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

Here's what I've been reading lately.

I try to write a short note on each book I read. This helps me think more clearly about what I'm reading — and about what I haven't found time to read. It's also a very handy way to find half-remembered titles.

I use Tinderbox agents to build pages for some of my favorite essayists, including Roger Ebert, David Mamet, and Louis Menand.

1123 Books: by author | by title

2021 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2020 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2019 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2018 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2017 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2016 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2015 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2014 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2013 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2012 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2011 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2010 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2009 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2008 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2007 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2006 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2005 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2004 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2003 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2002 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2001 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2000 Fall | Summer | Spring

Service Included
Stephanie Damrosch

Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which transformed food writing, was modeled on Down and Out In Paris. Stephanie Danler’s wonderful novel of working the front of the house, Sweetbitter, follows the plan of The Naked and The Dead. This account of waiting tables at Per Se is clearly Two Years Before The Mast: we were not made for this job and we never completely belong to this world, but having taken the job we are going to do our level best to make it work.

April 3, 2024 (permalink)

A very fine time at sea, revisiting part of what really was the great historical fiction series of the century. Wonderful characters, tons of detail, a very fine sense of place (and that place is often afloat), and a deft avoidance of perfunctory scenes.

April 2, 2024 (permalink)

Zinnia Zompa is 13. She lives outside Providence with her sister Zenobia, who is a nuisance, and with her parents, who are perplexing. Her father runs a factory that makes plastic beads. He drives a Lincoln, but it has been stolen. Dad’s accountant was Mr. Marfeo, who was recently murdered in the back seat of a yellow Mercury. “What it means to be thirteen: you scoff at your brokenhearted mother, and death just feels like a change in the weather.” Dazzling, haunting, and finely wrought, this is a short novel of wondrous shadows just slightly out of reach.

March 28, 2024 (permalink)

A fascinating group biography of the critical month in World War II, where the group is, basically, everyone. Englund describes details from the daily life of a fascinating range of people: a German junior officer stationed near Leningrad, an Italian junior officer adrift in the North African desert, an Australian prisoner of war, an Auschwitz inmate, a Jewish family in Shanghai, a Malaysian sailor whose freighter has been sunk and who is adrift in the South Pacific. A few of the group are famous, but weren’t famous then: Sophie Scholl, Albert Camus. Most remain obscure. No one had a good month.

March 25, 2024 (permalink)

Oh, this was fun! Mary Norris was the longtime comma queen of The New Yorker, the person responsible for ensuring that you and I agree and that people from Manchester can be Mancusians if they (and the writer) like. The English language is full of odd nooks and crannies, and Norris explores them with wit and humor.

March 12, 2024 (permalink)

After the Second World War, American foundations worked with the CIA to rebuild the intellectual world of Western Europe. Code explores the intersections between big ideas and big money; structuralism, in particular, received crucial boosts from American grants, and returned the favor by favoring a technocratic, rather than strictly social, solution to France’s postwar crisis. Geoghegan tends to posit that all robber barons were alike and that the foundations that lived after them are mere extensions of their interests, and so we learn little about the foundations and even less about the CIA programs they supported. The impact in France was crucial, and this volume documents that impact with precision and finesse.

March 11, 2024 (permalink)

A fine debut novel by the author of True Biz. Ana Jurić of Zagreb was ten when she discovered she was Croatian, or rather that the cigarettes her uncle sent he down the street to buy for him are Croatian cigarettes, and that this provokes ridicule from the Serbian shopkeeper. That was the beginning of Ana’s war. Ten years later, she sneaks away from her Columbia University roommates to testify about her years as a child soldier. Sara Novic does a terrific job of showing the line between these two girls.

March 5, 2024 (permalink)

Anne Louise Avery wrote:

Quinquagesima Sunday, 1934. It was a gentle, warm afternoon of pale blue skies with wool-torn clouds & a lovely breeze from the West. In the drawing room, Pine Marten was sketching a vase of catkins, Babcia and Wolf were writing letters, and Old Fox was reading his book. It was a proof copy by a friend of his from London, a Bradford man whom they all liked very much. It was a story of a journey through modern England, from Southampton to Newcastle, a book of great humanity and compassion.

