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.

1033 Books: by author | by title

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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)


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)