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

Rebecca Scherm

Pullman’s wonderful trilogy of His Dark Materials is the story of Lyra, a heroine who is a superlative liar. This stark, realistic novel is the story of a heroine who steals. She begins at an early age; her family is awful and so, without our noticing it, she steals herself a new family. She’s very good: people actually are touched by her appreciation of their stuff, so touched they sometimes thank her for caring enough to take things. She winds up in Paris, broke and unhappy, working as an expert restorer and dreading the day when her husband gets out of prison and comes to ask her for the life she stole.

March 25, 2015 (permalink)

Consolation in the wake of Wikipedia/Gamergate chaos and affliction. (Is Pride and Prejudice a gender-related controversy? Oh, dear…)

March 18, 2015 (permalink)

Gabrielle Hamilton

This is impressive writing; in the guise of writing yet another restaurant recipe book. Hamilton has written an intelligent and sympathetic response to Kitchen Confidential, a delightful portrait of a chef masquerading as a cookbook. This looks like a collection of recipes, but the recipes are written (and the book designed) not as if they’re adapted for the home cook, but instead as if they’re odd sheets of instructions to be handed to new line cooks. There are lots of canny and charming words of warning and advice – including several mentions of shortcuts that we wouldn’t take if we were “a real restaurant.”

There’s an entire chapter on garbage: how to use up food that even professional kitchens would throw away. (Example: sardine heads and bones: season, deep fry, and send ’em out to guests who are chefs, line cooks, or other professionals who’ll understand. These are not to be wasted on mere VIPs.)

Cookbooks are usually meant to be instructive; here, we’re not always offering the instructions we’d expect. In prepping the paté for a bar snack sandwich, the recipe advises that for a half batch one should make a cardboard and foil partition so you can use half the paté pan, and if you don’t know how, you should “find me and we’ll do it together.” Yes, chef. In prepping a dish based on lamb-filled wontons, the recipe calls for grabbing any intern or trailer in the house that night, because the prep is such a bitch. You don’t get this stuff from Joy of Cooking.

Recipes are scaled for service — but that often works out conveniently to 8, which is to say a dinner party, and we all know division. There’s some reverse-snobbery at work here too: the “duck liver garbure” is made with foie gras (and, we’re warned, is not really a garbure so don’t call it that if you get a job someday in a real restaurant).

March 10, 2015 (permalink)

Mary Russell finds herself in Morocco. She has misplaced her memory; she can’t quite remember who she is or how she finds herself in Marrakech. We know (though she does not) that she has also misplaced her husband, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Intrigue and action in 1920s North Africa ensues, with a lovely portrait of Hubert Lyautey, the French resident-general, and of his expert and capable majordomo, Youssef.

March 1, 2015 (permalink)

Mike Mullin

The volcano that underlies Yellowstone erupts massively, covering much of the continent in volcanic ash and triggering a long winter. Alex Halprin, a sullen fifteen-year-old, is alone at home when the world ends and his parents’ house collapses around him. He immediately resolves to walk from his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to meet his family, who are vacationing near Galena, Illinois.

Along the way, he becomes very good at cross-country skiing and his Tae Kwon Do turns out to be very useful. Also, he meets a girl. They have adventures. Eventually, they get swept into a Japanese prisoner-of-war movie FEMA concentration camp which, when you come right down to it, is a right-wing fever dream in which civil society has already broken down.

There’s a good chase scene in a bulldozer, though its impact might be greater if this 2010 chase in a bulldozer weren’t so close to the 1993 chase in an excavator in John Marsden’s Tomorrow When The War Began.

Yet there’s a lot to like here. The opening plays wonderful mind games with current YA genre conventions; we’re dozens of pages into the story before we realize that Alex isn’t a girl, we meet an older couple who are completely conventional and familiar and we only belatedly realize they're both men. There’s a decent sense of place and a quiet affirmation of the values of the rural Midwest as they are, not as fundie politicians pretend them to be. Even here, there’s a sense of the City As Abode Of Evil which is old but which also rings false; the farm may look askance at the Emerald City, but we all know that’s where we’re headed.

