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 much-heralded and intriguing reconstruction of Arthurian romantic fantasy, The Knight is a resetting of heroic knightly adventure in the episodic vein of Mallory's earlier chapters, Percival, say, or Balan.

I didn't like The Knight all that much, but I must be mistaken. In February 2004, the New York Review of Science Fiction ran three pieces on this book. Neil Gaiman loved it. Lawrence Person adores it ("the sheer depth of his cleverness and hus absolutely masterful grasp of writing technique"). Dan'l Danehy-Oakes is "completely besotted" with The Knight, which he has already reread several times.

With the greatest sympathy, I can't see it. Wolfe's hero, Able of the High Heart, is a likable guy, a boy from the suburbs who cut down the wrong tree and winds up in faerie. And The Knight is a likable book. The style is clean but not showy. The talking animals are nicely drawn, the supporting characters are sometimes good (Idnn, a baron's daughter who would much rather be a milkmaid, for very good reason) but often not. Wolfe does some interesting play with letting the action fall between chapters, with lacunae and timeshifts, but none of it seems especially effective or drastically new.

In short, it's a pleasant book. It's not intended to be a page-turner, but it speeds along. I don't understand the fuss.

April 13, 2005 (permalink)

An inspiring book, The Da Vinci Code demonstrates that it's quite possible to for a best-seller to be ineptly written and clumsily plotted.

Aunt Tonnie sort of liked this -- though she says Angels and Demons was better. It's a publishing phenomenon. I thought I'd give it a try.
I enjoy thrillers. In this case, most unusually for me, I was consistently a step or two ahead of the game throughout most of the book. I solved the puzzles before the handsome Harvard professor, I saw the codes before the Cute Cryptographer.

Brown leaves some disturbing holes. Our heroes, for example, bamboozle a suspicious young London kid who is sweeping up a historic church that's supposed to be closed to the public. They claim to be Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Wren III, grandchildren of a man said to be a benefactor of that church. Surely a surly London kid would be a bit surprised that Mr. Christopher Wren III speaks American, and that his wife has a Parisian accent? If you're inventing a fake name in a London church, surely few could be less plausible.

Later, the London police try to arrest a suspect; the police charge into the room with guns drawn -- guns that British police seldom carry.

The book opens with our hero, a Harvard professor, who is staying at the Ritz after his lecture at American University of Paris. AUP is a very fine and generous institution, but when I spoke there, the Ritz didn't come up. Professor Langdon seems strikingly unbookish and worries remarkably little about his professional standing, his students, and his schedules. Cryptographer Sophie Neveu seems remarkably comfortable without her laptop and without her job -- and, it seems to me, an elite 20-something Parisian girl would not turn her life upside down and disown her beloved grandfather after discovering him in the middle of an apparent orgy. I'm told they order these things better than that in France.

A crucial and oft-repeated clue is a poem that instructs the heroes to seek "an orb that ought be on his tomb". Google finds about 56,000 "ought be's" and about 7,750,000 "ought to be's" -- I think the author dropped a word to make a bad poem seem archaic. ("Should be" would scan as well and makes just as much sense)

The real puzzle to The Da Vinci Code is, why has this rather clumsy and unspectacular book been so successful? It's only barely an adequate thriller. The art historical tie-ins and the bits of tourism are nice, but not especially original. The religious angle -- the mix of anti-Catholicism and Catholic sympathy and neo-early-Christanity -- might attract some fundamentalist readers, but surely there are sectarian minefields aplenty here.

May 9, 2005 (permalink)

A failing, flailing university professor loses the manuscript of his novel in a fire. He takes a sabbatical in rural Maine, rewrites his book, and loses it when he leaves his briefcase outside and a wandering bear finds it.

The bear opens the briefcase, examines the novel, and sees that it has lots of sex and lots of fishing -- just about everything a bear would want in a novel. So, the bear steals some clothes and takes the novel to New York. Soon, the bear has an agent, a publicist, and a book tour.

All this may sound silly, but Kotzwinkle makes it work. A delightful book from start to end.

