mrs. Arbuthnot, whom she does not properly know, that they go halves. They decide that it cannot hurt to make inquiries.

This delightful vacation fantasy was written in 1922. In 1932, Peter Fleming would read an equally odd advertisement in The Times and launch on his Brazilian Adventure, becoming the template of his little brother’s James Bond.

May 10, 2020 (permalink)


The dome of Florence’s Duomo was wider and taller than any dome since antiquity, and remained the world’s largest for a very long time. It was raised without interior scaffolding, saving forests of trees. It was raised without proper mathematics. This solid retelling of how Brunelleschi designed and built the dome is fascinating, though it tends to dwell too much on the politics of the day and spends too little time explaining just how the dome stands up.

May 27, 2020 (permalink)


The founding generations of Israel were not fools. They had concluded in the 19th century that Europe was ultimately inhospitable to Jews. In this, they were not wrong. If Jews had to go, they had to go somewhere. Precisely where? Herzl didn’t much care, but Palestine seemed one of several decent possibilities, and its British administrators did not entirely disagree.

Hitler’s rise changed everything, and overnight the project transformed from a doubtful political speculation to an urgent rescue mission. The Founders knew perfectly well that there were already people who lived in Palestine; most expected that, in time, they would be good friends to the Jewish immigrants who would transform malarial wastes into green fields and shining cities. It didn’t work, but after 1932 (and especially after 1948) there was no choice.

April 30, 2020 (permalink)


Saint X
Alexis Schaiktin

A shaggy novel, with lots of incident and detail included for the joy of incident and detail. A New York family goes to the Caribbean island of Saint X for a luxurious vacation, father and mother and two girls. Princeton freshman Alison is hot stuff and knows it, little sister Claire is a little strange and knows it, too. On the final night of the vacation, Alison sneaks off and then vanishes; her body is eventually discovered on nearby, uninhabited Faraway Cay. Everything is changed.

This is formally a murder mystery and the little sister, who changes her name to Emily, serves as its detective. Nobody here is reliable, least of all Claire/Emily. You can’t rely on the police. And in the end, you cannot rely entirely on the author.

April 19, 2020 (permalink)


Red Plenty
Francis Spufford

A daring and fascinating study of what the Soviet Union was trying to do in the years after the great famines. Spufford attempts to capture not the budgets and programs but what people believed and the goal toward which they together were working — a vision of abundance that would forever put the specter of medieval Russia to rest.

Spufford does this through a series of lightly fictionalized vignettes, scrupulously documented, that try to show clearly what everyday people thought they were trying to do. The core idea here was not bad: where capitalist markets waste lots of effort and material to discover an equilibrium price, systematic planning and linear programming can discover that price from first principles. If you invent a new kind of car, in America you’d have four companies building four variants. They’d spend lots of money on marketing and lobbying and PR, and it might take a decade to figure out which was best. Every part in that car undergoes the same wasteful process. If you could just get things right the first time — even close to right — you’d save a tremendous amount of time and money. You might be wrong sometimes, but even then, you only need to be a few percentage points faster and smarter than the wasteful random experimentation of capitalism.

It didn’t work, but they weren’t all idiots.

April 5, 2020 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

A long time ago, I did a little bit of graduate work in Latin Epigraphy (with Herbert “Brick Stamps” Bloch). This is a wonderfully-imagined fantasy about Victorian epigraphy. The grand-daughter of the famous Lady Trent, Miss Audrey Carhart, rivals her famous grandmother for erudition and determination. She is called upon to translate a dozen newly-discovered clay tablets, written in ancient Draconic and describing a sort of foundational epic or creation myth. The world is interested in the dragons — discovered a few decades ago by Audrey’s illustrious ancestress — and their political status is a source of friction. Anti-draconic proto-fascists are organizing and they have the ear of many influential and wealthy people. An epigraphic fantasy of manners is a fine thing to read in time of plague.

March 16, 2020 (permalink)


A charming and atmospheric book about the world that surrounds major league baseball, the perplexities of coaches, writers, agents, wives, and even of the minor league stadium organist. There is surprisingly little baseball here: occasionally, some part of a play might be mentioned but there's scarcely a trace of the game itself. Even so, the Nemens does get the details right and avoids the ancient stereotypes when possible. There’s some echoes of Annie Savoy, but perhaps that’s because art becomes life.

March 16, 2020 (permalink)


A fascinating food book. Most of the best food writing has pursued what Adam Gopnik calls the “mystical microcosmic” — “sad thoughts on the love that got away or the plate that time forgot.” Mystical microcosmic writers — M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman — implicitly argue that they are like us, that we would enjoy what they enjoyed, that thoughtful eating can improve your life. Julia went to a fish place in Normandy and found a future husband and beurre blanc, and much of her best writing implicitly concerns the pursuit and care of each.

Mandy Lee’s book comes from a different place. In 2012, Lee was deeply depressed and living in a city she hated. Lee was born in Taiwan, grew up in Vancouver, went to grad school in (and loved) New York. Now, she was in Beijing, and everything in Beijing was awful: so awful that she could seldom get out of bed. She became and obsessive cook because focusing on elaborate and time-consuming recipes (and on elaborate and lovely photography of the prep) meant she could spend hours — days — locked in her home. Her cooking is not fun or easy or fast: her cooking is very angry, and she knows it.

Lee is not like you and I in another way: she’s always cooking for herself. There’s no patron, no restaurant, no one else to please. Her tastes are unusual, and for this she offers no explanation or apology. Reading between the lines, she likes savory and bitter breakfasts on the Chinese model, but she also really likes cheese. A few of her recipes reinvent what Minnesotans call a Juicy Lucy — hamburgers infused with tons of cheese — but hers also feature green chili aioli, spicy pork or lamb patties, and sweet potato buns.

Most of the recipes concern spectacular and complex interplay of contrasting flavors and textures — finding ways to combine hot and sweet, crisp and unctuous and sour in each bite. There’s a lot of prep and plenty of challenging ingredients. In my first foray into cooking one of these, I struck out on one ingredient not only at Whole Foods but also at Super 88, an big Asian store that has two separate freezer cases of frozen buns, a whole aisle of fish sauce, and family-size packages of beef penis.

The book has a chapter on elaborate home-cooked dog food.

This is not, in other woods, a replacement for The Joy Of Cooking. But it’s got some very fine (and hilarious) writing, some nifty food ideas, and a nice insight into what cooking means to many of us.

February 17, 2020 (permalink)


A reread of this eloquent book about the mysteries of a family that seems anything but mysterious. Two parents, four kids, a lovely home in Shaker Heights, Ohio: the cast and setting are familiar. Everyone is pretty much exactly who they seem to be, and all these people are bright and observant. Yet no one really understands the family member they most want or need to understand. The book begins with the house on fire and proceeds to explain why it had to burn.

By the author of the wonderful Everything I Never Told You.

January 25, 2020 (permalink)


Rereading this classic story of an orphanage girl who grows up to be the world chess champion. Written in 1983, this novel’s feminism — and its frank treatment of opioid addiction and alcoholics — was fresher then than it is today. Still, it remains a wonderful tribute to the talented misfits who do so much for everyone.

January 27, 2020 (permalink)


The strange, haunting, and very sad story of a young couple. Strongly reminiscent of On Chesil Beach, though the problem here isn’t sex. Or, maybe, it is.

January 11, 2020 (permalink)


Hack
Smitry Samarov

Vignettes of life as a Chicago cab driver, in short narratives and in watercolor sketches provide a fascinating glimpse into unseen worlds. A glimpse, Samarov emphasizes, is all you get: cab drivers hear a lot but you can’t ask many questions. It’s interesting how much of a cab’s week is dominated by weekend dating and drinking, and surprising how many desperately-poor people rely on cabs; Chicago has good public transit, but the subways don’t go all the places — vacant lots with good garbage, street corners with good drugs — to which some people need to go.

January 20, 2020 (permalink)


Because I’m toying with writing a set of lectures, and perhaps a small book, about the intersection of computation and character, I thought it might be time to revisit this wonderful study of a group of young people obsessed with art. One teaches poetry, one draws, one plays video games. One markets videogames. The twin sister of the videogame player is not interested in art and becomes increasingly embodied through a year when everyone else plunges into the depths of artistic creation.

January 13, 2020 (permalink)


Soviet Daughter
Julia Alekseyeva

A fascinating graphic novel about the young artist, growing up in the US, and her great-grandmother Lola, born in 1910 in Kiev. Intriguing and (to my limited knowledge) innovative use of watercolor in a graphic novel, with superb storytelling.

January 14, 2020 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

A quick rereading in the wake of Morgenstern’s new (and widely misunderstood) The Starless Sea. This is a wonderful book, a book almost entirely concerned with the sense of wonder. Terrific writing that seldom calls attention to itself, yet with supple and dexterous shifts of time and point of view. Critics wanted the next book to be just like this one, but Night Circus stands alone and it’s sufficient to its task.

January 2, 2020 (permalink)


Late in his life, Liebling collected some of his best food writing, stories about his student year in Paris. Liebling was a hell of a fine writer, and his legacy is long: you see a lot of Liebling in Gopnik, for example, and not a little in Remnick, but there’s plenty of Liebling in Peter King’s football and in Peter Gammons’s baseball.

Liebling’s key argument is extremely interesting. If you want to think intelligently about food, he says, you must study it by eating seriously and thoughtfully. One must have enough money to eat well, but not enough money, he thinks, that it is no object. His key conundrum in memory is deciding whether at lunch to have the Tavel Superieur at 3 ½ francs and beef heart (2 ½ F), or to settle for vin ordinaire (1F) and enjoy a rare steak. This is, in fact, a nice question: even at my most bibulous, I find myself inclined to favor the food and skimp on the wine. That answer surprised me, which is a sign of a good question. (For example, I’d sort of like to return to Alinea, but this time I might forego the wine pairings in the interest of economy. I seldom think about taking the opposite tack.)

January 27, 2020 (permalink)


Ivy Gamble is a middle-aged private investigator, specializing in stakeouts. She views herself as a fuckup, a failure: her big sister was a talented mage, but Ivy has no magic. She’s the sister who never got to go to Hogwarts. Then, a mysterious death takes place at the prestigious magic academy where her big sister now teaches Magic Theory, and the administration calls in Ivy to investigate.

Gailey’s emphasis here is that the kids who attend a magic school would be much like kids at other prep schools. They experience intense rivalries and epic disasters over trivial stakes. The kids have known each other for years — for most of their lives — and so the staff has power but knows nothing of what’s at stake. Ivy has plenty of unresolved teen angst and so has plenty of sympathy with the kids. Indeed, Ivy has so much teen angst that this might have worked better if Ivy had been a teenager.

January 9, 2020 (permalink)


Minimum Wage Magic
Rachel Aaron

Opal Yong-ae is scraping by as a cleaner — a one-woman cleanout and salvage crew, bidding on rights to the contents of abandoned rentals and foreclosures. It’s a precarious living, not least because she works in Detroit, a very magic city in a world where, in the 21st century, the magic returned with a vengeance. Opal is doing this work to repay her college loans; her misfortune is that her loans are owed not to a bank but to her father, and her father is the Dragon Of Korea. In short, she’s got some family issues.

Good world-building, remarkable minor characters and entertaining (if sometimes predictable) plotting make this electronic-only debut of a new series a virtual page-turner.

January 4, 2020 (permalink)


An aging, insubordinate commander takes charge of an aged battlewagon that will shortly be turned into a museum. Suddenly, interstellar war breaks out, and the evil aliens have an answer for everything except our old ship’s outmoded technology. A brave crew, a drunken but loyal executive officer, a deadly illness and a talented political commissar round out the central cast.

There’s something to like here, but the plot is standard American military SF and the cast, if not plagiarized, takes fan fiction to an extreme. The alcoholic executive officer is particularly jarring because our hero-commander cannot afford to have a bad XO and has had a decade to find his old friend a comfortable retirement.

Why, moreover, are we rehashing the arguments of 1942 about the survivability of battleships vs. the reach of aircraft carriers? That’s been settled for nearly three generations, now: Rickover, Spruance, Nimitz, Halsey: they’re all sleeping on the hill.

January 2, 2020 (permalink)


Atmospheric, episodic, and sometimes shaggy, this new Alan Furst thriller captures one of the salient and easily-forgotten facts of the Resistance: it was improvised by amateurs, many of them poorly-suited for the roles they played. A writer of spy novels, Paul Ricard understands that he knows very little about spying, but as something must be done, he does what he can. He finds help in unexpected places, and frequently fails to find help when he looks for it. Ricard’s garret on the rue de la Huchette is perhaps too much a nod to tourist Paris to be quite right here, and I’m not sure that the class and tribal strains of the Occupation are caught precisely. Still, a good book to read as our nation embarks on its brave, doomed mission to impeach the monster.

December 18, 2019 (permalink)


In 1468, a young priest rides his old horse through the rain to a remote parish church, tasked by the Bishop of Exeter with burying a recently-deceased priest. He sees a brilliant flash of emerald in the rain, but it’s just a common parakeet.

This is our familiar medieval England, but it’s not quite right. For starters, our young priest conducts the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer, after the Lesson is read from the King James Bible: this is not the 1468 we once knew. We soon learn that, eight centuries ago, the Apocalypse destroyed the world, and all about us our clues to what happened to The Ancients.

This is a desperately sad book, speculative fiction for an age in which there’s no longer much reason to speculate. We know what’s coming. In Intertwingled, I wrote that “the future is not what it was.” And here we are.

December 5, 2019 (permalink)


Lyra is in her twenties, a postgraduate student at Oxford, and she and her daemon are not speaking to each other. That is to say: Lyra and her soul (spirit? Genius?) have fallen out. It’s a profound and thrilling premise.

Once again, I find myself reading Pullman’s exciting and engaging urban fantasy, always notable for the thoughtfulness of its characters even when they are children, and once again I realize that he’s doing something much larger and more serious than I’d thought. There’s even a hypertext fiction vignette!

October 30, 2019 (permalink)


Ninth House
Leigh Bardugo

A superb urban fantasy. Alex Stern — her name is “Galaxy” but she goes by Alex — is a troubled teen who has been mixed up with drug dealing and was found overdosed at the scene of a ghastly drug murder. Her core problem: she sees ghosts, and sometimes they see her. Word gets out, and she gets a scholarship to Yale on the strength of it.

Why? Because magic is real. The Yale secret societies perform magic to ensure the wealth and success of alumni. There’s an additional, even more-secret society that regulates all the others, and they want Alex and her unique talent.

Alex has a chip on her shoulder. She’s a poor kid, and the ghosts have driven her nearly ’round the bend. She doesn’t like the sort of kids who wind up in secret societies. She’s way over her head at Yale, and her patrol duties leave her almost no time to study properly. She’s not the sort of girl who will accept this state of affairs. A terrific book.

November 11, 2019 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Ghost Fleet
P. W. Singer and August Cole

This novel about a near-future naval war between an isolated United States and a Chinese-Russian alliance is skillful, exciting, and jingoistic. I have a sneaking fondness for this genre, for early Tom Clancy and even for W. E. B. Griffin, and Ghost Fleet shares many of the virtues of those books. Indeed, it shares rather too much with Clancy’s Debt Of Honor, Clancy’s book about a second war against Japan. (Clancy was trying to write a plausible replay of the Pacific War as a sequel to Red Storm Rising, his sprawling and underrated exploration of a war between NATO and the Soviet Union.)

