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 Boy In The Suitcase
Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

A Danish nurse-procedural: an old friend of Nina Borg asks her to pick up a parcel from a locker at Copenhagen’s central rail station. The parcel turns out to be a suitcase containing a naked 3-year-old boy who is unconscious and who, when he wakes up, doesn’t speak Danish. We are going to demand a good explanation from our old friend, but by the time we catch up with her, she’s been brutally murdered. A very interesting exploration of the mystery-thriller from the point of view of a wonderful (and bipolar) protagonist.

October 28, 2016 (permalink)

Ottessa Moshfegh

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this novel takes a long time to get going and, when it finally does move beyond exposition, it heads for places that are neither pleasant nor surprising.

Eileen is twenty four, she lives in a depressing small town in central Massachusetts with her father. He’s an alcoholic ex-cop, and Eileen she does clerical work in a private reformatory. The prose is solid and unshowy. So is Eileen, when she’s not enacting perversity.

I’d always believed that my first time would be by force, Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, ­handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me–Randy, ideally.

I suppose one’s reaction to the novel depends on whether you regard Eileen’s attitude as charming or simply dense. I’d have bailed on this book without the prize nomination, and I’d have bailed again if not for the terrific reviews. I think the book and I got off on the wrong foot.

October 15, 2016 (permalink)

An amusing memoir by a still-young comic. “Yes, please!” is her recommended answer to just about everything, and she is not wrong. Some of this book is pep talk for the not-quite-young, assurance that forty isn’t the end of the world or even the end of sex. A lot of it is worrying about work and kids. None of this is exceptional, though if you like Poehler it may sound better coming from her. The account of trying to get by as a scrounging actor in a pick-up Chicago improv company, on the other hand, is terrific and it’s something you can’t find everywhere. It’s a hard slog, learning to be funny.

October 4, 2016 (permalink)

This intriguing novel explores the aftermath of a tragic plane crash from the point of view of the pilot’s wife. We never really know anyone, but Kathryn Lyons really didn’t know her husband, Jack. This is not a dramatic book and it’s not as formally interesting as the author’s Testimony, but it’s certainly well executed.

(I found this at Big Chicken Barn Books on the way to Hypertext 16. It sure is a big chicken barn!)

October 2, 2016 (permalink)

Have His Carcase
Dorothy L. Sayers

Though it is a complex golden-age mystery that features Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey, this is still not one of Dorothy Sayers’ best efforts. Early Sayers relied on cardboard for her minor characters and that shows prominently here. Jews are particularly troublesome for Sayers, who couldn’t stay away even if her Jewish characters always give her trouble, but the two gigolos and the conductor who are at the center of this mystery are purely stock foreigners. She spends a lot of work on timetables and misleading clues, and not nearly enough work letting the people be people. By the time she got there – tentatively in Nine Tailors and then splendidly in Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, she was nearly finished with mysteries.

September 30, 2016 (permalink)

An intriguing story of being down and out in the Paris of outsiders. Harry Ricks is a mess. His marriage has collapsed, the student he was sleeping with has killed herself, his dean (who was sleeping with his wife) has fired him after making sure that the press knows every sordid detail. His daughter doesn’t want to talk to him, and Harry can’t entirely blame her. He takes off for Paris with his last $4000 in order to write a novel. He gets sick. People are horrid. The novel goes nowhere.

Then Harry meets a woman who lives in the nearby 5e arrondissement, and things go seriously wrong.

September 27, 2016 (permalink)

During the chaos that followed hard upon the Brexit referendum, I realized that I know next to nothing about the modern Labour Party, how it works and how it is connected to he party of Victorian radicalism. I asked Twitter for a modern history of Labour and got this – a fascinating book, though not at all the book I was looking for. Golding was a combatant in the transition that led Labour out of the swamps that gave Britain a generation of Thatcher, a pro-union MP who was bitterly opposed to old Labour’s socialist programme.

