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

Rei Shimura, a youngish Japanese American antique freelancer who grew up in San Francisco and now lives in Japan, finds out some unpleasant things about her ancestors and their radically-conservative politics in the years before the Second World War. After a weak outing in The Bride's Kimono, Sujata Massey returns to form in this readable, intelligent, and interesting mystery.

It is now clear, though, that Massey finds the formal requirements of the mystery uncomfortably constraining, and that she's not going to be able to accommdate herself to them. The strain is already evident in The Salaryman's Wife, her wonderful first novel. There, as here, she's got very fine characters, a wonderful sense of place, an eye for detail. But she also has a very shaggy plot in Salaryman, and here -- years later -- we've still got more suspense than we need. I'm all for plot, but there's too much plot here, so much that we stop believing.

Personal note to Massey, cc: Paretsky, Kellerman: there's no rule that requires your protagonist to be in physical peril in the last scene of every mystery. Maybe you need this for the screenplay, but you can add that later.

October 30, 2004 (permalink)

A 19th-century novel, written in 2003 from a 20-page fragment of Charlotte Bronté.

George Landow, a Victorian expert, recommended this heartily. Boylan does a magnificent job of constructing a seamless early-Victorian voice and world, one that is at once convincingly authentic and yet is suffused with contemporary sensibility and concern. A young girl of good family has been abandoned at a third-rate boarding school. Her tuition is unpaid and her connections untraceable. We recognize that someone is being conned -- but whom? We recognize that we are following the conventions of the cozy mystery -- a genre two generations in Bronté's future -- but we also see that Boylan carefully adheres to the conventions and to the language of that earlier time.

October 13, 2004 (permalink)

When I first saw Robert Altman's Nashville, I didn't like it. I'd already read that it was a Great Movie -- Pauline Kael praised it to the skies -- and the film itself, well, it was just a film.

Now, it's one of my favorites. It just couldn't live up to the advance billing.

So many people said they liked this so much that I just had to read it. It's a fine little book.

September 25, 2004 (permalink)

Walter Satterthwait

A delightful detective romp, highly recommended by geologist Peggy Barroll.  Two American Pinkertons work independently to explain the apparent suicide of an emigre American publishers in postwar Paris. Americans abroad, they naturally are drawn into emigre society. Paris is a swell party: Ernest, Pablo, Man Ray and Kiki, Stein and Toklas. What's exceptional here, beyond the wit of Satterthwait's writing, is a real knack for redrawing familiar faces and for using them to good purpose: Gertrude Stein, in particular, is a revelation and she's not merely there for decoration.

Out-of-print but readily available -- Amazon has 51 used copies -- this book also exemplifies the new importance of internet sales of used books.

September 21, 2004 (permalink)

Terry Pratchett

A clumsy and none-too-bright farm lad becomes Death's apprentice, and shows little talent for the job. Pratchett's writing is delightful, and he balances hilarity and humor with uncanny ease.

September 12, 2004 (permalink)

How To Taste
Jancis Robinson

A delightfully solid, sensible discussion of why you might want to pay attention to the taste of wine, and how one might do this. Robinson is at pains to avoid the mythology and mysticism that encrusts so much writing about wine, without ever being trivial or silly. Much of this is elementary but extremely useful. "Green", she explains, is what people call wine that is a bit too acid, and it's just an arbitrary word. "Body" is just alcohol content. And so forth,

The book is well furnished with practical exercises, usually comparing two related kinds of wine so you can pin the difference. I especially like to confidence Robinson shows in winemakers and merchants. I usually hate reading about wines, because the wine on the page is almost always unavailable or out-of-reach at the store. Robinson just says, "get a Chablis that's at least six years old and any fairly-expensive California chardonnay"

September 2, 2004 (permalink)

These short stories explore dimensions of the Santa Fe art world that would be difficult to examine without the artifice and safety of fiction. The awkward relationship between money, fashion, and creativity simultaneously enlivens and poisons the landscape. I suspect the book contains a number of bitter little romans a clef, but these stories are useful and instructive even if you don't know Santa Fe.

