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

Beat To Quarters
C. S. Forester
Is O'Brian really better than Forester? As I pass the half-way mark of the Aubrey/Maturin saga, it seemed time to check again, and yes, it's true: Hornblower is great fun, but Aubrey is deeper, richer, and more fully connected to his age. The outlandish claim that O'Brian's series are the greatest historical novel, ever, seems less outlandish today than it did a decade ago.

This is an important claim, too: you can argue (as indeed Paul Fussell does argue) that the historical novel will turn out to be the genre of our time.

September 15, 2001 (permalink)

David Walder
With a personality invented to inspire historical novelists, Horatio Nelson lived briefly, successfully, and on the whole unhapilly. Nelson won three great fleet actions -- The Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar. He lost his heart to a most unsuitable married woman, at a time when he was already married to a woman with whom he could find no fault. Waldcer's biography is sympathetic, intelligent, thorough, and out of print (although easily found used at amazon or aLibris)

September 3, 2001 (permalink)

Hanna's Daughters
Marianne Fredriksson
This superb portrait of three generations of Swedish women traces the resonance of the dim past through the decades. From Hanna, a Dalsland farmchild and servant in late 19th-century, to her sophisticated Gothenberg grandaughter Anna, we trace the quiet connections that define a family. Tumultuous events, rape and revolution, play their part, but so too do the little details of character -- a weakness for amusing young men, a cheerful acceptance of hard work -- that join mother to daughter and that distinguish a clan from its neighbors. Aside from an occasional jarring thump, Joan Tate's translation does its best with tricky regional nuance. I especially enjoyed this because my wife is Swedish, but it's fascinating to see what has become a familiar Jewish-American genre (see Mona in the Promised Land ) played in a Scandinavian key.

August 25, 2001 (permalink)

Laurie King
A new, non-series mystery from the author of the delightful tales of Mary Russell, a Jewish teenager in Victorian England who befriends her neighbor, the retired Mr. Sherlock Holmes (The Beekeper's Apprentice). Folly is darker, and to my mind less completely successful. King (like Arthur Conan Doyle) thrives on her minor characters, and Folly necessarily isolates its aging hero, Rae Newborne, on an uninhabited island named (for her ancestor) Newborne's Folly. Nonetheless, a very worthwhile book and (I hear) a strong contender for major awards.

August 25, 2001 (permalink)

Parisian film producer Jean Casson wanders through the early years of the Nazi occupation, getting by. He tries to cope, he tries to be decent, he tries to enjoy l'amour and the coffee. In the end, he can't avoid being swept up in the fires engulfing Europe.

August 22, 2001 (permalink)

More C++ Gems
Robert C. Martin, ed.
This collection of essays from the C++ report ranges from the obscure to the superb. Highlights include a pair of fine articles by John Lakos on issues that arise in large-scale development, Herb Sutter on private inheritance, and Ball and Crawford on Monostate, an attractive alternative to Singleton.

July 29, 2001 (permalink)

John Adams
David McCullough
McCullough's readable, fluent, and timely biography of John Adams is a fine sequel to his wonderful biography of Truman. Adams is a difficult subject for the biographer; never a lieutenant, he nevertheless is constantly working in the shadow of richer, more colorful characters: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Abigail.

July 22, 2001 (permalink)

Amy Bloom, a psychiatrist who doubles is a wonderful writer, expands her brilliant short story, "Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines", into a novel by exploring what happens to the little girl who is Mr. Klein's unsuitable object of affection.

July 22, 2001 (permalink)

Night Soldiers
Alan Furst
Khristo Stoianev's brother is beaten by Fascist street thugs. A powerfully-quiet Russian, newly-arrived in Stoianev's Balkan village, offers worldly insight and, in time, an entree to the Russian intelligence service. A sprawling, uncontrolled, but rewarding look at Nazi-controlled Eastern Europe, seen from ground-level.

July 22, 2001 (permalink)

Volume 13 of Patrick O'Brian's wonderful historical drama. When I first reade Master and Commander, I thought the cover blurb citing this series as the greatest historical novel in history to be hyperbole. I'm not sure this, anymore, that this was a misjudgement.

July 11, 2001 (permalink)

The C++ Standard Library
Nicolai M. Josuttis
A clear, thorough reference for the entire Standard Library, including the Standard Template Library (STL) plus strings, iostreams, and all the rest. I've depended on Musser and Saini's STL Tutorial and Reference Guide for years, but Josuttis is clearly superior. Some annoying gaps remain; for example, there's no obvious index entry to check when you want to know which operations on containers can invalidate iterators. At times, too, I long for more discussion of design: for example, it would be good to know why iostreams let you test a stream in a logical expression if (in) but STL iterators require the explicit comparison iter!=myList.end(). But, for now, Josuttis is probably the best desktop reference.

July 6, 2001 (permalink)

The Golden Ocean
Patrick O'Brian
An early (1956) tale of an early voyage -- Anson's circumnavigation -- sets the scene for O'Brian's later Aubrey/Maturin series. A young, inexperienced midshipman finds himself in the midst of a historic, and well-told, adventure..

July 1, 2001 (permalink)

Effective STL
Scott Meyers
Third the series of influential, important, and indispensible guides to modern C++ practice. C++ is a difficult language to use well, and common practice has changed radically over the years. A big part of using C++ effectively is mastering idioms -- code snippets that everyone should understand but whose meaning isn't obvious at first inspection. The Standard Template Library (STL) is just three years old, and it's chock-full of idioms and traps for the unwary. Used well, though, it's a powerful and flexible tool.

June 24, 2001 (permalink)

The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West; a biography of Elphaba, a girl of greenish hue born to a failed, fanatical minister in the midst of turbulent times in Oz. The royal dynasty has been overthrown by the Wizard whose tenuous hold on power leads to supression of Animals, strip-mining the Glikkus, subjugation of the Munchkins; at University, Elphalba reluctantly becomes a revolutionary. A wonderfully, sophisticated, and thoroughly reimagined tale. Not to be missed.

June 24, 2001 (permalink)

John J. Nance
Airline pilot Craig Dayton is delighted to learn that a former President of the United States will be a passenger on this morning's trip from Athens to Rome. A few minutes later, he learns that Greek police are en route to arrest the former head of state. He orders an emergency takeoff (baffling his co-pilot, who asks whether there is such a thing?) to trigger this 389-page romp, a summery blend of aviation and legal thriller.

June 24, 2001 (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)

Planning Extreme Programming
Kent Beck and Martin Fowler

A sequel to Beck's earlier (and more important) Extreme Programming Explained, an interesting approach to managing software development. Software management is notoriously hard to control; people want to believe it's like planning a magazine or an office building, but it's often much closer to scientific research.

Extreme Programming's core idea -- that trying to specify everything in advance is actually more expensive than leaping right in -- is heresy of the most delightful sort, turning a common vice into a virtue. Better still, we now understand why the vice was always so alluring; at times, coding before planning lets you build now what must be built, while buying a future option on what you think you'll need later.

This is going to be one of the most widely-discussed software books of recent years. ... Adopt the new methodologies (like new medicines) quickly, while they still work.... (read the rest of last year's review)

June 24, 2001 (permalink)