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

We return once more to the old, familiar interrogation rooms of The Looking Glass War and to vintage LeCarre in this sad, compelling, and brilliant story. An athletic Oxford don and his beautiful girlfriend, a fledgling barrister, visit Antigua for an indulgent tennis vacation. Their tennis turns out to be beyond the league of the typical Caribbean tourist, but near their resort lives a wealthy Russian who plays a very strong game indeed and who leads the couple into unexpected thickets and, soon, to basement interrogation rooms. LeCarré has a remarkable knack of drawing minor characters who are vivid but not merely idiosyncratic, whose peculiarity is the most natural thing in the world.

December 24, 2010 (permalink)

Alaya Johnson

This dazzling tale of Jazz Age New York centers on Zephyr Hollis, a girl from the West who teaches English to impoverished immigrants, volunteers at a blood bank that caters to indigent vampires, and crusades against corruption, crime, and intolerance directed at Others. A promising story by a new and very promising member of the Interstitials.

December 24, 2010 (permalink)

The Captains
W. E. B. Griffin

Years ago, I found myself writing a lot of complex hypertext software on very slow computers. Compilation took minutes – too little time to take up a fresh task, and too long to stare at the screen. Griffin’s Brotherhood of War series, found at the library across the street, worked well for this; engaging, episodic books that lend themselves to reading in short snatches and that have enough narrative coherence to keep the reader engaged, yet not so much excitement as to distract from the work at hand.

Returning now, I found the book just as enjoyable as I remembered. In many ways, this is a rough draft for Griffin’s later series, The Corps, which swaps out the Army for the Marines. Indeed, at the end of The Corps, we even visit some of the locations where The Captains gets started. There’s lots to dislike in Griffin of course, especially his belief that inherited wealth lends one inherent nobility, but these books aren’t meant to be taken seriously. They’re meant to be fun, and they are.

December 17, 2010 (permalink)

The record of the making of one of the great Quest Blogs:

The Book:

"Mastering the Art of French Cooking". First edition, 1961. Louisette Berthole. Simone Beck. And, of course, Julia Child. The book that launched a thousand celebrity chefs. Julia Child taught America to cook, and to eat. It’s forty years later.  Today we think we live in the world Alice Waters made, but beneath it all is Julia, 90 if she's a day, and no one can touch her.

The Contender:

Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment.

365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen.

How far will it go? We can only wait. And wait. And wait…..

This is a wonderful start. Compare:

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open eye

So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.

Powell embarks on this quest knowing that she is searching not for the Macguffin but for some better idea of what she should be doing. “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This is a fine book. One might wish it took more pleasure pleasure in the food and that Powell had more fun cooking it; what remains in memory (or what makes good copy), it seems, is the anxiety about eating so much top-quality butter and, of course, the disasters. But the disaster was central to the weblog as so to the Project; failure is what makes drama dramatic. We might admire the young woman who is cooking a lot of French food, but it is only when her marriage is falling apart and the cats have eaten the last of the chicken and she’s going to be fired and when she has to know right now where can you find marrow bones in Manhattan anyway because her mother is coming to dinner – when everything is at sixes as sevens and Julie is ready to collapse in tears – that the weblog audience reaches through the fourth wall and transforms the medium into something new.

December 11, 2010 (permalink)

Under Fire
W.E. B. Grifiin

Reading one W. E. B. Griffin seems to lead me to reread another. This is the prequel to Retreat, Hell and it’s plenty of fun.

I’ve got a stack of books about three feet high. I’ve got an overdue book to write, three major software projects to design, and a marketing campaign to run. I’ve got a research paper due in six weeks, and I just agreed to a book review that’s due in the same time frame. Why, exactly, am I reading this additional, 500 pages of narrative delight?

December 4, 2010 (permalink)

A pleasant reconstruction of what we know about everyday life in the Pliocene, this small book offers a compelling argument that one key (and very early) driver of the transition from apes to people was the discovery of cooking. The effects of cooking on the diet of Homo Habilis would have been profound. Instead of dedicating 6 hours a day to chewing, as monkeys do, the cooking ape was free to explore hunting, honey-finding, and all sorts of other pursuits. Even if the big one got away, you could come back for a home-cooked meal which you could eat before dark or by firelight. That meal would be a lot easier to digest than raw foods are, and so the cooking ape could make an early night of it and be ready at dawn to go gamble some more. Wrangham sometimes pounds his points to splinters, piling on facts long after we’re as convinced as the necessarily-thin evidence will permit. I was surprised that there’s no discussion of protein evolution or DNA sequencing, and wish I knew whether it was omitted because there is none or because it was thought to be too technical for the projected audience.

December 4, 2010 (permalink)

Retreat, Hell!
W. E. B. Griffin

The tenth and, apparently, the last of book in The Corps, this brings the saga up to the Chinese intervention in Korea. Griffin excels at finding a good story about soldiers who are sitting around and waiting for things – bad things, most likely – to happen. He is a master at generating plot from the commonplace, capturing the tension of waiting for something to happen, and the frustration of coping with omnipotent, arbitrary, and erratic superiors.

Griffin is a guilty pleasure but also a more thoughtful writer than may first appear. He can make it fun to read about sitting around, preparing for something to happen, trying to find out what is going on; this was Michener’s territory (Tales of the South Pacific) and in a way it was Wouk’s (The Caine Mutiny), and though they were there first, Griffin deserves a place beside them.

It seems clear that at least one more volume was intended – we’re left with loose ends in several subplots and the middle of the Korean War seems a strange place to leave off. But illness and other commitments may have intervened, and we should be grateful for what we have.I disliked this volume on first reading and bumped into it accidentally because I wanted something light and engaging to read on a cold and gloomy November evening and, though I can't disagree that this is the weakest volume of the series, it’s still tons of fun.

