Book Review: The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes NovelThe House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two points about THE HOUSE OF SILK (and the notion of writing a Sherlock Holmes story in general):

  1. Sherlock has been done so many times, especially recently, that the character is basically a cut-out. You prop it up, and substitute whoever you like, be it Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch.
  2. That said, the author (in this case, Anthony Horowitz) is in a slightly odd position. Because everyone is so familiar with Holmes, all his characterization feels like a retread. I almost skimmed over those parts … keen intellect, yeah yeah … stunning deductions … yeah, been there.

That said, Horowitz tells a good tale, weaving orphaned children, immigrants, a man apparently threatened by an Irish gangster, and the nefarious doings of well-to-do into a story with a bunch of twists and turns that he ties together in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.

He also writes well. It isn’t just good prose, but he adds period detail with his use of language, especially anachronistic terms.

It’s not the kind of book that I’d expect to see shortlisted for the Booker, but it’s a good story, a fun read, and moves along at a lively pace.

View all my reviews

A Moveable Feast of Goats


I’ve been writing about my trip to Paris recently, and because I have a copy sitting around, I picked up Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of living in Paris as part of the American expatriate circle of writers in the 1920s.

I’m not all the way through it, but I happened to wander over to the Wikipedia page (linked above), where I learned it was published after his death, and been edited by his fourth wife. Apparently Hemingway returned to the memoir shortly before his death, and it included a lengthy apology to Hadley, his first wife (which got cut).

Not only that, “literary critic J. Gerald Kennedy of Louisiana State University pointed out the artificially heroic nature of Hemingway’s self-portrait in A Moveable Feast. He contrasted it with the sexual ambiguity and fascination with androgyny found in Hemingway’s unfinished novel, The Garden of Eden.”

Not only that, I found another lengthy piece about the memoir that appeared in the Huffington Post, which was written because Hemingway’s grandson was going to published a “restored edition.” It goes even further down the rabbit hole about the sad, sordid family history, and how the various wives and children of wives might have affected the books’ edits.

Wow. I’m not even going to weigh in on that. Instead, I got about fifty pages in, and found this:

The goatherd came up the street blowing his pipes and a woman who lived on the floor above us came out to the sidewalk with a big pot. The goatherd chose one of the heavy-bagged, black milk-goats and milked her into the pot while his dog pushed the others onto the sidewalk. The goats looked around, turning their necks like sightseers.

Goats! Cruising around Paris! Sure, it was 80-plus years ago, but still. When I was in Paris, I saw a lot of cars and tour buses. But no goats.

Why I Suck at Goodreads

I have a slightly embarrassing confession, which if you read the title of this post you might have guessed: I suck at Goodreads. For those of you who aren’t obsessive book types, Goodreads is a sort of “social cataloging” site where you can make reading lists, make friends, compare friends’ reading lists, write blog posts, book reviews, see how many books you have in common with a friend, etc.

A wonderful idea, in practice. But that depends on you practicing things like logging in and participating. With pretty good intentions I updated my reading list some time late last year.

Between then and now, I haven’t stopped reading. I had Tinkers listed as the book I was reading, and the sad fact was, I stalled on page 81 (or you might say, I stopped tinkering with it). But that’s one of the problems with social media sites: despite heroic efforts by software engineers to make the sites robust yet easy to use, one of my apparent destinies on earth is to be a use case that throws a site’s shortcomings into sharp relief.

For example, I have every intention of finishing Tinkers. I’m leaving the bookmark in. I’ll come back to it one day.

Or maybe I won’t.

But how do you express that on Goodreads? The four default lists are good and commonsense: all, to read, currently reading, and to-read. But really, I start a lot more books than I finish. I get them out of the library, I get them as gifts, I swap them with friends …. I start some, some sit by my bed, others on my dresser, others in stacks around the house.

In the broadest possible terms, I guess my books fall into “to read,” “currently reading,” and “read.” But almost every book has its own shade of gray. Tinkers was a gift from a good friend, so I am more motivated to finish it because of that. I have three books by the same author. I’m about 100 pages into the first. Probably won’t read the other two. How do I express that on a list?

I’ll probably finish the ones on my list now (in the screen grab, above). But what about the music instruction book I have? It’s nonfiction, and not the kind of tome you read from beginning to end. You dip into it, you know? Am I reading it? Well, yeah. Also, no. Am I done with it? Yes. No. Depends. But since I’ve started it, it shouldn’t be in the “to read” list, right?

