Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. NY: Random House, 2000.
This was Smith’s blockbuster first novel, though I didn’t read it until after her rather more polished third one. It’s about what it means to be English, but to the Britain-born and to immigrants from the ex-Empire, in this case Jamaica and Bangladesh. It’s 1974 and Archie Jones, middle-aged white Londoner and not the sharpest tack in the box but a good man, meets 19-year-old Clara Bowden, black beauty with no upper teeth who has to escape from her Jehovah’s Witness mother. At the same time, Samad Iqbal, a semi-lapsed but anguished Muslim and Archie’s mate from the last months of World War II, is married off to the young but feisty Alsana Begum. Archie and Clara’s daughter, Irie, and the Iqbals’ twin boys, Magid and Millat, thus begin a complicated interweaving that stretches until the mid-1990s (and later), while the author shows and explains and relates and expounds and examines, and the reader goes along for a fascinating ride. There’s a lot of pointed humor here — Smith doesn’t let any person or group off the hook — but also a good deal of serious thought about culture and acculturation, about what people need from each other. This is an impressive first novel. Smith was only twenty-four when it was published and that makes it even more impressive. I hope she continues writing far into the future. (12/31/05)
Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. NY: Penguin Press, 2005.
This is the first of this author’s works I’ve read and I’m very impressed. I also know nothing about her background, except that she’s a thirty-year-old black Londoner, but she does a terrific job describing the dynamics of a mixed marriage in Massachusetts. This consists of Howard Belsey, a transplanted Brit and untenured art history professor at Wellington College; his black wife, Kiki, a hospital administrator and self-described non-intellectual — though she has a formidably analytical mind — and their three children ranging from fifteen to twenty. The author takes you inside each of their minds in rotation, giving the reader a multifaceted view of the action and of everyone’s reactions to it. The other major player is Sir Monty Kipps, a hypocritical, black, hyper-Christian, right-wing apologist of the sort who pretends to open-mindedness and egalitarianism but who cannot pronounce the word “liberal” without a sneer. Kipps, also from London, and Howard are mortal professional enemies and political opposites, and when Kipps comes to spend a year at Wellington — ironically in the Black Studies Department, which he also sneers at — the battle lines are drawn. But that’s only one plot among many. Howard was rather stupidly unfaithful to his wife with a colleague. the marriage may be simply running out of steam. Jerome Belsey, the eldest son, had a very brief affair with Victoria Kipps, a very, very hot number indeed. Zora, Jerome’s overachieving sister, is a freshman at Wellington and already a master of academic politics. Levi, the youngest son, wants desperately to be “street,” one of the brothers from Roxbury; he also has sold his soul to rap music — which brings him into contact with Carl, a very talented young poet/rap artist, who gets into a creative writing class at the college (though he’s not a student), then into the Black Studies music library, and whom Zora also has a massive crush on. And there’s Levi’s other sort-of-friend, a Haitian teacher refugee now earning a living on the street. And hovering in the background is Carlene Kipps, Monty’s wife and a complicated lady with whom Kiki develops an unlikely friendship. All these layers and interrelationships sound like too much for a book of less than 450 pages, but Smith is extremely talented and very subtle. I shall definitely be pursuing her other works. (12/26/05)
Lethem, Jonathan. Men and Cartoons: Stories. NY: Doubleday, 2004.
If you sit down with Lethem expecting a straightforward narrative, you’d better look elsewhere. He always incorporates something of the experimental, the bizarre, or the just plain odd in his work, whether his consistently novels or his relatively less known short work. These nine stories are a good introduction, including “Access Fantasy,” a very good science-fictional story about life in the extremely slow (not to say non-moving) lane, and “Vivian Relf,”an intriguing thought piece about deja vu all over again. The best story, I think, is the first in the volume: “The Vision,” about parlor games and curiosity and finding out more than you really wanted to know. On the other hand, “Super Goat Man,” is a not entirely successful yarn is about a not very successful comic book hero relegated to academe and the narrator’s interactions with him over the years, and “The National Anthem,” in the form of a letter from one old friend to another, left me wondering what Lethem’s point was. Even though they’re not all equally successful, though, there’s a great deal to enjoy in this short collection. (12/22/05)
Grossmith, George & Weedon. The Diary of a Nobody. London: Prion Books, 2001.
First published in book form 1892, after an earlier appearance in Punch (where else?), this deadpan classic is a brit-humor masterpiece. Charles Pooter is a honest, honorable clerk in a City firm, a hard-working member of the lower middle class, and this is his diary for some fifteen months. He’s careful of his dignity, loyal to his employer, always tries his best, and sometimes he even succeeds in whatever he’s trying to do — like finding gainful employment for his semi-ne’er-do-well twenty-year-old son, Lupin, whose slang he never understands. Of his two best friends, one is resolutely dull while the other often oversteps the bounds. He worries a lot, has trouble dealing with the family’s maid-of-all-work, and is frequently put upon by tradesmen and strangers, and you’ll suffer with him. If you loved Three Men in a Boat, you’ll love this, too. (12/18/05)
Indriaðason, Arnaldur. Jar City. NY: St. Martin, 2004.
No police cold case could be colder than in Reykjavík at the edge of an Icelandic winter. But that’s what Inspector Erlendur of the CID finds when he begins investigating the murder of the elderly Holberg, who turns out to have been a probable serial rapist nearly forty years before. His younger associates point out that the victim was killed by bludgeoning with a heavy ashtray, that all Icelandic murders are violent and unpremeditated, but Erlendur has a few hunches that take him off in a different direction. There’s the child who died at age four, a photo of whose grave is in the victim’s desk, and who died of a genetically transmitted disease. And there are the victim’s missing associates. I have to admit that the author’s rather gray narrative style didn’t grab me at first and I almost put the book down after the first couple of chapters — but I stayed with it out of curiosity, and was soon hooked. “Gray” is the word (echoed in the jacket photo), Iceland in the late autumn being cold and dark and rainy, the perfect setting for a murder. Be patient and the author’s magic will work on you in this thoroughly haunting story. (12/17/05)
Powers, Tim. Strange Itineraries. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2005.
Powers is primarily a novelist — one of our best, too — not a short-story writer, and this collection of nine stories comprises all his short fiction to date. Still, Tim Powers is Tim Powers, and his slightly strange perspective on the world is such that any fan of Anubis Gates and Declare will want to spend time with this book. A quiet, rainy afternoon would be most appropriate. Most of these stories deal with loss in one way or another, loss of a spouse, loss of oneself, and the settings are ordinary, mostly California, mostly the inland deserts, but the characters are ordinary only on the surface. They tend to be sort of abstract, too, in a Rod Serling kind of way, like “Fifty Cents,” in which a guy driving across the Sonora on a personal quest keeps running into hitchhikers that turn out to be himself (sort of) in the past or the future. “We Traverse Afar” is about another guy, also dealing with loss, and a very pointed look at Christmas. In fact, as in his novels, you have to pay attention to Tim’s writing because what he has to say is likely to slip right past you otherwise. The most straightforward narrative piece in the volume, “The Way Down the Hill,” is also the earliest, written more than twenty years ago, but even it has a strong whiff of Phil Dick about it, not surprisingly, and it will inevitably bring to mind “All You Zombies.” Everyone compares Powers to Dick, of course, and they were friends, but I also see a connection to Fritz Leiber’s work from the early ‘50s. No space opera here, no high fantasy, no universe-straddling plots. Just quiet, thoughtful word-pictures, extremely well done. (12/13/05)
Carr, Caleb. The Alienist. NY: Random House, 1994.
