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

Allegra Goodman

I was there. Goodman’s remarkable study of scientists at work is set in a biochemistry lab near Harvard in 1985. I was working right down the street, in the Chemistry department, from 1978-83. The settings, the scenery, the people: they’re all right. Not touristically right; people behave as scientists do.

The detailing is extraordinary. The dinners of yellow crackers with orange cheese, apple juice (good for you) and a brownie — I ate them, and Goodman knows you need two packages of crackers for dinner. Celebrations as the Wursthaus, burgers at Elsie’s. Climbing the hippo in the snow. When some of the students drive up to Plum Island for a day of casual birding, the description is exactly right – and so are the birds.

But, more impressively, Intuition also captures the why scientists do science. It’s a long, long pull, modelled roughly on the Imanishi-Kari affair, and in its course we shed lots of people who never really liked science. They go into teaching or administration or management. Indeed, while Goodman tempts the reader with several enthralling plot devices — are the results too good to be true? who will end up with Dr. Glass’s lovely 16-year-old daughter? — she does a wonderful, Maltese Falcon-esque job of hiding its core question.

If the plotting recalls The Maltese Falcon (in which everyone — you too — gets so wrapped up chasing the black bird that they lose track of the real mystery, the murder of Spade’s partner), the other parallel Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutinty, which starts as a sentimental wartime melodrama but is nearly overset by the winds of reality. Wouk asks, “Who is the real sailor?” “Who is the true man?” Goodman asks, “Who is the real scientist?” and shows you so many tempting technical baubles that you, along with most of the characters, watch the chase for tenure and grants and the cure for cancer and overlook what’s really going on and what scientists really need.

Caine was Wouk’s finest book, but Intuition is simply better.

June 18, 2009 (permalink)

An intriguing, lively, and strangely-prescient steampunk saga set in the Third Age of a neo-Victorian Engand that is powered by Aether, a powerful and dangerous fluid extracted in vast industrial mines. Robert Borrows starts as a child in a troubled Yorkshire family. He falls in love with a little girl who inhabits a ruined mansion in an abandoned town not far from the factory. He travels to London, where he falls in with revolutionaries and radicals. He keeps trying to understand how the world works, and hoping to change it. Remarkably — for this was a 2005 novel — one of the great secrets of the world turns out to be the quiet replacement of mining and manufacturing with mere financial chicanery.

A fantasy about a political and economic revolution, The Light Ages invites comparison to Animal Farm. In principle, I would have expected McLeod’s novel to reflect or interpret the 1989, but the revolution here seems closer to the best of all possible 1917’s. Comparing The Light Ages to Babylon 5, another science fiction epic deeply concerned with post-Communist Eastern Europe, we see more Beautiful Principle and far less historical pain.

I was about to conclude that I wish The Encycloped of Science Fiction were newer or the NYRSF were online when, doing a due-diligence Google, I found that Clute himself reviewed The Light Ages for Infinite Matrix. He’s got it perfectly, if uncharitably:

The story that takes up most of the surface of The Light Ages is a tale of frustrated love told in the first person by a dolt

June 12, 2009 (permalink)

Howards End
E. M. Forster

A terrific, and tremendously enjoyable, little book. I grabbed this right now because I'd heard a comment that Zadie Smith’s admirable On Beauty was a reworking of Howards End, and I didn’t immediately see the connection. The connection is very much there; indeed, entire scenes find themselves transported from rural cottages to urban Professorial households, and characters move from nearly-Cockney to almost-Brooklyn. Oh, and people change genders, and races, and a book about personal relations becomes a book on race and – well – on beauty. I still don’t see the whole vision; if you’ve read good criticism along these lines, Email me..

Dearest Meg,
It isn’t going to be what we expected.

What a fine way to start a story. And what a fine story! It makes an interesting pairing with Galsworthy; The Man Of Property was published in 1906, four years before Howards End, but the rest of the Forsyte Saga appeared a decade later (1918-1921). Sons and Lovers is only a couple of years later. I had forgotten, or the movie had blurred for me, how little the novel has to do with men and women; it’s about feeling and friendship and independence, and in the end poor Mr. Bast nearly deserves what he gets.

June 7, 2009 (permalink)

Nick Hornby loved this book. So did I.

