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

If you take advantage of the slightly-dull new girl who is tagging along with your cool crowd and go over to her place for a very-late-night party and then crash because you've lost your keys and wake up to find yourself in the guest bedroom at 10 Downing Street, you've entered Waugh's very bad day.

Inviting, readable, even exciting, Vile Bodies is often silly and contemptuous of its characters, but the silliness is mildly amusing. And mildness was doubtless the goal: these character would hate to be side-splitting just as they wouldn't want to fall in love or to take each other seriously.

This is, in short, a sad, bad and frigid book that lacks sympathy for its characters and that ridicules and punishes them terribly for being themselves and for inhabiting the world the author chose to inflict on them. But it's also a classic. It's lasted seventy years without aging much, and its influence pervades literature from Dorothy Sayers to Jay McInerny to Chuck Palahniuk.

April 2, 2007 (permalink)

A brilliant historical study of America's adventure in Iraq.

If Chandrasekaran is the definitive picture of the Occupation’s spirit, Packer is the chronicle of its ideas, its intellectual history. Even those who follow the news — perhaps especially those who follow the news — may be astonished by the notion that the Bush administration could possibly possess an intellectual history. Yet ideas there were, bright and beautiful ideas, and for a time they seemed sensible and even just. Packer himself found aspects of the neoconservative argument attractive. Could Iraq have been rescued from tyranny and turned into a liberal, secular democracy? Could peace and justice have prevailed?

Packer examines the best pre-war writing and thinking about Iraq, draws out the key ideas, and shows how they influenced they key actors among the administration, the CPA, and the Exiles. He reaches easily for pioneering voices, T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, as well as Kanan Makiya and Paul Wolfowitz, and shows that the central urge behind the invasion was the desire to get it right this time — not merely responding to the first, incomplete Gulf War but also in to the Vietnam War’s apparent failure to "finish the job" and also to World War II’s haunting reminder that ia delayed liberation will come too late for the victims. In the end, Packer blames both the incompetence of the administration, the Occupation’s absurd mixture of wastefulness and cheeseparing, and the intractability (and feebleness) of the idea of Iraq itself for the grotesque and tragic failure of the occupation.

The intellectual history of the Bush war will soon seem an oxymoron. Read this book now, and absorb its lessons while the players remain on the stage; soon, the buffoonery of the Bush crew will be so dominant in imagination that the lessons of Iraq will be hard to recover.

March 3, 2007 (permalink)

Next week, as I write this, Linda and I will fly off on our own Brazilian adventure. We are woefully unprepared for this journey — if you happen to know anything at all about the Amazon between Santarém and Manaos, please do Email me.. Much of my preparation has involved inoculations and insect repellents. For the rest, I’m relying on this fine 1933 memoir by Ian Fleming’s big brother.

"Sao Paulo," he writes, "is like Reading, only much farther away.” Fleming’s eye and fancy had been caught by a small advertisement in The Times that sought two extra guns for a sporting expedition that would also inquire into the fate of one Colonel Fawcett who had disappeared in the Brazilian interior in 1925. He happens across a school friend walking near Fleming’s Bloomsbury aoartment.

Roger was walking along Gower Street. He had passed the School of Tropical Hygiene. He had passed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In one minute, in less than one minute, he would have reached the Slade.... so I called across the street: "Roger, come to Brazil."

"What?" said Roger: playing, I dare say, for time.

"You’d better come to Brazil” I said, getting into a car.

“Why?” said Roger cautiously (or perhaps incautiously), also getting into the car. We set down Gower Street: past the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: past the School of Tropical Hygiene. I talked rapidly. At the end of Gower Street Roger got out.

“I'll let you know for certain on Monday,” he said.

March 1, 2007 (permalink)

The court history of the American expedition to Iraq. Woodward had unequalled access to the upper echelons of the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, and so provides a fascinating exploration of tensions and conflicts within the administration, and between the upper echelons in Washington and their representatives in Iraq. To a considerable extent, this volume is an indictment of Donald Rumsfeld, whose machinations and weaknesses Woodward finds to be primarily responsible for the debacle. Woodward depicts Condoleeza Rice as an overmatched simpleton, and Colin Powell as a team player who was systematically deceived and duped by his peers and his president. Woodward's access to Bush diminished as the rosy glow of post-9/11 adulation faded and as Iraq began to unravel, but clearly Woodward finds Bush inattentive and easily manipulated, first by Saudi Prince Bandar and then by Rumsfeld and his neoconservative dream. Throughout, Cheney looms as a specter whose role and influence was largely unknown, a silent presence at meetings who was rumoured to wield great influence but whose actions even Woodward cannot actually detect.