June 9, 2005 (permalink)

The Sydney bookstore had a display of 100 recommended books. The list was intelligent -- not pompous, not erudite, but thoughtful and companionable. I'd never heard of this book about an Australian woman who moves to Paris, and under the specious impression that it was a novel rather than a memoir, I bought it. (Books in Australia are expensive, by the way.)

Turnbull is smart and observant. She writes clean prose, and for much of the book manages to avoid cliché. Towards the end, we have a series of rote chapters on Peculiar French Affections -- couture, cuisine, poodles; these would have been better left out, but I'm inclined to assume that someone made Turnbull add them in the first place.

There's not enough, really, about her Australian-ness. That's the point, really: it's not just An American in Paris, because that's been done, and it's not just A Nice Girl In Paris, because that's been done too. It's this, specific Aussie in Paris that we're here to see, and sometimes she's so shy and modest that she leaves out key bits. She flies to Paris (from Bucharest where she's trying to be a Young Journalist) to meet a man she hardly knows, a man whom she is eventually going to marry. When do the sparks fly? She never gives us a hint! Somehow, they got from "you must visit me in Paris sometime" to sharing a bed and a terrier and a mortgage; we ought to have a clue.

Is this reticence Australian? Or just Turnbull? Or her editor? The cliche of falling in love in the streets of the 4e arrondissement might have scared her off, but the cliche of 'my first fashion show' didn't.

What we're missing here are the intimate, unexpected notes that teach us about personal and national character. We don't need interesting revalations from the boudoir, but if it's a book about being young and Australian in Paris, it might be nice to have more youth and tucker and a little less schtick about her adorable little dog.

June 2, 2005 (permalink)

Written with lyrical grace and a sound sense of place, The Quarry is a glorious failure. On a lonely stretch of African road, a missionary minister stops to pick up a hitchhiker. The minister, though out of place, is not without insight; he knows the hitchhiker is even more out of place than he. Mayhem ensues.

Where this fine confection collapses, alas, is that it boils down to a chase. A good chase is extraordinarily difficult to write, right now, because we all have seen so many lavishly-produced, lovingly-directed cinematic chases.

June 2, 2005 (permalink)

The last of O'Brian's magnificent, twenty-volume story of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. I'd been saving this for the proverbial rainy day, but while packing I decided that perhaps the rainy day should be left to take care of itself. Carpe diem, and press on, if you please, with as much sail as she can wear.

May 27, 2005 (permalink)

A reviewer in NYRSF -- I think it was Swanwick -- suggested that "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" was the greatest short story of the decade. I think that might be overstated, but it's a very good story. A very strong volume collecting some very strange (and extremely well polished) stories.

April 12, 2005 (permalink)

The Cabala
Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder's first novel was heartily recommended by Ray Bradbury in a recent issue of The Believer. It's a remarkable example of a novel driven by pure likability. I tore through it, not because of the plot or the characters or the setting -- though I did keep saying about Wilder's Rome, "it's still like that!" -- but because the narrator is such a pleasant and engaging fellow. The clean, unshowy, delightful writing makes these profiles of colorful Roman insiders a delight. Out of print, but very easy to find from Amazon or Alibris.

April 28, 2005 (permalink)

Geraldine Brooks

Little Women is the story of a fatherless family at the edge of a great and terrible war. March is the story of their absent, idealistic father who has followed the young men of Concord in pursuit of the dream of a free land, an America untainted by slavery. He writes home to his Little Women and his wife, but naturally he hides the worst terrors of the war and the certainty of his own inadequacy that those terrors inspire.

At once impressive, learned, and pleasant -- even for those (like me) who aren't terribly fond of Alcott.

April 12, 2005 (permalink)

Pal Joey
John O'Hara

O'Hara was an important writer -- important enough that everyone told stories about what an immensely annoying, obnoxious man he was. I'd never read him, nor seen the hit musical that was based on these early New Yorker letters from an unsuccessful nightclub singer to his thriving colleague.

These are clever, affected, engaging stories. Like our pal Joey, they very much want to be liked. Like Joey, they always suspect they aren't well liked -- not well enough liked, at least, for us to lend him some cash if he ever really needs it.

