Jan 20 28 2020


In social media, we actually encounter monsters.

Some are monstrous, and some may only be performing monstrosity. We may not be able to tell these apart. Yet they are there.

In 1943, one met Nazis if you had the misfortune to live in Paris or Bordeaux. If you happened to live in Des Moines or Calgary, however, you might seldom or never meet a Nazi. In Paris, you had to decide: would you shake the hand of a German officer? Would you enjoy an aperitif at a café favored by clerks employed by the Gestapo? Would you spit on a collaborator you met in the street if you thought you could get away with it? If you would not, did that make you a collaborator as well?

In Des Moines, you could get through the day without thinking this through. Today, no one lives that way: social media brings distant Nazis direct to you.

We are all Berliners; je suis Charlie Hebdo.

Jan 20 24 2020

Between Meals

by A. J. Liebling

Late in his life, Liebling collected some of his best food writing, stories about his student year in Paris. Liebling was a hell of a fine writer, and his legacy is long: you see a lot of Liebling in Gopnik, for example, and not a little in Remnick, but there’s plenty of Liebling in Peter King’s football and in Peter Gammons’s baseball.

Liebling’s key argument here is extremely interesting. If you want to think intelligently about food, he says, you must study it by eating seriously and thoughtfully. One must have enough money to eat well, but not enough money, he thinks, that it is no object. His key conundrum in memory is deciding whether at lunch to have the Tavel Superieur at 3 ½ francs and beef heart stew (2 ½ F), or to settle for vin ordinaire (1F) and enjoy a 5F rare steak. This is, in fact, a nice question: even at my most bibulous, I find myself inclined to favor the food and skimp on the wine. That answer surprised me, which is a sign of a good question. (For example, I’d sort of like to return to Alinea, but this time I might forego the wine pairings in the interest of economy. I seldom think about taking the opposite tack.)

by Walter Tevis

Rereading this classic story of an orphanage girl who grows up to be the world chess champion. Written in 1983, this novel’s feminism — and its frank treatment of opioid addiction and alcoholics — was fresher then than it is today. Still, it remains a wonderful tribute to the talented misfits who do so much for everyone.

Jan 20 22 2020

God’s Red Son

by Louis S. Warren

The Ghost Dance terrified settlers, alarmed authorities, and led to Wounded Knee. This fascinating account traces its development and the underlying theology, which was essentially Protestant. The Ghost Dance ideology emphasized cooperation in this world, with peaceful coexistence to be rewarded with a new, bigger world in which there would be space for Indians to resume their traditional lifestyles. The imminent second coming, it was said, would be heralded by a great train from the East, bringing back all the Indian dead. After Christ’s return, the Americans would go to their own heaven and the Indians — including the dead who had returned on the great train — would have a larger world remade for them with refreshed and abundant resources.

One detail of Louis Warren’s careful and well-considered account deserves mention and emulation. We’ve discussed what we call the Native Americans: we use the most specific term for the context, preferably in their own language. But what do we call their invasive rivals? It’s tempting to call them “white”, but a surprising number of them were black and that means we need to talk about the black whites. (Some 18th and 19th century Native Americans had the same problem, and several pueblo tribes retain memories in legend of Esteban, the Moroccan slave who accompanied early Spanish expeditions in Florida and the Southwest and who died at Zuni.). Warren calls them “Americans” and that works well.

by Celeste Ng

A reread of this eloquent book about the mysteries of a family that seems anything but mysterious. Two parents, four kids, a lovely home in Shaker Heights, Ohio: the cast and setting are familiar. Everyone is pretty much exactly who they seem to be, and all these people are bright and observant. Yet no one really understands the family member they most want or need to understand. The book begins with the house on fire and proceeds to explain why it had to burn.

By the author of the wonderful Everything I Never Told You.

July 15, 1949
Queen Elizabeth-H. M. S.
Deck D-125

Hist! Chicago has nothing on this little cubbyhole I now call home. The shouting and confetti reached a peak and we set sail. The Elizabeth is quite a little ship. Easier to get lost here than in Marshall Field’s. Elevators that don’t work and winding staircases that go up and never down are the mode of travel. The number one item was a complete tour of the ship—before they made like the army and classified us as to rank. First Class is deluxe and beautiful, Cabin Class is nice and Tourist is livable. Nice people the English—very patient even with Tourist Class questions. Food is fair but plentiful. Can order anything and everything if you so desire. Ten people at our table. An English woman, a Swedish man, a Scotchman and his silent son, a Danish boy who has difficulties with the language and therefore orders whatever I do, and Italian professor from McGill University, and a girl from California. The time is advanced every night from 6 P.M. to midnight—time is fleeting— like crazy. There are two pools—one for First Class and one for Cabin—the poor unventilated unairconditioned Tourists just suffer with only a blower and a fan between them and suffocation. Met a girl from India who has been studying at Columbia. My roomate is a dear! Pushing ninety and wants rest she informed me. Haven’t lost anything yet. Champagne has made it an elite sailing—even on D deck.

by Neil Price

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.