November 28, 2010 (permalink)

For two centuries, people have argued passionately over the vexed question: who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? James Shapiro writes a fascinating intellectual history of the authorship question, ranging from early hopes that the plays could be traced to Francis Bacon, thence to wishes that Christopher Marlowe survived his murder, and finally to those who have long argued that Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. Much has been made of various biographical similarities between Oxford and Shakespearean characters – Oxford had three daughters and was once abducted by pirates — but Shapiro observes this entire line of argument has always assumed that fiction is essentially autobiographical, and that this Romantic notion was deeply alien to Elizabethan and Jacobean thought.

The Oxfordian cause has attracted a strange crew of followers – Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Antonin Scalia – many of whom have come to doubt that a common man with common experiences could write these plays. Shapiro suggests what these proponent have held in common, too often, has been a longing for a vanished world in which the authority of fathers held sway.

November 27, 2010 (permalink)

Zoo City
Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes takes Pullman’s “demons” – visible animal manifestations of the soul – and translates them from high fantasy to gritty realism in this story of Zinzi December, a South African woman who writes the copy for email spam. She is cursed with the memory of having accidentally shot her brother and blessed with the partnership with a sloth. With the sloth, she gains a knack for finding lost things, and also gains the scorn of fear of a society that treats the animalled as a dangerous subculture, leaving them to live in derelict ghettos at the margins of a crumbling urban culture. Adventurous, engaging, and sophisticated.

Zoo City
A sloth I met a few years ago on the Rio Negro

I do wish that people did not always feel it necessary to place the heroine in extreme physical danger in the penultimate scene. Zinzi finds lost things; there's nothing in the job that says the case needs to involve gunfire and hand-to-hand combat. Her animal is a sloth! It’s not Beukes’ fault: Parestsky and Kellerman do it too. There’s nothing wrong with the way things work out, but I think we might get to the same place more credibly if the union did not strictly require all heroines to be placed in peril.

November 14, 2010 (permalink)

This extraordinarily proficient fantasy involves a film-noire police procedural in the Eastern European city of Beszel. The odd thing about Beszel is that it is divided, not by a Wall as was Berlin but by cosmology: Beszel intersects and, in places, cross-hatches the faery city of Ul Qoma. From childhood, the citizens of Beszel learn not to wander accidentally into the parts of town that belong to Ul Qoma and not to see the buildings, parks, cars, and people that belong to that other city. It’s the eternal Balkan crisis turned on its head and spun like a top. Miéville does a fascinating job of building an entirely authentic and delightful mystery in this spectacularly fantastic world, rendering it plausible and even gritty, and quietly using that mystery to explore the limits of mystery and the borders of fantasy. Nominated for a Nebula and shared the Hugo with The Windup Girl, this book deserves everything it’s won and more.

November 14, 2010 (permalink)

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan
Kenneth Tynan, John Lahr, ed.

I can’t understand why I found these strangely beguiling diaries so compelling. Tynan was an important British theater critic in the 1950’s and 1960’s . When the diaries begin, in 1971, his career was largely over. Tynan knew everybody, loves to drop names, and was invited to swell parties, but he’s not deeply interested in gossip and, in any case, the diaries, bequeathed to his daughter, were instead hoarded and filleted by Tynan’s widow. Tynan was passionate about many things, but in his diaries he writes little about the theater and even less about books. He was a straight man surrounded by talented gays, a fact that intrigued him but about which he says little. He greatly enjoyed spanking (of all things), but in the early years he seldom mentions this passion and later, dying of emphysema and scouring the newspaper for sympathetic prostitutes, he has little to say.

Yet I read every word and relished many, and I have been looking forward to my daily visit with Tynan for weeks. This was yet another Michael Dirda suggestion – the Mitford-Waugh letters were this theme's kickoff – and rereading Dirda again I see that his reaction was oddly similar. In his diaries, Tynan is neither a lyrical nor a careful writer, and the persona he presents is not really someone you’re eager to seek out. But, once you know him, for all his melancholy and despite his desperation, you’re constantly eager to hear how the next day turns out.

November 7, 2010 (permalink)

A rollicking good time and final bow for Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, this novel sorts out the chaos in which The Girl Who Played With Fire ends and delightfully weaves the loose ends into a lovely bow. Amongst the numerous plot threads, we again have a fine workplace drama as Erika Berger takes the helm of a large but troubled newspaper and finds that her staff is not as welcoming as one might hope, and the management even worse than one might fear. The center of the story, however, is the unequal combat between our intrepid band of underground journalists and the shadowy, off-the-books government department that has been running Swedish covert intelligence for decades and which turns out to be the most catastrophically inept spy service since John Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War .

Considering our experience of the Bush years – not to mention the collapse of the Eastern European satellites – we’re surprisingly short of thrillers in which amateurs conduct espionage against the inept apparatus of state security. This once was treacherous ground because the obvious police state, Nazi Germany, fits uncomfortably in satire. you could (almost) write Hogan’s Heroes in 1965 but you couldn’t write it now; Catch-22 is hilarious, but we never see the Germans. But the Bushies? They would work just fine.

October 24, 2010 (permalink)

Reggie Nadelson

A fascinating thriller, wrapped in a police procedural and spiced with elements of Lawrence Bloch, early Le Carré, and Agatha Christie. Golden age plot elements (identical twins!) in a state-of-the-art plot and a spectrum of characters who are Russian without being Russian (and Jewish without being Jewish) and who, wherever they go, can never quite leave Moscow.

October 20, 2010 (permalink)

Heather’s wonderful The Fall of the Roman Empire serves as a prelude to this fascinating, thorough study of the end of Rome and the development of what came to be Europe. The idea of Europe as a continent or a trading zone is not dictated by geography and was, in point of fact, a very late development and, Heather argues convincingly, was by no means ordained by geography or demographics. Heather shows convincingly that the transition from late antiquity to the Medieval economy sharply reduced wealth inequality, ending a long dynamic of competition at the fringes of empire because the scale of economic development had ceased to be so starkly uneven.

