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

Back when I was in grad school, Varley was one of my favorite science-fiction storytellers. He was consistently engaging, provocative, and intriguing. He got the science right, he respected his characters, and he created some really interesting women. We used to wonder if Varley might be another Tiptree. Nobody offered long odds either way, but we all had read some Varley.

And then he was gone. Fled to Hollywood, people said. One ill-tempered and unreadable book, then nothing for years.

Red Thunder is the old Varley of "Picnic on Farside" and "The Barbie Murders". This is a romp, plain and simple: "my dad has an empty barn, let's all get together and build a Mars ship." Varley hasn't lost his flair, the women are still nicely drawn, the science (with one really embarrassing blunder about logarithms and exponentials) is sound enough to not get in the way, and there's an important, underlying idea: we might well be approaching a period where amateur-scale resources could support serious science and engineering. It's not going to work with spaceships, I think, but it already works with computing and might well work with genetics and biochemistry.

It's not a perfect effort, With buckets and buckets of exposition to get out of the way, some of the exposition is bound to be handled clumsily, and here I'm not convinced all the exposition is buying anything. This may be a generation shift: now that everyone has a computer, I think that anyone who really cares about 1G trajectories to Mars can work it out themselves, and the people who can't fire up a spreadsheet or Mathematica will probably take your word for it. You still have to buy your science -- you just can't get away with silly doublespeak -- but you don't need to buy the calculations.

The copyright pages says 2003 but I wouldn't be surprised if the book had been in a drawer for a decade or so: the backdrop is a space race (against the People's Republic of China) pretty much presupposes that the Reagan Era cold war would continue indefinitely. There's a level of endearing American jingoism that Abu Ghraib will, I suspect, render untenable for years to come. I might be wrong, but I bet that Iraq is going to create a new New Wave to cap the recent storrings of a new science fiction Golden Age.

Or maybe it's just Varley, and he'll dust of the rust and we'll have some truly wonderful new things any moment now. Meanwhile, this is great for your next plane trip.

June 10, 2004 (permalink)

Less intricate than Atonement, this experiment in narrative explores the different ways people perceive and remember small, significant events: a family fight, a hiking encounter with hell hounds formerly in the service of the Gestapo, a street brawl in Berlin shortly after the collapse of the The Wall, McEwan tells it all back-to-front. An effective, little work.

June 8, 2004 (permalink)

Not a complete success.

In this account of Foucault's career, centered on his famous pendulum experiment, Aczel is consciously writing for an audience that is scientifically illiterate, and believes it is a very good thing indeed to be illiterate. Aczel has to to explain complex ideas that challenged the best mind of the scientific world in 1851, and to do this he allows himself no mathematics at all -- no diagrams, nothing but hand-waving.

A good deal of the book is cast as Foucault's struggle against academic credentialism and obscurantism. Foucault was a self-trained experimentalist who was not an accomplished -- perhaps not a competent -- mathematician. His peers and rivals considered his work insufficiently rigorous, and rushed to fill the void. Aczel naturally sympathizes with Foucault, but it's impossible to know from this cursory and prejudiced overview whether Foucault's critics were pettifoggers or merely wanted to insist on sound reasoning and proof.

The actual physics of Foucault's pendulum are simply too hard to work out with hand-waving. It's one thing to make accommodations for your reader's gaps in knowledge, but it's another thing entirely to assume that none of the readers will find a diagram comforting rather than alarming, and that all will run screaming from the room at the sight of an equation. Look at it this way: when we're discussing the Theater, we often feel free to allude to anything in Shakespeare. Has every college graduate read every line of Shakespeare? No: but we know we ought to have done, and we know how to look stuff up.

June 3, 2004 (permalink)

This thoroughly engaging story of family troubles is a magnificent study of storytelling. McEwan tells the story from a variety of odd, unexpected angles and perspectives, and what seems as first to be a gothic period piece becomes at once a very contemporary and suspenseful novel and a masterful exploration of narrative. The most readable and transparent metafiction I can imagine; I should not have waited this long.

May 30, 2004 (permalink)

The greatest spy thriller of all time is strangely topical, as it seems (at the time of this writing) that the U.S. administration has been gulled by the most stunning spy operation since Kim Philby.

