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

Jonathan Franzen

A fascinating, contemporary Dickensian braided novel, replete with symbolic character names: Purity Tyler, Andreas Wolf, and Tom Aberant. They’re all very serious, very young, and deeply interested in being right – in being pure. When we meet Purity – who people call Pip – she’s trying to break up her roommate’s marriage, for the best of motives. Andreas Wolf lives in a Berlin church basement under the shadow of the Stasi; he counsels girls and takes them to bed until he meets one who is supremely pretty and who can’t sleep with him because she has an evil stepfather. Later, Wolf becomes an internet rock star and world-famous reformer. Aberant is a journalist who falls hard for Wolf and who knows where the bodies are buried. Purity is huge, convoluted, sometimes schematic, and often hammers home and countersets observations of annoying people that might have been less annoying to the reader if they had been touched on more lightly. Still, an intriguing group portrait with an entertaining look at the absurdity of life in the GDR.

December 28, 2015 (permalink)

Even the uprising of Boudicca in Britain in 60CE fits this pattern. Boudicca, or Buduica (we do not know exactly how to spell her name, but neither, presumably, did she) …

The hardcover edition weighs in at 536 pages plus end matter, yet reviewers consistently praise this history as concise. They have a point: the book often feels compressed. For example, we move directly from Augustus to Caligula, with scarcely a word for Tiberius. Earlier, Marius appears only as a minor pendant to Sulla’s revolution. Beard’s relaxed and accessible style gives the concise account a good deal of momentum, to be sure, but I’m not entirely sure I understand how a book this large can seem so small.

A quiet premise of this treatment is that the Romans anticipated modernity in a way not often noted. We all know that Roman towns had one-way streets and Roman bars had three shelves of liquor with the best stuff on the top shelf, but Beard makes the implicit argument that the End Of History has happened before, and that it essentially ended (or was paused) from Augustus through Septimius Severus. The first half of the book is History – a story of arms and men that ends in the Augustan settlement. After that, in Beard’s view our sources become gossipy because gossip was all there was. Beard doesn’t work to recover the political program or ideological goals behind Caligula’s quarrel with the military or Nero’s populism; she doesn’t really think there’s a story there at all. History was over, and only calamity would start it up again.

I think I first covered this period with Thomas Mitchell reading H. H. Scullard, and I’m tempted now to reread Scullard for comparison. Or perhaps to get Gibbon off the office shelf. Oh dear.

December 15, 2015 (permalink)

In 1963 or so, Barbara decided to enter the Miss Blackpool beauty contest on a whim. She has won, and faces a year of opening stores and parking lots. Barbara doesn’t want to be Miss Blackpool: she wants to be the Lucy of I Love Lucy. So, she resigns the honor and catches a train to London, where she sells perfumes.

If this sounds like the setup for a 30-minute sitcom, you’re catching on.

One thing leads to another, as things do. Eventually, she meets two gay writers who have pitched a series about Modern Marriage to the BBC. They succeed. One thing leads to another. A jolly good time for everyone: Hornby has a voice, it's a terrific voice, and this is all a ton of fun.

November 27, 2015 (permalink)

Vladimir Nabokov

Linda’s been reading Proust, and Michael Dirda extolled Jeremy Irons’ reading of the audiobook, so Lolita has been accompanying me in the car for the last few weeks. I’ve started the book any number of times, dating back to high school; this time I made it through.

Time has changed Lolita. It’s clear that, in 1955, this was meant to shock: now, it’s disturbing, but not a lot more disturbing than any number of contemporary mysteries. Formally, this is a thriller; it might actually be more difficult today to get literary recognition for the thriller than it was when On The Road was still two years into the future.

November 27, 2015 (permalink)

Queen Lucia
E. F. Bension

A very strange book about the social life of a provincial British town between the wars, and the bitter contest between Lucia Lucas and Daisy Quantock for social preeminence. The arrival of an opera singer, a young woman of real accomplishment and genuine seriousness, throws the silly social life of Riseholme into confusion, and many parties are required before things work themselves out.

The events and attitudes depicted in this witty but unreal book would, in fact, be entirely real and far more interesting if translated to the environment of a contemporary middle school. Times change.

This was highly praised by Michael Dirda, and I picked it up in my search for a path to understand and really enjoy Wodehouse. It's pleasant enough, but it looks like I need a different path.