Old Fox is not wrong. That book was this book. English Journey describes J. B. Priestly’s trek from Southampton to Durham and back to London in 1932. He has no time for Merry Olde England, but he has a knack for striking up conversation with interesting people, and finds that he has sympathy for nearly all of them. He likes castles and cathedrals as well as the next fellow, but heartily dislikes dirty, disused industrial sites.

And the right course of conduct, I reflected, was not, unless you happen to be a professional custodian, to go and brood and dream over these almost heart-breaking pieces of natural or architectural loveliness, doing it all at the expense of a lot of poor devils toiling in the muck, but to have an occasional peep at them, thus to steel your determination that sooner or later the rest of English life, even where the muck is now, shall have as good a quality as those things.

March 4, 2024 (permalink)

Lea Carpenter

The 21-year-old British narrator falls in love with a wealthy American entrepreneur. Shortly after their wedding, Marcus tells her that he’s dying. “And that’s not all....” A superb launch point for a very fine, realistic thriller. (Reviews: NY Times ❧ Washington Post)

February 28, 2024 (permalink)

A fine summary of the first year of the war in Ukraine, written by a Ukrainian reporter. History’s second draft. This war is the most consequential event of our time.

February 18, 2024 (permalink)

A superb introduction to the history of the notebook, from its medieval origins in Italy to its widespread modern use for art, literature, and learning, this volume invites comparison to Thomas Mallon’s wonderful study of diaries, A Book Of One’s Own. Allen is particularly strong on the close connection between notebooks and accounting, and the importance of accounting to the development of Europe: paper and ink turned out to be a superb defense against financial fraud because paper, unlike parchment, absorbs ink. Allen misses the laboratory notebook, unfortunately, but Jillian Hess covers that ground superbly in How Romantics and Victorians Organized Information. Though his dismissal of electronic tools is, I think, unjust, Allen’s volume is delightfully casual but taut and almost always insightful.

February 9, 2024 (permalink)

Mick Herron’s department of inept intelligence officers has one very bad day. A desk jockey bumps into an old boyfriend. He’s out of prison at last. Not much later, she realizes that she is being followed — and that her old boyfriend must have fingered her. Then things go seriously wrong. Herron can write.

February 8, 2024 (permalink)

A terrific thriller, even better than Slow Horses. Slough House is the place where MI-5 sends fuckups who, for one reason or another, cannot simply be dismissed. They do dull clerical tasks, searching for intelligence in places where no intelligence is to be found. Still, it’s a job, and therefore better than being kicked out entirely. One of the guys who did get kicked to the curb, one day, comes out of a pub and sees a Russian hood he used to know in Berlin, walking down the street. He starts a one-man tail job, which turns out just as badly as you might expect. Very fine, indeed.

January 31, 2024 (permalink)

Emily Wilde is a young Cambridge don who studies dryadology — the ethnography of faeries. In fact, she’s the youngest fellow in history of her department. She’s off for a short trip to Iceland, or someplace quite like it, to discover some facts about the Silent Folk. She learns a lot.

This is a pleasant and a charming book. It doesn’t startle or soar: that would be unmannerly, maybe uncanny. Fawcett has an interesting knack of forgivable cheating — as do many of her faeries: Wilde is often saved by dei ex machina, which is then excused because everyone knows something about faeries that Fawcett has not actually established here. Once you get the hang of it, it hangs together: of course faeries can do that, because you know stories where faeries do it. Of course faeries love something and hate something else, because you’ve stories about that, too. Everything you have heard is mostly right, which (when you think about it) makes even the little folk terrific.

January 30, 2024 (permalink)

I Dare
Steve Miller and Sharon Lee

The dynastic adventure of the battle between Clan Korval and the sinister Department Of The Interior reaches a pinnacle of excitement, as everyone heads first for an obscure, desolate wilderness world and then for the Liaden capital. An excellent Western in space.

