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

A. S. Byatt

Dolly keeps a secret

Safer than a Friend

Dolly's silent sympathy

Lasts without end.

A fun book to reread while visiting a English friends far too long neglected. Yes, perhaps the scholarship does come too easily, but then again it’s that kind of book.

April 7, 2016 (permalink)

This fascinating novel of ideas begins in a cemetery where Strulovitch, a man of some importance, recognizes an even more notable banker. Shylock is sitting on a stool, reading Portnoy’s Complaint to his late wife.

Strulovitch invites Shylock home for a visit. Shylock, he knows, is a divisive figure: “No two people feel the same about him. Even those who unreservedly despise him, despise him with different degrees of unreservation.”

It turns out that Strulovitch and Shylock share a long history of trouble with their daughters. It’s not the ducats that Shylock minds, it’s the daughter. And it’s not so much losing the daughter as that goddamn monkey. More pressingly, Strulovitch’s sixteen-year-old Beatrice has run off to Venice with a football player who has a thing for very young Jewesses.

They have troubles to talk about, these two aging Jewish intellectuals. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Our greatest weakness as Jews is forever to be thinking the worst of ourselves.”This is part of The Hogarth Shakespeare, a series of commissioned novels that revisit Shakespearean plots. Impending treats include Margaret Atwood’s Tempest, Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth.

Shylock Is My Name takes its questions seriously. Shall we not revenge? Why not? The quality of mercy, after all, has always been strained.

They walked the rest of the short distance to Strulovitch’s hearse-like black Mercedes in silence.

“Ah! I’m surprised,” Shylock commented when he saw it. A black chauffeur was holding the door open for them. Strulovitch handed him Shylock’s Glyndebourne stool. “In the boot, Brendan,” he said.

To Shylock he said, “Surprised by what? That I have a driver?”

“That you have a German car.”

“I thought you believe we have to draw a line.”

“That’s another sort of line.”

“A line’s a line. We must let bygones be bygones.”

“I’m surprised you believe that.”

“I don’t.”

March 23, 2016 (permalink)

Miami Blues
Charles Willeford

A Dirda-recommended mystery from the 1980s and one of the most influential mysteries of its era. Hoke Mosely is not, perhaps, an ideal cop. He’s tough and smart, but only within limits. He’s not Raymond Chandler’s man who must walk down these mean streets alone, and he’s up against a casual psychopath who is, for the time being, out of prison and who takes life as he finds it – and then helps himself to whatever he can grab.

Fascinating introduction by Elmore Leonard who notes, correctly, that Willeford and he are working on the same thing.

March 19, 2016 (permalink)

The Gate Of Angels
Penelople Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald visits David Lodge territory and returns in triumph. It’s 1912, and Fred Fairly, promising young Cambridge scientist and junior fellow, has crashed his bicycle. He wakes up in bed beside a strapping young woman, Daisy Saunders. Naturally, Fred’s college is the last holdout at Cambridge to insist that all its fellows remain celibate, and naturally Fred falls immediately in love. A very good time is had by all.

March 10, 2016 (permalink)

Edward Burne-Jones
Penelople Fitzgerald

A TLS retrospective review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work mention this, her first book, a few years back. I couldn’t find a copy. Now it’s back in print, and it’s a lot of fun. Of a period in which Burne-Jones was madly in love with his model (who was married, and who had wealth and influence of her own) and William Morris’s wife was in love with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she remarks:

The fact that Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti could live through these days and months and maintain such a convincing everyday life will only seem strange to those who's marriage has experienced no crisis.

Later, of the Aesthetes, she explains that

The Aesthetic movement, like all movement led not by artists but their followers, would first dilute, then copy, then exaggerate, then become ridiculous, then grow out of date.

It’s fascinating to me the William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones went off to Oxford together, already friends, expecting to become ministers and, someday, bishops. At Oxford, they recognized that their lack of belief made this career choice difficult, and so they took up Art. It never seems to have occurred to either that they might not be good at art, that they might need talents or genius or that certain something. They just set to work.

March 6, 2016 (permalink)

A pleasant and thoughtful collection of short stories about love, mostly concerning people who are not married to each other.

March 1, 2016 (permalink)

A sensible and very moderate book, once considered radical but now filled with good and gentle sense. Du Bois is hard on Booker T. Washington, and the early placement of his essay on denouncing Washington is perhaps not ideal, yet it’s now clear that Du Bois’ vision is the one that prevailed. The audiobook is narrated by Mirron Willis in a cadence that we can now say recalls the best speeches of our president; Du Bois would not have been astonished.