One difficulty here is that Golding assumes the reader knows how everything works and who everyone was – not only the leading politicians but also the insiders who run the party. That’s a high standard for a first encounter with a foreign system. Golding loves acronyms too, and again assumes that the reader knows which committees do which things and wield which powers in fact as we as theory. I did enjoy learning about Annie’s Bar, a bar near an ancient inscription that read Anno Domini that for years served as a neutral ground where members of parliament and reporters could talk off the record.

September 23, 2016 (permalink)

One Hundred Letters From Hugh Trevor-Roper
Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, eds.

A strong collection of fascinating and very readable letters by a prominent postwar historian. Trevor-Roper played academic politics for keeps and liked a good bit of gossip as much as the next fellow. He explains, for example, that our understanding of Cretan civilization stems from the accident of Sir Arthur Evans having been discovered on an park bench in Oxford in a compromising position with an attractive boy. The letters that surround Trevor-Roper’s endorsement of the spurious Hitler Diaries, and his prompt recognition that he was wrong, are particularly evocative.

September 19, 2016 (permalink)

An entertaining but scholarly reconstruction of life in the British infantry in the final years of the Napoleonic wars, commencing with the soldiers who are quartered near the town of Meryton at the edges of Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Wickham makes an appearance, which (as you would expect) causes no end of trouble to all in the vicinity. Colonel Fitzwilliam means well and works hard, but again is out of his depth. So, for that matter, is Arthur Wellesley, a moderately obscure general who, for a few precious days, has an army of his own. It’s an opportunity.

September 18, 2016 (permalink)

Dare Me
Megan Abbott

This tensely-plotted mystery about high school cheerleaders is a study in the ferocity of young women. Where You Will Know Me, a mystery about serious acrobats, is chiefly about parents, Dare Me is about girls. Parents are remote logistical worries whom we seldom see and who are scarcely worth a passing thought, and as for boys, well, they might be fun to play with for a night or so but these girls deeply don’t care.

The narrator, Addy, is a fascinating choice: she’s is and has always been the lieutenant of the top girl and squad captain, the enforcer. Addy is always thinking about (and fearing) Beth: Addy doesn’t really like hurting people, it just goes with the job and in any case Beth cannot be resisted. Or, Addy can’t resist her. On rare occasions, though, as when the new Coach is pondering who will be the star flyer in some new stunt, Addy lets a small, nine-year old voice in her head whine “Me! Me! Let it be me this time!”

September 11, 2016 (permalink)

In The Company of Sherlock Holmes
Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger, eds.

A stack of modern Sherlock Holmes stories, ranging widely from tribute and emulation to some striking reinterpretations. Critic Michael Dirda dips his toe in fiction, for example, in a striking literary luncheon where we learn that Arthur Conan Doyle was actually The Strand’s house name, and all his works were farmed out to other hands. And that’s not all…

September 11, 2016 (permalink)

Midnight Riot
Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant is a young police constable in London. He’s love a permanent assignment to the Murder Squad, but he’s been marked down for a permanent posting in bureaucracy. But young constable Grant has a talent his superiors haven’t yet discovered: at a crime scene, he sees clues that his colleagues miss. In Grant’s case, his clue is a witness to a brutal Covent Garden mugging, a witness who is helpful and informative but who is also, inconveniently, a ghost.

August 27, 2016 (permalink)

A pioneering thriller, perhaps the first of its genre, and a moderately fine rollick. Young Carruthers is having a dull, dull summer, stuck in his tiresome minor post at the Foreign Office because some distant personage decreed that the office should be on alert. Out of the blue, a college acquaintance invites him for a spell of yachting in the Baltic. His superior sees no harm in it, so he goes. It’s nothing like what he had expected.

The opening repays close study, even though we’ve now seen dozens of echoes and imitations. There's an awful lot of sailing in the midsection, and rather too many tides and charts. Still, this was uncharted ocean in 1903, and it's remarkable how well the story holds up.

August 19, 2016 (permalink)

The Lola Quartet
Emily St. John Mandel

A fascinating study by the author of Station Eleven of a group of high school friends who have lost touch with each other while their lives have spun variously off course. Gavin Sasaki has wrecked his career in newspapers but, having discovered that he may possibly have fathered a girl who might now be ten years old, remembers that he once wanted to be a private investigator. He finds the former members of his high school jazz quartet – a policeman, a pusher, a compulsive gambler, and a drugged-out former musician whose college roommate became Django Reinhardt’s heir.

