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

The Captains
W. E. B. Griffin

Years ago, I found myself writing a lot of complex hypertext software on very slow computers. Compilation took minutes – too little time to take up a fresh task, and too long to stare at the screen. Griffin’s Brotherhood of War series, found at the library across the street, worked well for this; engaging, episodic books that lend themselves to reading in short snatches and that have enough narrative coherence to keep the reader engaged, yet not so much excitement as to distract from the work at hand.

Returning now, I found the book just as enjoyable as I remembered. In many ways, this is a rough draft for Griffin’s later series, The Corps, which swaps out the Army for the Marines. Indeed, at the end of The Corps, we even visit some of the locations where The Captains gets started. There’s lots to dislike in Griffin of course, especially his belief that inherited wealth lends one inherent nobility, but these books aren’t meant to be taken seriously. They’re meant to be fun, and they are.

December 14, 2010 (permalink)

The record of the making of one of the great Quest Blogs:

The Book:

"Mastering the Art of French Cooking". First edition, 1961. Louisette Berthole. Simone Beck. And, of course, Julia Child. The book that launched a thousand celebrity chefs. Julia Child taught America to cook, and to eat. It’s forty years later.  Today we think we live in the world Alice Waters made, but beneath it all is Julia, 90 if she's a day, and no one can touch her.

The Contender:

Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment.

365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen.

How far will it go? We can only wait. And wait. And wait…..

This is a wonderful start. Compare:

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open eye

So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.

Powell embarks on this quest knowing that she is searching not for the Macguffin but for some better idea of what she should be doing. “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This is a fine book. One might wish it took more pleasure pleasure in the food and that Powell had more fun cooking it; what remains in memory (or what makes good copy), it seems, is the anxiety about eating so much top-quality butter and, of course, the disasters. But the disaster was central to the weblog as so to the Project; failure is what makes drama dramatic. We might admire the young woman who is cooking a lot of French food, but it is only when her marriage is falling apart and the cats have eaten the last of the chicken and she’s going to be fired and when she has to know right now where can you find marrow bones in Manhattan anyway because her mother is coming to dinner – when everything is at sixes as sevens and Julie is ready to collapse in tears – that the weblog audience reaches through the fourth wall and transforms the medium into something new.

December 8, 2010 (permalink)

A pleasant reconstruction of what we know about everyday life in the Pliocene, this small book offers a compelling argument that one key (and very early) driver of the transition from apes to people was the discovery of cooking. The effects of cooking on the diet of Homo Habilis would have been profound. Instead of dedicating 6 hours a day to chewing, as monkeys do, the cooking ape was free to explore hunting, honey-finding, and all sorts of other pursuits. Even if the big one got away, you could come back for a home-cooked meal which you could eat before dark or by firelight. That meal would be a lot easier to digest than raw foods are, and so the cooking ape could make an early night of it and be ready at dawn to go gamble some more. Wrangham sometimes pounds his points to splinters, piling on facts long after we’re as convinced as the necessarily-thin evidence will permit. I was surprised that there’s no discussion of protein evolution or DNA sequencing, and wish I knew whether it was omitted because there is none or because it was thought to be too technical for the projected audience.

December 1, 2010 (permalink)

Under Fire
W.E. B. Grifiin

Reading one W. E. B. Griffin seems to lead me to reread another. This is the prequel to Retreat, Hell and it’s plenty of fun.

I’ve got a stack of books about three feet high. I’ve got an overdue book to write, three major software projects to design, and a marketing campaign to run. I’ve got a research paper due in six weeks, and I just agreed to a book review that’s due in the same time frame. Why, exactly, am I reading this additional, 500 pages of narrative delight?

December 1, 2010 (permalink)

Retreat, Hell!
W. E. B. Griffin

The tenth and, apparently, the last of book in The Corps, this brings the saga up to the Chinese intervention in Korea. Griffin excels at finding a good story about soldiers who are sitting around and waiting for things – bad things, most likely – to happen. He is a master at generating plot from the commonplace, capturing the tension of waiting for something to happen, and the frustration of coping with omnipotent, arbitrary, and erratic superiors.

