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.

1076 Books: by author | by title

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A well-crafted alternative history of the British Empire and its industrial revolution, in which steam power only becomes practical after scholars have harnessed the magical powers of silver. Silver in this world has the ability to release the missing elements that separate words in different languages but share common roots: French treácle (antidote): English treacle (sweet), for example, is medicinal. Four young Oxford undergraduates arrive from the corners of Empire: Calcutta, Canton, Port-au-Prince, and the daughter of an admiral. Two are women. Two are black; the boy from Canton can sometimes pass. They are to be trained to supply the magic power that powers the empire.

The catch here is that the students know too many post-colonial ideas, and too little history. They’re entirely convincing until they speak about the political and economic ideas at the heart of the story. When they do, they suddenly sound like contemporary undergraduates at top schools who have learned to problematize and interrogate from a tender age. Kuang is absolutely convincing on 19th-century Oxford slang, and if anything minimizes its racism. But we’re a half-century before Shaw’s first plays — and Shaw saw himself as a radical. At the time of the novel, Frederick Douglass was only at the start of his career. The students are intended to be brilliant, but they seem to know W. E. B. Du Bois decades before his birth.

October 31, 2022 (permalink)

At once accessible, engaging, and comprehensive, this history of the great fire of 64 brings together textual scholarship and archaeology to paint a remarkably comprehensive picture of the disaster and its aftermath. Our main literary sources for Nero are uniformly hostile, and the Flavians who eventually took over the Roman Empire after Nero’s fall (and a year of chaos) had good reason to blacken Nero’s reputation. Barrett’s study of the passage in Tacitus on Nero’s persecution of the Christians is brilliant, lending new weight to a 19th-Century suspicion that the essence of this account is a much later interpolation. Heartily recommended.

August 10, 2022 (permalink)

The Idiot

A sensitive, sweet, well-observed story of a Turkish girl at Harvard. She has no particular reason to be there, and no particular plan for what to do while she’s there. Yet, it has its moments.

May 24, 2022 (permalink)

An accomplished and very intriguing school story about deaf education, and the status of deaf culture. The 19th-century school story ended in graduation, the 20th-century school story ended in the dissolution of the school. This 21st-Century school story heads to unexpected places.

May 2, 2022 (permalink)

Susanna Clarke

A fascinating and very strange book about a man, of scholarly bent, whose world is a vast — perhaps endless — labyrinth of grand marble halls and vestibules, all lined with monumental statuary. He calls this The House, and he is the Beloved Child Of The House. It provides for him: the seas that flow through the lower halls provide fish and mussels and nutritious seaweed. Fresh rain can be collected from the misty upper halls. He knows of one other living person, whom he calls The Other and whom he meets by appointment, twice a week. He tells us early on that he knows that there have been at least 14 other persons who have lived in the history of the world, as he cares for their skeletons and brings them offerings of food and water. His knowledge of The House and its statuary is encyclopedic, and he keeps a journal using a calendar of his own devising.

This is a fascinating study of the idea that Primitive Man thought differently, and experienced the world in ways we do not, carefully elaborated because Primitive Man was not stupid. Was there a time when people were not alienated? Perhaps. I think I disagree with Clarke: my intuition suggests that, back when people were running on the savannah, the institutions we are tempted to call “the cave-bear clan” and “the winter sodality” were more like “The Royal Institution For Nutrition” and “The Department Of State.” Still, Clarke thinks things through, and the writing is often delicious.

February 9, 2022 (permalink)

A witty and authentic recollection of startup life in 21st-Century Silicon Valley. Wiener had been working in the lower rungs of New York publishing when she seized an opportunity to join a startup. That didn’t work out, but there were plenty of startups. In the end, she spent much of her time at the “open-source startup”, but lots of her friends worked at “the social network everyone hated”; in the end, her open-source startup is bought by “the highly litigious Seattle-based conglomerate” and she returns to writing with a nice nest egg. There’s a lovely little passage the recounts how her Terms Of Service team came up against the early days of Gamergate, and then her astonishment a few years later to see the same tactics employed in the early days of QAnon. A co-worker turns to her. “‘Oh, my sweet summer child,’ he said. ‘They are absolutely the same people.’”