Except there’s a section that’s over my head right now, but when I can play more, I’ll go back. At some point I am going “to read” more.

I’d argue that I have a separate relationship with almost every book I could conceivably put on my list. And I could put books into groups, but the groups wouldn’t have simple names. For example:

  • Books that I was hot about when I bought them, but then I cooled off (Cloud Atlas, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
  • Books by authors who are friends of mine
  • Books I picked up on a whim
  • Books I stopped reading because I’m a feckless dilettante
  • Books I read because everyone else had, yet I felt slightly icky and disappointed with myself for having finished them (Da Vinci Code, Dragon Tattoo)
  • Books I ought to read because they appeared on some goddamned BBC Book List challenge, and despite having an MA in English, I somehow missed

Can’t you just see some programmer shaking his head at that last list, and saying, “No no, that’s much too long to fit into the book-list-name parameter string”?

That’s sort of my point. Zadie Smith makes this point too, as does Jaron Lanier. Smith wrote a good essay for the New York Review of Books about Facebook, and mentioned Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Here she is summarizing him:

Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics).

Smith asks whether we’re reducing ourselves to fit into the software. My answer is, of course we are.  She floats an extreme stance (though her piece is, as is all her writing, considerably more nuanced)

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is.

I’m not so naive to think social media would be possible without limits. That’s actually part of the fun, to work within parameters. And for all its shortcomings, social media allows me to keep distant friends visible on the periphery, to get a condensed version of what’s happening in their lives. And there’s no better break from being a productive worker bee than a little slack-jawed happy time on Facebook or Twitter.

On the other hand, Facebook’s mobile app asks for my location EVERY SINGLE TIME, and its contact fields don’t include a field for Twitter. For its part, Twitter has the de facto effect of quantifying your popularity, either by number of followers, number of retweets, number of favorite stars (don’t ask), or even third-party algorithms with crappy spelling, like Klout. If there had been numeric popularity rankings in my high school, I might have seriously considered moving to Alaska to work as a fry cook.

On the other hand, one thing I like about Twitter is its lists. I don’t actually use them much, but it’s fun to see the lists I appear in. A short list of list names:

  • Sweet supportive saints
  • froods
  • inkpunk-types
  • 1-800-400
  • locomocos

Do I know what those mean? Not really. But the randomness is what makes it great.

To its credit, Goodreads allows you to edit your “shelves,” which is to say you can make up your own names for your own lists. Naturally, I had to try it. How did it work?

books-i-ought-to-read-because-they-

… Yeah. I sort of figured.

A Look at Three Ways to Get Published

I recently attended a talk by literary agent April Eberhardt. Her talk, The New Era of Publishing: How to Choose the Best Option for You,” outlined the rapidly changing publishing landscape.

Her thesis is that “the power is shifting to the author.” As an example, she noted that the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Bertelsmann, and Simon & Schuster) were responsible for 80 percent of all titles in the US three years ago. Now they’re responsible for 60 percent.

She quoted a few stats about the explosive growth in e-readers … but all you have to do is read the news to see abundant evidence of that for yourself.

Eberhardt had a few other principles:

  1. There is no one “right” way to publish.
  2. Authors and readers no longer need publishers to find each other
  3. There are a variety of business models developing now, including ebook self-publishing services like Smashwords, and smaller self-publishers like Publication Studio in Portland. Eberhardt noted the beginnings of “agent presses,” a hybrid business model where publication costs and profits are shared.
  4. The route to publication changes – that is, it could go from traditional publishers to e-publishing. For example, Joe Konrath left his publisher to sell his self-published e-books online.

After outlining the principles, Eberhardt outlined pros and cons of the three most common paths to publication:

Traditional Publishers

Pros:

  • Publishers do much of the footwork, including publicity
  • The status of being a published author

Cons:

  • The odds. Competition for agents is fierce. As former literary agent Nathan Bransford commented, “Agents get 10,000+ queries a year and take on maybe a handful of clients. Going strictly by the numbers, an agent’s inbox is far more competitive than any writing contest.”
  • The ratio of agents to editors is also bad
  • Advances are shrinking
  • It can take up to two years from signing with an agent until publication
  • Authors still do marketing and promotion themselves
  • You may or may not make a profit, since 99% of books never earn out their advance. And in that case, you lose your opportunity to publish your next book