We have almost no biographical information about Shakespeare, but we do know an astonishing amount about Elizabethan London. Shapiro does a wonderful job of uncovering all sorts of daily details that impinge on Shakespeare in 1599 and the four great plays of that year, which runs from Henry V through Hamlet, with excursions through Julius Caesar and As You Like It. A lot was happening: Shakespeare's acting company, having lost their lease, pretty much stole their theater one winter weekend by disassembling the building and stowing it in a warehouse, to be reassembled that Spring on a new lot. The Earl of Essex set off for Ireland, where it seemed likely he would cover himself in glory and return home in triumph, ready to succeed to the throne in due course. There’s a lot of Ireland in all these plays, and lots of court politics, and Shapiro does a wonderful job of explaining it. Tons of fun.

June 4, 2009 (permalink)

The author of Fingersmith, Tipping The Velvet, and The Night Watch takes on a ghost story. We have a decaying family, once prominent and wealthy; indeed, the narrator’s mother was briefly a servant in their nursery. The narrator himself, a Dr. Faraday, has grown up to be a country doctor, though it’s 1947 or 1948, and he fears that the coming reorganization of British health care will destroy his tenuous practice. He is summoned to examine a housemaid – the last servant in the ruinous mansion – and by degrees is ensnared in the peculiar story of this most peculiar family and their strange, deteriorating house. Waters is always admirable, though her tales always unfold with stately, almost painful, gradualness.

May 19, 2009 (permalink)

Franklin was born a British subject, one who happened to live in Massachusetts. In his early middle age, he moved to London (which he loved) and became one of the leading theoreticians of the cause of Empire. Later, after a brief return to the colonies, he became the new Republic’s ambassador to France. The French adored the witty, exotic, and accomplished Dr. Franklin, and Franklin adored Paris. When he died, the French saw him as the model of the new age, and the Americans saw him as vaguely French. Nevertheless, he became the quintessential image of Americanness: democratic fairness, thrift, industry, science. Wood skillfully examines how the transformation happened, and how it served succeeding generations of Americans.

May 18, 2009 (permalink)

Stuart Brent ran a legendary little bookstore in Chicago for decades, first on Rush Street and later on Michigan Avenue. Brent was at the center of a remarkable cadre of Chicago writers, critics, artists, and psychiatrists. (The latter seems out of place nowadays, but it made perfect sense at the time.)

This fine book captures the challenge of running a good little bookstore in a world that doesn’t care enough about books, or about anything thoughtful. Brent can write, and captures some of his own distinctive voice. When I was a boy, he was the oldest angry young man I could imagine, sitting at the big round table that served him for an office, bellowing on the phone at a Scribner’s rep, telling him (and everyone in the store) in great detail just how Scribner’s new policies were destroying American letters and indeed the Western Tradition. I was terrified, I still am.

May 8, 2009 (permalink)

A superb biographical portrait of the early years of three influential sisters: Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody. These are the famous Peabody’s, but they’re not closely related to the town of Peabody, the Peabody museums, or the Peabody expeditions: the bankers were a different and later branch of the family, and these Peabody’s had a tough time finding rent money.

Sophia, the youngest and most artistic sister, married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mary, the middle girl, married Horace Mann. Elizabeth never married, but from her teens she established a literary and intellectual reputation that made her the confidant, sounding board, and sometimes the editor and publisher of the leaders of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Transcendentalism. Her bookstore was the center for the movement that gave rise to abolitionism and feminism, and her book on Bronson Alcott's school became the touchstone of progressive education. Later, she became the great advocate for kindergartens.

This is a fine and thorough book. The 1830’s and 1840’s, alas, were not a great era for prose, public or private. A generation earlier and these women would have written racy, lively letters, and a generation later would replace their sometimes fussy pieties with Lincoln’s mixture of wit and grandeur. But they were born without much money in an outpost of the world, they all educated themselves, and all became great and influential teachers.

May 3, 2009 (permalink)

I discovered that continuations of Jane Austen novels are a modern industry one afternoon, a few years back, browsing in a huge Japanese book emporium in downtown Sydney. It’s an interesting back-country for chicklit/romance I suppose. But this one was read by Katherine Kellgren, who was brilliant in her reading of Bloody Jack, so why not?

