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

Flashman
George MacDonald Fraser

The villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays (and so the original Malfoy), having been sent home for getting drunk, gets an unexpectedly early start on adult life. He's a thoroughgoing scoundrel, as he himself will be the first to tell you, and so he goes from strength to strength. On rare occasions, he has a moment of weakness and does a good thing, and for these failures the moral universe punishes him severely, but character and his intrinsic terribleness win out in the end. The first in a long, literate series.

December 27, 2005 (permalink)


The Sydney bookstore had a display of 100 recommended books. The list was intelligent -- not pompous, not erudite, but thoughtful and companionable. I'd never heard of this book about an Australian woman who moves to Paris, and under the specious impression that it was a novel rather than a memoir, I bought it. (Books in Australia are expensive, by the way.)

Turnbull is smart and observant. She writes clean prose, and for much of the book manages to avoid cliché. Towards the end, we have a series of rote chapters on Peculiar French Affections -- couture, cuisine, poodles; these would have been better left out, but I'm inclined to assume that someone made Turnbull add them in the first place.

There's not enough, really, about her Australian-ness. That's the point, really: it's not just An American in Paris, because that's been done, and it's not just A Nice Girl In Paris, because that's been done too. It's this, specific Aussie in Paris that we're here to see, and sometimes she's so shy and modest that she leaves out key bits. She flies to Paris (from Bucharest where she's trying to be a Young Journalist) to meet a man she hardly knows, a man whom she is eventually going to marry. When do the sparks fly? She never gives us a hint! Somehow, they got from "you must visit me in Paris sometime" to sharing a bed and a terrier and a mortgage; we ought to have a clue.

Is this reticence Australian? Or just Turnbull? Or her editor? The cliche of falling in love in the streets of the 4e arrondissement might have scared her off, but the cliche of 'my first fashion show' didn't.

What we're missing here are the intimate, unexpected notes that teach us about personal and national character. We don't need interesting revalations from the boudoir, but if it's a book about being young and Australian in Paris, it might be nice to have more youth and tucker and a little less schtick about her adorable little dog.

May 30, 2005 (permalink)


Roger Ebert's second volume of great movies is a wonderful idea. This isn't a compendium of old reviews or a silly list of the best movies. Instead, we have a chance to sit with a great and experienced critic as he revisits another 100 fine movies.

That doesn't mean 100 perfect movies: simply, 100 movies he'd hate not to see at least one more time. Ebert's got fascinating taste and broad interests, so we have a mix of eras and styles. He's willing to see a flawed movie (Birth of a Nation, West Side Story) and to enjoy its virtues without overlooking -- or having the experience ruined by -- the shortcomings. He's interested in acting here, in direction there, in cinematography, in influence.

It's a wonderful mix.

Books like this are important, too, because they help us think about how we choose to spend our time. (A few years ago, Ebert came down with salivary cancer; perhaps these volumes, in part, are a response to the way that experienced made him think about spending his time) It's easy to say, "I really ought to see the 100 greatest movies." It's actually not too hard to do, what with Blockbuster and Netflix. But you've got to think about it, and you've got to set aside the time, and you've got to decide to do it.

August 2, 2005 (permalink)


Three fine, extended essays about cooks and cooking. The first describes the Certified Master Chef exam, a grueling ten-day marathon that's a cross between medical residency and Iron Chef. In some hands, this could be a routine Hero Overcomes Adversity saga, but Ruhlman has the skill and judgment to play quietly and cleverly with point-of-view, changing what could have become a sports story into something more interesting.

The other two essays are stronger. In one, Ruhlman looks at Michael Symon, a successful restauranteur, and tries to get a handle on why his food works and why his restaurants are fun.

The final essay is, in essence, that story of "how I got to write the French Laundry Cookbook". It's fun and funny; Ruhlman's core argument, I think, is that the legendary Thomas Keller succeeds because his food makes you laugh. Ruhlman is refreshingly skeptical about the idea that serious cooking is anything more than a craft -- he refuses to take claims of the chef as artist and auteur very seriously -- and he does a lovely job of avoiding CEO porn while remembering that this is, after all, an interesting (and famously difficult) business.

March 7, 2005 (permalink)


March
Geraldine Brooks

Little Women is the story of a fatherless family at the edge of a great and terrible war. March is the story of their absent, idealistic father who has followed the young men of Concord in pursuit of the dream of a free land, an America untainted by slavery. He writes home to his Little Women and his wife, but naturally he hides the worst terrors of the war and the certainty of his own inadequacy that those terrors inspire.

At once impressive, learned, and pleasant -- even for those (like me) who aren't terribly fond of Alcott.

April 9, 2005 (permalink)


Software patterns were the revolution of the '90s, and Agile methods and reefactoring appear to be the key idea of the current decade. This book stands squarely at the intersection.

Kerievsky observes that the early Patterns literature has a bias in favor of classical Design First methodology, and many people assume that patterns need to be carefully planned and designed before a product is implemented. This book argues the opposite case: patterns can emerge naturally through incremental refactoring. Kerievsky shows how refactoring steps can move gradually and safely from complex and arbitrary code to implement even such high-design methods as Visitor and Composite.

Like the ideas in Fowler's valuable Refactoring, Kerievsky's refactorings sometimes seems obvious. That's one of the points about refactoring: it takes a practice that everyone has always performed unconsciously and, by naming it, makes it visible. We've always had intuitive approaches, for example, to dealing with a large and complex hunk of procedural code that works today, and that needs a new feature. The Refactoring literature names the practices and so lets us think about them. We know we can do this; now, we can reflect on whether we can do it well.

More fundamentally, it's interesting to see how modern understanding of emergent complexity has moved from applied mathematics to engineering; in a real sense, Kerievsky's work recalls the spread of Darwin's ideas in 19th century engineering, literature, and art.

August 3, 2005 (permalink)


Oh, but this is a sad, sad book.

It's not the sadness of elegy, really, not longing for bright glories and grand times we once had, not even though they weren't really as bright and grand as we once thought.

