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

Robert Harris

Robert Harris continues his fictional life of Cicero, as told by his former slave and secretary Tiro, with this account of the Cataline conspiracy and its aftermath. How long, Catalina, will you abuse our patience? I’ve always thought Catalina a minor episode that modestly played to Cicero’s advantage, and though Harris does what he can, Cicero’s allies at this time are less interesting (and less well documented) than his rivals and, oddly, only Clodius emerges as truly frightening. I’m growing to like Harris’ reconstruction of Terentia, Cicero’s wife, as a level-headed and sensible woman who steps in and takes charge only when the boys are in a truly hopeless muddle, sets things right, and returns to her work.

June 13, 2010 (permalink)

Strange and fascinating stories about love among very young people. A middle school girl from England finds herself friendless and adrift in an American elementary school and learns why her Mum has no friends. A middle-school boy is invited by one of the Cool Kids to come along on a Mediterranean cruise along with his divorced dad and Dad’s new (and very young) girlfriend. A gin-drenched recluse who works for a term paper mill befriends the battered 14-year-old goth girl who lives downstairs until Goth Girl’s mother warns her off because she’s a bad influence on her daughter.

May 31, 2010 (permalink)

Anita Shreve

A spectacular novel that examines how lives fly off-course in even the most conservative and protected environments. I found this through Caitlin Flanagan’s superb and thoughtful essay in The Atlantic, which you may read without fear of spoilers. Avery Academy is a prep school in rural Vermont, populated by rich kids from the city and a few deserving sons and daughters of local farmers. The headmaster, who is a nice and thoughtful fellow, has just received a distressing videotape in which three boys from the school are having sex with a freshman, and he knows at once that nothing will ever be the same again. He is not wrong. Shreve does an exceptional job of capturing the sound of real people in a real school, and of making it all matter outside the gates. The story is told from every point of view, and though it centers on the headmaster, some of the most memorable chapters are told from such unexpected angles as the school cafeteria cook, the town real estate agent, and the freshman girl’s roommate.

May 31, 2010 (permalink)

In a small town in Judea, the young wife of an old carpenter gives birth to twins. She names one boy “Jesus,” the other, “Christ.” It doesn’t much matter which is which — and anyway, the two infants get mixed up right away. Jesus is a handful; his parents love him but can’t quite control him, he confounds his teachers, he even raises havoc in shul and talks back to the authorities. Christ, of course, is a good boy who follows his brother, staying in the background and out of trouble and taking copious notes. Jesus becomes a preacher, and Christ becomes a writer. It doesn’t end well.

May 22, 2010 (permalink)

A Clash of Kings
George R. R. Martin

This second novel follows hard upon A Game of Thrones. Like the first book, it is sprawling, long, exciting, and inconclusive. I think we all know how this unfinished series will finish, but it’s fun to see how we get there, and Martin has a knack for drawing interesting characters, especially interesting villains. The plotting here is elaborate and shaggy, with numerous plot lines that will pay off in future volumes, if indeed they are not merely diversions.

What place and period does Martin have in mind as his setting? We are, of course, in faerie: dragons are real, magic is a recent memory, and seasons span many years. The castles seem to be late medieval, and the armaments (of which we hear a lot) are roughly 15th century. The society, on the other hand, seems much earlier and much simpler, and the federation of numerous small kingdoms that are occasionally united by a strong king of kings sounds a lot like our new understanding of the 4th century German tribes. The religious undertones of the struggle, where it seems we have Celtic, Norse, and Christian pantheons in play, also suggests a setting in, say, the sixth century.

May 16, 2010 (permalink)

This is not a book about food and wine, nor is it really about France and the French. Mayle’s subject here is The Englishman At Play; he seeks to instruct us not on how to eat and drink, but rather how a Briton ought to go On Holiday. He goes to snail festivals and wine festivals and a health spa. He has an unhelpful interview with the press office of the Michelin Guide. He gets lost. He eats strange food. He has a terrific time, and comes home feeling great, and at the end of it he has a book.

May 2, 2010 (permalink)

A Game Of Thrones
George R. R. Martin

This large, strange book is highly recommended by serious readers. A DailyKos columnist recently wrote called this “the best, most intricately plotted, most powerful fantasy I've ever read.” This is nonsense, of course, unless you’ve not read Tolkien, but the book does invite comparison to Lord of the Rings, of course, but also to Dune and to Bujold. And this is arguably a better book than Dune, which I like a good deal. Martin, for example, is at pains to put women at the center of his medieval epic without turning it cozy or domestic. On the other hand, we’ve got buckets of exposition, some very fine writing but some that is less good and some of the forced archaisms clank. Martin focuses tightly on elites; his idea of a poor person, it seems, is the second daughter of a baron.

