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.

1066 Books: by author | by title

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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)


Perestroika is an intelligent and curious 3-year-old filly. Earlier today, she won a purse to the great pleasure of her trainer. So pleased was the trainer that she left Paras’s stall unlatched, and left her purse — presumably the very purse the filly had won! — nearby. So, Paras takes the purse and heads off into the night to see what may be seen. By morning, she’s made her way to the Jardins du Trocadéro, where she befriends a very fine stray dog and an erudite raven. A charming winter’s tale.

August 24, 2021 (permalink)


Mona is 14. She has a magical knack for baking, in a world where such knacks are not unknown. It’s handy; she has a half-sentient sourdough starter named Bob in the basement that makes superb rolls, and she can remind the muffins not to burn. One day, she goes to open the bakery and there's a dead girl on the floor; someone is hunting the magicians. A witty late-night escape from my nutty neighborhood Democrats.

August 23, 2021 (permalink)


The 1955 book on which Tom Hanks’s Greyhound was based, and a very fine book, among the best of the destroyer/submarine genre.

August 23, 2021 (permalink)


A delightful novel, with sequels, of the daily life of an intelligent middle-class English woman in the 1930s. The Provincial Lady has servants, and eventually has a flat in London. She also has an overdraft, and the pawnbroker knows her by sight. She has, at any one moment, perhaps three presentable dresses and not quite enough hats and shoes to furnish those dresses for all occasions. In company she is gracious and courteous, though she frequently regrets her courtesy. These diaries are propelled by wit and good nature, and that turns out to be more than enough. (Also, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, and The Provincial Lady In America.)

August 23, 2021 (permalink)


The Plot
Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is a very strange book, almost a thriller and almost a mystery, but not quite.

Jacob Finch Bonner teaches writing at an inferior low-residency MFA program in Vermont. His first novel was mildly successful; his short story collection was not, and now he is badly blocked and dispirited. His students are unpromising, and one of this year’s students is an annoying, arrogant jerk. The first chapter’s of this jerk’s projected novel are, if not very good, not terrible. Bonner tries to offer good advice, but the annoying student tells him not to bother: the plot of this novel is so good, he doesn’t need writing tips. The student is insufferable — but right.

It’s a good premise, and the execution is not bad. One difficulty is that Jake is a dolt. It’s like watching a slasher movie: one is constantly shouting at the protagonist, “No! Don’t do that!” This isn’t played for laughs; it's entirely earnest. It’s not bad.

July 26, 2021 (permalink)


2034: A Novel of the Next World War
Eliot Ackerman and James Stavridis

A retired admiral indulges in strange, sentimental daydreams of noble soldiers and perfidious policy-makers. All civilian officials are stupid, ineffectual, or treasonous. Every soldier and sailor is noble. This book is a recipe, and excuse, for the sort of coup that Trump attempted and for which his supporters still dream.

All speculations on future warfare rest on sand, but this one is often ridiculous. “They have better cyber!” is the problem, and that can be interesting: Tom Clancy did that in Debt Of Honor, his entertaining if implausible effort to imagine a second war between the US and Japan. Here, apparently, someone in China presses a button and nothing works: it neutralizes every communication system in three Aegis destroyers (and every US satellite) just like that. Everything else, too: the destroyers never get off a shot.

The US solution? Tear out the avionics in their fighter planes so everyone can use WW2 tech and fly by the seat of their pants.

Oh — and someone else, it turns out, has even better offensive cyber capability than the Chinese do.

This is an admiral’s book. The lowest-ranked individual with a speaking part is a single chief petty officer who is on hand — in the radio room, on the flight deck, in CIC. We never learn the name of the President. We never meet China’s civilian leaders. We contrive to break an Iranian brigadier general and make him a lieutenant commander in the Iranian Navy because establishing a new character would be too much work.

July 23, 2021 (permalink)


A memoir of a young woman who has lost her Korean-American mother and who is estranged from her Irish-American father, told primarily in terms of food. The food doesn’t really sing the way Bourdain’s did, or Mandy Lee’s does, but it's an intriguing story.

Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart. For those of you who don’t know, H Mart is a supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food. The “H” stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to “one arm full of groceries.” H Mart is where parachute kids go to get the exact brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home. It’s where Korean families buy rice cakes to make tteokguk, a beef soup that brings in the new year. It’s the only place where you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because it’s the only place that truly understands how much garlic you’ll need for the kind of food your people eat.

June 23, 2021 (permalink)


I mentioned on a family Zoom call that I was reading Saul Bellow. One cousin was impressed. Another said, “I took a class with him. What an ass.”

This is a novel by a great writer, but it’s not really a novel. It’s a series of essays and studies, some of them interesting, on subjects ranging from Old Chicago (which, Chicago being what it is, is not as old as one might think) to life with authoritarians. (The Dean’s December was published in 1982, and everything in Romania would change a few years later, but of course that change wasn't everything it seemed, either.)

June 23, 2021 (permalink)


Reading a fantasy novel in French translation poses some interesting problems. When you don’t know a word, is that because it’s a written in an imaginary language, because it’s an invented word describing alien concepts or science, a specialized word from sailing, trading or from underworld slang, or simply an everyday word that you don’t know? You can spend a lot of time discovering that druskelle is not to be found in your French dictionary, and just as much time learning French words for thief, burglar, brigand, thug, sniper, card-sharp, and con man which, while useful for getting through this enjoyable caper, and perhaps not essential vocabulary for reading about the intellectual history of literary computing — the goal of this mad enterprise.

Yet, here we are, reaching the end of this delightful new take on The Hidden Fortress in a barber shop without internet. This might yet work.

June 5, 2021 (permalink)


The Understudy
Ellen Tovatt Leary

This is a strange project: a 2020 novel, presumably partly autobiographical, about a young Broadway actress in the 1970s. This is a strange version of the 1970s — self-conscious about its lack of cell phones (though sometimes you have to be: not being able to call people whenever you wanted was a real problem!) but omitting Studio 54 and Elaine’s, Vietnam, AIDS, Stonewall, and the Women’s Movement.

The bulk of the book sets out to dramatize every Broadway clichém and does a fine job of it, only occasionally indulging in buckets of exposition. Perhaps because the author is not yet focused on romance, the protagonist, Nina Landau, is nicely drawn as a 1970s woman who is entirely comfortable in her body, a woman who had no need to read Erica Jong’s 1973 Fear Of Flying because her fucks are already zipless aside from the her boyfriends’ occasional hangups. People actually say, “Away we go!” Someone actually says, “the show must go on,” in a context where it’s a sensible thing to say. It’s that kind of movie.

For some reason, the book ends with a romantic coda involving a move to Los Angeles, marriage, and a shift in aspirations from Broadway to the Taper Forum. The marriage plot is unconvincing, as it hinges on our heroine’s paralyzing guilt about having been date-raped while doing a summer stock revival on the Cape and her suspicion that this constitutes infidelity. We say very little about what she cannot have missed: that the work is also something she loves, and if she’s completely devoted to her man she’s unfaithful to the work.

Her beloved, a Hollywood heartthrob and soap star, might have strayed once in the course of a separation of many months, and this, too, tears Nina apart. This might be true to the author’s experience, but I do think a Smith College graduate, Broadway star and lifetime New York girl might have reflected just a bit more on the sexual politics of the whole mess. But that’s beside the point. Fifty years have passed: what do we think of all that, now?

June 5, 2021 (permalink)