It's not the sadness of tragedy, either, the terrible knowledge that these fine young people are doomed, that the very things that make them so particularly, specifically wonderful are, in the end, going to destroy them.

Perhaps it's the sadness of a world that pays too much attention to Harry Potter, a response to the nostalgia that makes us dream of Hogwarts and Tom Brown's Schooldays and those merry old playing fields of Eaton.

This is, I think, the sadness of depression, of a bitter, hopeless resentment of everything and everyone. Ishiguro's latest is, oddly, science fiction set in the present. The plot mustn't be discussed because figuring out what the book is about is the book's narrative engine and, without that simple pleasure, I think the book might be unbearable.

April 9, 2005 (permalink)


Feather's adopts an extreme position on the definition of legacy code: code that doesn't have a complete suite of unit tests that support test driven development. This makes almost everything "legacy".

Still, he makes the definition work, and in the process creates an engaging book that presents one of the few good arguments I've seen that we're not stagnating, that software development really is making progress. Feathers concludes that the underlying issue that complicates and clutters all big systems is, in the end, dependency: everything comes to depend on everything else, and so maintenance increasingly leads toward Big Ball of Mud.

I've been intrigued by this problem for years. It's chronic in hypertext system design. You have core classes that represent core abstractions in your system: Hypertext, Node, Link. They're powerful, so they're big. They're central, so everything depends on them. Soon, every little improvement in functionality requires recompiling the world. Worse, improving one part of the system can conceivably break anything: changing the spell checker might break the registration dialog. Feathers presents concrete steps toward incremental improvement through refactoring and ubiquitous scaffolding.

August 16, 2005 (permalink)


Sue Trinder, a young orphan raised in a den of thieves, sets out from home to embark on a con job that leads her into service, into love, and then into far worse places than The Borough.

Sarah Waters gets the language and tone of 1862 wonderfully right; at times, Fingersmith is like reading an oddly mature Dickens, a Dickens who has had a century to adjust to the outrage of the discovery of modern poverty. She's able, too, to address the Victorian fascination for relationships among women without Victorian evasiveness. That was enough for Fingersmith to be short-listed for the Booker and the Orange (2002).

Water's third novel, Fingersmith divides neatly into three acts. In a very real sense, though, the first act contains everything else: act two recapitulates the narrative from the point of view of the pigeon, and act three tells us how it worked out in the end, but neither the second nor the third act surprise or astonish us. The first act brings us one revelation after another -- plot, setting, language, all bright and astonishing. The second and third add some depth and their slow, measured unfolding itself lends a certain high Victorian gravity.

Fingersmith is a very fine, very big novel. Inside it might be found a stunning, beautiful novella, but then — the economy of publishing being what it is — we might never have known about it.

March 7, 2005 (permalink)


Skeleton Man
Tony Hillerman

Hillerman, the premier writer of distinctively southwestern mysteries, tends to fall apart when called upon to write about Anglos and Easterners in the West. In Skeleton Man, we have a routine mystery that most of Hillerman's many imitators could easily have written. Sure, it's engaging. It's nice to see Leaphorn again, it's pleasant to visit Officer Chee, and Bernie's a dear.

But we get the same pleasures from Spenser, Susan and Hawk each year as well, Parker's dialogue is snappier and his plotting is usually twistier. Hillerman at his best is more ambitious and more important, and Hillerman's got to know that even white folk can be complex characters. I can understand pasteboard Anglos at the margins of a Navajo mystery, but if you're going to write about LA diamond brokers and Washington lobbyists and skip tracers from Oregon, why not take the trouble to make them characters instead of plot devices?

March 22, 2005 (permalink)


M. F. K. Fisher was the American food writer before James Beard and Julia Child -- in the time, that is, when Americans didn't care much about food, and this 1943 autobiography is notionally structured around memorable meals.

It's interesting to see how little food there actually is here, and how little Fisher feels it's appropriate for her to say about it. She dines through France, Switzerland, Mexico, and across the US, but she seldom mentions a restaurant and even more rarely talks about a cook. She drinks quantities of wonderful wine, but almost never tells you what she's drinking or what you might want to drink. When she does name a restaurant, the motive is sentiment or scene-building -- she names restaurants in Dijon much as she names the flowers in her garden, to reinforce sense of place rather than to suggest you might want to eat there sometime.

What works here, besides an occasionally-lovely turn of phrase, is Fisher's odd (and sometimes fascinating) mixture of candor and reticence. She's got the earthy honesty of the old American West -- she was born in California in 1908 and, in a story that's supposed to be about oysters she briskly explores the hothouse sexuality of an isolated, tony girl's boarding school as if, arriving as a freshman, she already knew it all and so do you.

Fisher has a skilled, elliptical knack of leaving the big emotions and the impossible scenes offstage. She acquires, then loses, a husband suddenly and without much comment. She sees Europe crumbling around her in the 30's and sees it clearly, but she tells it in the interstices, in the social complexities of being nice to a relative's dull, languorous, and stupid girlfriend who likes to spend her summer afternoons watching the German border guards kill refugees who are trying to swim from the Nazis into her favorite French beach resort.

March 21, 2005 (permalink)


In this adorable and intriguing graphic novel, a rabbi's pet cat in pre-war Algeria eats the family's annoying parrot, an obnoxious animal who has nothing to say and says it endlessly. The cat, now able to speak, decides he wants a bar mitzvah -- not because he loves G-d, but because he adores the rabbi's daughter. Cleverly, and often hilariously, Sfar touches on a host of interesting questions, beginning with that most pressing debate: should a Jew prefer cats to dogs?

The book is lovingly drawn, and though I found it visually unremarkable, the memories of a vanished Algeria help Sfar manage pacing and rhythm.

October 12, 2005 (permalink)


Iron Sunrise
Charles Stross

Perfect plane reading: craftsmanship and pacing make this thriller in space a delight. We've got all the classic elements -- the experienced (but terrified) agent, the fresh (but resourceful) teenage victim-turned-hero whose life has suddenly come unmoored (in this case because someone blew up her planet's sun), the Nazi conspirators. Around this plotting armature, Stross crafts an interesting speculative fiction world of ubiquitous nanotech where bandwidth is gold.

