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

This thoroughly delightful study of the Victorian Home is interested neither in architecture or decoration, but rather in what people said and did in each kind of room. Flanders has an nice feel for the misunderstandings that so easily arise across space and time, such as the fact that morning calls were paid in the afternoon, and that “high tea” is not, as Americans tend to think, fancier than plain old “tea.” She deftly mines diaries, advertisements, fiction and biography to reconstruct details of behavior and belief in a book that is at once entertaining and comprehensive.

September 6, 2012 (permalink)

An intriguing look at the philosophy of language generally, and specifically at whether and how language shapes thought. Deutscher has no patience for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis generally, and specifically explodes the supposition that people whose language has no word for a concept cannot easily think about it. It’s at once a lively and a careful book, though Deutscher telegraphs his conclusions in a way that saps some of its energy. The history and historiography of the “wine-dark sea” question – the observation, originally made by Gladstone, that Homer uses words for colors that make no sense, like the “wine” for the turquoise Mediterranean and “green” for sheep – is treated with special care and prudence, and reaches a very satisfying resolution.

September 4, 2012 (permalink)

Born to affluence in 1920’s Shanghai, Cassandra faces formidable afflictions. Her twin brother gets all the attention, and all the best presents. Her mother is distant, her father feckless, and even a child can see that Shanghai is falling apart.

More strangely, Cassandra sees ghosts; indeed, she sees them everywhere, and her growing world is always filled with the hungry spirits of the past. This strange ability shapes Cassandra but does not dominate her; she is not a slayer or a priestess, she’s just a well-drawn Chinese girl who happens to see ghosts.

She lives in interesting times. Her father flees the Depression and heads to the Black Isle, a large island at the tip of the Malay peninsula that shares much with the Singapore we know. Her mother and twin sisters will follow in time; she never sees them again – at least not as you and I see. But even in this new island home, ghosts are everywhere. War follows, and then years as a freedom fighter, and then more years as the neglected former consort of the newly-independent island’s Prime Minister. And then, a distant Professor starts stirring the ghosts once more.

One obvious touchstone for The Black Isle is James Clavell’s King Rat, his good book. The war is the heart of The Black Isle, and Tan quietly builds an argument that for much of China, the short twentieth century was experienced as one long war. Another, less obvious, is the title story of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, for Cassandra’s struggle is not so much with her suffocatingly-close twin and her war-criminal lover as with herself. Self-loathing would be conventional, and Cassandra is bored by convention, yet she cannot escape the haunting wrongness. Cassandra sees ghosts – aggrieved spirits – everywhere, and in her world betrayal is the norm, peace the silent and easily-forgotten exception.

The Black Isle is a Secret History of a country that resembles one we know, blending myth, history, and invented detail. This was an intriguing decision, inviting the reader to imagine the ghost books that must have been imagined in its making. On the one hand, little would need to change to make this a literal secret history, though doing so might incur the displeasure of that nation’s leaders. Alternatively, we could follow China Miéville into urban fantasy, forbearing the fields we know entirely and describing an imaginary world that just happens to be China much as City and The City describes an imaginary Eastern Europe and Foundation describes the fall of an imaginary Rome.

All historical fiction invites suspicion of Orientalism. Tan handles her sexy Chinese protagonist with grace and honesty. Knotty and perhaps unsolvable questions of craft and history appear continuously here, as perhaps they must, but Tan (like Cassandra) manages to avoid disaster while not fearing to get down in the muck with the ghosts

Cassandra embodies a complex and thoughtful reflection on femininity and feminism in the Chinese diaspora.

August 20, 2012 (permalink)

Highly recommended at Readercon, despite the fact that Scalzi (who is, after all, president of SFWA) is not often discussed at Readercon.

Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned to the starship Intrepid, finds his new job more hazardous than in ought to be. Indeed, most of the junior officers are acutely aware that, for a junior officer, being assigned to an “away team” is very bad news. The senior officers always come back, but ensigns die in countless horrible and pointless ways and they’re determined to understand why in this pleasant, metafictional romp.

August 8, 2012 (permalink)

At a Readercon panel on “What Writers Want,” Peter Straub went off on a terrific tangent about the development of Raymond Chandler. He talked about how Chandler’s first plot (The Big Sleep ) was a shaggy dog, and how much more tightly plotted the later novels were – even though they always include strange notes (a repetitious cop called Hemingway) and long excursions (a three page taxonomy of The Blonde).

My notes said Straub was talking about The Long Goodbye. To be sure I didn’t forget, I also made a note on my phone reminding me that Straub said to reread Farewell My Lovely. So, despite copious notes, I had no idea which one to reread. (Answer: Hemingway’s here, the blondes are in the other book.)

Chandler and Hammett occupy an interesting cultural space. Unlike Hemingway, you aren’t told to read them in school. But everyone has to read them, and everyonbe does. (You can skip Playback and, for Hammett, The Glass Key.) Indispensable.

July 24, 2012 (permalink)

The Fear Factor
Robert Harris

Harris writes superb, understated thrillers – often with an intriguing technological bent as in his remarkable Pompeii. In this diverting beach book, we are on more familiar ground: the wealthy genius behind a Swiss hedge fund finds that someone has broken into his house, hacked his email, and is generally driving him up the wall. Has he gone ’round the bend? We have terrorists, plunging markets, stolidly obstructive middle-level managers, software that we don’t entirely understand, and an imperturbable Swiss inspector who now lives in France because the wealthy hedge fund managers have made it impossible for real people to live in Geneva. It’s not hard to solve the crime, but the journey has its rewards. The escalating violence of the final scenes is artificial: it’s simply not essential for every white collar crime-solver to wind up in physical peril in the last chapter of every book.

