Mini-reviews of books I read last month: three non-fiction books. Two are about writing: "The Art of Fiction" being broader in scope, while "Confessions of a Young Novelist" is a bit deeper and contains a more personal perspective. The third book is about (arguably) the father of modern political science, Niccolò Machiavelli. 1. "The Art of Fiction" by David Lodge <http://www.amazon.com/Art-Fiction/dp/0140174923> This book provides insights into the art and craft of writing fiction, using examples from a large cross-section of classic and contemporary literature. Most of the fifty short chapters originally appeared as articles in the "Independent on Sunday". Many genres, techniques and other elements of fiction and story-telling are covered. For example, there are chapters on suspense, magic realism, time-shift, names, lists, symbolism, chapters, titles, beginnings and endings. Each chapter begins with one or more passages from works of fiction. The next few pages explain and discuss the relevant concept. The author has written several novels, so this is not just a dry series of essays written by a theorist. Obviously, avid readers and aspiring writers will find this a useful guide. But even casual readers can benefit from the examples and observations presented. 2. "Confessions of a Young Novelist" by Umberto Eco <http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Novelist/dp/0674058690> Umberto Eco is an Italian semiotician (studier of signs and symbols), literary critic, essayist, author and philosopher. This is the text of a series of lectures on literature. The title is ironic, since Eco was in his seventies at the time. His argument is that he had become a published author when he was almost fifty, so he is still a relative newcomer. The first chapter, tongue-in-cheekily entitled "Writing from Right to Left", covers his writing process. His first novel, "The Name of the Rose", was set in medieval Italy, one of his long-time interests, and based on years of research. For later novels, he maintained his desire for factual accuracy, going so far as living in the settings and even enacting scenes where possible. This is time- consuming, and helps explain why Eco has written just six novels in thirty years. The second chapter, "Author, Text and Interpretation", gets into some of the technicalities of writing, meaning and translation. In "Some Remarks on Fictional Characters", Eco provides an overview of types of characters, and the obvious and subtle implications of these types. For example, some characters are purely made-up, while others may be actual personages from history. The latter have rich backgrounds, but may restrict an author's freedom more than made-up characters. Sometimes novelists "borrow" a character from someone else's novel. For example, a novel by Philippe Doumenc features the ghost of Emma Bovary, and offers an alternative explanation of her death. The last chapter is about lists, which fascinate Eco. He describes types of lists and their utility, then reels off a list of lists collected from literature. Eco has spent most of his life in academia and he brings that background to this book, so it can get a bit heavy-going. But there's a lot of interesting information and insight in this compact book. 3. "Introducing Machiavelli" by Patrick Curry and Oscar Zarate <http://www.amazon.com/Introducing-Machiavelli/dp/1848311753> This graphic guide looks at the life and writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian political thinker from the 16th Century. He is much-maligned, with his name becoming synonymous with cynicism, ruthlessness and expediency in politics. His writing is often portrayed as a prescription for how rulers should govern, but his intention was to describe human nature as it is and how it can be tamed. Machiavelli's most well-known works are "The Prince", which offers advice to leaders for a secure state, and "The Discourses", which offers advice to citizens for a free state. "The Prince" and its interpretation are the main sources for Machiavelli's negative reputation. Note that he did not suggest leaders should be tyrants to be successful, but rather there are times when strong actions are required for the good of the state. He later refined and extended his theories in "The Discourses", and many of these ideas were implemented in the development of American and other republican democracies. For example, liberty is based on shared civic responsibility, and should be subject to checks and balances between the rulers and the governed. This is a quick and easy read, helped by the liberal use of drawings. Recommended to anyone with a passing interest in politics and government.