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

Chaco Canyon: a center and its world
Mary Peck, Stephen Lekson, et al

This unusual volume collects a set of fine photographs of Chaco, summer and winter, along with three intelligent but specialized papers from the '90s about the Chaco Phenomenon. The gem is Stephen Lekson's "Thinking About Chaco", which surveys the shifting historiography of Chaco and indeed of the Anasazi with wit and insight. Of the Great Generation of American archaeologists, Lekson writes that

they had images of the pueblos that were part reality and part projection of what early twentieth-century America apparently needed to see: independent, self-sufficient agrarian villages. Small democratic city-states fit the times, and, based on this version of Pueblo life, each ruin at Chaco was seen as a separate town.

This is, perhaps, restating Haraway, but this way takes a lot less parsing of syntactically fractured sentences.

They weren't separate, and they weren't towns.

December 12, 2004 (permalink)

The Club Dumas
Arturo Perez-Reverte

Perez-Reverte writes wonderfully erudite, yet gripping metafictions. Here, rare book expert Lucas Corso is trying to validate what appears to be a manuscript chapter of The Three Musketeers, and to explain how a very rare copy of an old, condemned book of demonology -- only three copies escaped the inquisitorial flame -- comes to have nine plates when its bibliography in the 19th century says it had only eight.

This is a witty, scholarly, and well made book. It's got plenty of plot, though Perez-Reverte manages to make all the world droop with the dingy exhaustion of Spain after its Civil War.

And it's got a wonderfully-crafted portrait of Lucifer considered as a 20-year-old girl who is traveling through Europe with a backpack and a book, which on its own is worth the price of admission.

It's a good mystery though not, pace the NY Times, a thriller. A thriller is not a mystery you found exciting, but one that begins with a schlemiel who does something simple one day -- takes the wrong seat on a train, meets a stranger, wakes up in a strange place, sees a rabbit -- that changes everything and forces the poor schlemiel to run like hell in order to avoid even worse disaster and to claw his way back, against the laws of nature and man, to something like normality. Lucas Corso cannot be the hero of a thriller because he wants the upset and because the strange things that happen to him -- the dark strangers who follow him, the accidents that take place just after he leaves -- are, to him, all in a day's work.

December 11, 2004 (permalink)

During the War, MI5 discovered that the Nazis were developing weapons of mass destruction, planning to raise spirits from the vasty deep to do unspeakable things to their enemies. They failed.

Soon after the War, Alan Turing discovered the Turing-Lovecraft theory connecting computational theory with The Nameless Ones. He was assassinated. MI5 and the CIA and other covert agencies have ever since been at war against squamous demons from other dimensions -- and at war with each other. Naturally, the centers of academic research in this field are Santa Cruz, Brown, and Miskatonic.

This book is wonderfully observed and acidly witty. When Stross begins to describe a Memex -- our hero from tech support recognizes it instantly as a rare CIA antiquity -- he gets it exactly right long before he tells us what it is or what it does. When our hero's new girlfriend spots his four volume set of Knuth in his bedroom, she immediately recognizes how odd that is -- and when he explains that his agency paid Knuth to suppress the much-delayed fourth volume for reasons of galactic security, it surprises neither our hero nor his girlfriend that her plans for the evening immediately involve reading Knuth before their scheduled 9am flight to Amsterdam.

Highly recommended.

November 27, 2004 (permalink)

It's been twenty years, I think, since I read a book on music.

Not long ago, the Globe ran a feature about the popularity of Professor Kelley's course on First Nights, which regularly attracts 200 or 300 students to Sanders. This is the textbook, a study of the circumstances of the premiere's of L'Orfeo, Messiah, Beethoven's 9th, the Symphonie Fantastique, and Le Sacre du Printemps, and it's very nicely done.

A difficulty here, perhaps unforeseen, is that the historical environment changes radically between Monteverdi and Stravinsky. In some ways the gap is small: Beethoven's premiere was organized a lot like Handel's and faced similar kinds of bureaucratic, financial, and logistical problems. Beethoven's audience (and some of his performers) attended the Berlioz premiere. But we also know Berlioz and Stravinsky (and Diaghilev and Nijinsky) in levels of detail which are opaque to use only a generation or two before. We think we can figure out where Monteverdi's work was performed, but we do know that while Getrude Stein hinted she was at the premiere she (and Alice) actually went on the second night. We know what Diaghilev wore on his hair, and in what seat Stravinsky was sitting before he walked out. Kelley tried to be rigidly parallel in his treatment, but the evidence is intractable.

