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

Dipping into these notes -- the amicable beginning, as I suppose, of the genre of modern travel literature -- was often delightful. Two characters set off on a fairly arduous experiment in tourism. Neither are very proficient travelers, and Dr. Johnson must have been a very particular (and so very difficult) guest. Tons of fun.

June 11, 2006 (permalink)

Restaurant owners have known for decades that you can make money on a superb little restaurant, but you can make a fortune with an unambitious big one -- or, better still, a chain. In recent years, the food press and The Food Network have made this more emphatically true, as big-name chefs spend little or no time in the kitchen. From Emeril to Keller and Robuchon, the chef is a celebrity and a CEO.

This volume follows on the wonderful Making of a Chef, which looked at culinary school, and Soul of a Chef, which visited three very different chefs. Here, Ruhlman explores celebrity chefs and their work. He revisits the Culinary Institute and discusses the New Student with his old teachers. He spends time with French Laundry creator Thomas Keller at the opening of his New York bastion Per Se. (Keller had lost his shoes, handing Ruhlman a useful metaphor.) He journeys to Maine to meet Melissa Kelley, who grows her own herbs and vegetables and invites diners out back to be introduces to "the piggies" -- Gloucester Old Spots she raises.

Perhaps simply because I seldom watch The Food Network, I'm not fascinated by celebrity chefs. Ruhlman does an unmatched job of explaining how economics and PR force them out of the kitchen and into corporate leadership or into the TV studio. He gathers the data and walks you through the numbers and shows you how people feel.

The Reach of a Chef is about money. Getting Americans to show what they feel about money without platitudes and sentiment is exceptionally difficult, and Ruhlman does it nicely. He captures the tension and frustration of chefs who only can pay themselves $150K/year as they experience it, without embarrassment or apology, and shows the various ways in which they are choosing to address their problem and the impact of those solutions on the way we eat.

I'd like, someday, for Ruhlman to take us back to the kitchen and back to the start of the trip -- to good food, its nature and its making, and to the classmates with whom he worked. To Erica-who-burt-her-roux, to sullen angry Adam who would rather have been working in wood, and perhaps even to brown sauce.

June 9, 2006 (permalink)

I've always loved Dorothy Sayers, but I'd not revisited this one since college and it's a much stronger novel than I'd remembered. What I missed back then was that the fast-living young louts aren't the stereotypes that Sayers occasionally drops into her texts when she isn't paying attention: they are the bright young things of Waugh's Vile Bodies, which appeared three years before this Sayers mystery.

As is often the case in Sayers, the crime is absurdly complex and overwrought. The chance to view the insides of a 1930's London advertising office is valuable; in fiction, we see far too little of the modern workplace. Lord Peter, for all of his impossible gentility, is a wonderful character, and Sayers has a delightful ear.

I haven't asked him yet. How can I? It's horribly hampering to one's detective work when one isn't supposed to be detecting, because one daren't ask any questions, much.

Oh, that last word works wonders.

June 5, 2006 (permalink)

In this interesting and amusing bagatelle, a London family vacationing in Norfolk finds that a young woman has walked into their vacation house and made herself at home on their sofa. Eve, a popular writer married to an English Professor, assumes that she's one of her husband Michael's students and that, moreover, that they're having an affair. Michael assumes that she's something to do with her publicity department. The teenage kids find her fascinating.

It's an interesting formal experiment with five points of view, vice very distinct voices, and lots of opportunity for Ali Smith to turn writerly handsprings. At times, I found myself watching the acrobatics when I should have been thinking about Eve and Michael. But it's all show business in the end, and the show is good.

May 30, 2006 (permalink)

Stross's multi-volume fantasy romp proceeds with intelligence and skill. Recalling Zelazny's Amber, Stross builds an epic of parallel worlds around a tech journalist. In the alternate earths, technology is less advanced -- one is barely post-Medieval, the other is early industrial. Are the other earths romantic havens or miseable hovels? Stross takes a close look. Why are the other earths as they are? The historical forces are complex (as they should be), and at the end of two volumes we know the background but have not yet found a simplie explanation. Whatever the explanation for the differences between worlds, Miriam Beckstein sets out to do well by doing good, brining development to these backward worlds through intelligent business practice.

