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

Review forthcoming in The Drood Review of Mystery. Rarely have I been happier to see the final page of a novel.

January 11, 2004 (permalink)

An American tragedy of real-estate gone terribly wrong. Kathy Nicolo has lost her inherited house to a surprise (and unjust) tax sale, Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Shah's air force and now employed as a garbage picker, buys it, and sheriff Lester Burdon tries to untangle the mess with care and love. In this California, there really is neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,

January 25, 2004 (permalink)

The first novel in Pullman’s incomparable trilogy, His Dark Materials, barely hints at the wonders to come and yet is itself a delightful story of childhood adventure. Lev Grossman thinks this is the strongest of the three volumes, an opinion I’ve heard elsewhere but which is really only defensible if you prefer (as some do) the company of children to that of young adults. Grossman exults in “the awesome crystalline perfection of his plotting,” a claim that seems hard to justify, save perhaps in that Pullman’s plotting is better than Rowling’s and we’ve all seen so much Rowling lately. (Grossman also insists he prefers The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings.)

The unabridged audiobook , narrated by Pullman with a full cast, is a triumph.

August 17, 2011 (permalink)

Roman Ostia
Russell Meiggs

A brilliant, readable, and wonderful discussion of everything we know about one Roman town. Meiggs discusses every aspect of Ostian life, from its foundation when Rome was a village squabbling with its neighbors through the years when Ostia was the port at which the commerce of the world docked -- and then through the long decline and abandonment. Meiggs weighs the literary evidence, archaeology, inscriptions, carefully laying out what we know, what we need to study more closely, and what we perhaps can never rediscover.

Everything is closely argued and carefully sourced, yet each page is pleasant to read. Meiggs, uniquely, had the knack of writing simultaneously for scholars and students, for professional historians and for casual readers. There is never the slightest suspicion that arguments have been simplified for the benefit of students, yet every section of the book is lively and energetic.

I know of no better study of an ancient place.

February 13, 2004 (permalink)

A delightful bedtime story, and so the perfect tale to hear each morning on the way to work, and each evening driving home after a long day of coding. Lyra is eleven or twelve, and she's grown up as the ward of Jordan College, Oxford. One day, she and her demon sneak into the Retiring Room, that sanctum sanctorum into which only the senior dons are admitted. She hides in a cupboard, hears things she should not know and witnesses astonishing and abominable acts.

The comparison with Harry Potter is, I suppose, inevitable. But there are dark things -- and ideas -- that hover at the margins of this trilogy, things that never seem to worry people in the land of the muggles.

I heard this in the unabridged Audible edition, read by Pullman (who has a lovely voice) with the assistance of a large and talented cast.

February 13, 2004 (permalink)

This highly readable monograph collects several fascinating studies that extend our knowledge of Roman city life by bringing together all sorts of scattered data. We know a little about Roman real estate law and fire regulations; this tells us some fascinating things about the guilds of Ostia -- for example, the guilds usually owned the shops that faced the streets of their headquarters, because the wall construction would have been illegal unless the shops and the guild hall were part of the same property. The fire brigade of 19th century Constantinople, described by condescending British travelers, explains precisely what the Ostian vigiles did and how they might have been organized: like the Roman baths that became Turkish baths, the Roman fire department survived in Constantinople for a very long time. Best of all, perhaps, is a study of all the bars of Ostia. Want to know where business is done? Hermansen has a brilliant solution: find the bars -- which we can recognize because they needed special water arrangements and because the bar and the bar shelves were often built in stone -- and the offices and shops cannot be far away.

February 23, 2004 (permalink)

Many Tinderbox users find this volume extremely attractive; it's easy to see why. The core of Allen's advice is: list all your tasks and projects. Having established an external, reliable list of everything you need or want to do, you can spend less energy trying to remember what you fear you might forget; with less stress and anxiety, you can focus on the task at hand.

And, yes, Tinderbox is a nice tool for keeping those trusted lists. Allen urges people not to get too caught up in technique and not to make the note system too arcane or too elaborate; Tinderbox provides enough support to be useful, its openness and accessibility make it a trustworthy place to keep vital information, and the leverage of swift search and agents -- combined with maps for brainstorming and reorganizing complex projects -- work very nicely within Allen's approach.

February 23, 2004 (permalink)

A memoir of a young writer who finds himself slightly out-of-place and out-of-sorts at a New England prep school where one chosen boy, each year, gets to spend a golden hour alone in the headmaster's garden with a literary lion. Robert Frost and Ayn Rand arrive and depart, and now Hemingway is coming, and his imminent arrival sets the old boys -- and the obscure Masters -- on edge.

An interesting companion to Wallace Stegner's Crossing To Safety, a very different book that is also a long look back by a successful writer who wonders if, after all, he has always played too safe.