I was looking at a book of photographs recently that including street scenes in New York at the turn of the last century, which got me thinking about this wonderful adventures-mystery and I decided it was time to reread it. I haven’t gotten much else done the past three days, either. John Schuyler Moore, the narrator, is a police reporter for The Times in 1896, a friend since his Harvard days of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and also of Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, a highly innovative psychologist, or “alienist.” There’s a serial killer on the loose, ritualistically butchering young male prostitutes, all of them immigrant kids, and it’s becoming a political problem for the city government, big business (in the person of J. P. Morgan), and the religious establishments. Kreizler, who has a mostly scientific interest in the killer, puts together a investigative team, including Moore, cop-wannabe Sara Howard (Roosevelt’s secretary and the first woman to be employed by the police department in any capacity), and two Jewish brothers who are detective sergeants and talented forensic specialists, adding the assistance of two of Kreizler’s ex-patients who are now his employees. From an absolutely standing start, the team gradually works up a profile of the killer, trying to figure out what drives him and where he’ll strike next. This whole process is thoroughly fascinating and generally quite believable. There are helpful coincidences, of course, but any good detective keeps an eye open for the lucky break. There are various personal tragedies to be dealt with, and the depictions of day-to-day life in the less pleasant parts of the Lower East Side are fairly hair-raising, all of which will keep you glued to the page. (12/11/05)
Colegate, Isabel. The Shooting Party. NY: Viking, 1980.
Colegate is not a well-known author, not even in Great Britain, which is a shame because she’s a first-rate novelist. The scene here is the late fall of 1913, the last pheasant season before the Great War, the true end of the old century and the beginning of the new. The setting is the Oxfordshire estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby, a thoroughly conservative but thoughtful and decent member of the landed gentry, and a famous host, as well. His guests include several ill-matched aristocratic couples, married only for reasons of finance and social standing (which opens the way to discreet affairs), and the author does a wonderful job of portraying them all in multiple dimensions — especially Olivia and Lionel, both particularly sympathetic characters. There are also the house servants, and the beaters from the village who come out to assist in putting the pheasants overhead for the shooters — especially the teetotaling poacher, Tom Harker, whose sudden death is the climax of the book. And there’s even a wandering socialist opposed to blood sports for seriocomic relief — though his last observation of the shooters is far from laughable. The effects of agricultural depression on the rural poor, the importance of private morality, the difference between “sport” and “competition,” all are examined, satirized, and explained. At the end, she provides a “what happened to them” chapter, noting who died in the War, who survived, who had to leave town. Though I wish she had told us what happens to Ellen, the maid, and John, the footman, and to Sir Reuben, and to Tommy, who was already an army officer. Besides being interesting in its own right, this warmly written book would also be a good counterweight to Gosford Park. (12/07/05)
Eversz, Robert. Digging James Dean. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
I had my doubts about this excellent series (of which this is the fourth installment) because I wasn’t sure the author could keep it up. Too many branded series (“A Nina Zero Novel”) begin to degenerate into dull routine after the first couple of volumes. But I have to applaud Eversz for maintaining a high narrative standard. For that matter, it’s not uncommon for a female author to successfully write from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, but the vice is seldom versa. Nina Zero — who used to be Mary Alice Baker — is an exception, though. On parole for a justified manslaughter, working as a paparazza for an L.A. tabloid, she’s a fascinating and generally believable character. This time, her mother has died of a heart attack, though Nina wonders if it wasn’t caused indirectly by her abusive father, against whom Nina stills carries enormous rage. At the funeral home, she meets her sister, who ran away from home at sixteen and whom she hasn’t seen in more than twenty years. But her sister also has secrets. All this personal history, which makes Nina the often violent person she is, is woven through a somewhat bizarre plot involving celebrity grave-robbing, black magic, and a secret society that (maybe) controls Hollywood. The immediate plot points are resolved, more or less, but Eversz leaves most of those larger questions unanswered — or maybe he’s saving them up for the next book. (I’d also like to know where Nina’s going to live, now that her savings and her apartment are both gone and she has to have a permanent address to stay out on parole.) The author, as always, does a first-rate job with his characters, especially Frank the tabloid reporter and Theresa, the starlet-wannabe. And he doesn’t let a happy ending survive contact with reality, as when Theresa is arrested. This is definitely a series I shall continue to follow. (12/05/05)
Miller, Sue. Lost in the Forest. NY: Knopf, 2005.
This is the first of Miller’s books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. It’s a “family” novel but the characterization is complex and the motivations entirely believable. Mark is a vineyard manager in the Napa Valley of northern California who screwed up and lost his wife in a divorce — a loss he’s never reconciled himself to. Especially difficult is the day-to-day separation from his two daughters, whom he adored when they were little but whom he doesn’t really understand now that they’ve entered adolescence. Eva, his ex-wife, remarried to a “nice man” she loved devotedly, but who, as the book opens, has just been killed by a reckless driver in front of his wife and their young son. Meanwhile, Emily, the eldest daughter (“the pretty one”), is about to graduate from high school, looking toward a separate life out in the world, while Daisy, tall and gawky and nerdish, and in love with her stepfather, is now somehow estranged from her perfect sister and is feeling more and more alone — lost in the forest of growing up. Daisy has her own ways of trying to resolve her loneliness and neediness without admitting to either of them, while Eva tries to come to terms with her husband’s death, and Mark begins to wonder if he can gradually regain his lost marriage. But there’s far more depth than that, with fully realized supporting players, a not-quite-linear narrative line, and a non-preachy examination of moral issues. A beautiful piece of work. (12/03/05)
Turteltaub, H. N. Over the Wine-Dark Sea. NY: Tom Doherty, 2001.
When he first began writing fiction a couple of decades ago, Harry Turtledove (who is Turteltaub in his everyday suit) was quite good. A Byzantine scholar, he showed a knack for straight historicals (especially the excellent Justinian) as well as alternate history yarns with an eastern Mediterranean setting. Then he hit the big time with Guns of the South, and now he has way too many interminable series going at once, and his talent — while considerable — has turned out to be a finite quantity that’s stretched too thin, the result being that he’s presently cranking out a great deal of very forgettable verbiage. This story of two young cousins in 310 B.C. on a trading voyage from Rhodes to the Greek colonies in Italy is a separate book (though it now appears to have spawned its own series, unfortunately), so I had hopes for it. And there’s a lot of interesting sightseeing, but there sure isn’t much narrative tension, and hardly any point to it all. This is Turtledove in “history teacher” mode: “See, the Dorics indicated assent by dipping the head rather than by nodding and dissent by tossing the head rather than shaking it, so I’ll be sure to tell you every single time someone dips or tosses.” He also insists on rendering place names in phonetic Greek-ified English, which makes the reader uncertain what ports the guys are stopping to trade at — ignoring the fact that this book is, in fact, written in English, so why bother with that? The main characters also spend a lot of time explaining routine points of everyday life and ship operations to each other for the benefit of the reader — an annoying device any creative writing student learns to avoid in his first semester. Maybe I’ll just go back and reread some of his earlier books. (12/01/05)
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. NY: Knopf, 1992.
I read this when it first came out, but I had forgotten many of the details in the past decade-plus. And I’m glad I decided to reread it — it’s still Tartt’s best work, far better than The Little Friend. Richard, the narrator, is an impecunious so-so student from a blue-collar community in Southern California who gets a full scholarship to Hampden College, a very small liberal arts college in Vermont. Within days of his arrival, he comes under the spell of Julian Morrow, a somewhat eccentric classics professor who has gathered around him five other students whose lives he dominates: Henry, the languages expert; the twins, Charles and Camilla; Francis, a wealthy, somewhat foppish Bostonian; and Bunny, a loud, bigoted ne’er-do-well who leaches off everyone, . . . but whom everyone seems inexplicably fond of. It’s a fantasy world in Julian’s Greek class, but then an experiment in reproducing the ancient bacchanalian mysteries goes wrong and a local man dies. That killing was unintentional — but the next one isn’t. Events thereafter take on a life of their own and the students spiral down into Attic tragedy. The author is marvelous at drawing characters, especially as seen from Richard’s viewpoint as he learns more about what’s going on and becomes more and more deeply involved with the others. Her description of his nearly fatal winter spent in the mandolin warehouse is excruciating; I had to wrap up in a blanket while reading it. This is an extraordinary and haunting piece of writing that will stay with you a long time. (11/29/05)
Atkinson, Kate. Case Histories. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004.