February 27, 2016 (permalink)

A skillful and effective reflection on fighter pilots in the era of the Korean War specifically, and on the tribulations of a thoughtful, adult soldier who finds himself surrounded by pilots who are often childish, greedy, and unthinking.

February 23, 2016 (permalink)

A superbly handled school mystery that ably captures the weirdness of adolescent society. A boy from a nearby school was killed last year, with a hoe, in the grounds of an adjacent girl’s boarding school. Circumstances limit the suspects to eight girls – two sets of four roommates. The two sets detest each other, everyone dislikes the nuns who run the place, the investigating police officers neither like nor trust each other.

Formally, this is only barely a mystery (but, then, neither is The Maltese Falcon), and to the extent that it is a mystery, it suffers from the multitude of plausible suspects. There’s a solution, but it scarcely matters; many of the alternate suspects could have been made to turn out to be the culprit. But we don’t care about that: what we see here, and what’s done with wonderful skill, is the way everyone (including the two investigating officers) manages, in the end, to grow up.

February 17, 2016 (permalink)

A collection of Hunter Thompson’s famous articles, mixed together with correspondence and editorial reminiscence. The man could write. When these were first coming out, I couldn’t work my way around the persona, and I couldn’t quite believe the persona. Today, in Trump’s World, the fear and loathing seem perfectly sensible.

February 8, 2016 (permalink)

This haunting tale of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a condemned murderer in 1829 Iceland, was much-discussed at Readercon. Kent does a wonderful job of world-building, crafting rural Iceland’s remote and cloistered society with effortless skill that recalls the first impact of Wolf Hall. This is a world where medieval horror still lurks on every doorstep, where the nearest neighbor is too distant to save you in case of fire or sudden snow, where letting the fire go out may well be a fatal error, a place where condemned prisoners can be sent to rural farms to await execution because it’s cheaper than keeping them in a jail that doesn’t exist because there’s not much call for one and, even if the prisoners ran, they’d just freeze or starve.

February 1, 2016 (permalink)

W. E. B. Greffin

Linda might be lecturing about some topics in World War 2, and I took that as an excuse to get this old and guilty pleasure down from the shelf. Griffin writes the same books over and over, but he does a nice job of capturing memorable characters and of bringing the Hollywood fantasy of the world war back into realism without casting doubt on apple pie and all the rest.

January 30, 2016 (permalink)

After Alice
Gregory Maguire

Alice is missing.

This is not headline news. Alice is often missing. She is missing, that is to say, when not underfoot, and when Alice is not underfoot, she is generally missing. Her parents are in the habit of sending her upstairs to play, or out to play, in the custody of her cat Dinah or of her elder sister Lydia or perhaps with the neighboring vicar’s girl, poor malformed Ada Boyce. It is particularly desirable that Alice not be underfoot today, because today Papa has a visitor: the famous heretic Darwin, a distant relative, come despite his feeble health to offer belated condolences after the death of Mama.

No one is certain just where Alice is. Soon, a number of the Oxford youngsters are even more unsure than her governess, for they have found themselves in a place peopled with white rabbits and tartless queens where one side of a door says KEEP OUT and the opposite side says OUT KEEP and where the best advice is not to take any advice at all.

January 16, 2016 (permalink)

Recommended by Michael Dirda (Browsings), who in turn got it from Thomas M. Disch. Walter Tevis wrote The Hustler, and The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Color Of Money. This is a nifty book, too.

I’d never heard of Tevis.

Beth Harmon is an orphan, tossed into a ghastly orphanage where they feed the children narcotics to keep them docile. On the sly, she learns to play chess from the taciturn janitor. She turns out to be very good at chess, though she’s not particularly good at resisting narcotics and alcohol. Tevis does a wonderful job of sketching the characters of Harmon’s opponents – people who, in the nature of things, the book must rapidly leave behind – through their varied reactions to being defeated, unthinkably, by a young woman. That the author of The Hustler would be good at depicting losers is unsurprising, I suppose, but he’s really good.

January 10, 2016 (permalink)

This is a charmingly serious novel about serious category errors. Our protagonist, when young, was called a “thespian” in a school quarrel, and in consequence joined the drama club. There, the cool kids told her that she wasn’t a thespian; she was a lesbian. OK: the goes to the nearby Virginia women’s college that is famous for its lesbians, and immediately winds up in an affair with one of the school’s few male professors. We’re only getting started; we have gay men who aren’t gay, black children with ivory skin, black-skinned children who are white, people with Old Money who have no money, poor people who have plenty of cash but dare not spend it, lawless law enforcement, and cocaine that isn’t cocaine. This could be slapstick, but isn’t. A smaller book than Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, but touching lightly on many of the same problems.

January 6, 2016 (permalink)