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

Just when my bookstack seems completely insupportable – as it threatens to collapse entirely in a thunderous clatter causing further damage to the joists and unexpected medical bills – Michael Dirda suggests a volume of letters by two writers I have not (yet) read. Naturally, I order this volume immediately, forcing the Kipling back onto the queue. This means that, at the moment, I am reading (and enjoying) give books at once. Is this any way to live, I ask you?

I’m a sucker for reading volumes of letters. So is Dirda: he’s the only fellow I know who reliably writes about letters, and he led me to the Mitford-Waugh correspondence which is absolutely first class.

Salter and Phelps were two talented writers who happened to meet, in passing almost, in New York. They hit it off. Phelps lived mostly in New York, Salter in Aspen before it was quite Aspen. These are good, companionable letters, not filled with advice like Shaw’s or with gossip like Mitford’s, but they’re fun to read.

September 22, 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. I was particularly interested in the way Dirda arranges his future reading by project, with piles and cartons of books all set for the day when some long-awaited project begins.

September 21, 2015 (permalink)

This short ebook by Micah Joel opens on Matheson Station, orbiting high above an earth where Wall Street now trades probability flows. There, a recently-deceased industrial titan is just entering the next life. “He wasn’t sure what to expect. The wood cannot see the ashes. Above him, a tiny porthole ringed the blackness of space. ‘Oh, wow,’ he said.”

Steve Jobs is back, and he’s got to put together a product team. He’s got Ada Lovelace to do software. He’s got Bill Shockley to do hardware. He’s got a deadline, too, because the world economy is going to collapse. Good fun is had in this series opener: Jobs is superbly drawn and Shockley is pretty good, too. Ada is, at this point at least, a bit of a problem: just how is a Victorian countess supposed to relate to her manager when her manager is Steve Jobs? Remember, Ada is old enough to be Violet Crawley’s grandmother, and on the whole it might have been easier to reach for Admiral Hopper or NASA’s Margaret Hamilton. Still, the opportunity to have Byron’s daughter on a space station must be hard to resist.

September 16, 2015 (permalink)

A Desert Drama
Arthur Conan Doyle

In a book ripped from the headlines. a group of tourists – a recent Smith graduate and her aunt, a Wall Street attorney, a retired British Special Forces colonel, a Frenchman of means – are enjoying a package tour of the Nile when Moslem extremists swoop down, capture them, and threaten to behead any who do not embrace Islam. Published in 1897, originally as The Tragedy of the Korosko, and recommended tangentially in one of the Michael Dirda collections I’ve been enjoying lately this month. One sometimes wishes the characters had a little more space, and that we had a little more intimacy with them, and that they had a few more ideas and a lot less racism. Still, it’s a rollicking time.

September 13, 2015 (permalink)

Everybody Rise
Stephanie Clifford

A wicked satire of social media marketing, as a Evelyn Beegan, a young and underqualified ex-preppie, is hired as director of recruitment by a Facebook clone for the ultra-elite, “People Like Us.” This is in many ways this is an odd and antiquated book, centered on a marriage plot and fixated on Old Money in New York; the book knows it – one character excoriates Evelyn for chasing a social scene out of Edith Wharton – but doesn’t know what to do with its own knowledge. Evelyn desperately wants to shed her upper-middle-class Baltimore background to be accepted by people who have inherited Camps in the Adirondacks and Cottages at Newport, to run with the bright young things who are the children of the Ladies Who Lunch. In that frantic pursuit, she loses herself, becomes a monster, and then (perhaps) finds a future of sorts.

It’s 2008, the bubble is about to burst, and those bright young things are all in banks and hedge funds: change is in the air but nothing really changes.

September 12, 2015 (permalink)

Kipling’s two science fiction stories, from 1905 and 1912, concerning the year 2000 and the development of a planetary government out of the necessity for an international air traffic control system. The first, “With The Night Mail,” is brilliant fun: a lowbrow magazine feature in which our intrepid reporter journeys with the new dirigible express from London to Quebec, interviewing captains and engineers, experiencing terrifying air storms, witnessing arcane engineering. The story wraps up with all sorts of terrific fake ads from a hobby magazine of the far future – 2000 AD! The later “Easy as A. B. C.” is a story of world-government as seen by a crank, a vision of the future where the leading problem is Kipling’s personal headache: people keep bothering him. The afterword by Bruce Sterling is nearly worth the price of admission.

September 12, 2015 (permalink)

John Buchan’s classic thriller begins when young and wealthy Colonial miner Richard Hannay, a man about London, comes home to his Picaddilly flat to meet a terrified neighbor who says that he is a dead man. The neighbor tells Hannay a convincing story of espionage – it’s 1912 – and Hannay gives him refuge. The next day, the visitor is murdered and Hannay, framed, is on the run. A classic.