In a way, too, Le Sacre du Printemps is unfortunate here because its riotous premiere is so famous. Yes, it's the most notorious premiere in history, but that raises unique questions that Kelley can't easily address without unbalancing the book. He hints that anti-semitic politics played an important role, but the hint goes nowhere. He hints at the complex personal relationship between the composer, the dancer, and the impressario, but this too goes nowhere because, in the end, Beethoven and Handel had nothing like this. If Monteverdi did, we'll never know.

November 25, 2004 (permalink)

This broad and engaging tour of the geology of the Appalachians explores how these mountains were formed, how they aged, and how we know. McPhee is a master of craft, interweaving disparate strands with intelligence and character. His goal here, I think, is chiefly to show how scientists work and live. He does not, I think, get it exactly right, but he gets more right than almost anyone else -- especially the scientist's respect for the data.

November 13, 2004 (permalink)

The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold

When The Paladin of Souls, the second book of the series that begins here, won this year's Hugo, I though I should read it. TEKKA wants to buy science fiction, my own reading was in a rut, I once loved a lot of science fiction, and the Cramer/Hartwell anthologies always contain some nifty little stories.

That this book is long and predictable is not a criticism but a genre description. It's a fable grown up and freshly polished, and Bujold does the job expertly and thinks things through. A noble but desperately impoverished courtier at the end of his resources is appointed tutor to a princess of a troubled kingdom. The princess is soon beset by intricate, devious, and deadly conspiracy. It's a good setting.

I think it would be fascinating to hear Bujold and Robert Coover discuss the making of literature from fairy tales. Sparks would fly. Readercon, take note.

But why, exactly, is this a fantasy? After Tolkien, yes, we're tempted to reach for fantasy when we need kings and princes, but Chalion could slide very nicely into the Balkans, or the pre-Ottoman East, or (for that matter) into medieval Italian cities on which is seems to be most closely modeled. Bujold, to be sure, does interesting work with a religion in which the Trinity is replaced by the Four Seasons augmented by The Bastard, and clearly she's interested in a world where religion is real , where gods and ghosts exist. There's nothing she says about The Daughter, though, that mightn't have been said about Mary somewhere in the 12th or 13th century, and the abilities and limitations of the divine when intervening in temporal affairs were certainly topical then.

It's a fine book. For two weeks, I returned home at night and looked forward to spending some time with the Castillar dy Cazaril.

November 13, 2004 (permalink)

The introductory volume to McPhee's series of geological books, now completed and christened Annals of the Former World. McPhee here is working hard to reconcile two decades of writing, in which he documents a young science that changed significantly as he was writing; there's some fine writing here, but there's less scope McPhee's superb portraiture of dedicated experts than in his other books. I found the exegisis of time dull, but of because I'm a chemist (and did a certain amount of astronomy too, back in the day) I'm accustomed to working with very large and very small numbers.

It's not Looking for a Ship, perhaps, but it's good enough.

November 5, 2004 (permalink)

Bangkok 8
John Burdett

A fascinating experiment. The narrator, Detective Jitpleecheep of Bangkok's 8th precinct, is the only honest cop left on the force after his partner is killed investigating a bizarre drug slaying. He's the son of a successful bargirl, he takes his Buddhism seriously, and the attractive young woman the FBI sends as his case liason takes him very seriously, too.

It's easy to read this fascinating mystery as an extended meditation on Buddhism in a modern context. I think its Buddhism also can be seen as a metaphor for the constraints of genre; the soul's struggle to transcend desire reflects the writer's quest to transcend Mystery. Both, perhaps, are futile; in a past life, this novel was a potboiler. This novel seems simple but isn't, and Burdett gracefully navigates a minefield of pitfalls to craft an array of entirely fresh and completely believable characters. The detective's relationship with his mother -- and with her customers who introduced him to Parisian fashion and American luxury -- is superb.

The only blemish on this fine book is Burdett's solution to seeing that the bad end badly, which avoids predictable cynicism but is just a little too neat.

October 28, 2004 (permalink)