We know astonishingly little about the Barbarian peoples, either in terms of their history or their material culture. No one today has any idea what language the Huns spoke or just what they thought they were trying to do. No one really knows where the Russians came from, though the fact that "Rus" derives from the Finnish word for "Swede" is suggestive. The crucial fact of very late antiquity is the emergence of Slavic Europe in the East, but no one knows where the Slavs came from or how they lived and our memory of what must have been tumultuous events is limited to a few dim fables told about half-remembered missionaries. But Heather shows that the traditional notion that people did move is both plausible and probable; that Vandals left Germanic Europe to wind up in North Africa is far from unlikely in a world where we are quite certain that millions of Irish people left home for North America and millions of Rwandans left home for anywhere they could go. People leave when they must, or when opportunities seem vastly better in the developed world; in antiquity, that developed world was the Mediterranean economic zone.

October 16, 2010 (permalink)

This nicely designed eBook (with optional paper edition) from Five Simple Steps surveys graphic design for graphs and charts. The overriding aesthetic is Tufte’s, with a strong flavor of High Modernism; Suda deplores chart junk and implores the designer to reduce visual noise and minimize the use of ink. The brand-new pdf does have a few mistakes (typos in the pdf’s table of contents, a damaged figure on page 26) but is otherwise a model of design.

Suda considers his audience to be design professionals, and he assumes that design professionals are innumerate. This might be a safe assumption – the amount of hand-wringing in some design-heavy books when fourth-grade fractions are mentioned suggests Suda is not alone here – but I doubt that Suda approaches this in the best way. Chapter 4, in particular, says little more than “the golden ratio is good to keep in mind.” I doubt that the excursions into Fibonacci or irrational numbers will help a lot of people with this lesson. The extended discussion of color blindness is preaching to the choir; if you’re a design pro and you don’t know that some people are color blind, you haven’t been paying attention.

Error bars are treated here as a gloss on bar charts. They’re just as important in line charts and scatter diagrams, and indeed in all sorts of visualizations. If there is one lesson designers need, it might be the importance of representing statistical uncertainty.

Suda is deeply distrustful of new media.

Dynamic graphs are excellent tools for exploring data, but if they canʼt be printed out or cast in metal, they wonʼt last.

This is wrong: most data presentations, including those of greatest importance, are ephemeral. Reports and analyses, newspapers and journals, all are meant to inform, guide, and convince the reader and their immediate goal is to do their work, not to immortalize their creator. The most important virtue of the great posters of Cassandre or Toulouse-Lautrec was that they were effective as posters; whether or not they held up well over the years is a detail for curators. The fellow who designed the notorious slide where chartjunk partially obscured data that might have averted the Challenger explosion didn’t want his diagram to live forever, and would doubtless have been pleased if it had been understood, acted on, forgotten and lost to history.

This is also a deeply conservative book that avoids many interesting problems. Why haven’t treemaps become more popular? Why aren’t sparklines ubiquitous? (I think one reason is that they look odd on the page, and that’s exactly the problem designers should tackle for us.) What’s happened to cone trees and information walls and the sort of visualization work that used to come so regularly out of PARC? Is there nothing more to say about textual visualization beyond word clusters and tag clouds? A very pressing concern today is representation in detail of large data sets – homeland security databases, social networks, the Web – where interaction seems essential because static summaries cannot anticipate our needs. Getting extraneous grid lines out of our graphs is a good thing, but there is a great deal more to be done.

October 14, 2010 (permalink)

When Churchill assumed office on May 10, many observers expected England to capitulate and to become a Nazi satellite. Eighty days later, it was clear to all, including Hitler, England would never capitulate and would, in all likelihood, prevail. Yet nothing changed on the ground in this time, no battles were won, and in material terms England, unharmed in May, was by August battered by the blitz.

Lukacs’ argument, originally stated in the brilliant Five Days In London and expanded here to the full eighty days, is that Churchill embodied the difference and that the force of the argument he propounded literally changed the world. An outcome that seemed reasonable in early May had, by May 10, been rejected forever by England’s government and, by August, what had seemed sensible and inevitable had become unthinkable because, in the end, Churchill would consider nothing else.

October 7, 2010 (permalink)

The latest installment in Laurie King’s wonderful series of stories about Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, this is in effect the second book of a two-volume story that begins with The Language of Bees. It’s great fun; after a long journey abroad (meeting the grown-up Kim in India, meeting the young Hammett in San Francisco) we’re back in London. Any extended family that includes Mycroft Holmes is bound is lead to an interesting collection of fuddlements, and this volume fuddles very satisfactorily. At times the plotting seems forced – plotting has never been King’s strong point – but the dialog offers its customary delights.

October 2, 2010 (permalink)

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, this is a remarkable first novel. In the 22nd century, the Kingdom of Thailand is an island of resistance in a world dominated by Calorie Companies and their plagues, carefully engineered to increase demand for their products and to punish their enemies. Oil is long gone, coal is a preciously-hoarded military resource, and the Bangkok methane monopoly, overseen by the Dung Lord, is a source of untold wealth.

The novel is a superbly observed reflection on business and power and their ramifications for Asian societies. This wonderful books is slightly marred by lapses in taste, Two or three scenes or torture and degradation go too far for too long. This would be unobjectionable if the book were truly interested in suffering (in the way, for example, that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is interested in men who hate women), but here torment merely provides extra motivation for characters whose behavior would be justified without it.

But there is much to admire in this book that embraces the tumult and complexity of business, rejecting the simplistic master narratives that animate so much business writing and almost all of the (remarkably scarce) current fiction about the world of work. People plan carefully here, and their planning goes up in flames or is discarded by a capricious government regulator or an inattentive assembly-line worker, and tomorrow we try again.

September 25, 2010 (permalink)

Emily Bach is the CEO of an internet startup on the verge of a high-flying IPO. Her younger sister, Jess, studies Philosophy in Berkeley and works in a used book store. Emily is brilliant, Jess is passionate, and it’s 2001 and the world (as always) is about to fall apart. A wonderful, elegant, and thoughtful book that gets the places and people exactly right.

