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 passion and care that animated The Hunger Games has been worn away by the sequels, the films and the hoopla. This prequel examines how the Hunger Games got started and how they became the reality show we all came to know. I had always thought that Collins could write a fine book about Mentors, and this novel tries.

The Katniss novel is told in the first person, which creates a technical problem: there’s lots that Katniss doesn’t know, and lots that she knows so well that she’d never give it a thought. Those constraints helped Collins build a rich world, one where much was half hidden in the shadows. This time, she sticks to third person, perhaps to provide some distance. There is, in the end, so much distance that the shadows are wiped away.

June 18, 2020 (permalink)

The Enchanted April
Elizabeth van Arnhim

Two married women live in Hampstead, shop in London, and are members of the same uncomfortable club on Shaftesbury Avenue. They know each other by sight. Mrs. Wilkins reads an advertisement in The Times:

To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria And Sunshine. Small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

It is a rainy February day in London, and Mrs. Wilkins thinks that yes, she does appreciate Wisteria And Sunshine. She proposes to Mrs. Arbuthnot, whom she does not properly know, that they go halves. They decide that it cannot hurt to make inquiries.

This delightful vacation fantasy was written in 1922. In 1932, Peter Fleming would read an equally odd advertisement in The Times and launch on his Brazilian Adventure, becoming the template of his little brother’s James Bond.

May 10, 2020 (permalink)

The dome of Florence’s Duomo was wider and taller than any dome since antiquity, and remained the world’s largest for a very long time. It was raised without interior scaffolding, saving forests of trees. It was raised without proper mathematics. This solid retelling of how Brunelleschi designed and built the dome is fascinating, though it tends to dwell too much on the politics of the day and spends too little time explaining just how the dome stands up.

May 27, 2020 (permalink)

The founding generations of Israel were not fools. They had concluded in the 19th century that Europe was ultimately inhospitable to Jews. In this, they were not wrong. If Jews had to go, they had to go somewhere. Precisely where? Herzl didn’t much care, but Palestine seemed one of several decent possibilities, and its British administrators did not entirely disagree.

Hitler’s rise changed everything, and overnight the project transformed from a doubtful political speculation to an urgent rescue mission. The Founders knew perfectly well that there were already people who lived in Palestine; most expected that, in time, they would be good friends to the Jewish immigrants who would transform malarial wastes into green fields and shining cities. It didn’t work, but after 1932 (and especially after 1948) there was no choice.

April 30, 2020 (permalink)

Saint X
Alexis Schaiktin

A shaggy novel, with lots of incident and detail included for the joy of incident and detail. A New York family goes to the Caribbean island of Saint X for a luxurious vacation, father and mother and two girls. Princeton freshman Alison is hot stuff and knows it, little sister Claire is a little strange and knows it, too. On the final night of the vacation, Alison sneaks off and then vanishes; her body is eventually discovered on nearby, uninhabited Faraway Cay. Everything is changed.

This is formally a murder mystery and the little sister, who changes her name to Emily, serves as its detective. Nobody here is reliable, least of all Claire/Emily. You can’t rely on the police. And in the end, you cannot rely entirely on the author.

April 19, 2020 (permalink)

Red Plenty
Francis Spufford

A daring and fascinating study of what the Soviet Union was trying to do in the years after the great famines. Spufford attempts to capture not the budgets and programs but what people believed and the goal toward which they together were working — a vision of abundance that would forever put the specter of medieval Russia to rest.

Spufford does this through a series of lightly fictionalized vignettes, scrupulously documented, that try to show clearly what everyday people thought they were trying to do. The core idea here was not bad: where capitalist markets waste lots of effort and material to discover an equilibrium price, systematic planning and linear programming can discover that price from first principles. If you invent a new kind of car, in America you’d have four companies building four variants. They’d spend lots of money on marketing and lobbying and PR, and it might take a decade to figure out which was best. Every part in that car undergoes the same wasteful process. If you could just get things right the first time — even close to right — you’d save a tremendous amount of time and money. You might be wrong sometimes, but even then, you only need to be a few percentage points faster and smarter than the wasteful random experimentation of capitalism.

It didn’t work, but they weren’t all idiots.

April 5, 2020 (permalink)