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

Under the Color of Law
Michael McGarrity

Kevin Kearney, the new chief of a corrupt and demoralized Santa Fe police department, faces down the FBI and The Company in this engaging mystery-thriller hybrid. Memo to McGarrity (cc: Sarah Paretsky): there's no law that says your people have to shoot at your protagonist in the next-to-last chapter every time.

September 3, 2002 (permalink)

The Heidi Chronicles won the Pulitzer, but these three plays all suffer because they're issue plays, and their issues are trite right now. It's no longer a revelation that it's hard to have it all, or that friends can matter when romances don't, or that old, odd friends are important.

August 30, 2002 (permalink)

To be published in October; review forthcoming in The Drood Review.

Historical archaeologist Nicolette Scott finds herself in the middle of a thriller. For once, a mystery featuring an academic detective gets her work life right. Perhaps Dr. Scott knows a little less about 13th-century southwestern archaeology than the daughter of a famous field worker ought, but she's close -- but she cares enough about her own field to let us believe she's the real deal.

September 3, 2002 (permalink)

Good Omens
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

A famous economist (and a very old friend) recommended Gaiman and Pratchett's Good Omens over coffee at Sharples, where we had coffee together some decades ago.

She's right. It's a hilariously British account of the beginning and end of the world, replete with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding down the M1 on their Harley Davidsons pursued by the real Hell's Angels. Meanwhile, the angel Aziraphale, who once guarded the gates of Eden, enjoys a glass of thin, vinegary Beaujolais that he transforms into a perfectly acceptable (albeit astonished) Bordeaux.

August 24, 2002 (permalink)

In 1969, John McPhee brought his family to live, for a season, on Colonsay, the island home of his Scottish ancestors. McPhee is a wonderful prose stylist and the master of paraphrase, which he uses here to spectacular effect. He captures the rhythms of Scotland without tartan-tinted tourist nostalgia. He understands that brutally hard times can be worth remembering and even cherishing, but that we would never want to relive them. And somehow he anticipates the intertextuality of modern historical stylists like Ed Ayers, long before intertextuality became a word.

August 22, 2002 (permalink)

Julian Stockwin

A story of a young wig maker who, just before the start of the war against Napoleon, has the misfortune to get caught by a press gang and finds himself an unwilling sailor.

An interesting perspective of life before the mast in Nelson's Navy, this novel may well launch a series. Kydd makes a fine corrective to Hornblower (though Jack Aubrey is a better and more interesting response, and Richard Henry Dana was actually there) There's a good deal wrong with Kydd -- problems with characterization, seemingly-miraculous improvements in our hero's sailing skills, and the suspicion the Patrick O'Brian might step out from behind a storage cask at any moment. Still, the book makes pleasant airplane reading, and the sequels might easily improve.

August 22, 2002 (permalink)

Ten academic essays on aspects of Buffy that range from Buffy's interpretation of (and commentary on) Southern California to its gender politics, its vague relationship to martial arts cinema, and its fan fiction. Brian Wall and Michael Zryd, for example, offer an intriguing essay on "Vampire Dialectics: Knowledge, Institutions and Labour" that does a nice job of illuminating why the introduction to this consumerist American television series features a heroine who wields a hammer and sickle, and why this image is neither cynical nor exploitative.

The authors of these essays must love Buffy: why else are they writing papers on the Buffyverse and not Lacan or Trollope? Still, this volume talks rarely about why Buffy is compelling or how it achieves its effects. West's study of "Buffy and East Asian Cinema" is one of the few essays that look at the way Buffy is filmed, but its conclusions are largely negative: there's a lot of fighting in Buffy, but its creators have forgone (or bungled) opportunities to connect that fighting with related traditions of Japan and Hong Kong. Esther Saxey tells us a lot about fan fiction and Buffy slash -- an area whose gender politics are enormously complicated -- but fails to indicate whether any of the mountain of Buffy slash she's read is worth the reader's time.

August 11, 2002 (permalink)

A collection of famous essays about weblogs, chiefly by weblog writers. From Cameron Barrett to Derek Powazek, from the Kaycee Nicole FAQ to the Blogma 2001 diatribe, this slender volume collects a variety of key documents about the early history of weblogs. Many readers will find many of these essays familiar, but collecting them in a nicely designed hardcover volume makes them more accessible and, perhaps, more permanent.

The title page attributes the volume, curiously, to "the editors of Perseus Publishing".