February 3, 2022 (permalink)

Robert Harris

Reimagining the Munich Agreement of 1938, seen here with as much sympathy for Neville Chamberlain as it is possible to muster and narrated from the perspectives of two minor diplomatic officials — one British, one German — who had known each other at Oxford. Critics were unusually skeptical of this Robert Harris foray, which confronts structural difficulties with an array of suspense-generating machinery, much of which doesn’t quite work. Harris has a point: if war was coming, it might have been better to delay it — though not, of course, better for the millions of Nazi victims who might have escaped. I’m not wild that the minor character who represents The Jews has been so bludgeoned and damaged that she is silenced. Still, a fine and readable historical novel in which a collection of villains meet: if Chamberlain did not rise to the occasion, he was far from the worst.

January 24, 2022 (permalink)

Serhii Plokhy

A very fine account of the disastrous explosion of Chernobyl’s unit #4, which blew up during an ill-considered test. In the immediate aftermath, no one was sure what had happened, what was happening, or what to do about it. The effort to manage the disaster was a triumph of engineering under the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

January 8, 2022 (permalink)

A spy thriller in a determinedly-realistic mode, without Le Carré’s gloom. It’s 1966 and it’s Argentina. The KGB is thought to be muddying the waters. A coup is brewing, and Vera Kelly is eavesdropping on government offices from the attic of a fancy bakery. In her spare time, she’s infiltrating a team of left-wing students who, it seems, are building a bomb. Winner of 2021 Edgar Award.

January 8, 2022 (permalink)

Age of Wonders
David G. Hartwell

This amiable, expert look at the world of science fiction as it was in the mid-1990s runs from the history and economics of the genre to the unique genre fandom that shapes expectation and reception. I was surprised to see the weight that Hartwell, a consummate insider, accords to the fan phenomenon, which has always defined itself as outsider and — very much unlike Hartwell — anti-literary. Yet the influence is undeniable, and Hartwell shows why that matters. The superb annotated bibliography is helpful.

What I miss here are the sensible discussions about trends and mechanics that Hartwell used to write for The New York Review Of Science Fiction. I remember, for example, a fascinating column discussing how a genre in which short novels flourished in the 1960s — remember Ace Doubles? — came to demand thick bricks (and treble volumes) shortly afterward. Perhaps this seemed too much inside baseball, and too far from the book’s argument for the seriousness of science fiction.

December 1, 2021 (permalink)

I’m working on a book chapter about the challenges of publishing interactive narratives, and this has offered a chance to get Gottlieb’s fine autobiography off the reading stack. Gottlieb started at Simon and Schuster, then led Knopf, and then replaced the legendary William Shawn at The New Yorker. He’s a terrific writer, too. Gottlieb recalls the joke that “all editor”s memoirs basically come down to the same thing: ‘So I said to him, ‘Leo! Don’t just do war! Do peace, too!’” He is not wrong, but it’s a lot of fun anyway. It is fascinating to hear about changes in the book world that are seldom discussed: the declining effectiveness of book advertising in the 60s, the invention of the author tour in the 80s.

November 17, 2021 (permalink)

I asked my Twitter followers to suggest some non-fiction books from the past decade that had become proverbial, in the way that Hersey’s Hiroshima and Carson’s Silent Spring were books that everyone knew and that shaped everyone’s conversation. This was one of the suggestions from Mark Paul.

It’s a terrific book, a vivid look at the 2008 collapse and the forces that drove it. The book brightened my commutes, something I greatly needed. It’s very occasionally repetitive, but that’s likely inevitable in a book that necessarily deals with financial derivatives. It certainly makes me furious, which is the intended effect.

