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 wonderful, thoughtful romp through the thickets of poetry and thorns of romance. In this amazing book, Byatt has imagined and written the works of two eminent (but fictitious) Victorians and imagined the contemporary academic industry that flourishes in their wake. The 19th century prose and poetry is stunning, the 20th century criticism is real, the academic satire superbly biting.

March 19, 2008 (permalink)

Altered Carbon
Richard K. Morgan

A 25th century thriller, set in a world where people can easily upload and download their consciousness into new bodies or "sleeves", but where (contrary to David Brin) there's a very strong convention that you should only have one body at a time. Zesty, full-throated and hardboiled, the story keeps moving even though the whodunnit is not particularly strong. The world building is wonderful, with a terrific background of Martian archaeology, holidays like Translation Day (when we learned at last how to talk to whales, after which "as rare as whale meat" became proverbial), and a richly-imagined history that leaves eons of proverbial wisdom washed up in the streets of Bay City California, along with an artificially-intelligent hotel that longs to have guests but at which, because it is artificially intelligent, no one will stay.

March 12, 2008 (permalink)

A very strange novel, populated by characters who are not like anyone I know but who, I suddenly realized while walking down a rainy Irish lane, do resonate with dim childhood memories: these are the people that folks at my parents' and grandparents' parties used to talk about. They drink prodigiously, they swap partners carelessly but with great vigor, they think very seriously about the position of art and philosophy in contemporary life.

It was a strange generation, in the 40's and 50's. An it cast a long shadow: when Springsteen recalls “Roy Orbison singing for the lonely”, these are the people he's thinking of.

The backdrop of this 1959 novel is the making of John Huston's 1953 film, Beat The Devil, which was shot on location while the Huston and Truman Capote pretty much made things up as they went along. Like The Naked and The Dead, this is a book that wants to be about gay men, and tries occasionally to come out of the closet, but that can't quite work itself up to the point.

March 11, 2008 (permalink)

An infant tooth-fairy, orphaned or abandoned, hatches from its egg beside a stream, stretches his tiny limbs, and runs straight into wayward birds, pet cats named McCavity, boy, and a tiger. Later, he runs into a girl tooth-fairy and encounters the rest of tooth fair society. Meanwhile, out in the world, he's a night-time fantasy told to three home-schooled kids whose parents have been called out on an emergency that might by The Cat In The Hat but might, for all we know, the Judgment Day.

February 24, 2008 (permalink)

In this very interesting approach to historical writing, Larson carefully weaves together the story of planning the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago with the discovery of one of the first serial murderers to come to light. The books is structured like a braided novel, but remains a work of history; feelings are sometimes attributed to individuals, to be sure, but all the dialogue is authentic.

Larson recognizes that architects and designers are especially useful link targets, because so many people impinge on their work. Around the characters of fair architect Daniel Burnham and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, Larson can fluently link the lives of people who worked on the fair, visited it, talked about, schemed in its shadows, or remembered it later.

February 22, 2008 (permalink)

A fine treatment of the Italian campaign, 1943-1944. I find this a less interesting book than Atkinson's previous volume, Army At Dawn, because the first book undertook a unique project: how did a brand-new American army coalesce in its first real experience of war? Here, we follow the same army but the project is different, much as the project in Sicily and Italy was different.

The Allies had an army in Africa; it had no way to bring them all back to England for the invasion, and even if they were in England, there weren't enough landing craft to carry them to France. That they had to find employment seems a preposterous justification for a terrible campaign, but it is not clear that the US and Britain could reasonably have sat on their hands for a year while Russia carried all the weight.

June 21, 2013 (permalink)

Aaron Swartz raved over this book's sequel, Small World . Since his 2006 booklist led me to Thomas Geoghegan's wonderful Which Side Are You On?, I read this year's list with special care, and followed Swartz's suggestion to begin with the first book in the series.

A whimsical 1975 novel about two English professors who exchange their chairs for a semester. One chair is at the University of Rummidge, somewhere in the Midlands; the green tile on the English building suggests Lincoln. The other chair is at Berkeley — I mean Euphoria State, which is located across the Bay from the city of Esseph. It's the sixties, and this book was probably sexier (and more shocking) when it was new, but it's a funny little piece and it certainly has its moments.

January 24, 2008 (permalink)