September 18, 2010 (permalink)

This volume collects decades of delightful correspondence between two terrific writers who loved books, adored gossip, and enjoyed a complex circle of friends. All their friends are titled, rich, beautiful, or accomplished. In the later letters, so are their children. Almost everyone has a nickname, and editor Charlotte Mosley has a merry time sorting everyone out in abundant, concise, and witty footnotes.

Waugh and Mitford sure had a swell time.

It’s been interesting to chat about Mitford with my friends. Some people barely know her; I’ve never read any of her work myself. But surprising people know all about the Mitford sisters, six legendary beauties who had famously complicated lives. Unity shot herself for love of Hitler, Diana married British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, Jessica married a Communist, Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire. (See Jo Walton’s wonderful Ha’penny, too.)

September 17, 2010 (permalink)

Maggie Stiefvater

Grace loves books, high school, her friends, and the wolves that live in the forest behind her house. In the first place, she’s the sort of girl who likes animals. Additionally, she had a frightening encounter with the wolves when she was eleven, when they dragged her off her swing and she was nearly killed. She feels like she has a special connection to these magnificent animals.

And, it turns out, she does. These aren’t wolves; they’re werewolves, people who transform into wolf shape every winter. And the wolf whose intercession saved her life, it turns out, is a delightful young man named Sam. Theirs is the ultimate Summer Romance, but winter is coming.

Occasionally, the YA seams show through. Occasionally, disbelief threatens to come unhooked; Grace’s parents are hands-off, yes, but surely they would notice that a boy has sleeping in their daughter’s room four nights running? They might not object, it might make them happy, but it seems to me they'd at least want to make sure there was enough coffee or did he like tea in the morning? But this delightful page-turner that avoids easy solutions while clinging to the precious conviction that somehow Love is enough.

September 3, 2010 (permalink)

Gail Carriger

Alexia Tarabotti is a Victorian spinster who labors under the weight of misfortune. Admittedly, her father is rich, and her mother, if no longer precisely good-looking, is at any rate fashionable and received in all the best houses. But Alexia is afflicted with a dusky complexion, an unruly spirit, two simpering half-sisters, a perception that she is unmarriageable, and a complete absence of soul. In consequence, the vampires and werewolves who populate the cream of London society are rendered temporarily human at her touch.

Inevitably, hilarity (and marriage) ensue. We visit the headquarters of London’s vampires in Westminster, and meet a Scottish Lord who happens to be (a) a werewolf and (b) the head of Her Majesty’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry. Centuries ago, the British reached an accommodation with their supernaturals, and the alliance of human and superhuman subjects has carried the British flag across the globe. In the end (of course) we also meet a scientific mastermind whose nefariously subterranean laboratories can only be reached through a tiny ascension room. Alexia inhabits a good, clean, and frothy world that is neither very deep nor very disturbing, and in place of overwrought angst we have good and (mostly) clean fun.

August 28, 2010 (permalink)

Culinary Artistry
Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

Dornenburg and Page use a distinctive style in their books about cooking and restaurant life, threading together numerous interviews about aspects of the art of cooking. At its best, this provides a consensus of successful cooks in their own words. At times, though, this book (like previous Dornenburg and Page ventures on chef training and restaurant reviewing) can read like Zagat’s, stringing together many short excerpts to construct an artificial consensus.

The core contribution of this book is a vast table of foods that go together, including both classic and modern combinations. Also of great interest are a list of parallel menus developed by prominent chefs of the 80’s and 90’s – comparing, say, the opening menu of Chez Panisse to what they’re doing today.

Why do some foods “go together”? Are these preferences purely memory and convention? Surely, contingency plays a big role in what we consider comfort food and in what we think delicious: Proust’s madeleines might have been donuts had he lived in San Francisco, though his time would still have been lost. Occasionally, you get a chemical incompatibility between two ingredients — asparagus is good and wine is good, you could imagine nice combinations, but the wine reacts with an enzyme in asparagus and so it’s not gonna work out. People form habits: some people always drink scotch, others drink vodka.

But I think there’s much more to be said on the subject. One suggestion here is that it’s nice to have ingredients that naturally get along: birds love grapes, for example, and poultry goes nicely with grape preparations and wine-rich sauces. Escoffier liked visual fantasies in this genre and things can easily get out of hand, but you can see why the affinity can make sense. Grant Achatz made an interesting observation about constructing tasting menus, finding that if people enjoy feasts more if they move from savory to sweet and then return to savory before dessert.

The title is perhaps unfortunate because Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef trilogy, the first volume of which appeared the following year, is deeply engaged in the question of whether cooking is an art, where Dornenburg and Page are chiefly using art as a consensus view of excellence. Their approach, depending as it does on the joint opinions of a spectrum of prominent cooks, cannot easily explore the question because every respondent considers their cooking to be good, each has their own definition of art, and most of them are far too busy running a demanding business to spend a great deal of time investigating the natures of art, craft, commerce, and pleasure. In place of the abstract joys of that philosophical inquiry, however, we have dozens of pages charting the best flavors for that lovely trout you caught, or what you might do with that bag of very ripe heirloom tomatoes that really need to be cooked tonight.Dornenburg and Page use a distinctive style in their books about cooking and restaurant life, threading together numerous interviews about aspects of the art of cooking. At its best, this provides a consensus of successful cooks in their own words. At times, though, this book (like previous Dornenburg and Page ventures on chef training and restaurant reviewing) can read like Zagat’s, stringing together many short excerpts to construct an artificial consensus. The core contribution of this book is a vast table of foods that go together, including both classic and modern combinations. Also of great interest are a list of parallel menus developed by prominent chefs of the 80’s and 90’s – comparing, say, the opening menu of Chez Panisse to what they’re doing today.

Why do some foods “go together”? Are these preferences purely memory and convention? Surely, contingency plays a big role in what we consider comfort food and in what we think delicious: Proust’s madeleines might have been donuts had he lived in San Francisco, though his time would still have been lost. Occasionally, you get a chemical incompatibility between two ingredients — asparagus is good and wine is good, you could imagine nice combinations, but the wine reacts with an enzyme in asparagus and so it’s not gonna work out.