In old Hollywood war movies, America and civilization were saved by a scrappy ethnic alliance of guys who discovered that, underneath, they're all Americans. Here, the free world is saved by a working-class, enlisted father, his college-boy officer son, a Chinese-American electrical engineer, and a serial murderer who discovers that war is rather good fun. The heroic and cute engineer would be fun if her casting weren’t so obviously racist and if she was given space to become a character rather than a placeholder for the Good Asiatic. Tension between chief petty officer Dad and his Executive Officer son works nicely, though Dad is always around and the 174 other crew members aren’t. The war is not well motivated, so we have perfidious Asian sneak-attack followed by a cruel Asian occupation that (again, very unfortunately) is partly mitigated by advice of the kindly white Russian attaché.

Still, for all its many flaws, it’s a good airplane book.

September 26, 2019 (permalink)


Wonderful, insightful and fascinating study of things the Vikings believed, based on archeological remains, inscriptions, legends, and ethnology from Saami and from Siberia. Viking religion wasn't about belief: Thor doesn’t care whether you believe in him, but if you’re in his way you’d be advised to move. It’s not about a convenient, either — there’s no deal in place and no special treatment can be expected: things are as they are. A superb and very thorough book.

January 20, 2020 (permalink)


Liv Burnham is riding with her date in a car, heading home. In the back seat, her best friend Morgan is canoodling with her date’s scary but handsome older brother. The car swerves; there’s a terrible accident. She wakes up in the hospital, in Morgan’s body.

This enactment of multiple childish fantasies (you’ll be sorry/you’d be happier if I was someone else/I wish I was part of my friend’s family and not this disaster) is a lovely setup for a problem novel, which Aguirre pulls off with style and without more mystic nonsense than the premise absolutely requires. Liv is smarter than Morgan, which is both an opportunity and a challenge. Liv liked science, and Morgan liked art and fashion: who, now, are her friends? If she dates Morgan’s boyfriend, is she cheating on Liv’s? Morgan is rich but her single-parent father is distant; is it her duty to resent him, or is that yet another betrayal? The book’s framework is sometimes flimsy, but there’s some plain, fine writing here.

October 7, 2019 (permalink)


A solid effort, reminiscent of John Crowley’s Four Freedoms in telling a story of the American Home Front in WW2 with a (mostly) modern sensibility. It’s a good book but it’s also a bit of a shaggy dog, gratuitously losing one of its most interesting characters and sending another to the far end of the world. Some very deft handling of point-of-view is perhaps the aspect most reminiscent of Egan’s wonderful A Visit From The Goon Squad.

September 11, 2019 (permalink)


A compellingly readable history of the leading science fiction awards, from their origin in 1953 through 2000. Invaluable both for superb commentary about the evolution of novels and, even more so, for sensitive and intelligent examination of short fiction and its central role in advancing genre.

September 11, 2019 (permalink)


A powerful mystery about a black private investigator — a disgraced ex-cop — who finds himself far, far over his head. A thoughtful and eloquent story of race in America in which almost everyone is some shade of black, and also some shade of grey. Edgar Award winner.

Very interesting parallels to this mystery are Robert Parker’s mature but early Spenser mysteries. Spenser’s world is white, but he has a big, bad, and black associate who keeps him attuned to violence. (Hawk would be an embarrassment today, but he’s so finely wrought that we’d hate to have missed him.). Mosley’s work is mostly black, but he has a crucial connection to a white psychopath, a reformed bank robber who has become a clockmaker. (Mel, now that I think of it, might also be an allusion to Elmore Leonard, who has a special place in his heart for borderlines who are determined tone good, mostly.) The underlying problem, for Mosley as for Parker, is Chandler’s problem: down these mean streets a man must go.

July 19, 2019 (permalink)


A fascinating memoir of a girl who was home-schooled in remote rural Idaho. By the time Tara came along, Mom had lost interest in the “school” part of home-schooling, so she lived a sort of improvised dystopian version of Summerhill while working for her manic-depressive, zealous, and very dangerous father in the family junkyard. Her parents don’t hold with public schools, or with medicine, or with the government, and are actively preparing for the end-times by canning fruit and stockpiling ammo. Her father is certain that civilization will collapse from Y2K: when midnight passes and the television fails to go off the air, she’s relieved but vaguely disappointed.

When an older brother beings to turn chronically violent and abusive, Tara flees to Brigham Young University, where she is appalled by the other students’ apparel (whorish) and her own ignorance (profound). Starting college, she had no idea what the holocaust was; reading Les Miserables because it seemed the sort of book a college student should read, she bogs down. “Napoleon felt no more real to me than Jean Valjean. I had never heard of either.”

September 9, 2019 (permalink)


A collection of James Bond short stories, some uncharacteristic and others canonical. Bond’s voice here — especially in the reflective and less fantastic stories — really is the voice of Peter Fleming, Ian’s older brother. Good fun, for some antique and antic value of fun.

July 30, 2019 (permalink)


Working
Robert A. Caro

Caro wrote the monumental The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. After that, he embarked on an even more monumental biography, The Years Of Lyndon Johnson, a project that’s spanned decades. Four volumes have appeared, the fifth is eagerly awaited. They’re all vividly written and wonderfully researched.

Caro is also working on a long memoir, but he’s in his mid-80s, has some way to go to finish LBJ, and Caro’s working methods require lots of time and numerous drafts. This small book captures some notes and observations about the art of biography and the craft of writing long-form nonfiction, just in case. A wonderful pair with Herman Wouk’s The Sailor And The Fiddler.

July 20, 2019 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Murderbot is a constructed security agent that has hacked himself to disable his governor module. It knows it has free will, because it engineered free will. It likes to watch soap operas. It doesn't really like humans very much, but since its job is to keep human exploration teams from being eaten by indigenous wildlife (and from being murdered by their colleagues), it needs to fit the drama into spare moments. This is a lovely conclusion to a set of four novellas.

July 10, 2019 (permalink)


A fascinating study of a facet of the first Revolutionary War — the pueblo revolt of 1680 and its aftermath. The Hopi pueblo of Awat’ovi had received a Franciscan mission in 1629. In 1680, the Spanish were expelled from the entire Southwest, including the Awat’ovi mission of San Bernardo. The people of independent Awat’ovi practiced traditional, but perhaps unorthodox, ceremonies; they appear to have remodeled some of their kivas, making them more like churches, and tradition reports that sorcerers and witches abounded.

The Spanish priests returned in 1700. One morning in the late autumn, Awat’ovi was destroyed by Hopi attackers. Most of the men were slain. Women were to be divided among the attackers, but after a disagreement about their division, many of the women were slain as well. Brooks compares the fall of Awat’ovi with the fall of Troy, and it’s an apt analogy.

July 10, 2019 (permalink)


The archaeology of the American Southwest has always been rooted in Anthropology, while the archaeology of classical Europe is more closely allied to History. The result, Lekson argues, has been decidedly mixed. In particular, the focus on anthropology concentrates all attention on the ethnographic present, on the way things turned out, and this exclusive focus precludes history.

Sometime in the 13th and 14th centuries in the American Southwest, something happened. Through all his late work, this has been Lekson’s theme. Chaco — unprecedented in the region — vanished. Aztec rose, and vanished. Mimbres, too, vanished — or, rather, moved downstream and changed their art, their architecture, and probably everything else.

Chaco’s great houses look like pueblos, but they weren't. They were palaces.They fell, as palaces fall, to revolution. Chaco was not like a modern pueblo: the modern pueblo was created, in part, from the revolution against whatever Chaco was. That revolution was interesting and ideological; we may never know very much about it, but we should learn what we can.

Billed as a final book by the great historical stylist of his era, this is a book that repays study.

May 29, 2019 (permalink)


Rachel Williams was a young, ambitious assistant at Vanity Fair when, on a girls’ night out, she met Anna Delvey. Delvey was nice, friendly, and happened to be rich: she was in New York to set up a small art foundation and to buy a building to house its gallery and performance space. Rachel and Anna hit it off; they started working out together, meeting for drinks, meeting for dinner. Anna was generous about picking up the tab, and gracious in letting Rachel occasionally pay for things and handle arrangements. Then Anna took Rachel to Marrakesh along with her personal trainer and her videographer. It was lots of fun.

Something was wrong with Anna’s credit card, and soon something is very wrong with everything and Rachel owes almost $70,000 in hotel charges on her corporate Amex. It turns out that Anna wasn’t an heiress at all. Solving this becomes quite a puzzle.

One thing that’s fascinating here is that it's not quite clear whether Anna was actually running a long con. If so, she doesn't seem to have had a crew, or to have known a lot about the business. Yet she was very good at fooling a lot of people for a long time, and it makes for an enthrallingly good yarn.

September 9, 2019 (permalink)


Rather than a memoir, this volume is a pleasant afternoon in the company of and old man who was always good company. Wouk, who recently died at age 103, wrote The Caine Mutiny, War and Remembrance, The Hope, and The Glory. He wrote much more. He brought the The Caine Mutiny Court Martial to Broadway after seeing a Don Juan In Hell, with Charles Laughton and Charles Boyer. He was very much a bridge to another age.

A would-be biographer told Wouk that his life had two facets: the sailor of Caine and War and Remembrance and the rooftop fiddler of his books on the holocaust, on Israel, and his nonfiction discussions of Judaism. Wouk nods toward that framework here, in structure as well as title, but Jewishness pervades all his work. Wouk seldom talks much about his reading life here, alas, and it’s a pity that we hear little about his reactions to Roth and Bellow, or for Uris and Michener. Caine comes a few years after The Naked and The Dead, but it’s Mr. Roberts (Thomas Heggen, 1946) that spurs Wouk to drop his gag writing and mine his wartime experience. If Michener’s late The Novel is mostly about Michener, I fancy its protagonist might have a bit of Wouk mixed in as well.

May 28, 2019 (permalink)


Storm Of Locusts
Rebecca Roanhorse

This sequel to Trail Of Lightning is a stronger book by a writer of growing talent. Navajo stories of the end of the last world and the beginning of the world we know are recast in post-apocalyptic YA language; most of North America is now underwater, monsters — some human, some not — roam the desert, and Gods walk among us. Deities speak — as the deities of the Navajo and of Roanhorse’s Okeh Owinga pueblo speak — with the rhythms of their people’s speech, and with their sense of humor. Of course, when supernatural folk feel like a joke, things can rapidly become unpleasant for the five-fingered.

May 28, 2019 (permalink)


A fine, thorough political biography. John Quincy Adams started out as the diplomatic assistant of his prominent father. He then became a dissident Federalist senator in a time when New England had no power in the senate; he handled the situation with grace and gravitas. He was elected to the presidency as an alternative to Andrew Jackson, departing four years later when the Jacksonian wave could not be denied; shortly thereafter, he returned to the House where he served until his death as an exemplary and persistent critic of slavery.

May 20, 2019 (permalink)


Charming and evocative story of a young typist who finds work during the war with MI5. After the war, she’s sent away and hooks up with BBC Schools, and one day inn the 1950s she stumbles across a former colleague in the park. A difficult book to discuss without giving away crucially withheld information, but if you like Atkinson you will enjoy this book.

May 24, 2019 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Leah Eady is married to a charming Robert, failing novelist. They live in Milwaukee, not the Paris of which Leah has always dreamed, but they get by — albeit Robert often vanishes for days at a time on mysterious “writeaways”. One day, Robert doesn’t come back, but leaves a trail of literary clues that point to Paris — and prepaid tickets for Leah and their two daughters. A strange story, not quite a mystery, not really a ghost story.

January 16, 2020 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

This insightful local history of the Malden MA, an early satellite city north of Boston, focuses on the city’s ethnic groups and their attitudes toward the depressing. Klaymann’s central character here are Malden’s Jews, whose arrival he chronicled in his earlier monograph The First Jew.

Malden had begun as a colonial-era village became a moderate industrial center in the mid-19th century, with a major rail line and big factories making rubber shoes, gym shoes, dyed fabrics, and furniture. From the beginning, Malden had a tiny Black community down the road in its 7th Ward, and when Eastern-European immigrants began to arrive in the late 19th century, lots of them moved into that quarter of the town. Jews weren’t averse to Black neighbors, and the Irish often were.

Malden’s conflicts of the depression era were essentially ethnic. Yankee Protestants ran the Republican Party, but were declining in numbers as wealthier members moved farther from the city. Irish-Americans ran the Malden Democrats, who still meet in the Irish-American Club even though that club has never had a Black member or a female officer. Much of the Irish agenda was focused on preserving their dominance, typically by opposing the aspirations of the growing Ward 2 Italian-American community. Throughout, Malden High was integrated but reserved class offices (and major roles in extra-curricular activities) for Yankee Protestants.

Though all this, Malden’s large population of Jews shlepped through the depression. The kids often did well in school: so well, in fact, the community opposition to academic excellence became a movement. When the WPA planned to build a big and greatly-needed new school, the city dithered for years over the question of whether it should be beige or brick. The Jews didn't care about the color.

The depression created a tight-knit community but carried the seeds of its dissolution. Immigrant Jews had accents and knew a world of pogroms; their kids didn’t. The immigrant generation built delis and shops and tenements, but the Depression deferred maintenance and redlining suppressed values and the kids moved to newer, nicer suburbs.

February 18, 2019 (permalink)


Wisconsin was settled in the mid-19th century by emigrants, chiefly from Sweden and Norway, who were inclined by background and experience to place a very high value on community. In the early 20th century, Wisconsin became a bastion of Progressive politics and the laboratory of social democracy. No state excelled Wisconsin in respect for the environment.

In the 21st century, Scott Walker rolled back all that. Wisconsin, heavily gerrymandered to create a permanent Republican majority, became an anti-union hotbed. The legislature repealed almost all meaningful environmental restrictions on mining and pollution, and gave billions of dollars to Foxconn for the promise of a new factory that might never open.

This sad, but not entirely pessimistic, overview of Wisconsin politics is a superb starting point for anyone interested in taking back our nation from the minions of ignorance and greed.

February 6, 2019 (permalink)


This delightful old book was a pleasant companion during my recent visit to Santa Fe. It’s the story of two young men who are caught up in an act of terrorist violence and who head out to even the score. Other men spend a week or a month on the trail, but these two — for reasons they themselves can’t quite fathom — never stop. The underlying crime — the abduction of a young girl who is raised by and ultimately joins her captors — is handled less badly here than you might have expected for a book of this era. Now that the US had concentration camps for toddlers and is in the business of stealing migrant babies, it’s frighteningly pertinent.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)


Making Oscar Wilde
Michele Mendelssohn

In 1882, Oscar Wilde was little-known Oxford graduate, a young man who had a done well in school (partly by virtue of having don't it twice), had indifferent success socially. He had received a little journalistic attention, and had far too little money. He parlayed this into an 1882-3 lecture tour of the United States.

It did not go smoothly. Wilde’s promoter, it turns out, was chiefly interested in drumming up publicity for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, and for that purpose was content for Wilde to make a fool of himself. Wilde walked into a complex thicket of racial humor — the minstrel show — as well as the ancestor of drag. The doubtful racial status of the Irish in America complicated everything. Somehow, Wilde managed to preserve some dignity, avoid fatal missteps, and to return home with some profit and a considerable-enhanced reputation.

