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

Amazing things happen. A contemporary historian of Eastern European dissent finds himself, wide-eyed and amazed as anyone, visiting his old friends and interview subjects as the world transforms. Friends and informants are still in their customary haunts, drinking their drinks and smoking their cigars and talking about art and politics, but suddenly they find themselves negotiating with governments and representing millions and knowing, in their tiny ad hoc theaters, that the whole world is watching. Neither a history nor a memoir, but rather a striking impression of events as they unfolded around an informed observer who often found himself at the right place.

March 21, 2009 (permalink)

A spectacular debut mystery, expertly plotted and filled with intelligent complication. Lisbeth Salander is a truly original mystery protagonist, wonderfully imagined, and she teams wonderfully (if with great difficulty) with journalist Mikael Blomkvist to ascertain the fate of a teenage girl who went missing in 1966. First, Let The Right One In and now this: is all Swedish pop culture this good?

March 9, 2009 (permalink)

This historical novel on Mesopotamian archaeology in the Spring of 1914 is well crafted, well written, and filled with more brooding misfortune than its slender frame can carry. The desert may be hot but it is not brightly lit, and all Unsworth’s characters know from the outset that they are second rate, not quite sufficient for the moment. Though the historical stage is filled with colorful and brightly-lit characters – Gertude Bell, T. E. Lawrence – Unsworth confines himself to a little-known dig where two British archaeologists have nearly lost hope of finding anything before the arrival of a German rail line that they (unreasonably) believe will obliterate their excavation. This is a very sad book but the sadness is not Ishiguro’s unbearable misery, but merely the crushing weight of the approach of terrible events.

March 7, 2009 (permalink)

I was expecting a sequel to Friday – and, sure, there are plenty of allusions – but Saturn’s Children is closer to Asimov and to Simak. We’re in the world of Asimov robots, complete with the Three Laws, but something went wrong: not long after the robot industry got firmly established, humanity went extinct and today’s civilization, extending throughout the solar system and reaching toward Proxima Centauri and Tau Ceti, is exclusively robotic. What do Asimov’s laws, Stross asks, mean to the robots? And, specifically, what do the Laws of Robotics mean when there are no humans left to obey?

Saturn’s Children tackles the core question of Battlestar Galactica, at least as we understand it today (as three episodes remain in that long and enigmatic drama): when toasters can think and love, are they people?

March 1, 2009 (permalink)

This spectacular little book argues that Javascript is not, in fact, a haphazard and sloppy little language for browsers. Crockford extracts a subset of Javascript that is both powerful and elegant, and shows how this fine little language can be used simply by ignoring a host of bad features that were tacked onto the core ideas. Javascript is not just a bag of hacks that happen to include some objects; it’s a fine and flexible object-oriented language.

Unlike most programming language books, this volume treats the reader as an adult, as a professional programmer familiar with the tools and concepts of programming. The contrast with typical language books is refreshing. Crockford assumes that you're familiar with other languages, which is to say he assumes you’ve got the equivalent of a decent undergraduate background. This lets him do more in 150 pages than many writers do in 500.

At times, the book is almost too concise, and I think many readers won’t fully grasp the details until they sit down and start working with code. But it has already transformed my approach to Javascript.

February 27, 2009 (permalink)

Robert A. Heinlein

I loved Heinlein when I was in high school. Sure, I was already anxious about his politics, but in fact he seemed to be catching up with the world, repudiating his old right-wing leanings. He sure could spin a tale, and his ideas about the social order of the future were awfully intriguing.

Then I went to college, where I and all my best friends learned how complicated a really complicated communal life could be.

But the new Stross is based in some way on Friday, and by the time this novel appeared in 1982 I was too busy learning at first hand to have a lot of time for Heinlein. And, let’s face it, though Stross is right that the big late Heinlein’s are special, they’re also creepy, filled with wise and handsome old sages in bed with beautiful daughter figures.

And then, of course, came the plague; late Heinlein is all about the joys of sleeping with people, and Friday was published in the year AIDS was recognized.