Small Presses

Pros:

  • Status,
  • May pay, limited marketing

Cons:

  • Submitting is a lot of work, including research and following publishing guidelines
  • They may not respond (or if they do, it may take ages)
  • Competition is tough
  • Up to two years between acquisition and publication
  • You will have to self-promote
  • You probably won’t make a profit

Self-Publishing

Pros:

  • You control the rights
  • It’s relatively easy
  • It costs about $2,000 to $3,000 to self-publish well (that estimated cost includes hiring an editor, getting your book laid out/formatted, cover design, and marketing/promotion)
  • You make money as soon as you recoup costs
    • The web is a good marketing tool:
    • It’s good if a book targets a niche
  • You can experiment with various marketing approaches
  • You can choose title, cover art, story – you can even publish two different versions for different markets (I would have liked to see an example here, but didn’t get a chance to ask that question)

Cons:

  • Self-publishing still carries a stigma
  • As Eberhardt says, “self-published books have to be better than traditional books.”
  • It’s still a lot of work to find readers and make sales.

During the Q&A at the end, it was interesting to see how many people were focused on the traditional route to publishing (and the status boost). Also interesting was a comment she made about agents, which is that they sell to the big six – there’s not enough money in selling to the smaller presses to make it worth their time.

What I would love to see (and haven’t yet) is a gauge on how real the “stigma” is. Because two examples leap to mind where an ebook, a print-on-demand book or a self-published book could have further advantages.

  1. A book with niche appeal. In grad school I wrote a golf novel. While there are a lot of golfers out there, it’s clearly a book that’s going to appeal to golfers, but not to many non-golfers. Yet a publisher needs to gamble that they can recoup costs on a book, so if its subject matter has limited appeal (instead of broad-swath, Dan Brown appeal), you can see why a publisher would avoid the risk.
  2. A book that’s time sensitive. Think about the “life cycle” of the book. Say it takes a six months to write and another six months to edit, and then you sign with an agent within six months of submitting it. Say the agent sells it in three months (all this is relatively fast, by the way). Then the book will go into production for at least a year. That’s three years. If your subject matter is at all dependent on current events, that’s a long time.

What do you think?

The Social Contract

As a writer who submits and someone who works with social media, I’ve been following a recent Twitter spat with some interest.

At the risk of stumping for Twitter, I think all writers serious about getting published should be on it. I’ve met writers, had literary agents answer questions, participated in contests, and been exposed to a lot of great information about writing and publishing. It’s like a perpetual writers’ conference and kaffeeklatsch.

I’ve also seen agents use Twitter to publicly react to queries in real time. Because Twitter messages are can’t exceed 140 characters, the query, book and writer remain anonymous. Most of those were one-day experiments. Then along came @InternAmie, an account where an intern at a literary agency reacted to queries and submissions as she read them, using the hashtag #queryfest. Here’s a two-part example:

“Memoir-lover that I am, I almost cried when this otherwise stunning memoir opened with an intense scene, but then … Nope–nevermind. The women’s fiction started out great, but major plot inconsistencies would’ve made agent frown & pass.”

The @InternAmie account is now closed, apparently a result of an online backlash. Afterwards the opinions were mixed:

theborderlord I found #queryfest incredibly helpful – it gave a rare insight into how the query system really works. Shame @internamie has vanished.

Tessasblurb If you have a problem with people judging your writing surely you’re in the wrong business… #writing #queryfest

yabreviewed Anonymous as it is #queryfest makes me more nervous about sending mine. To have it end up being a topic of discussion on twitter? No thanks.

Writers of fiction spend hours creating imaginary situations, but it’s nearly impossible for them to picture their work sitting in a huge pile along with hundreds of other submissions. This is @theborderlord’s point: @InternAmie was reading and reacting to submissions objectively, andoutlining the reasons she did or didn’t think they were working. In other words, she was an unbiased beta reader that didn’t sugar-coat things. (If you ever get a beta reader that does this for you, consider yourself very, very lucky.)

I think @Tessasblurb makes a good point, too. After I’d been working as a journalist and freelancer for years, I went back to get an MA in creative writing. Journalism schools understand that their degree is vocational, so getting out there and working is part of the process. But unlike J-school, submitting pieces is optional in an MA.