These feel like Damon Runyan without that weird, fantastic grotesquerie that Runyon holds in reserve so he can really astonish us when he needs to. Joey's nightclub world is real and realistic; there are plenty of guys (some of them wise guys) and lots of good-looking mouses, but it's a world of walk-ups and coffee shops without the gangsters who are more than somewhat well-spoken.

March 22, 2005 (permalink)

Raised to think of Frost as a nice poet,
Stopping in New Hampshire woods and rhyming neatly,
Or sometimes wandering through long Christian allegories
Where homes and ladders stand for something that
You'd best not think about, it's easy to forget
Or overlook how good his writing is.
If it weren't verse --
(And sometimes it's only just: Mamet writes
In pentameters too) -- you'd say this guy
Had really got New England to a T. The queer respect
And scorn for Harvard men, the summer folk, the snow:
It's all right here.
And things you might not quite expect,
The awkwardness of two strange men, undressing
In a hotel room they're sharing for the night.
One rich, one not. The rich man has five bucks,
The poor man, ninety, to bring to his employer.
Sex and class, two narrow cots, some cash,
A calculus that resonates on Beacon Hill today.

April 12, 2005 (permalink)

Sue Trinder, a young orphan raised in a den of thieves, sets out from home to embark on a con job that leads her into service, into love, and then into far worse places than The Borough.

Sarah Waters gets the language and tone of 1862 wonderfully right; at times, Fingersmith is like reading an oddly mature Dickens, a Dickens who has had a century to adjust to the outrage of the discovery of modern poverty. She's able, too, to address the Victorian fascination for relationships among women without Victorian evasiveness. That was enough for Fingersmith to be short-listed for the Booker and the Orange (2002).

Water's third novel, Fingersmith divides neatly into three acts. In a very real sense, though, the first act contains everything else: act two recapitulates the narrative from the point of view of the pigeon, and act three tells us how it worked out in the end, but neither the second nor the third act surprise or astonish us. The first act brings us one revelation after another -- plot, setting, language, all bright and astonishing. The second and third add some depth and their slow, measured unfolding itself lends a certain high Victorian gravity.

Fingersmith is a very fine, very big novel. Inside it might be found a stunning, beautiful novella, but then — the economy of publishing being what it is — we might never have known about it.

March 4, 2005 (permalink)

Oh, but this is a sad, sad book.

It's not the sadness of elegy, really, not longing for bright glories and grand times we once had, not even though they weren't really as bright and grand as we once thought.

It's not the sadness of tragedy, either, the terrible knowledge that these fine young people are doomed, that the very things that make them so particularly, specifically wonderful are, in the end, going to destroy them.

Perhaps it's the sadness of a world that pays too much attention to Harry Potter, a response to the nostalgia that makes us dream of Hogwarts and Tom Brown's Schooldays and those merry old playing fields of Eaton.

This is, I think, the sadness of depression, of a bitter, hopeless resentment of everything and everyone. Ishiguro's latest is, oddly, science fiction set in the present. The plot mustn't be discussed because figuring out what the book is about is the book's narrative engine and, without that simple pleasure, I think the book might be unbearable.

April 12, 2005 (permalink)

The Oxford Classical Dictionary
Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds

A trip down memory lane and roads not taken. The standard quick reference for forgotten and half-remembered names, places, and dates, this thick volume covers everything in the Graeco-Roman world.

I found a great deal on a used copy. My new office is larger, Eastgate has some nice new bookshelves, and this is a fine thing to have handy.

March 11, 2005 (permalink)

A classic of cooking and technical writing, McGee is the definitive English-language kitchen reference. Vast, systematic, thorough, and written with clarity and humor, McGee explains the source of ingredients common and rare, their customary handling in the cuisines of various cultures, and explores the essential chemistry and biology that underpins cooking.

If you need to know whether your stock should be boiling (it shouldn't) or whether you should refrigerate that extra fresh basil (don't), you can look it up in McGee. Every spice you've ever heard of, and many you haven't, is described, botanized, its properties and history and uses succinctly discussed.

A remarkable achievement.

March 21, 2005 (permalink)

Jeffrey Eugenides

This slow, strange, compelling exploration of gender and of narrative form starts from a remarkably little-known fact: a huge number of people, perhaps one in 2000, are neither clearly male nor female when they are born.