Jane Hayes has a job in graphic design, a dingy New York flat, a wealthy great aunt whose health is not good, and a history of about a dozen unsatisfactory boyfriends. Stashed behind her houseplant, Aunt Caroline discovers Jane’s stash of secret tapes – BBC videos of Pride and Prejudice. No one, it seems, measures up to Darcy. Wise Aunt Caroline grasps the problem at once, and bequeaths to Jane a three-week vacation at Pembrook Park, where guests dress in corsets and dine on mutton and metaphor.

I’ve got to admit, I like the premise. Hale gets lots of details right. It would have to be fantastically costly, because you need so many servants, and the hotel needs to supply the clothes. Many of the guests would be wealthy bores and idiots. The best part, I think, is the Reception Desk/intake interview: we can’t have you going direct from Heathrow into the drawing room, can we? So the limo drops you off at a coaching inn where the redoubtable Mrs. Wattlesbrook handles the financial arrangements, introduces you to 19th century clothes and undergarments, reviews essential etiquette, and provides improvised dancing lessons (with The Gardener, naturally) and whist instruction. The coaching inn is a lovely touch.

April 22, 2009 (permalink)

Shakespeare wrote for money and, for several years, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) wrote the The Believer. This book collects the last of his wonderfully funny and illuminating columns, in which he discussed the list of books he’d read in the previous month, as well as the list of books he’s bought. This is an expensive little book: because Hornby’s enthusiasm is so deeply infectious, you’ll likely find yourself ordering lots of books yourself. Hornby is under orders from his editors, the numberless (but dazzlingly attractive) young men and women who insist that no hint of a snark should ever appear in the magazine. His evasions are clever, his punishment certain, but there’s really no need. I found myself searching at midnight for my phone so I could order a book about the making of The Graduate and Dr. Doolittle, a subject for which I seemingly have little urgent need, or (in point of fact) any. But Hornby says the book’s terrific, so onto the stack it goes.

April 19, 2009 (permalink)

This book is important, not just because it will help you make dinner, but because it will help you understand dinner. We are emerging from the Bush era of mystical magical gibberish and have put upside-downism behind us. It’s no longer enough to do what we’re told. It’s no longer enough to believe that everything will be fine because we are Good People. It’s time for us to know what we’re doing.

Ruhlman argues that recipes are not enough; at best, having a recipe (and the necessary technique) lets you recreate a dish. You can cook it. If you like it, you can follow the instructions again. Instead, Ruhlman focuses on the key concepts that makes foods work; once you know these, you can make all sorts of things without fear.

Fear drives the cookbook business. The fear is: it won’t turn out. And, of course, if you just throw lots of stuff in a pot, like we used to do when we were six (and as clever as clever), it probably won’t turn out.

5 parts flour, 3 parts water: that’s bread. You need some yeast, but it doesn't really matter how much you add. You probably want some salt. You can add stuff: rosemary and caraway seeds, or almonds and raisins, or onion, or jalopeño peppers and dried tomatoes. You can change the shape. You can make a little, or a lot. Doesn’t matter. 5 parts flour, 3 parts water; it'll be bread.

I used to buy pancake mixes because it was so much bother to gather all the ingredients, measure them, and get the consistency right so the pancakes turned out. Sure, the Dancing Deer stuff it nice. But it’s not that hard. 2 flour:2 liquid:1 egg. An egg is 2 oz. So 6oz flour, 6oz milk, 1 egg. Throw in 1t of baking powder and 1/2t of baking soda. You can add some sugar if you like: maybe 3T. You can add some vanilla. You can add some blueberries. You can replace some of the milk with buttermilk or cottage cheese or sour cream. Want even fluffier pancakes? Separate the egg whites, whip them up, then add them to the rest. You can replace some of the flour with cornmeal or whole wheat or what you like. That's enough for 2. Need to cook for 8? 3c flour, 3c milk, 4 eggs.

It’s all like this. You can know this stuff. Nothing mystical, nothing magic, no weird rituals or procedures. Sometimes things don’t work. Ruhlman warns that mayonnaise smells fear. If your mayonnaise breaks, Ruhlman tells you how to whip it back into shape.

There’s lots of great stuff. How to make a great stock without making a big fuss. Or any fuss at all. How to whip up things like pie dough or cheese puffs off the top of your head. How to improvise a soup – any soup.

