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

Mike Daisey is a brilliant comic actor who does one-man performances on a bare stage, equipped with a desk, a chair, a glass of water, and an outline. This book describes how he came to have this occupation, rather than his previous employment in the customer service department of

It's a pleasant memoir, although we know from the start, roughly, where this is going to end. There's a terrific novel trying to escape from the confines of reality. But you knew that. The memoir is fun, and Daisey is a very fine storyteller, and when it all winds up in a café in Madrid with his fiancée (and now director) Jean-Michel as they sip their third beer of the morning, we understand the hero's journey sometimes involves lots of meetings and free office supplies.

June 7, 2007 (permalink)

Busman’s Honeymoon is of the great mysteries of all time. Its first half is a masterpiece of charm and observation, filled with wonderful characters and a delightful romance.

Unfortunately, Sayers decided that she still needed a mystery to wind the spring of her plot, and at the end of a career of baroque mystery (this would be her last Lord Peter) she turned to one of her most baroque crimes. Chandler famously wrote that the criminal who schemed this one had to have God sitting in his lap, and of course he's right. And there are plenty of ugly snippets of borderline anti-Semitism, nasty class innuendo, and I think more than a dash of sexism in what is trying to be early pop feminism.

But still: Harriet, Peter, the people of Paggleham, and The Dowager Duchess.

(Amazon has this paired with Mystic River: what are they thinking? Two very good regional mysteries that share nothing else in common?)

May 27, 2007 (permalink)

Paul Revere's Ride
David Hackett Fischer

To preserve operational security, the soldiers woke up and set off in the middle of the night. It was a large patrol. Insurgents had been increasingly active over the recent weeks.

Their mission: to locate explosives that the insurgency had hidden in houses and religious buildings in a farm town about 18 miles from the capital. Their goal: to support the shaky government by improving security, and perhaps to apprehend two notorious insurgent leaders.

Every effort was made to maintain secrecy, but of course the soldiers were observed by townspeople as they moved through the night-darkened streets and into the boats that the navy had supplied. Their equipment and uniforms made them conspicuous. The news passed from door to door. Someone climbed a tower and waved a pair of lanterns alert anyone watching on the other side of the river. People who saw the signal got word to the activists. Messengers set off to warn insurgent sympathizers: they are coming.

What I want to know is, how did we get from Revere to Baghdad? When did Americans decide to change sides? All this happened, pretty much, on my doorstep. Revere tried to get from Boston to Concord by the usual road, found it guarded, and so took the back way through the unfashionable towns of Malden and Medford. Malden, remaining unfashionable, is where I live; my daily commute takes me down the road Revere road toward Mass. Ave., where Revere turned right toward Lexington and I go straight on to Watertown.

David Hackett Fischer's history of the dawn of the American insurgency is brilliant, lively, and intelligent. The research is immaculate, the historiography brilliant, and Fischer's judgments unclouded by legend, hagiography, or academic timidity.

May 19, 2007 (permalink)

This 1962 alternate history explores a world in which Germany conquered Europe and Japan successfully carved out a co-prosperity sphere throughout the Pacific rim, including the North American coast. In a clever conceit, Dick's characters themselves are reading an alternate history that describes yet another outcome of the war, and several come to conclude that their own reality is but a dream.

The core topic, I think, is the American occupation of Japan and its consequences, both for the US and for Japan. We see the contrast of imperial swagger and sincere appreciation for artistic and folk traditions, and we experience at first hand (but with roles reversed) the subtle argumentation of art and mass production, the debasement of the oppressed by the temptations of mass production and the quick buck. And we see strategies for resistance, ranging from subverting the market for "authentic" antiquities to creation of new, ideologically charged, indigenous art forms.

A strange omission, it seems to me, is any mention of the Japanese Detention Camps. Surely, these camps would have become a cause célèbre in the Japanese occupation of California, and the Survivors would have been very much on the minds of the Japanese administration and of the oppressed native Americans.

May 15, 2007 (permalink)

A deeply silly book, written by a very talented and engaging writer. I loved her Notes Found In a Bottle, and this volume sets out to tell the intertwined stories of five important writers whose lives intersected in 19th century Concord.

It was a fascinating time and these are fascinating people, but Cheever is so enthralled by their various loves that she can spare little attention for their ideas. These people still fascinate us because they were so deeply engaged with ideas; they lived in the mind more than the flesh, though their ideas were always firmly rooted in the nobility of labor, the fruitful soil, and the transience of this world. It is interesting to know that they likely fell in and out of bed with each other from time to time, but to ignore the ideas and the work for the love story is, I think, to miss the point.

Perhaps this is not the book Cheever wanted to write. Cheever's treatment of Thoreau, Hawthorne, and especially of Emerson is superficial, but she seems a great deal more interested in Louisa May Alcott, in Lydian Emerson, and (to a lesser degree) in Sophia Peabody. Perhaps their biography turned out to be impossible to recover or impractical to market. The absence of ideas makes more sense if the book was meant to be centered on the practical, retiring Lydian and the invalid Sophia, especially when contrasted with Louisa May Alcott.

