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

Arthur Phillips

I like to think that Angelica is a response to Sarah Water's Fingersmith. Both are stories of lower-class Victorian women thrust into loveless luxury and tormented by forces they do not precisely understand. Both are rashomon tales, told from one perspective and then retold, transformed, from other points of view. Both wonderfully recreate a fresh view of the Victorian world.

Angelica is, I think, Fingersmith done straight — not merely in the sense that it's about heterosexual protagonists, but also because Fingersmith is a Victorian novel about postmodern concerns and Angelica is a Victorian novel about Victorian concerns. 19th century science was working out exactly what difference meant: were women (or Frenchmen, black men, working men) deeply and intrinsically different, as dogs are from cats, or are they pretty similar? Do women think and feel as men do, or are they truly alien? At the same time, 19th century psychiatry is filled with treatments of maladies that simply don't occur much anymore. Were these cases spurious, or fraudulent, or misunderstood? Or did madness once adorn itself in very different garments?

One beautiful moment concerns a group of old actors who habitually call each other by the name of their best or most characteristic part. One aged Shakespearean, who plays an important role in this story, is known as Third.

The concluding chapter, in which the toddler at the center of these events tries to discuss them as an adult with her psychiatrist, seems unecessary to me. Nonetheless, this is a very fine book.

September 16, 2007 (permalink)

Gold explores the four hats of innovation (science, art, engineering, design) and the seven "patterns" of innovation (necessity, genius, deduction, extrapolation, colonization, improvement, and redefinition). Perhaps it is inevitable for discussions of first principles to seem deceptively elementary, but Gold depends heavily on hand-waving and the argument rests lightly on observation. Some of his details are wrong.

As an example of "colonization", he looks at Campbell's line of “Home Cookin’” soups, which he says take something free (homemade soup), reprocess the concept, and sell it back to the consumer. But homemade soup is not free: when I make corn chowder from fresh Wilson's Farm corn, wild boar bacon, and potatoes and herbs from The Farm School, the ingredients cost a lot. So does my time. He says,

What makes real homemade soup wonderful is the variation and the work.

How about the taste? The aroma? Color? Texture? The interesting folks to whom you serve it? This is notpicking, yes, but if you're this wrong in the Theory of Soup, how far can you be trusted in the Theory of Art?

Gold is similarly confused about the position of originality (which he also calls creativity) in what he calls "our culture".

There are cultures where the telling of stories means retelling the same stories that your parents told you. The power of the story, in fact, comes from the retelling of it over and over again. In its consistency, its sameness, it provides the eternal. In our culture, this is called copyright infringement.

I read this after seeing a production of Henry V in Manchester, a production filled with allusion to old events (when Prologue speaks of war, a single poppy petal drifts down from above). This contradicts Gold: we're always telling old stories. But, worse, "retelling the same stories that your parents told you," to someone whose birth certificate read "Richard Goldstein", surely must be an allusion to the duty of Passover, the responsibility to tell the tale. So, yes, we've got a complex issue surrounding originality and storytelling, just as we've got complex issues that surround all sorts of ownership of physical things.

Gold isn't just oversimplifying; he must know, here, that he's misrepresenting. When he writes,

The sense of eternalness in our culture in our culture comes from everything being ever new.

he knows that this is not true of his culture or my culture but only of some imaginary parody of Valley Girl culture. His contempt for those valley girls is here matched by his contempt for his reader, whom he apparently considers too lazy or too ignorant to see the vast range of objections. When Gold muses about the morality of the Plenitude and its confusion of the real and the simulated, the sign and the signifier, he seems to think that Plato's cave is not already jammed with tour groups.

Gold thinks that all university students are learning to make stuff for the Plenitude. But what of those who will, next year, be actors? Psychiatrists? Sex workers? And while farmers and cooks make stuff, that stuff is promptly consumed.

Gold thinks the Plenitude "creates a world that any dispassionate observer would have to say lies somewhere between bland and ugly." Sounds right. Isn't. What lies between bland and ugly? What Gold means, I think, is that the Plenitude lies somewhere between common and vulgar. That might be true; but common is not bland, and if you find that the vulgar is necessarily ugly, then you are a snob.

I wanted to like this book. I first saw it while leaving the Coop, and though late for an appointment I grabbed a copy and marched right back to the cash register. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. He did some good work, and funded some good work, and was on the front lines reconciling art and computing for many years, working in the best and most visible post for the task in the world.