July 20, 2012 (permalink)

I was in City Lights last fall and I wanted to buy a book. Mary Ann In Autumn, was just out in paperback and I wanted to read that, but a tourist in San Francisco buying a single Armistead Maupin was too much of a cliché and this tiny book by the LA Times book critic looked promising. I grabbed it, too.

Ulin frames his story with an argument. His teenage son thinks reading is boring, homework is boring, and that father is boring too. So is The Great Gatsby, which young Ulin has to read for school. Dad disagrees with his son’s scorn for print, absurdly thinking that their disagreement is about literature. They fall for it every time.

But Dad himself is finding it hard to read, hard to concentrate, now that we all have eBooks and the Web and email and cellphones.

Our constant impulse to tweet, to text, to post status updates offers the illusion of intimacy by allowing us to share the most mundane details of existence (“I think I’ll reheat the stir-fry for lunch’”) without revealing anything much of substance at all. Again, I’m not sure I agree with this assessment completely, although it’s impossible not to agree with it in part.

What was the point of writing this? First, Ulin asserts a fact about his own feelings; it may be true or false, but we cannot know. Next, the author asserts that he is unsure he believes what he has just written. Finally, he admits it’s impossible not to agree with the original argument in part. Which part, precisely, is incapable of disagreement? Perhaps so little was asserted in the first place, and that so tenuously, that we cannot find a part with which to disagree because there’s nothing substantial?

What editor thought this passage was a nifty idea?

Perhaps Ulin is no longer as interested as he used to be in books. Maybe he is more deeply engaged by music, or drama, or immersed in the struggle to find a new way of living as the Times slowly collapses. Perhaps he isn’t feeling as young as once he did. Perhaps he has worries. Who doesn’t? Stuff happens, things change. You can’t go skinny-dipping in the same river twice.

Something happens to every reading generation that convinces someone that the end is here, that kids can’t think, that they themselves can no longer concentrate. Today it’s email and Google and Twitter, but only yesterday people said the same thing about television. Before that it was radio. Before that, rum, theater, and all the delights of the city. You see it earlier in complaints about worthlessly feminine forms like the novel.

Besides, when I was in school, the seamlessly immersive mode of reading that Ulin claims to prize was regarded as immature. We learned to read and to think about what we were reading. We were taught to see what the writer did and, at the same time, to figure out how the writer did it. When you came across words you didn’t understand, it was a Good Thing to look them up.

Today, when kids do read this way, Ulin tells them they’re Doing It Wrong. Of course, if they stopped all that and plunged themselves into the perfluent dream, the same title would fit a complaint that kids today don’t think critically. This is a chump’s game: the kids can’t win, whatever they do. Nor can the benighted ebook designers, since whatever they accomplish, it necessarily redounds to the destruction of literature. It always does. No wonder kids today love dystopian fantasy.

What does “the art of reading” entail? It is, first of all, the art of choosing what to read. Ulin is a book reviewer. He might have ideas. But on this question, the book is silent.

In James Cambias’s Readercon panel “Have We Lost the Future,” Jo Walton (who wrote the best book about books in years) observed that Golden Age science fiction would be disappointed to learn that we don’t have a Mars colony or a moon base or even Kubrick’s Pan Am business shuttle to the space station. “But we do have the internet,” she said, “and I’m not sure that I wouldn’t rather have the internet than a vacation in orbit.”

We’re building things that are better than books ever were, but we need to give them a break and meet them with an open mind.

July 15, 2012 (permalink)

Lift Off: The Last Rocket Development Diary
Shaun Inman

Available from the author.

Shaun Inman wanted to create a retro game for the iOS in 30 days. He kept a development diary. As experienced developers would anticipate, the diary gets really good around day 40. A very interesting look at actual development, from concept to bugfix, in an artisanal software operation.

July 8, 2012 (permalink)

Mantel’s Booker-award winning Wolf Hall was intended as the first of a pair of books, but this second volume grew and now a third book will be needed to wrap up this wonderfully-imagine life of Thomas Cromwell, the infinitely versatile right hand of Henry VIIII. Mantel writes in first person present, and does it with such grace and dexterity that one these stylistic acrobatics soon fade into the background. The plotting is so dexterous that one never suspects a scene to be contrived to provide exposition or to lay the groundwork for what comes next, and Mantel manages with ease to place postmodern reflections on narrative, meaning, and memory into the context of Tudor political intrigue.

July 2, 2012 (permalink)

Juliet Nicolson

Vita Sackville-West’s granddaughter crafts a workmanlike tour of 1936, the year of the abdication of Edward VIII. This is a pleasant and agreeable book, and the character of May – a chauffeur from Barbados whose cousin married an East End Jew – is a walking personification of post-colonial Britain. Evangeline Nettlefold, a portly American schoolfriend of Wallis Simpson, gives us access to scenes to which even the endlessly resourceful May cannot gain access. A lesbian subplot is clumsy and unsympathetic, and one of the central issues – the appeal of Mosely’s fascists – gets lost in sentiment. A writer who can acknowledge the assistance of a dowager duchess by thanking “Debo Devonshire” might find a way to explain what those fascists were thinking; they were wrong but they were not all idiots, and it does us little good to pretend that were are all inherently too good for that. Debo’s sister killed herself for love of Hitler when war was declared, and there’s a lost opportunity here to try to understand what was happening. (For a better shot, see Jo Walton’s Farthing.) Thorough editing would have helped here, both avoiding some apparent blunders (surely those risky jokes were risqué, and surely Vita Sackville-West’s granddaughter must be familiar with that word) and perhaps finding a better solution to all the exposition that surrounds May’s backstory. Nonetheless, a pleasant summer read.

June 17, 2012 (permalink)