For some unknown reason, Atkinson reminds me of Barbara Trapido, and vice versa. Not that their novels have anything in common, aside from being English — and being very inventive and well-written. As good as her stuff is, though, this is Atkinson’s best yet. The opening chapters introduce you to three tragic crimes in and around Cambridge, in 1970, 1979, and 1994, and their background stories, and the people caught up in them. Then you meet Jackson Brodie, northerner by birth, ex-military policeman, ex-civilian cop, now a private detective in 2004. But this ain’t Philip Marlowe and this isn’t exactly a thriller. Jackson is struggling to deal with his recent divorce from an unfaithful wife, being allowed only limited contact with his much-loved daughter, wondering if his career change was actually a dreadful error, and dreaming of retiring to France. Then he becomes drawn into the three earlier cases, which, like a sailor’s tightly-woven rope mat, starts out as separate strands which all turn back in on each other, winding around until you can’t find a narrative beginning or end. The author draws multidimensional characters and weaves a complex, multiple-viewpoint plot in which the facts are not necessarily revealed chronologically. People you thought were bystanders become key players. Characters you don’t warm to in the beginning become much more sympathetic and poignant while certain of those you imagined were Good Guys reveal a darker side. The suspects you thought dunnit, didn’t. And there’s a thread of warm humor running throughout. A marvelous book which, properly handled, would also make a terrific film. (11/25/05)
Hiaasen, Carl. Basket Case. NY: Knopf, 2002.
Whatever the setting (though it’s always in Florida), Hiaasen is always on top of his subject. That goes double when he’s talking about a small-town newspaper. Jack Tagger (age forty-six, soon to be forty-seven) was once a hot, even award-winning investigative reporter — until he publicly humiliated the polo-playing CEO of the holding company that bought the paper where he labored. Now, since they’re afraid to fire him, he’s exiled to the obituary desk, where he has become paranoid about his own life span compared to Jack Kerouac and Oscar Wilde and other notables who died at his own age. Not to mention the father he doesn’t remember; how old was his old man when he croaked? (His crusty old mother won’t tell him.) The plot concerns the death-by-scuba of James Bradley Stomarta, a/k/a Jimmy Stoma of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies, a ‘70s-’80s rock group. His instincts begin to tell Jack that Jimmy didn’t die naturally — but who would want to kill him, and why? There’s his rocker-wannabe wife, of course, and even his sister, and the surviving band members. So Jack starts to dig, hoping to thrash his way back to Page One. Hiaasen is great at devising wonderful characters with weird habits and this book is full of them. One of the most winning is twenty-nine-year-old Emma, Jack’s editor, who didn’t come up through the ranks as a reporter and whom he thinks he can still save from a terrible career error. (More to come on that relationship, though.) As always, the book is a romp, the dialogue is eye-rolling, the action is believable, and the hero isn’t very heroic — just like most of us. Why haven’t more of Hiaasen’s novels made it to the screen? (11/22/05)
Cooper, Suzanne Fagence. The Victorian Woman. London: V&A Publications/Abrams, 2001.
This is not a deep treatment of half of the species during the later 19th century, but while superficial, it’s interesting, well written, and very well illustrated, most with reproductions of English “story paintings” of the period, heavy on Hunt, Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Crowe, and Sargent. The coverage runs from Victoria herself, who set the tone, and the myth vs. reality of the world of women at the time, to pioneering women in sport, education, the professions, and foreign travel. A nice afternoon’s browse. (11/20/05)
Sammon, Paul M. The Making of Starship Troopers. NY: Boulevard Books, 1997.
As a long-time reader of science fiction, I greatly enjoyed Heinlein’s novel when it first came out in my senior year of high school, even though I had reservations about the political slant. I was greatly disappointed in the film when it finally appeared, however; most of the thoughtful themes that always made Heinlein enjoyable reading (whether you agreed with him or not) were missing, and the details of the alien “bugs” and the boot-camp training and so on were created from whole cloth with almost no reference to the book. It was just another “alien menace” movie. This book provides some answers — mostly that it was a budget-driven film and anything that cost more money, especially complicated costuming (like the missing power-suits) and special effects, was simply dropped. And what that bought them was a very mediocre movie. Unfortunately, this is also a rather mediocre behind-the-scenes book. (11/19/05)
Lodge, David. Out of the Shelter. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Books, 1985.
Originally published in a slightly different form in 1970, this was one of Lodge’s earliest-written books and differs considerably from his later “academic” fiction. It’s also the most autobiographical of his works, featuring Timothy Young who, like Lodge, was born into a lower middle class family in southeast London in 1935, and who, also like Lodge, spent a month on holiday in Heidelberg in 1951 during the Allied occupation. Timothy, who is brighter than his parents really care for or understand, has a chance at university instead of apprenticeship, but he’s hesitant to leave the world he’s used to and in which he knows his way around so thoroughly. Going to visit his ten-year-older sister, who works for the American forces, however, is in every way the turning point of his life, his first chance to leave the “shelter” of family and habits. He discovers he can deal with foreign places and foreign people — both Germans and Yanks — and can get along on his own. He encounters new ideas through his sister’s friends, notions that open his ideas to the possibilities of the future. And he begins to figure out his own sexuality along the way. Lodge is very good with narrative. Timothy is a very sympathetic character and the writing style evolves as he does. A first-rate Bildungsroman. (11/19/05)
McGregor, Tom. The Making of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: The Official Guide to the Major Motion Picture. NY: Norton, 2003.
I’m a great fan of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels and of Napoleonic era naval fiction in general, and I looked forward to this film with a certain apprehension. I mean, how could they possibly do justice to O’Brian’s extremely detailed world? Would they just crank out a superficial action film? I’m not sure any devotée was entirely pleased with the result, but it was, in fact, a pretty damn good movie. And all the background information and photos in this book help explain why. Peter Weir, the director, was a fanatic on accurate historical detail, including small items you never see on camera (but the crew knows they’re there). He kept the entire cast together for the full five months of filming at the big tank in Baja, the same way a ship’s crew would be together every day of their lives. And he instituted hierarchy (with Russell Crowe at the top, naturally) even during the “boot camp” phase at the beginning of the project. And on and on. A fascinating look behind the scenes and into the minds of all the people responsible for the film. I winced every time they talked about the “cannon,” though. (No, there are no cannon on a warship. Just guns.) (11/18/05)
Pratchett, Terry. Thud! NY: Harper/Collins, 2005.
Among the author’s thirty-odd novels (some odder than others) about Discworld, several internal series have developed. There are stories about the wizard Rincewind, and about Unseen University, and the witches, and Death’s family. My personal favorites, though, are the books about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, under the command of Sam Vimes, a copper’s copper — and now, somewhat to his consternation, His Grace the Duke of Ankh-Morpork. There’s a mystery plot along with the larger sociopolitical themes Pratchett wants to make a point about (which he does skillfully), plus the waggish drollery that makes readers giggle when reading in public and forces them to read sections aloud to those who are busy trying to do other things. It’s a Discworld thing. This time, Vimes has to deal with the infiltration into his city of the excessively traditionalist dwarf grags who are exacerbating the traditional racial antipathy between dwarfs and trolls, which goes back a thousand years to the Battle of Koom Valley. City dwarfs and trolls are, of necessity, more accommodating to each other than they would be back home, but the grags would like to change that, even if it starts a race-war. (Think fundamentalist Moslem or Christian from the Olde Country.) There’s also the search for an ancient sort-of-book of wisdom, and a stolen painting of the ancient battle, and Sam’s reluctant hiring of the Watch’s first vampire officer (even though she’s a teetotaling Black Ribboner). And there’s his dedication to reading his infant son’s favorite book to him every evening at six o’clock, no matter what else might be happening in the world. Pratchett’s more recent books are less off-the-wall than his earlier ones. What he has to say, behind all the delightful nonsense, is deeper than it used to be — but our world is a much more troubling place than it was twenty years ago. The humor is still there, certainly, but there’s more of a warning edge to it. For that reason, and because there’s a great deal of necessary back-story to this one, I would not recommend it as anyone’s first Discworld novel. But for the experienced reader, it will be thoroughly satisfying. (11/17/05)
Turow, Scott. Ordinary Heroes. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005.