September 15, 2007 (permalink)

Amy Bloom

Lillian Leyb, a young Russian Jew, flees a pogrom and winds up in a New York tenement, sharing a bed with angry young Judith and finding work sewing costumes for the Yiddish theater while the theater owner and his son, the star actor, share her as a mistress. In New York, though, she hears that her daughter, lost in the pogrom, might have been saved by a neighbor and taken to Birobidzhan, the Russian Jewish enclave. And so, Lillian plans to travel back to Russia — not by sea, as she came, but overland to Seattle, the Yukon, and across the Bering Straight to Siberia.

Bloom is a lovely writer, and perhaps feels free in the broad vistas of this small novel to stray further from the fascinating pathology of her short stories. Away is a fine series of stories and tableaux, string together by a shared character and by her long, long journey.

September 4, 2007 (permalink)

Babylon By Bus
Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann

The authors are two young men who make their living selling YANKEES SUCK t-shirts on the street outside Fenway Park. They like to travel. In 2003, they decide to travel to Baghdad, and somehow find themselves running a small office providing liason between the CPA and non-governmental organizations. They have few or no qualifications for their job, and so they fit right in to the rest of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

It lasts for several months of hard drinking, hard partying, and somewhat effective distribution of cartons of used clothing. Indeed, their efforts to actually truck the cartons to Sadr City and get it into the hands of kids, and not politicians or scam artists or mosques, is one of the success stories of the occupation. They cope with all the usual enemies, and fly under the radar of “the Bremer youth” — the endless stream of inexperienced Young Republicans dispatched through the Heritage Foundation to administer Iraq. But it was a minor and ineffective gesture, and Lemoine and Neumann will be the first to admit.

There is no point in romanticizing what we did. We thought we were helping Iraqis. We were wrong. Because of our failure, we'd leave the Middle East in a state of regret. But our story does offer a window into the midguided ideals and rank ignorance that drove us.

A fine and (now) seemingly-inevitable epitaph for the entire American effort in Iraq.

September 3, 2007 (permalink)

Twenty six short essays or letters explore how one might learn to act — and think about acting — and the trials and challenges of a life in the theater. This collection might be best viewed as a response to David Mamet's True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor; Brustein and Mamet clearly respect and value each other, but they appreciate very different aspects of the theater and Mamet's abjuration to "Stand up, speak out, and stay out of school" is anathema to Brustein.

Just offstage, a third party to the dialogue is Lee Strasberg or Stella Adler, proponents the The Method, which Mamet views as a delusive infringement into the playwright's special domain and about which Brustein is deeply ambivalent, treasuring the psychological depth of many Method-influenced performances but mistrusting the dangers of amateur psychology and the perils of identification.

The book is also interesting for its portrayal of an experienced teacher looking back on a career of students. Uniquely here, non-professionals may feel they know the teacher (as an artistic director and a critic) and we also know a number of his students (Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Cherry Jones).

Of special interest is Brustein's impassioned insistence that criticism should work in the service of art instead of alternating between amusing ridicule (to sell newspapers) and and empty praise (to sell tickets). Brustein describes a a variety of attempts to deflect criticism, instead, into the pursuit of artistic truth. All failed.

August 18, 2007 (permalink)

A lovely matryoshka of a thriller. One afternoon, a New Jersey housewife picks up some pictures at the photomat and finds an old picture in the middle of her snapshots — a picture of a group of college kids, one of whom might be her husband. Later, the husband takes a look at the picture, steps out for some sort of errand, and never comes home. A complicated time is had by all.

I grabbed this after reading Eric Konigsberg's appreciation, “Paperback Writer”, in The Atlantic, and I wasn't disappointed. Coben has a true gift for plot twists, but that isn't the point here: in fact, the best plot twist is expended on a red herring. This thriller is about the wheels within wheels, and I don't know that it's ever been done better.

I did notice one irritation: when Coben wants to avoid descriptive folderol, he talks about "one of those Starbucks debit cards" or "one of those black signs" or "one of those massive outdoor malls", "one of those upscale hair salons", "one of those gray speakerphones". Robert Parker, also concerned with getting back to the dialog and facing the same problem, just uses brand names and familiar locations as a convenient shorthand. Here, it's a tic, and like an undone button it's distracting once you notice it.

August 10, 2007 (permalink)

The kids are alright. I didn't want to wait until 2011 to know, though of course we always knew. It's not painless, but you knew it wouldn't be. You-Know-Who won't rule the world; you knew that.

There are buckets of exposition, some of it awkwardly late. And I'm uneasy about those goblins. I'm not a fan of hiding the nasty parts of our fairy stories; our ancestors told some weird stories and believed some bad things, and that's part of our big story too. I don’t see the point of straying into this troubled terrain.