If Stross’s The Jennifer Morgue is an explicit romp in the world of Bond, Friday is a Strossian inversion: the eponymous heroine is a Bond girl with a gender switch, who beds handsome old men instead of glamorous Bond girls. (She beds lots of young women, too) We start with an action scene just to get things moving and show us how skilled our heroine is – and how dedicated her organization is to saving her – and then check in with HQ for buckets of exposition. (The opening action scene includes a rape that is now beyond the pale; since I still want to think Three Days Of The Condor is a terrific movie even despite its abduction, forgiving it because they just didn’t know better, I think Heinlein gets a pass here. Barely.)

The catch about Friday is that she’s an Artificial Person, a Living Artifact. She’s bio-engineered, and essentially all earth societies have decided that Artificial People aren’t really people. This seems strange today; she's not a robot, she’s just in vitro. But we’re also supposed to take it in stride when a New Zealand family disowns their 20-something daughter for marrying a Tongan, because Tongans aren’t white and, while Maori are treated as white, Tongans aren’t Maori either. Things were different, then, and perhaps Heinlein himself was falling a decade or so behind the times. The effect, really, is like watching Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in modern dress; if you don’t remember the time, you begin to wonder what everyone is fussing about.

February 18, 2009 (permalink)

I was not satisfied with a short trip to Treason’s Harbor. And so I followed Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin in their first long voyage to the far side of the world, a voyage in which HMS Surprise (in the role of HMS Phoebe) pursues the USS Norfolk (USS Essex) into the Pacific and far beyond. It’s hard to remember that, even at such a late date, whole swaths of the Pacific were unmapped, nondescript, essentially unknown to science. And it's always fun to see how little plot O'Brian requires in order to drive his novel along at a thrilling pace – he can generate a topsail breeze from a casual grumble or a seaman’s sigh. But O'Brian’s vessel can cope with storm and flood, too, and here she swims amidst infidelity, abortion, men overboard, the captain overboard, and an armed raft of Lesbian Polynesian Separatists.

February 16, 2009 (permalink)

Jane Austen

Perhaps she is not at the top of her game here, but still: Jane Austen. Young women scheme to amuse themselves with eligible young men in the neighborhood, while laboring under the absurd constraints of 1816. In Emma, the constraints are even more ponderous than they are in the best Austen, and a sensible reader must foresee long before Emma Woodhouse just who must marry whom, and why. Austen’s uncharitability toward those who, through want of education or wealth, make occasional grammatical errors or fashion blunders always unsettles me. Not only does she not see the servants, she doesn’t see the farmers who rent from our family or the storekeepers they patronize. But the main difficulty here is that no one is ever in great trouble, and so no one can really be made terribly happy and the mild discomfiture of those who have been slightly unpleasant to us in the past cannot be completely satisfying.

February 12, 2009 (permalink)

Ten years after the end of the Great War, Lord Peter Wimsey encounters a beastly case in which nearly every man lives in the shadow of the trenches. The Depression has not yet hit, though, and so it's not entirely clear whether everything has indeed changed, for whether everything simply changed for those who couldn't move on. Sayers' flair for minor characters and for capturing a historical moment (even if that moment happened to be her historical present) is much in evidence here; like Dreiser, she’s a historical novelist whose period happened to be contemporary. Also in evidence here are her penchant for overly elaborate plots, for brainy dark girls who resemble the author, and for plotting that counts on having God sit in her lap. Still, there's nothing like Wimsey.

January 27, 2009 (permalink)

I read a short, rave review of this chronicle of the making of the 1943 musical hit. I’ve lost the pointer, and with it the reason for grabbing this readable, if sometimes predictable, account of the making of a hit.

What I was hoping for, I suppose, was a fresh explanation of why this show works, and how it does it — something along the lines of John Lahr’s wonderful explanation of Show Boat. The Lahr explanation — the vital hint that the Broadway audience always had a large and economically vital core of New York Jews, and that many musicals that claim to be concerned with the plight of distant oppressed minorities (blacks in Showboat and Porgy & Bess, cowpokes in Oklahoma!, carnies and New England fisherfolk in Carousel) are indeed concerned with them, but are also allegories for generational tension in the midcentury American Jewish household.