There's a wonderful moment when the investigator from the second U.N. -- a sort of interplanetary alliance reminiscent of the Federation (Asimov or Roddenberry, take your pick) -- whips out her ID badge with the traditional symbols of the universal human alliance -- a background of stars and the good old triple-W.

Long may it wave.

August 2, 2005 (permalink)


The last of O'Brian's magnificent, twenty-volume story of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. I'd been saving this for the proverbial rainy day, but while packing I decided that perhaps the rainy day should be left to take care of itself. Carpe diem, and press on, if you please, with as much sail as she can wear.

May 24, 2005 (permalink)


A classic of cooking and technical writing, McGee is the definitive English-language kitchen reference. Vast, systematic, thorough, and written with clarity and humor, McGee explains the source of ingredients common and rare, their customary handling in the cuisines of various cultures, and explores the essential chemistry and biology that underpins cooking.

If you need to know whether your stock should be boiling (it shouldn't) or whether you should refrigerate that extra fresh basil (don't), you can look it up in McGee. Every spice you've ever heard of, and many you haven't, is described, botanized, its properties and history and uses succinctly discussed.

A remarkable achievement.

March 24, 2005 (permalink)


A delightful book. The elderly Sherlock Holmes and his young wife, Mary Russell, return to San Francisco after their adventures in India in order to settle some loose ends of Mary's estate.

With a fine sense of place and superb minor characters, this is Laurie King at her best.

June 22, 2005 (permalink)


Year's Best SF 10
David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer eds

Every year, Kathryn and David send us a bundle of the best science fiction short stories and novellas. It's a fixture of the calendar, like Aunt Hazel's noodle kugel and Grandma's chopped liver -- the recipe against which all future dishes of chopped liver are measured throughout the extended family. This year's collection has some pleasant bits. James Patrick Kelley's "The Dark Side Of Town" is a fresh look at drugs and games. Neal Asher's "Strood" has a ton of fun in store for readers who know what "To Serve Mankind" means, and of course that includes everyone all the way down to Dawn Summers. "Sergeant Chip" (Bradley Denton) is a nice Haldeman-seque war story about an augmented dog. And Steve Tomasula's "The Risk Taking Gene As expressed By Some Asian Subjects" takes the old genre of grad student stories (see H.G. Wells) in new and unexpectedly genetic directions.

December 10, 2005 (permalink)


An interesting experiment gone wrong, this slender volume sets out to explore the Medici Bank as a business case study. Parks adopts a brisk, informally modern style; most of the book is written in present tense, and there's a good deal of ironic commentary. This keeps the book moving, but sometimes tends to confound the author's voice with the subject's.

The advantage of writing history in the present tense is, I suppose, flexibility in verb tenses. Perhaps avoiding the past perfect might appeal to the marketing department. The cost, though, is that there's no longer any way for the historian to describe how we know what happened, or what we don't quite know, or where the uncertainties and controversies lie. Everything is happening right now.

Much of Parks' attention focuses, naturally, on the personalities of the Medici leaders, especially Cosimo and Lorenzo. Their employees appear, chiefly, only when they become rivals; their competitors appear chiefly when they are about to be attacked or assassinated. This is, perhaps, a case study where a degree of CEO porn might be justified; the characters of the Medici leaders did matter, and their personal inclinations -- especially Lorenzo's taste in literature and painting -- had lasting consequences. But business is business, and if Lorenzo The Magnificent wasn't very interested in banking, neither is this volume.

In a book about early international banking, published as a business book, we never see a balance sheet or an income statement. Did the Medici have them? We don't know. We read a little about the underlying problem of early European banking: since usury was forbidden by the church, banks couldn't offer interest-bearing accounts or conventional mortgages and instead had to offer different financial products such as factoring accounts receivable and international transfers. But we don't hear nearly enough about these products and their fates, nor about the changing economic climate of the continent. When the Medici banks closed, was this a business failure or simply a change in investment strategy, a redeployment of assets from the fading markets of Bruges and Taranto to the growth industry of the counter-reformation?

December 28, 2005 (permalink)


Agent of Change
Steve Miller and Sahron Lee

A space opera romance that follows on Conflict of Honors. At times, the plotting seems synthetic, and the female protagonist's dialect is distractingly inconsistent. On the other hand, a race of (very) intelligent turtles is delightfully thought out and nicely presented.

September 16, 2005 (permalink)


Pal Joey
John O'Hara

O'Hara was an important writer -- important enough that everyone told stories about what an immensely annoying, obnoxious man he was. I'd never read him, nor seen the hit musical that was based on these early New Yorker letters from an unsuccessful nightclub singer to his thriving colleague.

These are clever, affected, engaging stories. Like our pal Joey, they very much want to be liked. Like Joey, they always suspect they aren't well liked -- not well enough liked, at least, for us to lend him some cash if he ever really needs it.

These feel like Damon Runyan without that weird, fantastic grotesquerie that Runyon holds in reserve so he can really astonish us when he needs to. Joey's nightclub world is real and realistic; there are plenty of guys (some of them wise guys) and lots of good-looking mouses, but it's a world of walk-ups and coffee shops without the gangsters who are more than somewhat well-spoken.

March 25, 2005 (permalink)


A quiet, graceful story of the minor nobility of 12th century France, the age of troubadours and crusades. Sauerwein deploys a very contemporary and sophisticated arsenal of writerly techniques -- present tense, timeshift, fragmented narrative, multiple points of view -- in the service of a delicate YA mission that lies somewhere between realism and historical romance.

It's very thoroughly considered and researched, though there's almost no description and absolutely no sign of the familiar "day in the life" trope. No characters spend time, for example, discovering that the 12th century was less clean than the 21st or that food and medical care weren't of a high standard. Indeed, since the word "troubadour" hasn't quite appeared in Eloise's time, Sauerwein lets her listen to the song of the trobar -- the French root for troubadour, so be sure, but perhaps it might be italicized in the English-language edition to warn us that it's a foreign word. (I know more about the 12th century than the average YA reader, and on first reading I thought a trobar might be a French bird, perhaps something like a trogon)

It's a brave book, a book in which young lovers remove their clothes (off-stage) and in which the all the protagonists know that the world does not revolve around them and that, if they are to have clothes or if there is to be magic, they must make their own.