The Battle of Hogwarts is magnificent, capped by the unforgettable image of a platoon of school desks rushing down the hall to some disputed barricade.

August 7, 2007 (permalink)

Lately, I've found it satisfactory to skip the Harry Potter books and wait for the detailed and faithfully-rendered movies. I particularly enjoyed the recent film of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I realized on leaving the theater that my policy has a flaw: I won't know How It Turns Out until sometime in 2011.

That seems a long time to wait, even if it does require interrupting a heavy summer reading list for an extra 1200 pages of light fiction. And so, Eric Sink on the Business of Software and N. J. Lowe's wonderful The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative stay on the stack while I revisit Hagrid and Hogwarts.

August 3, 2007 (permalink)

This little book was meant to be carried in the hand, along with a guidebook, by British travelers in Florence. I'm musing on a book chapter about the hypertextuality of travel writing — the way the travel book links to other books, to sidebars and lists and maps, and to artifacts and locations. This one is an early, and fascinating, example of the species. Ruskin moves neatly from instructing his readers on the quality of 14th century sculpture to the vacuity of dinner parties abroad where everyone talks sentimentally of Italy and exchanges the latest news from London and New York.

July 26, 2007 (permalink)

What was Chaco, anyway? This challenging collection of specialist essays offers many answers, but they suggest the emergence in the last few decades of a remarkable new consensus: the end of Chaco was not a drought or a migration or a transfer of power amongst peer polities. It was a revolution.

What are the Pueblos? One thing we has seemed certain about the Southwest since Coronado: this is not Mesoamerica. There are hints of similarities and influence: ritual use of Macaws, turquoise, and cotton, and urban concentrations that, in the Southwest, are spectacular for their massive masonry if not their population.

The Architecture of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Mesoamerica is step pyramids and kingly priests, ballcourts and bells and conquests. The Pueblos frown on hierarchy, deplore violence, and don't play ball. Pueblos have Kachinas and clowns, not terrible serpents or Huitzilopochtli. There was a fashion on the 80's for suggesting that Chaco was, or was influenced by, a Mesoamerican trading outpost of some sort, but the in time that fell out of favor.

The new synthesis begins with a realization that we can recover some, admittedly slight and imperfect, hints of the ideological situation from mute material remains. Lekson's wildly brilliant Chaco Meridian plays a role. And now, from field surveys and close examination of familiar sites and their surroundings, come a set of remarkable proposals.

Kivas in modern pueblos are ceremonial. Lekson argues that small round rooms at Chaco aren't yet ceremonial: they're residences. To be precise, they're palaces, built with great formality in the Old Official Style. So we don't have vast apartment buildings surrounding a few ceremonial kivas in the courtyard: we have a few prestige residences in the courtyard, built underground (because that's the way it was done in the old times) into raised platforms and towers, so you have underground palaces that everyone can see. And, behind them, we have — what? A storehouse? A ceremonial backdrop? What?

My own wild idea: there's a section of the oldest part of Bonito that was used for elite burials. Nearby rooms had collections of valuable and esoteric objects. It's a very visible place, but with controlled access, at the center of what was for centuries the chief pilgrimage or tourist destination of the region. Could it have been a museum?

There seems to have been a vast, circular amphitheater between Bonito and Chetro Ketl. Archaeologists always assumed it was a space, a gap between whatever these two great buildings were. It now looks like this was a vast public performance space with engineered acoustics, a perfect circle that just touched Bonito, just touches Chetro Ketl, and just touches the wash.

There were platform mounds. There were enigmatic ritual roads, far too long and too broad and much too straight to every repay the effort of their construction. There seems to have been a ballcourt: the Chetro Ketl field would have made, it turns out, a very bad cornfield but an excellent raised platform for ball games. (It's also possible that this was something else, perhaps a set of ponds for industrial production of frogs. The prehistoric Southwest is like that: maybe a sports stadium, maybe a factory for frog legs.)

And there were pyramids. Pyramids! Two of them, built by modifying and refacing natural hills, with long, broad ritual stairways ascending to McElmo structures on their top.

In short, Chaco looks, suddenly, very Mesoamerican. And then, at its end, something happened. Something big, and fast. To the South, centuries of Mimbres decorated ceramics come to a sudden end: instead of sacred pots decorated with animals and ritually buried when they wore out, people started to paint their pots black. The entire Chaco region seems to have been abandoned.