September 2, 2015 (permalink)

A fresh visit to this popular and influential military SF tale, which refracts Haldeman’s experience of Vietnam through an Iowa MFA and also through Starship Troopers. Haldeman, in turn, is clearly the touchstone for such later work as Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and perhaps for Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Beyond his adventure-filled but unjingoistic use of combat to drive the narrative, Haldeman’s story of the soldier’s progressive alienation from mankind – by the time he comes back, everyone has changed and the world for which he was fighting is a strange and alien place – anticipate’s Stross’s singularity stories and also anticipates what has become the mainstream narrative form of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

August 31, 2015 (permalink)

Stylish, well-written, and engaging, this modest book explores ten songs that shaped or reshaped Rock – often through reinterpretation over many years. One chapter, for example, looks at the saccharine “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, recorded in 1958 by The Teddy Bears and written by their tenor, a very young Phil Spector. The song was completely transformed in 2006 by Amy Winehouse. (Another version.)

When Amy Winehouse sang hit in 2006, her music curled around Spector’s, his curled around her, until she found her way back to the beginning of his career, and redeemed it. Whether he has every heard what she did with his music, or whether she ever heard what he thought of what she did, are unanswered questions. He isn’t talking; she can’t.

August 22, 2015 (permalink)

The cover explains that this graphic novel concerns “yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old orthodox Jewish girl,” and it is not wrong. Hayao Miyazaki meets small-town upstate New York, where Mirka deals with the great decisions of school life (one open button at the uniform collar? two?) and a monstrous magic house in the nearby forest whose ghostly occupant has a terrifying pet monster: a pig.

August 18, 2015 (permalink)

Lush Life
Richard Price

A drunk writer who moonlights as a bartender startles his inept and inexperienced mugger; the kid flinches, the bartender falls dead, and it’s another night in the Lower East Side. The eyewitnesses turn out to be idiots who foul everything up, the police interrogation gets the wrong guy, the brass interfere, and soon the case is hopeless. The main characters are pretty hopeless as well, as nearly everyone stews in mild self-loathing. Price writes nearly everything as an interrogation; for these characters, few of whom are likable, even internal dialog is adversarial. The conceit works well while also showing us just how much is actually happening. The book, like its gentrified tenements and its Projects, is bursting with characters who are going about their business and who just happen, for a time, to cross paths with the police. Some are going upstate, some are going to make it, some are going to hell in a bucket, and some are going to Jersey: they're all going places, and almost all of them have something going.

August 5, 2015 (permalink)

Karen Memory
Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear sets out to write a steampunk western, and like her spunky protagonist she’s not going to get shortchanged. We’ve got transformers and airships and submersibles. We’ve got former slaves turned federal marshal, wild Cheyennes with impeccable courtesy, feminist sex workers, a madame who can cuss for England, and a human trafficker with a license for Mad Science. We’ve got some particularly well-observed and affectionate writing about saddle horses. A city and a country are literally rising up from the muck, and it’s not always a pretty process.

August 3, 2015 (permalink)

Emma Larkin travels through Burma, talking to lots of people and viewing the country through the prism of Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984. It’s a lively and well-constructed book, and if there’s not much new to say about life under The Generals, that’s unsurprising: lots of writers, including Orwell, crafted an idiom of twentieth century totalitarianism that is very much with us today, so much so that it’s hard to see a very different way to write about it. I do wish we had fresher insight into either Orwell or his novels: I haven’t read them in years, but nothing here surprised me enough to find them again on my shelves. I wish I knew more about those who do quietly support the military regime, but their story must be even harder to uncover than that of the courageous dissident movement.

August 3, 2015 (permalink)

Trafalgar meets the Battle of Britain as a Napoleonic-era British frigate captures a French ship bearing a valuable dragon egg. Britain’s Aerial Corps has been sadly depleted and, if air superiority is lost over the channel, Napoleon will be able to drive the Navy from the sea and ferry his invasion to Dover. It’s Jack Aubrey in Pern, and it’s a ton of fun.

July 30, 2015 (permalink)

The first in Tan’s series on Magic University – a hidden faculty at Harvard for the study of magic. Tan, a Readercon regular, writes erotica, and the central conceit of the series is David Mamet’s essay on his experience of college: “Sex Camp.” In Tan’s world, magicians generally have a very specific talent, a special proclivity that they discover in looking for their college major. Some are soothsayers, some healers, some conjure. Kyle Wadsworth, though he doesn’t know it when he arrives for his Harvard interview, is very good at sex.

One thing that surprised me is the clean simplicity and charm of the sex scenes. Romance writers have developed a ghastly stylization of the language to signal romantic intensity: one sure sign is the switch from talking about “his strength” to writing about “the strength of him.” Tan avoids this, and gets college twin-bed sex right while sparing my maiden blushes.