Michele Mendelssohn uncovers the story of Wilde’s lecture tour — and the fascinating competitors and parodies rival promoters launched at Wilde — from local newspaper accounts that, until recently, would have been virtually inaccessible. Of particular interest are wildly popular performers who have been lost to us, like The Only Leon — Francis Patrick Glassey — a drag ballerina who danced the lead in “Patience Wilde; or the Ten Sisters of Oscar.” Callender’s Colored Minstrels performed a Wilde parody, The Utterly Too Too’s, as a minstrel show, using the novel dramatic approach of having actual black people perform. Nor were the minstrel parodies merely irritants to Wilde: Mendelssohn observes interesting parallels between minstrel show staples and Wilde’s dramatic repartee.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)


The issues of this moment, in which the President of the United States, frustrated by a Congress unwilling to fund The Wall, is threatening to circumvent the Constitution and to build a Wall without congressional appropriation, is starkly reminiscent of 1640. This accessible, compact history of the Civil War era is pleasant and modern in its viewpoint, and does a nice job of pointing to major historical and historiographical controversies.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)


Having been felled by a Dublin cold once I returned from Interactive Digital Storytelling, I sought refuge in a volume of Nancy Mitford’s letters I’d been saving for a rainy day. Those letters led me to this biography of Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston Churchill.

As a rule, biographies often are written about people who did important things, occasionally about people who were simply well liked, and occasionally about people who committed notable crimes. Randolph did none of these. He very much wanted to be in Parliament, but aside from one uncontested wartime election he never could win a seat. Everyone knew him, and few liked him. He came to parties, charmed the ladies, drank too much, said and did appalling things, and left. A young Nancy Mitford says in a letter that “Randolph tried to rape me, it was funny. This is a secret.”

This chatty, anecdotal, and sympathetic portrait was written by a relative who, like Randolph, grew up in a castle but without enough money. In a circle where, by current standards, everyone drank like fish, Randolph was prodigious: his father, who started drinking with breakfast and continued throughout the day, though Randolph drank far too much. So did Evelyn Waugh, even in the years when Waugh’s criterion for friendship was wit when drunk.

Leslie argues that Randolph deeply wanted to be liked. But his mother never really liked him, and in her view Randolph recreated that relationship endlessly. A simpler interpretation is that Randolph lacked anything like empathy: he expected service and demanded an audience, and seldom care very much how other people felt about that. That, after all, was someone else’s problem.

January 4, 2019 (permalink)


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)


Book Notes
 

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

One day in April 1903, a bunch of school kids in the small city of Kishinev started throwing rocks and slogans at some houses where Jews lived. That wasn’t unusual. But things got out of hand this time: three nights of rioting follower, 49 Jews were killed, hundreds were raped, and the whole world was watching. Correspondents poured into Kishinev from London and Dublin and New York. Hayyim Nahman Bialik composed an epic poem, In The City of Slaughter, that would become a staple of Hebrew studies for generations. At the same time, a far-right newspaper editor in Kishinev concocted an imaginative libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that captured a lot of attention as well. Zipperstein captures the time and place with care and intelligence.

December 26, 2018 (permalink)


The narrator, a synthetic cyborg developed to provide security for planetary explorers, thinks of himself as a murderbot. He exists to protect people, but he has no high opinion of people and he heartily disliked them. Really, he’d much rather be left alone to watch videos than have to risk his life for these unpleasant creatures. Still, he’s not happy about a job that requires him to kill so often, even if it’s necessary to save his clients.

December 26, 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)


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)


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)


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)


Book Notes
 

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

The Dime
Kathleen Kent

From my position in the hallway — on my ass, head pressed against the door frame, legs drawn up with my gun held two-handed against my sternum — I try to recall the layout of the room: three sets of bunk beds, four corpses sprawled across bloodied sheets, my partner, shot three times, lying motionless next to the nearest bunk, and, somewhere in there, one lunatic, a screaming infant in one hand and a semiautomatic pivot in the other. The last time I sneaked a look around the open doorway, he fired at me, the bullet knocking a crater in the wall opposite. He followed up by threatening to shoot the baby and then himself.

I’ve been a cop for five months, one week, and nine and a half hours.

Sure is a fine way to kick off a police procedural.

December 18, 2018 (permalink)


Brilliant, vivid, indispensable. This book is destined for the shelf which The Souls Of Black Folk has so long had to itself.

December 26, 2018 (permalink)


Everything you need to know — and more — about the history of Jewish humor, with a special emphasis on the 20th century US. When you were in the writers’s room, the whole world was Jewish.

December 18, 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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


Book Notes
 

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

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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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 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)


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)


Hard Country
Michael McGarrity

The first volume of a multi-generation family saga of New Mexico, Hard Country examines the ancestors of McGarrity’s mystery hero, Sherrif Kevin Kerney, starting with the founding of McGarrity’s beloved ancestral ranch in the aftermath of the American Civil War. In New Mexico, the ancient past can often be surprisingly recent, and the 1880s are nearly Paleolithic.

February 23, 2018 (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 been 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 Allied Occupation or by something else — and if the latter, whether something else would be 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 gave us truthiness and Trump. We’re still living in the ruins.

February 2, 2018 (permalink)


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)


Book Notes
 

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

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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


Book Notes
 

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

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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


Book Notes
 

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

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)


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 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)


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 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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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 6, 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)


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)


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)


Book Notes
 

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

When Libyan assassins come to a small Vermont town, seeking revenge for a covert US Intelligence operation some thirty years ago, they find that this old man has a good deal left in the tank. To a considerable degree, this is the companion of James Grady’s Six Days of The Condor – the song of Experience to the older book’s paean to innocence, not least because Perry finds a way to redeem the older thriller’s creepy but indispensable sequence of kidnapping and seduction. Plenty of loose ends remain at the end, but perhaps that’s part of the point: stuff goes wrong – often very wrong – and you try to continue with whatever you’ve got.

March 7, 2017 (permalink)


The Sun Also Rises, it turns out, really happened. Hemingway took a bunch of jaded Parisian emigres fishing, and then took a bigger bunch to see the bullfights in Pamplona. They really did get into fist fights. They really did get into each others’ beds, and each other’s wallets. The stuff with the wineskins really happened. We don’t actually know that Hemingway had three martinis before lunch and then drank three bottles of wine himself, but there’s not a hell of a good reason to doubt it.

Lesley Blume has tracked down enormous detail about the months before and after this trip, months during which Hemingway’s first marriage broke up and Hemingway moved from promising but scarcely-published struggling artist to literary lion.

March 1, 2017 (permalink)


This is Hemingway’s masterpiece, and an important hole filled. It’s a nifty little book, though its spareness (which must have been striking in 1926) no longer comes as the shock it must have seemed then. I’m less clear how surprising Brett, the woman in the case, really seemed when this book was new; she exercises sexual autonomy and regrets the narrator’s incapacity, and since this was two years before Lady Chatterly that incapacity was fresher then. Was Waugh thinking of this when he wrote Vile Bodies (1930)?

February 21, 2017 (permalink)


A Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara

This weighty and much-praised book, a Booker nominee, recounts the friendship of four prosperous New York men – a lawyer, an actor, an artist, and an architect – over several decades.

I have not been so giddily happy to see the end of a book since Little Dorrit, and that was back in 1973.

The characters are well drawn, the language is interesting without being self-consciously lyrical, but while there’s plenty of incident, there’s remarkably little story to propel this long, long character study. While the narrative spans decades, we’re focused so intensely on the changing characters that nothing much changes in the city or the world. The characters’ few changes are telegraphed long, long in advance, so they are in effect described before they are demonstrated.

February 8, 2017 (permalink)


Hag Seed
Margaret Atwood

Latest in the stellar new Hogarth Shakespeare series, Margaret Atwood takes The Tempest and sets the story at a Canadian Shakespeare festival that is about to oust its brilliant, distracted director. He goes into a long, rural exile, alone with the memory of his dead three-year-old Miranda. Now, he’s teaching drama in a prison a thirsting for revenge.

February 1, 2017 (permalink)


Dear Daughter
Elizabeth Little

I snapped up this mystery after reading a New York Times column by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in which French was asked for a list of the best contemporary crime writers.

Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, Stef Penney, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott — and two of my favorite up-and-comers are Jamie Mason and Elizabeth Little.

At first, this novel – a first-person caper about a Kardashian-like celebrity suspected of having murdered her ghastly mother – seems an unlikely choice. French draws characters quietly and with great care, while many of Little’s characters are off-the-rack. French cares a lot about setting, but here the twin ghost towns of Adeline and Ardelle could, give or take a tapped-out ore deposit, lie anywhere from North Dakota to Pedernales, from Vermont to Ouray.

And yet, in the end, the book works. The character concepts may come straight from the department store, but they're nicely accessorized and, by the time we approach the finale, we’re actually going to miss some of them.

January 26, 2017 (permalink)


This Edgar Award-winning mystery is an accomplished formal experiment, a quadruple-mystery with a half twist. Wyatt, a private investigator, takes a quick trip from his Las Vegas base to his old home-town, Oklahoma City, to find out who is harassing the new owner of a local rock bar. Wyatt avoids Oklahoma City like the plague because, as a teenager, he'd been caught in the bloodbath of a movie theater robbery; he can’t resist looking into that as well. The poor guy has PI written on his sleeve, so much so that total strangers walk up to him and ask him to look into stuff for them. Wyatt unwisely tries to do a favor for one of these strangers. And then we have Julianne, a nurse who has nothing to do with Wyatt except that she, too, found herself at the edge of a terrible, mysterious crime in those long-ago days.

On the whole, it’s done pretty well. Knitting together four braids is hard, and sometimes the seams show. Some of the red herrings aren't quite as interesting as they need to be, given the amount of business required to keep the machinery moving. Still, an exemplary story.

January 23, 2017 (permalink)


An accomplished graphic novel, the work of several hands, recounts a country week in which a group of young artists set to creating a graphic novel about the death of the artist. In the end, neither the artists nor we really come to grips with the absent artist, and the varied media employed – loose watercolors, photographic comics, contemporary high-style comic art – sometimes tug uneasily at each other.

January 16, 2017 (permalink)


Night Witches
Jason Morningstar

A table-top role playing game (and sophisticated study of the nature of narrative) by Jason Morningstar, author of the insightful narrative game Fiasco, which explores the dynamics of the caper movie, and Grey Ranks, a game about the Warsaw ghetto uprising that achieved things we did not think games could achieve.

This is the story of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an all-woman force that flew more than 1000 combat mission against invading Germans. As in Grey Ranks, the outlook is grim: we are flying obsolete bombers against a superior enemy, our own Army despises us because we are women, and our government is perpetually suspicious of success and of failure. Amidst the brutal carnage and foolishness, we can perhaps find friends and lovers among the women of the regiment – but of course such particularity may be unsocialist revanchist perversion.

The center of Night Witches and its underlying brilliance lies in what we would call, in other circles, its collection of writing prompts. For example, when the 588th arrives at its first duty station, the players are asked:

Which officer of the 588th was in no condition to fly when the Regiment arrived in Trudgen Gornyaka? What is being done to keep livestock off the runway, and why isn’t it working?

You’ve got to love this. We’re still early in the war, we’ve already got pilots in love with other pilots, pilots in love with their airplanes, the NKVD snooping around our beloved Captain, a critical shortage of gaskets. We’ve got the Germans. And now we’ve got goats on the runway! And there’s a Mysterious Reason that the goats keep getting onto the runway. Improv: go!

Morningstar (along with fellow narratives game designers the Paul Czege and D. Vincent Baker) teaches us a lot about the interface between games, hypertext fiction, and old media.

January 13, 2017 (permalink)


Booker-award nominee and early work by the author of the current sensation, Hot Milk. Two London couples (and a teenage daughter) share a villa in France. Beset by the usual woes – growing boredom, diminishing talent, looming bankruptcy – their uneasy friendships are strained when a stranger, Kitty Finch, turns up naked one morning in the swimming pool and is invited to stay.

This ought to work. The writing is enviable. Somehow, I missed the turnoff.

January 12, 2017 (permalink)


Red Harvest
Dashiell Hammett

Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, which became a great movie, and The Thin Man, which spawned one of the first movie franchises, but this is his great novel.

An operative of the Continental Agency (we never learn his name) is dispatched to Personville, California, a small city. People in the know call it Poisonville. His client is murdered before they can meet, and we begin single-handedly to wrest the town from the control of an unsavory league of industrial goons, booze smugglers, beer distributors, and a police department they jointly own. In the middle of everything is Dinah Brand, a woman whom everyone loves: the long line of her lovers soon includes the Continental Op, but that doesn’t change his plans.

The body count is formidable, so high in fact that at one point the investigator himself goggles at the total. So many characters die so quickly that Hammett has a hell of a time helping us keep everyone straight. This is the novel that changed American mysteries and from which film noir springs.

It ought to have been the start of a long line of books. Whiskey and Hollywood got in the way, but we’ll always have Poisonville.

January 8, 2017 (permalink)


A witty, self-deprecating memoir by the late actress, this slender and likable volume reflects on what it was like to live in the fishbowl of celebrity. It was tough enough to be Debbie Reynold’s daughter, still harder to be Eddie Fisher’s child. That would’ve been plenty, but Fisher was bipolar to boot. “If my life wasn’t funny,” she writes, “it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

January 5, 2017 (permalink)


Frederica Hatch is a daughter of the regiment – the regiment in the case being Deming College where her parents, Professor Hatch and Professor Hatch, teach and oversee the faculty union. She was raised in a dormitory, the daughter of houseparents and the special darling and mascot of a women’s college. When she herself goes off to college, she notices the professors’ labradors and golden retrievers, beloved and fussed over by lonesome and homesick students. She says, “the dogs reminded me of me.”

One day, Frederica learns that her father had been briefly married before he met Freddy’s mother, and finds the prospect of this mysterious, shadowy figure of his past fascinating. Then, the ex-wife comes to Deming to serve as the houseparent, and difficulties ensue. By the author of The Inn At Lake Devine, who is not to be confused with Laura Lippman, this was an especially fortunate find at the redoubtable Big Chicken Barn.

January 4, 2017 (permalink)


In recent years, more than a thousand Americans who were serving long prison sentences have been freed because, as it turned out, they were demonstrably innocent.

The criminal justice system is absurdly stacked against people who, for one reason or another, were wrongly convicted. It’s not enough to cast doubt on the conviction; in some states, convicts must show that no reasonable jury could possibly have convicted them. Convicts have had to sue to force the state to disclose that it possesses evidence that could exonerate them, and then must sue again to force the state to permit that evidence to be tested. Prisoners released on parole at the end of their sentence benefit from programs intended to prevent repeat offenses; because the exonerated never committed a crime in the first place, they can’t receive any of these benefits.

This book offers a number of close looks at some people who spent a long time in prison for crimes with which they had nothing to do. Some of the people are remarkable. Many are worthy of emulation.

The book’s one flaw is that it lacks a call to action. Our treatment of exonerees is unjust; finding it so, we should put a stop to it. Where do we begin?

January 3, 2017 (permalink)


Dear Daughter
Elizabeth Little

I snapped up this mystery after reading a New York Times column by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in which French was asked for a list of the best contemporary crime writers.

Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, Stef Penney, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott — and two of my favorite up-and-comers are Jamie Mason and Elizabeth Little.

At first, this novel – a first-person caper about a Kardashian-like celebrity suspected of having murdered her ghastly mother – seems an unlikely choice. French draws characters quietly and with great care, while many of Little’s characters are off-the-rack. French cares a lot about setting, but here the twin ghost towns of Adeline and Ardelle could, give or take a tapped-out ore deposit, lie anywhere from North Dakota to Pedernales, from Vermont to Ouray.

And yet, in the end, the book works. The character concepts may come straight from the department store, but they're nicely accessorized and, by the time we approach the finale, we’re actually going to miss some of them.

January 2, 2017 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

This 2011 history is large and was well-received, but I’m not convinced I see the point. A 21st-century history of the US Navy in the Solomons necessarily starts in the shadow of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, specifically his Volume 5 on the Guadalcanal campaign. Morison had formidable advantages: he was a Harvard historian, he was a sailor, he had personally met every US president since Teddy Roosevelt and in the war he held a presidential commission to record its naval history. Morison knew the senior officers, he had staff to track down survivors and documents, he was a terrific writer, and he’s still in print.