August 9, 2002 (permalink)

Hillman Curtis, a prominent designer who specializes in motion graphics for the Web, discusses his design aesthetic and sources of inspiration. Though the volume lacks structure and drive, it does make interesting snapshot of a working designers world view and work practice with many visual quotations from his own studio and from artists Curtis particularly admires. The closing section of guest lectures on elements of design misses its target; readers with enough design background to follow Curtis's allusions and inspirations in the first section of the volume are unlikely to need tutorials on the layout grid or the color wheel.

Curtis's particular strengths on the Web, I think, are his ability to establish and sustain pacing in motion -- his Flash work really moves -- and his knack for borrowing familiar imagery without simply building yet another retro pastiche. Neither strength is discussed much here, but the first may be a matter of craft ill-suited to text while the second is, perhaps, merely a question of taste.

August 2, 2002 (permalink)

North of Boston
Robert Frost

Everyone knows the short poems, but Frost's dramatic dialogues are are astonishing and delightful. Here's a moment from Death of the Hired Man:

'Home,' he mocked gently.
      'Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.

'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.'
      'I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.'

Death of the Hired Man is fine theater, and I found The Code a fine lesson in management.

August 8, 2002 (permalink)

Hand Over Fist
Magdalen Powers

A 28-page chapbook published by So New Media, complete with a mini-CD audio recording of the author reading selected stories. "Caroline kept her nails perfectly manicured because she knew it frightened other women", she writes. And "I want to be somebody's wife in the '50's: so I could move on; grow up; put my head in an oven; get over it."

It's a small book, but intriguing. Powers can write.

(Confidential to publisher: there's a typo in the first sentence of the promotional tuck-in. Oops.)

August 5, 2002 (permalink)

A Killing Smile
Christopher G. Moore

This strangely-conceived, creepy, and moving story about expatriate life in '90s Bangkok hinges on the meeting of old two college friends: a Los Angeles lawyer whose wife has just died, and the man she left to marry him. They meet in a Bangkok joint. They snarl, scheme, and plot their private revenge against a backdrop of bar girls and Mekong whiskey. The story is (or should be) about those bar girls, from whom Moore's attention rarely strays far, but he is reluctant to focus on them; as soon as his prose brings one girl into focus it retreats in terror, as if Moore's text is deeply afraid of commitment. This is a story of men without women, even though women are literally jumping into their laps.

If (as I suspect) the cover is the author's design, it offers a good lesson on why writers should not choose covers. The title and cover suggest a sexy mystery about a Thai girl; in fact, Moore's story is not a mystery, tries hard not to be sexy, and the girls are as far in the background as the temple dogs and the Bangkok traffic. It's better than the cover promises, but the book is so far from the promise that readers are bound to be distracted.

August 8, 2002 (permalink)

Review forthcoming in Drood.

This is the second mystery I've read this summer in which the protagonist is a graduate student, and once again she does things no grad student would.

Josie Darling has nearly finished her dissertation. She's solved a major Joyce riddle. She should be rushing to publication, nailing down her first appointment, preparing her tenure case. Instead, she takes a job as an instructor at a third-tier cow college. Once there, she should throw herself into research (which she neglects entirely) and teaching (to which she pays almost no attention, beyond reading a few student sonnets). In the course of the semester, she apparently reads a single book, spends little or no time reading journals, and writes nothing. When a local newspaper writes that she'd applied for a job as a stripper and the department makes noises about invoking her morality clause, she quakes in her boots. A real-life English instructor, faced with such a clumsy opposition, would have visions of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Camille Paglia and Sandy Stone dancing in her head.

Smith has obviously been around the campus block. He's got some wonderful portraits of students. But, in trying to make his instructor vulnerable, he makes her into an idiot.

August 3, 2002 (permalink)

Get Shorty
Elmore Leonard

Leonard's excels at creating outlandish situations that are populated by interesting and credible characters. It's a fascinating counterpoint to Larry Shames, who tells wonderful stories in which dull people find themselves in a preposterous fix. Here, for example, we have a sympathetic shylock who loves film, a drug pusher who really cares about clothes, a failed producer of exploitation films, and the woman who loves them all. And then there's a few hundred grand in an airport locker, and an angry mafia hood from Miami, and...