July 20, 2015 (permalink)

By the 12th century BC, late Bronze-Age civilization had climbed many technological summits. People had cities, trading fleets, and caravans. People had built tall towers, elaborate palaces, complex bureaucracies and smoke-filled taverns. People had pickles, onions – our word “shallot” comes from the Canaanite city Ashkelon – and sesame-seed buns: “sesame” in English is a loan-word from Akkadian.

But in 1177, give or take a few years, everything fell apart. Egypt, Mycenae, Knossos, Babylon, Hattusa, Ugarit, Troy: – just about everywhere you look, there are fires and wars and devastation and disaster. Centuries would pass with people telling stories about the age of heroes, the age before the end of Western civilization.

The cause of the disaster has been extensively discussed in recent decades, and Cline nicely summarizes what we know. A rash of earthquakes didn’t help at all. A shadowy group of warrior-migrants called the Sea Peoples caused plenty of havoc; it’s odd that we know so little about them, but then, we know shockingly little about the Huns and the Huns are 1,600 years closer to us. Ideology may well have played a role: people everywhere may have been getting tired of the whole business of palace culture, or merchant-adventurers (or pirates) may have cut into the profit margins that kept those palaces running. Climate change may have been a factor. Commodity shocks may have wrecked the economy; the entire word depended on one mine for weapons grade tin. There are signs of fiscal turmoil in Greece, where Mycenae played a pivotal role in international trade. The Sea Peoples might have been Greek or Italian. Perhaps the first Grexit brought down a multinational economy already weakened by climate change, ecological mistakes, financial shenanigans and social upheaval.

July 23, 2015 (permalink)

A postmodern post-apocalypse, a world in which civilization has slowly puttered to a stop. Our hero and heroine have fled slowly-rotting Los Angeles for a verdant strip of green somewhere in the Central Valley, a place they call “the afterlife” where they eek out a life in nearly total isolation. Back home, the cities are slowly collapsing into stagnation and decay, while everyone with money has retreated to gated “communities” behind fortified walls defended by private armies and threatened by marauding land pirates.

Cal and Frida have a shed in the woods, a subsistence garden, a few supplies, and each other. They’re young and loving and resourceful. They trust each other. Naturally, they have small secrets: who doesn’t? From those tiny, trivial secrets, fissures spread.

July 13, 2015 (permalink)

Newly revised and expanded edition of Lekson’s daring and irreverent manifesto which proposes a historical framework for the American Southwest. The traditional view of the Southwest before Spain has been scrupulous to avoid history: as Lekson says, “no states north of Mexico” has long been dogma. Lekson argues that Chaco (900-1100) was a state (or, more properly, an altepetl) with princes and palaces, that it first moved north to Aztec for a generation, and then jumped South all the way to Paquime/Casas Grandes. In the second edition, he extends the trip further, proposing that after Paquime fell, its elites relocated due South once more to establish Culiacán.

Strikingly, Aztec is almost exactly due north of Chaco, and Paquime and Culiacán are due south. They're the biggest and strangest sites of their time. The alignment is embarrassing, but it’s real, and it turns out that ancient travelers could in fact have surveyed the route this accurately.

There’s lots of interesting news in the fifteen years since the first edition. We now know what those weird, distinctive Chaco cylinder pots were for: they were for drinking cacao! We know because Crown and Hurst grabbed some fragments fresh out of the trash heap, ground up a thin layer of the interior, and ran the extract through a mass spec: theobromine — the stuff in chocolate! So those dudes at Bonito drank hot chocolate that was harvested somewhere in south-central Mexico and hand-carried, across mountains and deserts, for their ritual enjoyment. (This stuff must have cost far more than the most costly wine.)

Whether or not Paquime is Aztec relocated (or, perhaps, the faction of Chaco that couldn’t live with the guys going to Aztec one day more), it's now clear that the Southwest knew about, and participated in, Mesoamerica. Lekson is surely right, too, in thinking that they knew about Cahokia. Even if you have to carry every scrap of your food, and even without horses or carts, you can walk hundred of miles. Sacagawea wasn’t the first native American to take a long walk.

Lekson is an irreverent and radically informal writer, and among the great stylists of contemporary historical writing.

June 24, 2015 (permalink)

A well-paced and intriguing police procedural, winner of an Edgar Award and formally interesting because the narrator is an investigator but not the focus or, really, the protagonist. Rob Ryan of the Dublin Murder Squad investigates the body of a child murdered near his own childhood home; twenty years before when he was 12, Ryan had gone out to play in these very woods with two friends. Only Ryan came home from that adventure, he could not (and still cannot) remember what happened, and the police investigation went nowhere. The new investigation seems likely to follow the old case into the capacious storage racks beneath Dublin Castle.

June 21, 2015 (permalink)