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.

1048 Books: by author | by title

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Reading a fantasy novel in French translation poses some interesting problems. When you don’t know a word, is that because it’s a written in an imaginary language, because it’s an invented word describing alien concepts or science, a specialized word from sailing, trading or from underworld slang, or simply an everyday word that you don’t know? You can spend a lot of time discovering that druskelle is not to be found in your French dictionary, and just as much time learning French words for thief, burglar, brigand, thug, sniper, card-sharp, and con man which, while useful for getting through this enjoyable caper, and perhaps not essential vocabulary for reading about the intellectual history of literary computing — the goal of this mad enterprise.

Yet, here we are, reaching the end of this delightful new take on The Hidden Fortress in a barber shop without internet. This might yet work.

June 5, 2021 (permalink)


The Understudy
Ellen Tovatt Leary

This is a strange project: a 2020 novel, presumably partly autobiographical, about a young Broadway actress in the 1970s. This is a strange version of the 1970s — self-conscious about its lack of cell phones (though sometimes you have to be: not being able to call people whenever you wanted was a real problem!) but omitting Studio 54 and Elaine’s, Vietnam, AIDS, Stonewall, and the Women’s Movement.

The bulk of the book sets out to dramatize every Broadway clichém and does a fine job of it, only occasionally indulging in buckets of exposition. Perhaps because the author is not yet focused on romance, the protagonist, Nina Landau, is nicely drawn as a 1970s woman who is entirely comfortable in her body, a woman who had no need to read Erica Jong’s 1973 Fear Of Flying because her fucks are already zipless aside from the her boyfriends’ occasional hangups. People actually say, “Away we go!” Someone actually says, “the show must go on,” in a context where it’s a sensible thing to say. It’s that kind of movie.

For some reason, the book ends with a romantic coda involving a move to Los Angeles, marriage, and a shift in aspirations from Broadway to the Taper Forum. The marriage plot is unconvincing, as it hinges on our heroine’s paralyzing guilt about having been date-raped while doing a summer stock revival on the Cape and her suspicion that this constitutes infidelity. We say very little about what she cannot have missed: that the work is also something she loves, and if she’s completely devoted to her man she’s unfaithful to the work.

Her beloved, a Hollywood heartthrob and soap star, might have strayed once in the course of a separation of many months, and this, too, tears Nina apart. This might be true to the author’s experience, but I do think a Smith College graduate, Broadway star and lifetime New York girl might have reflected just a bit more on the sexual politics of the whole mess. But that’s beside the point. Fifty years have passed: what do we think of all that, now?

June 5, 2021 (permalink)


Once when she was a girl, Chloé’s friend Denise urged her to pull her wavy hair back into as pony tail. Chloé thought this uncomfortable. Denise, more fashionable, argued that discomfort was that lot of women: “you look like a Jew.” I doubt poor Denise knew that Chloé was, in fact, a Jew. Chloé didn’t say anything.

This is a meditation on contemporary racism in France, mediated by the memories of the Occupation. Those memories are fascinating.

May 16, 2021 (permalink)


In 1949 or 1950, my mother won the Mademoiselle Magazine Essay contest. With 14 other “guest editors” from colleges across the country, Patsy flew to New York (from Colorado College) to spend a month at the offices of Mademoiselle. All the guest editors stayed at the Barbizon Hotel For Women, 63rd and Lexington. A few years later, Sylvia Plath would be a guest editor, too: when she wrote about the experience, she called it the Amazon. A few years later, Ali McGraw was a guest editor, and made the cover.

This is an intriguing institutional biography, a study of a hotel and a magazine. The program was a clever idea: Mademoiselle could have its pick of promising young writers as interns and cheap models as well as — crucially — and annual focus group to keep the permanent staff in touch with their ideal readers. Mademoiselle was always led by women, and the program gave them a pipeline to some of the best.

Some other institutions intersect: the Katie Gibbs secretarial school rented several floors of the hotel for decades, the Powers Agency urged its models to stay there, and some of the young women who moved into the hotel in the 1930s as a way station to romance found that the world had other plans and would still be there, thanks to rent control and persistence, at the end of the century.

This is a good book. Occasionally, Bren’s word choices are imprecise. Occasionally, she repeats anecdotes. Bren is fascinated by Sylvia Plath, and I think her focus on Plath gets a bit out of hand: you've got lots of other fascinating women, some of whom stuck around long enough for interviews. (The girl who had the room next to Sylvia’s said that Plath had saved her life: now, if she killed herself, she’d always be the other girl from ’53 who committed suicide.) I’m not entirely sure that this wouldn't work better as fiction, and it might have worked better as a thesis book. But this is what we have, and it’s great to have it.

May 16, 2021 (permalink)


Revisited after many years as part of my study of the prehistory of hypertext. This exploration of the end of the Roman Empire through the lens of science fiction remains intriguing and readable, even if the dialogue sometimes limps. It is striking and embarrassing, however, that a book of Foundation’s breadth could have been imagined almost entirely without women. Though Asimov thought a lot about artificial intelligence, he doesn't do that here: there are no robots, no positronic brains, scarcely any electronics, and people still worry about changing tubes after they blow out.

May 10, 2021 (permalink)


This fluffy mystery begins with a truly wonderful setup: two very different people have each booked the same AirBNB. Neither is pleased about having a roommate, and both are curious how this could possibly have come to pass. The apartment, it turns out, belonged to a painter they each admire greatly, and so they begin to investigate this unusual painter and the problem of his missing late canvasses. This leads, in turn, to the tragic murder of the painter’s young son shortly before the painter’s sudden death.

I’m not usually a stickler for procedural authenticity in mysteries, but when an ex-NYPD cop breaks into a private school without much hesitation, one wonders. Still, it’s fun to see the U.S. from the perspective of French pop culture.

April 17, 2021 (permalink)


The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel

A fascinating account of the impact that a fictionalized version of Bernie Madoff has on the people in his orbit — not only his investors but even more his employees, casual acquaintances, girlfriends, and daughter. “Money is its own country.”

April 8, 2021 (permalink)


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)