The current assumption is that YA books should be plotful -- an assumption that has lately attracted a boatload of literary writers to visit the YA world. A Song for Eloise is not plotful; whether this will bother her readers or merely alarm the librarians may prove instructive.

April 21, 2005 (permalink)


Conflict of Honors
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

A well-crafted confection. Priscilla is cargo-master of an ill-run space freighter. She's pretty; the mates all want to sleep with her. She's human; management (from Liaden) wants to exploit her. Things get worse.

This is a romantic melodrama: Priscilla is afflicted by bad guys who are safely bad, bad guys so bad we don't really fear them. This is a romance: Priscilla's survival and happiness depend, in the end, on her intrinsic wonderfulness. The plotting is necessarily complex, gluing genre and disparate convention together. Yet it's all done with flair and a light hand, making this a very fine entertainment indeed.

September 11, 2005 (permalink)


Thomas Pitt tries to cope with an inconveniently unidentified body, a man found on the banks of the Thames in a torn green gown. The jarringly-modern theme, the gorgeously bohemian setting, the profusion of actors and actresses, and cameo appearances by Oscar Wilde and his familiars should all enliven this procedural. Somehow it doesn't quite work.

Not to be confused with Paul Theroux's weirdly delightful Half Moon Street , a fine novella about a Ph.D. economist who, tired of poverty, tries a stint at a pricey London escort service. Theroux's story inspired Sigourney Weaver's best early film.

May 24, 2005 (permalink)


Faithful
Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King

Two Red Sox fans, Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan, chronicle a year of fandom. They go to lots of games: King has great season tickets. They watch lots of games on television. They listen to the radio, they read the papers, they send each other lots of email. They are very careful to be fans, not journalists: they don't visit the clubhouse, they don't hang out with the guys. They're fans: they don't know stuff that you and I don't know, they just watch a lot of games.

It's a pleasant book about a pleasant season, the season the Red Sox won at last. At times, King and O'Nan seem dense: in the playoffs when the Sox were barely hanging on and their pitching was threadbare and everyone was wondering who could possibly throw tomorrow, they're still weirdly focused on the Yankees. Earlier, they seem completely unfocused when the Sox trade their Hall Of Fame shortstop for a pair of expendable fielders. It was a weird, fascinating transaction, but Faithful focuses on the the disappointed grandkids.

At times, the book is slow, or repetitious. But that's baseball.

June 17, 2005 (permalink)


On a primitive planet resembling the worst of Eastern Europe in the Soviet era, a rain of telephones falls from the sky. They're the first gift of the festival, a star-traveling race of information omnivores. Many gifts follow, the economy is shattered, and the long-awaited revolution arrives. Things are terrific for the workers, and less terrific back at the capitol.

High adventure and top-drawer science fiction: the perfect companion for a long airplane trip.

December 30, 2005 (permalink)


A failing, flailing university professor loses the manuscript of his novel in a fire. He takes a sabbatical in rural Maine, rewrites his book, and loses it when he leaves his briefcase outside and a wandering bear finds it.

The bear opens the briefcase, examines the novel, and sees that it has lots of sex and lots of fishing -- just about everything a bear would want in a novel. So, the bear steals some clothes and takes the novel to New York. Soon, the bear has an agent, a publicist, and a book tour.

All this may sound silly, but Kotzwinkle makes it work. A delightful book from start to end.

June 6, 2005 (permalink)


1776
David McCullough

I ordered this account of the first year of the American Revolution as soon as I read Joshua Micah Marshall's enthusiastic review in the New Yorker. McCullough crafts an exciting, readable, but scholarly account of Washington and his army, from the siege of Boston to disaster in Brooklyn and then, at the last moment, unlooked-for and rememptive success at Trenton and Princeton. This is essentially the story of Washington and his army and a time when, for the first time, to be an American meant something new and important.

June 7, 2005 (permalink)


An inspiring book, The Da Vinci Code demonstrates that it's quite possible to for a best-seller to be ineptly written and clumsily plotted.

Aunt Tonnie sort of liked this -- though she says Angels and Demons was better. It's a publishing phenomenon. I thought I'd give it a try.
I enjoy thrillers. In this case, most unusually for me, I was consistently a step or two ahead of the game throughout most of the book. I solved the puzzles before the handsome Harvard professor, I saw the codes before the Cute Cryptographer.

Brown leaves some disturbing holes. Our heroes, for example, bamboozle a suspicious young London kid who is sweeping up a historic church that's supposed to be closed to the public. They claim to be Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Wren III, grandchildren of a man said to be a benefactor of that church. Surely a surly London kid would be a bit surprised that Mr. Christopher Wren III speaks American, and that his wife has a Parisian accent? If you're inventing a fake name in a London church, surely few could be less plausible.

Later, the London police try to arrest a suspect; the police charge into the room with guns drawn -- guns that British police seldom carry.

The book opens with our hero, a Harvard professor, who is staying at the Ritz after his lecture at American University of Paris. AUP is a very fine and generous institution, but when I spoke there, the Ritz didn't come up. Professor Langdon seems strikingly unbookish and worries remarkably little about his professional standing, his students, and his schedules. Cryptographer Sophie Neveu seems remarkably comfortable without her laptop and without her job -- and, it seems to me, an elite 20-something Parisian girl would not turn her life upside down and disown her beloved grandfather after discovering him in the middle of an apparent orgy. I'm told they order these things better than that in France.

A crucial and oft-repeated clue is a poem that instructs the heroes to seek "an orb that ought be on his tomb". Google finds about 56,000 "ought be's" and about 7,750,000 "ought to be's" -- I think the author dropped a word to make a bad poem seem archaic. ("Should be" would scan as well and makes just as much sense)

The real puzzle to The Da Vinci Code is, why has this rather clumsy and unspectacular book been so successful? It's only barely an adequate thriller. The art historical tie-ins and the bits of tourism are nice, but not especially original. The religious angle -- the mix of anti-Catholicism and Catholic sympathy and neo-early-Christanity -- might attract some fundamentalist readers, but surely there are sectarian minefields aplenty here.