My MA program was full of people who desperately wanted an authority figure proclaim them Good Enough to Be Published, as if this were some absolute, like knighthood. So these writers worked in a fretful vacuum, like kids from the suburbs afraid of going downtown. I wanted to see them submit, over and over again, until they learned that rejection and having people dislike your stuff isn’t the end of the world–it’s a necessary part of being a writer.

That said, I agree most with yabreviewed. Querying is the first step of a business relationship, which works when both parties operate in good faith. But if a stranger discloses details of your query or pages (even if they can’t be traced back to you), that disclosure violates one of the evolving tenets of social media, which is to ask permission to use other people’s stuff.

Imagine an agent’s website with a submission form containing a checkbox and this: “I agree to have my work paraphrased, excerpted, and possibly commented by an anonymous party online for all to see.” Would you agree to that? I wouldn’t.

I’m not sure what the final chapter of the InternAmie saga will be. I hope she’s still reading submissions, since I want everyone reading my submissions will be like her, turning to the next query in the hopes it will be great.

I also hope the publishing community learns from what happened, instead of pointing fingers. But there are still agents who make sport out of the slush pile (such as Slush Pile Hell, which I find terribly unprofessional), just as there are writers who excerpt from agents’ e-mails, or snipe about them on forums.

In other words, social media is a little like publishing: What you post on a blog, or as a comment, or in a forum, or on Twitter is widely accessible and will be around for a long time. So you don’t want to use other people’s stuff without asking, and you want to make sure what you said isn’t something you’ll regret later.

Numb: The Film

A writer friend of mine named Harley May has a contest on her blog to win a copy of Sean Ferrell’s new book, Numb. (Want to compete? There’s still time to enter. But if you win and I don’t, I will be very put out.)

Anyhow, on her blog, Harley re-enacts three scenes in the book: a man engaged in a lion fight, a man hammering a nail through himself for profit, and a man on fire. Her reenactments are gripping, to be sure, but no one (to my knowledge) has yet re-re-enacted these scenes in Excite-O-Vision™, which requires a camera, and the collaboration of young boys, as well as a great many of their toys.

The first re-enactment, lion fight, was dramatically enhanced as a cage fight. While the ultimate results were not available as we went to press, the man does not seem to be faring well:

It was apparently Pirate Day in the crowd, which added to the boistrosity.

Check out this exclusive lion-on-man close-up, which shows the simulated blood in even more graphic Excite-O-Vision™ detail:

Despite danger aplenty, the man lives through this ordeal, only to have a nail hammered into him. Harley’s blog says “someone hammering a nail through their body for profit,” but wouldn’t it be so much more dramatic, my kids didn’t say, if someone else hammered in the nail? You know, like “The Passion of the Christ” meets The Golden Spike?

Pirates, ninjas, bulls, Mexican wrestlers -- they all came out to see the man getting impaled. Despite the man dressed as a cop swinging a hammer that looked like an air horn, there were few complaints.

But the man — he must be invincible — survives this too, only to encounter the most dangerous, conflagrational denouement ever invented: being set on fire!

Unfortunately, Ochwat Studios spent all its production budget on Excite-O-Vision™, leaving nothing left over for pyrotechnics. But those crazy innovative kids insisted that they had a solution, and insisted viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Look how excited the crowd is. There are always challenges with filmic adaptations. Why Boba Fett and Yoda? Why a man with gelled hair holding a gun? What is the man doing with shackles, and why is the rat so close to the flame? Is he a flame-proof rat?

So many questions. I guess we’ll have to read Numb to find the answers.

Wrack & Ruin

I finished Don Lee’s novel, Wrack & Ruin, not long ago. It’s about a sculptor turned brussels-sprouts farmer whose life starts falling apart one weekend when his feckless brother comes to visit.

I enjoyed the book, though I’m no brussels-sprouts farmer, and I only sculpt using Play-Doh, and then usually destroy my creations in fits of artistic pique when my creations fail to live up to the genius of my artistic vision — or my son is done playing, whichever comes first.

But I never thought the book would serve as foreshadowing for the past week.

It all started the week before, when my wife was traveling for a conference, leaving me at home with our two little brussels-sprouts. For three days I hung in there with the cooking and the dishes and the laundry and the carpool and the work and the dog walking and dog feeding and vacuuming.

Then it started, though it took me a while to notice. See, the clothes weren’t dry. So on Sunday morning, I cranked it and started it again.

Then I went to open a blind — and the cord broke in my hand.

