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

Here's what I've been reading lately.

I try to write a short note on each book I read. This helps me think more clearly about what I'm reading — and about what I haven't found time to read. It's also a very handy way to find half-remembered titles.

I use Tinderbox agents to build pages for some of my favorite essayists, including Roger Ebert, David Mamet, and Louis Menand.

1023 Books: by author | by title

2019 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

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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)


A charming and atmospheric book about the world that surrounds major league baseball, the perplexities of coaches, writers, agents, wives, and even of the minor league stadium organist. There is surprisingly little baseball here: occasionally, some part of a play might be mentioned but there's scarcely a trace of the game itself. Even so, the Nemens does get the details right and avoids the ancient stereotypes when possible. There’s some echoes of Annie Savoy, but perhaps that’s because art becomes life.

March 16, 2020 (permalink)


A long time ago, I did a little bit of graduate work in Latin Epigraphy (with Herbert “Brick Stamps” Bloch). This is a wonderfully-imagined fantasy about Victorian epigraphy. The grand-daughter of the famous Lady Trent, Miss Audrey Carhart, rivals her famous grandmother for erudition and determination. She is called upon to translate a dozen newly-discovered clay tablets, written in ancient Draconic and describing a sort of foundational epic or creation myth. The world is interested in the dragons — discovered a few decades ago by Audrey’s illustrious ancestress — and their political status is a source of friction. Anti-draconic proto-fascists are organizing and they have the ear of many influential and wealthy people. An epigraphic fantasy of manners is a fine thing to read in time of plague.

March 16, 2020 (permalink)


A fascinating food book. Most of the best food writing has pursued what Adam Gopnik calls the “mystical microcosmic” — “sad thoughts on the love that got away or the plate that time forgot.” Mystical microcosmic writers — M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman — implicitly argue that they are like us, that we would enjoy what they enjoyed, that thoughtful eating can improve your life. Julia went to a fish place in Normandy and found a future husband and beurre blanc, and much of her best writing implicitly concerns the pursuit and care of each.

Mandy Lee’s book comes from a different place. In 2012, Lee was deeply depressed and living in a city she hated. Lee was born in Taiwan, grew up in Vancouver, went to grad school in (and loved) New York. Now, she was in Beijing, and everything in Beijing was awful: so awful that she could seldom get out of bed. She became and obsessive cook because focusing on elaborate and time-consuming recipes (and on elaborate and lovely photography of the prep) meant she could spend hours — days — locked in her home. Her cooking is not fun or easy or fast: her cooking is very angry, and she knows it.

Lee is not like you and I in another way: she’s always cooking for herself. There’s no patron, no restaurant, no one else to please. Her tastes are unusual, and for this she offers no explanation or apology. Reading between the lines, she likes savory and bitter breakfasts on the Chinese model, but she also really likes cheese. A few of her recipes reinvent what Minnesotans call a Juicy Lucy — hamburgers infused with tons of cheese — but hers also feature green chili aioli, spicy pork or lamb patties, and sweet potato buns.

Most of the recipes concern spectacular and complex interplay of contrasting flavors and textures — finding ways to combine hot and sweet, crisp and unctuous and sour in each bite. There’s a lot of prep and plenty of challenging ingredients. In my first foray into cooking one of these, I struck out on one ingredient not only at Whole Foods but also at Super 88, an big Asian store that has two separate freezer cases of frozen buns, a whole aisle of fish sauce, and family-size packages of beef penis.

The book has a chapter on elaborate home-cooked dog food.

This is not, in other woods, a replacement for The Joy Of Cooking. But it’s got some very fine (and hilarious) writing, some nifty food ideas, and a nice insight into what cooking means to many of us.

February 17, 2020 (permalink)


Late in his life, Liebling collected some of his best food writing, stories about his student year in Paris. Liebling was a hell of a fine writer, and his legacy is long: you see a lot of Liebling in Gopnik, for example, and not a little in Remnick, but there’s plenty of Liebling in Peter King’s football and in Peter Gammons’s baseball.