One missed opportunity is that paragon of fear, the souflée. Everyone knows that souflées are hard, dangerous, showy, and French. And Ruhlman has already covered the key ratio: bechamel for soups. The hidden trick about the souflée is: there is no trick. They’re like popovers: they just work. Alice Waters hits on this in The Art of Simple Food: the only thing that makes a souflée fall is cold air, and if your souflée does fall, pop it into a hot oven and it will poof again.

We’re seeing a second revolution in popular science in the US. The first was triggered by Sputnik, and led everyone to say, “the kids need science.” This time, in the wake of Bush and the Crash, we’re not leaving it to the kids. We want to know what we’re eating, we want to eat better, and we want to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Give us bread, and give us rosés.

April 15, 2009 (permalink)

The novel begins with a lyrical, deeply-imagined exploration of what it means to be old. Our wife is dead, our children grown, and we are about to enlist, on our 75th birthday, in the Colonial Defense Forces. That’s the way the army works: you don’t get to enlist until you’re 75, and once you ship out, son, you can’t come home again.

There was a xenobiological plague a while back, and so earth is quarantined. Nobody on earth really knows what’s going on in the space colonies, except that the only way to go there is to join the army. If you come from a country that can’t support its population, like India and Bangladesh and Norway, you can be a colonist at any age. Otherwise, it's the army for you.

So we say goodbye to everything and board the space ship for Parts Unknown. This is done well, intelligently, with some sensitive portraits. It’s a clever conceit, a stock situation for kids but populated exclusively by old people who have already done this stuff and who can think about it. Lunchroom cliques? Been there. Opaque bureaucracy? Coming right up. They’ve read all the boarding school books, they know all the boot camp movies.

And then, suddenly, we’re thrown into combat – and into second rate Republican Party propaganda. We travel the galaxy, defending people from ruthless invaders whom we exterminate with gallantry and without remorse. We fight alongside with Good Guys (some of whom are girls). We meet Idiots, who annoy us for a while until the enemy kills them. One of the idiots is a bad parody of a Massachusetts senator who tries to make peace and is blown away; whether the intended target is John Kerry or Edward Kennedy, it's both off-target and offensive.

In another mission, our army is called in to break an oil worker’s strike. The union leaders are faceless idiots and our army, having been angered by their violent resistance, commits dozens of war crimes while breaking the strike. We report these crimes as if they were something of which we were modestly proud, and there are neither investigations nor trials in their wake. We buy off the bad taste with a perfunctory episode of battle fatigue, and then we have a rather good heroic climax.

Reading this book, I thought for a time that it was a victim of editorial inattention, that the author needed to be shown where he went off the rails. But the wrong-headed second half is so thoroughly wrong-headed that I think this vision needs correction. This Hugo winner will be remembered, but not altogether fondly, as SF's acme of Bushism.

April 15, 2009 (permalink)

Mary "Jacky" Faber, a young orphan, is managing fairly well on the streets of London. But it’s 1797, times are very hard, and one thing leads to another until she ships out on board HMS Dolphin as a cabin boy. Delightful, imaginative, and well-crafted, Bloody Jack works in bits from lots of familiar stories and ballads there’s even a moment when, at anchor, we see HMS Surprise in the harbor. Audiobook is splendidly read by Katharine Kellgren, who dazzles with such challenges as “a boy from East London doing a bad imitation of a younger boy from East London who is himself doing a good imitation of Jamaican English.”

April 9, 2009 (permalink)

Jack Campbell

The start of a long series about a long retreat – Xenophon in space – is written by a former Navy officer. Vexingly, the novel focuses exclusively on the fleet admiral who is thrust into command after a disastrous battle and who rises to every challenge. Each challenge is described in advance in tedious internal dialog, and then discussed afterward in councils of war, in discussion with the flagship’s perfect Captain, and in further discussion with a civilian co-president who conveniently asks questions that any starship officer would know but that we, naturally, do not. The author is very interested in the details of ship handling but sometimes loses his grip on special relativity. Worse, his fleets are unreasonably huge and contain a host of ships – destroyers, light and heavy cruisers, battle cruisers and battleships – all of which seem to have the same weapons complement. This makes no sense. When not preaching, though, the book is entertaining and does manage a clever and (I think) fresh First Contact moment when an officer finds a looted safe in an abandoned enemy base and observes that the safe-cracker used a drill bit that was neither English nor Metric. In those non-standard drill holes echo the horns of elfland.

March 29, 2009 (permalink)