I’m always a little amazed when people lump together Turow and Grisham as writers of “legal thrillers.” Grisham turns out superficial, heavily cinematic potboilers. Turow constructs careful, literate, precisely plotted novels of substance. But having said that, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. It is, indeed, a “thriller,” and the plotline deals with the law, but the setting is the European Theater in World War II, not the present in Kindle County (which always has felt, to me, a lot like Cook County). Captain David Dubin is a young Jewish lawyer who goes through infantry officer training in early 1944 but is then assigned to JAG in France a few months after D-Day. He and a handful of others like him spend alternating days either prosecuting or defending GIs accused of ordinary crimes, from theft to rape and murder. It’s hard, rather boring work and David yearns to take a more direct part in the war. Then his commander sends him out to locate and arrest Maj. Robert Martin, a swashbuskling OSS officer who has been ignoring orders he didn’t agree with. And with Martin is Gita Lodz, a strong-willed Polish gamine who takes over David’s heart and soul. Martin, of course, has no intention of giving himself up to the military authorities and David’s quest to carry out his orders takes him on a harrowing, appalling journey into the depths of war. He’s forced by circumstances to take command of a rifle company, to send men to their deaths. His principles are challenged again and again, until he is no longer the earnest young officer who left a girl behind to fight for the American Way. And throughout the book, Turow dares you not to care about Dubin, the tormented Sgt. Bidwell, Gen. Teedle, and especially Gita, who does what she has to do. And you’ll certainly care about Robert Martin. I was born during the period when Dubin is trying to keep his company together during the Siege of Bastogne, and I’ve read a good deal about it over the years, but Dubin’s first-person narrative is the most gripping, horrifying, affecting account of the Bulge I have ever read, fiction or nonfiction. I will be very, very surprised if this book, which is Turow’s best yet, doesn’t earn him a Pulitzer or a National Book Award, or both. (11/14/05)
Fry, Stephen. Making History. NY: Random House, 1996.
This was the first of Fry’s novels I had read, on a cross-country plane trip shortly after it came out. I had forgotten many of the details, though, and it’s definitely worth the rereading. The plot revolves around one of the two most commonly adopted “what-ifs” in time-travel novels: What if Hitler had never been born? The world would be a much better place, right? Michael Young is about to become a Ph.D. in modern history at Cambridge, having taken for his thesis topic the rearing and early life of Adolf Hitler. By sheer coincidence, he makes the acquaintance of Leo Zuckerman, a physics professor with a mania for the Holocaust, and who has invented a way of moving small-mass objects into the past. And Michael’s girlfriend just happens to be a biologist with an interest in male birth control. There is perhaps a bit too much coincidence here, but Fry is more interested in playing with the results of the experiment. Because what if the German situation following the Great War demanded a power-figure around which Germans could rally? And what if, instead of Uncle Adolf, that figure were smarter, better looking, better educated, and much more subtle in dealing with other nations? The Hitlerless world in which Michael finds himself is more frightening than our own. (I would also question whether Michael would undergo such a fundamental shift in sexuality, but that’s just Fry’s propagandizing.) The plotting and the use of language and the characterization is first-rate, though, and I’ll probably read it again in another decade. (11/12/05)
Hiaasen, Carl. Skinny Dip. NY: Knopf, 2004.
Three things you can always be sure of in a Hiaasen novel: A Florida setting, a pitch for saving the Everglades, and a wry and quirky sense of humor. Oh, and off-the-wall characters by the fistful. In this one, the lovely and athletic Joey Perrone is thrown over the railing of a cruise ship by her sleazeball husband, Chaz, a bent wetlands biologist on the payroll of one of the wealthiest and most villainous agricultural polluters in south Florida. He’s afraid she’s on to his falsified water-testing reports — but he doesn’t know, and never figures out, that she survived the fall and was eventually rescued by a retired cop who lives alone on an island in Biscayne Bay. Rather than calling the cops, Joey wants explanations: Why would Chaz want to kill her? She also wants non-lethal vengeance, and Mick Stranahan decides to help her get it. My favorite supporting character here is Tool, a hair-covered Neanderthal working for the bad-guy farmer; he collects roadside memorial crosses. Like most of Hiaasen’s novels, this would make a terrific movie. (11/09/05)
Wachowski, Larry & Andy. The Art of the Matrix. NY: Newmarket Press, 2000.
I went looking for this large, fat volume mostly for the shooting script (I enjoy reading screenplays), but there’s also a great deal of conceptual art and storyboard work included. In fact, the storyboards for this film were far more elaborate than is usually the case, but the Wachowski brothers started in comic books, and that’s how they visualize things. If you’ve seen the film (is there anyone who hasn’t?), you may be interested in the changes that were made when the setting shifted from Chicago to Sidney. There’s also a lot of marginal commentary by the three main artists (and several minor ones) on what they were thinking, how they were trying to achieve certain effects, and what the brothers’ concepts were before the preproduction even started. Fans of the film, and of graphics arts generally, should enjoy this. It ain’t cheap — but that’s what libraries are for.) (11/07/05)
Singh, Simon. The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography. NY: Doubleday, 1999.
Like many nerdy types, I’ve been interested in codes and ciphers since adolescence — in my case, the mid-1950s. Being also a history junkie, in high school I read Chadwick’s The Decipherment of Linear B, and in college, Tuchman’s The Zimmerman Telegram, which confirmed my interest. (Both are covered here.) I picked up this book on a recommendation from a friend because of the accessible discussion of more recent topics, including “Pretty Good Privacy” and quantum cryptography, and while I found it necessary to skim lightly over some of the mathematical explanations, Singh’s straightforward style and mastery of his subject made for an enjoyable weekend. (11/07/05)
Fry, Stephen. Revenge. NY: Random House, 2000.
Fry is best known for his comic writing and acting, but there’s nothing whatever funny about the plight of seventeen-year-old Ned Maddstone, privileged (but far from wealthy) member of the British upper classes. He’s bright (though naive), well-liked (by most), well-educated and headed for Oxford, and his father is a government minister — and he’s in love with a gorgeous young woman, so the world would seem to be his oyster. But two peers he thought were his friends, and who envy him the ease with which good things come, conspire with the girl’s American cousin, who wants her for himself. Next thing he knows, Ned has been set up and busted by the cops for drug possession. But he’s also innocently carrying an IRA communication that brings him to the notice of a thoroughly loathsome member of Britain’s secret service, and Ned is soon plunged into a hell that causes him to disappear from the world and which destroys his life. This first part of the book is gripping and wince-producing as the reader witnesses Ned’s destruction. The middle part, based closely on The Count of Monte Cristo, is a little harder to accept — but, hey, maybe being locked up for twenty years in an asylum with nothing else to do could cause this sort of flowering, given the right sort of fertilizer. In the latter part of the book, we follow Ned’s quest for vengeance — which he makes sure is his, not the Lord’s. He really has gone insane, just as his original tormentor intended. And this completes his eventual destruction, in ways he could not have foreseen. As ever, Fry is a master of language and mood, and he doesn’t try to convince you that Ned is “right,” only that his mania can be understood. (11/06/05)
Yapp, Nick. London: The Secrets and the Splendour. Cologne: Könemann, 1999.