May 27, 2004 (permalink)

These five little marvels dwell at the boundary between the world we don't much like, and the world we dread. Two schoolgirls, during the war, see a terrible creature out of legend and now, old women, return to the forest where once it dwelt. An aged schoolteacher cares for his Alzheimers-raddled wife, a woman who once ran networks of Cold War spies. Strange, creepy, and entirely too memorable.

May 19, 2004 (permalink)

Echo Bay
Richard Barre

Review forthcoming in Drood. An accomplished, lyrical, and entirely believable thriller.

May 11, 2004 (permalink)

A fascinating new approach to integrating the comic and novel, this Diary uses illustrations and extended comic sequences to give Minnie Goetze, the 15-year-old author, a physical specificity she'd otherwise lack.

That's important, because physical specificity is precisely what Minnie is about. This isn't a coming of age story, because Minnie's age has already arrived: she starts the Diary because she's just made a decision to seduce her Mom's boyfriend and she senses that it's going to be, you know, one of those really, really important decisions.

Minnie is very physical and very specific. She lives in San Francisco, on Clay Street, on the second floor, in 1976, and it's terribly important to her that you know exactly which window is hers.

Diary of a Teenage Girl
The natural medium for such a visual and sensually immersive story is cinema, but a screenplay might be difficult to pull off. First, it's a terrific vehicle for a great actress, but then you'd get the story of the actress, not of Minnie Goetze. Second, right now the film is probably unmakable. Minnie enjoys sex, and in Hollywood today women can't do that until they're adults. Minnie also likes drugs, as lots of people did in 1976 (and lots of people still do) and in Hollywood today you can't do that unless you die or repent. So, Gloeckner can't tell this story on film.

Gloeckner's career has chiefly been in comics and graphic novels, so that might be a natural. But Minnie's story rests heavily on internal voice and internal dialogue, and that's where prose is best. This innovative blend, somewhere midway between comic and novel, makes a lot of sense.

We get to know Minnie very well. She's fascinating, but she's dim, shallow, irritating, unimaginative, and she skipped school on the day they were handing out empathy. That's not necessarily a flaw; even if you've got a spare ticket, do you want to ask Holden Caulfield to see the Sox beat the Yankees? Perhaps the germ of the character is autobiographical — how could it not be? — and the author, not wanting to boast of her intrinsic wonderfulness, has tried to display for us all her faults in their fullest gloss.

The drawing is brilliant.

May 11, 2004 (permalink)

Bad Business
Robert B. Parker

I've long wished the Spenser or Warshawski or one of their pals would tell us about some of their everyday cases, the white-collar scams and cons that must actually make up the bulk of their work. I expect that real investigators spend a lot of time figuring out what happened to the restaurant's cash, or who keeps swiping laptops from cubicles in 4E. Why not tell us about it for a change?

Parker's trying to do that here, I suppose, in this story about Bad Things happening at a Route 128 Enron clone. But the plot gets all tied up in knots, and before you know it the stock market play is tied into the sex ring and the seamy radio talk show host has got to be involved somehow. It's just too much.

You don't read Parker these days for the mystery, anyway. It's repartee all the way, and the repartee is just fine for a relaxing summer day.

May 11, 2004 (permalink)

The third and concluding volume of Philip Pullman's brilliant, brave, and stunningly ambitous His Dark Materials. Marketed as Young Adult fiction but winner of the Whitbread Prize, these important and provocative books shock and astonish with the daring of their ideas and the clarity of their purpose. A book of lasting importance.

April 23, 2004 (permalink)

A review of everyday life in the French countryside under the Occupation. Gildea shows, in great detail, how life went on after the defeat, and how quickly people strove to forget that life after the end of the War. Of particular interest is the difference, after the war, in the way Jews and other outsiders were remembered: in the late 40's, their memory was erased and their former presence forgotten, but once the children of the war grew up the Holocaust, not the Resistance, became the defining memory of the war.

March 4, 2004 (permalink)

A thorough and thoroughly-readable account of the War in North Africa. In the years before World War II, the US Army was a small and inconsequential force; in 1942, it became a large but still largely-amateur army. North Africa became "a place to be lousy." But though it was a sideshow, it was important as more than practice for Normandy; the Germans lost half as many troops in Africa as they did at Stalingrad.