Liebling’s key argument is extremely interesting. If you want to think intelligently about food, he says, you must study it by eating seriously and thoughtfully. One must have enough money to eat well, but not enough money, he thinks, that it is no object. His key conundrum in memory is deciding whether at lunch to have the Tavel Superieur at 3 ½ francs and beef heart (2 ½ F), or to settle for vin ordinaire (1F) and enjoy a rare steak. This is, in fact, a nice question: even at my most bibulous, I find myself inclined to favor the food and skimp on the wine. That answer surprised me, which is a sign of a good question. (For example, I’d sort of like to return to Alinea, but this time I might forego the wine pairings in the interest of economy. I seldom think about taking the opposite tack.)

January 27, 2020 (permalink)


Rereading this classic story of an orphanage girl who grows up to be the world chess champion. Written in 1983, this novel’s feminism — and its frank treatment of opioid addiction and alcoholics — was fresher then than it is today. Still, it remains a wonderful tribute to the talented misfits who do so much for everyone.

January 27, 2020 (permalink)


A reread of this eloquent book about the mysteries of a family that seems anything but mysterious. Two parents, four kids, a lovely home in Shaker Heights, Ohio: the cast and setting are familiar. Everyone is pretty much exactly who they seem to be, and all these people are bright and observant. Yet no one really understands the family member they most want or need to understand. The book begins with the house on fire and proceeds to explain why it had to burn.

By the author of the wonderful Everything I Never Told You.

January 25, 2020 (permalink)


Wonderful, insightful and fascinating study of things the Vikings believed, based on archeological remains, inscriptions, legends, and ethnology from Saami and from Siberia. Viking religion wasn't about belief: Thor doesn’t care whether you believe in him, but if you’re in his way you’d be advised to move. It’s not about a convenient, either — there’s no deal in place and no special treatment can be expected: things are as they are. A superb and very thorough book.

January 20, 2020 (permalink)


Hack
Smitry Samarov

Vignettes of life as a Chicago cab driver, in short narratives and in watercolor sketches provide a fascinating glimpse into unseen worlds. A glimpse, Samarov emphasizes, is all you get: cab drivers hear a lot but you can’t ask many questions. It’s interesting how much of a cab’s week is dominated by weekend dating and drinking, and surprising how many desperately-poor people rely on cabs; Chicago has good public transit, but the subways don’t go all the places — vacant lots with good garbage, street corners with good drugs — to which some people need to go.

January 20, 2020 (permalink)


Leah Eady is married to a charming Robert, failing novelist. They live in Milwaukee, not the Paris of which Leah has always dreamed, but they get by — albeit Robert often vanishes for days at a time on mysterious “writeaways”. One day, Robert doesn’t come back, but leaves a trail of literary clues that point to Paris — and prepaid tickets for Leah and their two daughters. A strange story, not quite a mystery, not really a ghost story.

January 16, 2020 (permalink)


Soviet Daughter
Julia Alekseyeva

A fascinating graphic novel about the young artist, growing up in the US, and her great-grandmother Lola, born in 1910 in Kiev. Intriguing and (to my limited knowledge) innovative use of watercolor in a graphic novel, with superb storytelling.

January 14, 2020 (permalink)


Because I’m toying with writing a set of lectures, and perhaps a small book, about the intersection of computation and character, I thought it might be time to revisit this wonderful study of a group of young people obsessed with art. One teaches poetry, one draws, one plays video games. One markets videogames. The twin sister of the videogame player is not interested in art and becomes increasingly embodied through a year when everyone else plunges into the depths of artistic creation.

January 13, 2020 (permalink)


The strange, haunting, and very sad story of a young couple. Strongly reminiscent of On Chesil Beach, though the problem here isn’t sex. Or, maybe, it is.

January 11, 2020 (permalink)


Ivy Gamble is a middle-aged private investigator, specializing in stakeouts. She views herself as a fuckup, a failure: her big sister was a talented mage, but Ivy has no magic. She’s the sister who never got to go to Hogwarts. Then, a mysterious death takes place at the prestigious magic academy where her big sister now teaches Magic Theory, and the administration calls in Ivy to investigate.

Gailey’s emphasis here is that the kids who attend a magic school would be much like kids at other prep schools. They experience intense rivalries and epic disasters over trivial stakes. The kids have known each other for years — for most of their lives — and so the staff has power but knows nothing of what’s at stake. Ivy has plenty of unresolved teen angst and so has plenty of sympathy with the kids. Indeed, Ivy has so much teen angst that this might have worked better if Ivy had been a teenager.