November 18, 2015 (permalink)

Nick Harkaway

Joe Spork is a mild and middle-aged restorer of Victorian clockwork. His father was a criminal mastermind, and his grandfather was a legendary clockmaker. An old lady hires him to fix some toys; a somewhat shady friend puts him onto a strange and inscrutable automaton of doubtful purpose but immense sophistication.

Then the old lady is nearly the victim of an assassination attempt, and she turns out to be a retired but still very capable secret agent – Emma Peel in her late 80s. Our friend is murdered, Joe Spork is framed, and we’re off to the races.

Nice writing, nifty plotting, intricate world-building. What else could you wish for? As in The Gone-Away World, everything hinges on a super-villain, and while the nemesis is not quite as undeveloped as he was in Harkaway’s previous novel, Shem Shem Tsien is a bit too awful. Still, the uprising of all London’s thieves for one last glorious battle is a thing to behold.

November 10, 2015 (permalink)

A delightful collection of a year’s worth of brief notes about reading by a consummate bookman, originally written as a weekly Web column for The American Scholar. Dirda’s embrace of forgotten writers and, especially, old plot-driven adventures is instructive, and his central concerns – where to put all these book? how on earth to pay for them? – are refreshingly familiar. Dirda arranges his future reading by project, with piles and cartons of books all set for the day when some long-awaited project begins; makes sense to me!

November 5, 2015 (permalink)

A dazzling and delightful book about a world gone wrong. In the present, we’re part of a freelance, world-saving mercenary company that’s driving hell-for-leather through bizarre dangers to extinguish an industrial conflagration that imperils the world. In the past, we’re an orphan who is adopted by a cool older brother named Gonzo and who is taken into a strange California suburban dojo, the Order Of The Silent Dragon. We always know these threads will merge, but the actual terms of the merger are metaphysically unexpected and unexpectedly metaphysical.

Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and acknowledges Balzac, Dumas, and Conan Doyle as influences. I think this book may be overlong, but it’s very well written.

October 30, 2015 (permalink)

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” That’s the beginning of this fascinating new novel, a mysterious story that is not a mystery.

How well do we really know anyone? After her body is found in the nearby suburban lake, Lydia’s mother takes refuge in the room of her 11th-grade daughter. She sees the row of diaries on the bottom bookshelf, the diaries that have been her annual Christmas present, ever since Lydia was five years old. She does the unthinkable and pries open the lock of Lydia’s last diary.

It is blank. They all are blank. Lydia’s diaries have been a family ritual for more than a decade, and she has never written a single word.

This is a tragedy, a delicate construction of small lies and casual misunderstandings that cause spreading disaster, a disaster that seemingly could be averted at any moment but that no one can stop.

October 13, 2015 (permalink)

We’ve been thinking about electronic books, and what comes after them, for decades. We’ve got lots of important (albeit difficult) thinking about the nature and practice of reading – Barthes, Derrida, Bolter, Landow, and much else. We’ve got lots of invaluable research on actual reading practice with actual ebooks, much of it capably reviewed by Cathy Marshall in her Reading And Writing The Electronic Book. Little of this body of knowledge finds its way into this book, and the book provides almost no guidance to those hoping to learn more than it contains.

Peter Meyer loves books, but when he talks about the sorts of books he reads, his interests do not seem notably broad -- memoir, thrillers, history of science, anthropology, cookbooks -- and his reading style apparently relies heavily on skimming. He’s an inspiring graphic designer and some of his ideas for implementing graphical tables of contents and overviews – a concept introduced in Intermedia (van Dam, Meyrowitz, Yankelovoch, Landow) back in the mid-1980s -- look great. He’s big on reader’s dashboards; on the one hand, his dashboards look nicer than the sort of thing people have been doing in Tinderbox for the past decade, but then, those Tinderbox dashboards actually work.

In one chapter, Meyer (rightly) eviscerates the design of front matter in the eBook implementation of the elegant Maine Summers Cookbook. What he overlooks is the purpose of the elegant design in the print edition. That purpose, simply, is to sell the book, to coax the shopper in the bookstore to plunk down $30. If matching the blue of the endpaper to the blue of the table of contents convinces the reader that “care has been taken here, and the authors, like you, have sophisticated good taste,” then that helps achieve the goal. Ebooks aren’t sold in stores, they don’t have to compete for attention on the shelf, and by the time the reader is browsing through an ebook, the sale is pretty much made: they’re kicking the tires or checking their wallets. Design serves a purpose, the purpose of cookbook design is to sell the book, and for ebooks that purpose is best addressed on the Web page, not between the virtual covers.

