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

In 1902 Vienna, an inspector for the Security Services teams up with a Jewish psychiatrist to investigate serial murder. Both are musicians, and each is deeply embedded in the urban life of a fascinating city. A visit to Bergstrasse 19 is handled especially well. The setting poses a fascinating formal challenge to Tallis: since the reader knows Vienna stands on the brink of disaster, the mystery’s anticipate restoration of order cannot be entirely succeed; Tallis in this way is an interesting contrast to the early Le Carré. I grabbed this after reading an enthusiastic TLS review of a more recent entry in the series, and was not sorry.

September 13, 2011 (permalink)

I read the 1910 edition, because it might be useful for 1913, and because it’s a nifty (New York) art deco binding. Bennett suggests you reserve 90 minutes a day for serious study, and use your commuting time for contemplation of your studies.

I fancy this must be the book that Leonard Bast read, the book that prompted him to find time to attend concerts and to walk all night into the countryside. And look what happened to him.

September 9, 2011 (permalink)

The Globe’s book page loved this coming-of-age story, in which two strangers come to town and change everything. In this case, the town is a Western Massachusetts hamlet where the past is not deeply buried. The residents are well aware of Peter Straub and Stephen King and they know all about those Fried Green Tomatoes. This tale veers in directions that are just about as interesting as can be, given that this is a story of the sexual awakening of a girl who lacks desire and who has no particular interest in waking.

September 8, 2011 (permalink)

This amusing little book reflects on how easy it might be to write some original Early Hemingway, passing off a pastiche as the rediscovered manuscripts that Hemingway’s first wife lost in a Parisian train station. In essence, Haldeman emulates Elmore Leonard writing about grifters who are writing about Hemingway. Hilarity ensues, and (this being Joe Haldeman after all) lots of time travel.

September 8, 2011 (permalink)

The conclusion of the great fantasy of our time. These books are richer, more coherent, and far braver than Harry Potter. In a sensible universe, Lyra would share the spotlight – and no doubt she does in Lyra’s Oxford.

Pullman uses his scope to terrific effect; Lyra grows up in the course of the book, and the changes are organic – not simply new concerns and responsibilities but subtle shifts in attitude and speech.

Unlike so much modern fantasy, these are books of ideas, not merely stories of good people who faced extraordinary challenges. These books argue bravely that the world is a grand combat not between good and evil, but between wisdom and stupidity – and that the pieties and institutions that clothe themselves in the banner of goodness, religion and sentiment, inhibition and self-denial, are in fact the forces of stupidity. Milton was of the devil’s party but did not know it; Pullman makes the case.

August 31, 2011 (permalink)

The city of ancient Rome began as a small settlement amid rolling hills and a meandering river. By the time of the early Empire, it was home to a lot of people – probably around a million. It was the largest city the world had known. It is also the ancient city we know best, really the only pre-modern city for which we know any number of the inhabitants as individuals.

Dyson seeks to repopulate the historical city, focusing not just on the monuments but on the people who worked in their shadow. The first chapter, on the historiography of the city, is fascinating, taking special care to observe how Enlightenment scholars like Gibbon torqued the story of Rome in one direction, how Fascist Italy pulled it in another, and how the biases of right-wing European politics affected such familiar sources as Carcopino’s Daily Life. One could wish for more illustration, though I particularly like the way Dyson uses personal snapshots to show us ancient Roman buildings embedded in the fabric of the modern city.

August 24, 2011 (permalink)

Welcome To Bordertown
Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, eds.

In 1986, Terri Windling put together a successful shared-worlds anthology, Borderland, about a strange city on the border between the world and faerie. This is the Tijuana of fantasy, a land of ruins and dreams where the music is hot, the drugs cheap, the girls are supernaturally pretty, a place where it’s easy to find a squat and easier to find trouble. After a 13-year hiatus, The Way to Bordertown is open once more. In Faerie, only 13 days have passed, which can be confusing when your kid brother shows up and he’s older than you are.

The noobs bring wonderful things from The World – mobile phones, wikipedia – which sometimes work on the Border and sometimes don’t. Cory Doctorow contributes a story here about setting up an ISP in a realm of unreliable electronics and the challenges of trying to route packets to Faerie, where no mortal can enter.

A core concern on the original stories was the then-famous Problem of Runaway Teenagers. Runaways are not much spoken of these days, perhaps because after Reagan and Bush 43 we’ve simply grown accustomed to them. The new volume has some fine stories, and some interesting poems (including nifty poems by Gaiman and McKillip) that really ought to be songs. No doubt, some fans are already getting out the spellboxes that power the guitar amps and laying down tracks.