When Cheever does get around to discussing ideas, her focus is bizarre. She revels in deploring Bronson Alcott's willingness to accept other people's money and Emerson's reliance on his wife's subservience, but who relies on Mr. Alcott for ideas about earning a living, or on Emerson for feminism? She observes that Thoreau's influence lay far in the future, that to the Concordians he was at best a minor writer who was useful to have around the garden, yet she engages Walden in more detail than any book of Emerson's. Her condemnation of the Transcendentalist for their intolerance of slavery is bizarre, as she seems to imagine that the war was caused by a few ideological hotheads and that, left in more politic and tolerant hands, a continuing compromise could have been achieved or that New England in 1860 would have been happy to support slavery indefinitely. Had New England been so compliant some four score years earlier, there would have been no revolution and American literature would have been, at most, a provincial fashion.

May 10, 2007 (permalink)

The Nine Tailors
Dorothy R. Sayers

Perhaps the definitive early mystery, this is a delight I save for special occasions, usually for a return from a nice old corner of England. Sayers understands what she needs to explain and what she can leave unsaid, and respects the reader enough to let us puzzle out the mysteries of change ringing. without buckets of unnecessary exposition. The imperfections — the nasty anti-semitic slur, the over-the-top elaboration of plot — are characteristic of Sayers but don't detract from the book’s special delights and, as ever in Sayers, the minor characters are delicious.

At a banquet at Royal Holloway, I confessed to my English dining companion that everything I knew about British women's education I learned from Dorothy Sayers. He looked blank. Don’t let this happen to you. If you haven’t met Sayers, start here.

May 5, 2007 (permalink)

Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner

A witty book that makes lots of clever observations about social issues by applying the rigor of economics and an open mind to a variety of intriguing questions. If drugs are such a terrific business, why are so many drug pushers impoverished? How might Roe v. Wade have affected crime rates? What can we learn by studying the names people choose for their babies? The common thread here is to gather observational data in statistically useful samples and then to study that data creatively and dispassionately.

May 3, 2007 (permalink)

Robert Harris

It is 1964. Europe is united, and from London to Moscow, from Oslo to Rome, you can use the same currency — the Deutschmark — almost anywhere. The world is not entirely peaceful — terrorist bombings disturb even the great European capital of Berlin, inspired by the remains of the Soviet resistance in Siberia. The U.S. and Germany have been fighting a cold war for twenty years, but President Kennedy has just announced a call for détente that has been warmly greeted by the 75-year-old Führer. Nobody knows what happened to the Jews, but they're assumed to have been resettled somewhere on the Russian frontier. Nobody asks.

And then, one night, a police dispatcher gets the duty roster mixed up and, when the body of a rich old bureaucrat washes up in the Havel, the wrong inspector is summoned to the scene and the world begins to unravel.

This skillfully-wrought book is great fun, but it is also instructive on two counts. It came to my attention because Nick Horny mentioned it in his column in The Believer; Harris is Hornby's brother-in-law but Hornby mentioned that Harris has a knack for conveying historical information without stopping for buckets of exposition. After all, people in 1964 Berlin don't stop to talk about what happened on the Eastern Front in 1943: everybody knows about the war. Finding ways to explain to the reader what everyone knows is the special challenge of the historical novel, and Harris does a wonderful job here, varying his technique and approach so you never know when new vistas are about to open.

Second, this is a very neat formal experiment. The mystery, after all, is not a puzzle: the point of the mystery is that the world has been damaged — a crime has been committed — and the hero works to restore the damaged world to health. And here, of course, the world has been damaged: even in Nazi Berlin, it's not nice to find bureaucrats knocked on the head and thrown in the river. But restoring the world to the status quo can’t be the goal, either; you can't go home again, and when the police inspector learns about the provenance of the socks he used to wear in his U-boat, he doesn't want to go home.

May 1, 2007 (permalink)

The central tenet of Mark Hurst's book is the belief that the key to happiness and personal effectiveness is an empty e-mail inbox. I find this remarkable. Why does my inbox matter at all? And why is it more important than a clean desk, or a neatly-made bed, or a shiny sink? The extraordinary weight he attaches to the inbox lies, I think, in a particular emotional significance with which he invests incoming messages; to Hurst, each unfiled email represents a nagging reminder of promises unmet and obligations unfulfilled.

To me, each email message is an email message, signifying nothing in particular beyond what it says. (An unread email, like a ringing telephone, is another thing entirely, of course. It might say anything. It might carry wonderful news, or it might announce a crisis that must be dealt with at once. Whatever it is, if the message can be read it cannot be ignored.)