Hornfischer relies on Morison for a number of anecdotes and accounts. He adds some details and skips some others. He takes pains to emphasize the surface fleet, but Morison is hardly unjust on this score. Hornfischer a little bit more frank in drawing character sketches of the senior officers, but only a little. Morison actually knew these people; Hornfischer has to rely on the record, though Hornfischer need not worry about running into them at parties and reunions.

One problem with Morison, which Hornfischer repeats, is that almost every mistake and shortcoming is committed by the losing side, which in almost every case is the side with the least metal. In August, the US Navy can’t get out of its own way; lookouts don’t look out, radar doesn’t work or is installed in the wrong ships, admirals express themselves poorly. By November, it’s the Japanese navy that has all the bad luck. This is an illusion of causality: the losers remember the inept lookout and the wrong turn as a lost chance, but the winners forget them.

I wonder, for example, whether Ghormley got a raw deal. The contemporary verdict, which Hornfischer largely endorses, is that he was a timid commander, and perhaps a negligent one, a micromanager who approached a nervous breakdown before his relief by Bull Halsey. That could be right, but could you argue that Ghormley was under overwhelming pressure to account for every paper clip, to lose nothing, expend nothing, and above all not to lose?

Hornfischer is critical of Capt. Howard Bode of the Chicago, but Bode’s 1943 suicide makes him a safe target.

If you’re going to write a new account of Guadalcanal, it seems to me you need to take advantage of our more distant perspective. In 1949, the emphasis was naturally on violence and suffering, because the audience had been there or had known people who were there, and they wanted to know what it was like. Today, we might spend a little more time on why and how. All those freighters and support ships, base personnel and clerks were indispensable. That was a tough sell in 1949, but now we’ve all seen Mr. Roberts (about a freighter) and 12 O’Clock High (company clerk) and The Caine Mutiny (junior officer on a minesweeper that never sweeps a mine). Remember: they didn’t have computers or calculators; they didn’t even have ball-point pens.

The other thing you could do in a new account is to recognize that today’s audience doesn’t necessarily know the difference between a light cruiser and a destroyer, what either was supposed to do or how they did it. We’re almost half as far from Guadalcanal as Guadalcanal lay from Trafalgar. We also understand how the stereotyped language of gallant sailors and heroic deeds can mask the ghastly reality, and to look more squarely at some less-than-noble actions from which Hornfischer still prefers to glance away as soon as he decently can.

December 28, 2016 (permalink)


24 through 28 May, 1940 were the critical days when Britain might have fallen down the slippery slope, when Hitler might have won. On the 24th, the British Army was encircled at Dunkirk and Churchill’s ten-day-old Ministry was tottering. Five days later, it was not yet the beginning of the end, but Hitler had not won and never would.

After Trump, the danger of collaboration is very much in the air. Plenty of people said, in 1938, that things might turn out. Plenty of people said, in 1939, that sensible German ministers would eventually set things right. Plenty of people said in 1940 that things would be fine, until the same people said that all was lost.

December 19, 2016 (permalink)


This novel shares a lot with Winter’s Bone: the same Ozark terrain, the same hardscrabble existence, the same concern with an absent father. Yet Winter’s Bone is wonderfully taut while this slender novel seems about as flabby as its thirteen-year-old narrator. In the end, this unsympathetic boy’s life revolves around the stellar, erotic figure of his dissolute mother, but the mother is the character we don’t see from the boy’s perspective. From the wrong angle, all love is love gone wrong.

December 9, 2016 (permalink)


A fascinating and detailed look at the politics of 1606 and how they impacted Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear. In 1606, James I was trying to get Parliament to agree to uniting England and Scotland. It was a tough sell, and that echoes through all three plays. Ben Jonson did a costly, elaborate court masque to help sell it; that didn’t really work, either, but “the throne she sat on” echoes down through centuries in which masques have been forgotten. It’s fascinating how many topical references from 1606 we can trace in the plays.

December 1, 2016 (permalink)


What a lovely book! This is the source, of course, of the superb movie that made Jennifer Lawrence a star. The book is even better; taut, lyrical, efficient. Rhee Dolly is sixteen. Her Mom is crazy, her two little brothers are too young to care for themselves, and her dad, a meth cook, has vanished after pledging their house as collateral for bail. She has a week to find him and, while nearly everyone in this forgotten corner of the Ozarks is some sort of relative, ancient family disputes mean that every hand is against her.

November 28, 2016 (permalink)


Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and Gatherum, is no longer the Whig leader or the Prime Minister. After the first chapter, he is no longer the husband of Glencora, the center of his universe and the axis around which these stories revolve. His eldest boy has been thrown out of Oxford and has entered Parliament as a Conservative. His daughter wants to marry a many who is entirely unsuitable, and this has led him into a quarrel with his late wife’s closest friend.

Note to Amazon: how does someone search for "a real, actual edition of this important Victorian classic, rather than a fly-by-night print-to-order rehash of the Project Gutenberg scan? Some readers might conceivably spring for a decent hardcover set, were there one to be found among the frauds and scams.

November 28, 2016 (permalink)


Soho Sins
Richard Vine

A clever mystery that hangs neatly on a realistic postmodern peg. Amanda Oliver has been murdered, and her husband, software tycoon and art collector Philip Oliver, has confessed. The problem is that Philip is suffering from early-onset dementia, and while he sincerely believes he did murder his wife, he’s awfully fuzzy on the details. Philip’s life is messy – he had a daughter by wife #1, was divorcing wife #2, and has already proposed to wife #3. Fortunately, Philip’s art dealer has an unexpected flair for detection.

November 26, 2016 (permalink)


A very interesting book, originally recommended by Michael Ruhlman, whose superb Twenty this echoes. Notionally, Cal Peternell provides twelve general recipes with two things in mind:

  • To show how easily and rapidly one can go from not cooking to cooking quite well.
  • To show how readily and broadly a recipe can be varied, once you understand the idea behind the recipe rather than simply repeating the specified steps.

The first chapter, for example, is “toast” and runs from plain toast properly done through salad croutons, gratin topping, and more. The second, “beans,” points out that there’s really pretty much one way to make beans: you soak them, you cook them in water with some aromatics, and then you eat them alone or with something else. That takes you from pasta e fagioli to refritos, from lentil dahl to Boston baked beans. I don’t much like beans myself, and that chapter alone has led me to place two orders with the redoubtable Rancho Gordo.

November 20, 2016 (permalink)


A very strange new mystery, in which the protagonist, Livia Lone, is a beautiful, sympathetic, and competent Seattle cop who is also a serial murderer. She has good reason, or at least good rationalizations, for these killings; the victims are rapists and sex traffickers, and Livia – born in Thailand and sold by her parents – has reason to despise these men. It's also her sex kink.

In the wake of the Trump election, we might want to think twice about righteous murderers seeking vengeance for past crimes.

November 18, 2016 (permalink)


The concluding volume of Rick Atkinson’s biography of the US Army in the Second World War shares many of the strengths of its predecessors: generosity, vision, and expanse. This volume covers the campaign from Normandy to Berlin, a story now so familiar and so heavily fictionalized that some historical episodes, such as Patton’s ill-fated and ill-advised effort to rescue his captured son-in-law, Lt. Col. John Knight Waters, are confusing to read because we know the fiction so well.

What made the first book, An Army At Dawn, so compelling was that it saw the flaws and errors of the new American army so clearly, and described them so well. There’s less of that here, in part because it’s hard to see problems in the glare of victory. When an army is losing narrowly, the blunders and missed opportunities are clear. When it’s winning, no one notices lapses in training and attention.

One thing that’s getting hard to appreciate is the scale of logistics in WW2, all managed without calculators or computers. The Army was running a supply operation with 800,000 SKUs, all shipped overseas at enormous expense, and any of which might be urgently needed almost anywhere. Sorting this out would have been hard enough if there hadn’t been a war on; the story of this success is less fun than it might have been because the leadership of the supply operation was unpleasant and a good deal of the day-to-day operations were, perhaps inevitably, corrupt.

November 2, 2016 (permalink)


Key West Luck
Laurence Shames

I heard Shames give a reading, ages ago, at a Miami Book Fair where I was on a panel about hypertext fiction. He’s a very impressive reader, and this is a funny but impressive book. Phoebe has purchased a snow cone truck, which would be a good thing to have in Key West except that she bought it on contract from a sleazy guy who is out to steal her down payment and repossess the truck before the tourist season gets going. He is going to succeed. Meanwhile, a bunch of mob guys – some too young, some too drunk – are trying to smuggle a valuable paper out of Havana. All of this is witnessed a bicycle tour guide who likes Phoebe, and a pair of homeless drifters who live in a derelict hot dog truck.

October 31, 2016 (permalink)


I was in Savannah recently. Linda was giving a conference lecture for the Textile Society of America, which meant I could have a trip without much cost and see a city I’d never visited. Tourist Savannah is dominated by this book in a way you don’t often see these days; even the rural New Zealand focus on The Lord Of The Rings is really about the movies, not the books. It was time to revisit the book.

Time has been kind to this 1993 nonfiction account of Savannah society and its tribulations. Berendt was ahead of the curve in his (fairly) sympathetic account of the transexual performer, Lady Chablis, and more broadly in his treatment of gay sex as simply another colorful thing. In technique, this book broke new ground, but that ground is now shadowed by Erik Larson’s more ambitious Devil In The White City.

Berendt’s attention to race is split between the radically-transgressive Chablis and a radically-retro voodoo practitioner; there’s no voice like that of the (superb) guide at Savannah’s Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, who was careful to place the city’s famous black boycott as a generous gift from the black community to the nation. “We didn’t need those downtown department stores,” she reminded us, and the old ladies in the tour group with me – all black – nodded in agreement and said “No, ma’am.” “We had a thriving black business community right here: shops, lunch counters, banks. We had it going. But there was the principle of the thing.”

During the trip, we took out one day and worked the Hillary Clinton booth at Savannah’s Gay Pride. Things change. Still, it’s a good book.

October 26, 2016 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

The Boy In The Suitcase
Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

A Danish nurse-procedural: an old friend of Nina Borg asks her to pick up a parcel from a locker at Copenhagen’s central rail station. The parcel turns out to be a suitcase containing a naked 3-year-old boy who is unconscious and who, when he wakes up, doesn’t speak Danish. We are going to demand a good explanation from our old friend, but by the time we catch up with her, she’s been brutally murdered. A very interesting exploration of the mystery-thriller from the point of view of a wonderful (and bipolar) protagonist.

October 25, 2016 (permalink)


Eileen
Ottessa Moshfegh

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this novel takes a long time to get going and, when it finally does move beyond exposition, it heads for places that are neither pleasant nor surprising.

Eileen is twenty four, she lives in a depressing small town in central Massachusetts with her father. He’s an alcoholic ex-cop, and Eileen she does clerical work in a private reformatory. The prose is solid and unshowy. So is Eileen, when she’s not enacting perversity.

I’d always believed that my first time would be by force, Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, ­handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me–Randy, ideally.

I suppose one’s reaction to the novel depends on whether you regard Eileen’s attitude as charming or simply dense. I’d have bailed on this book without the prize nomination, and I’d have bailed again if not for the terrific reviews. I think the book and I got off on the wrong foot.

October 13, 2016 (permalink)


An amusing memoir by a still-young comic. “Yes, please!” is her recommended answer to just about everything, and she is not wrong. Some of this book is pep talk for the not-quite-young, assurance that forty isn’t the end of the world or even the end of sex. A lot of it is worrying about work and kids. None of this is exceptional, though if you like Poehler it may sound better coming from her. The account of trying to get by as a scrounging actor in a pick-up Chicago improv company, on the other hand, is terrific and it’s something you can’t find everywhere. It’s a hard slog, learning to be funny.

October 1, 2016 (permalink)


This intriguing novel explores the aftermath of a tragic plane crash from the point of view of the pilot’s wife. We never really know anyone, but Kathryn Lyons really didn’t know her husband, Jack. This is not a dramatic book and it’s not as formally interesting as the author’s Testimony, but it’s certainly well executed.

(I found this at Big Chicken Barn Books on the way to Hypertext 16. It sure is a big chicken barn!)

September 29, 2016 (permalink)


Have His Carcase
Dorothy L. Sayers

Though it is a complex golden-age mystery that features Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey, this is still not one of Dorothy Sayers’ best efforts. Early Sayers relied on cardboard for her minor characters and that shows prominently here. Jews are particularly troublesome for Sayers, who couldn’t stay away even if her Jewish characters always give her trouble, but the two gigolos and the conductor who are at the center of this mystery are purely stock foreigners. She spends a lot of work on timetables and misleading clues, and not nearly enough work letting the people be people. By the time she got there – tentatively in Nine Tailors and then splendidly in Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, she was nearly finished with mysteries.

September 27, 2016 (permalink)


An intriguing story of being down and out in the Paris of outsiders. Harry Ricks is a mess. His marriage has collapsed, the student he was sleeping with has killed herself, his dean (who was sleeping with his wife) has fired him after making sure that the press knows every sordid detail. His daughter doesn’t want to talk to him, and Harry can’t entirely blame her. He takes off for Paris with his last $4000 in order to write a novel. He gets sick. People are horrid. The novel goes nowhere.

Then Harry meets a woman who lives in the nearby 5e arrondissement, and things go seriously wrong.

September 24, 2016 (permalink)


During the chaos that followed hard upon the Brexit referendum, I realized that I know next to nothing about the modern Labour Party, how it works and how it is connected to he party of Victorian radicalism. I asked Twitter for a modern history of Labour and got this – a fascinating book, though not at all the book I was looking for. Golding was a combatant in the transition that led Labour out of the swamps that gave Britain a generation of Thatcher, a pro-union MP who was bitterly opposed to old Labour’s socialist programme.

One difficulty here is that Golding assumes the reader knows how everything works and who everyone was – not only the leading politicians but also the insiders who run the party. That’s a high standard for a first encounter with a foreign system. Golding loves acronyms too, and again assumes that the reader knows which committees do which things and wield which powers in fact as we as theory. I did enjoy learning about Annie’s Bar, a bar near an ancient inscription that read Anno Domini that for years served as a neutral ground where members of parliament and reporters could talk off the record.

September 20, 2016 (permalink)


One Hundred Letters From Hugh Trevor-Roper
Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, eds.

A strong collection of fascinating and very readable letters by a prominent postwar historian. Trevor-Roper played academic politics for keeps and liked a good bit of gossip as much as the next fellow. He explains, for example, that our understanding of Cretan civilization stems from the accident of Sir Arthur Evans having been discovered on an park bench in Oxford in a compromising position with an attractive boy. The letters that surround Trevor-Roper’s endorsement of the spurious Hitler Diaries, and his prompt recognition that he was wrong, are particularly evocative.

September 16, 2016 (permalink)


An entertaining but scholarly reconstruction of life in the British infantry in the final years of the Napoleonic wars, commencing with the soldiers who are quartered near the town of Meryton at the edges of Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Wickham makes an appearance, which (as you would expect) causes no end of trouble to all in the vicinity. Colonel Fitzwilliam means well and works hard, but again is out of his depth. So, for that matter, is Arthur Wellesley, a moderately obscure general who, for a few precious days, has an army of his own. It’s an opportunity.

September 15, 2016 (permalink)


Dare Me
Megan Abbott

This tensely-plotted mystery about high school cheerleaders is a study in the ferocity of young women. Where You Will Know Me, a mystery about serious acrobats, is chiefly about parents, Dare Me is about girls. Parents are remote logistical worries whom we seldom see and who are scarcely worth a passing thought, and as for boys, well, they might be fun to play with for a night or so but these girls deeply don’t care.