I think there’s much more to be said on the subject. One suggestion here is that it’s nice to have ingredients that naturally get along: birds love grapes, for example, and poultry goes nicely with grape preparations and wine-rich sauces. Escoffier liked visual fantasies in this genre and things can easily get out of hand, but you can see why the affinity can make sense. Grant Achatz made an interesting observation about constructing tasting menus, finding that if people enjoy feasts more if they move from savory to sweet and then return to savory before dessert.

The title is perhaps unfortunate because Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef trilogy, the first volume of which appeared the following year, is deeply engaged in the question of whether cooking is an art, where Dornenburg and Page are chiefly using art as a consensus view of excellence. Their approach, depending as it does on the joint opinions of a spectrum of prominent cooks, cannot easily explore the question because every respondent considers their cooking to be good, each has their own definition of art, and most of them are far too busy running a demanding business to spend a great deal of time investigating the natures of art, craft, commerce, and pleasure. In place of the abstract joys of that philosophical inquiry, however, we have dozens of pages charting the best flavors for that lovely trout you caught, or what you might do with that bag of very ripe heirloom tomatoes that really need to be cooked tonight.

August 19, 2010 (permalink)

Dirda adores Davidson, and this new collection is a nice supplement to the Davidson Treasury. Some of the wonderful literary confections like “Traveller from an Antique Land” depend on your knowing a lot of Victorian literary biography but they’re fun anyway. “The Peninsula” has a lovely sense of American business history and its resonance for families. “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire” is a wonderfully compact meditation on the terrible contingencies and chances of history.

August 16, 2010 (permalink)

Cherie Priest

More fun than a barrel of steampunk monkeys. The Civil War has been raging back east for more than a decade, and downtown Seattle has been abandoned even longer after a mad scientist’s excavator unleashed the Blight. Now the center of the city is surrounded by the Great Wall and filled with toxic volcanic fumes and the living dead, the rotters. The scientist’s widow, Briar Wilkes, revisits the dead downtown in search of her boy Zeke, who is looking for answers and finding a compelling culture of scavengers, criminals, and opportunists. When one character explains that the weapon he carries for defense against the zombie horde is “Dr. Minnericht’s Doozy Dazer, or plain old ‘Daisy’ for short” this seems perfectly sensible, – and that’s the mark of inspired world building.

August 4, 2010 (permalink)

The Texas-Israeli War: 1999
Howard Waldrop and Jake Saunders

Recommended at DailyKos (of all places!), this post-apocalyptic war adventure from 1974 pits a unit of Israeli mercenary armor (in the service of what’s left of the US Army) against the Texas Rebellion. We have an odd mix of science fiction and fun here; we're thinking seriously about some things (like women in combat) and just having fun with others (let’s get some WWII armor out of the museum! Let’s sail a cruiser into Dallas!) The world is in terrible shape after Britain started a nuclear and biological war against South Africa, but while there’s no longer a functional Coke bottler in North America we’ve still got the logistical capacity to keep an awful lot of armor (and tactical lasers) in the field.

It’s odd to see the cover of an old book which looks to 1999 as the distant future. And it’s interesting to see how the image of The Israeli has changed since the 1970’s. These Israelis are secular, socially liberal, undoubtedly vote Labor, and mostly are looking to start over in a new land that’s less crowded than home. The rebels, on the other hand, are divided between the Good Enemy (who believe in states rights) and the Sons of the Alamo (SA), who torture prisoners and deserve what they get. Reminiscent of Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, this is a guilty confection.

July 27, 2010 (permalink)

It is 1916. Major Richard Hannay and his fellow officer Sandy Arbuthnot are relaxing over breakfast at a big Hampshire country house, convalescing after some nasty scrapes at Loos and expecting presently to receive a battalion or perhaps a staff post. What arrives instead is a mission that leads them across the map of Europe, through wartime Germany and Austria to Istanbul and beyond. Their mission is to discover the source of unsettled rumblings of an Islamic revival and to prevent that revival from raising the Middle East against the Allies. A classic adventure yarn, well worth a fresh visit.

July 25, 2010 (permalink)

Medium Raw
Anthony Bourdain

A collection of essays by a chef who, old and broke, found himself launched by an angry and unexpectedly-successful book into the world of celebrity. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain adopts a frankly misogynistic, homophobic tone that plausibly reflects the hard-working men who populated his kitchens. In these essays, where we are often writing about the pleasures of Hanoi cuisine, St. Barts parties, or Per Se, the same tone becomes schtick. Bourdain’s topic in many of these essays seems to be Bad Lifestyles, but since he take great pains to deny any claim to wisdom, their point is not entirely clear. An essay that deplores tasting menus, especially Alinea’s, because they're too elaborate and attention-grabbing is in terrible taste, for Bourdain is here projecting the esoteric afflictions of the food celebrity (oh no! Not another rich delicacy!) onto his readers.

But there’s a terrific look at true skill in “My Aim Is True,” a New Yorker-style profile of the guy who cuts up fish at Le Bernardin. This is classic Bourdain territory, showing us art where we never thought to look. And the closing chapter, recounting what has happened to everyone else in Kitchen Confidential, redeems the whole volume with gentle and generous spirit.

July 21, 2010 (permalink)

In early modern Europe, three cities dominated the Eastern Mediterranean: Istanbul, Vienna, and Venice. Two were fading, and the third would never really become what it promised to be. The contested land that separated them became a byword for benighted backwardness and intractable conflict.

This accessible and intelligent introduction to the modern history of the Balkans runs from from the late Ottoman Empire through the aftermath of the fall of Communism. Mazower sees the long picture clearly, and is at pains to avoid romantic and sentimental myths that are at odds with the facts. This sometimes leads to odd effects, as in his treatment of the Communist era as a coda to the Second World War. He has a point: 1989 was thirty years ago and 1948 was just 41 years before that. History marches on.

What now seems especially interesting is the late Ottoman Empire and its approach to managing religions and ethnicities. It was, obviously, a failure. At the time, it seemed that Austria was making an enlightened effort and the Turk was bumbling around, but Mazower suggests this is precisely wrong — the Hapsburg’s Balkan policy can be seen as a late and futile attempt to emulate the Ottoman world without fully understanding it.

