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

The Lord of the Rings
J. R. R. Tolkien

A unique, unprecendented, and altogether remarkable book.

This was a long-awaited rereading. I know The Lord of the Rings very well, having read it many, many times in high school and quite a few times since. In recent years, I' ve avoided revisiting familiar works too often, lest they grow worn, so this rereading, planned in anticipation of the movie, was a special treat, prolonged by a resolution not to read more than one chapter a day.

What is striking is that every character has a unique dialect (and some more fluidly between two or three). Frodo's language is not Merry's or Pippin's; it's subtle, but it's there. When hypertext researcher Hugh Davis explained to me what a Hampshire accent was, I immediately knew it because I recognized The Gaffer.

November 3, 2001 (permalink)

Lonely Planet Unpacked Again
Tony Wheeler et al.

An anthology of travel disasters, compiled by Lonely Planet founder founder Tony Wheeler (who contributes 14 pages of "Cast Away") and a host of other Lonely Planet writers. Travel writers confront police, parasites, wildlife, and a chronic lack of cash with wit and a stiff upper lip. Oddly, few of these writers really good at creating a sense of place -- perhaps because Lonely Planet is about the One World of Backpacking -- but they do know how to keep an adventure moving. The vignettes are short, most are amusing, and when something truly bad does happen (when Mark Honan decides to climb the pyramids after hours, and when Melita Granger takes a very wrong cab in Dehli) it comes as a shock.

December 13, 2001 (permalink)

The Commodore
Patrick O'Brian

A perfect accompaniment to the gentle roar of a 747-400 as it speeds you across the Pacific, this seventeenth volume of O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series is quietly delightful. There are ships a-plenty this time, as Capt. Aubrey is dispatched with a small fleet to surpress the slave trade, and plenty of natural philosophy for Dr. Maturin as well. There's also a small, uncharacteristic, but lovely sketch of a minor character, naturalist Christine Heatherleigh, who is at home in the drawing room but still more at home in the lab. A quiet moment for all, perhaps, as we approach the end of the war, but the joys of meeting our friends once more are perhaps greater than mere advanture.

December 13, 2001 (permalink)

Cold Hunter's Moon
K. C. Greenlief

Not yet published. My review is in press at The Drood Review, but this first novel promises the commence a long-lived and much-liked mystery series.

December 19, 2001 (permalink)

The most challenging and thoughtful Web design book of 2001, Cloninger's Fresh Styles explores ten distinct approaches to graphic design for the Web. Many of these styles contrast violently: nobody would mistake "Gothic Organic" for "Mondrian Poster", and Cloninger's contribution here is to point out how styles we usually associate with personal sites and artistic experiments also play a useful role in commercial Web design.

Other styles in Cloninger's taxonomy seem more closely related, and in these cases Cloninger makes a second contribution, helping us see core differences masked by surface similarity. It's easy to confound the Mondrian Poster Style of with the HTML Minimalism of 37 Signals or A List Apart, but the two are quite distinct. Cloninger explores both the surface differences (the Mondrian style avoids borders and likes to use the whole screen) and their implications (Mondrian sites depend on lots of color and need lots of pages, while minimalists can load their pages with more copy)

Above all, Cloninger avoids the simple reflex dismissal of different styles as lame, inept, or unusable. Instead, he finds practical uses for styles as different as the K10K "supertiny simcity style" and the Franceschini "Hello Kitty style", treating each with sensitivity and understanding.

This thoughtful survey has evoked far too little discussion; it deserves to be the most widely-discussed book on Web style since Siegel's Killer Web Sites.

November 3, 2001 (permalink)

A slender, all-American Christmas Carol in which an accountant sums up the costs and aggravations of his customary family Christmas and decides to take a cruise, instead. This strange, half-hearted little book seems unsure of its own sympathies, and probably would have stayed in a desk drawer had the draw of its author's name been less conspicuous.

December 7, 2001 (permalink)

Revisiting this old friend over lunch, I was struck by its complexity. It's a grand story and a complicated one, with side-romances and scandals and little schemes that keep you from focusing too much on (what turns out to be) the central romance.

July 20, 2013 (permalink)

Deal Breaker
Harlan Coben

Drood likes Coben a lot, and Drood knows mysteries. I find this series premier a full-fisted tribute to Robert Parker, whose Spenser mysteries started out as full-fisted tributes to Chandler. Myron Bolitar is a sports agent, his first big client has a missing fiancee, an ad appears in an obscure pornographic magazine, and we're off to the races. It's derivative fun, but it's fun nonetheless.

October 28, 2012 (permalink)

Mamet strips the actor's profession to bare essentials, or perhaps beyond. He denounces Method and technique as delusion.

The actor does not need to 'become' the character. The phrase, in fact, has no meaning. There is no character. There are only lines on a page. They are lines of dialog meant to be said by the actor. When he or she says them simply, in an attempt to achieve an object more or less like that suggested by the author, the audience sees an illusion of a character on the stage.