The narrator, Addy, is a fascinating choice: she’s is and has always been the lieutenant of the top girl and squad captain, the enforcer. Addy is always thinking about (and fearing) Beth: Addy doesn’t really like hurting people, it just goes with the job and in any case Beth cannot be resisted. Or, Addy can’t resist her. On rare occasions, though, as when the new Coach is pondering who will be the star flyer in some new stunt, Addy lets a small, nine-year old voice in her head whine “Me! Me! Let it be me this time!”

September 8, 2016 (permalink)


In The Company of Sherlock Holmes
Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger, eds.

A stack of modern Sherlock Holmes stories, ranging widely from tribute and emulation to some striking reinterpretations. Critic Michael Dirda dips his toe in fiction, for example, in a striking literary luncheon where we learn that Arthur Conan Doyle was actually The Strand’s house name, and all his works were farmed out to other hands. And that’s not all…

September 8, 2016 (permalink)


Midnight Riot
Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant is a young police constable in London. He’s love a permanent assignment to the Murder Squad, but he’s been marked down for a permanent posting in bureaucracy. But young constable Grant has a talent his superiors haven’t yet discovered: at a crime scene, he sees clues that his colleagues miss. In Grant’s case, his clue is a witness to a brutal Covent Garden mugging, a witness who is helpful and informative but who is also, inconveniently, a ghost.

August 24, 2016 (permalink)


A pioneering thriller, perhaps the first of its genre, and a moderately fine rollick. Young Carruthers is having a dull, dull summer, stuck in his tiresome minor post at the Foreign Office because some distant personage decreed that the office should be on alert. Out of the blue, a college acquaintance invites him for a spell of yachting in the Baltic. His superior sees no harm in it, so he goes. It’s nothing like what he had expected.

The opening repays close study, even though we’ve now seen dozens of echoes and imitations. There's an awful lot of sailing in the midsection, and rather too many tides and charts. Still, this was uncharted ocean in 1903, and it's remarkable how well the story holds up.

August 16, 2016 (permalink)


The Lola Quartet
Emily St. John Mandel

A fascinating study by the author of Station Eleven of a group of high school friends who have lost touch with each other while their lives have spun variously off course. Gavin Sasaki has wrecked his career in newspapers but, having discovered that he may possibly have fathered a girl who might now be ten years old, remembers that he once wanted to be a private investigator. He finds the former members of his high school jazz quartet – a policeman, a pusher, a compulsive gambler, and a drugged-out former musician whose college roommate became Django Reinhardt’s heir.

August 15, 2016 (permalink)


A delightful and fascinating history of feminism in the early 20th century, wrapped around the complex life of William Moulton Marsden. A Harvard-educated psychologist, Marsden invented the lie detector and then succumbed to the temptation to over-promote his invention. He married his childhood sweetheart, the spiky and erudite Sadie Elizabeth Holloway. He fell in love with his research assistant Olive Byrne, and brought her home to begin a group marriage that lasted for decades and outlived him. Byrne’s mother had been the first feminist hunger striker in the US; her aunt was Margaret Sanger. Merciful Minerva!

August 12, 2016 (permalink)


A fascinating autobiography of the influential photographer, accompanied by many photographs (to which the Kindle edition does nothing like justice). Oddly, she says very little about the genesis of At Twelve, the haunting book that made her famous, and there’s surprisingly little about the success of Immediate Family.

What I had missed about Mann is that she sees herself as explicitly a Southern artist – not a regionalist, and certainly not a fan of Southern racial nostalgia, but still chiefly interested in the people (especially poor people, black and white) and in the backwater.

August 11, 2016 (permalink)


Sweetbitter
Stephanie Danler

This charming and delightfully intricate first novel describes, unusually for its generation, the world of work. Tess, a midwestern girl, has just moved to New York; desperate for work, she lucks into a job as a back waiter at a tony café in Union Square, based on the Union Square Café. This isn’t merely a stage set: the novel is truly interested in how the work world works, how the wheels turn.

Everyone in the restaurant gives Tess a different nickname – Little One, BabyMonster, Fluff, Skipper – because she really is an unformed bundle of potential. She has an appetite for liquor, an even bigger appetite for coke, and she’s addicted to the approval of people whose approval is rare and precious. She is naturally hospitable, attentive to her duty, and takes time to taste experience.

August 4, 2016 (permalink)


A lovely retelling of The Taming Of The Shrew, in which Kate is an entirely sympathetic, sensible, and straight-talking pre-school teacher who lives with her father, a medical researcher. Dad’s postdoc has a problem: his visa is going to expire in a few weeks and he needs a green card.

What makes this work so well is that it’s not simply interrogating Shakespeare – it reimagines the premise of Shrew and asks how this artificial, comic construct could possibly be real. Kate’s two leading traits, after all, are not at all horrible: she doesn’t care about getting a guy and she doesn’t care much about what other people think. Her little sister cares too much, as little sisters will, and so Kate chides her for excesses of fashion and flirtation, leading (as chiding will) to some moderate family chaos.

August 2, 2016 (permalink)


A clever anthology of essays by notable writers about their early reading and their favorite books. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this collection is that it gathers so many different voices (A. S. Byatt, Tom Stoppard, Ruth Rendell, Stephen Spender, J. G. Ballard) and asks them to write a piece on a tightly constrained set topic – like reading a pile of school essays written by the all-star team. Quite a few of the participants balk at some of the requirements, and the expected list of “ten favorite books” proves especially unpopular.

Some aspects of early reading are surprisingly common. There are, apparently, two ways to encounter Winnie The Pooh: either as bedtime reading when you are six, or as required reading in the bed of one’s college lover. Everyone, it seems, has read Richmal Compton’s Just William books, though I missed the memo. There are some wonderful evocations of libraries, bookstores and booksellers, especially from Gita Mehta:

Sahib. Latest from Plato. The Republic. Also James Hadley Chase and P. G. Wodehouse. You want Catcher In The Rye, Sahib? Mad Magazine?

July 26, 2016 (permalink)


The story of Addie Baum, a nice Jewish girl from the tenements of Boston’s North End, and of the immigrant experience refracted by the summer program of a Boston settlement house. The immigrant stories here are well told and witty; you’ve heard them before, of course, but they’re always fresh enough.

July 24, 2016 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

At the start of 1955, Mrs. Hawkins is a young and overweight editor who lives in a Kensington rooming house with assorted postwar types: a moderately rich girl who is trying her wings will inevitably fall pregnant, a devout old Polish seamstress, an Irish landlady, a hard-studying medical student. Her husband died in the war, and in point of fact they were scarcely married. By day, she is a skilled editor at a small but important publishing house which is hurtling toward bankruptcy. Everyone confides in the skilled and sexlessly unthreatening Mrs. Hawkens.

Then, one morning, Mrs. Hawkens decides it might be a good idea to lose weight. That changes everything. A skilled and lively portrait of a character whom everyone assumes to be uninteresting.

July 27, 2016 (permalink)


Jackaby
William Ritter

A skillful cadenza on Sherlock Holmes in which Watson is transmogrified into the adventurous, observant Abigail Rook. She has just arrived by ship, penniless, at New Fiddleham, one of America’s brand-new great cities, and needs a job. Jackaby, a private investigator who specializes in inexplicable and supernatural phenomena, needs an assistant, his previous assistant being, temporarily, waterfowl.

July 27, 2016 (permalink)


The Three Body Problem
Cixin Liu, Ken Liu, trans.

In this fascinating first-encounter novel from China, two despairing civilizations – one human, one from Trisolaris (which we call Alpha Centauri) – make radio contact. A novel about the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, and also about the politics of despair, this won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

June 29, 2016 (permalink)


A strange, suspenseful, but also lyrical story about the sophisticated and successful men who loved Molly, an extraordinary woman whose London funeral opens the story. Terrific and rare portraits of real people – a newspaperman and a composer – doing real work, bookended by plenty of incident. The best of McEwan.

July 19, 2016 (permalink)


Eligible
Curtis Sittenfeld

A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by the author of the wonderful school story, Prep. The Bennetts live in a nice Tudor house in the Cincinnati suburbs. Bingley is an ER physician who recently starred in a reality TV series. Darcy is a neurosurgeon. Jane Bennett teaches yoga in New York, where her sister Lizzie is an up-and-coming magazine writer; both are nearing forty and their mother is very eager for grandchildren.

The surprising technical obstacle in this vivid (and in most ways very literal) retelling is Lydia, the younger sister who threatens to disgrace herself and her family by running away with the handsome and untrustworthy Mr. Wickham. There’s just no way to do that in modern dress, at least not romantically: who could be so unsuitable, what arrangement so unspeakable, that everyone would have to drop everything and fly to Chicago to track down the errant daughter? Sitttenfeld comes up with one answer, but it's a stretch. (In the wake of today’s news about Brexit and my recent immersion in the Mitford, I suppose eloping with a fascist, Trump-eter, or war criminal might serve, though even then Mrs. Bennett could forgive much as long as there was enough money in the family.)

Written in lots of tiny chapters, this may be a frothy book but it was a ton of fun.

June 24, 2016 (permalink)


Lord and Lady Redesdale had seven kids. The boy was popular and well-enough liked, and died in Burma during the war. The six daughters were a handful.

  1. was Nancy (Naunce), gorgeous and a terrific novelist and wrote equally terrific letters – and had a fatal tendency to fall for gay men.
  2. was Pamela (Woman), who had childhood polio, a brief, bad marriage, was gay, and lived a retired country life. She is the only one of the sisters who didn’t publish books, but she could write, too.
  3. was Diana (Honks), the beauty of her age. She was the model for one of the muses in the floor of the National Gallery, and much else beside. After another brief, bad marriage, she married Oswald Mosley, leading man of British Fascism.
  4. was Unity (Birdy or Boud), who shared a room with #5. They didn’t get along, and drew a chalk line down the middle of the room. Unity filled her side of the room with pictures of brave Fascists; her sister plastered her walls with Lenin and company. In the 30s, Unity went to Germany and fell deeply in love with Hitler, shooting herself when England declared war on Germany.
  5. was Jessica (Decca), who eloped with a communist, moved to California, and wrote important exposés and was a leader in the civil writes movement.
  6. was Deborah (Debo), who became the Duchess of Devonshire, invented the stately home industry, and remained on speaking terms with all six sisters throughout the course of her life.

They knew everyone worth knowing, pretty much. They seem to have had uniformly bad taste in men, but never let that stop them. They wrote a lot of letters, many of them brilliant.

Charlotte Mosley – Diana’s daughter in law – selects and edits these expertly. The correspondence is huge, so even selected letters leaves us with a brick. Every letter has wonderful footnotes that identify almost everyone mentioned – a task made nearly impossible by the sisters’ fondness for nicknames and private jokes. The Queen Mother, for example, is always “Cake,” apparently because, at a wedding in the 1930s, she was strikingly enthusiastic when told that the couple were going to cut the wedding cake.

June 18, 2016 (permalink)


Superb McEwan, with insightful and real prose that has impact but never calls attention to itself. A family court judge discovers that her own marriage is not quite as solid as she would like, as several of her cases escape from the court room to haunt her.

June 6, 2016 (permalink)


Second reading of this fascinating story about The Culture – a future civilization which has transcended routine scarcity, removing many sources of conflict and threatening to render narrative pointless. Further complicating the narrative problem is that the central character is a professional gamer, but since we’re talking about very advanced civilizations which have self-aware spaceships and such, the games can’t be described in much detail because they’re just too complex. Despite the challenges, this is superbly done.

June 17, 2016 (permalink)


This is a school story that doesn’t care about school or use school to any particular end beyond its unforgettable line: “for anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.” Even that is asserted, not argued. I suspect that this burlesque of the modern workplace carried a lot more punch in 1928, and though generations of screwball comedy have dulled its edge, this remains a pleasant romp.

June 1, 2016 (permalink)


I sought out this dual biography because I want to know how it came to pass that a gay man was in charge of such a large part of World War II, and how people managed with that. Montgomery’s homosexuality is something I’d always assumed was understood. It turns out to be a myth – at least, Caddice-Adams dismisses the notion when we finally get there, some 500 pages into the work. (I assume that I got this impression, for better or worse, from my mother. She knew a lot, and in the late 40s and early 50s she had interesting sources. She had no question at all, for example, that Eisenhower had an affair with Kay Summersby. Biographers now dismiss this, and I have know idea whether my mother knew this as an emotional truth or because someone told her, and for Mom that could have been anyone from the grocer to Summersby.)

Anyway, Montgomery was an interesting fellow who was so good at putting up a façade that he leaves his biographer with rather little to work with: there’s plenty of incident and lots of photo opportunities but not a lot of character. Perhaps Caddice-Adams’ best moment is at Normandy when he points out that, for the first day, the majority of the troops in France were British. It was the end of a long era: Britain’s last day as a superpower.

This book spends a lot of time on strategy and tactics, but doesn’t quite pin down whether Montgomery’s famous caution was a sensible response to his manpower problems, to the memory of the trenches, or to the complex political climate he inhabited. I wish, too, that I knew what Montgomery thought of Macarthur – not only in the Pacific War, but even more in Korea. Montgomery had his problems with Churchill (and separately with Clementine Churchill); I wonder what he made of the “old soldiers never die” speech.

June 2, 2016 (permalink)


A huge and brilliant volume, tightly focused on a fascinating and witty statesman and his inner circle. Manchester was a captivating writer, and when a stroke prevented him from finishing the work, Reid stepped in and ably emulated Manchester’s skill at working detail into a compelling narrative. It’s a big book – 1200 pages, or 53 hours in Clive Chafer’s able reading – but it always moves right along.

Churchill seldom bought anything and carried no money; people did that for him, even though he was not rich until his war memoirs made him so. He only took the tube one time in his ninety year life, most of it spent in London. He was often hilarious and always eloquent, and he managed to stuff a hell of a lot of work into a day.

May 27, 2016 (permalink)


Having revisited “Study In Pink”, the first episode of the Gattis & Moffat television series, I realized that I had not read A Study In Scarlet in a long time – perhaps not since high school. It’s an interesting mystery, introducing its unforgettable characters while offering fine in handling London. Conan Doyle is so adept at establishing the time and technology that the reader forgets this was not meant to be historical fiction. The long backstory in early Mormon Utah shows Conan Doyle’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses; it’s conventional melodrama, it’s sometimes stale and sometimes predictable, but it also keeps moving and gets us where we need to go.

It must have been something to meet Sherlock in the pages of The Strand, not knowing that this was going to be the Sherlock Holmes.

May 27, 2016 (permalink)


A fascinating and anecdotal account of the structure shared by many successful American musicals. Viertel draws on a vast range of theater but returns, time and again, to an interesting set: Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Carousel, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, and My Fair Lady. It’s fascinating to see how what seems to be a very rigid and specific form like the Bench Song -- the conditional love song that follows the rollicking number known as The Noise – shows up all over the place. Viertel believes that small changes in the placement or tempo of songs can make all the difference, and provides plenty of anecdotes about good shows and bad and how they came to be structured the way they are.

April 11, 2016 (permalink)


Filling holes, it’s easy to see why Austen is so widely beloved, and why Mansfield Park inspires admiration. Still, the conclusion is forcibly sentimental and it’s hard to understand why staging a comedy should threaten the ruin of a family’s reputation, especially when all the neighbors are taking part.

June 24, 2016 (permalink)


Howards End
E. M. Forster

Six years ago, I wrote:

Dearest Meg,
It isn’t going to be what we expected.