Griffin is a guilty pleasure but also a more thoughtful writer than may first appear. He can make it fun to read about sitting around, preparing for something to happen, trying to find out what is going on; this was Michener’s territory (Tales of the South Pacific) and in a way it was Wouk’s (The Caine Mutiny), and though they were there first, Griffin deserves a place beside them.

It seems clear that at least one more volume was intended – we’re left with loose ends in several subplots and the middle of the Korean War seems a strange place to leave off. But illness and other commitments may have intervened, and we should be grateful for what we have.I disliked this volume on first reading and bumped into it accidentally because I wanted something light and engaging to read on a cold and gloomy November evening and, though I can't disagree that this is the weakest volume of the series, it’s still tons of fun.

November 26, 2010 (permalink)

For two centuries, people have argued passionately over the vexed question: who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? James Shapiro writes a fascinating intellectual history of the authorship question, ranging from early hopes that the plays could be traced to Francis Bacon, thence to wishes that Christopher Marlowe survived his murder, and finally to those who have long argued that Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. Much has been made of various biographical similarities between Oxford and Shakespearean characters – Oxford had three daughters and was once abducted by pirates — but Shapiro observes this entire line of argument has always assumed that fiction is essentially autobiographical, and that this Romantic notion was deeply alien to Elizabethan and Jacobean thought.

The Oxfordian cause has attracted a strange crew of followers – Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Antonin Scalia – many of whom have come to doubt that a common man with common experiences could write these plays. Shapiro suggests what these proponent have held in common, too often, has been a longing for a vanished world in which the authority of fathers held sway.

November 24, 2010 (permalink)

This extraordinarily proficient fantasy involves a film-noire police procedural in the Eastern European city of Beszel. The odd thing about Beszel is that it is divided, not by a Wall as was Berlin but by cosmology: Beszel intersects and, in places, cross-hatches the faery city of Ul Qoma. From childhood, the citizens of Beszel learn not to wander accidentally into the parts of town that belong to Ul Qoma and not to see the buildings, parks, cars, and people that belong to that other city. It’s the eternal Balkan crisis turned on its head and spun like a top. Miéville does a fascinating job of building an entirely authentic and delightful mystery in this spectacularly fantastic world, rendering it plausible and even gritty, and quietly using that mystery to explore the limits of mystery and the borders of fantasy. Nominated for a Nebula and shared the Hugo with The Windup Girl, this book deserves everything it’s won and more.

November 11, 2010 (permalink)

Zoo City
Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes takes Pullman’s “demons” – visible animal manifestations of the soul – and translates them from high fantasy to gritty realism in this story of Zinzi December, a South African woman who writes the copy for email spam. She is cursed with the memory of having accidentally shot her brother and blessed with the partnership with a sloth. With the sloth, she gains a knack for finding lost things, and also gains the scorn of fear of a society that treats the animalled as a dangerous subculture, leaving them to live in derelict ghettos at the margins of a crumbling urban culture. Adventurous, engaging, and sophisticated.

Zoo City
A sloth I met a few years ago on the Rio Negro

I do wish that people did not always feel it necessary to place the heroine in extreme physical danger in the penultimate scene. Zinzi finds lost things; there's nothing in the job that says the case needs to involve gunfire and hand-to-hand combat. Her animal is a sloth! It’s not Beukes’ fault: Parestsky and Kellerman do it too. There’s nothing wrong with the way things work out, but I think we might get to the same place more credibly if the union did not strictly require all heroines to be placed in peril.

November 11, 2010 (permalink)

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan
Kenneth Tynan, John Lahr, ed.

I can’t understand why I found these strangely beguiling diaries so compelling. Tynan was an important British theater critic in the 1950’s and 1960’s . When the diaries begin, in 1971, his career was largely over. Tynan knew everybody, loves to drop names, and was invited to swell parties, but he’s not deeply interested in gossip and, in any case, the diaries, bequeathed to his daughter, were instead hoarded and filleted by Tynan’s widow. Tynan was passionate about many things, but in his diaries he writes little about the theater and even less about books. He was a straight man surrounded by talented gays, a fact that intrigued him but about which he says little. He greatly enjoyed spanking (of all things), but in the early years he seldom mentions this passion and later, dying of emphysema and scouring the newspaper for sympathetic prostitutes, he has little to say.