May 6, 2005 (permalink)


A reviewer in NYRSF -- I think it was Swanwick -- suggested that "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" was the greatest short story of the decade. I think that might be overstated, but it's a very good story. A very strong volume collecting some very strange (and extremely well polished) stories.

April 9, 2005 (permalink)


Astonishing. Eighty years of the New Yorker, on 8 DVDs. Good scans of the pages, including ads, and very adequate software for searching and browsing. For Mac and Windows.

September 28, 2005 (permalink)


Bourdain writes that this cookbook is not a cookbook, and he's got a point. It's an illustrated sermon. The point is to cajole you to pay attention to the food, and to enjoy this simple, tasty style of food.

Why wouldn't you enjoy? First, it's French, and for Americans even the simplest French cooking has a forbidding encrustation of snobbery and mystery. Bourdain's point is that this is simple food. "If you can make a decent chili, you can make cassoulet. A lot of the same principles are at work. Don't let the French name fool you. Ever."

Another obstacle is the insistence of gastro-porn on using only the finest, freshest ingredients and home-made everything. My mother gave me Gourmet one year in grad school, and it drove me nuts: if there's a long, inconvenient and costly way to do something, Gourmet wants you to do it that way. Bourdain has limits (Dried rosemary? "Do not get that dried trash anywhere near my bird!") but encourages you to take sensible shortcuts.

Bourdain's biggest point is planning and prep -- mis en place . And this is a great topic for a sermon. Lots of people who cook, nowadays, are pretty much self taught. Lots of people who cook, things being what they are, were taught by people who weren't really very efficient in the kitchen. People like tasty food at the end, but efficiency matters a lot. Efficiency is the difference between whipping up a nice three-course meal from what happens to be in the frig, or spending the same amount of time waiting for the pizza guy to show up.

Bourdain's got a schtick. He's a hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-nosed guy with edges and attitude. He is not, in other words, Julia Child. This is fun when it's going well, occasionally tiresome when he's stretching the point, and sometimes peculiar because he's also thoughtful, literate, and well read, and he somehow thinks that being thoughtful and reading a lot aren't compatible with the tough working-guy image.

The recipes seem solid, too: the roast chicken was fine, the leeks vinaigrette were better, the porc à l'ail was a big win -- and I seldom cook pork.

March 7, 2005 (permalink)


Griffin's serial novels are simple fun. He has a knack for generating excitement from everyday confrontations. Though he writes about soldiers, their conflicts are more often settled over a conference table than at gunpoint and bureaucratic infighting is more dangerous to them than surface-to-air missiles.

This book launches a new, contemporary series, and compactly demonstrates Griffin's strengths and also displays some of his weaknesses. Once again, we're focused on the tradition of military service among wealthy Southern Americans; how live is this tradition, nowadays? Compare the number of celebrity and political kids in the service in WW2 or WW1 or charging up San Juan Hill to the news from Iraq; there's a big difference. And once again, we've got a guy with the Medal -- and no one notices that even a silver star won't keep the Republicans from calling you a craven coward. Some of the editing is sloppy, as when the high-tech radios come fresh from Silicone Valley?

But there are few writers today who can capture meeting-room drama as well as Griffin.

July 1, 2005 (permalink)


Shaw and Wells knew each other well, debated each other in private and public and print for decades, and were merciless to each other in their correspondence. What is most striking about these letters -- recommended as essential reading in The Believer by Ray Bradbury -- is that the friendship survived the brutal pounding these letters represent. That they are nicely written, erudite, wise, and topical goes without saying: this is Shaw, and that is H.G. Wells, and what did you expect? That these two men could continue to speak to each other, dine together, and correspond during such bitter disagreements and in the face of such casually tactless spites (Shaw never missing an opportunity to pontificate, and one gathers that Wells seldom turned down a woman) says much for the liberal mind.

December 8, 2005 (permalink)


Why does current American business writing assume that the people who make crucial decisions, affecting the fate of thousands and spending millions of dollars, are stupid?

Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points undertakes a commendable and necessary mission. It demonstrates that PowerPoint presentations don't need to be dull lists of bullet points against blue gradient backgrounds, accompanied by chart junk. It makes an intriguing argument for structuring business arguments as 3-act narratives in which the audience is invited to see itself as the protagonist.

It's not really a 3-act narrative: in Atkinson, there's no third act. Atkinson's narrative scheme is closer to a one-act play: we set the scene and establish the conflict, we describe the steps to be taken to address the conflict, and then we conclude with a resolution. We have 'Once upon a time' and we have 'Then, one day', but there's no time for the third act, 'There was one thing they had forgotten.'

Beyond Bullet Points is written in short, simple sentences. Diagrams make each point clear. Short sidebars reinforce the rules. A scenario brings the message home: we have a new job and the Board Of Directors wants a presentation right away that doesn't have boring bullet points and does convince them that the new ten million dollar marketing plan is sound.

All this is sound, as far as it goes. Atkinson's view of narrative is reductive -- it's not nearly as sophisticated as Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theater, which itself has been criticized for its training wheels. The approach is rigid, but after sitting through so many terrible presentations at conferences and trade shows, perhaps rigid guidelines are needed.

But need the sentences be so short? Must the instructions be so simple and plain? Must we reduce theory -- literary and scientific -- to simple declarative summaries without nuance or qualification? When did we declare war against the comma?

This isn't a particular fault of Atkinson -- and he deserves praise for possessing an argument instead of simply repeating the mechanics of the manual. It seems to be endemic in current American business writing. Assume a poorly educated reader. Hold their hand through the simplest program mechanics. Use short sentences. Omit raw data that might confuse or distract.

See the Board of Directors run. Run, Board! Run!