On the one hand, this oversized-but-not-quite-coffee-table book isn’t really a guidebook, certainly not in the mold of Fodor’s or Frommer’s. There is no list of hotels and restaurants, no star-ratings, no chapter on “where to take the kids,” no advice on where to get your money changed. On the other hand, this is the best all-round travel book about London I have ever had the pleasure of losing myself in. Reading this book, especially if you have at least a superficial familiarity with London, is like strolling through the city with an urbane, witty, and very knowledgeable uncle, someone who knows everybody and every place in it. For example: On a rainy day, you can go to the Sloane Square station of the Underground and listen to the remnants of the River Westbourne sloshing through a conduit overhead. You can visit Leadenhall Market and know who designed the roof. You can read the “Cockney Alphabet,” or discover what happened to the Crystal Palace, or learn the ins and outs of the Chelsea Flower Show. You can find out why Brixton smells different than other neighborhoods, where the psychological division between north and south London originated, and how the Thames Barrier works. Or what happened at the first-ever FA Cup Final at Wembly in 1923. Or where Princess Diana bought her shoes. Or why you mustn’t miss the engine room at Tower Bridge. Or why Old Billingsgate was more glamourous — and much more fun — than New Billingsgate. Because it was published six years ago now, some things have changed; Jack Straw’s Castle, an inn and pub Yapp recommends for a visit, has now been sold and carved up into condos. But Hampstead Heath hasn’t changed, and neither has Portobello Road. The eclectic topics covered are gathered into eight sections, either geographical (The Thames, The City, Westminster) or by subject, and each topic neatly fills a two-page spread, so you can really open the volume anywhere and just read. And every one of the 350 pages has at least one photo and often more — most of them shot specifically for this book by Rupert Tenison. Yapp, a Londoner-born, also is obviously an afficionado of pubs. No matter what corner of the metropolis he’s escorting you through, you can bet he’ll point out the best watering-holes along the way, with something of their histories and unique personalities and notable regulars of the past — nor does he hesitate to note those chains and themed houses that aren’t worth spending your coin in. This is a truly marvelous book, nicely conceived, beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated. My attention actually was brought to it by an American friend, an historian, who has lived and worked in London for more than twenty years — and who had discovered in it a great many things he didn’t know and places he wasn’t familiar with. It’s out of print, unfortunately, but buy it used or get it through Inter-Library Loan — but read it. (11/05/05)
Millar, Mark. Absolute Authority. NY: WildStorm Productions/DC Comics, 2003.
This volume of issues 13-29 of the original comic is my first exposure to the “Authority” series and I’m definitely going to have to go back and locate the first collection. (Although the backstory is nicely conveyed, too.) The superheroes who make up the Authority are “manufactured” rather than being aliens or supernatural beings, and they’re often not very nice, and the Good Guys are perfectly willing to use cattle-prods to get information from captured Bad Guys. They’ve also decided they’re allowed to make the law better than any corrupt government. Unlike the “WHAM! POW!” style of the Golden and Silver Ages, there’s a good deal more blood and forthright pain on the page. On the other hand, there’s no doubt who the *real* Bad Guys are here — they’re the international conglomerates who control mere national governments so they can more easily strip the earth of its natural resources and enhance the bottom line. The members of the Authority aren’t patriotic, nationalist flag-wavers and take pleasure in overthrowing the dictatorships they come across. In the first of the three stories in this collection, they deal both with an Evil Genius (eventually co-opted) and with political refugees while coming to grips with the replacement of their late leader — the “spirit of the 20th century,” a neat concept. In the second story, the earth-destroying force they have to fight turns out to be the Earth itself — another interesting and original idea. The third story involves the replacement of the Authority by the G-8 nations by a bunch of creeps they con control. In other ways, this comic is very much a 21st century product, with an openly gay couple, domestic violence themes, and a drug-addicted “world shaman.” Physically, it’s a very nice book, too, with a slipcase and built-in-bookmark. (11/01/05)
McFedries, Paul. Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to Modern Culture. NY: Broadway Books, 2004.
This nifty little volume is proof that the English language is not only alive, it’s kicking butt and taking names. Language junkies are familiar with the author’s several dozen books and probably his website and maillist, too (for which he slips in a couple of plugs, but that’s okay). What he’s interested in here is the invention (or the organic rise, perhaps) of new words by all parts of society, from teen slang that mostly lasts two weeks to techie terms that have rooted themselves firmly in the wider culture, like “dot-com” or the verb “to google.” He avoids stunt words (deliberate cleverness by some writer) and nonce words (which appear only once and die immediately). None of his examples existed before c.1980, and all have established a track record by appearing in a variety of public media. (He’s aware of Sniglets, incidentally, but points out that not one of those introduced by Rich Hall has actually entered the language.) Some new words are so obvious and so apt once you’ve heard them, you can’t believe no one ever thought of them before. (He describes S. J. Perelman’s delight when a mechanic told him his car had been “totaled.”) The chapters are organized by source or context — modern angst, modern politics and war, activism of all flavors, political correctness (itself an apt and sneering recent invention), advertising, the Internet revolution, pop psychology, baby-boom-ism, privacy and security (not to forget 9/11, now an overused shorthand), and even “Dilbert.” He gives examples of usage from the media, too, some of which are a hoot. Still, there are gaps in the language for which no word has yet appeared, like a reasonable term for each other by adults who regularly go on dates (“Boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are a bit silly when you’re over forty). This book is a great time-sink (that’s in here, too), both fun and informative. (10/31/05)
Robinson, James. Starman: Grand Guignol. NY: DC Comics, 2004.
This volume collects twelve issues of the magazine and the story is about . . . — well, I’m really not sure what it’s about. There’s Jack Knight, an apparently non-superbeing (since he has to rely on some kind of unnamed tool-weapon to fly and is otherwise vulnerable to the usual threats of violence), whose father was an earlier version of Starman — but there are several alluded-to earlier, future, and alternate-world Starmen. He apparently has a girlfriend, and he apparently got some other chick pregnant, but those themes are just dropped into the script without explanation. And someone Bad is attacking Opal City, but I have no idea why. The prose is excessively purple, the artwork is mediocre even by the 1960s style it resembles, and I lost patience halfway through, just giving the remainder a skim to see if I could pick up the plot somewhere. Yes, this is not the first volume published (there were sixty issues of the comic before this), but nearly every other middle-of-the-story book I’ve seen makes at least an effort to provide some backstory, if only by adding an introductory “catch up” chapter. Unless you are intimately familiar with all that went before in this series — which I am not — save your money. (10/30/05)
Ore, Rebecca. Outlaw School. NY: HarperCollins, 2000.
Consider an American society a couple generations from now in which teachers must be licensed to teach only a prescribed curriculum, and in which unlicensed teachers are jailed. A society in which ideas are copyrighted and media content is carefully controlled for the socioeconomic class it’s directed at, enforced by the Gestapo-like News Agency (don’t want to make the lower classes unhappy with their lot in life, after all). A society in which you inherit your parents’ social standing, which also determines your allowed education level and career choices, in which prostitution is licensed as a social safety valve, in which most black people have apparently been “resettled,” in which cadets from the Citadel in Charleston are allowed to kill prostitutes for professional practice, in which you can be implanted with an electronic movement-restriction monitor for offenses ranging from multiple traffic tickets to justifiable homicide, and where the only successful candidates for national office are carefully tailored data constructs (“meat” candidates only run for local office, where personal contact is still useful). Where euthanasia is readily available to the retarded or convicted and lower-class fetuses are aborted “for their own good,” and creativity and innovation are allowed only when it’s to the benefit of corporate shareholders. That’s the thoroughly depressing background of this story of the life of Jayne, from childhood with a mother who encourages her to at least attempt suicide to atone for being bad, to getting pregnant as a teenager in an attempt to get off “school drugs” (just another way to control rebellious students, and the drugs also damage the genes to prevent troublemakers from breeding) which she was forced to take because of her uncontrolled curiosity and desire to learn class-inappropriate things. Her teenage sister joins the Judicious (or “Judas”) Girls, who have given up an eye, replaced by a spy camera in order to monitor those around them and also (they hope) to ensure their own safety and help them be “good” girls (and they have to take an oath of virginity, but a hymen can be reconstructed surgically if necessary). She goes on to a lifetime of illegal teaching (improved English and computer skills) of those who want to “test up” to a better job license, to being busted for it and finally to old age as a prison parolee in a world that seems to have improved a bit — and in which she has become something of a folk hero to the young. This isn’t really the sort of novel you can “enjoy” but it makes a great impression. The theme is quite different from Ore’s earlier “Becoming Alien” trilogy but her simple narrative style pulls you in and makes you pay attention. The message, too, is clear: Too much safety is dangerous. And if in doubt, defy authority! (10/29/05)
Schott, Ben. Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany. NY: Bloomsbury, 2004.