Atkinson is so readable that he hides his erudition; only after finishing the book and thumbing through the notes and sources did I see exactly how much research he did, and how thorough that research was. Atkinson works heavily from primary sources and contemporary records, but is such a fine storyteller that you'd never know this isn't just popular history.

April 22, 2004 (permalink)

A memoir of a drinker, but it's a remarkable book in part because drinking plays such a small role: this delightful little book avoids the predictable scenes of trial and temptation that precede sainthood and sobriety. Cheever liked to drink. So did lots of people -- her dad (famously), her friends (trendily), everyone. No skid marks on the highway, no skid rows, nothing so terrible. When she stops drinking, that's when bad stuff happens. Drink doesn't really get her into trouble: love, on the other hand, sometimes does.

But, it turns out, maybe the good times weren't so good. And maybe the bad stuff has to happen for the good stuff to get better. Cheever is always interesting, amusing, and witty, and though one might still detect traces of wry ironic foreshadowing here and there, she tells her story with a plain, unassuming craftsmanship that's enviable and original.

April 21, 2004 (permalink)

A fairly lively, pleasant account of the painting of the Sistine chapel, this is ultimately a tour guide expanded to book length. There's interesting material on the art, the biography, and the milieu of Rome under Julius II, but in the end there's not enough history to carry complete conviction, and not enough art history to keep you from feeling like a tourist.

April 11, 2004 (permalink)

Allen, personal productivity coach consultant and author of Getting Things Done, has one fascinating core idea: if you carefully, realistically, and systematically maintain written lists of everything you want to do (and if you review these lists from time to time), you'll spend less time worrying. But there was one thing they'd forgotten — the spring of The Third Act — can fill your time with unproductive angst. It's a very good point.

What makes Getting Things Done work is its occasional close observation from specific experience. That observation is absent here, and the generalities are unexciting. Here, unfortunately, Allen tends to slip away from his strength — simple, practical implementations of his core idea — and into the familiar terrain of homespun homilies beloved by self-help writers. Perhaps these brief sermons worked in their original form as newsletter and Web essays; here, they're the froth of Edification.

March 30, 2004 (permalink)

A delightful, fascinating, and brilliant book, the volume transforms our concept of what intellectual history can accomplish. Menand reconstructs and reconsiders the intellectual currents that dominated the best American thought, from the Civil War to the Progressive Era, and shows the real complexity and subtlety of the ideas that took hold, as well as those that failed. Menand is also a superbly readable biographer, adeptly showing how an individual's human circumstances affected, or failed to affect, their thought. Fascinating, thrilling, and readable, this is a very important book.

March 26, 2004 (permalink)

Reading Emma Bull's 1987 fantasy of the war in Faerie for possession of Minneapolis War for the Oaks, I was struck by the impression that the entire genre of elfpunk is really about the way intelligent and sympathetic Europeans and Americans view each other today.

The denizens of Faerie are achingly beautiful and dress really well; Americans who stroll down the streets of Paris or Milan have the same feeling. Elves (and vampires) possess an ancient culture, bound up with arcane customs and incomprehensible courtesies and rituals. They make and own beautiful things, they treasure nature, and to them nature is cultivated, tamed, and comfortable. They have titles, They have great sex.

To the faerie court, mortals often seem ignorant, inexperienced, and clumsy. But mortals are also endlessly fascinating and strangely alluring; without the strictures of tradition and custom, mortals create things of which faeries never dreamed. Their art has raw power and excitement, and by elven standards the mortals have a charming directness, enthusiasm, and simplicity. And even the most powerful members of the faerie court always sense that this is the age of mortals, that mortals are somehow at the center of things.

Mortals can't understand why ancient faerie rivalries matter so much, why the Seelie and Unseelie court need to fight their interminable war. Why not just sit down, work it out, shake hands, move on? To immortals, this seems foolish and naive -- except that for some reason it seems to work. The American Civil War was horrible, yes, but once it was over, it was over. In Faerie, they remember these things more vividly and keep their anger fresh. The elves would still support guerilla bands in the Appalachians, they would hold armed marches, riots, and bombings to honor the memory of Tippecanoe and the Battle of Quebec.

See also Neil Gaiman (Great Britain), American Gods, and William Gibson (Canada), Pattern Recognition, and Laurel Hamilton (U.S.), A Kiss of Shadows.

March 24, 2004 (permalink)