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

An odd, intriguing book that tries to reconstruct and explain a tradition of intrinsically Japanese aesthetic based on the perception of objects in shadow -- an aesthetic of interior life experienced in dimly-lit rooms sheltered by low, overhanging eaves. Western aesthetics, on the other hand, are considered to be heavily influenced by illumination. It's an intriguing argument, though perhaps it is pushed altogether too far when extended to speculation on a distinctively Japanese science of shadowy ambiguity. I have misgivings, too, about aesthetic valorization of skin color, or arguments that traditional beauties were (or might just as well have been) malnourished because what matters, in the dim light, is the composition of a light-colored and graceful face above beautiful cloth. Still, it's an argument that explains a lot about current Japanese graphic design as well as Japan's traditional art and architecture.

December 15, 2003 (permalink)

Review pending in Tekka.

The first half American Civil War, seen in microcosm from the perspective of two rural counties, Augusta in Northern Virginia and Franklin in Southern Pennsylvania. The fruit of The Valley of The Shadow Project, I expect this work will be of great methodological importance. In The Presence of Mine Enemies has been criticized on stylistic grounds, but this is unwarranted; indeed, it is less stylistically adventurous than was Ayers' stunning Promise of the New South,

November 22, 2003 (permalink)

Lyra's Oxford
Phillip Pullman

A charming little book, lavishly produced with tuck-in maps, a simulated Baedecker's page for an imaginary Oxford, and random postcards from unexplained (and inexplicable, but intriguing) people.

The trick of interesting artifactual fiction is to avoid explaining too much. I've entered Pullman's world in the middle of the performance, and the effect may be exaggerated for me, but I found the lack of explanation a delightful change from, say, Harry Potter.

November 5, 2003 (permalink)

Southwesterly Wind
Luiz Alfredo Gracia-Roza

A skillfully-written and intelligent mystery. Review forthcoming in The Drood Review.

November 24, 2003 (permalink)

The Boy's Crusade
Paul Fussell

War makes some men heroes, and others, criminals. It made Fussell a historian and a critic, a gifted writer who cannot abide double-talk, chickenshit, or sentiment. He has no patience for nattering about the great generation or the good war, and he insists that we remember the bad parts. There were many bad parts, terrible things happened, and people tried to erase the memory even while they were going on. Fussell was there, and he hated it, and he insists on remembering what really happened. After the Bulge:

  • Dead boys: 19,000
  • Wounded boys: 48,000
  • $6
  • $7
  • $8
  • $9

This neat little history of the ground war from Normandy to Berlin is neatly summed up by its dedication: “to those on both sides who suffered.”

November 21, 2003 (permalink)

This fascinating assortment of essays on recent ideas in American thought ranges freely from Oliver Wendell Holmes' conception of negligence to Pauline Kael's contribution to postmodern thought. Menand writes superbly, with an enviably graceful and decorous informality.

November 13, 2003 (permalink)

Feeding The Eye
Anne Hollander

A delightful and inspiring collection of essays and reviews about the image of women -- on stage, in fashion, in painting. Hollander thinks seriously about things everyone assumes to be thoughtless. She asks, "Why?", about subjects our mothers all told us were beyond questioning. Why is it easy to imagine Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet or Mary Martin as Peter Pan, but impossible to imagine a serious production in which Dustin Hoffman is cast as Cleopatra? Why do women look good in tuxedos? Where does fashion come from?

October 22, 2003 (permalink)

Following Hadrian
Elizabeth Speller

In this ambitious and intriguing experiment, Speller seeks a new approach to historical writing, one that brings the lessons of the New Journalism to help us understand the distant past. This volume follows Hadrian's career as he travelled across the breadth of the empire, trying to reason out human meaning of Hadrian's ill-fated relationship with a sensuous and soon-to-be-divine boy, Antinous. Speller uses the full modern arsenal -- novelistic technique, synthetic memoir, interjecting the author as a character and showing the process of writing -- pioneered by Capote, Mailer, and Wolfe.

This is an intriguing approach to the dual narrative of ancient history, the twin stories of "what happened?" and "how do we know, where might we be wrong?" Steller shows a way to rescue the second narrative from footnotes and apparatus. In this case, perhaps, we know too little to make it a fully convincing demonstration, but it's a very interesting and promising approach.

November 1, 2003 (permalink)

Shrink Rap
Robert Parker

Parker writes the same book, again and again. It's a good book, as far as it goes, entertaining and pleasant. But it's the same. Here, we've filed off the usual names and changed the attributes. Spenser is a woman, Hawk is a gay man, Susan and Pearl are run together into a single terrier. A good time is had by all, more or less.

Over the years, Parker's style has become more and more condensed, depending every more heavily on lots of very short chapters and extremely heavy on dialog. This could be an interesting formula, I think, for hypertext entertainments.

November 1, 2003 (permalink)

This charming little book explores the challange of investing in baseball players -- of building a winning team even when you are unable to spend as much as your competitors. Intelligent, thoughtful, and nicely written.

October 15, 2003 (permalink)

A Place Of My Own
Michael Pollan

A magazine editor decides to build his own "writing shed" out behind his rural Connecticut house. He takes the decision literally -- he wants to do a lot of the carpentry himself, though he hires an architect to design the building and a carpenter to guide him. A thoughtful and reflective book in which little happens, except that the author winds up with a nice new room after two years of Sunday labor and a whole raft of thinking.

The concluding chapter on Sources is a wonderful reading list on architectures and construction, their ideas, philosophy, and practice.

October 13, 2003 (permalink)