The narrator, Cal (formerly Calliope) Stephanides, was raised as a girl and discovered, at 14 and to everybody's astonishment, that she was a boy. He's now a very literate, soft-spoken bureaucrat in the foreign service, posted to Berlin.

Calliope's journey (and the long journeys of her parents and grandparents whose formidable problems led to her complexly tangled genetics) gives Eugenides plenty of scope to explore the meaning of gender, and even greater scope to wander through the corridors of history, from the burning of Smyrna to an astonishing theory of the identity of Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam.

But all this, in the end, is occasion rather than substance, the raw material with which Eugenides constructs a very complex and intriguing experiment with plot. There is no melodrama: we know from the first page where we'll wind up, and we soon learn why, and yet Eugenides slowly, gradually coaxes us into excitement. Eugenides appears uninterested in linear plot -- he's a Coover disciple, after all -- and yet he's got the entire framework of a full-scale Dickensian braid expertly humming.

We move from the flames of Smyrna to the burning of Detroit in 1967, from the scarcity of eligible women in the failing Greek colony of Asia Minor after the First World War to the scarcity of straight men in Berlin who want to go out with a self-assured Japanese-American. The American is the bicycle-toting Julie Kikuchi whom Cal sees, one day, on the tram and with whom he reluctantly (but rapidly) falls in love.

As a special dessert, Eugenides writes an extended love story about Calliope's first passion, an adolescent crush on a fellow schoolgirl (one of the set she calls The Charm Bracelets) who she can't name and so calls The Obscure Object. For pages on end, we have The Object in class, at her summer house, in bed. We have her father, the hard-drinking "Mr. Object". To pull this off even briefly is a stunt; to make it work over a span that would make a small novel in itself is astonishing.

April 10, 2005 (permalink)

Skeleton Man
Tony Hillerman

Hillerman, the premier writer of distinctively southwestern mysteries, tends to fall apart when called upon to write about Anglos and Easterners in the West. In Skeleton Man, we have a routine mystery that most of Hillerman's many imitators could easily have written. Sure, it's engaging. It's nice to see Leaphorn again, it's pleasant to visit Officer Chee, and Bernie's a dear.

But we get the same pleasures from Spenser, Susan and Hawk each year as well, Parker's dialogue is snappier and his plotting is usually twistier. Hillerman at his best is more ambitious and more important, and Hillerman's got to know that even white folk can be complex characters. I can understand pasteboard Anglos at the margins of a Navajo mystery, but if you're going to write about LA diamond brokers and Washington lobbyists and skip tracers from Oregon, why not take the trouble to make them characters instead of plot devices?

March 19, 2005 (permalink)

M. F. K. Fisher was the American food writer before James Beard and Julia Child -- in the time, that is, when Americans didn't care much about food, and this 1943 autobiography is notionally structured around memorable meals.

It's interesting to see how little food there actually is here, and how little Fisher feels it's appropriate for her to say about it. She dines through France, Switzerland, Mexico, and across the US, but she seldom mentions a restaurant and even more rarely talks about a cook. She drinks quantities of wonderful wine, but almost never tells you what she's drinking or what you might want to drink. When she does name a restaurant, the motive is sentiment or scene-building -- she names restaurants in Dijon much as she names the flowers in her garden, to reinforce sense of place rather than to suggest you might want to eat there sometime.

What works here, besides an occasionally-lovely turn of phrase, is Fisher's odd (and sometimes fascinating) mixture of candor and reticence. She's got the earthy honesty of the old American West -- she was born in California in 1908 and, in a story that's supposed to be about oysters she briskly explores the hothouse sexuality of an isolated, tony girl's boarding school as if, arriving as a freshman, she already knew it all and so do you.

Fisher has a skilled, elliptical knack of leaving the big emotions and the impossible scenes offstage. She acquires, then loses, a husband suddenly and without much comment. She sees Europe crumbling around her in the 30's and sees it clearly, but she tells it in the interstices, in the social complexities of being nice to a relative's dull, languorous, and stupid girlfriend who likes to spend her summer afternoons watching the German border guards kill refugees who are trying to swim from the Nazis into her favorite French beach resort.

March 18, 2005 (permalink)