February 24, 2004 (permalink)

As I'm burning through audiobooks at a ferocious clip, I thought I'd reread this middle novel of Pullman's great trilogy. I still agree that it's stronger than the first book — itself a remarkable achievement, since middle books have intrinsic problems that I have always thought intractable. I'm not quite as sure that the usual consensus, that holds this to be stronger than The Amber Spyglass, is correct; if we didn't know the marvels that were coming, would this book be quite so fine?

The sly, slow disclosure that life here is not entirely fun and adventure is literally wonderful.

March 29, 2008 (permalink)

Retreat, Hell!
W.E.B. Griffin

The weakest volume of Griffin's series on The Corp, this is our second trip to Korea. The novel is set between Inchon and Chosin, and for some reason there's not much happening. Griffin normally excels at times like these -- he's best at describing soldiers at rest, and (like Patrick O'Brian) he often skips over the battles and ceremonies in order to show the prelude and aftermath. Here, McCoy and Zimmerman run around the boondocks, Fleming Pickering spends lots of time on large airplanes, and Pick is a pain in the ass.

Griffin always explains all the backstories, and the accretion of plot summaries of previous books drags later volumes in each series down. I sympathize: Griffin's point, in the end, is to explore how the choice of a moment shapes a career. But he desperately needed an editor, early on, who could have taught him to say by repeating less; he'd also sell more copies of the earlier volumes.

March 6, 2004 (permalink)

In this second volume of His Dark Materials, Pullman shows his hand. This long, beautiful, and ambitious tale turns out to be nothing less than a sequel to Milton: the old war is going to be fought again, and this time, we're going to win. The wit and excitement of Harry Potter, with real ideas and real feelings, this is an extraordinary book.

This three-volume set is clearly a single, large novel. Tolkein, of course, meant for his work to be a single volume too.

And, to think that I would never have heard of it if a Tinderbox user hadn't sent me an essay of Pullman's on educational theory.

March 6, 2004 (permalink)

A very pleasant little volume of personal recollections, embedded in a stroll through the centro storico. This is part of a series of short volumes of Walks: Frank Conroy in Nantucket, Roy Blount, Jr. in New Orleans, James Macpherson in Gettysburg, Edwide Danticat in Port au Prince. What a brillian idea!

March 6, 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 7, 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 28, 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.

April 1, 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 18, 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 19, 2004 (permalink)

Having reread The Subtle Knife , I found I couldn't stop there. And so here we are.

Pullman does a fascinating and complex job of showing his characters grow up without making a fuss or calling attention. In the first book, Lyra has plenty of energy and will, but it's all about hiding from grownups or manipulating them, or running away. She's a child. In The Subtle Knife, she's on her own, alone with Will and her guiding spirit and with a mission she doesn't understand but knows is right. And in The Amber Spyglass, she is in control and in charge and she knows what must be done; she is a woman long before she walks into that murmurous golden glade.

April 11, 2008 (permalink)

Echo Bay
Richard Barre

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

May 8, 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 8, 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 8, 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 16, 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 24, 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 27, 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.

May 31, 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 5, 2004 (permalink)

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 7, 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 22, 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 22, 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 1, 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 1, 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 1, 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 4, 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 11, 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 24, 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 4, 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 28, 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 9, 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 18, 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 22, 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 10, 2004 (permalink)

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 27, 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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

Great Expectations turned inside-out and spun like a top. Brilliantly done.

July 30, 2007 (permalink)

Ancient historians were not unbiased. Our sources for the late Republic are primarily nostalgic gentlemen who longed for an imaginary past of genteel order and were hostile to honest work and social justice. Parenti tries to balance the score by telling the story of Caesar from the people's side.

Unfortunately, Parenti doesn't undertake the work needed to construct a picture of Julius Caesar's actual policy, and so we're left idly cheering for the Left against the perfidy of the Right. Parenti does a fine job on Cicero, to be sure, but he's hardly the first to view Cicero as a vacillating trimmer.

What's missing here is a serious effort to figure out what Caesar intended to do -- how he envisioned reconstructing the Roman world. This may be impossible -- it's conceivable, for instance, that he had plan but had not yet confided it to anyone at the time of his assassination. And it's bound to be difficult, not only because our sources are incomplete but also because Augustus worked long and hard to make it appear that his own plan was Caesar's.

Parenti deplores the Roman reliance on slaves and freedmen, without noticing how vital these legal and social institutions would prove after the Republic to constructing a comparatively uncorrupt civil service. Honest administration had always defied Republican regulators, because the temptations of wealth and power were simply overwhelming. A slave could wield the power of a king and live in the comfort of a deity and yet, because slaves could not own property or bequeath estates to their children or sue in the courts, a slave was hard to bribe. Augustus built a civil service of educated slaves and freedmen; understanding what Caesar intended is the key to constructing a true people's history of the end of the Republic.

July 30, 2007 (permalink)

A Caress of Twilight
Laurell K. Hamilton

A darkly delightful, sensual romp, this is the second novel in the Meredith Gentry series that I like to call faerie porn. Well executed and delightful fluff, beach reading for cold winter nights.

July 30, 2007 (permalink)

January 1, 1904 (permalink)