This was the first book I read on the iPad, and the experience was, on the whole, entirely satisfactory. After the first day, I didn’t mind the iPad’s weight at all, and the typography strikes me as superior to what we typically see in paperbacks.

April 28, 2010 (permalink)

This delightful love story brightened the drive from Boston to Rochester and then back to Boston, which is a long drive for a short weekend. Or it would have brightened the drive, if stories were actually capable of brightening a drive. They are perhaps not literally capable, and in this case the drive into New York involved rain and flurries and even some overnight hail, while the drive back was such a sunny day that brightening would be superfluous.

And day-brightening stories are likely subject to 8.47% tax in New York State, anyway. This doubtless explains the many police cars populating the median strips.

Hornby is terrific fun to read, whatever he is talking about. I enjoy reading him talking about Arsenal. But it’s more fun to read him talking about music and love and derelict seaside resorts, which he does very well indeed.

April 15, 2010 (permalink)

Road Dogs
Elmore Leonard

Vintage Elmore Leonard takes striking characters, puts them in bizarre situations, and carries off oodles of plot almost entirely with dialogue. Here, two fellows find themselves in prison. One has a lot of money. The other has robbed a lot of banks. They get together, help each other to get out of prison and back into Venice, California. And there, soaking up sun and rum, each waits to be betrayed.

April 15, 2010 (permalink)

Scott Westerfeld

A courageous Jeff Abbott recommendation, paired with Wolf Hall. This YA title has snap and vigor and a neatly-imagined world in which Darwinist biotech super-powers in England, France, and Russia face down the Steampunk forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Amidst the storm of war, a boy meets a girl. Drama ensues, as the girl has pluck and initiative and the boy has dash and a very interesting title.

Wolf Hall, I think, is clearly meant to open a series, and our impression of the book will change when the next book appears. Leviathan is explicitly the introduction of a series, and perhaps is best seen as a story fragment.

Yet here we are in 2010, and it seems the very definition of YA is a subplot that teaches us that a girl can be anything she wants to be and that gender doesn’t matter. OK: fine. But, if we’re going to restate this against the First World War, might we spare a moment or two to think about class and poverty, about the misery of the shtetl and the pogrom and the terrible nationalism that still torments the Balkans? Might we mention the trenches and the machine guns? The idiot generals? Our heroes are isolated, but their isolation also shields us from the meaning of the Great War and their desire for peace is just a prissy preference, not the burning pacifism of 1914.

The fresh debate over whether the world would have been better had Great Britain sat on its hands and let the Germans win is not mentioned, either; the War is treated as a mistake compounded by German perfidy. At one point, our Austrian noble remembers that he speaks many languages – French, English, Latin – more fluently than he speaks the language of his villagers: but which language do his villagers actually speak? Yes, it’s YA and that burdens us with some constraints, but the kids don’t need to understand every detail. They like not understanding, the like working it out. Even Piglet lived under the sign “Tresspassers W”.

Still, it’s a richly imagined world filled with likable characters and entertaining action. By the end, Westerfeld has sold us on nobles and commoners in the 20th century and – even better – has us understand why it is a grand thing in this world to be a ship’s captain or a Lord of the Admiralty but a much grander thing to be the Keeper Of The London Zoo.

April 3, 2010 (permalink)

Allegra Goodman

A terrific book. I don’t know just why I reread it now, especially as my stack is prodigious. My original review is here.

April 3, 2010 (permalink)

Michelle Huneven

I have been reading too few mysteries since the demise of The Drood Review. I looked at the Edgar nominees, ordered a bunch of books, and somehow got this National Book Critics Circle nominee mixed in. Patsy, an effervescent and young English professor, hits two Jehovah’s Witnesses in her driveway one drunken night. She goes to prison, gets sober, and gradually puts most of the fragments of her life together. It’s a familiar tale, albeit one Huneven tells with grace and a nice sense of place.

Formally, the book is intriguing. The opening chapters are told from the point-of-view of a 12-year-old minor character; she's brilliantly drawn but completely peripheral and, once Patsy goes to jail, she’s neglected. The story is formally a mystery, but constructed in such a way that almost the entire book is prologue.

March 27, 2010 (permalink)