Yet I read every word and relished many, and I have been looking forward to my daily visit with Tynan for weeks. This was yet another Michael Dirda suggestion – the Mitford-Waugh letters were this theme's kickoff – and rereading Dirda again I see that his reaction was oddly similar. In his diaries, Tynan is neither a lyrical nor a careful writer, and the persona he presents is not really someone you’re eager to seek out. But, once you know him, for all his melancholy and despite his desperation, you’re constantly eager to hear how the next day turns out.

November 7, 2010 (permalink)

A rollicking good time and final bow for Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, this novel sorts out the chaos in which The Girl Who Played With Fire ends and delightfully weaves the loose ends into a lovely bow. Amongst the numerous plot threads, we again have a fine workplace drama as Erika Berger takes the helm of a large but troubled newspaper and finds that her staff is not as welcoming as one might hope, and the management even worse than one might fear. The center of the story, however, is the unequal combat between our intrepid band of underground journalists and the shadowy, off-the-books government department that has been running Swedish covert intelligence for decades and which turns out to be the most catastrophically inept spy service since John Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War .

Considering our experience of the Bush years – not to mention the collapse of the Eastern European satellites – we’re surprisingly short of thrillers in which amateurs conduct espionage against the inept apparatus of state security. This once was treacherous ground because the obvious police state, Nazi Germany, fits uncomfortably in satire. you could (almost) write Hogan’s Heroes in 1965 but you couldn’t write it now; Catch-22 is hilarious, but we never see the Germans. But the Bushies? They would work just fine.

October 27, 2010 (permalink)

Reggie Nadelson

A fascinating thriller, wrapped in a police procedural and spiced with elements of Lawrence Bloch, early Le Carré, and Agatha Christie. Golden age plot elements (identical twins!) in a state-of-the-art plot and a spectrum of characters who are Russian without being Russian (and Jewish without being Jewish) and who, wherever they go, can never quite leave Moscow.

October 23, 2010 (permalink)

Heather’s wonderful The Fall of the Roman Empire serves as a prelude to this fascinating, thorough study of the end of Rome and the development of what came to be Europe. The idea of Europe as a continent or a trading zone is not dictated by geography and was, in point of fact, a very late development and, Heather argues convincingly, was by no means ordained by geography or demographics. Heather shows convincingly that the transition from late antiquity to the Medieval economy sharply reduced wealth inequality, ending a long dynamic of competition at the fringes of empire because the scale of economic development had ceased to be so starkly uneven.

We know astonishingly little about the Barbarian peoples, either in terms of their history or their material culture. No one today has any idea what language the Huns spoke or just what they thought they were trying to do. No one really knows where the Russians came from, though the fact that "Rus" derives from the Finnish word for "Swede" is suggestive. The crucial fact of very late antiquity is the emergence of Slavic Europe in the East, but no one knows where the Slavs came from or how they lived and our memory of what must have been tumultuous events is limited to a few dim fables told about half-remembered missionaries. But Heather shows that the traditional notion that people did move is both plausible and probable; that Vandals left Germanic Europe to wind up in North Africa is far from unlikely in a world where we are quite certain that millions of Irish people left home for North America and millions of Rwandans left home for anywhere they could go. People leave when they must, or when opportunities seem vastly better in the developed world; in antiquity, that developed world was the Mediterranean economic zone.

October 19, 2010 (permalink)

This nicely designed eBook (with optional paper edition) from Five Simple Steps surveys graphic design for graphs and charts. The overriding aesthetic is Tufte’s, with a strong flavor of High Modernism; Suda deplores chart junk and implores the designer to reduce visual noise and minimize the use of ink. The brand-new pdf does have a few mistakes (typos in the pdf’s table of contents, a damaged figure on page 26) but is otherwise a model of design.

Suda considers his audience to be design professionals, and he assumes that design professionals are innumerate. This might be a safe assumption – the amount of hand-wringing in some design-heavy books when fourth-grade fractions are mentioned suggests Suda is not alone here – but I doubt that Suda approaches this in the best way. Chapter 4, in particular, says little more than “the golden ratio is good to keep in mind.” I doubt that the excursions into Fibonacci or irrational numbers will help a lot of people with this lesson. The extended discussion of color blindness is preaching to the choir; if you’re a design pro and you don’t know that some people are color blind, you haven’t been paying attention.