August 18, 2016 (permalink)

A delightful and fascinating history of feminism in the early 20th century, wrapped around the complex life of William Moulton Marsden. A Harvard-educated psychologist, Marsden invented the lie detector and then succumbed to the temptation to over-promote his invention. He married his childhood sweetheart, the spiky and erudite Sadie Elizabeth Holloway. He fell in love with his research assistant Olive Byrne, and brought her home to begin a group marriage that lasted for decades and outlived him. Byrne’s mother had been the first feminist hunger striker in the US; her aunt was Margaret Sanger. Merciful Minerva!

August 15, 2016 (permalink)

A fascinating autobiography of the influential photographer, accompanied by many photographs (to which the Kindle edition does nothing like justice). Oddly, she says very little about the genesis of At Twelve, the haunting book that made her famous, and there’s surprisingly little about the success of Immediate Family.

What I had missed about Mann is that she sees herself as explicitly a Southern artist – not a regionalist, and certainly not a fan of Southern racial nostalgia, but still chiefly interested in the people (especially poor people, black and white) and in the backwater.

August 14, 2016 (permalink)

Stephanie Danler

This charming and delightfully intricate first novel describes, unusually for its generation, the world of work. Tess, a midwestern girl, has just moved to New York; desperate for work, she lucks into a job as a back waiter at a tony café in Union Square, based on the Union Square Café. This isn’t merely a stage set: the novel is truly interested in how the work world works, how the wheels turn.

Everyone in the restaurant gives Tess a different nickname – Little One, BabyMonster, Fluff, Skipper – because she really is an unformed bundle of potential. She has an appetite for liquor, an even bigger appetite for coke, and she’s addicted to the approval of people whose approval is rare and precious. She is naturally hospitable, attentive to her duty, and takes time to taste experience.

August 7, 2016 (permalink)

A lovely retelling of The Taming Of The Shrew, in which Kate is an entirely sympathetic, sensible, and straight-talking pre-school teacher who lives with her father, a medical researcher. Dad’s postdoc has a problem: his visa is going to expire in a few weeks and he needs a green card.

What makes this work so well is that it’s not simply interrogating Shakespeare – it reimagines the premise of Shrew and asks how this artificial, comic construct could possibly be real. Kate’s two leading traits, after all, are not at all horrible: she doesn’t care about getting a guy and she doesn’t care much about what other people think. Her little sister cares too much, as little sisters will, and so Kate chides her for excesses of fashion and flirtation, leading (as chiding will) to some moderate family chaos.

August 5, 2016 (permalink)

A clever anthology of essays by notable writers about their early reading and their favorite books. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this collection is that it gathers so many different voices (A. S. Byatt, Tom Stoppard, Ruth Rendell, Stephen Spender, J. G. Ballard) and asks them to write a piece on a tightly constrained set topic – like reading a pile of school essays written by the all-star team. Quite a few of the participants balk at some of the requirements, and the expected list of “ten favorite books” proves especially unpopular.

Some aspects of early reading are surprisingly common. There are, apparently, two ways to encounter Winnie The Pooh: either as bedtime reading when you are six, or as required reading in the bed of one’s college lover. Everyone, it seems, has read Richmal Compton’s Just William books, though I missed the memo. There are some wonderful evocations of libraries, bookstores and booksellers, especially from Gita Mehta:

Sahib. Latest from Plato. The Republic. Also James Hadley Chase and P. G. Wodehouse. You want Catcher In The Rye, Sahib? Mad Magazine?

July 29, 2016 (permalink)

The story of Addie Baum, a nice Jewish girl from the tenements of Boston’s North End, and of the immigrant experience refracted by the summer program of a Boston settlement house. The immigrant stories here are well told and witty; you’ve heard them before, of course, but they’re always fresh enough.

July 27, 2016 (permalink)