October 12, 2005 (permalink)


When Linda was a little girl, she read the 30-odd volume series of Dana Girl mysteries, which were written and marketed for little girls. Some she read at the library, some she bought with her allowance. The library's moved and updated and now we live far from there, and while she was off at Swarthmore and Harvard, someone figured she was too big for children's books.

Last year, I surprised her with a complete run. (Check out the cover of volume one: teenage plumage has changed a bit since 1935)

This is something that would be expensive or arduous before the Internet, and now is comparatively straightforward. I couldn't find a dealer interested in selling me reading copies, but it wasn't difficult to piece together a set through Amazon and aLibris and Abebooks. I actually preferred to find solid copies with names or bookplates; it's fun to wonder who these girls turned out to be.

Linda's working on a project, and is anxious that I'll mess it up if I write about Jean and Louise and their study lamp here.

December 14, 2005 (permalink)


Peter Steinhart, a naturalist and nature writer, found that he couldn't do his work any longer -- found that his writing about nature kept slipping into writing about people and their impact on nature. When Steinhart is stuck, he finds drawing helpful. He was, it seems, badly stuck, and so he wrote a book about figure drawing.

He approaches figure drawing as a naturalist, not an art critic or an art historian, and this gives the book an original flair and rhythm that is oddly intriguing. He explores the habitats of people who draw. He observes their customs and manners, their rules, their disguises and excuses. He takes a very close look at the complex interdependence of model and artist, and explores their economic interdependence.

January 31, 2005 (permalink)


From the 9th to the 15th century, the region we now call Spain was a rich mixture of Arab, Jewish, and Christian cultures that thrived together to create a culture of crucial intellectual openness and scope. Much of the legacy of antiquity -- science, mathematics, philosophy -- reenters Western history through Cordoba and Toledo, places where mosques became churches and where churches were decorated with Arabic writing because Arabic writing looked so good. Jews became viziers, Christian princes became knight-defenders of Moslem cities, and Christians from every corner of the old Empire came to study astronomy and theology, to learn from Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides). The memory of this era of good feelings had an extraordinarily long life: when the prosperous German Jews of Manhattan built new synagogues in the 19th century, the traditional architectural style for which they reflexively reached was the 10th century mosque.

That al-Andalus might serve as a better model for our future than, say, Bosnia, makes Menocal's volume one of urgent political interest. What Menocal, curiously and distressingly, fails to explain is why this amity fell apart. Why did Spain expel the Jews in 1492, and then expel the conversos and moriscos who chose their homeland over their religion? How did minds close, and why? Menocal teaches us to sympathize with and appreciate the generations when things went right, but has neither sympathy nor, it seems, much interest in the people and the forces that drove it so horribly wrong.

August 2, 2005 (permalink)


This book appeared at the office a few days after I'd ordered it online. By the time it arrived, I'd forgotten who told me to read it, and why. After a long, introspective search, I realized I'd seen a list of recent books about golems in The Believer.

My reading habits are not well disciplined.

This is, however, a nicely executed book, a novel of college love gone weird when the lovers move into her parents' house to spend the summer together. It's a close-knit and odd family -- what family isn't, when you've just finished your freshman year and you're sleeping with your first lover under the eaves of her weird parent's Pittsburgh house?

The story, obviously, is operatic in scale and conception, and handler presents it as an opera in four acts and twelve steps. Act IV gets out of control, I think, but even the excess is eventually paid off. It's worth reading in any case for the paragraph in which the narrator analyzes Grandma's seeming simile comparing revenge to a parfait.

November 6, 2005 (permalink)


Specimen Days
Michael Cunningham

Three long stories, each featuring a crippled boy, a beloved woman, and character who speaks in the voice of Walt Whitman. The first story is a 19th-century historical vignette, set in the slums of New York, the second is a contemporary police procedural, and the third is a science-fiction thriller.

All three stories slow down on occasion, and the first slows down so often and so ponderously that it seems almost impenetrable. The second and third are much better.

August 4, 2005 (permalink)


It's not so much the history, which has largely been superseded, nor the topic, which is spectacularly fashionable but politically facile, but rather the glorious and unforgettable language that makes Gibbon worth a long and comfortable visit. Gibbon is wonderful, by turns censorious and sympathetic but always showing a keen wit and a liberal interest in every facet of antiquity. He studies to be witty and seldom can resist a good story, and he carefully weighs facts and character alike.

If you enjoy history, and if the cadences of the periodic sentence do not fill your spirit with fear or your mind with confusion, do not make the mistake of waiting for your 49th birthday to make Gibbon's acquaintance.

Great fun.

October 3, 2005 (permalink)


A much-heralded and intriguing reconstruction of Arthurian romantic fantasy, The Knight is a resetting of heroic knightly adventure in the episodic vein of Mallory's earlier chapters, Percival, say, or Balan.

I didn't like The Knight all that much, but I must be mistaken. In February 2004, the New York Review of Science Fiction ran three pieces on this book. Neil Gaiman loved it. Lawrence Person adores it ("the sheer depth of his cleverness and hus absolutely masterful grasp of writing technique"). Dan'l Danehy-Oakes is "completely besotted" with The Knight, which he has already reread several times.

With the greatest sympathy, I can't see it. Wolfe's hero, Able of the High Heart, is a likable guy, a boy from the suburbs who cut down the wrong tree and winds up in faerie. And The Knight is a likable book. The style is clean but not showy. The talking animals are nicely drawn, the supporting characters are sometimes good (Idnn, a baron's daughter who would much rather be a milkmaid, for very good reason) but often not. Wolfe does some interesting play with letting the action fall between chapters, with lacunae and timeshifts, but none of it seems especially effective or drastically new.

In short, it's a pleasant book. It's not intended to be a page-turner, but it speeds along. I don't understand the fuss.

April 10, 2005 (permalink)


A collection of new media articles, including contributions by Lev Manovich, Adrian Miles, Peter Lunenfeld, Howard Rheingold, and me.

October 11, 2005 (permalink)


Written with lyrical grace and a sound sense of place, The Quarry is a glorious failure. On a lonely stretch of African road, a missionary minister stops to pick up a hitchhiker. The minister, though out of place, is not without insight; he knows the hitchhiker is even more out of place than he. Mayhem ensues.