July 12, 2010 (permalink)

Nick Hornby

Hornby has a wonderful knack of making everything funny without being silly. Here, he’s being funny about teen pregnancy while, like his protagonist, taking it very seriously indeed. Fifteen-year-old skateboarder Sam Jones gets lucky with his new girlfriend, and then gets very unlucky. He takes everything very, very seriously. Naturally, hilarity ensues.

June 30, 2010 (permalink)

Robert Harris

Robert Harris continues his fictional life of Cicero, as told by his former slave and secretary Tiro, with this account of the Cataline conspiracy and its aftermath. How long, Catalina, will you abuse our patience? I’ve always thought Catalina a minor episode that modestly played to Cicero’s advantage, and though Harris does what he can, Cicero’s allies at this time are less interesting (and less well documented) than his rivals and, oddly, only Clodius emerges as truly frightening. I’m growing to like Harris’ reconstruction of Terentia, Cicero’s wife, as a level-headed and sensible woman who steps in and takes charge only when the boys are in a truly hopeless muddle, sets things right, and returns to her work.

June 10, 2010 (permalink)

Strange and fascinating stories about love among very young people. A middle school girl from England finds herself friendless and adrift in an American elementary school and learns why her Mum has no friends. A middle-school boy is invited by one of the Cool Kids to come along on a Mediterranean cruise along with his divorced dad and Dad’s new (and very young) girlfriend. A gin-drenched recluse who works for a term paper mill befriends the battered 14-year-old goth girl who lives downstairs until Goth Girl’s mother warns her off because she’s a bad influence on her daughter.

May 28, 2010 (permalink)

Anita Shreve

A spectacular novel that examines how lives fly off-course in even the most conservative and protected environments. I found this through Caitlin Flanagan’s superb and thoughtful essay in The Atlantic, which you may read without fear of spoilers. Avery Academy is a prep school in rural Vermont, populated by rich kids from the city and a few deserving sons and daughters of local farmers. The headmaster, who is a nice and thoughtful fellow, has just received a distressing videotape in which three boys from the school are having sex with a freshman, and he knows at once that nothing will ever be the same again. He is not wrong. Shreve does an exceptional job of capturing the sound of real people in a real school, and of making it all matter outside the gates. The story is told from every point of view, and though it centers on the headmaster, some of the most memorable chapters are told from such unexpected angles as the school cafeteria cook, the town real estate agent, and the freshman girl’s roommate.

May 28, 2010 (permalink)

In a small town in Judea, the young wife of an old carpenter gives birth to twins. She names one boy “Jesus,” the other, “Christ.” It doesn’t much matter which is which — and anyway, the two infants get mixed up right away. Jesus is a handful; his parents love him but can’t quite control him, he confounds his teachers, he even raises havoc in shul and talks back to the authorities. Christ, of course, is a good boy who follows his brother, staying in the background and out of trouble and taking copious notes. Jesus becomes a preacher, and Christ becomes a writer. It doesn’t end well.

May 19, 2010 (permalink)

A Clash of Kings
George R. R. Martin

This second novel follows hard upon A Game of Thrones. Like the first book, it is sprawling, long, exciting, and inconclusive. I think we all know how this unfinished series will finish, but it’s fun to see how we get there, and Martin has a knack for drawing interesting characters, especially interesting villains. The plotting here is elaborate and shaggy, with numerous plot lines that will pay off in future volumes, if indeed they are not merely diversions.

What place and period does Martin have in mind as his setting? We are, of course, in faerie: dragons are real, magic is a recent memory, and seasons span many years. The castles seem to be late medieval, and the armaments (of which we hear a lot) are roughly 15th century. The society, on the other hand, seems much earlier and much simpler, and the federation of numerous small kingdoms that are occasionally united by a strong king of kings sounds a lot like our new understanding of the 4th century German tribes. The religious undertones of the struggle, where it seems we have Celtic, Norse, and Christian pantheons in play, also suggests a setting in, say, the sixth century.

May 13, 2010 (permalink)

This is not a book about food and wine, nor is it really about France and the French. Mayle’s subject here is The Englishman At Play; he seeks to instruct us not on how to eat and drink, but rather how a Briton ought to go On Holiday. He goes to snail festivals and wine festivals and a health spa. He has an unhelpful interview with the press office of the Michelin Guide. He gets lost. He eats strange food. He has a terrific time, and comes home feeling great, and at the end of it he has a book.

April 29, 2010 (permalink)

A Game Of Thrones
George R. R. Martin

This large, strange book is highly recommended by serious readers. A DailyKos columnist recently wrote called this “the best, most intricately plotted, most powerful fantasy I've ever read.” This is nonsense, of course, unless you’ve not read Tolkien, but the book does invite comparison to Lord of the Rings, of course, but also to Dune and to Bujold. And this is arguably a better book than Dune, which I like a good deal. Martin, for example, is at pains to put women at the center of his medieval epic without turning it cozy or domestic. On the other hand, we’ve got buckets of exposition, some very fine writing but some that is less good and some of the forced archaisms clank. Martin focuses tightly on elites; his idea of a poor person, it seems, is the second daughter of a baron.

This was the first book I read on the iPad, and the experience was, on the whole, entirely satisfactory. After the first day, I didn’t mind the iPad’s weight at all, and the typography strikes me as superior to what we typically see in paperbacks.

April 25, 2010 (permalink)

This delightful love story brightened the drive from Boston to Rochester and then back to Boston, which is a long drive for a short weekend. Or it would have brightened the drive, if stories were actually capable of brightening a drive. They are perhaps not literally capable, and in this case the drive into New York involved rain and flurries and even some overnight hail, while the drive back was such a sunny day that brightening would be superfluous.

And day-brightening stories are likely subject to 8.47% tax in New York State, anyway. This doubtless explains the many police cars populating the median strips.