August 22, 2011 (permalink)

Doctor Thorne
Anthony Trollope

Finding myself enthralled by a BBC Audio production of the Barcester, I put aside the audio and read this long and spirited courtship in which an orphan, having been raised by her uncle the country doctor, discovers her place in the world.

Trollope wrote with great facility and precision but was not always concise, and even when he pokes fun at novelistic convention we remain several steps ahead of him as the plot unfolds. Jo Walton’s critique – that the people in Trollope’s novels simply don’t act as people do – in seldom more evident than here, for Austen’s heroines are more subject to love’s lightning strike. But no one writes better about Victorian home economy, and Trollope’s best scenes are well worth the wait.

A growing problem for Amazon’s Kindle store is the glut of garbage editions of out-of-copyright classics. Some are fine, some are sloppy, some are so badly scanned that they aren’t even recognizably English. It’s shameful. I expect the answer is a $100/title listing fee, perhaps refunded after you’ve earned $100 in revenue. But something needs to be done to stem the garbage.

August 20, 2011 (permalink)

In a discussion at this year’s Readercon, Michael Dirda tried to distinguish meatier criticism from the sort of thing for which he is best known, the “book recommendations” collected in Book by Book and Bound to Please. This volume is misnamed – the books it discusses are not all classics and the purpose of reading them is not always mere pleasure – but admirably extends Dirda’s project beyond the sphere of contemporary books for which magazines and newspapers typically publish recommendations. Whether urging the reader to enjoy Kipling’s adventures or Fowler’s Modern English Usage, whether praising Edward Gorey’s macabre illustrated chapbooks or Girolamo Cardano’s Story of My Life, Dirda is always engaging and his judgments are often unexpected.

August 18, 2011 (permalink)

The first novel in Pullman’s incomparable trilogy, His Dark Materials, barely hints at the wonders to come and yet is itself a delightful story of childhood adventure. Lev Grossman thinks this is the strongest of the three volumes, an opinion I’ve heard elsewhere but which is really only defensible if you prefer (as some do) the company of children to that of young adults. Grossman exults in “the awesome crystalline perfection of his plotting,” a claim that seems hard to justify, save perhaps in that Pullman’s plotting is better than Rowling’s and we’ve all seen so much Rowling lately. (Grossman also insists he prefers The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings.)

The unabridged audiobook , narrated by Pullman with a full cast, is a triumph.

August 17, 2011 (permalink)

An interesting little book, on chapter of which form the basis for the lovely 2009 movie with screenplay by Nick Hornby.

This is the second of Barber’s books I’ve read; in 1976, Linda and I grabbed a copy of her first book, How To Improve Your Man In Bed, on a lark at 30th Street Station in Philadephia. Fancy meeting again! After graduating from Oxford, Barber found a job at Vogue for 14 pounds a week, and then was offered 16 by a struggling startup named Penthouse. Later, she joined a variety of London newspapers, writing feature interviews with distinction.

When Barber was 16, she met a strangely compelling, glamorous, and peculiar older man who swept her parents off their feet and their daughter into bed. Everything in the movie is here, but Barber’s style is so spare, honed by years of expertise as a magazine feature writer, that the written story seems slighter and even leaner than it is.

August 16, 2011 (permalink)

Widely discussed at Readercon, this first novel by the Finnish Hannu Rajaniemi is cleanly written, brilliantly imagined, and overplotted. In some ways, it recalls last year’s sensation, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, but here quantum mechanics is asked to play the role of Thai History, Culture, and Manners.

The solar system is divided among post-humans. The zoku, descendants of gamers, battle the Sobornost virus engineers. Jupiter has vanished, Earth is seldom mentioned, and on Mars we visit a complex society in which everyone uses external memory banks, mediated by complex contracts for how much of your sensorium and memory you wish to share with strangers. Our protagonists are a thief, a raider, a detective, and a Martian tzaddik who wants to protect the Martian Way from outside interference.

It’s fun, you’re going to need a scorecard to keep track of who wants to steal what, and why.

July 25, 2011 (permalink)

In this contemporary graphic novel retelling of the Hungry Ghost story, Anya is the misfit teen daughter of a Russian immigrant. Walking through the park, she falls down a disused well and comes across a skeleton – and a ghost who is eager to help Anya succeed in school and to improve her standing with handsome young men. Highly praised by Scott McCloud.