I can’t find the Lahr piece, either.

Anyway, it was a great show. Ted Nelson’s mother was in it. Agnes DeMille did the dances, and they were tremendously influential. The music, the book, and everything else worked together; this was, in 1942, an innovation.

January 27, 2009 (permalink)

Morison was a naval historian of remarkable breadth and talent, unequalled for telling a grand and vivid story and unparalleled for sorting out detail. No one was better, in this realm, for getting access; he was personally acquainted with every American president from Theodore Roosevelt through John Kennedy, and when WWII broke out he secured a unique appointment as naval historian that gave him carte blanche to go everywhere and see everything. In recounting the confused night action of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 13 November 1942, for example, he explains that the details of the ships’ logs cannot be reconciled and that he will recount each ship’s experience separately; of the cruiser Atlanta, he characteristically observes

Atlanta’s participation in the battle was brief. Japanese destroyers, ever ready to exploit torpedo opportunities, dispatched several salvos at the confused American column. One, perhaps two, hit Atlanta. Their explosion lifted her bodily from the water, then set her down shuddering and crippled. In the plotting room, fire control men watched the needle on the pitometer log (the ship’s speed indicator) slide down the scale until it rested against zero.

The footnote for this paragraph is, simply:

Engagement with Japanese Surface Forces off Guadalcanal Night of 12-13 Nov 1942 and Loss of USS Atlanta 20 No 1942; personal recollection

He wasn’t there on November 13 — I believe he was still in North Africa, where Eisenhower landed the week before — but he got to Guadalcanal not long after and no doubt he got plenty of straight dope. Few other Official Historians of a world war would remember the misery of trying to save wounded sailors on the Atlanta amid oil and blood and water and fires, or how everything was made worse because the spuds locker had been split open and people everywhere were slipping on “the treacherous tubers”.

I read the entire 14-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II years ago, back while I was writing Storyspace for Windows. Compilers were slow, the code was big, and the library across the street from Eastgate owned the set. The early volumes are slightly marred by occasional bits of jingo cheerleading; even in this fifth volume the Japanese are too often wily, tricky, or sly. Morison spent his career at Harvard when he was not sailing his beloved yacht (or recording a war for his friend Franklin), but he never gets bogged down on the bridge. If an action hinges on a clever improvisation by an engineer or a level-headed judgment by a machinist’s mate, he gives them the same attention he pays to the captains and admirals.

January 17, 2009 (permalink)

One of the earliest, and best, of O'Brian’s wonderful series of Aubrey-Maturin novels, this is the first volume in which Captain Aubrey is fully himself, confidently master and commander. He is penniless — indeed so deeply in debt that he must resort to complex subterfuges to avoid arrest — but at sea he knows his business. From Gravesend to Calcutta, from Boccherini in D minor on the quarterdeck to the discovery of a new genus of tortoise, this wonderful tale never falter. Includes the memorable combat scene in which Captain Aubrey gives the order, “Let there be some turmoil.”

January 11, 2009 (permalink)

Emerson: the mind on fire
Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

Emerson, above all, was a reader, and Richardson discusses just about every book that Emerson read. Drawing heavily on Emerson’s numerous notebooks and journals, this chronicle of a reading life forms amazing tour of an intellectual era.

What I miss here, despite the book’s magisterial size, is sufficient attention to Emerson’s material circumstances. Emerson played a vital role is funding people; he gave them money, rented them houses, gave them room and board. Richardson mentions in passing that, in some periods Emerson’s journal is filled with financial schemes and worries, but we hear few details. Many of Emerson’s successes and failures — his famous lecture series, the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial — were business startups, I'd like to know how they worked, whether the business plans made sense, how they stacked up to contemporary enterprises.

January 3, 2009 (permalink)