As in his Original Miscellany (2003), the author has simply collected a large number of factoids, grouped under useful headings, but where the first published collection ranged far and wide, this one is thematic, restricting itself to comestibles and potables — plus a number of pages on smokables — which arguably makes it more interesting. There are quite a few items of interest, including a selection of “last meal” requests by those facing execution, a description of ullage levels, the items in Capt. Nemo’s larder, a list of artists who have contributed label-art for Mouton Rothschild bottles, the characteristics of a number of popular restaurant curries, political quotations involving food, and the varieties of vegetarianism. And there are numerous sidebar quotes and comments, mostly droll. Some included items are highly idiosyncratic, like the favorite food and drink of the members of the “Bay City Rollers,” or even questionable in this collection, like the details of an after-dinner dance card from 1926, as found in a printer’s archive. And, as in the first volume, there is a tendency to present as canonical a bit of information that is simply one among many varieties, such as stating that Japan’s “most notable” brand of beer is Sapporo (I would have said Asahi — and the list doesn’t even include Mexico), and his list of meanings for Mexican street food (the contents and preparation of chimichangas, enchiladas, tacos, nachos, etc) seems to assume a standardization that really doesn’t exist. Also, why include, as “curious names” in a list of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors, Vanilla Caramel Fudge and Chocolate Fudge Brownie? But any shortcomings are made up for by his inclusion of the complete lyrics of the Chiquita Banana song. This is a good book for a couple of hours in the hammock and would also make a nice gift for foodies. (10/28/05)
Pratchett, Terry. Soul Music. NY: HarperPrism, 1995.
The Discworld grows on you. After reading a dozen or so of Pratchett’s marvelous stories about Life, the Universe, and Everything (so to speak), you’ve gotten to understand Unseen University, and the Librarian, and why you can walk across the Ankh River, and the Patrician’s point of view (Sergeant Colon’s as well), and the necessity of Death, and why the Mended Drum never closes. More than that, events in the author’s world tell you a great deal about our own. This time around, it’s the importance of Music in the scheme of things. The universe didn’t begin with a Big Bang after all, it began with The Chord, and the Music continues to weave its way through everything. Specifically, thanks to the ancient guitar Imp (a/k/a “Buddy”) acquires (or that acquires him), it’s Music With Rocks In. And Pratchett, while having some serious points to make, also has a wonderful time playing riffs on the history of rock ‘n’ roll and its devotees (“a felonious monk,” indeed . . .). Susan, the sixteen-year-old granddaughter of Death, is also a major player, having had to take over the family business while its proper practitioner is off on another of his vague investigations into humanity. Don’t worry about the details of the plot. Just sit back, read, enjoy the music, and try not to laugh too loud. (10/24/05)
Doctorow, Cory. A Place So Foreign. NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.
Doctorow (no provable relation to E. L., by the way) made his first big splash with his off-the-wall short stories — especially the last one in this collection, “Ownz0red,” which is a Leet Geek work of narrative art about taking copyright commons to the next level, by way of the personal biosphere. “Craphound,” on the other hand, while it’s a well-written and entertaining story about junk-hawks, is almost the sort of thing you might have found in the old Analog. “To Market, to Market: The Rebranding of Billy Bailey,” has a strong Gibsonian flavor and is probably the second-best thing in this collection. The title story is a not entirely successful time travel yarn that seems to lose its way at several points. “Return to Pleasure Island” is just strange, and also not entirely successful. The remaining three stories are sort of a set, sharing a future in which the aliens have come and are shaping us up whether we like it or not, but none of the three shares characters. This is the best single-author collection I’ve read in several years. (10/20/05)
Gaiman, Neil & P. Craig Russell. Murder Mysteries. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 2002.
Well, the artwork in this graphic novel isn’t much, but you can depend on Gaiman for a first-rate, thoughtful, intriguing story. The narrator (presumably Gaiman) was in Los Angeles a decade ago, still young, less innocent than now, when he got together very briefly with a woman named Tinkerbell whom he had met in London. After they part, he meets an old man, a semi-bum, on the street who cadges a smoke and pays him back by telling a story, . . . about the Creation and angels and the murder of one of them, and the investigation into the case by Raguel (who is the old man, of course). But it’s not as simple as that. If God made everything and controls everything, then He was ultimately responsible for the victim’s death, right? And why? The recursive nature of the story is fascinating and the ending is just vague enough to make you rethink the first part of the story. A terrific piece of work. (10/18/05)
Vaughan, Brian K. Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days. La Jolla, CA: Wildstorm Productions (DC Comics), 2005.
I wondered why the art in this graphic novel was so much more “lifelike” than in most — and then discovered, at the very back of the book, a section on the live models on whom the art was based. Not something you see very often, and it certainly worked in this case. Mitchell Hundred is a civil engineer with the City of New York who gets zapped by a mysterious device attached to the underwater base of the Brooklyn Bridge and suddenly finds himself with the supernatural ability to communicate two-way with any machine more complex than a pair of pliers. With the help of a couple of friends, he decides to fight evil by becoming a superhero — but he doesn’t consider the potential harm of jumping into the middle of things uninvited and unwanted. He finally decides to hang up his costume (and a pretty dorky costume it is, too) and use his celebrity to run for mayor on an independent ticket. But he’s also promised not to use his powers, so how is he going to manage a city like New York without political experience? All this part of the story is quite good and (within the parameters of “suspension of disbelief”) quite believable, and the interactions among the characters are excellent. But the final solution to a series of murders is exactly the sort of deus ex machina the author defines at the very beginning. Maybe that’s deliberate, but it’s damned annoying. Good story and art, though, and I’ll be watching for a sequel. (10/17/05)
Sfar, Joann & Lewis Trondheim. Dungeon. Vol. 2: The Barbarian Princess. NY: NBM Publishing, 2003.
Maybe it’s because this series was originally published in French, and the Europeans generally take graphic fiction more seriously than Americans do, but this is one of the most enjoyable I’ve read in some time. No superhero art, no big effects, just a well-thought-out, well-executed story of the operators of a quest-for-profit dungeon trying to lower expenses and increase profits. The place is run (more or less) by the Keeper, whose son, Herbert, a sort-of hero, frequently gets himself into the sticky parts, his uncooperative magic sword notwithstanding. And there’s Marvin, a red dragon and very efficient fire-breathing warrior with a well-developed sense of loyalty, and Alcibiades, who’s the technical expert of the dungeon. But the plot actually revolves around a runaway princess (with a jealous brother) who takes a fancy to Herbert, and her father’s efforts to get her back, and Herbert’s and Marvin’s efforts to stay alive. The dialogue is droll and there’s a lot of story to enjoy. I’ll be searching out this team’s other efforts. (10/16/05)
Davidson, James West & Mark Hamilton Lytle. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. NY: Knopf, 1982.
For twenty years, I’ve been recommending to (i.e., forcing on) new history grad students that they read this marvelous book to get an idea what the profession of history is really about. Because it’s not just gathering the “facts” and presenting them as “what really happened.” That’s very misleading, regardless of what your 6th Grade teacher told you. As the authors demonstrate in the very first chapter, history is a transitive verb. It’s “the act of selecting, analyzing, and writing about the past.” And they prove it through fourteen closely reasoned, carefully written chapters, each re-examining a historical event or circumstance. Some are major, like a documentary analysis of Jefferson’s methodology in writing the Declaration of Independence, or how the decision was arrived at to drop the Bomb on Hiroshima. Others are much more minor, small gems of investigation, especially the truth of the mysterious death of failed American diplomat Silas Deane in 1789. They examine the “great man” theory of history in the light of the career of Huey Long, the “Kingfish,” and the counterposed “grand theory” as elucidated by Frederick Jackson Turner. (And attitudes about Turner among historians have changed yet again since this book was published.) They investigate whether John Brown, an unargued terrorist by our standards but a hero to Northern opponents of slavery in the 1850s, was a psychopath. Other chapters discuss the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the roles of social critics and muckrakers in making or changing public policy, the Salem witch trials, the aftermath of Watergate, the Federal Writers’ Project’s ex-slave narratives (collected in the 1930s and heavily reinterpreted in the 1970s), and the tradition of the “noble savage.” It’s gone through several editions and a second volume has been added to include new investigative methods and case studies on later events, but it really doesn’t matter. You’ll learn the basics just as well from the original book. (10/15/05)
Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England. NY: Norton, 2004.