An irritation of this pleasant, readable, and interesting volume is that is ends, as did the first volume, in a flurry of excitement and gunplay. Stross has plenty of plot at all times; I think it's unnecessary to supercharge the narrative simply to propel the reader across the chasm between volumes.

Stross has a knack for building rich worlds, though here the fantastic story of Miriam Beckstein seems less rich than the true story Esther Dyson, who in 1989 set out on a similar mission without the benefit of being a lost Duchess.

May 21, 2006 (permalink)

Johnson was difficult, dangerous, and bigoted. He was cruel to his rivals and unkind to his allies, and he seemed to make a point of seeking out the insecurities and weaknesses of his staff for the pure joy of making them ever more miserable. He made blushing secretaries take dictation while he sat on the toilet, he made devoted family men work unceasingly, and in a city not then noted for feminism his contempt for his wife Lady Bird shocked his colleagues (and their wives). He ruined good men in order that his wealthy contributors could make a few extra dollars. He was a red-baiter and a bigot.

But yet, in an era when no one had been able to pass a civil rights bill despite decades of effort, an era in which the South was entirely segregated and expected to remain forever segregated, Johnson passed the bills that changed everything.

It's hard, now, to realize how incoherent the Democratic party was before Johnson, or how completely the protection of segregation in the South had come to dominate US politics. Half the party was staunchly conservative, and that was the powerful half. The liberal Democrats -- what we would otherwise call the 'real' Democrats, were a powerless rump. LBJ kept them powerless until he needed them, and then -- when he needed them -- he did the right thing, a thing that very much needed to be done.

Caro's vast biography, of which this is the third installment, is not concise. Like Johnson, some parts of this long book are insufferable. But Caro takes the space and time to tell you everything, and everyone is here: the young Hubert Humphrey, the old Richard Brevard Russell, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Leland Olds.

May 12, 2006 (permalink)

The special spirit of this collection of strange and often disturbing short stories is nicely captured by Shelley Jackson's cover illustration, a strange updating of Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine. The title story brilliantly centers around a cult TV show -- Buffy, The Vampire Slayer meets The Footage -- its fan circle and its intersections with the kind of mundane reality where you can be a teenage kid whose dad writes horror stories and whose aunt leaves you a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

May 15, 2006 (permalink)

The World Brain
H. G. Wells

Out of print and forgotten, this volume collects lectures and articles Wells wrote to describe his project for a universal networked encyclopedia. Wells has many of the key elements of the Memex and the Web, including an interesting emphasis on the importance of transclusion that anticipates Ted Nelson. He envisions the encyclopedia as the work of an open, international scholarly cooperative with a distributed infrastructure and networked management -- Wikipedia, in essence, with a sounder institutional basis and more elaborate editorial structure. Wells also foresees obstacles, such as intellectual property laws, fanatics and zealots (especially in matters that touch on religion), and storage capacity that would go on to bedevil information science for the rest of the 20th century. He misses electronics, as everyone did. He does observe that reference and support material could be printed on demand at local headquarters and mailed to customers; while this might have been cumbersome, it places the tools in the hands of families where Bush's Memex was always destined to be reserved for captains of industry and his computer was a behemoth of such great cost that it would require a vast staff to keep the machine occupied and productive around the clock.

Rescued from oblivion by Michael Buckland, this interesting little volume is not difficult to locate through the Web via the used-book consortia such a aLibris and AbeBooks that the realization of Wells' vision have made practical.

May 4, 2006 (permalink)

Banks, a wealthy young man, found little to amuse him at Harrow, Eton, and Oxford save botany. He did throw himself into botany, though, and when the opportunity arose he sailed with Cook's pioneering little expedition to the South Seas, discovering and cataloging and ultimately returning to the thanks of the admiralty, the admiration of King George III, and the presidency of The Royal Society. An unusually amiable, intelligent, and generous man, Banks never learned to spell or to use punctuation but knew and corresponded with every important scientist and naturalist of the age.