July 22, 2011 (permalink)

I picked this up expecting His Dark Materials, but it’s closer to Winnie The Pooh. This is the story of a girl who embraces experience without a second thought. When the Green Wind comes to her window and invites her to faerie, she doesn't think twice/

The most striking thing about a charming children’s fable about a Girl Who Says “Yes” is the reminder that so many feminist heroines, from Austen to Rowling, are girls who say “No.” More precisely, they stand athwart the road upon which society has placed their future and they shout defiance, though in a number of stories (notably the Twilight series), what they refuse is more explicit and conventional. It’s not always true, of course. Pullman’s Lyra is not a girl who says “no:” she is a girl who lies. Mary Russell, consort of Laurie King’s aging Sherlock, considers comment on such matters as personal fate unseemly, unnecessary, and perhaps undignified. But, yes, Valente has a point: a lot of our YA heroines have always been Buckley Conservatives, and the change sets this fable off on an interesting foot.

The wonder of embracing “yes” is hard to sustain in this Parsifal story, not least because our heroine, young September, is chiefly called upon to sacrifice things (one of her shoes, and then, twice, all her clothing) for which she hardly cares.

July 18, 2011 (permalink)

The first book of the Culture series, this exciting adventure can’t hold a candle to its successor, The Player of Games. John Clute (Encycloped of Science Fiction) gets it exactly right: this is the story of a mercenary who chose the wrong side, and who fights for the conventional heroes of space opera against an enemy who are simply better. Here we see the Culture from outside and we do not always view it with sympathy; it shelters ghastly cannibal cults and seemingly stands for little save sybaritic pleasure. Only in the epilogue do we sense that pleasure is not necessarily so bad, nor does eternal struggle toward an illusory goal accomplish much beyond destruction.

July 20, 2011 (permalink)

Big Girl Small
Rachel DeWoskin

The Boston Globe loved this book, which follows or perhaps responds to Anita Shreve’s Testimony in recounting the aftermath of a hookup sex tape at an elite private school. Where Testimony was told from many points of view (and had limited sympathy with the one girl in the tape), Big Girl Small is very much focused on the girl, who here happens to be a dwarf. Big Girl Small seems to forget that love is real and that sex is sometimes nice. It making the heroine a Little Person, we veer into the hazards of allegory on the one hand and the Problem Play on the other, and these seem unnecessary hazards. Armistead Maupin’s Maybe The Moon. DeWoskin’s real interest is neither in sex tapes nor little people but rather in the friendships that join young women, and she draws these with flair and precision.

July 6, 2011 (permalink)

This lighthearted book wanders through German history from the Roman era to 1932, never taking itself or its subject too seriously and yet making a very serious argument. Though Winder sometimes resists his own conclusion, he builds a strong and surprising case that the Third Reich was not a brief and terrible aberration. Germany, in his view, was always heading toward this disaster.

Winder asks, in essence, “Why did Germany and England turn out so differently, when the forces that shaped them are so similar?” Winder’s answer, I think, involves a combination of the Norman conquest, the centralization that conquest entailed, and the confidence that efficient central government engendered. Germany’s fragmentation had many beneficial effects, but the suspicion that the whole world was laughing at their political antics was never far from the official mind and ultimately proved irretrievably corrosive.

What’s less clear here is whether the question really ought not to concern Germany and England at all. Why did Germany not turn out to be Italy – fragmented, diverse, perhaps ungovernable, but mostly harmless? The harmlessness of Italy might be questioned too – Winder does question it in the final chapters – but then the Italy of the short 20th century was always dwelling in Germany’s shadow.

The analogy to contemporary China is clear and worrying.The contemporary scene, in which Europe’s institutional response to the Great Recession appears to prioritize minimal German inflation over every other consideration calls into some question Winder’s suspicion that the First World War would have bequeathed us a better world had Germany either won quickly or promptly accepted defeat.

Winder is interested in how Germany came to be as it is, and so views the Ottomans as merely another outside force. It seems to me that this overlooks the very interesting legacy of the conflict in the Balkans. On the one hand, the (comparative) integrity of Imperial government casts a long shadow: even today, Balkan people who live in lands formerly ruled by the Emperor have more faith in law and in the police than do their neighbors who live in formerly Ottoman territory. On the other hand, the ability of the Ottomans to work with subject peoples who had radically differing beliefs and approaches to governance seems an attractive alternative to permanent, intractable conflicts.

July 2, 2011 (permalink)

In this pleasant confection, a veteran of the Afghanistan war is working as a hotel security guard when a Star Trek convention comes to town. Things get strange, and then take a turn for the weird. "Meanwhile, in a distant level of the hotel far, far away, Princess Leia Organa lay handcuffed by the wrists to the headboard of a queen-size bed ." There’s no real attempt here to understand conventions and conferences and the portrait of attendees drips with self-loathing, but suffused with wit and formidable Star Trek scholarship.

June 21, 2011 (permalink)