Chaco broke up, or moved. Kachinas appeared. Kingly priests and terrible, high-stakes games become cautionary tales told in winter. We aren't like that, the stories say, we don't do things like that, and we never, ever, use such symbols.

It does sound like a revolution.

Stein et al., in their article, make interesting reference to oral traditions preserved by Navaho hataali about Chaco and 'The Gambler'. If we read Chaco's end as a revolution or ideological rejection, and if there's still a memory of those events, they would have been fresher in 1680. It might be interesting to see what hints might be sifted from surviving rhetoric of the Pueblo revolt, or the 1700 sack of Awatovi.

July 19, 2007 (permalink)

The most talked-about story of unfortunate sex since the summer of Portnoy.

Two newlyweds, one night, a tightly compressed and uncomfortable story: it's a formula for an intensely memorable quick read. This isn’t about sex, though you wouldn't know that from what you hear. McEwan's interest is not so much the question of sex, but rather the matter of seriousness; the difficulty his lovers face is not so much their terrible inexperience but their incapacity for understanding what to take seriously, and when to shrug, or laugh, or simply wait.

December 16, 2012 (permalink)

Samuel Eliot Morison, in the midst of writing the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II in 14 volumes which I greatly enjoyed some years back, was asked to give a talk at Exeter. This talk, combined with some Oxford lectures later in the year, yields this slender and likeable volume. Morison is best, of course, on American strategy in the Pacific; he was there, and he was singularly well connected. He's got less to say about Japanese strategy, in part because his view was that the Japanese had no plausible options. The European strategic picture he draws is conventional, but what else is the point of having an Official Historian?

July 15, 2007 (permalink)

I'm sorry, but no. Everything is not miscellaneous. This intriguing, lively, and useful book is also, I believe, mistaken.

Weinberger seizes a good and interesting idea at the outset. Organizing physical objects — arranging books in a library — is very difficult because each book can only be in one place. Arranging a physical index like a card catalog is easier than arranging a bookcase, because cross-references let us build alternative hierarchies of subject, author, title. Better yet, we can skip the hierarchy and jump to a faceted classification system in which each axis of classification is independent and coequal.

Besides, it's easier to move physical proxies like notecards than to move the objects themselves. But building an index to an index — a database or a Web — gives us even more flexibility and makes reorganization much easier. Because the database is virtual, we need not limit cross references for fear that we'll run out of drawers.

First year computer science majors know all this, and knowingly repeat to each other: 'the answer to all problems is another layer of indirection.'

This book, especially its early chapters, is a useful corrective for some of the more exuberant fantasies of information architecture and for some naive interpretations of the semantic Web. Weinberger sets off at interesting place and commences with a valuable contribution. Multiple organizations are better than a single, bad organization. Simple search is better than a bad organization. Letting people muddle through, discovering whatever ad hoc structure they can manage to find, is better than trying to teach them all an arbitrary and peculiar scheme.

But does this mean that everything is miscellaneous? Or does it simply mean that a miscellaneous structure is better than a bad one? A math student, facing a problem set that seems baffling, might conclude that "everything is too hard", but that student's frustration does not prove that mathematics is vain.

Everything is Miscellaneous is so thoroughly popularized and simplified that subtle and perplexing questions — where does meaning really reside in a hypertext? can formal notations usefully represent knowledge? what are categories, anyway? — are described and dismissed in grade school vocabulary. We are given a bare minimum of references, and most of those defend the facts in the author's mundane examples without giving much insight into the extensive debates and controversies that underpin the ideas.

For example, RDF triples are introduced with a vague wave of the hand, and dismissed with an even vaguer allusion to the advantages of fuzzy sets. Microformats appear briefly, are praised for miscellaneousness, and vanish. Conceptual clustering is trotted out to rescue our metadata from arbitrary categories, is lauded for being open in some way to data mining in the tagosphere, and nothing more is heard of it. The treatment of hypertextual structure and the construction of textual meaning is trivial, and there's no hint in the text of the rich discussions and violent disagreements it has inspired. We seldom see real examples or discuss actual methods; it's all "Capri, Italy and capri pants."

In the end, the conclusion — “Everything is miscellaneous” — seems calculated to please managers who are too lazy or too distracted to actually master their business. If everything is miscellaneous, what would mastery mean? Instead of coming to conclusions, we can assure managers that no conclusion is possible, that the only wise course is to throw everything into a heap and let the customers sort it out.