O'Brian was the author of the wonderful Aubrey-Maturin novels in which Banks himself plays a minor role, but Banks is clearly a model for Maturin and O'Brian's inimitable voice and unique ability to capture the passion and excitement of research, explaining just enough but never quite as much as lesser writers would, makes this biography delightful and memorable.

May 2, 2006 (permalink)

I had never learned the difference between an etching and an engraving, and this delightful and intelligent discussion of the history and art-history of reproduced images was refreshing and instructive. Griffiths has no time for collecting and he cheerfully tweaks collectors as autograph hounds and as victims of a fad that ended in 1929. Instead, he's simply interested in the image itself, how it is made and how it works aesthetically.

April 26, 2006 (permalink)

Stross dusts off the core conceit of Zelazny's Amber, the dream at the core of adult realist fantasy: you wake up one day to discover that, yes! You really are special! In fact you're a very important person indeed in a parallel universe. Here in Boston you might be a business writer for a right-wing Web site; over there, you're a missing duchess. And in fact you fit right in, because all the Best Families from over there have been sending their kids to our universe for Ivy League educations -- a sort of a grand tour -- before they return to their fantastic, feudal responsibilities.

Stross wanted to write a really long story, of which this is the first installment. It has Stross's customary wit and flair.

April 11, 2006 (permalink)

Emanuel Goldberg (1881-1970) was a Russian Jew who earned his doctorate in Chemistry under Wilhelm Ostwald and went on to do very important work in engineering and photography -- including key developments in photochemistry, in the design of the Contax camera, the microdot, the microfiche, and the search engine. His work on a "statistical engine" in the 1930's anticipates (and is in some ways superior to) Vannevar Bush's Memex: astonishingly, he successfully built a prototype and used it in his daily correspondence in running Zeiss-Ikon. Kidnapped and cheated of his position by the Nazi's in the 1930's, he fled to Paris and then to Palestine. Though he lived to see others take the credit and the profits of his inventions, he was by no means forgotten: he received honorary doctorates, medals, the Israel prize, and personal letters from Ben-Gurion.

April 10, 2006 (permalink)

Somehow, I had the impression that this would be fun -- that it'd be a look at the fringes of the music world and make me feel at least a little less negative about the Mid Atlantic states.


Lovely writing, and a wretched choice for a long plane trip.

April 10, 2006 (permalink)

Recommended by Hornby in The Believer, this refreshingly direct book can restore your faith in argument about the arts. Carey demolishes a host of common assumptions about the arts, and absolutely skewers efforts since Hegel to show that mass art is inferior to fine art. Does art make us better? No: terrible people make terrific connoisseurs, and very good collections have been amassed by some very bad people.

Then, having demonstrated how generations of writers (Plato, Hegel, Winterson) made fools of themselves trying to show how art is good, Carey brilliantly argues something even harder: that literature is the most powerful and most expressive of the arts. Literature, unlike dance, painting, or theater, can reflect upon and satirize itself; it can do things well that the other arts struggle to do at all.

April 8, 2006 (permalink)

Curtis Sittenfeld
I think that everything, or at least part of everything that happened to me, started with the Roman architecture mixup.

That's the start of Curtis Sittenfeld's wonderful Prep. It's a singular, graceful, and intelligent book, a fine portrait of growing up that doesn't have the answers and that is suffused with generous affection for characters good and bad. Prep is not about coming of age, though it is (in part) about growing up; it's a nice change to have a book about kids that isn't only about their sexuality. Sittenfeld's kids change gradually, almost imperceptibly, as they go about the all-important business of organizing their cliques and performing their rituals and working up the courage to speak to one another. Change is observed as much in Fiona Lee's classmates as in the protagonist herself; first-year roomate and lifetime social climber Dede

She was a follower, literally a follower -- I often saw her scurrying behind two or three other girls. The strenousness of her efforts made me feel embarrassed for her.

grows (in the shadows of the book, for Fiona and Dede never have much interest in each other) just as much as Fiona, and more slow. The first consciously Iowa-seminar novel I've read and enjoyed, I think, since Mona In The Promised Land, and this book is both bigger and more sustained.

April 5, 2006 (permalink)