January 9, 2020 (permalink)


Minimum Wage Magic
Rachel Aaron

Opal Yong-ae is scraping by as a cleaner — a one-woman cleanout and salvage crew, bidding on rights to the contents of abandoned rentals and foreclosures. It’s a precarious living, not least because she works in Detroit, a very magic city in a world where, in the 21st century, the magic returned with a vengeance. Opal is doing this work to repay her college loans; her misfortune is that her loans are owed not to a bank but to her father, and her father is the Dragon Of Korea. In short, she’s got some family issues.

Good world-building, remarkable minor characters and entertaining (if sometimes predictable) plotting make this electronic-only debut of a new series a virtual page-turner.

January 4, 2020 (permalink)


An aging, insubordinate commander takes charge of an aged battlewagon that will shortly be turned into a museum. Suddenly, interstellar war breaks out, and the evil aliens have an answer for everything except our old ship’s outmoded technology. A brave crew, a drunken but loyal executive officer, a deadly illness and a talented political commissar round out the central cast.

There’s something to like here, but the plot is standard American military SF and the cast, if not plagiarized, takes fan fiction to an extreme. The alcoholic executive officer is particularly jarring because our hero-commander cannot afford to have a bad XO and has had a decade to find his old friend a comfortable retirement.

Why, moreover, are we rehashing the arguments of 1942 about the survivability of battleships vs. the reach of aircraft carriers? That’s been settled for nearly three generations, now: Rickover, Spruance, Nimitz, Halsey: they’re all sleeping on the hill.

January 2, 2020 (permalink)


A quick rereading in the wake of Morgenstern’s new (and widely misunderstood) The Starless Sea. This is a wonderful book, a book almost entirely concerned with the sense of wonder. Terrific writing that seldom calls attention to itself, yet with supple and dexterous shifts of time and point of view. Critics wanted the next book to be just like this one, but Night Circus stands alone and it’s sufficient to its task.

January 2, 2020 (permalink)


Atmospheric, episodic, and sometimes shaggy, this new Alan Furst thriller captures one of the salient and easily-forgotten facts of the Resistance: it was improvised by amateurs, many of them poorly-suited for the roles they played. A writer of spy novels, Paul Ricard understands that he knows very little about spying, but as something must be done, he does what he can. He finds help in unexpected places, and frequently fails to find help when he looks for it. Ricard’s garret on the rue de la Huchette is perhaps too much a nod to tourist Paris to be quite right here, and I’m not sure that the class and tribal strains of the Occupation are caught precisely. Still, a good book to read as our nation embarks on its brave, doomed mission to impeach the monster.

December 18, 2019 (permalink)


In 1468, a young priest rides his old horse through the rain to a remote parish church, tasked by the Bishop of Exeter with burying a recently-deceased priest. He sees a brilliant flash of emerald in the rain, but it’s just a common parakeet.

This is our familiar medieval England, but it’s not quite right. For starters, our young priest conducts the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer, after the Lesson is read from the King James Bible: this is not the 1468 we once knew. We soon learn that, eight centuries ago, the Apocalypse destroyed the world, and all about us our clues to what happened to The Ancients.

This is a desperately sad book, speculative fiction for an age in which there’s no longer much reason to speculate. We know what’s coming. In Intertwingled, I wrote that “the future is not what it was.” And here we are.

December 5, 2019 (permalink)


Ninth House
Leigh Bardugo

A superb urban fantasy. Alex Stern — her name is “Galaxy” but she goes by Alex — is a troubled teen who has been mixed up with drug dealing and was found overdosed at the scene of a ghastly drug murder. Her core problem: she sees ghosts, and sometimes they see her. Word gets out, and she gets a scholarship to Yale on the strength of it.

Why? Because magic is real. The Yale secret societies perform magic to ensure the wealth and success of alumni. There’s an additional, even more-secret society that regulates all the others, and they want Alex and her unique talent.

Alex has a chip on her shoulder. She’s a poor kid, and the ghosts have driven her nearly ’round the bend. She doesn’t like the sort of kids who wind up in secret societies. She’s way over her head at Yale, and her patrol duties leave her almost no time to study properly. She’s not the sort of girl who will accept this state of affairs. A terrific book.

November 11, 2019 (permalink)