August 7, 2004 (permalink)

Robin McKinley

This thoughtful and well-crafted vampire romance envisions of a world where the Others are very much a fact of the 20th century, a world, indeed, where perhaps the Others are winning. This tale of a young coffee-shop baker, maker of excellent cinnamon rolls and fanciful desserts (like the cherry-filled Death of Marat) is scrupulously fair, and McKinley's vampires carefully adhere to tradition and to the internal logic of McKinley's complex world.

August 31, 2004 (permalink)

A haunting comic that explores, and tries to explain, the disaster of Sarajevo. The book is at its best in one vast, wordless exterior spread of the Holiday Inn, battered and broken, amidst the rubble of war -- an image that is precisely real and, thanks to Beiruit, already an archetype. Elsewhere, Sacco's minor characters are sometimes drawn with less sympathy than seems quite right.

Are comics really the best medium for this story?

July 4, 2004 (permalink)

A convincing exploration of a new and important approach to programming. Test-driven development is historically connected to the entire Extreme Programming movement, of which Beck is one of the founders, but here it is usefully isolated from the rest of Extreme complex. By writing extensive but lightweight tests for each object before implementing the object, we can define (and refine) its behavior and ensure that future refactoring does not break existing code without warning.

An important book.

July 7, 2004 (permalink)

A Presumption of Death
Jill Patton Walsh and Dorothy Sayers

Early in World War II, Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of light magazine pieces about the war scene, in the form of letters notionally written by her popular mystery characters. Here, Jill Patton Walsh fleshes out this rather unpromising material into a new mystery, set in Paggelham during the months of the Phony War.

Walsh does a wonderful job of capturing the moment, without sentimentality and without putting it in a display case. Lurking beneath the surface, here, is the knowledge that this really was a very last hurrah, the moment when the meaning of Englishness was about to shift radically and permanently. (Most historical novelists would reach for 1914, of course, or perhaps for Victoria's funeral in 1901)

As a mystery, it's not a success: whodunnit is obvious, and the process of revelation is not particularly revealing.

July 27, 2004 (permalink)

The Third Man
Graham Greene

I assumed this was the novel from which the screenplay was derived. But, as it happens, it's the treatment Greene wrote to sell the screenplay. Go figure. It's a very fine tale.

July 14, 2004 (permalink)

The Romans: from village to empire
Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, Richard J. A. Talber

A solid introduction to Roman history, intended for those who have little or no previous background. This is a careful treatment, eager to recognize the limits of the evidence but not especially detailed in describing what that evidence is. Most of the sources, when mentioned at all, are described in terms of their failings and limitations. Often, the most prominent discussion of prominent individuals (Tiberius Grachus, for example) is the discussion of what we don't know about them. This seems an unfortunate strategy for getting people excited about some of the most exciting history we know.

July 4, 2004 (permalink)

Jane Jacobs, author of the brilliant and influential Death and Life of Great American Cities, fears that we are embarking collectively in upon a journey into a new dark age, a cultural catastrophe. She sees learning being replaced by credentialism, and science supplanted by faith in bureaucratic verities. This is not always a closely argued book; Jacobs attack on the mythmaking of traffic planners may well be correct, but we need evidence that Jacobs clearly thinks too dull and technical for her readers in these decadent times. Nonetheless, it's a convincing and disturbing diagnosis.

July 4, 2004 (permalink)

In The Bleak Midwinter
Julia Spencer-Fleming

This 2001 first novel walked off with an armful of well-deserved mystery awards. It's a nicely written, very traditional small-town mystery in which a local police chief who grew up in town is paired with a newly-arrived, female Episcopal priest. Naturally, the happily-married police chief and The Reverend Ms. Fergusson -- who entered the seminary after a career driving choppers in the army -- find themselves in an impossible but high-wattage relationship. It's a confection, but a tasty one.

June 25, 2004 (permalink)

I'm interested in the craft of self-help books -- specifically, in finding ways of laying down the law without being a pompous jerk about it.

The Republican Party, it seems, believes that antipathy to gay men is an important wedge issue for the election, the Willy Horton of the 2004 campaign. This tie-in to the (very commercial) television series, on the other hand, starts from the premise that men will consider young gay guys, at a safe distance, to be likable and unthreatening. After all, they aren't trying to get your girl, dude. The advice here is pretty pedestrian, but the production is polished and the overall effect is amiable.

June 25, 2004 (permalink)