Meyer adores Christoph Niemann’s Petting Zoo. So do I. I doubt it's a model for the future of books, though there’s a trace of Petting Zoo in The Sailor’s Dream. This leads to a focus on books for young children, books with sound tracks, books that have something

even greater than these individual bleeps and warbles. How the app’s sounds – its action-specific effects, its ambient background – feel integrated with the visual composition are key to the pleasure it delivers.

If I follow this – a misfortune has happened to this sentence, but we can make allowances – this is orthodox McLuhan, except McLuhan would have noticed that we’ve stopped talking about a book and begun to talk about a visual composition with a sound track, which may be a very good thing indeed, but whatever it is, it’s not going to be teaching you about partial differential equations. Julian Opie’s moving electronic portraits are fascinating, but they’re not books.

“I choose books in a fairly pell-mell fashion,” Meyer explains. I can imagine people – Nick Hornby, say, or Michael Dirda – choosing books in a way that recalls a bustling upscale thoroughfare, but I think Meyer really means “haphazard” or “helter-skelter”. “Fairly” doesn’t buy us anything, and “fashion” isn’t quite right, either. “I buy a lot of books” might have served.

Meyer isn’t particularly interested in links. I am. That’s a disappointment. The disinterest isn’t argued or discussed, so there’s not much to say.

This is a crippled book, a book whose author has compressed and simplified ideas until they are nearly unrecognizable. Some of the ideas are interesting, though like the Reader’s Dashboard we might learn more by building and using the thing than by merely talking about it. Some ideas are small and esoteric: yes, front-matter in eBooks is a mess, but the people who can do something about that are a small professional fraternity; there’s not much point in complaining to us, especially not when you’re a publishing consultant and you can complain to the people in a position to address the problem.

Many ideas in Breaking The Page will be familiar to people who know the literature. The literature isn’t always accessible and integrative reviews are always very welcome, but it would help to know where things come from and -- more important still -- to engage previous writers rather than simply erasing them. Instead of mixing McLuhan with some warmed-over Bolter, why not roll up your sleeves, show us what the master said, and show us why the master was wrong?

October 2, 2015 (permalink)

I began this writer’s handbook years ago, stalled, and it’s been somewhere in my stack ever since. I saw a nice used copy at Herridge’s Books in Wellfleet – a very pleasant and intelligently-stocked store, incidentally – and this time saw my way through. There is good advice here, and some very fine writing, and Lamott’s humor makes her good company.

Bird by Bird describes a path to a good book, but I’m not convinced it’s the broad way. A career of work that might reach the pinnacle of publication, but whose rewards must even then be merely the work itself because, after all, how many published books get any notice: is that really the best literary world for which we can hope?

September 29, 2015 (permalink)

Long-overdue homework for last July’s Readercon. Tiffany Aching is twelve, a young witch whom the local pictsies have adopted. They are the Nac Mac Feeble, a rambunctious crew who are fond of strong liquor and who can get into and out of anything – except they do have trouble getting out of a pub.

Was Terry Pratchett the P. G. Wodehouse of our era? I’ve never quite warmed to Pratchett as intensely as most, but then I find Jeeves cracks the occasional smile and the very occasional guffaw but mostly leaves me scratching my head. There’s lots here that is schematic, sentimental, mawkish, or simply silly, but it’s presented with such a charming a lovely voice that it scarcely matters.

September 27, 2015 (permalink)

The Watch
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

Antigone in Afghanistan, part of a planned cycle that will include novels based on Seven Against Thebes and Ajax. Skillful and showy writing tease out the many strands of conflict outside a US Army outpost in Kandahar province, where a legless but determined young woman has come to bury the body of her slain brother.

The Watch appears to be the most highly-regarded story of our recent wars, and one of the few stories that do not chiefly concern the tribulations of the damaged soldier returned from battle. It’s well done, if somewhat schematic; the prequel based on Seven Against Thebes will be interesting. (Eteocles is Lt. Nick Frobenius, a Vassar graduate who has let his wife slip away and who carries a copy of Antigone through Kandahar province.)

Still, at this point after WW2 we had The Naked And The Dead and The Caine Mutiny and From Here to Eternity.

September 24, 2015 (permalink)