Hornby is terrific fun to read, whatever he is talking about. I enjoy reading him talking about Arsenal. But it’s more fun to read him talking about music and love and derelict seaside resorts, which he does very well indeed.

April 12, 2010 (permalink)

Road Dogs
Elmore Leonard

Vintage Elmore Leonard takes striking characters, puts them in bizarre situations, and carries off oodles of plot almost entirely with dialogue. Here, two fellows find themselves in prison. One has a lot of money. The other has robbed a lot of banks. They get together, help each other to get out of prison and back into Venice, California. And there, soaking up sun and rum, each waits to be betrayed.

April 12, 2010 (permalink)

Allegra Goodman

A terrific book. I don’t know just why I reread it now, especially as my stack is prodigious. My original review is here.

March 31, 2010 (permalink)

Scott Westerfeld

A courageous Jeff Abbott recommendation, paired with Wolf Hall. This YA title has snap and vigor and a neatly-imagined world in which Darwinist biotech super-powers in England, France, and Russia face down the Steampunk forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Amidst the storm of war, a boy meets a girl. Drama ensues, as the girl has pluck and initiative and the boy has dash and a very interesting title.

Wolf Hall, I think, is clearly meant to open a series, and our impression of the book will change when the next book appears. Leviathan is explicitly the introduction of a series, and perhaps is best seen as a story fragment.

Yet here we are in 2010, and it seems the very definition of YA is a subplot that teaches us that a girl can be anything she wants to be and that gender doesn’t matter. OK: fine. But, if we’re going to restate this against the First World War, might we spare a moment or two to think about class and poverty, about the misery of the shtetl and the pogrom and the terrible nationalism that still torments the Balkans? Might we mention the trenches and the machine guns? The idiot generals? Our heroes are isolated, but their isolation also shields us from the meaning of the Great War and their desire for peace is just a prissy preference, not the burning pacifism of 1914.

The fresh debate over whether the world would have been better had Great Britain sat on its hands and let the Germans win is not mentioned, either; the War is treated as a mistake compounded by German perfidy. At one point, our Austrian noble remembers that he speaks many languages – French, English, Latin – more fluently than he speaks the language of his villagers: but which language do his villagers actually speak? Yes, it’s YA and that burdens us with some constraints, but the kids don’t need to understand every detail. They like not understanding, the like working it out. Even Piglet lived under the sign “Tresspassers W”.

Still, it’s a richly imagined world filled with likable characters and entertaining action. By the end, Westerfeld has sold us on nobles and commoners in the 20th century and – even better – has us understand why it is a grand thing in this world to be a ship’s captain or a Lord of the Admiralty but a much grander thing to be the Keeper Of The London Zoo.

March 31, 2010 (permalink)

Michelle Huneven

I have been reading too few mysteries since the demise of The Drood Review. I looked at the Edgar nominees, ordered a bunch of books, and somehow got this National Book Critics Circle nominee mixed in. Patsy, an effervescent and young English professor, hits two Jehovah’s Witnesses in her driveway one drunken night. She goes to prison, gets sober, and gradually puts most of the fragments of her life together. It’s a familiar tale, albeit one Huneven tells with grace and a nice sense of place.

Formally, the book is intriguing. The opening chapters are told from the point-of-view of a 12-year-old minor character; she's brilliantly drawn but completely peripheral and, once Patsy goes to jail, she’s neglected. The story is formally a mystery, but constructed in such a way that almost the entire book is prologue.

March 24, 2010 (permalink)

It is 1944. The Eastern Front has collapsed, a rushed landing at Normandy has been repulsed, and Britain is facing invasion. Its government is calling on citizens to stand firm, struggle on, and perhaps to perish in the common ruin. Late one night, all the men from the seven farms that occupy a remote valley on the Welsh border leave their beds and vanish, leaving behind puzzled wives, one daughter, a guerilla manual disguised as an almanac, and far too many farm chores. This sophisticated but disarming tale of the first winter of the Occupation displays exquisite sympathy for each of its many characters.

March 9, 2010 (permalink)

A good introduction to the American election campaign of 1912. Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt led a third-party crusade to seek to recapture the White House from his former protegé William Howard Taft, facing Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson and a serious socialist candidate, Eugene Debs. Chase is strongest in taking Debs seriously and giving a careful airing to his views and constituency; we know now that this was the Socialist Party’s high water mark, but in many ways it seemed as if the Socialists were gradually moving to greater and greater strength and that their future role might be more like the British Labour Party than the fringe element they became.

Chase draws an interesting portrait of Wilson, whom he views as dangerously incurious, rigid, and personally volatile. In fact, this Wilson seems to share many of the failings of George W. Bush while lacking Bush’s talent for seeming to be likable. We are left to wonder how Wilson managed to be taken seriously by anyone, and this judgment seems to require either moderation or more enthusiastic defense.

March 8, 2010 (permalink)

A Bintel Brief
Isaac Metzker, ed.

This collection of letters written to the advice column of Forvertz, the Yiddish-language New York daily, offers a lovely snapshot of the concerns and trials of immigrants in the early 20th century. A striking letter, for example, records the problems of a freelance Jewish detective hired by the NY police in 1908 to investigate a restaurant that was serving liquor without a license. "I ordered a complete dinner and a schnapps,” he recalls. “I finished the meal, the drink, paid the sum of eighteen cents to the man, and looked around. I saw the owner’s seven children with their pale, emaciated mother, and I felt I could not be so heartless as to take the father away from them.” Can a good socialist and a good Jew work for the police? The Forward editors said, “Run from the job as from a fire.”

March 4, 2010 (permalink)

Whose Body?
Dorothy L. Sayers

The first Lord Peter mystery, revisited after many years, is surprisingly good. This is far from the flights of Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night, but it’s a taut and well-crafted mystery. All of Sayers, really, is on display here, from her chaste adoration for Lord Peter to her embarrassing (but, I think, mostly harmless) anti-Semitism. There's nothing here in any case that a quick dip in Walton’s Farthing won’t wash off. I’d forgotten that the Dowager Duchess, one of Sayer’s finest characters, has a nice role here.