January 22, 2024 (permalink)

A strange, sprawling Iowa Writing Program novel about a group of Iowa graduate students. Some are poets, some writers, some dance. One dancer’s tendons gave out, and now he’s finishing an MBA to his own, and his friends’, consternation. The New Yorker loved it. The Times Literary Supplement loved it. I didn’t: reading this, I found myself recalling Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and recalling that some of the circle of friends in that story were likable, and in that story things happened.

Not much happens here. Perhaps that is the point. Everyone has sex with everyone, but no one has romance, perhaps because no one really expects this world to last. Art may be eternal, but eternity isn’t what it used to be.

January 17, 2024 (permalink)

When he first considered directing The Godfather, Coppola took a copy of the Mario Puzo novel and pasted each page onto a 8½×11 page. On nearly each sheet, he made copious notes about casting and directing the film. Between chapters, he added fascinating memoranda discussing ways he could establish period detail, atmosphere, and ways he could wreck the movie by doing that scene badly. Coppola’s notes are direct and insightful: for example, as soon as the undertaker Bonasera appears, Coppola reminds himself that this small part must be played by a superlative actor. A fascinating record, especially for people who study note-taking.

January 15, 2024 (permalink)

Robin Sloan

An absolutely adorable novel, by the author of the wonderful Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookshop. Lois Clary is a young software engineer who has recently moved from Michigan to San Francisco, where she works at a growing robotics startup. Like most of her colleagues, she is completely dependent on takeout and mail-order meals, especially a nutritional Slurry® that makes normal food redundant. Lois thinks it’s dystopian but efficient. What Lois really enjoys is the Double Spicy combo from a neighborhood popup kitchen: spicy soup and spicy bread. When the mysterious proprietors have to decamp, one step ahead of Immigration, they leave Lois a crock of their Secret Sourdough Starter, and a CD of music to which the starter likes to listen.

January 3, 2024 (permalink)

Christina Rossetti was a hell of a poet. “In An Artist’s Studio” is surely the cruelest verse ever composed about a sister-in-law. I’ve long loved herGoblin Market”, even if it does trade in antisemitic imagery.

Morning and evening

Maids heard the goblins cry:

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:

Apples and quinces,

Lemons and oranges,

Plump unpeck’d cherries…

Bovalino imagines a fascinating problem: how would modern girls react to the Goblin Market? Whether you think the forbidden fruit is lesbian love or the renunciation of christ’s yoke, it’s going to play differently today than in 1862.

18 years ago, May Wickett was an apprentice witch, a defender of York from the annual underground market. May doesn’t really want to be a witch, but it’s a family duty. A sudden personnel crisis moves up the date of her initiation, and suddenly there’s not going to be a lovely time at University, far from the cares of home. In a week, she’ll be a professional witch and have no time or anything else. Then Eitra, a beautiful goblin girl walks into the pub.

Now, May and her sister have been banished from York. They live in Back Bay, with May helping to raise her 17-year-old niece Lou. Lou is a modern girl, sophisticatedly asex, impatient of her mother’s weird superstitious puttering with salt lines on the sills and iron charms on the doors. Then her beloved aunt Neela (who is the same age as Lou) leaves a message on Lou’s iPhone: she’s stuck in the market and cannot escape.

There are problems here, but it does draw a fascinating contrast between yesterday’s girl, who is wrapped up in liberation and love, and today’s girl, who doesn’t need to be liberated and doesn’t much want to know what love is. Bovalino doesn’t pull punches: if the girl you love turns out to be covered in thorns, you’re going to learn about an S&M kink you didn’t know you had. (Eitra, in turn, discovers sugar.) I think more might be done with this material, but this was a lot of fun.

December 19, 2023 (permalink)

Recommended by Cory Doctorow, who writes:

There's so much sf about "competent men" running their families with entrepreneurial zeal, clarity of vision and a firm confident hand. But there's precious little fiction about how much being raised by a Heinlein dad would suuuck.

Beck Garrison is fifteen. She’s grown up on a Libertarian Seastead: no taxes, no police, no schools. She finds stuff for people to pick up spending money, which is an ideal setup for an opportunity to find what everything really means. This is a fixup of a series of short stories, and a lot of fun.

December 11, 2023 (permalink)