The court history of this age is perhaps its least interesting aspect. In future years, I suspect, we’ll show decreasing interest in these feeble, narrow, and ultimately powerless men and women at the top. But they did exercise something like control, and it seems certain that any of them could have prevented the disaster had they been able to summon the right mix of eloquence and courage at the critical moment.

February 24, 2007 (permalink)

Thomas E. Ricks

The definitive early history of the Americans in Iraq. Fiasco lacks the richly circumstantial, lyrical detail of Imperial Life in the Emerald City and the intellectual depth of Packer's The Assassins’ Gate, but for comprehensive historical narrative — who was there, what they wanted to do, and what went wrong — Ricks is superb.

February 19, 2007 (permalink)

Adam Gopnick praised this memorable and funny tale of a season with the 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that would shortly become a dynasty but that was, in 1973, about three bricks shy of a load. I've always enjoyed Blount on Wait Wait! Don’t Tell Me! and I needed some sort of break from Iraq.

What’s especially interesting about Blount's season is that he winds up feeling about football like a player. It’s a job. A lot hangs in the balance, but it’s a dirty, messy, uncomfortable chore. It turns out it was a dangerous job as well; just thirty years later, a shocking number of these young athletes are dead.

Asked how he feels after a loss, coach Noll replies:

"It hasn't changed. I still feel with my hands." Sometimes, you had to hand it to Noll.

February 19, 2007 (permalink)

Paul Fussell takes long, literate journeys with Waugh, Lawrence, Orwell, Hemingway, Isherwood, Norman Douglas, Robert Byron, Peter Fleming, and a cast of thousands of inkeepers, touts, customs officials, and other impediments to travel. His topic is not simply traveling or the peculiar imperatives of the travel book, that strange composite fiction that lies somewhere South of the book of essays and North of the novel. Fussell’s true interest instead lies in what we should do and how we should behave — an interest he acquired with special urgency under the instruction of German artillery in the winter of 1944-5 — and his prophet is the Robert Byron who proposed a special prize for those who could travel while reading three significant new books each week, with an additional £1000 for those who would additionally undertake to drink a bottle of wine each night.

February 1, 2007 (permalink)

In her final column, Molly Ivins urged readers to resist the proposed escalation in Iraq and singled out this fine volume as a key lesson.

January 31, 2007 (permalink)

One striking aspect of this classic essay from 1931 is its confidence in Progress, even though its author is clearly not among her admirers. Butterfield argues against a family of related historical fallacies that arise from searching the past to justify and glorify the present. If our concept of History is to study the Reformation for seeds of freedom, liberty, and modernity, then we are naturally led to admire the winners and deplore the losers, to cheer on revolutions (as long as they were successful) and to have no sympathy with conservatives who fought for defensive or delaying causes.

Sitting amidst the debris of Thatcher, Reagan, and Bush, we see the failures of Whig history are not necessarily Whiggish or liberal. A great deal of neoconservative thought, for example, suffers from Butterfield's malady. Whatever leads to the desirable aspects of the present validates the policies that won: Bush was right to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power and, if he were, things would be worse than they are. When Macauley wrote that "the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement," this was the rhetoric of the moderate left. Somehow, its valence has changed; today, this is the Morning In America voice of the right. Presentism has moved from validating progress and science to supporting mysticism and nostalgia for an imagined past.

January 22, 2007 (permalink)

A compendium of imaginary expertise and almanac to a slightly off-kilter America with 51 states, too many hoboes, and quite enough eels to go around.

Hodgman is the comic talent behind the current Apple "Hello, I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" ad campaign. It's a brilliant set of ads, at once vicious and good natured. The well-produced audiobook has much the same spirit but lacks the venomous purpose. It's pleasantly amusing, but perhaps it lacks direction.

January 21, 2007 (permalink)

Blue van Meer is sixteen, preternaturally smart, and her professorial father "always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it." She figured she'd be seventy before she was ready, but life intervened and here she is, sitting in he freshman dorm room in Harvard Yard, setting pen to paper.

I took a deep breath. At the top of the page, I wrote in my neatest handwriting, “Curriculum.’ and then, “Required Reading.”

That was always how Dad begin.

Each of the thirty six chapters is aptly named for a Great Book. A schematic of the climax is brilliant in itself: "Good Country People" (O'Connor), The Trial (Kafka), Paradise Lost (Milton), The Secret Garden (Burnett), and Metamorphoses (Ovid). This is the second wonderful novel of Senior Year in a year (see Sittenfield, Prep ) and it's wonderful. A special delight for the bookish and a novel of the moment, this one is not to be missed and not to be put off.