So, the core lesson of the book addresses a concern that simply isn't mine and that lies, I think, in Hurst’s past rather than in any essential quality of email. Is it wrong to be so emphatic over the desirability of the well-scrubbed inbox? It is not. I have, for example, no difficulty leaving a dirty dish in the sink overnight. I know people who couldn’t do that, who would never be able to sleep with the guilty knowledge of that unwashed dish. I think my attitude is perfectly defensible, I am happy to confess that it's probably better to wash the dishes, and I think we all can agree that it's all personality, not morality.

Hurst has good ideas about ToDo lists, often closely related to David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Hurst does believe every ToDo should have a date, and I have argued elsewhere that it's best to keep ToDo's off your calendar. Some details in late chapters are dubious — a weird diatribe against Word files for storing too much information, for example, is simply an expression of distrust for Microsoft which might well be justified but which is not properly argued. Occasional details are not quite right: treating AAC as an Apple-inspired DRM conspiracy is simply a mistake, and arguing for ASCII as an open alternative to Word files is silly. (The underlying idea that business people would benefit from calling of the typography arms race in internal reports and presentations by limiting everyone to plain Unicode text is attractive and is probably what Hurst really means, but it's not what he says.) Little here will be very new to people who are comfortable with computers, and the book seems unlikely to fall into the hands of people who aren’t.

Still, I found two very useful ideas in the book. First, Hurst urges everybody to grab a keyboard accelerator — he calls them "bit levers" — to save typing. That makes sense to me, although I had never tried one. I grabbed TextExpander right away. Second, the book makes an interesting if tangentially-argued case for giving an email account to your software applications, so you could send or forward them email that they could then process on their own. I like the idea of being able to email my Tinderbox planning document or my marketing plan.

Two intriguing ideas in a slender readable book makes a good experience, even though they're probably not the ideas that the author had in mind.

April 23, 2007 (permalink)

The book has an earnest good humor, it's consistently likable, it’s funny and winning and welcome to drop by for drinks. Some of the gags work beautifully, especially a wonderful, tight eulogy an old school friend delivers for her late (and nearly-ex) husband. Some don’t quite work, but that’s OK with us.

April 12, 2007 (permalink)

Rory Stewart, an ex-foreign service officer turned travel writer, was called back into Her Majesty’s service in 2003 to serve as Deputy Governor of Iraq’s Maysan province. He candidly confesses to all his lack of qualifications for the job, and then pitches in with enthusiasm, good will, and guarded optimism, seeking to do what he can to improve Iraq and to hand a better province back to Iraqi government. This is the tale of the Green Zone years from outside; Stewart works with Iraqis while his masters deal in theories and PowerPoint presentations, and Stewart faces bullets and grenades while headquarters accepts daft Italian reports that everything is quiet.

April 8, 2007 (permalink)

A fine writer, a fine director, and my favorite prose stylist: David Mamet is a treasure. This is his second book this year. I expected to dislike The Wicked Child. I did. I expected to like Bambi vs. Godzilla, and it was indeed a very pleasant way to spend an evening or two. Much of what Mamet says here, he has already covered; this book's essay on "The Jew in Hollywood" is not, I think, quite as good as "The Jew For Export" in Mamet's Make-Believe Town. Mamet's denunciation of that personification of greed and perfidy, the producer, is more complete here than in his On Directing Film, but not necessarily to greater effect. His observations on acting will be familiar to readers of True and False. What’s really best here are the most gritty and technical discussions, a pean to craft workers on the set, an exploration of artifice in film making and the eternal question: how did they get the cat to do that?

April 7, 2007 (permalink)

William Smith (1769-1839), a self-educated man from Oxfordshire who was an enthusiastic collector of rocks and fossils, played a critical role in the development of modern geography. Smith was probably the first to fully grasp the underlying idea of stratigraphy — specifically that, since rock beds are seldom precisely parallel to the surface, you can learn about strata by moving across the surface as well as by digging beneath it. This idea led to his monumental map of 1815, the first large-scale geological map.

Smith was never a rich man and much of his career was plagued by debt and disappointment. But he travelled very widely and did not live meanly; his London house for many years was not far from Sir Joseph Banks, the great botanist, and Banks helped bail Smith out of his (ultimately-intolerable) financial morass.

Winchester is a lively and intelligent writer, and this is a fine and enjoyable volume. He pays, I think, too little attention to the intellectual climate of Smith’s time; Winchester often reminds us of the impending contest between the Church and Darwin, but doesn't mention the specter of civil war, Glorious Revolution, and French Terror that led Smith’s contemporaries to be so very, very reluctant to open windows into men’s souls and thus opened the door to science.

If ever a book asked to be lavishly illustrated, this one did, and Winchester’s vivid descriptions don’t entirely make up for the absent pictures. Smith built his ideas on visual evidence: the way stones looked, the way fossils in this stone looked a lot like fossils in that stone. Smith's geology was all about sands and soils and rocks, about driving around and seeing what was on (and in) the ground. It's all still there, and it would be nice to capture more of it in visual form.

April 6, 2007 (permalink)