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

Ghost Fleet
P. W. Singer and August Cole

This novel about a near-future naval war between an isolated United States and a Chinese-Russian alliance is skillful, exciting, and jingoistic. I have a sneaking fondness for this genre, for early Tom Clancy and even for W. E. B. Griffin, and Ghost Fleet shares many of the virtues of those books. Indeed, it shares rather too much with Clancy’s Debt Of Honor, Clancy’s book about a second war against Japan. (Clancy was trying to write a plausible replay of the Pacific War as a sequel to Red Storm Rising, his sprawling and underrated exploration of a war between NATO and the Soviet Union.)

In old Hollywood war movies, America and civilization were saved by a scrappy ethnic alliance of guys who discovered that, underneath, they're all Americans. Here, the free world is saved by a working-class, enlisted father, his college-boy officer son, a Chinese-American electrical engineer, and a serial murderer who discovers that war is rather good fun. The heroic and cute engineer would be fun if her casting weren’t so obviously racist and if she was given space to become a character rather than a placeholder for the Good Asiatic. Tension between chief petty officer Dad and his Executive Officer son works nicely, though Dad is always around and the 174 other crew members aren’t. The war is not well motivated, so we have perfidious Asian sneak-attack followed by a cruel Asian occupation that (again, very unfortunately) is partly mitigated by advice of the kindly white Russian attaché.

Still, for all its many flaws, it’s a good airplane book.

September 26, 2019 (permalink)

Wonderful, insightful and fascinating study of things the Vikings believed, based on archeological remains, inscriptions, legends, and ethnology from Saami and from Siberia. Viking religion wasn't about belief: Thor doesn’t care whether you believe in him, but if you’re in his way you’d be advised to move. It’s not about a convenient, either — there’s no deal in place and no special treatment can be expected: things are as they are. A superb and very thorough book.

January 20, 2020 (permalink)

Liv Burnham is riding with her date in a car, heading home. In the back seat, her best friend Morgan is canoodling with her date’s scary but handsome older brother. The car swerves; there’s a terrible accident. She wakes up in the hospital, in Morgan’s body.

This enactment of multiple childish fantasies (you’ll be sorry/you’d be happier if I was someone else/I wish I was part of my friend’s family and not this disaster) is a lovely setup for a problem novel, which Aguirre pulls off with style and without more mystic nonsense than the premise absolutely requires. Liv is smarter than Morgan, which is both an opportunity and a challenge. Liv liked science, and Morgan liked art and fashion: who, now, are her friends? If she dates Morgan’s boyfriend, is she cheating on Liv’s? Morgan is rich but her single-parent father is distant; is it her duty to resent him, or is that yet another betrayal? The book’s framework is sometimes flimsy, but there’s some plain, fine writing here.

October 7, 2019 (permalink)

A solid effort, reminiscent of John Crowley’s Four Freedoms in telling a story of the American Home Front in WW2 with a (mostly) modern sensibility. It’s a good book but it’s also a bit of a shaggy dog, gratuitously losing one of its most interesting characters and sending another to the far end of the world. Some very deft handling of point-of-view is perhaps the aspect most reminiscent of Egan’s wonderful A Visit From The Goon Squad.

September 11, 2019 (permalink)

A compellingly readable history of the leading science fiction awards, from their origin in 1953 through 2000. Invaluable both for superb commentary about the evolution of novels and, even more so, for sensitive and intelligent examination of short fiction and its central role in advancing genre.

September 11, 2019 (permalink)

A powerful mystery about a black private investigator — a disgraced ex-cop — who finds himself far, far over his head. A thoughtful and eloquent story of race in America in which almost everyone is some shade of black, and also some shade of grey. Edgar Award winner.

Very interesting parallels to this mystery are Robert Parker’s mature but early Spenser mysteries. Spenser’s world is white, but he has a big, bad, and black associate who keeps him attuned to violence. (Hawk would be an embarrassment today, but he’s so finely wrought that we’d hate to have missed him.). Mosley’s work is mostly black, but he has a crucial connection to a white psychopath, a reformed bank robber who has become a clockmaker. (Mel, now that I think of it, might also be an allusion to Elmore Leonard, who has a special place in his heart for borderlines who are determined tone good, mostly.) The underlying problem, for Mosley as for Parker, is Chandler’s problem: down these mean streets a man must go.

July 19, 2019 (permalink)

A fascinating memoir of a girl who was home-schooled in remote rural Idaho. By the time Tara came along, Mom had lost interest in the “school” part of home-schooling, so she lived a sort of improvised dystopian version of Summerhill while working for her manic-depressive, zealous, and very dangerous father in the family junkyard. Her parents don’t hold with public schools, or with medicine, or with the government, and are actively preparing for the end-times by canning fruit and stockpiling ammo. Her father is certain that civilization will collapse from Y2K: when midnight passes and the television fails to go off the air, she’s relieved but vaguely disappointed.

When an older brother beings to turn chronically violent and abusive, Tara flees to Brigham Young University, where she is appalled by the other students’ apparel (whorish) and her own ignorance (profound). Starting college, she had no idea what the holocaust was; reading Les Miserables because it seemed the sort of book a college student should read, she bogs down. “Napoleon felt no more real to me than Jean Valjean. I had never heard of either.”

September 9, 2019 (permalink)

A collection of James Bond short stories, some uncharacteristic and others canonical. Bond’s voice here — especially in the reflective and less fantastic stories — really is the voice of Peter Fleming, Ian’s older brother. Good fun, for some antique and antic value of fun.

July 30, 2019 (permalink)

Robert A. Caro

Caro wrote the monumental The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. After that, he embarked on an even more monumental biography, The Years Of Lyndon Johnson, a project that’s spanned decades. Four volumes have appeared, the fifth is eagerly awaited. They’re all vividly written and wonderfully researched.

Caro is also working on a long memoir, but he’s in his mid-80s, has some way to go to finish LBJ, and Caro’s working methods require lots of time and numerous drafts. This small book captures some notes and observations about the art of biography and the craft of writing long-form nonfiction, just in case. A wonderful pair with Herman Wouk’s The Sailor And The Fiddler.

July 20, 2019 (permalink)