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.

1041 Books: by author | by title

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This strange and fascinating little book examines an aging writer who is deeply curious about his upbringing and, at the same time, would rather not know. He constantly visits and revisits details of a woman he once knew, her shady partner, her murdered girlfriend. She once gave him a folded piece of paper with his address inside, labelled “So you don’t get lost in the neighborhood.” He is completely devoted to this shadowy maternal replacement, of whom he has heard nothing for decades save that she is said to be in prison.

April 2, 2021 (permalink)


A frothy but good humored romance that takes its characters seriously, in which even minor characters have ideas. Chloe is a girl on wheels. Sanji is a wealthy young businessman from Mumbai, a fellow with a plan to chip away at caste restrictions through social media. They meet cute on a bench in Washington Square in Manhattan. Chloe lives in a nearby apartment building, a building in which Sanji’s uncle works as an elevator operator. It’s that sort of movie.

French is still a hard slog, but perhaps it’s gradually coming together.

March 28, 2021 (permalink)


This is the first book I have read in another language that I have not read before in English. It goes slowly, but it goes: six weeks ago, I could barely make my way through the sly fox and the vain crow.

Like the other Antoine Laurain novels I have read, this is a sunny book that, for all its sunshine, is not entirely without shadows. Violaine Lepage is a publisher, in charge of her firm’s slush pile. This is an intimate portrait of a publishing industry that is somewhat removed from reality as I understand it today, and is perhaps intended to be read as a portrait of how the world ought to be rather than how it is. Indeed, the book opens with Violaine waking up in a hospital room in the aftermath of a terrible plane crash, and finding that her visitors include Marcel Proust, Michel Hoellebecq, Georges Perec, Patrick Modiano, and Virginia Woolf.

It’s really a lot of serious fun.

March 19, 2021 (permalink)


Morwenna
Jo Walton, trans. Luc Varissimo

This is the first book that I have read in French. Le Petit Prince preceded it, but that’s not much of a book. Among Others is about children, in a way, but it’s not for children. It took a long time, I made a steady stream of blunders, I relied too much on the dictionary and on Bing Translate for help. But I made it.

I was surprised to find how intensely reading Morwenna in French recalled to me the experience of learning to read English. My dyslexia made that a long struggle. I remember one first-grade morning when Mrs. Boardman had us each reading our own copy of Fat Sam and Thin Anne, and I found myself pausing after a particularly difficult decipherment to say to myself, “I can manage this, but it’s very hard and it goes very slowly.” Adults I knew could do this instantly and without apparent effort, but for me to learn that seemed as distant and as improbable as learning to play second base like Don Buford.

Being forced to read at the pace of a hobbled first grader has some benefits. I’ve read this twice in English and had never noticed that Morwenna recalls plays dolls with her sister, and how they would invent stories of rescuing dragons from evil princesses. It’s easy to miss that sort of thing. The end, too, benefits from taking it slowly, which was necessary since “flaming javelin,” “extra-terrestrial space turtle” and “dagger” were not really part of my introductory vocabulary.

March 9, 2021 (permalink)


V2
Robert Harris

Robert Harris returns to form, or at least to good cheer, in this pleasant melodrama about the V2 missile program and the British photo-analysts who tried to find a way to thwart it.

March 2, 2021 (permalink)


Le Petit Prince
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Today, I read a book in a language that is not English, for only the second or third time in my life.

I’ve been working on a project on the intellectual roots of hypertext and the Web, an inquiry inspired by a class to which Andy van Dam and Norm Meyrowitz invited me to speak last year. I’ve been asking lots of people for advice on sources for various questions. One suggested a multi-volume work which seems eminently pertinent, but which is only available in French.

After some prevarication, I realized that if a graduate student in this pickle came to me for advice, I would likely say, “Learn to read French, or start over on a different topic.” With my hearing problems, I’m never going to manage to speak, but reading might be possible.

I asked my eminent cousin, “Suppose you had a graduate student to whom you had said, ‘go away and come back and talk when you have an adequate reading knowledge of French.’ When would you expect to see this student next?” She said, “Six months: three months intensive coursework, three months in France.” I can’t manage that. There’s work to do, and we’re still in the midst of pandemic. But perhaps we can get somewhere, and perhaps my eminent cousin has high standards.

Reading on the iPad is great because the dictionary is a joy to use. And, do I use it! Even for this famously easy little children’s book, I’m puzzling out the simplest little things. (We do have some esoteric vocabulary: boas (open and closed), baobabs, switchmen, and lamplighters for starters.) This is a profound book but an odd one for children, perhaps even sadder than Charlotte’s Web which was read to me once and remains unbearable to think about.

Next up, I’m going to attempt Jo Walton’s Among Others en Français, where it has a different title but will still, I hope, be tons of fun.

February 24, 2021 (permalink)


Miss Seeton, a retired art instructor, occasionally helps the local constable with police sketches. She has a certain knack, and the newspapers like her. A Swiss banker, finding his bank entangled in apparent fraud, sends for her and, although she has never been abroad, she hastens to oblige. A light-hearted and light-headed confection.

January 25, 2021 (permalink)


An ambitious and interesting story of the end of the world, as seen from the perspective of an observer to whom anxiety is deeply alien. Candace Chen’s parents had come from Fuzhou and wound up in Salt Lake City. Candace moved to New York where she facilitates the manufacture of Bibles in Chinese factories, and then at the end of the world fled to a shopping mall in Indiana. There’s a lot of emigrating going on, and lots of new worlds, and also a good deal of formal experimentation. I respect the craft and I find myself in sympathy with its bleak vision, but in 2021 I’d hope for Station Eleven instead.