February 21, 2015 (permalink)

Poppy Z. Brite

A fresh Poppy Z Brite restaurant mystery that quietly pushes the boundaries of the genre while simply having fun. The first body is far in the past, the second body comes very nearly at the book’s end, nobody does much detection, but everyone cooks, everyone eats very well, and we continue this long study of the marriage of two men.

February 8, 2015 (permalink)

A nice little mystery, although I have no idea how this came to be on my stack. Fred Taylor, an art expert, is recruited to fill in at a struggling Cape Ann art school. He is to teach three writing courses in order to find a missing instructor, who appears to have absconded with a student. Taylor dislikes academia and expects to detest the whole mess, but he is surprised by the energy and dedication of the students who soldier on despite every reason to abandon hope. The place is precisely right and the art is a ton of fun.

February 3, 2015 (permalink)

A fascinating and detailed study of the financial crisis that struck London in 1914 and engulfed the world. World Trade in 1914 was highly globalized – far more so than at any time before, and world trade only surpassed this mark recently. Back then, the Pound Sterling was the international reference currency, all major currencies were pegged explicitly to gold and implicitly to sterling, and trade was based on bills that could be settled for sterling in London and subsequently converted at the Bank of England to gold. (In practice, settled bills went into accounts and gold was only shipped for arbitrage.)

The problem was that, as war approached, everyone wanted safety, and so everyone bought up London bills. There were soon no bills available, and that meant if you wanted to make a routine transaction, like paying for a shipload of shirts you’d ordered, you couldn’t: you could have plenty of money but you couldn’t get any of the de facto international currency because there wasn’t any to get.

In the end, ways were found to unwind the crisis and to get things going again, and the memory of the near-disaster was largely lost in the disasters that followed. This is a complex and technical story with some interesting characters, and Roberts tells it skillfully.

January 25, 2015 (permalink)

An excellent book, although Gibson is too dense to be ideally read, as I read this, in the car. Gibson here returns to science fiction, albeit in complicated form: future Londoners, living in the wake of a fizzled singularity called the Jackpot, amuse themselves by hacking the past of parallel universes through cell phones and peripherals — telepresence in synthetic bodies that range in complexity from iPads on a stick on a Segway (a Wheelie Boy™) to organic devices that look like people.

The strengths are Gibson’s strengths: the vision of Neuromancer and much of its lyricism is back, freed from the constraints of contemporary realism. The idiosyncratic concern with poor rural white Southerners is here, too. There’s another cameo of an young woman in the art world. The plotting here is the strongest Gibson’s managed since Count Zero, though in the end the antagonist evaporates like the Tessier-Ashpools into a cloud of doubt.

January 6, 2015 (permalink)

It’s been too long since I took a spin with Lawrence Block. Here, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr runs a used book store in Manhattan and supplements his earnings with occasional odd jobs, such as pilfering a unique edition of Kipling’s big mistake from a swank suburban house. With cops and everyone else staking out his home and store, Bernie takes refuge with a lesbian pal down in Greenwich Village. Hilarity ensues.

This 1979 title is plenty of fun. It must’ve been more fun then, of course, when incidentally lesbian characters were thin on the ground and when a plot that hinges on the absence of cell phones is less obtrusive. Nonetheless, a healthy romp is had by all.

December 30, 2014 (permalink)

A particularly delightful Longmire, mixing spirituality, endurance, and wit. In the later books, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire displays a charmingly postmodern understanding that, whatever is happening in his life, it’s more than usually surreal: not only does Absaroka County have more than its share of bizarrely serious crime, but its sheriff somehow receives more than his share of affliction. Job asks, “why me?” Walt merely exclaims, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Here, we’re trying to figure out why the assistant sheriff of a neighboring county killed himself, while somehow getting to Philadelphia in time for the birth of our first grandchild. You know it will come down to the wire, because you understand the genre; here, all the characters understand that, too, but still remain (barely) on the right side of silliness and (mostly) on the customary side of sense and causality.

Also, a ton of fun.

December 27, 2014 (permalink)