Where this fine confection collapses, alas, is that it boils down to a chase. A good chase is extraordinarily difficult to write, right now, because we all have seen so many lavishly-produced, lovingly-directed cinematic chases.

May 30, 2005 (permalink)


Nick Horby's monthly book column for The Believer begins with a monthly list of Books Bought, and another list of Books Read. This alone is brilliant, honest, revealing, and (you won't believe me when I say this, but it's true, really) hilarious. The book is endlessly amusing, and I've been plaguing poor Linda all weekend by reading aloud entire passages. A simple parenthesis -- "Books bought: David Copperfield (twice)" -- had me laughing louder than did anything in Jonathan Ames' funny (and Notable) Wake Up, Sir!"

If you really like to read, drop everything and read this.

January 31, 2005 (permalink)


Antwerp
Nicholas Royle

A moderately obscure British freelance writer meets in Brussels with a not-very-famous American film maker. The American, Johnny Vos, has just shot a scene that's a visual quotation from the work of Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux; since Delvaux painted monumental landscapes and street scenes filled with nude women,  Vos is finding his extras in Antwerp's busy red-light district. Two -- associated with a internet webcam-filled house -- were found dead shortly after the Vos wrapped the first big shot.

A Spaniard I know once wrote that she'd be glad to find work anywhere in Europe but Belgium, which she found too dull to endure. It sometimes seems that Royle shares her opinion. Places and people alike are strangely flat here, and subplots set in Antwerp's diamond market and in the virtual twilight of an internet sex site are never really exploited. The effect is strange and evocative: Royle creates people and situations that are more interesting than he makes them, giving the book a deeper interior life than it seems to earns.

October 27, 2005 (permalink)


This brilliant portrait of a complex American family richly deserved its place on the Booker Prize short list. Howard Belsey is a British art historian who has spent his career in American universities and who is married to a black Floridian, Kiki. Their three kids range from sensitive, born-again Jerome to crusader Zora to the youngest, hip-hop wannabe homeboy Levi. Every character has a strong voice and a specific dialect, making this a distinctly American novel in the old sense while leaving the story fresh and new. Absolutely superb.

One exceptional accomplishment of On Beauty is that it presents a varied university community in which ideas are part of everyone's lives, and people live and talk about ideas. Howard Belsey is a pomo, post-colonial art historian; he married a black girl from Florida.That black girl once thought she might grow up to be Malcolm X's personal assistant and wound up as an Ivy League mother; in times of personal crisis she imagines herself keynoting a major conference of mothers. Belsey's rival, Sir Monty Kipps, is an academic conservative media star from Trinidad, and his family always dines together; the Belsey's rush in and out, the Belsey's argue, the Kipps clan have respectful intellectual breakfasts where nothing is given away.

I checked the Amazon reader reviews of On Beauty out of curiosity, and what a small-minded bunch they are. Setting aside the inevitable me-too's and "I got bored's", a surprising number of readers complain about Smith's handling of dialect. The whole point is that each member of the family speaks their own British-American-African creole. Howard's the son of a London butcher, did his doctoral work at Oxford, and has taught at a variety of American universities. His wife Kiki can do Ivy League irony when she wants, and when she's angry she gets all Floridian. Levi started speaking Brooklyn at 13, and wants to hang out with the Haitian peddlers who are, he thinks, authentically black. Everyone is inventing a dialect: that's the point.

December 11, 2005 (permalink)


Raised to think of Frost as a nice poet,
Stopping in New Hampshire woods and rhyming neatly,
Or sometimes wandering through long Christian allegories
Where homes and ladders stand for something that
You'd best not think about, it's easy to forget
Or overlook how good his writing is.
If it weren't verse --
(And sometimes it's only just: Mamet writes
In pentameters too) -- you'd say this guy
Had really got New England to a T. The queer respect
And scorn for Harvard men, the summer folk, the snow:
It's all right here.
And things you might not quite expect,
The awkwardness of two strange men, undressing
In a hotel room they're sharing for the night.
One rich, one not. The rich man has five bucks,
The poor man, ninety, to bring to his employer.
Sex and class, two narrow cots, some cash,
A calculus that resonates on Beacon Hill today.

April 9, 2005 (permalink)


A delightful Victorian romp. Sally Lockhart is sixteen, a spunky and serious middle-class orphan whose late father taught her a variety of useful things: accounting, Hindustani, marksmanship. Pullman is out for fun this time, and he has plenty of it, in flavors ranging from nifty dialogue to delicious villains to clever plays on convention. When Sally's intolerable guardian is rude and unfair to her, Sally speaks her piece and packs her bag -- and she gets away with it (as countless girls did, and continue to do) without having a censorious author or the universe punish her. The guardian is not worth knowing, and so the acquaintance ceases and we make other arrangements.

August 21, 2005 (permalink)


The Cabala
Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder's first novel was heartily recommended by Ray Bradbury in a recent issue of The Believer. It's a remarkable example of a novel driven by pure likability. I tore through it, not because of the plot or the characters or the setting -- though I did keep saying about Wilder's Rome, "it's still like that!" -- but because the narrator is such a pleasant and engaging fellow. The clean, unshowy, delightful writing makes these profiles of colorful Roman insiders a delight. Out of print, but very easy to find from Amazon or Alibris.

April 25, 2005 (permalink)


A delightful, hilarious, and moving book.

From the title, I'd expected a recitation of the wonderful things that people had killed off, torn down, thrown away, or otherwise neglected. Something like Douglas Adams' Last Chance To See. But Bywater's book is nothing like that.

This is a dictionary of lost things. The things are usually abstract: the phrase "old chap", the distinction between "poof" and "queer", the old Nottingham accent, the smell of Paris, Mister Golly. Others are more concrete, such as neighborhood shops (in which to leave one's belongings behind), handkerchiefs (to leave behind, or to fold inappropriately), gloves,and Finisterre. Lost Worlds is a marvelous little guide to the changes that Britain, the world, and all of us have undergone in the last generation.