January 25, 2021 (permalink)


A collection of essays and articles about fiction today — especially about genre fiction and the plight of the short story.

Chabon originally thought that short stories were his strong suit and in the earliest of these essays he carries the guidon in the assault on the dominance of The New Yorker story and its privileging of everything but plot. This was the central front in a generational and philosophical assault against the armies of high modernism and postmodernism, and now that those battles have been lost and won the flags are of historical interest. Discussions of Sherlock Holmes, M. R. James, Will Eisner are fascinating, and a bravura exploration of golems in the modern world is terrific.

December 17, 2020 (permalink)


Riddle Of The Rosetta
Jed Z. Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefewicz

A compelling and masterful examination of the arduous effort to understand what hieroglyphics are and how to read them. The Rosetta Stone was only the beginning of the solution, because it was not clear what sort of writing the other two scripts were using, and what sort of language they represented. The problem attracted many of the best minds of an age replete with fine minds, and sadly also attracted more than its share of academic jealousies. Everything was made worse because the aftermath of revolution engaged the involved scholars in politics, and then embroiled them in troubles. Nobody with sense had nearly enough money. The successful solution was partly premised on an assumption that later turned out to be false, but was nevertheless sufficient to advance the solution until the goal was within sight. Naturally, it all begins with a dinner party.

November 28, 2020 (permalink)


Wonder Boys
Michael Chabon

Revisiting the book in the wake of the Intl. Conf. On Interactive Digital Storytelling, for which I delivered the closing keynote and from which I departed (virtually, of course) with an idea for a new sort of hypertext story or game for which Chabon’s techniques seem especially attractive. It’s impressive work and lots of fun, and it’s also a picture of the great modern argument over the purpose of writing.

November 17, 2020 (permalink)


Free Air
Sinclair Lewis

A neglected classic of which I’d never heard by the author of Babbit and It Can’t Happen Here. Claire Boltwood is a young Brooklyn woman whose wealthy, widowed father works far too much. In 1917, Claire takes matters into her own hands and undertakes to drive with her father from Minneapolis (where Dad was vacationing by running the Western branch of his company) all the way to Seattle. They are not even out of Minnesota when they meet a helpful small-town mechanic, Milt Daggett. He gets their car out of the mud, and instantly falling in love with Claire, decides to get into his own little car and head for Seattle as well. The farther West we go, the more Claire travels beyond her conventional gender role, and the more Milt transcends his class. This is, in short, an American sentimental romance.

What is striking here is the conviction that Americans are fundamentally (if not universally) good, decent, and sensible — and that small-town America in particular is — despite some bad and selfish apples — pretty good and tolerably smart. In this America, hardly anyone has much education but every country lawyer and small-town doctor is a missionary of enlightenment. This is not the rural, small-town America that inflicted Donald Trump upon the rest of the country and the world, or that persists in spreading COVID and destroying the planet.

September 7, 2020 (permalink)


One of my favorite holiday-weekend activities is to read a conference volume about an interesting and active topic that is far, far outside my field. This is a delightful collections of studies of tourism in the American West, written by professors of Tourism. Some of those professors understand why, at parties, people laugh when they explain their vocation.

People have been traveling to see the mountains, the desert, the cowboys and (especially) the Indians for a very long time. This is problematic: everything is problematic, naturally, but all this is especially problematic because the underlying racial questions can neither be avoided nor cured.

There's little here that can be operationalized beyond a sensible consensus that it’s always wise to follow the money and the observation that, if you follow the money you will find it tends to wind up in distant and unexpected places. Leah Dilworth has a lovely paper on Fred Harvey, the company that provided food and souvenirs for the Santa Fe Railroad, and the Indians. Marguerite Shaffer also has a fascinating look at novels about tourism in the early 20th century, which seems to be the best way to capture not only what tourism does but also what it is trying to do. The evil that tourists do persists after they leave in mounds of litter and mountains of slights and injustices. Much of the good goes home with the tourists in the form of a wiser, better society and a more democratic nation.

September 7, 2020 (permalink)


Military journalist Thomas E Ricks (Fiasco) mentioned on Twitter that this is a novel that everyone in the military knows and that most admire. It follows small-town Nebraskan Sam Damon from his enlistment just before the First World War up through Vietnam.

It’s not a bad book, though it’s very long, and it indulges in lots of set-piece essays that pretend to be after-dinner dialogue. Indeed, we have (at least) two characters — one of them Sam Damon’s wife! — that serve primarily as a means to inject essays into the narrative. Sam Damon, once he gets going, is a fine characters; you can see why this would make an attractive assignment at West Point.

The obvious comparison is with W.E.B. Griffin and his serial novels on the Army and The (Marine) Corps. Griffin wrote later: Once An Eagle was published in 1968. The great subject for both writers is the soldier’s fight against stupid, greedy, and vain superior officers. Myrer’s book is bitterly anti-war and deeply mixed about the military; Griffin carefully sidesteps war as a subject. Myrer despises war profiteers and suspects that all rich civilians are either profiteers or parasites; Griffin is fascinated by wealth (and by the Old South). Both writers have a strange relationship with their Jewish officers. Griffin particularly admires the scrounging and chicanery that lets junior officers and non-comms get what their troops need; Myrer’s not really interested.

Unlike Griffin, Myrer’s conclusion is bleak. We aren’t going to settle down on the Carolina Shore; the war will never end.

August 18, 2020 (permalink)


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 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 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 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)