November 12, 2021 (permalink)

Hernando Colón was the illegitimate son, traveling companion, and biographer of Christopher Columbus. He amassed a vast library, perhaps the last effort in the West to create a library that would contain everything. The remnant of that library still exists, and though many of the books have been lost to time and the Inquisition, we still possess much of the catalog. Colón didn’t have much precedent for how to manage a library of some 15,000 volumes; no one did. The catalogs alone are a fascinating window into the transition for the medieval to the early modern mind.

November 5, 2021 (permalink)

No et Moi
Delphine de Vigan

A delightful novel about Lou, a sophisticated 13-year-old student who has to do a term paper on teen homelessness. Lou walks over the the train station and interviews a homeless girl, No, who is just a little older and is willing to be interviewed in exchange for a drink or two. The girls get along well. More meeting follow; Lou is something of a loner, and her parents are miserable after the sudden loss of Lou’s infant sister. Lou asks if No can come live with them, and (astonishingly) her parents say, “Oui.”

This is the first book I have read in a language that is not English, which I read simply because I wanted to.

November 2, 2021 (permalink)

A collection of fine short stories about life in the US Army during the later years of the occupation of Iraq. Now that the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, we can perhaps reflect on how, at great expense, they wrecked the American military and destroyed the standing of the United States across the globe.

October 25, 2021 (permalink)

A fun and fascinating school story set in a college for magicians. In Novik’s world, young magicians are in terrible danger from a host of supernatural beings that want to feast on their magical power. Babies and mundanes are safe, because they’re not very nutritious. Grownups are fairly safe because they’re t0ugh and leathery. But college students have plenty of nutrition, and taste like they’re coated in crunchy sugar shells. Despite lots of wards and precautions, roughly half of each class gets eaten before they graduate.

If the death toll recalls The Hunger Games, this book’s atmosphere is different because its superbly-drawn protagonist is very different. Galadriel “El” Higgins doesn’t want to get eaten by unspeakable monsters, even if that would mean she could blow off her term papers. She has a hard time making friends in college. There’s as reason for that: each magician has a special aptitude for some kind of magic, and her aptitude is for spells of mass destruction. She doesn’t enslave multitudes, but everyone can see in her face that she could. This doesn’t encourage people to hang out. In addition, El was raised in a commune and her mother has no use for money, but magic school is intensely class-conscious: rich kids have good equipment and a head start, and so they’re less likely to be eaten by unspeakable horrors.

October 14, 2021 (permalink)

The Ship
C. S. Forester

The Good Shepherd, Forester’s WW2 novel which was adapted for the movie Greyhound, is a fine novel. This earlier novel, about a light cruiser on Mediterranean convoy duty in 1942, is propaganda, intended to give people back home a sense of what their menfolk were doing and Why We Fight. Still, it gives an interesting picture of a crew with all its faults and oddities.

October 1, 2021 (permalink)

A fascinating history of a training operation in World War II. A retired naval officer, Gilbert Roberts, was tasked to find a way to train destroyer captains to cope with submarine wolf packs. Because his superiors thought this a waste of time (and because there was no time to waste), he was assigned people nobody wanted — in particular, he got assigned a bunch of women from the Women's Royal Naval Service, the WRENS. Together, they devised a simulation of sufficient depth that not only could captains learn new doctrine, but they could (and did) learn it from women.

October 1, 2021 (permalink)

This intriguing British police procedural uses lots of points of view to examine a fascinatingly complex crime. Manon Bradshaw wants a relationship and she wants a solution to the sudden disappearance of a Cambridge postgraduate student. No one really seems to care what she wants.

September 8, 2021 (permalink)

Oh, how I wanted this to be another Night Circus! It’s a fine book, a weird book. It will make a lovely stablemate with Sussana Clarke’s Piranesi. Morgenstern creates a vast, dark hidden word, but for my money it’s just too big and too dark and too much. I can’t wait for her next book.

August 27, 2021 (permalink)