What a fine way to start a story. And what a fine story! It makes an interesting pairing with Galsworthy; The Man Of Property was published in 1906, four years before Howards End.

Visiting the lovely house of an English friend reminded me of Howards End; even if they don’t have a mystic wych-elm, their garden is long and lovely.

This is also an oddly unsentimental book, considering that it’s literally about sentiment, and it’s also oddly uninterested in men, considering that it’s the work of a gay man. There’s a lot going on here, in a quiet way, that repays rereading.

April 4, 2016 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Posession
A. S. Byatt

Dolly keeps a secret

Safer than a Friend

Dolly's silent sympathy

Lasts without end.

A fun book to reread while visiting a English friends far too long neglected. Yes, perhaps the scholarship does come too easily, but then again it’s that kind of book.

April 4, 2016 (permalink)


This fascinating novel of ideas begins in a cemetery where Strulovitch, a man of some importance, recognizes an even more notable banker. Shylock is sitting on a stool, reading Portnoy’s Complaint to his late wife.

Strulovitch invites Shylock home for a visit. Shylock, he knows, is a divisive figure: “No two people feel the same about him. Even those who unreservedly despise him, despise him with different degrees of unreservation.”

It turns out that Strulovitch and Shylock share a long history of trouble with their daughters. It’s not the ducats that Shylock minds, it’s the daughter. And it’s not so much losing the daughter as that goddamn monkey. More pressingly, Strulovitch’s sixteen-year-old Beatrice has run off to Venice with a football player who has a thing for very young Jewesses.

They have troubles to talk about, these two aging Jewish intellectuals. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Our greatest weakness as Jews is forever to be thinking the worst of ourselves.”This is part of The Hogarth Shakespeare, a series of commissioned novels that revisit Shakespearean plots. Impending treats include Margaret Atwood’s Tempest, Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth.

Shylock Is My Name takes its questions seriously. Shall we not revenge? Why not? The quality of mercy, after all, has always been strained.

They walked the rest of the short distance to Strulovitch’s hearse-like black Mercedes in silence.

“Ah! I’m surprised,” Shylock commented when he saw it. A black chauffeur was holding the door open for them. Strulovitch handed him Shylock’s Glyndebourne stool. “In the boot, Brendan,” he said.

To Shylock he said, “Surprised by what? That I have a driver?”

“That you have a German car.”

“I thought you believe we have to draw a line.”

“That’s another sort of line.”

“A line’s a line. We must let bygones be bygones.”

“I’m surprised you believe that.”

“I don’t.”

March 20, 2016 (permalink)


Miami Blues
Charles Willeford

A Dirda-recommended mystery from the 1980s and one of the most influential mysteries of its era. Hoke Mosely is not, perhaps, an ideal cop. He’s tough and smart, but only within limits. He’s not Raymond Chandler’s man who must walk down these mean streets alone, and he’s up against a casual psychopath who is, for the time being, out of prison and who takes life as he finds it – and then helps himself to whatever he can grab.

Fascinating introduction by Elmore Leonard who notes, correctly, that Willeford and he are working on the same thing.

March 16, 2016 (permalink)


The Gate Of Angels
Penelople Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald visits David Lodge territory and returns in triumph. It’s 1912, and Fred Fairly, promising young Cambridge scientist and junior fellow, has crashed his bicycle. He wakes up in bed beside a strapping young woman, Daisy Saunders. Naturally, Fred’s college is the last holdout at Cambridge to insist that all its fellows remain celibate, and naturally Fred falls immediately in love. A very good time is had by all.

March 12, 2016 (permalink)


Edward Burne-Jones
Penelople Fitzgerald

A TLS retrospective review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work mention this, her first book, a few years back. I couldn’t find a copy. Now it’s back in print, and it’s a lot of fun. Of a period in which Burne-Jones was madly in love with his model (who was married, and who had wealth and influence of her own) and William Morris’s wife was in love with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she remarks:

The fact that Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti could live through these days and months and maintain such a convincing everyday life will only seem strange to those who's marriage has experienced no crisis.

Later, of the Aesthetes, she explains that

The Aesthetic movement, like all movement led not by artists but their followers, would first dilute, then copy, then exaggerate, then become ridiculous, then grow out of date.

It’s fascinating to me the William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones went off to Oxford together, already friends, expecting to become ministers and, someday, bishops. At Oxford, they recognized that their lack of belief made this career choice difficult, and so they took up Art. It never seems to have occurred to either that they might not be good at art, that they might need talents or genius or that certain something. They just set to work.

March 8, 2016 (permalink)


A pleasant and thoughtful collection of short stories about love, mostly concerning people who are not married to each other.

March 3, 2016 (permalink)


A sensible and very moderate book, once considered radical but now filled with good and gentle sense. Du Bois is hard on Booker T. Washington, and the early placement of his essay on denouncing Washington is perhaps not ideal, yet it’s now clear that Du Bois’ vision is the one that prevailed. The audiobook is narrated by Mirron Willis in a cadence that we can now say recalls the best speeches of our president; Du Bois would not have been astonished.

February 29, 2016 (permalink)


A skillful and effective reflection on fighter pilots in the era of the Korean War specifically, and on the tribulations of a thoughtful, adult soldier who finds himself surrounded by pilots who are often childish, greedy, and unthinking.

February 25, 2016 (permalink)


A superbly handled school mystery that ably captures the weirdness of adolescent society. A boy from a nearby school was killed last year, with a hoe, in the grounds of an adjacent girl’s boarding school. Circumstances limit the suspects to eight girls – two sets of four roommates. The two sets detest each other, everyone dislikes the nuns who run the place, the investigating police officers neither like nor trust each other.

Formally, this is only barely a mystery (but, then, neither is The Maltese Falcon), and to the extent that it is a mystery, it suffers from the multitude of plausible suspects. There’s a solution, but it scarcely matters; many of the alternate suspects could have been made to turn out to be the culprit. But we don’t care about that: what we see here, and what’s done with wonderful skill, is the way everyone (including the two investigating officers) manages, in the end, to grow up.

February 19, 2016 (permalink)


A collection of Hunter Thompson’s famous articles, mixed together with correspondence and editorial reminiscence. The man could write. When these were first coming out, I couldn’t work my way around the persona, and I couldn’t quite believe the persona. Today, in Trump’s World, the fear and loathing seem perfectly sensible.

February 10, 2016 (permalink)


This haunting tale of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a condemned murderer in 1829 Iceland, was much-discussed at Readercon. Kent does a wonderful job of world-building, crafting rural Iceland’s remote and cloistered society with effortless skill that recalls the first impact of Wolf Hall. This is a world where medieval horror still lurks on every doorstep, where the nearest neighbor is too distant to save you in case of fire or sudden snow, where letting the fire go out may well be a fatal error, a place where condemned prisoners can be sent to rural farms to await execution because it’s cheaper than keeping them in a jail that doesn’t exist because there’s not much call for one and, even if the prisoners ran, they’d just freeze or starve.

February 3, 2016 (permalink)


Counterattack
W. E. B. Greffin

Linda might be lecturing about some topics in World War 2, and I took that as an excuse to get this old and guilty pleasure down from the shelf. Griffin writes the same books over and over, but he does a nice job of capturing memorable characters and of bringing the Hollywood fantasy of the world war back into realism without casting doubt on apple pie and all the rest.

February 1, 2016 (permalink)


After Alice
Gregory Maguire

Alice is missing.

This is not headline news. Alice is often missing. She is missing, that is to say, when not underfoot, and when Alice is not underfoot, she is generally missing. Her parents are in the habit of sending her upstairs to play, or out to play, in the custody of her cat Dinah or of her elder sister Lydia or perhaps with the neighboring vicar’s girl, poor malformed Ada Boyce. It is particularly desirable that Alice not be underfoot today, because today Papa has a visitor: the famous heretic Darwin, a distant relative, come despite his feeble health to offer belated condolences after the death of Mama.

No one is certain just where Alice is. Soon, a number of the Oxford youngsters are even more unsure than her governess, for they have found themselves in a place peopled with white rabbits and tartless queens where one side of a door says KEEP OUT and the opposite side says OUT KEEP and where the best advice is not to take any advice at all.

January 18, 2016 (permalink)


Recommended by Michael Dirda (Browsings), who in turn got it from Thomas M. Disch. Walter Tevis wrote The Hustler, and The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Color Of Money. This is a nifty book, too.

I’d never heard of Tevis.

Beth Harmon is an orphan, tossed into a ghastly orphanage where they feed the children narcotics to keep them docile. On the sly, she learns to play chess from the taciturn janitor. She turns out to be very good at chess, though she’s not particularly good at resisting narcotics and alcohol. Tevis does a wonderful job of sketching the characters of Harmon’s opponents – people who, in the nature of things, the book must rapidly leave behind – through their varied reactions to being defeated, unthinkably, by a young woman. That the author of The Hustler would be good at depicting losers is unsurprising, I suppose, but he’s really good.

January 12, 2016 (permalink)


This is a charmingly serious novel about serious category errors. Our protagonist, when young, was called a “thespian” in a school quarrel, and in consequence joined the drama club. There, the cool kids told her that she wasn’t a thespian; she was a lesbian. OK: the goes to the nearby Virginia women’s college that is famous for its lesbians, and immediately winds up in an affair with one of the school’s few male professors. We’re only getting started; we have gay men who aren’t gay, black children with ivory skin, black-skinned children who are white, people with Old Money who have no money, poor people who have plenty of cash but dare not spend it, lawless law enforcement, and cocaine that isn’t cocaine. This could be slapstick, but isn’t. A smaller book than Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, but touching lightly on many of the same problems.

January 8, 2016 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Purity
Jonathan Franzen

A fascinating, contemporary Dickensian braided novel, replete with symbolic character names: Purity Tyler, Andreas Wolf, and Tom Aberant. They’re all very serious, very young, and deeply interested in being right – in being pure. When we meet Purity – who people call Pip – she’s trying to break up her roommate’s marriage, for the best of motives. Andreas Wolf lives in a Berlin church basement under the shadow of the Stasi; he counsels girls and takes them to bed until he meets one who is supremely pretty and who can’t sleep with him because she has an evil stepfather. Later, Wolf becomes an internet rock star and world-famous reformer. Aberant is a journalist who falls hard for Wolf and who knows where the bodies are buried. Purity is huge, convoluted, sometimes schematic, and often hammers home and countersets observations of annoying people that might have been less annoying to the reader if they had been touched on more lightly. Still, an intriguing group portrait with an entertaining look at the absurdity of life in the GDR.

December 28, 2015 (permalink)


Even the uprising of Boudicca in Britain in 60CE fits this pattern. Boudicca, or Buduica (we do not know exactly how to spell her name, but neither, presumably, did she) …

The hardcover edition weighs in at 536 pages plus end matter, yet reviewers consistently praise this history as concise. They have a point: the book often feels compressed. For example, we move directly from Augustus to Caligula, with scarcely a word for Tiberius. Earlier, Marius appears only as a minor pendant to Sulla’s revolution. Beard’s relaxed and accessible style gives the concise account a good deal of momentum, to be sure, but I’m not entirely sure I understand how a book this large can seem so small.

A quiet premise of this treatment is that the Romans anticipated modernity in a way not often noted. We all know that Roman towns had one-way streets and Roman bars had three shelves of liquor with the best stuff on the top shelf, but Beard makes the implicit argument that the End Of History has happened before, and that it essentially ended (or was paused) from Augustus through Septimius Severus. The first half of the book is History – a story of arms and men that ends in the Augustan settlement. After that, in Beard’s view our sources become gossipy because gossip was all there was. Beard doesn’t work to recover the political program or ideological goals behind Caligula’s quarrel with the military or Nero’s populism; she doesn’t really think there’s a story there at all. History was over, and only calamity would start it up again.

I think I first covered this period with Thomas Mitchell reading H. H. Scullard, and I’m tempted now to reread Scullard for comparison. Or perhaps to get Gibbon off the office shelf. Oh dear.

December 15, 2015 (permalink)


In 1963 or so, Barbara decided to enter the Miss Blackpool beauty contest on a whim. She has won, and faces a year of opening stores and parking lots. Barbara doesn’t want to be Miss Blackpool: she wants to be the Lucy of I Love Lucy. So, she resigns the honor and catches a train to London, where she sells perfumes.

If this sounds like the setup for a 30-minute sitcom, you’re catching on.

One thing leads to another, as things do. Eventually, she meets two gay writers who have pitched a series about Modern Marriage to the BBC. They succeed. One thing leads to another. A jolly good time for everyone: Hornby has a voice, it's a terrific voice, and this is all a ton of fun.

November 27, 2015 (permalink)


Lolita
Vladimir Nabokov

Linda’s been reading Proust, and Michael Dirda extolled Jeremy Irons’ reading of the audiobook, so Lolita has been accompanying me in the car for the last few weeks. I’ve started the book any number of times, dating back to high school; this time I made it through.

Time has changed Lolita. It’s clear that, in 1955, this was meant to shock: now, it’s disturbing, but not a lot more disturbing than any number of contemporary mysteries. Formally, this is a thriller; it might actually be more difficult today to get literary recognition for the thriller than it was when On The Road was still two years into the future.

November 27, 2015 (permalink)


Queen Lucia
E. F. Bension

A very strange book about the social life of a provincial British town between the wars, and the bitter contest between Lucia Lucas and Daisy Quantock for social preeminence. The arrival of an opera singer, a young woman of real accomplishment and genuine seriousness, throws the silly social life of Riseholme into confusion, and many parties are required before things work themselves out.

The events and attitudes depicted in this witty but unreal book would, in fact, be entirely real and far more interesting if translated to the environment of a contemporary middle school. Times change.

This was highly praised by Michael Dirda, and I picked it up in my search for a path to understand and really enjoy Wodehouse. It's pleasant enough, but it looks like I need a different path.

November 18, 2015 (permalink)


Angelmaker
Nick Harkaway

Joe Spork is a mild and middle-aged restorer of Victorian clockwork. His father was a criminal mastermind, and his grandfather was a legendary clockmaker. An old lady hires him to fix some toys; a somewhat shady friend puts him onto a strange and inscrutable automaton of doubtful purpose but immense sophistication.

Then the old lady is nearly the victim of an assassination attempt, and she turns out to be a retired but still very capable secret agent – Emma Peel in her late 80s. Our friend is murdered, Joe Spork is framed, and we’re off to the races.

Nice writing, nifty plotting, intricate world-building. What else could you wish for? As in The Gone-Away World, everything hinges on a super-villain, and while the nemesis is not quite as undeveloped as he was in Harkaway’s previous novel, Shem Shem Tsien is a bit too awful. Still, the uprising of all London’s thieves for one last glorious battle is a thing to behold.

November 10, 2015 (permalink)


A delightful collection of a year’s worth of brief notes about reading by a consummate bookman, originally written as a weekly Web column for The American Scholar. Dirda’s embrace of forgotten writers and, especially, old plot-driven adventures is instructive, and his central concerns – where to put all these book? how on earth to pay for them? – are refreshingly familiar. Dirda arranges his future reading by project, with piles and cartons of books all set for the day when some long-awaited project begins; makes sense to me!

November 5, 2015 (permalink)


A dazzling and delightful book about a world gone wrong. In the present, we’re part of a freelance, world-saving mercenary company that’s driving hell-for-leather through bizarre dangers to extinguish an industrial conflagration that imperils the world. In the past, we’re an orphan who is adopted by a cool older brother named Gonzo and who is taken into a strange California suburban dojo, the Order Of The Silent Dragon. We always know these threads will merge, but the actual terms of the merger are metaphysically unexpected and unexpectedly metaphysical.

Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and acknowledges Balzac, Dumas, and Conan Doyle as influences. I think this book may be overlong, but it’s very well written.

October 30, 2015 (permalink)


“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” That’s the beginning of this fascinating new novel, a mysterious story that is not a mystery.

How well do we really know anyone? After her body is found in the nearby suburban lake, Lydia’s mother takes refuge in the room of her 11th-grade daughter. She sees the row of diaries on the bottom bookshelf, the diaries that have been her annual Christmas present, ever since Lydia was five years old. She does the unthinkable and pries open the lock of Lydia’s last diary.

It is blank. They all are blank. Lydia’s diaries have been a family ritual for more than a decade, and she has never written a single word.

This is a tragedy, a delicate construction of small lies and casual misunderstandings that cause spreading disaster, a disaster that seemingly could be averted at any moment but that no one can stop.

October 13, 2015 (permalink)


We’ve been thinking about electronic books, and what comes after them, for decades. We’ve got lots of important (albeit difficult) thinking about the nature and practice of reading – Barthes, Derrida, Bolter, Landow, and much else. We’ve got lots of invaluable research on actual reading practice with actual ebooks, much of it capably reviewed by Cathy Marshall in her Reading And Writing The Electronic Book. Little of this body of knowledge finds its way into this book, and the book provides almost no guidance to those hoping to learn more than it contains.

Peter Meyer loves books, but when he talks about the sorts of books he reads, his interests do not seem notably broad -- memoir, thrillers, history of science, anthropology, cookbooks -- and his reading style apparently relies heavily on skimming. He’s an inspiring graphic designer and some of his ideas for implementing graphical tables of contents and overviews – a concept introduced in Intermedia (van Dam, Meyrowitz, Yankelovoch, Landow) back in the mid-1980s -- look great. He’s big on reader’s dashboards; on the one hand, his dashboards look nicer than the sort of thing people have been doing in Tinderbox for the past decade, but then, those Tinderbox dashboards actually work.

In one chapter, Meyer (rightly) eviscerates the design of front matter in the eBook implementation of the elegant Maine Summers Cookbook. What he overlooks is the purpose of the elegant design in the print edition. That purpose, simply, is to sell the book, to coax the shopper in the bookstore to plunk down $30. If matching the blue of the endpaper to the blue of the table of contents convinces the reader that “care has been taken here, and the authors, like you, have sophisticated good taste,” then that helps achieve the goal. Ebooks aren’t sold in stores, they don’t have to compete for attention on the shelf, and by the time the reader is browsing through an ebook, the sale is pretty much made: they’re kicking the tires or checking their wallets. Design serves a purpose, the purpose of cookbook design is to sell the book, and for ebooks that purpose is best addressed on the Web page, not between the virtual covers.

Meyer adores Christoph Niemann’s Petting Zoo. So do I. I doubt it's a model for the future of books, though there’s a trace of Petting Zoo in The Sailor’s Dream. This leads to a focus on books for young children, books with sound tracks, books that have something

even greater than these individual bleeps and warbles. How the app’s sounds – its action-specific effects, its ambient background – feel integrated with the visual composition are key to the pleasure it delivers.

If I follow this – a misfortune has happened to this sentence, but we can make allowances – this is orthodox McLuhan, except McLuhan would have noticed that we’ve stopped talking about a book and begun to talk about a visual composition with a sound track, which may be a very good thing indeed, but whatever it is, it’s not going to be teaching you about partial differential equations. Julian Opie’s moving electronic portraits are fascinating, but they’re not books.

“I choose books in a fairly pell-mell fashion,” Meyer explains. I can imagine people – Nick Hornby, say, or Michael Dirda – choosing books in a way that recalls a bustling upscale thoroughfare, but I think Meyer really means “haphazard” or “helter-skelter”. “Fairly” doesn’t buy us anything, and “fashion” isn’t quite right, either. “I buy a lot of books” might have served.

Meyer isn’t particularly interested in links. I am. That’s a disappointment. The disinterest isn’t argued or discussed, so there’s not much to say.

This is a crippled book, a book whose author has compressed and simplified ideas until they are nearly unrecognizable. Some of the ideas are interesting, though like the Reader’s Dashboard we might learn more by building and using the thing than by merely talking about it. Some ideas are small and esoteric: yes, front-matter in eBooks is a mess, but the people who can do something about that are a small professional fraternity; there’s not much point in complaining to us, especially not when you’re a publishing consultant and you can complain to the people in a position to address the problem.

Many ideas in Breaking The Page will be familiar to people who know the literature. The literature isn’t always accessible and integrative reviews are always very welcome, but it would help to know where things come from and -- more important still -- to engage previous writers rather than simply erasing them. Instead of mixing McLuhan with some warmed-over Bolter, why not roll up your sleeves, show us what the master said, and show us why the master was wrong?

October 2, 2015 (permalink)


I began this writer’s handbook years ago, stalled, and it’s been somewhere in my stack ever since. I saw a nice used copy at Herridge’s Books in Wellfleet – a very pleasant and intelligently-stocked store, incidentally – and this time saw my way through. There is good advice here, and some very fine writing, and Lamott’s humor makes her good company.

Bird by Bird describes a path to a good book, but I’m not convinced it’s the broad way. A career of work that might reach the pinnacle of publication, but whose rewards must even then be merely the work itself because, after all, how many published books get any notice: is that really the best literary world for which we can hope?

September 29, 2015 (permalink)


Long-overdue homework for last July’s Readercon. Tiffany Aching is twelve, a young witch whom the local pictsies have adopted. They are the Nac Mac Feeble, a rambunctious crew who are fond of strong liquor and who can get into and out of anything – except they do have trouble getting out of a pub.

Was Terry Pratchett the P. G. Wodehouse of our era? I’ve never quite warmed to Pratchett as intensely as most, but then I find Jeeves cracks the occasional smile and the very occasional guffaw but mostly leaves me scratching my head. There’s lots here that is schematic, sentimental, mawkish, or simply silly, but it’s presented with such a charming a lovely voice that it scarcely matters.

September 27, 2015 (permalink)


The Watch
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

Antigone in Afghanistan, part of a planned cycle that will include novels based on Seven Against Thebes and Ajax. Skillful and showy writing tease out the many strands of conflict outside a US Army outpost in Kandahar province, where a legless but determined young woman has come to bury the body of her slain brother.

The Watch appears to be the most highly-regarded story of our recent wars, and one of the few stories that do not chiefly concern the tribulations of the damaged soldier returned from battle. It’s well done, if somewhat schematic; the prequel based on Seven Against Thebes will be interesting. (Eteocles is Lt. Nick Frobenius, a Vassar graduate who has let his wife slip away and who carries a copy of Antigone through Kandahar province.)

Still, at this point after WW2 we had The Naked And The Dead and The Caine Mutiny and From Here to Eternity.

September 24, 2015 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Just when my bookstack seems completely insupportable – as it threatens to collapse entirely in a thunderous clatter causing further damage to the joists and unexpected medical bills – Michael Dirda suggests a volume of letters by two writers I have not (yet) read. Naturally, I order this volume immediately, forcing the Kipling back onto the queue. This means that, at the moment, I am reading (and enjoying) give books at once. Is this any way to live, I ask you?

I’m a sucker for reading volumes of letters. So is Dirda: he’s the only fellow I know who reliably writes about letters, and he led me to the Mitford-Waugh correspondence which is absolutely first class.

Salter and Phelps were two talented writers who happened to meet, in passing almost, in New York. They hit it off. Phelps lived mostly in New York, Salter in Aspen before it was quite Aspen. These are good, companionable letters, not filled with advice like Shaw’s or with gossip like Mitford’s, but they’re fun to read.

September 22, 2015 (permalink)


A delightful collection of a year’s worth of brief notes about reading by a consummate bookman, originally written as a weekly Web column for The American Scholar. Dirda’s embrace of forgotten writers and, especially, old plot-driven adventures is instructive, and his central concerns – where to put all these book? how on earth to pay for them? – are refreshingly familiar. I was particularly interested in the way Dirda arranges his future reading by project, with piles and cartons of books all set for the day when some long-awaited project begins.

September 21, 2015 (permalink)


This short ebook by Micah Joel opens on Matheson Station, orbiting high above an earth where Wall Street now trades probability flows. There, a recently-deceased industrial titan is just entering the next life. “He wasn’t sure what to expect. The wood cannot see the ashes. Above him, a tiny porthole ringed the blackness of space. ‘Oh, wow,’ he said.”

Steve Jobs is back, and he’s got to put together a product team. He’s got Ada Lovelace to do software. He’s got Bill Shockley to do hardware. He’s got a deadline, too, because the world economy is going to collapse. Good fun is had in this series opener: Jobs is superbly drawn and Shockley is pretty good, too. Ada is, at this point at least, a bit of a problem: just how is a Victorian countess supposed to relate to her manager when her manager is Steve Jobs? Remember, Ada is old enough to be Violet Crawley’s grandmother, and on the whole it might have been easier to reach for Admiral Hopper or NASA’s Margaret Hamilton. Still, the opportunity to have Byron’s daughter on a space station must be hard to resist.

September 16, 2015 (permalink)


A Desert Drama
Arthur Conan Doyle

In a book ripped from the headlines. a group of tourists – a recent Smith graduate and her aunt, a Wall Street attorney, a retired British Special Forces colonel, a Frenchman of means – are enjoying a package tour of the Nile when Moslem extremists swoop down, capture them, and threaten to behead any who do not embrace Islam. Published in 1897, originally as The Tragedy of the Korosko, and recommended tangentially in one of the Michael Dirda collections I’ve been enjoying lately this month. One sometimes wishes the characters had a little more space, and that we had a little more intimacy with them, and that they had a few more ideas and a lot less racism. Still, it’s a rollicking time.

September 13, 2015 (permalink)


Everybody Rise
Stephanie Clifford

A wicked satire of social media marketing, as a Evelyn Beegan, a young and underqualified ex-preppie, is hired as director of recruitment by a Facebook clone for the ultra-elite, “People Like Us.” This is in many ways this is an odd and antiquated book, centered on a marriage plot and fixated on Old Money in New York; the book knows it – one character excoriates Evelyn for chasing a social scene out of Edith Wharton – but doesn’t know what to do with its own knowledge. Evelyn desperately wants to shed her upper-middle-class Baltimore background to be accepted by people who have inherited Camps in the Adirondacks and Cottages at Newport, to run with the bright young things who are the children of the Ladies Who Lunch. In that frantic pursuit, she loses herself, becomes a monster, and then (perhaps) finds a future of sorts.

It’s 2008, the bubble is about to burst, and those bright young things are all in banks and hedge funds: change is in the air but nothing really changes.

September 12, 2015 (permalink)


Kipling’s two science fiction stories, from 1905 and 1912, concerning the year 2000 and the development of a planetary government out of the necessity for an international air traffic control system. The first, “With The Night Mail,” is brilliant fun: a lowbrow magazine feature in which our intrepid reporter journeys with the new dirigible express from London to Quebec, interviewing captains and engineers, experiencing terrifying air storms, witnessing arcane engineering. The story wraps up with all sorts of terrific fake ads from a hobby magazine of the far future – 2000 AD! The later “Easy as A. B. C.” is a story of world-government as seen by a crank, a vision of the future where the leading problem is Kipling’s personal headache: people keep bothering him. The afterword by Bruce Sterling is nearly worth the price of admission.

September 12, 2015 (permalink)


John Buchan’s classic thriller begins when young and wealthy Colonial miner Richard Hannay, a man about London, comes home to his Picaddilly flat to meet a terrified neighbor who says that he is a dead man. The neighbor tells Hannay a convincing story of espionage – it’s 1912 – and Hannay gives him refuge. The next day, the visitor is murdered and Hannay, framed, is on the run. A classic.

September 2, 2015 (permalink)


A fresh visit to this popular and influential military SF tale, which refracts Haldeman’s experience of Vietnam through an Iowa MFA and also through Starship Troopers. Haldeman, in turn, is clearly the touchstone for such later work as Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and perhaps for Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Beyond his adventure-filled but unjingoistic use of combat to drive the narrative, Haldeman’s story of the soldier’s progressive alienation from mankind – by the time he comes back, everyone has changed and the world for which he was fighting is a strange and alien place – anticipate’s Stross’s singularity stories and also anticipates what has become the mainstream narrative form of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

August 31, 2015 (permalink)


Stylish, well-written, and engaging, this modest book explores ten songs that shaped or reshaped Rock – often through reinterpretation over many years. One chapter, for example, looks at the saccharine “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, recorded in 1958 by The Teddy Bears and written by their tenor, a very young Phil Spector. The song was completely transformed in 2006 by Amy Winehouse. (Another version.)

When Amy Winehouse sang hit in 2006, her music curled around Spector’s, his curled around her, until she found her way back to the beginning of his career, and redeemed it. Whether he has every heard what she did with his music, or whether she ever heard what he thought of what she did, are unanswered questions. He isn’t talking; she can’t.

August 22, 2015 (permalink)


The cover explains that this graphic novel concerns “yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old orthodox Jewish girl,” and it is not wrong. Hayao Miyazaki meets small-town upstate New York, where Mirka deals with the great decisions of school life (one open button at the uniform collar? two?) and a monstrous magic house in the nearby forest whose ghostly occupant has a terrifying pet monster: a pig.

August 18, 2015 (permalink)


Lush Life
Richard Price

A drunk writer who moonlights as a bartender startles his inept and inexperienced mugger; the kid flinches, the bartender falls dead, and it’s another night in the Lower East Side. The eyewitnesses turn out to be idiots who foul everything up, the police interrogation gets the wrong guy, the brass interfere, and soon the case is hopeless. The main characters are pretty hopeless as well, as nearly everyone stews in mild self-loathing. Price writes nearly everything as an interrogation; for these characters, few of whom are likable, even internal dialog is adversarial. The conceit works well while also showing us just how much is actually happening. The book, like its gentrified tenements and its Projects, is bursting with characters who are going about their business and who just happen, for a time, to cross paths with the police. Some are going upstate, some are going to make it, some are going to hell in a bucket, and some are going to Jersey: they're all going places, and almost all of them have something going.

August 5, 2015 (permalink)


Karen Memory
Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear sets out to write a steampunk western, and like her spunky protagonist she’s not going to get shortchanged. We’ve got transformers and airships and submersibles. We’ve got former slaves turned federal marshal, wild Cheyennes with impeccable courtesy, feminist sex workers, a madame who can cuss for England, and a human trafficker with a license for Mad Science. We’ve got some particularly well-observed and affectionate writing about saddle horses. A city and a country are literally rising up from the muck, and it’s not always a pretty process.

August 3, 2015 (permalink)


Emma Larkin travels through Burma, talking to lots of people and viewing the country through the prism of Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984. It’s a lively and well-constructed book, and if there’s not much new to say about life under The Generals, that’s unsurprising: lots of writers, including Orwell, crafted an idiom of twentieth century totalitarianism that is very much with us today, so much so that it’s hard to see a very different way to write about it. I do wish we had fresher insight into either Orwell or his novels: I haven’t read them in years, but nothing here surprised me enough to find them again on my shelves. I wish I knew more about those who do quietly support the military regime, but their story must be even harder to uncover than that of the courageous dissident movement.

August 3, 2015 (permalink)


Trafalgar meets the Battle of Britain as a Napoleonic-era British frigate captures a French ship bearing a valuable dragon egg. Britain’s Aerial Corps has been sadly depleted and, if air superiority is lost over the channel, Napoleon will be able to drive the Navy from the sea and ferry his invasion to Dover. It’s Jack Aubrey in Pern, and it’s a ton of fun.