The question of what actors need to know has profound impact on the feasibility of Thespian hypertext. Electronic fiction, like theater, is also illusion: we tell stories about things that never happened and people who never lived, and these stories can move and change us only if this illusion succeeds. The tension between hyperfiction and its system is, I think, not unlike the tension between the playwright and the actor -- especially for those of us who write both systems and hypertexts. If the system is a show-off, or if it is at cross-purposes to the story, everything falls apart.

Mamet's slim volume is lively and controversial. Mamet is a wonderful stylist whether writing about theater, pool, whiskey, or scholarship:

Eleven o'clock always comes. In the meantime, may you know the happiness of working to serve your own good opinion. Invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school.

November 23, 2001 (permalink)

Guards! Guards!
Terry Pratchett

Dragons turn out to be less mythical than the Civil Service believed. In fact, everything the Town Watch believe is likely to be wrong, because it's that kind of movie and they're that kind of Guard. High-level, low-spirited officials make a monkey out of the librarian of Unseen University, which is not much of a challenge because the librarian is an orangutan. The perfect book to read while flying to an English provincial town, or back.

November 12, 2001 (permalink)

The surprising thing about this widely-honored book is not that it is so good, but that it is so readable. It is the story of a servant who, approaching the end of his career, comes to understand that he has been devoted to the service of a man who was neither very good, nor very wise, and whose schemes have (thank goodness) come to naught. Amidst the wreckage, we find space for pride and redemption and, perhaps, for hope.

The natural parallel for this book is, I think, not Graves or Forster nor Galsworthy, but rather John Le Carré in his prime. This proposition will, no doubt, surprise you, as (I assure you) it surprised me. But the spirit spirit of Mr. Stevens echoes Smiley and Haydon and young Peter Guillam, the dust of lost empire and lost chances and the wreckage of time.

November 12, 2001 (permalink)

Sharpe's Triumph
Bernard Cornwell

Sgt. Richard Sharpe, pursuing a British defector and pursued himself by a vengeful enemy in the ranks, heads inexorably toward the 1803 Battle of Assaye in Wellesley's Indian campaign. Cornwell's vivid historical fiction recalls both Patrick O'Brian and Shelby Foote.

November 5, 2001 (permalink)

The Siege of the Arts
Robert Brustein

Collected essays and criticism, from the distinguished director of the American Repertory Theater and critic for The New Republic. Reading reviews of productions I couldn't see, of plays that I probably couldn't find in print, can be tedious, but Brustein writes with grace and he always has a point deeper than mere consumer advice. His notes on theater history (especially "Jews and the American Theater") and critical assesments of major figures (especially Sondheim, Albee, and Mamet) are often fascinating.

October 31, 2001 (permalink)

Home Town
Tracy Kidder

Kidder takes a look at Northampton, Massachusetts, through the eyes of a small-town policeman, his old friends from school, the people he works for and works with and arrests. Kidder knows how to write and knows how to use interviews. In a sense, he's the Studs Terkel of his generation. There's nothing here as interesting as the wonderful Soul of a New Machine because his subject simply isn't as interesting; the first book remains one of the very best looks at how doing science actually feels.

October 21, 2001 (permalink)

All She Was Worth
Miyuki Miyabe

Inspector Honma, recovering from a bad leg, investigates rumors surrounding the disappearance of the fiancee of his unloved second cousin. This police non-procedural (Honma is freelancing, so he's essentially an enfeebled, elderly, and exquisitely polite rogue cop) has a nice sense of place. It has received prizes and accolades: "best novel and best mystery novel of the year in Japan," says the cover. The book is marred by an excess of exposition; we learn too much of the surface of credit trouble in Japan, and too little of its depths and dynamics, or its real impact on people.

October 19, 2001 (permalink)

Simon's Family
Marianne Fredriksson

Simon, adopted in infancy, grows up with distinctly Jewish features in WW2 Gothenburg in this intimate, lyrical tribute to the stoicism of motherhood. In the wake of her wonderful Hanna's Daughters, Fredriksson revisits the evolution of a Swedish family through the generations. At times, the seams show, and you can tell when Fredriksson over-describes an atmospheric detail that an Omen is about to appear, but this remains a charming book.

December 12, 2012 (permalink)

American Gods
Neil Gaiman

Shadow, finally out of prison, heads home to his wife's funeral and an unexpected job offer from a man who says, "Seeing as today's my day, you can call me Wednesday." The Old Gods walk abroad, trying to scrounge a living in a land where gods never thrive; they live on the streets or in coldwater flats, and their places of power are roadside attractions. The cat Bastet, in Cairo Illinois, reminds Shadow that "my people have been keeping an eye on you", and a fortune telling machine in Wisconsin tells him

"Your lucky number is none. Your lucky color is dead. Motto: like father, like son."

Easily Gaiman's best novel to date, in part because Shadow is neither cute nor clueless. A delightful puzzle book, and a strange look at the spirit of middle America from far away.

October 13, 2001 (permalink)