February 23, 2010 (permalink)

An intriguing collection of essays by the brilliant social historian who became Harvard’s librarian. Darnton oversaw Harvard’s confrontation with Google Books, but he is no technophobe and is, in fact, planning an ambitious interactive history of the early book trade. Indeed, his plans are an indispensible credential, showing that he's not merely obstructing technology but actively striving to push it toward more useful channels.

As a nod to his planned historical hypertext,(and perhaps to blogging) the essays in this book are anti-chronological, moving from speculations on Google and the future of scholarship back toward the early history of printing and bookselling. The historical chapters are stronger because they are fresher; our Google anxieties have already been extensively aired, and Darnton’s ambitious hypertext, for all its promise, is still unrealized. From its description here, it’s not entirely clear that the contribution to hypertext (as opposed to its contribution to History) will eclipse the pioneering historical work of Landow and Ayers and Rosenzweig.

But I found myself strangely eager to see how book smuggling actually operated to get Voltaire into the hands of Montpellier readers, and we have lots to learn from (and about) the early book trade.

February 22, 2010 (permalink)

Louis Menand got involved with Harvard’s latest attempt to craft a core curriculum, and this engaging book is the result. Menand explores the intellectual foundations of curricula and disciplines, and carefully shows how disciplinarity helps and mars the university. Most interesting, perhaps, are his insights into the prehistory of the American university and the key role a few institutions and a handful of college presidents played in creating the familiar landscape of departments, degrees, and professional schools. The core problem of the humanities, he argues, is that they have become very good at training ABD’s, the all-but-dissertation cadre of inexpensive teaching assistants, adjuncts, and composition instructors on which contemporary American colleges rely.

February 19, 2010 (permalink)

After Theory
Terry Eagleton

I grabbed this terrific volume after asking around about what I most urgently needed to read to understand modern criticism. It is, when you come right down to it, more about philosophy than criticism. I sometimes felt I was back at Swarthmore, trying to keep up with Richie Schuldenfrei. Great fun, for some values of fun.

February 19, 2010 (permalink)

Visiting Paris, Adam Gopnik asked his hosts why they always went together to Cafe Flore and never went next door to Les Deux Magots. The answer wanders from their foundations in the 1870’s to the characters of long-dead proprietors, the nature of French fashion, the drinking preferences of Sartre. But the core answer seems to be, simply, that in the early 1940’s the Magot was too often filled with German tourists, and so fashionable Paris grew to prefer Flore.

Ever since reading this bravura passage, I’ve longed for a rich, anecdotal account of life in Occupied Paris and its echoes. This is a fine book, but it’s not Marianne in Chains and it’s not quite the book I wanted. Glass uses the American community as a microcosm of Paris, one that has a conveniently rich historical record because lots of Americans (and the American government) were naturally eager for news of Americans trapped in the occupation. The subjects of this group biography are varied, ranging from Shakespeare & Co. bookseller Sylvia Beach to the Comtesse Clara de Chambrun, a cousin of the Roosevelts who was also Laval’s mother-in-law.

Glass’s approach strikes me as essentially Marxist: in his account, poor but educated Americans tend to be leftist and joined the Resistance, while rich Americans were inclined to support Vichy and public order. Glass clearly wants to engage questions of loyalty and treason: was it treasonous or commendable for Charles Bedaux, for example, to promote a pipeline that would benefit French West Africa without much regard for who happened to be running France at the time? But these questions are difficult to address in a history, and we’re left with sketchy apologies. Glass accepts the success of the resistance without much scrutiny, and seems to accept collaborator’s accounts at face value as well. In the end, there’s lots of institutional history of the American Hospital and the American Library

January 26, 2010 (permalink)

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell rose from nowhere to counsel the king He rose through Wolsey’s household — Wolsey himself was a butcher’s boy — and became Henry VIII’s chief advisor and Thomas More’s rival. Mantel charts his rise, and subtly argues that Cromwell’s character holds a key to the centrality of tolerant intelligence in British political culture.

This is, in some ways, a strange choice for the Booker Prize. The present volume is clearly a prologue, ending suddenly as Cromwell turns (for the first time) to Wolf Hall, the residence of the Seymours, and the second volume might well transform the first. Further, the opening chapter on Cromwell’s boyish struggles with his father strikes me as clumsy, providing an invented source to explain invented character notes. McEwan did this more neatly in Chesil Beach by leaving childhood events in murky offstage shadows. We can never know what really happened in childhood, and in any case what happened isn’t what matters: this child is beaten, raped, abandoned and grows up fine, while an unkind word leaves another child with a lifetime of therapy. But the rest of Wolf Hall is very fine indeed:

Thomas More comes to Austin Friars. He refuses food, he refuses drink, though he looks in need of both.

The cardinal would not have taken no for an answer. He would have made him sit down and eat syllabub. Or, if it were the season, given him a large plate of strawberries and a very small spoon.

I envy the fierce, deniable malice in that plate of strawberries.

January 24, 2010 (permalink)

Dictionary Johnson’s tricentenary has already been the occasion for at least three major new biographies; This one was recommended as the best for Johnson and his milieu, and it turns out to be a pleasant, convivial, and engaging read. Johnson started slow – he was middle aged before he was much of anything. He was always short of money but no one could be more ready than he to provide you with a glass of wine, a dish of tea, a spare half crown, and a memorable quip.

January 24, 2010 (permalink)

Three intriguing short essays explore aspects of literary theory that might be illuminated by quantitative methods. The “graphs” here are Cartesian graphs and the “maps” are primarily geographic maps; the book limits itself to elementary analytical techniques. The chapter on “graphs” chiefly explores the growth in the publication of new novels, and specific genres, over time, observing that there is an important, qualitative transition when the rate of novel publishing ensures that there will always be plenty of new things to read. The chapter on maps features a fascinating map of 19th century Paris, locating their protagonists (chiefly in the 5e) and the objects of their desire (chiefly in the 7e and across the Seine).

January 7, 2010 (permalink)