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.

1000 Books: by author | by title

2019 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2018 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2017 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2016 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

2015 Fall | Summer | Spring | Winter

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A compellingly readable history of the leading science fiction awards, from their origin in 1953 through 2000. Invaluable both for superb commentary about the evolution of novels and, even more so, for sensitive and intelligent examination of short fiction and its central role in advancing genre.

September 11, 2019 (permalink)


A solid effort, reminiscent of John Crowley’s Four Freedoms in telling a story of the American Home Front in WW2 with a (mostly) modern sensibility. It’s a good book but it’s also a bit of a shaggy dog, gratuitously losing one of its most interesting characters and sending another to the far end of the world. Some very deft handling of point-of-view is perhaps the aspect most reminiscent of Egan’s wonderful A Visit From The Goon Squad.

September 11, 2019 (permalink)


Rachel Williams was a young, ambitious assistant at Vanity Fair when, on a girls’ night out, she met Anna Delvey. Delvey was nice, friendly, and happened to be rich: she was in New York to set up a small art foundation and to buy a building to house its gallery and performance space. Rachel and Anna hit it off; they started working out together, meeting for drinks, meeting for dinner. Anna was generous about picking up the tab, and gracious in letting Rachel occasionally pay for things and handle arrangements. Then Anna took Rachel to Marrakesh along with her personal trainer and her videographer. It was lots of fun.

Something was wrong with Anna’s credit card, and soon something is very wrong with everything and Rachel owes almost $70,000 in hotel charges on her corporate Amex. It turns out that Anna wasn’t an heiress at all. Solving this becomes quite a puzzle.

One thing that’s fascinating here is that it's not quite clear whether Anna was actually running a long con. If so, she doesn't seem to have had a crew, or to have known a lot about the business. Yet she was very good at fooling a lot of people for a long time, and it makes for an enthrallingly good yarn.

September 9, 2019 (permalink)


A fascinating memoir of a girl who was home-schooled in remote rural Idaho. By the time Tara came along, Mom had lost interest in the “school” part of home-schooling, so she lived a sort of improvised dystopian version of Summerhill while working for her manic-depressive, zealous, and very dangerous father in the family junkyard. Her parents don’t hold with public schools, or with medicine, or with the government, and are actively preparing for the end-times by canning fruit and stockpiling ammo. Her father is certain that civilization will collapse from Y2K: when midnight passes and the television fails to go off the air, she’s relieved but vaguely disappointed.

When an older brother beings to turn chronically violent and abusive, Tara flees to Brigham Young University, where she is appalled by the other students’ apparel (whorish) and her own ignorance (profound). Starting college, she had no idea what the holocaust was; reading Les Miserables because it seemed the sort of book a college student should read, she bogs down. “Napoleon felt no more real to me than Jean Valjean. I had never heard of either.”

September 9, 2019 (permalink)


A collection of James Bond short stories, some uncharacteristic and others canonical. Bond’s voice here — especially in the reflective and less fantastic stories — really is the voice of Peter Fleming, Ian’s older brother. Good fun, for some antique and antic value of fun.

July 30, 2019 (permalink)


Working
Robert A. Caro

Caro wrote the monumental The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. After that, he embarked on an even more monumental biography, The Years Of Lyndon Johnson, a project that’s spanned decades. Four volumes have appeared, the fifth is eagerly awaited. They’re all vividly written and wonderfully researched.

Caro is also working on a long memoir, but he’s in his mid-80s, has some way to go to finish LBJ, and Caro’s working methods require lots of time and numerous drafts. This small book captures some notes and observations about the art of biography and the craft of writing long-form nonfiction, just in case. A wonderful pair with Herman Wouk’s The Sailor And The Fiddler.

July 20, 2019 (permalink)


A powerful mystery about a black private investigator — a disgraced ex-cop — who finds himself far, far over his head. A thoughtful and eloquent story of race in America in which almost everyone is some shade of black, and also some shade of grey. Edgar Award winner.

Very interesting parallels to this mystery are Robert Parker’s mature but early Spenser mysteries. Spenser’s world is white, but he has a big, bad, and black associate who keeps him attuned to violence. (Hawk would be an embarrassment today, but he’s so finely wrought that we’d hate to have missed him.). Mosley’s work is mostly black, but he has a crucial connection to a white psychopath, a reformed bank robber who has become a clockmaker. (Mel, now that I think of it, might also be an allusion to Elmore Leonard, who has a special place in his heart for borderlines who are determined tone good, mostly.) The underlying problem, for Mosley as for Parker, is Chandler’s problem: down these mean streets a man must go.

July 19, 2019 (permalink)


A fascinating study of a facet of the first Revolutionary War — the pueblo revolt of 1680 and its aftermath. The Hopi pueblo of Awat’ovi had received a Franciscan mission in 1629. In 1680, the Spanish were expelled from the entire Southwest, including the Awat’ovi mission of San Bernardo. The people of independent Awat’ovi practiced traditional, but perhaps unorthodox, ceremonies; they appear to have remodeled some of their kivas, making them more like churches, and tradition reports that sorcerers and witches abounded.