May 22, 2013 (permalink)

The Weblog Handbook
Rebecca Blood

Reviewed in HypertextNOW: "A Romantic View of Weblogs"

July 17, 2002 (permalink)

Widow's Walk
Robert B. Parker

Parker's Spenser mysteries have settled down into a comfortable pattern. The intensity and seriousness of Parker's early work are now a distant memory, but he's overcome the indulgence of the middle-era, in which each Spenser novel was little more than a TV episode. Parker's strength has always been dialog, and he's honed his style until his books now read like plays. Reading this witty, pleasant confection, it's hard to remember now how exciting a mystery like Early Autumn seemed in the 80's,

July 13, 2002 (permalink)

Gust Front
John Ringo

A few years have passed since A Hymn Before Battle, and the mean Posleen are about to invade a woefully unprotected Earth. It's a great premise for a grand combat romp, as science fiction armies tread the battlefields of the American Civil War. The excesses of the first book (which gets mired in superhero power fantasy) are remedied here by a broader focus. But we have new excesses instead, including an entire subplot dedicated to getting two teenagers to sleep together amid the ruins. The moment she says "yes", Ringo loses interest and the subplot goes to sleep for hundreds of pages.

July 6, 2002 (permalink)

Death Assemblage
Susan Cummins Miller

Review forthcoming in The Drood Review.

July 17, 2002 (permalink)

Review forthcoming in The Drood Review.

July 17, 2002 (permalink)

A stunning play. As it happens, I was at the world premiere in August, 1997. Mamet's ear is incredible; I know these people.

June 30, 2002 (permalink)

The US has a tradition of fine sports writing, born of the era when a slew of beat writers had to compete every day for every possible newspaper reader. "How long does it take you to write a column?", someone once asked Red Smith. "As long as I've got." was the inevitable comeback. The newspapers aren't the force they once were (though Peter Gammons started there, and he can write when he wants). Roger Angell is still the grand poet of the sport. But writers grow into the job: listen to stat-head Bill James:

But the true story of baseball in the 1950's is not a story about greedy men who betrayed the trust of loyal rooters and brought the golden age of sport crashing down as they foraged for even greener pastures. It is a story about fear and urban decay, about a panic-stricken industry scrambling for survival. It is a story about old ballparks that had come to symbolize the rotting neighborhoods in which they rested, and were smashed apart so that something new and full of promise could be put in their place. We know now that this was a mistake, and we wish now that they had saved the old ballparks. But we must also hope that history will have compassion in surveying our mistakes, and for that reason we must try not to judge to harshly the mistakes of the generation before us.

This appears on page 241 of a book that runs to 924 pages. It also appears in the first version of this book, but that's unusual: almost everything here is new. Preserving something this good is just good sense. James isn't stuffy, or fussy, and he isn't a poet. He simply writes damn well, and finds something interesting to say about hundreds and hundreds of men who played the game.

April 4, 2002 (permalink)

These occasional essays range from Life On Broadway to the shortcomings of stainless steel. The twenty-nine pages of "Scotch Malt Whisky Society" are worth the price of admission: a truly remarkable essay, just as good in its way as Lagavulin: "And there I was art the bar in Cambridge, Mass., that charming Athena of Backwaters, and I tasted the good scotch and thought, 'How long has this been going on?' It was dark and rich and not at all sweet, and quite sharp without being bitter, and it tasted curiously of smoke..."

April 25, 2002 (permalink)

Tom Clancy in space, this techno-thriller features space aliens, cool gizmos, awesome hardware, and big bangs. Its plotting seems inept (though perhaps the dead ends are meant to set up a sequel), it's full of cliches, it's contrived, and it's a whole lot of fun.

June 30, 2002 (permalink)

The Wiki Way
Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham

WikiWiki (which means "fast" in Hawaiian) is a lightweight Web collaboration system originally designed by Ward Cunningham for his Portland Pattern Repository. Wiki turns conventional collaborative software design on its head; it offers no security, little or no formal organization, no metadata, and no support for presence.

It's been remarkable successful, because its weaknesses become strengths. Since the system is so clearly insecure, users take special care to protect it from vandals and casual neglect, Since the system is so informal, incremental refinement becomes an explicit virtue. And since there's so little overhead for security, authentication, transactional integrity, or synchronization, the system is very small, very simple, and very fast.

An interesting aspect of this book is that much of it encourages the reader to hack the system's source code. The code is supplied on a CD and may be downloaded from the book's support Web site, and provides a simple, flexible PERL system that I was able to bring up on MacOS X in a short evening of work. Rewriting the code is an interesting take on the old goal of the reconstructible user interface, but perhaps this is the way the future looks.

June 26, 2002 (permalink)