Jan 20 17 2020


by Smitry Samarov

Vignettes of life as a Chicago cab driver, in short narratives and in watercolor sketches provide a fascinating glimpse into unseen worlds. A glimpse, Samarov emphasizes, is all you get: cab drivers hear a lot but you can’t ask many questions. It’s interesting how much of a cab’s week is dominated by weekend dating and drinking, and surprising how many desperately-poor people rely on cabs; Chicago has good public transit, but the subways don’t go all the places — vacant lots with good garbage, street corners with good drugs — to which some people need to go.

by Liam Callanan

Leah Eady is married to a charming Robert, failing novelist. They live in Milwaukee, not the Paris of which Leah has always dreamed, but they get by — albeit Robert often vanishes for days at a time on mysterious “writeaways”. One day, Robert doesn’t come back, but leaves a trail of literary clues that point to Paris — and prepaid tickets for Leah and their two daughters. A strange story, not quite a mystery, not really a ghost story.

Jan 20 12 2020

Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3

I’ve been working on some ideas about computation and character recently, and that’s led me to consider the role of stock characters in literary machines.

Why do we see the same characters all the time? Part, of course, is laziness. Part, I suspect, is that people who are willing to study games and other literary machines, or who choose to work in its dysfunctional industry, simply love those old familiar characters. Part, too, is that two of the most risk-averse people out there are

  1. a pre-teen boy risking his savings on a game, and
  2. a marketing executive whose future depends on convincing that boy to spend money now now now.

The upshot is that we see lots of warriors with a tragic backstory, lots of noble elves, lots of funny dwarfs, lots of tanks. We instantly recognize the characters wherever we meet them:

She was a Tree Elf named Riyah. He was a Water Elf, Tildor. They came from different realms, but for the past three nights they’d qwested, traded and killed together. They had hunted basilisks, slain dragons, and retrieved two diamonds, which Riyah carried in the bag hanging at her waist. She was an amazing marksman, and beautiful, even for an Elf, her eyes huge, her body supple. Her breasts swayed as she ran, her quiver bouncing behind her. — Allegra Goodman, The Chalk Artist

You know this is a game, and you know what sort of game it is, and you know its designers played too much Final Fantasy IV and Tomb Raider and have spent way too much time with obscure Japanese media.

But there’s more, too. Back when I started going to the American Repertory, its founding artistic director Robert Brustein was making an extended and important argument in support of theater as spectacle, in contrast to the Arthur Miller school of theater as a window into the neighbors’ living room. Part of that argument was the virtue of commedia dell'arte and its stock cast: because they are exaggerated and familiar, we have time to get to the point before everyone has to go home. And, because people miss stuff and sometimes misunderstand, characters need to be able to stand up to some degree of abuse.

This is even truer where the character is a joint creation of the author and the player.

Still, what is going on in Borderlands? It’s a AAA shooter franchise. I’ve always enjoyed it. There’s a new installment out now.

But what’s it about? Borderlands inhabits a reimagined American South — not the dreamland that has Gone With The Wind but the post-industrial wreckage left behind. (There’s no border in Borderlands: it has no Mexico and no Indian Territory.) Its people speak broad Kentucky with occasional mixtures of Arkansas; its major villains emulate “coastal” fashions like soul patches while its cannon-fodder look and speak just like the good guys. Everyone has a gun, just like in Texas. The women are either spectacularly sexy or spectacularly otherwise. There’s a good deal of talk about incest.

Is this an angry world? I’m not sure. It’s a lot of fun, but I do not understand what’s driving this.