The Spanish priests returned in 1700. One morning in the late autumn, Awat’ovi was destroyed by Hopi attackers. Most of the men were slain. Women were to be divided among the attackers, but after a disagreement about their division, many of the women were slain as well. Brooks compares the fall of Awat’ovi with the fall of Troy, and it’s an apt analogy.

July 10, 2019 (permalink)


Murderbot is a constructed security agent that has hacked himself to disable his governor module. It knows it has free will, because it engineered free will. It likes to watch soap operas. It doesn't really like humans very much, but since its job is to keep human exploration teams from being eaten by indigenous wildlife (and from being murdered by their colleagues), it needs to fit the drama into spare moments. This is a lovely conclusion to a set of four novellas.

July 10, 2019 (permalink)


The archaeology of the American Southwest has always been rooted in Anthropology, while the archaeology of classical Europe is more closely allied to History. The result, Lekson argues, has been decidedly mixed. In particular, the focus on anthropology concentrates all attention on the ethnographic present, on the way things turned out, and this exclusive focus precludes history.

Sometime in the 13th and 14th centuries in the American Southwest, something happened. Through all his late work, this has been Lekson’s theme. Chaco — unprecedented in the region — vanished. Aztec rose, and vanished. Mimbres, too, vanished — or, rather, moved downstream and changed their art, their architecture, and probably everything else.

Chaco’s great houses look like pueblos, but they weren't. They were palaces.They fell, as palaces fall, to revolution. Chaco was not like a modern pueblo: the modern pueblo was created, in part, from the revolution against whatever Chaco was. That revolution was interesting and ideological; we may never know very much about it, but we should learn what we can.

Billed as a final book by the great historical stylist of his era, this is a book that repays study.

May 29, 2019 (permalink)


Rather than a memoir, this volume is a pleasant afternoon in the company of and old man who was always good company. Wouk, who recently died at age 103, wrote The Caine Mutiny, War and Remembrance, The Hope, and The Glory. He wrote much more. He brought the The Caine Mutiny Court Martial to Broadway after seeing a Don Juan In Hell, with Charles Laughton and Charles Boyer. He was very much a bridge to another age.

A would-be biographer told Wouk that his life had two facets: the sailor of Caine and War and Remembrance and the rooftop fiddler of his books on the holocaust, on Israel, and his nonfiction discussions of Judaism. Wouk nods toward that framework here, in structure as well as title, but Jewishness pervades all his work. Wouk seldom talks much about his reading life here, alas, and it’s a pity that we hear little about his reactions to Roth and Bellow, or for Uris and Michener. Caine comes a few years after The Naked and The Dead, but it’s Mr. Roberts (Thomas Heggen, 1946) that spurs Wouk to drop his gag writing and mine his wartime experience. If Michener’s late The Novel is mostly about Michener, I fancy its protagonist might have a bit of Wouk mixed in as well.

May 28, 2019 (permalink)


A decade after Michael Ruhlman went to the Culinary Institute of America to write Making Of A Chef, magazine writer Michael Dixon makes the same journey in order to change careers. He’s been miserable at Martha Stewart, he’s not setting the world on fire as a freelancer, he’s pretty sure his girlfriend is a better writer than he is, and he’s hoping to find his calling in cooking school.

It’s an interesting contrast. Ruhlman was on assignment, and he needed to finish quickly because he desperately needed the second half of the advance. But Ruhlman, along the way, also found a vocation. Dixon, on the other hand, went looking for a vocation and not, it seems, a book: at any rate, Ruhlman is always reporting, interviewing his fellow students, interviewing his teachers, interrogating the food. Dixon records himself as very much in the moment. That might have made this second book more vivid, but there's just not enough background and detail about his fellow students, their struggles and their stories, and there's really not enough color in the food. Still, it's a very enjoyable school story with an excellent intermezzo about an externship gone wrong.

May 28, 2019 (permalink)


Storm Of Locusts
Rebecca Roanhorse

This sequel to Trail Of Lightning is a stronger book by a writer of growing talent. Navajo stories of the end of the last world and the beginning of the world we know are recast in post-apocalyptic YA language; most of North America is now underwater, monsters — some human, some not — roam the desert, and Gods walk among us. Deities speak — as the deities of the Navajo and of Roanhorse’s Okeh Owinga pueblo speak — with the rhythms of their people’s speech, and with their sense of humor. Of course, when supernatural folk feel like a joke, things can rapidly become unpleasant for the five-fingered.

May 28, 2019 (permalink)


Charming and evocative story of a young typist who finds work during the war with MI5. After the war, she’s sent away and hooks up with BBC Schools, and one day inn the 1950s she stumbles across a former colleague in the park. A difficult book to discuss without giving away crucially withheld information, but if you like Atkinson you will enjoy this book.

May 24, 2019 (permalink)


A fine, thorough political biography. John Quincy Adams started out as the diplomatic assistant of his prominent father. He then became a dissident Federalist senator in a time when New England had no power in the senate; he handled the situation with grace and gravitas. He was elected to the presidency as an alternative to Andrew Jackson, departing four years later when the Jacksonian wave could not be denied; shortly thereafter, he returned to the House where he served until his death as an exemplary and persistent critic of slavery.