The chaos remained at bay for the rest of Sunday. My wife made it home safely, I walked the dog, and before dark, we tried to finish hanging our Christmas lights. That went fine, too, until I was up on a ladder and I went to tuck one of the extension cords behind a porch light.

And the porch light came off in my hand. With my left hand I held the light, which was kind of carriage lamp style, and noticed that none the four screws supposedly holding this lamp to the wide of the house were attached.

I then tried to reattach the screws, only to find the two holding the base to the wall wouldn’t thread. Since I couldn’t very well let the light dangle from its own wiring, I unwired the light, leaving me with a hole and exposed wires.

My smartass friend suggested putting in a nativity scene.

We dried a lot of clothes indoors (hanging them under a ceiling fan works remarkably well), paid a whack of money to get the dryer fixed, and now that the week is winding down, I’m finally heading to the hardware store to get parts to actually re-hang the light.

The cord, however, will have to wait for tomorrow. That’s also when I go looking for a book titled Prosperity & Reliable Household Products.

The Dickipedia Prize for Literature

If you’ve ever been to Dickipedia, a Wiki of Dicks, you’ll see a list of dicks in business, media, sports, and entertainment (hint: people do not make it here by virtue of being named Richard). I expect there may be one for literature quite soon. On the BBC World Service today there was an exchange between English biographer Victoria Glendinning, and Noah Richler, who has compiled a literary atlas of Canada.

Why? Well, two weeks ago, Glendinning wrote an unbelievably condescending piece in the Financial Times about her experience serving as a judge for the Giller Prize, which is like the Man Booker prize for Canadian novels.

Reading almost 100 works of Canadian fiction, as one of the judges for this year’s Giller, is a life-enhancing experience, and gives a glimpse into the culture. The Canadian for “gutter” is “eavestrough”, which is picturesque . Everyone is wearing a “tuque”, or “toque”, which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)

there is a striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of novels, often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.

Apart from brilliant Giller contestants, there are … “unbelievably dreadful” ones. It seems in Canada that you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council, who are also thanked…. If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.

Not surprisingly, Richler (a Canadian) took umbrage at Glendinning’s sniffy dismissal of quaint Canadiansms, then got out of his Muskoka chair to fire a salvo back across the pond:

The bulk of English novels, even the good ones (Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes come to mind), are written by authors parcelling out their ideas frugally, a couple for the book at hand and others reserved for the next. This is the same sad way the English make fish pie: one piece of cod mixed in with many, many potatoes.

You want fireworks? You want literature that is invested with energy because every page is written as if it was the writer’s last chance? Well, don’t turn to English novels but to the political and cultural margins of a collapsed empire that started becoming parochial more than half a century ago – and is today to the point that the word “tuque” provides Ms. Glendinning such supercilious amusement. Canadian writers, along with Indian and Australian and Irish and African and Asian ones, have been writing the most exciting and original novels in, umm – oh, whatever kind of English it is, give the woman a lexicon – for decades. In these literatures, you will find a fervour and a generosity of spirit that is sorely lacking in the English, the dearth of which explains why most do not get North Americans even when they like us.

I have to side with Richler on this one.

There’s a nice bit in Bill Bryson’s book “The Mother Tongue” (about the English language) where he describes how 300 years ago, the English repeatedly bemoaned the American’s barbarian handling of the language … and how typically the words they took umbrage to were proper English terms that had merely fallen out of use, only to be revived in the States. Nonetheless, the English had self-appointed themselves as arbiters of the language, no matter what the colonies had to say.

Fast-forward to 2009, and what do you get? Victoria Glendinning defending the empire, haughtily trying to claim supremacy for “English-English.”

The BBC World Service had both of them on today, together, and it was great fun to hear a very prim English toff get shredded by a civil pit bull from the colonies (Alas, it’s not available on the BBC site.) She lasted maybe two minutes trying to explain and clarify (“But we envy you for getting grants!” etc.), then started backpedaling, and even called him “love.”

Speaking of self-appointing, I hereby nominate Glendinning for the Dickipedia short-list.

The Album that Changed My Life

The slightly grandiose title to this post comes from The Olive Reader, the blog of Harper Perennial (a book publisher), which is doing a promo for a book of theirs, Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. On the blog they ask, “What album changed your life at 17? (Or whenever.)”