This is easily the most complete treatment yet of all aspects of life in a (mostly) middle-class home in Britain in the 19th century. It won several awards when it was first published there in 2003, but Flanders had already been critically acclaimed for her earlier books on aspects of Victorian social history and biography. After an introduction to the necessities (as they were perceived) of home architecture, she takes the reader on a tour, room by room, chapter by chapter, from the bedroom and nursery, to the kitchen and scullery, on through to the “public” rooms — the drawing room and parlor — ending with the bathroom and the sickroom. This is followed by an excursion into the street outside the front door. The very adroit use of original sources in supplying quotations, opinions, and contemporary analysis makes for a not only informative but highly entertaining volume. And there’s an excellent, lengthy bibliography, too. (10/14/05)
Gallagher, John. Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art. London: PRC Publishing, 2003.
In 1997, Arthur Golden’s best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha caused a minor boom in interest about the “world of flowers and willows.” Gallagher is a professional translator living in Tokyo and his obvious knowledge both of Japanese political and social history and of the geisha tradition itself make him an excellent go-between in explaining it all to western readers. He goes to considerable lengths to disabuse the ignorant of the assumption that geisha are courtesans, or that there is any serious comparison between the entertainments of bar hostesses and of geisha. (The former, he says, are like renting a cheap compact car to take a weekend jaunt to an amusement park; the latter are like journeying in a hand-gilded coach with footmen to a grand banquet.) What tourists used to see, until very recently, was laid on specially for them, since the network of geisha houses, teahouses, fabric-sellers, kimono-makers, and other associated craftsmen and service-providers that make up the hanamachi district in any city — and every town and city has one, or did have — is basically closed to outsiders. “No new faces” is the rule. The geisha themselves and their clients are two halves of the same culture, and very few modern Japanese have any knowledge or even any interest in the old ways. So the geisha tradition is dying. In the mid-1950s, some 40,000 geisha were active in Japan; by the mid-1970s, that was down to about 17,000. At the turn of the new century, there are fewer than 5,000 in the whole country, and fewer than 200 in Kyoto itself, where the whole thing began. It’s a shame to think the whole geisha world will probably, inevitably, soon be extinct. This is a beautiful as well as very informative volume, with detailed color photos depicting the differences between the gorgeously colorful maiko (trainees) and the more sedate senior geisha, and with numerous historical paintings and engravings showing the development of geisha costume and relating geisha to a number of key events in the past several centuries of Japanese history. Anyone with an interest in Japanese life and culture definitely should find a copy. (10/14/05)
Williams, Susan. Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America. NY: Pantheon, 1985.
I have a longstanding interest in what might be called “domestic social history” of the 19th century — how American and British households operated, what they ate and how, what were considered good manners, clothing customs, the functioning of the “servant class,” and all of that. The author of this excellent work is Curator of Household Accessories and Tablewares at the Strong Museum in Rochester, one of the leading Victoriana museums in this country, and she certainly knows her subject. Per the title, she concentrates on the kitchen and dining room (with short excursions into the garden for tea and into city restaurants for special occasions), explaining where customs like placemats originated, detailing the astonishing amount of china and silverware thought necessary in a proper middle-class home, and analyzing the evolution of table manners over a period of three generations. Period illustrations are plentiful, as are quotations from 19th century sources (the bibliography runs to six pages) and menus from the social pages of the newspapers. There’s also a lengthy collection of recipes of the time. If you want to pick up on what William Dean Howells was really talking about, read this book. (10/12/05)
Morgan, Richard. K. Woken Furies. NY: Ballantine, 2005.
It’s always a delight to find an author who creates characters in three dimensions instead of the more usual two; Morgan seems to stretch his people to five or six. This is the third novel in the series about Takeshi Kovacs, ex-Envoy, stone killer, freelance renegade, and very dangerous man to be on the wrong side of. It’s been three centuries, objective time, and Kovacs is back on Harlan’s World, where he originally came from. It’s also been a couple of centuries since the Resettlement, the failed Quellist revolution that gave the Harlan family oligarchy a run for its money, and Kovacs — who only wants to continue killing fundamentalist priests (it’s personal) — finds himself caught up, first, in the attempt to reclaim the nanoware-drenched continent the revolution produced, and, later, in a new revolutionary plot. Because it’s part of Quell’s teachings, that when things go against you, you retreat and you wait — for generations, if necessary. But now, just maybe, Quellquist Falconer might be back, in the flesh. But that’s just this novel’s top-level plot. There’s also Kovacs’s vendetta against those who let die the only woman who mattered to him — Real Death, no resleeving. And there’s his longstanding relationships with the several criminal cultures of Harlan’s World, and with his old Envoy trainer. Not to even mention being hunted by a younger, smart-assed version of himself. And, just out of sight, there are the vanished Martians, about whom we learned a lot in Morgan’s second book, Broken Angels. There’s military and political philosophy here, all of it cynical, there’s imaginative anthropology, there’s a certain amount of gruff sex, there are some great quotes, there’s considerable death (some deserved, some not), and there are breath-grabbing battle scenes like you haven’t read in years. Morgan’s second Kovacs novel was twice as good as his first. This one is three times as good as his second. If this one doesn’t win both the Hugo and the Nebula, there’s no justice. But, hey — Kovacs already knows that. (10/10/05)
Canales, Juan Díaz & Juanjo Guarnido. Blacksad, Book 2: Arctic Nation. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
This is the first time I’ve across Guarnido’s art and I’m very impressed. His characters have such mobility of expression, such humanity of every variety, such plain veracity, . . . you forget they’re actually animals. The storyline, unfortunately, isn’t really anything out of the ordinary. John Blacksad is a black cat private eye (emphasis on “black”) hired by a school teacher from the wrong side of town to locate a missing student. This gets him caught up in local race politics and in family secrets, centering on Chief of Police Karup, a very large, very dangerous, very white polar bear with an embarrassing past, and he likes things run his way. Much good it does him, though. Think small-town Alabama in the 1950s. Now I’ll have to try to find Book 1 of Blacksad’s saga. (10/09/05)
Ziegler, Philip. Britain Then & Now: The Francis Frith Collection. NY: Sterling/Seven Dials, 2000.
Francis Frith was a professional photographer in Great Britain (having already made a substantial fortune with a printing company) from about 1860, and the picture postcard company he founded and which was carried on by his sons and grandsons lasted until 1970. But its heyday was the twenty years either side of 1900 — the high Victorian and Edwardian eras and on through the Great War — in which every post office and village shop in the country, it seemed, carried his images of local sights for sale to tourists. Frith’s photos are still very popular among collectors and local historians, for he and his assistants set out to record every single view of interest in the whole of England. The huge collection of images the company left behind were well on the way to uncaring destruction when a group of collectors were able to get hold of the surviving items — “merely” 60,000 original glass plates and a quarter-million prints, now the basis of an unparalleled visual museum of the lives, work, and social mores of the English people over several generations. Ziegler has contributed the text for this collection of some 650 historical photos, which are accompanied by several hundred recent photos of the same views by John Cleare. For the student of modern social history, the result is fascinating, especially when a series of photos of, say, a seaside resort captures visitors from the 1890s, 1920s, 1950s, and late 1990s; in some cases, the clothing styles are the only significant change. Ziegler is generally quite able at providing context and historical discussion — where the hedgerows went, the difference in status between the topper and the bowler. My only real complaint in that regard is that the captions of the photos much too frequently simply repeat a sentence or two from the text on the same page; under proper editorial guidance, this would have been an opportunity to slip in an additional remark or observation without adding to the book’s length. (10/09/05)
Vickers, Hugo. Royal Orders: The Honours and the Honoured. London: Boxtree, 1994.