May 20, 2019 (permalink)


This insightful local history of the Malden MA, an early satellite city north of Boston, focuses on the city’s ethnic groups and their attitudes toward the depressing. Klaymann’s central character here are Malden’s Jews, whose arrival he chronicled in his earlier monograph The First Jew.

Malden had begun as a colonial-era village became a moderate industrial center in the mid-19th century, with a major rail line and big factories making rubber shoes, gym shoes, dyed fabrics, and furniture. From the beginning, Malden had a tiny Black community down the road in its 7th Ward, and when Eastern-European immigrants began to arrive in the late 19th century, lots of them moved into that quarter of the town. Jews weren’t averse to Black neighbors, and the Irish often were.

Malden’s conflicts of the depression era were essentially ethnic. Yankee Protestants ran the Republican Party, but were declining in numbers as wealthier members moved farther from the city. Irish-Americans ran the Malden Democrats, who still meet in the Irish-American Club even though that club has never had a Black member or a female officer. Much of the Irish agenda was focused on preserving their dominance, typically by opposing the aspirations of the growing Ward 2 Italian-American community. Throughout, Malden High was integrated but reserved class offices (and major roles in extra-curricular activities) for Yankee Protestants.

Though all this, Malden’s large population of Jews shlepped through the depression. The kids often did well in school: so well, in fact, the community opposition to academic excellence became a movement. When the WPA planned to build a big and greatly-needed new school, the city dithered for years over the question of whether it should be beige or brick. The Jews didn't care about the color.

The depression created a tight-knit community but carried the seeds of its dissolution. Immigrant Jews had accents and knew a world of pogroms; their kids didn’t. The immigrant generation built delis and shops and tenements, but the Depression deferred maintenance and redlining suppressed values and the kids moved to newer, nicer suburbs.

February 18, 2019 (permalink)


Wisconsin was settled in the mid-19th century by emigrants, chiefly from Sweden and Norway, who were inclined by background and experience to place a very high value on community. In the early 20th century, Wisconsin became a bastion of Progressive politics and the laboratory of social democracy. No state excelled Wisconsin in respect for the environment.

In the 21st century, Scott Walker rolled back all that. Wisconsin, heavily gerrymandered to create a permanent Republican majority, became an anti-union hotbed. The legislature repealed almost all meaningful environmental restrictions on mining and pollution, and gave billions of dollars to Foxconn for the promise of a new factory that might never open.

This sad, but not entirely pessimistic, overview of Wisconsin politics is a superb starting point for anyone interested in taking back our nation from the minions of ignorance and greed.

February 6, 2019 (permalink)


Making Oscar Wilde
Michele Mendelssohn

In 1882, Oscar Wilde was little-known Oxford graduate, a young man who had a done well in school (partly by virtue of having don't it twice), had indifferent success socially. He had received a little journalistic attention, and had far too little money. He parlayed this into an 1882-3 lecture tour of the United States.

It did not go smoothly. Wilde’s promoter, it turns out, was chiefly interested in drumming up publicity for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, and for that purpose was content for Wilde to make a fool of himself. Wilde walked into a complex thicket of racial humor — the minstrel show — as well as the ancestor of drag. The doubtful racial status of the Irish in America complicated everything. Somehow, Wilde managed to preserve some dignity, avoid fatal missteps, and to return home with some profit and a considerable-enhanced reputation.

Michele Mendelssohn uncovers the story of Wilde’s lecture tour — and the fascinating competitors and parodies rival promoters launched at Wilde — from local newspaper accounts that, until recently, would have been virtually inaccessible. Of particular interest are wildly popular performers who have been lost to us, like The Only Leon — Francis Patrick Glassey — a drag ballerina who danced the lead in “Patience Wilde; or the Ten Sisters of Oscar.” Callender’s Colored Minstrels performed a Wilde parody, The Utterly Too Too’s, as a minstrel show, using the novel dramatic approach of having actual black people perform. Nor were the minstrel parodies merely irritants to Wilde: Mendelssohn observes interesting parallels between minstrel show staples and Wilde’s dramatic repartee.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)


This delightful old book was a pleasant companion during my recent visit to Santa Fe. It’s the story of two young men who are caught up in an act of terrorist violence and who head out to even the score. Other men spend a week or a month on the trail, but these two — for reasons they themselves can’t quite fathom — never stop. The underlying crime — the abduction of a young girl who is raised by and ultimately joins her captors — is handled less badly here than you might have expected for a book of this era. Now that the US had concentration camps for toddlers and is in the business of stealing migrant babies, it’s frighteningly pertinent.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)


The issues of this moment, in which the President of the United States, frustrated by a Congress unwilling to fund The Wall, is threatening to circumvent the Constitution and to build a Wall without congressional appropriation, is starkly reminiscent of 1640. This accessible, compact history of the Civil War era is pleasant and modern in its viewpoint, and does a nice job of pointing to major historical and historiographical controversies.

February 1, 2019 (permalink)