That’s easy. Here’s my answer:

It’s 1981, and I’m 15, a gawky, pimply, f*cked up soup of hormones, and I’m busting my ass on the subway to get back and forth to my new high school where no one likes me because I’m new and I’m not from the suburbs.

Reagan is president, I’m convinced he’s going to make me sign up for the draft in a few years, if he doesn’t annihilate us with nukes first.

The radio is filled with crap like “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Sheena Easton, Juice Newton. It’s worse than bad. It’s insultingly bad, like saccharine on a popsicle.

Then I discover the Clash. Specifically, “London Calling,” with its brilliantly dark, apocalyptic title track, plus “Spanish Bombs,” “Guns of Brixton,” and “Death or Glory,” just to name a few.

London_Calling

This is a punk band, yeah. I’m 15, I’m all about that. But there’s reggae in there, dub, rockabilly, ska, pop culture references … and POLITICS.

LEFT politics. These guys are playing Rock Against Racism, they know their history (“Spanish Bombs” is about the Spanish Civil War and fascism, “Guns of Brixton” is about the Brixton race riots) … and they can flat-out PLAY.

At 15 you’re right at the bottom of the trough, as awkward and angry and frustrated and drug-taking and screwed-up as you can be. And when Air Supply and Abba and Hall & Oates’ hair gel were all conspiring against me, along came Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon putting out music that was angry, vital, political, engaged, smart, and most of all, REAL.

And after a few hundred listens, you figure it out. It’s OK to be screwed up and angry, because you can be all those other things, too. Note by note and song by song, they showed me the way.

Walter Kirn’s “Up in the Air”

Up in the Air - Walter Kirn

Walter Kirn begins his clever, caustic novel Up in the Air with a little monologue:

“To know me you have to fly with me.” That’s Ryan Bingham, protagonist and veteran air traveler. “Sit down. I’m the aisle, you’re the window — trapped. You crack your paperback, last spring’s big legal thriller, convinced that what you want is solitude, though I know otherwise: you need to talk.”

Bingham is 35, a career-transition counselor for some vague Denver management company (his job is to travel around and fire people, and make them feel OK about it).

The plot, such it were, centers around Ryan’s monumentally trivial quest to reach the Holy Grail of one million frequent-flier miles. His obstacles: his disintegrating career, his ragged family (especially his sister’s impending marriage), the nagging paranoia that someone might be angling for his miles.

At times I found the plot a little confusing, and some of the dialogue — while awfully snappy — a tad bit too terse.

But the plot isn’t nearly as much fun as Kirn’s pitch-perfect anthropology:

I call it Airworld; the scene, the place, the style. My hometown papers are USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. The big-screen Panasonics in the club rooms broadcast all the news I need, with an emphasis on the markets and the weather. My literature — yours, too, I see — is the best seller or the near-best seller, heavy on themes of espionage, high finance and the goodness of common people in small towns. In Airworld, I’ve found, the passions and enthusiasms of the outlying society are concentrated and whisked to a stiff froth. When a new celebrity is minted in the movie theaters or ballparks, this is where the story breaks — on the vast magazine racks that form a sort of trading floor for public reputations and pretty faces. I find it possible here, as nowhere else, to think of myself as part of the collective that prices the long bond and governs necktie widths. Airworld is a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood and even its own currency — the token economy of airline bonus miles that I’ve come to value more than dollars. Inflation doesn’t degrade them. They’re not taxed. They’re private property in its purest form.

Despite his status as a damaged bit of luggage (divorced, accused of running from his family’s problems, lying to his mom about his location), Ryan is somehow engaging, despite being marinated in cynicism.

Besides, the real fun is in Airworld, where airport chapels are ”restful and perfect for catching up on paperwork,” and where interesting people share planes with him.

When General Norman Schwarzkopf goes to the lavatory, we get this: ”I feel a shift as all of us stop thinking about ourselves and wonder why that closed door is staying so closed. A hand-washer? Normal travelers’ diarrhea? It’s painful to picture the Big Guy so confined.”

I wanted to read this when it came out in mid-2001 … then had a thought that 9/11 must have been an odd thing to happen to this recently released book.

Then I forgot about the book for years and years, until I stumbled across Lost in the Meritocracy, a remarkable short memoir he published in the Atlantic (which is now a book).

That steered me back to Up in the Air. Good thing, too. As a satire of an odd little segment of Americana (airports and business travel), this book hits a bulls-eye.