In one sense, a history of English royal decorations and chivalric orders has zero connection to the experience of American readers. These aren’t granted in recognition of military courage or (usually) accomplishment in civilian life, but simply because the recipient was born to the upper classes. The Order of the Garter is about as about as far from democracy as you can get. On the other hand, because the Garter has been around since Edward III established the club in 1348, it has become the most respected and most cherished award that may be made, not only to British citizens but to foreign rulers — even the emperor of Japan. Vickers has been hanging around the subject since attending his first Garter ceremony at the age of thirteen (as you tells you several times), and has become perhaps the leading nonprofessional authority on orders of knighthood. Edward VII fought several times with his government over the granting of the Garter, though he distributed lesser decorations almost like lunch tips. Some peers have had no interest in or time to spend worrying about such things, while others (notably Earl Mountbatten) “collected orders the way other people collect stamps.” As Vickers notes, the present monarch has been notably stingy with honours to her own relatives, which probably is not a bad thing. (10/08/05)
Loxley, Simon. Type: The Secret History of Letters. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004.
Even though I’m not a typographer or type-designer, when I began engaging in desktop publishing a decade ago and sought out guidance for the decisions I suddenly had to make, I became interested in the history and minutiae of fonts and letterforms for their own sake. Also, in pursuit of a master’s degree in library science more than thirty years ago, I took an elective in the “History of Books and Printing,” so the background knowledge was already there. Loxley has produced a thoroughly fascinating social and philosophical history of the development of type, beginning with Gutenberg (who may or may not have been the inventor of moveable type) and following the development of words-in-print down through the centuries to the Nazi affection for Blackletter and the present-day democratization of the field via the personal computer. The author is very knowledgeable, especially about biographical details and personalities among western type designers. Illustrations and quotations are frequent and the book itself, naturally, is very nicely designed with footnotes and cut-lines set off in a one-third-size outside column. Though this is Loxley’s first book, I hope it won’t be his last. (10/07/05)
Marshall, Jeremy & Fred McDonald (eds). Questions of English. NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.
In 1983 the Oxford University Press, home of the never-ending Oxford English Dictionary, launched the Oxford Word and Language Service (OWLS for short) as a free reference aid on matters of language and linguistics for everyone from adolescent students to businessmen to puzzle-enthusiasts to translators. Naturally (and as any reference librarian could predict), many of the enquiries they receive are either pretty dumb or amazingly naive, but what’s collected here is (mostly) well-meaning questions regarding the origins of English, the differences between the British and American versions, the legitimacy of words like “humongous,” why the “char” in “charwoman” has nothing to do with tea, and the proper term for a baby hedgehog. Some of their assertions might give an American pause, though. Is it true that Americans prefer “through” to the British “up to and including,” or that a Yank would always say “sure” where a Brit would say “certainly”? I don’t think so. And, in defining the American use of “biscuit” (a word that Brits reserve for cookies), they describe the former as “small scone-like balls of cooked dough, eaten with meat and gravy” — which makes it clear that the folks at the Oxford UP never ate breakfast in Atlanta or Wichita! (10/06/05)
Balistreri, Maggie. The Evasion-English Dictionary. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House, 2003.
This isn’t exactly a usage dictionary, but this ninety-page gem ought to be required reading in every creative and technical writing program. The author is concerned with “throwaway words,” the placeholders devoid of meaning in themselves that enable us to pretend not to say what we think, to avoid laying blame or taking responsibility. In one of her first examples regarding substituted words that shift the blame, she compares the usual “I lack confidence because I don’t get much positive feedback” with what ought to have been said: “I lack confidence so I don’t get much positive feedback.” She goes on with “think” vs. “know” (“I don’t want you to think/know I’m an asshole”), “it” vs. “I” (“I did it. It was so stupid”), the insensitive use of “sensitive,” and other annoyances of contemporary thoughtless usage. And she really does a number on “The Relationship,” the mythical third party on the him/her scene (“It’s like subtitling a movie in the same language”), but the two best series of mini-essays (not surprisingly) concern “like” ( “the vexingly undercutting, vague, self-effacing, cowardly filter that passes for speech”) and “whatever” (“One of the few evasions that acknowledges other evasions”). The wit is dry and the analysis is spot-on. (10/05/05)
Better Homes & Gardens All-Time-Favorite Crookery Cooker Recipes. Des Moines: Better Homes & Gardens Books, 2001.
Because I often work at home, I’m always watching for slow-cooker versions of dishes I like, stuff I can start in the morning and ignore all day while I’m working (except for the aroma, that is). The Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks are generally pretty good, at least to the extent that I almost always find a number of recipes to try, and several that go into my recipe file. This book is divided into the obvious sections — soups & stews, meat dishes, poultry, and sides — plus sections on sweets (they’re trying too hard with some of them, just to be able to include them in a slow-cooker book) and party snacks & beverages. I enjoyed the “Corn and Sausage Chowder” (except that it calls for turkey sausage — yech! — and I used smoked beef sausage) with French bread, and the “South of the Border Steak Beans” was good (flank steak, bell peppers, pinto beans, and feta cheese, with lots of spices and served over rice). Things like buffalo wings and mini-meatballs do really well in a slow-cooker and you can keep them hot at a party. I’ve also made hot cider for Christmas get-togethers in a crockpot, and there’s an interesting variation of that here, too. I don’t know if I would actually buy this book, but it’s certainly worth checking out from the library. (10/04/05)
Amis, Kingsley. The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. NY: St. Martin, 1997.
Amis on language use can be infuriating. In reading through his usage notes, I found myself swinging from a fist-pumping “YES!” to gleeful snickers to an appalled “Say what?!” The author was the product of a classical education in the 1930s, which he explains as the basis of some of his preferences, but he’s also partial to the way Americanisms have crept into British English — usually. He doesn’t like “aren’t I” (it should be “am I not,” since “amn’t I” is hardly pronounceable), and he compares calling children “kids” to calling an Italian a “wop.” He thinks foreign words when used by an Englishman should be forced into an Anglicized pronunciation; anyone who tries to pronounce a French word or term as the French do is a “wanker.” To me, this is the worst sort of imperial arrogance — and it’s even more puzzling since Amis also inveighs against the British tendency to snootiness overseas. On the other hand, he counsels the reader to avoid dressed-up, generally wrongly-used vogue words like “opine,” “orchestrate,” “feedback,” and “relevant,” with which I entirely agree. But just when he’s on a roll, he declares that “‘Restauranteur’ is impossible in French and a pretentious illiteracy in English.” Sigh. Well, read the book and enjoy Amis’s ability to draw blood with a well-chosen word, but don’t feel obliged to agree with all his judgments or to accept his occasional pomposity. (10/02/05)
Betty Crocker Easy Family Dinners. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2004.
I enjoy reading cookbooks, and I’m always on the lookout for easy recipes (I enjoy cooking, usually, but I’m not a fanatic about it), and Betty Crocker books usually include a number of no-nonsense dishes that don’t involve arcane ingredients. But this one is pretty much a disappointment. The subtitle is “Simple Recipes and Fun Ideas to Turn Mealtime into Quality Time,” and the idea seems to be to increase “together time” by decreasing time at the stove, and by involving the kids in the food prep. Well, all my kids are grown and long gone, and I don’t need to color lunch bags, personalize the pizza, jump in the leaf piles, or tell stories about objects in the kitchen. There are themes, too: “Asian Night” includes egg rolls (buy them frozen at the store — whoopee) and “Cantonese Chicken Chop Suey” (just chicken breasts, rice, and frozen stir-fry veggies). The rest of the book goes on like that — ordinary dishes, old short-cuts, and lots of warm fuzzies. I’ll pass. (10/01/05)