Error bars are treated here as a gloss on bar charts. They’re just as important in line charts and scatter diagrams, and indeed in all sorts of visualizations. If there is one lesson designers need, it might be the importance of representing statistical uncertainty.

Suda is deeply distrustful of new media.

Dynamic graphs are excellent tools for exploring data, but if they canʼt be printed out or cast in metal, they wonʼt last.

This is wrong: most data presentations, including those of greatest importance, are ephemeral. Reports and analyses, newspapers and journals, all are meant to inform, guide, and convince the reader and their immediate goal is to do their work, not to immortalize their creator. The most important virtue of the great posters of Cassandre or Toulouse-Lautrec was that they were effective as posters; whether or not they held up well over the years is a detail for curators. The fellow who designed the notorious slide where chartjunk partially obscured data that might have averted the Challenger explosion didn’t want his diagram to live forever, and would doubtless have been pleased if it had been understood, acted on, forgotten and lost to history.

This is also a deeply conservative book that avoids many interesting problems. Why haven’t treemaps become more popular? Why aren’t sparklines ubiquitous? (I think one reason is that they look odd on the page, and that’s exactly the problem designers should tackle for us.) What’s happened to cone trees and information walls and the sort of visualization work that used to come so regularly out of PARC? Is there nothing more to say about textual visualization beyond word clusters and tag clouds? A very pressing concern today is representation in detail of large data sets – homeland security databases, social networks, the Web – where interaction seems essential because static summaries cannot anticipate our needs. Getting extraneous grid lines out of our graphs is a good thing, but there is a great deal more to be done.

October 17, 2010 (permalink)

When Churchill assumed office on May 10, many observers expected England to capitulate and to become a Nazi satellite. Eighty days later, it was clear to all, including Hitler, England would never capitulate and would, in all likelihood, prevail. Yet nothing changed on the ground in this time, no battles were won, and in material terms England, unharmed in May, was by August battered by the blitz.

Lukacs’ argument, originally stated in the brilliant Five Days In London and expanded here to the full eighty days, is that Churchill embodied the difference and that the force of the argument he propounded literally changed the world. An outcome that seemed reasonable in early May had, by May 10, been rejected forever by England’s government and, by August, what had seemed sensible and inevitable had become unthinkable because, in the end, Churchill would consider nothing else.

October 10, 2010 (permalink)

The latest installment in Laurie King’s wonderful series of stories about Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, this is in effect the second book of a two-volume story that begins with The Language of Bees. It’s great fun; after a long journey abroad (meeting the grown-up Kim in India, meeting the young Hammett in San Francisco) we’re back in London. Any extended family that includes Mycroft Holmes is bound is lead to an interesting collection of fuddlements, and this volume fuddles very satisfactorily. At times the plotting seems forced – plotting has never been King’s strong point – but the dialog offers its customary delights.

October 5, 2010 (permalink)

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, this is a remarkable first novel. In the 22nd century, the Kingdom of Thailand is an island of resistance in a world dominated by Calorie Companies and their plagues, carefully engineered to increase demand for their products and to punish their enemies. Oil is long gone, coal is a preciously-hoarded military resource, and the Bangkok methane monopoly, overseen by the Dung Lord, is a source of untold wealth.

The novel is a superbly observed reflection on business and power and their ramifications for Asian societies. This wonderful books is slightly marred by lapses in taste, Two or three scenes or torture and degradation go too far for too long. This would be unobjectionable if the book were truly interested in suffering (in the way, for example, that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is interested in men who hate women), but here torment merely provides extra motivation for characters whose behavior would be justified without it.

But there is much to admire in this book that embraces the tumult and complexity of business, rejecting the simplistic master narratives that animate so much business writing and almost all of the (remarkably scarce) current fiction about the world of work. People plan carefully here, and their planning goes up in flames or is discarded by a capricious government regulator or an inattentive assembly-line worker, and tomorrow we try again.

September 28, 2010 (permalink)