January 17, 2007 (permalink)

Writers of historical mysteries need to accept that some people walk. They don’t run, they don’t dash over the frozen Charles in the middle of winter, pursuing nefarious suspects. They don’t throw punches. They seldom raise their voice.

Matthew Pearl’s mystery, in which Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., James Russell Lowell, and J. T. ("Ticknor and") Fields jointly translate Dante and catch a serial killer, must necessarily endure buckets of exposition. These were famously expository fellows. It was an expository era. Pearl draws them well — Holmes and Longellow brilliantly — and accepts that a lot of the action is going to come in drawing rooms and studies and hired cabs. He even contrives a nifty plot obstacle — an outbreak of horse distemper — to show us how effortlessly he can hide the seams if he chooses.

It's not necessary to mar these well-drawn characters by forcing them into physical action. There’s plenty of excitement in the struggle for the soul of Harvard and the American intellect, so there’s no urgent need for fisticuffs.

I 'read' this as an audiobook, but accidentally purchased the abridged version. Back when audiobooks came on cassette, abridgments were common and, in my experience, were done with care. In this case, the scars are too clear to overlook.

January 11, 2007 (permalink)

Robert Harris

A fascinating political thriller, based on the rise of Cicero to the consulship in 63 B.C. Harris manages to capture the characteristic rhythm of Cicero's sentences, their many clauses, their frequent appositions, but never bogs down in tiresome pedantry. His Cicero is, I suspect, rather more pleasant and entertaining than the man.

As Hornby observed in The Believer, Harris has a knack for avoiding anachronistic exposition. Historical fiction writers tend to have characters explain things that nobody would talk about, because everyone (in their time, or their world) already knows. Harris almost never does this. (At one point he does give way and lets a character remind us who Tiberius Gracchus was and what happened to him, but even Homer nods.) His Romans are always Romans, but they never stop to think about how Rome is ancient or explain things for 21st-century witnesses. Remarkably little needs to be explained, anyway.

Though Harris is at some pains not to underline this, the struggle to preserve the Roman constitution against Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar bears a startling similarity to the struggle to preserve American civil liberties. When Pompey erects beacon stations along busy river roads, supposedly to provide warning against pirate raids but actually as security theater to show worried voters that something was being done, the specter of contemporary airport searches and subway announcements is impossible to suppress.

December 31, 2006 (permalink)

For the last dinner of 2006, I braised a bunch of duck legs. I started out by making some fresh stock, using a duck carcass I'd saved from some months ago. I seared the duck legs in olive oil until nicely brown, and then braised them for about 3 hours in the chicken stock and two cups of Banyuls along with a skillet-ful of carmelized onion, carrot, and fennel and lots of thyme.

Banyuls is a fortified, sweet, grenache-led red wine. I didn't know, either. It's good with chocolate, too.

After the braise, the duck legs were crisped in the oven while I strained and reduced the sauce. With the duck, we had a nice gratin of potatoes, turnips, and prunes, baked in cream and seasoned with some more thyme.

All of this is from Susan Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques , which has been my favorite cookbook of 2006 (winning by a nose over the wonderful Charcuterie: The Art Of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, chiefly because I find it hard to wait long enough to salt, smoke, and cure stuff). The book presents weekly dinner menus (for six) for each season of the year, featuring lots of interesting but accessible seasonal ingredients. The recipes are good but not fussy, ideal for a Sunday afternoon in the kitchen, and the food is very tasty indeed.

December 28, 2006 (permalink)

Though this delightful volume is nicely printed between hard covers, it's not a book. Spenser no longer appears in books.

Almost everything here is dialog. When Parker needs to describe a place, he chooses a brand-name landmark that will be familiar to his readers -- the bar at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, Viand in New York. When Parker needs a minor character, he reaches for one of the characters he developed in earlier volumes. We've got quite a crew of them this time: April Kyle, Patricia Utley, Hawk, Tony Marcus, Susan. The other characters are cyphers and placeholders, strictly off the rack.

When other writers need some psychological depth, they let their characters interact and reveal their neuroses and quirks. Parker, instead, trots out Susan to pronounce a diagnosis, which the characters can then validate at their convenience, now that the audience knows what to watch for.

And yet, this is a lot of fun. Hawk is Hawk, Spenser is adorable, and April Kyle is always interesting. The epigrams are plentiful and terrific, the winter equivalent of beach reading.

We have a name for literary work that's almost entirely dialogue, that relies on stock characters and a fixed plot arc, and that rewards us with epigrammatic wit. We call this theater. We call it, specifically, comedy. Parker set out to be a minor Chandler, but nowadays he's a minor Wilde.

December 23, 2006 (permalink)