Jan 20 11 2020

Soviet Daughter

by Julia Alekseyeva

A fascinating graphic novel about the young artist, growing up in the US, and her great-grandmother Lola, born in 1910 in Kiev. Intriguing and (to my limited knowledge) innovative use of watercolor in a graphic novel, with superb storytelling.

by Allegra Goodman

Because I’m toying with writing a set of lectures, and perhaps a small book, about the intersection of computation and character, I thought it might be time to revisit this wonderful study of a group of young people obsessed with art. One teaches poetry, one draws, one plays video games. One markets videogames. The twin sister of the videogame player is not interested in art and becomes increasingly embodied through a year when everyone else plunges into the depths of artistic creation.

Jan 20 8 2020

Normal People

by Sally Rooney

The strange, haunting, and very sad story of a young couple. Strongly reminiscent of On Chesil Beach, though the problem here isn’t sex. Or, maybe, it is.

Jan 20 7 2020



A brilliant small restaurant that explores the intersections of the Korean-American kitchen. Exquisite tempura rolls, superb stuffed mussels, Spanish mackerel that was at once smoky and charred and yet moist and succulent, and then a dish wonderfully rich beef. We lingered and loved it.

Jan 20 6 2020

Magic For Liars

by Sarah Gailey

Ivy Gamble is a middle-aged private investigator, specializing in stakeouts. She views herself as a fuckup, a failure: her big sister was a talented mage, but Ivy has no magic. She’s the sister who never got to go to Hogwarts. Then, a mysterious death takes place at the prestigious magic academy where her big sister now teaches Magic Theory, and the administration calls in Ivy to investigate.

Gailey’s emphasis here is that the kids who attend a magic school would be much like kids at other prep schools. They experience intense rivalries and epic disasters over trivial stakes. The kids have known each other for years — for most of their lives — and so the staff has power but knows nothing of what’s at stake. Ivy has plenty of unresolved teen angst and so has plenty of sympathy with the kids. Indeed, Ivy has so much teen angst that this might have worked better if Ivy had been a teenager.

Carlos Gaytan’s new venture, after closing the still-lamented (and Michlin-starred) Mexique, again brings the control and technique of French tradition to the flavors of the Mexican kitchen. Tzuco’s ceviche tatamado is probably the best composed salad I’ve ever had, a brilliant dish that is fresh, and crunchy, and rich, and tart at once. The trucha in a smoked corn husk might have benefited from seasoning in a higher key, but that might have obscured the delicate trout. I sat at the counter and learned a lot from the energetic and dedicated crew; even in a place that’s offering a steak option for people who’ve been dragged here unwillingly, they take exceptional care of those steaks (and they look really, really great).


Also: a really superb plate of braised short ribs, marinated in piquant chili and simply lovely.

Avli revisits the Midwest Greektown Resturant, mixing actual Greek cooking and thoughtful recreation of conventional favorites like saganaki and taramasalata. Superb braises and ideal comfort food.

by Rachel Aaron

Opal Yong-ae is scraping by as a cleaner — a one-woman cleanout and salvage crew, bidding on rights to the contents of abandoned rentals and foreclosures. It’s a precarious living, not least because she works in Detroit, a very magic city in a world where, in the 21st century, the magic returned with a vengeance. Opal is doing this work to repay her college loans; her misfortune is that her loans are owed not to a bank but to her father, and her father is the Dragon Of Korea. In short, she’s got some family issues.

Good world-building, remarkable minor characters and entertaining (if sometimes predictable) plotting make this electronic-only debut of a new series a virtual page-turner.

Dec 19 30 2019


by Nick Webb

An aging, insubordinate commander takes charge of an aged battlewagon that shortly is to be turned into a museum. Suddenly, interstellar war breaks out, and the evil aliens have an answer for everything except our old ship’s outmoded technology. A brave crew, a drunken but loyal executive officer, a deadly illness and a talented political commissar round out the central cast.

There’s something to like here, but the plot is standard American military SF and the cast, if not plagiarized, takes fan fiction to an extreme. The alcoholic executive officer is particularly jarring because our hero-commander cannot afford to have a bad XO and has had a decade to find his old friend a comfortable retirement.

Why, moreover, are we rehashing the arguments of 1942 about the survivability of battleships vs. the reach of aircraft carriers? That’s been settled for nearly three generations, now. Rickover, Spruance, Nimitz, Halsey: they’re all sleeping on the hill.

by Erin Morgenstern

A quick rereading in the wake of Morgenstern’s new (and widely misunderstood) The Starless Sea. This is a wonderful book, a book almost entirely concerned with the sense of wonder. Terrific writing that seldom calls attention to itself, yet with supple and dexterous shifts of time and point of view. Critics wanted the next book to be just like this one, but Night Circus stands alone and it’s sufficient to its task.