Do not under any circumstances miss the story of Mickey With The Long Nose, filed here under Disney. Oh, and where did they put the last Auk, anyway? Surely they've found it by now?

Lost Worlds has a earnest, wise, and serious core, an extended meditation on what "loss" means, and therefore what really matters.

November 9, 2005 (permalink)


Bernard Loiseau, a poor kid and a worse student, was packed off at 13 to be a kitchen apprentice. He was a bad apprentice, too, but worked in a very good kitchen with some very good apprentices, young men who would grow up to be celebrity chefs. Loiseau joined them: eventually, he had 3 Michelin stars and an IPO. When younger and more radical chefs started to get more attention from his friends in the media, and when rumors started to whisper that perhaps the future might hold a mere two stars, Loiseau killed himself.

The core of this book is not the food (which Chelminski describes without any particular passion) or the Perfectionist's character (although Chelminski was a friend and feels badly about how things turned out). This is a book about the irreconcilable tension between the interests of the late 20th century critic and those of the audience.

Food critics -- notably the small cadre of Michelin inspectors -- eat elaborate and expensive food twice a day, every day. Truffles and foie gras are everyday fare, and something new -- tiny portions! strange ingredients! a light meal! -- is almost a day off. The natural audience for fine restaurants, places where a quiet dinner might cost a thousand dollars, has different interests and desires. By the end of the century, the gap between the writers and the eaters seemed unbridgeable and a gun seemed a good answer.

July 8, 2005 (permalink)


A richly illustrated examination of a wide range of professional journals by skilled visual artists. Jennifer New divides these instruments by general intent in four categories: exploration, reflection, observation, and creation. The range of styles and purposes is broad, as indeed is the terrific disparity of creators, from the morning-subway portraits of a Manhattan psychiatrist to the lovingly-sketched maps by a retired Hitachi engineer of his beloved Musashino countryside.

There's a terrific range of technique, from watercolor to digital photography. And there's a wide range, too, of artistic style. What I miss, alas, is the ability to read extended passages within the journal; we can look, but we seldom know much about what the subject was trying to record. But Jennifer New believes that journals are incomprehensible to all save their creator anyway, so perhaps this absence is a mirage.

September 26, 2005 (permalink)


Middlesex
Jeffrey Eugenides

This slow, strange, compelling exploration of gender and of narrative form starts from a remarkably little-known fact: a huge number of people, perhaps one in 2000, are neither clearly male nor female when they are born.

The narrator, Cal (formerly Calliope) Stephanides, was raised as a girl and discovered, at 14 and to everybody's astonishment, that she was a boy. He's now a very literate, soft-spoken bureaucrat in the foreign service, posted to Berlin.

Calliope's journey (and the long journeys of her parents and grandparents whose formidable problems led to her complexly tangled genetics) gives Eugenides plenty of scope to explore the meaning of gender, and even greater scope to wander through the corridors of history, from the burning of Smyrna to an astonishing theory of the identity of Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam.

But all this, in the end, is occasion rather than substance, the raw material with which Eugenides constructs a very complex and intriguing experiment with plot. There is no melodrama: we know from the first page where we'll wind up, and we soon learn why, and yet Eugenides slowly, gradually coaxes us into excitement. Eugenides appears uninterested in linear plot -- he's a Coover disciple, after all -- and yet he's got the entire framework of a full-scale Dickensian braid expertly humming.

We move from the flames of Smyrna to the burning of Detroit in 1967, from the scarcity of eligible women in the failing Greek colony of Asia Minor after the First World War to the scarcity of straight men in Berlin who want to go out with a self-assured Japanese-American. The American is the bicycle-toting Julie Kikuchi whom Cal sees, one day, on the tram and with whom he reluctantly (but rapidly) falls in love.

As a special dessert, Eugenides writes an extended love story about Calliope's first passion, an adolescent crush on a fellow schoolgirl (one of the set she calls The Charm Bracelets) who she can't name and so calls The Obscure Object. For pages on end, we have The Object in class, at her summer house, in bed. We have her father, the hard-drinking "Mr. Object". To pull this off even briefly is a stunt; to make it work over a span that would make a small novel in itself is astonishing.

April 7, 2005 (permalink)


The Oxford Classical Dictionary
Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds

A trip down memory lane and roads not taken. The standard quick reference for forgotten and half-remembered names, places, and dates, this thick volume covers everything in the Graeco-Roman world.

I found a great deal on a used copy. My new office is larger, Eastgate has some nice new bookshelves, and this is a fine thing to have handy.

March 14, 2005 (permalink)


Krug's central point is, essentially, the argument for scrupulous copy editing; by removing every distraction from the reader's path, by eliminating each scrap of incongruity and infelicity, we have done everything in our power to respect the reader's time and to facilitate understanding.

It is difficult (but necessary) to argue with the common sense of this proposition. It is true that saving unnecessary steps, avoiding unintentional ambiguity, and omitting needless words will tighten a web page, making it a little more clear and preventing some misunderstandings. The result, all things being equal, might be a few extra sales and a little extra good will.

But all things are not equal, and Krug's underlying premise -- that Web users prefer not to think about what they're seeing or doing, that they don't want to read or reflect -- is simply mistaken. People love to read Web pages. They do it every day. The growth of weblogs is driven completely by reading: most web logs are nearly pure text. Some of the most widely-read blogs use dreadful off-the-rack page designs.

In any case, the goal of a Web site must ultimately be, quite simply, to make people think. Even simple sales sites aspire not simply to gain an order, but rather to gain a customer -- and to change the customer so they'll become an even better customer.

The Bauhaus Manifesto claimed that

Das Endziel aller bildnerischen Tätigkeit ist der Bau!

The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building!

Gropius was an architect and the Bauhaus was working to reintegrate fine art, the building crafts, and engineering in an era of brick and glass. We no longer work exclusively in physical media; making stuff is no longer what artists do, and reintegrating art and science -- putting graphic design and code and software and writing and photography and management together -- is closer to the spirit of the age than designing better factories and kitchens.

The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the website, and the aspiration of a website is simply the aspiration of all art: to make us think.

December 15, 2005 (permalink)