That might work for retail. I'm a peddler, too. But there's a big part of the world where the right and wrong answers are not simply what today's customer happens to imagine they believe, and in that part of the world, I think, everything is not really miscellaneous. When your control loop is unstable and your distillation column runs away, that's not miscellaneous. When your job shop scheduling breaks down so your people are changing paint colors every five minutes and your customers can't get the machines they ordered, that's not miscellaneous. Some things are arbitrary. Some things are matters of linguistic or social convention. That doesn't mean everything is arbitrary or conventional; "everything is intertwingled" means that the structure is complicated, not that it doesn't (sometimes) exist.

Of course, Weinberger knows this. He's a philosophy professor; these controversies and perplexities are where he lives. But here it's all simplified and popularized. We don't know what's the straight dope and what's the kiddie version.

Some things are related, other are not. It's all hard to understand, but the height of the mountain does not make the climb inconceivable.

July 10, 2007 (permalink)

The Vor Game
Lois McMaster Bujold

A pleasant, predictable, and largely unobjectionable space opera in the Hornblower tradition. Ensign Miles graduates from the Academy, receives an unpopular assignment that proves even more unpleasant than he expected, is assigned to Intelligence, and then ends up at the very center of an unexpected space battle. A good time is had by his friends, his enemies enjoy themselves rather less. The neocon militarism that sometimes leaks into recent American space opera (and to which current British space opera reacts) is not much in evidence here, beyond the familiar longing for feudalism that generically suffuses space opera.

July 7, 2007 (permalink)

My goodness! Michael Tolliver, our old friend Mouse, is 55.

It's great to hear from everyone, in this wonderful, confectionary postcard of a book. And, all things considered, everyone is pretty much all right. There are surprises, of course — you’ll simply have to meet Brian and Mary-Jane’s daughter yourself — but it's great to catch up. You'll have to keep your eyes out for the orchid. ("There is no fifth destination" may be the next "All your bases are belong to us.")

Tales of the City and Angels in America truly did move the bar. That change has been obscured by the Bush years and the talk radio Christianist vitriol, but it's a real and lasting change. (Stonewall was 38 years ago this week. Jackie Robinson’s rookie season and the Integration of the Army both happened in 1948; by 1986 years later, Andrew Young was mayor of Atlanta and, even in the deepest corners of the deep south, racist vitriol had been stuffed into the closet.) The Massachusetts legislature couldn't even muster a 25% vote to authorize a referendum on gay marriage; the center hasn’t moved far enough, but it has moved.

What did happened to Mary Ann Singleton? Or, rather, what did Maupin mean when he let her, obsessed with her career and her schemes, fly off to New York unmissed and unmourned? I suppose she symbolizes Cleveland’s involvement with that city by the Bay, and then sense that Cleveland no longer wanted anything to do with San Francisco. Michael Tolliver Lives celebrates the first signs of reconciliation.

June 30, 2007 (permalink)

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) is the woman who invented Iraq, the one person most responsible for seeing that the Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra should make up a separate, united country. A wealthy and erudite Englishwoman of formidable learning and accomplishment, she took a First in Modern History from St. Margaret's Hall, scaled Alpine summits (in her underwear) that had seldom before been climbed (and never by a woman), spoke flawless Arabic, conducted competent excavations, taught T. E. Lawrence to make maps and greet sheiks, and brooked no nonsense.

One morning, as she was breakfasting with Haji Naji in his summer house, a dervish strode in with an iron staff and rudely demanded to be treated as a guest. Haji Naji told him to go. Looking threateningly at Gertrude, he said that he had as much right as she to be there. He then sat down in the entrance and declared, ‘I rely only on God,’ and began to read in a loud voice from the Koran. Neither Haji Naji, his son, nor his servants, could move him, so Gertrude told the dervish, ‘God’s a long way off and the police are very near,’ snatched up his iron staff, and struck him with it. He left.

If this wonderfully rich and readable biography has a flaw, it lies in passing too lightly over Bell's political thinking. She was, with Lawrence, a champion of the Arab cause, but we learn little of her thinking on imperialism or, for that matter, on insurrection. She was indefatigable in defense of Arabs but did not care at all for Zionism. She worked hard to play an important role in spheres hitherto closed to women, but opposed suffrage. Indeed, her opposition to suffrage seems to have contributed largely to the decline of her reputation, and it would be interesting to hear her out and to learn what she was thinking. Bell seems always to have viewed the creation of Iraq as a goal and a triumph, and it is not entirely clear from the biography exactly why she worked so hard to glue the Kurdish North to the Shiite South, or whether her dismissal of Shiite leadership was grounded in necessity or illusion.

June 24, 2007 (permalink)