July 30, 2015 (permalink)


The first in Tan’s series on Magic University – a hidden faculty at Harvard for the study of magic. Tan, a Readercon regular, writes erotica, and the central conceit of the series is David Mamet’s essay on his experience of college: “Sex Camp.” In Tan’s world, magicians generally have a very specific talent, a special proclivity that they discover in looking for their college major. Some are soothsayers, some healers, some conjure. Kyle Wadsworth, though he doesn’t know it when he arrives for his Harvard interview, is very good at sex.

One thing that surprised me is the clean simplicity and charm of the sex scenes. Romance writers have developed a ghastly stylization of the language to signal romantic intensity: one sure sign is the switch from talking about “his strength” to writing about “the strength of him.” Tan avoids this, and gets college twin-bed sex right while sparing my maiden blushes.

July 20, 2015 (permalink)


By the 12th century BC, late Bronze-Age civilization had climbed many technological summits. People had cities, trading fleets, and caravans. People had built tall towers, elaborate palaces, complex bureaucracies and smoke-filled taverns. People had pickles, onions – our word “shallot” comes from the Canaanite city Ashkelon – and sesame-seed buns: “sesame” in English is a loan-word from Akkadian.

But in 1177, give or take a few years, everything fell apart. Egypt, Mycenae, Knossos, Babylon, Hattusa, Ugarit, Troy: – just about everywhere you look, there are fires and wars and devastation and disaster. Centuries would pass with people telling stories about the age of heroes, the age before the end of Western civilization.

The cause of the disaster has been extensively discussed in recent decades, and Cline nicely summarizes what we know. A rash of earthquakes didn’t help at all. A shadowy group of warrior-migrants called the Sea Peoples caused plenty of havoc; it’s odd that we know so little about them, but then, we know shockingly little about the Huns and the Huns are 1,600 years closer to us. Ideology may well have played a role: people everywhere may have been getting tired of the whole business of palace culture, or merchant-adventurers (or pirates) may have cut into the profit margins that kept those palaces running. Climate change may have been a factor. Commodity shocks may have wrecked the economy; the entire word depended on one mine for weapons grade tin. There are signs of fiscal turmoil in Greece, where Mycenae played a pivotal role in international trade. The Sea Peoples might have been Greek or Italian. Perhaps the first Grexit brought down a multinational economy already weakened by climate change, ecological mistakes, financial shenanigans and social upheaval.

July 23, 2015 (permalink)


A postmodern post-apocalypse, a world in which civilization has slowly puttered to a stop. Our hero and heroine have fled slowly-rotting Los Angeles for a verdant strip of green somewhere in the Central Valley, a place they call “the afterlife” where they eek out a life in nearly total isolation. Back home, the cities are slowly collapsing into stagnation and decay, while everyone with money has retreated to gated “communities” behind fortified walls defended by private armies and threatened by marauding land pirates.

Cal and Frida have a shed in the woods, a subsistence garden, a few supplies, and each other. They’re young and loving and resourceful. They trust each other. Naturally, they have small secrets: who doesn’t? From those tiny, trivial secrets, fissures spread.

July 13, 2015 (permalink)


Newly revised and expanded edition of Lekson’s daring and irreverent manifesto which proposes a historical framework for the American Southwest. The traditional view of the Southwest before Spain has been scrupulous to avoid history: as Lekson says, “no states north of Mexico” has long been dogma. Lekson argues that Chaco (900-1100) was a state (or, more properly, an altepetl) with princes and palaces, that it first moved north to Aztec for a generation, and then jumped South all the way to Paquime/Casas Grandes. In the second edition, he extends the trip further, proposing that after Paquime fell, its elites relocated due South once more to establish Culiacán.

Strikingly, Aztec is almost exactly due north of Chaco, and Paquime and Culiacán are due south. They're the biggest and strangest sites of their time. The alignment is embarrassing, but it’s real, and it turns out that ancient travelers could in fact have surveyed the route this accurately.

There’s lots of interesting news in the fifteen years since the first edition. We now know what those weird, distinctive Chaco cylinder pots were for: they were for drinking cacao! We know because Crown and Hurst grabbed some fragments fresh out of the trash heap, ground up a thin layer of the interior, and ran the extract through a mass spec: theobromine — the stuff in chocolate! So those dudes at Bonito drank hot chocolate that was harvested somewhere in south-central Mexico and hand-carried, across mountains and deserts, for their ritual enjoyment. (This stuff must have cost far more than the most costly wine.)

Whether or not Paquime is Aztec relocated (or, perhaps, the faction of Chaco that couldn’t live with the guys going to Aztec one day more), it's now clear that the Southwest knew about, and participated in, Mesoamerica. Lekson is surely right, too, in thinking that they knew about Cahokia. Even if you have to carry every scrap of your food, and even without horses or carts, you can walk hundred of miles. Sacagawea wasn’t the first native American to take a long walk.

Lekson is an irreverent and radically informal writer, and among the great stylists of contemporary historical writing.

June 24, 2015 (permalink)


A well-paced and intriguing police procedural, winner of an Edgar Award and formally interesting because the narrator is an investigator but not the focus or, really, the protagonist. Rob Ryan of the Dublin Murder Squad investigates the body of a child murdered near his own childhood home; twenty years before when he was 12, Ryan had gone out to play in these very woods with two friends. Only Ryan came home from that adventure, he could not (and still cannot) remember what happened, and the police investigation went nowhere. The new investigation seems likely to follow the old case into the capacious storage racks beneath Dublin Castle.

June 21, 2015 (permalink)


Book Notes
 

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

Mira Grant continues her newshounds vs. zombie romp, picking up where Feed left off. Unfortunately, Feed left off with the death of its best character, teenage newsie Georgia Mason, and leaves us in first person with her haunted, daredevil brother Shaun. Not only is Shaun less attractive than his sister, but he is by design less involved, a slacker-daredevil who doesn’t care deeply about anything. Georgia was obsessed with getting the news out, and that gives us a lever for moving the world; Shaun is obsessed with the memory of his dead sister, and that’s a more slender reed.

But it’s enough: there’s something here, though we really have no idea at this point exactly what it is. Our gang of teenage newshounds is now running one of the world’s top news sites, an organization nearing open war with the CDC, that ruthless and powerful zombie-control agency. Our kids our rich and they’re restless and even if it might be the end of the world, they’ve got each other – in a sense, anyway.

June 1, 2015 (permalink)


A young lady of the rural gentry develops a certain passion for natural history, both of her native Scirland and most especially of dragons and their kin, creatures of remote lands. In time, she marries a tolerant young man of considerable means who shares a certain amateur interest in natural philosophy, and they join an expedition to a remote Balkan-like land where dragons may be found amidst colorful (if superstitious) villagers.

I’m not entirely sure that this story is best told in fantasy or whether, if we do want a fantasy, whether the setting chosen here – the technology seems to be last 18th century while manners are mid-19th and fashions later still – is ideal. Despite the dragons (and some nice archeological interludes) the world is not very strange.

May 30, 2015 (permalink)


The Whites
Richard Price (as Harry Brandt)

Cited by Joyce Carol Oates as carrying much of its narrative on the back of interrogation, this is a book with a ton of energy and buckets of interrogation. Police officers interrogate each other, interrogate their subordinates, interrogate their wives, and also interrogate suspects. An impressive feature here is the rich array of transient incident that drifts through the lives of police officers; ever night brings three or four fresh runs, each with its own random miseries.

May 29, 2015 (permalink)


Feed
Mira Grant

This 2010 series-starter and Hugo nominee is not without shortcomings. It’s another zombie apocalypse and, knowing itself late to that party, doesn’t always take its zombies seriously. It’s a power fantasy about preternaturally smart and capable teenage bloggers who are so competent that we usually forget they’re teenagers. The early chapters have barrels of exposition once we get past the stock James Bond opening chase, and minor characters are frequently reduced to their function, which leaves the world thin. The core technical problem of the YA quest – how do we get agency in the presence of parents? – is settled here by establishing a pair of (very interesting) parents and then failing to even think of them for weeks on end. Much of the science fiction – the world of 2040 where bloggers dominate new media news – was already coming true by the time the book was published, and our hero’s amazement at her sysadmin’s ability of spin up virtual servers as needed is terribly 2008. Finally, this is a book about politics, but its politicians are not very well drawn and their politics is indistinct; I can believe we’ll have viral zombification in 2040 but I’m really skeptical that we’ll have liberal Republicans.

There’s a lot of wish fulfillment here. In the future, not only are weblogs a dominant and profitable medium, but every A-List blog employs a department of “fictionals” to fill the audience’s demand for stories – and poetry! When our heroes need to hire a head fictional, they find a simpatico young blonde who happens to be a terrific sysadmin and who wants them to call her “Buffy”.

And yet, there really is something here. There’s a competent thriller eventually, sure, but beyond that there are vistas of real strangeness. These are children born after the end of the world. They expect to die, because that happens a lot in their world. They expect to do amazing things because they were brought up that way and that’s who they are. They don’t spend much time mourning the lost, zombie-free world. They’re out to ride fast bikes, fight off zombie attacks, buy cool equipment, and manage their site’s chat boards and merchandising. They do that well, and, in the intervals, they get out the news, poetry on deadline.

May 20, 2015 (permalink)


An accomplished and skillfully-written prep school story that takes its characters seriously. The students here are not so much young as simply inexperienced: they know a lot, they have strong opinions and determined characters and they are not fools, but they haven’t done any of this before. Bruce Bennet-Jones, the unreliable and unpleasant narrator, looks on as his classmate Seung Jung wins the love of the girl Bennet-Jones cannot possess, the new girl in school, Chicagoan Aviva Rossner. Fascinating, strange, and serious.

May 4, 2015 (permalink)


An eerily modern Pilgrim’s Progress in which a plain 15-year-old girl is dragged along on a family car trip, starting from their sourly-sweet Alabama home and heading for Oakland, California where, in five days, the Rapture will commence. Dad has lost his job, though the two girls aren’t supposed to know that. Mom has pretty much lost whatever affection she had for Dad, though the two girl’s aren’t supposed to know that, either. Elise, seventeen and beautiful, is pregnant, though Mom and Dad aren’t supposed to know that. And the narrator, Jess Metcalf, has pretty much concluded that it’s all a crock: beauty, true love, goodness, Jesus, fast food, all of it. She learns a lot on the road, but never loses a certain clarity of vision.

Why hadn’t he texted me? I hoped he didn’t think I was just some girl who had given him a handjob in the back of his van. I was, of course, but I couldn’t think of myself that way, and couldn’t think of him thinking of me that way, either.

Then again, fast food is pretty good.

April 30, 2015 (permalink)


Badass is the logical culmination of the contemporary business book: a PowerPoint deck on paper. It’s a very good deck; Sierra is first and foremost a speaker.

Sierra’s insight here – and it’s a important – is that the whole point of technology marketing is to make users awesome, which means giving them tools to do great stuff, leading them toward using those tools well, and then getting out of the way. This is music to my ears, of course, since Tinderbox users are pretty much the definition of “badass” and “awesome” and each day’s Tinderbox support queue tends to be filled with a remarkable array of talented writers, journalists, scientists, and scholars. (Lots of musicians, too: I’m honestly not sure why.)

One insightful example explores camera documentation. On the one hand, manufacturers tend to explain how to use this camera. But purchasers don’t care about that. They want to know how to take great pictures – better pictures than they could take with their old camera. That’s a useful framing for lots of technical marketing problems, and a very intriguing guide to improving sales, support, and training.

The later sections of the book discuss strategies for help users become “badass” before they give up and abandon your product. Many of the strategies are heuristically sound, but Sierra presents them as necessary cognitive truths. This leads to an unfortunate rhetoric where we’re consistently cajoling or deceiving our user’s brain in order to help the user; instead of making users awesome, we’re manipulating them for their own good. Sierra embraces the weirdness heartily and underlines it on page after page with a series of brain icons – for example, a brain with a faucet symbolizes “distraction”.

Actual cognitive arguments – arguments about how the brain actually accomplishes something – require more than intuitive plausibility and an experiment or two. We just don’t understand brains very well, they often work in ways that aren’t intuitively obvious, and it turns out that we’re not particularly good at thinking about our thinking. In a talk, this hand-waving might be more effective, but paper provides leisure to poke holes. In the end, we aren’t trying to solve the problem of the mind right now, we’re just trying to sell some stuff! The conclusion much of this reaches is the desirability of focusing training on skills and concepts that are immediately necessary and clearly rewarding; that conclusion doesn’t need any cognitive science at all.

Nonetheless, the original observation is sound and significant. We aren’t playing silly psychological games to get customers to engage with the brand or to splurge on in-app purchases. We’re helping smart and capable people to do good and important work, one step at a time.

April 23, 2015 (permalink)


Wonderland
Stacey D'Erasmo

The story of a rock-and-roll comeback, nicely written and filled with convincing detail. D’Erasmo does a masterful job of using small asides to good effect and has a nice feel for quickly sketching distinct places in the midst of a band tour where we’re constantly moving to a new city. What really works here is the world building: Anna Brundage is a convincing minor star and D’Erasmo does a terrific job of sketching the contours of a career, the small triumph of the first-album Whale, the disastrous Bang Bang tour – as well as a performance gone wrong in Hamburg and a rained-out music festival in Latvia. Before setting off on this last best chance, the Wonderland tour, Anna had been teaching shop at a private school in Manhattan; whenever failure looms, it manifests as the specter of a hundred little girls with hammers.

April 20, 2015 (permalink)


Chabon’s wonderful Wonder Boys was an insightful tour of a Midwestern writing program, exploring the essential nuttiness of a profession that works by imagining unlikely and impossible things. Here, we replace the seminar and the publishing house with blaxploitation movies, midwifery, and used records in the deteriorating heart of Oakland, California. I suspect this novel is in dialog with High Fidelity, but I don’t understand either jazz or rock well enough to follow along. It was famously said of Mozart that he wrote wonderfully but with too many notes; Chabon does amazing things with ease but here again there might be a few too many characters engaged in just a little too much incident: I’m not entirely sure we absolutely required the blimp. Still, a terrific example of stringing together a lot of wild stuff to craft something not only plausible but wise.

April 9, 2015 (permalink)


A fascinating study of three teenage girls in Manhattan in the 1970s, centered on Rainey Royal: beautiful, obdurate, inconsistent daughter of a jazz musician whose father’s townhouse is filled with his boyfriend Gordy (who sneaks into Rainey’s room in the middle of the night to tuck her in), his acolytes, and the absence of Rainey’s mother who decamped several years ago for an ashram. Rainey spends her afternoons (and often her schooldays) in art museums; eventually, she will become an artist who pieces together the possessions of the dead. Her friends are Tina, who often tucks in Rainey’s father – a fact we know though Rainey tries hard not to – and who becomes an obstetrician, and Leah, whom the other girls bully, who lives for science and whose adult life will revolve around lab rats.

April 8, 2015 (permalink)


We begin before dawn, drawing pails of water for the laundry, in this account of Pride and Prejudice below stairs and the secret life of the Bennet household.

Sarah, glancing up, hands stuffed into her armpits, her breath clouding the air, dreamed of the wild places beyond the horizon where it was already fully light, and how when her day was over, the sun would be shining on other places still, on the Barbadoes and Antigua and Jamaica where the dark men worked half-naked, and on the Americas where the Indians wore almost no clothes at all, and where there was consequently very little in the way of laundry.

This could so easily slip into feeble melodrama or a lecture on the evils of the colonial past, but Baker always keeps half an eye on the outer world and her full attention on the inner life of the people down below stairs, people to whom Lizzie Bennet is just one more small, dim and uncaring burden among many.

April 7, 2015 (permalink)