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September 30, 2005

Joke Going Round

Donald Rumsfeld is giving the president his daily briefing. He concludes by saying: "Yesterday, 3 Brazilian soldiers were killed."  "OH NO!" the president exclaims.  "That's terrible!"

His staff sits stunned at this display of emotion, nervously watching as the President sits, head in hands.  Finally, the President looks up and asks, "How many is a brazillion?"

Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker Festival

On Saturday morning at ten, Malcolm Gladwell began his New Yorker Festival appearance by talking about his early career as a champion runner. Between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, Mr Gladwell won all the top prizes in the Ontarian field. Then he took a break. When he came back to running in his late teens, he was only a little better than ordinary. Why? Mr Gladwell did not go into this, because what interests him now is the complete failure of his early success to predict his later mediocrity. This personal anecdote - which seemed at first to be no more than that, a gratuitous self-exposure for which his fans might be expected to be grateful - opened out quite beautifully into a brief lecture on the topic of precocity, or precociousness, whichever you prefer.

The talk had such a profound impact on me that I'm not sure that I can report it. For three days, I swam in the trembling exaltation that follows "religious experience." I'm almost glad that that's passing, because I want to get on with the somewhat altered course of my life. Now, Malcolm Gladwell's talk didn't change me. Things have been changing within me for some time, although perhaps only those who know me personally and very well can tell. Certainly this Web log is produced, for the most part, by the "new" me. The me who has already responded to Rilke's line,

Du musst dein Leben ändern.

"You must change your life." Well, I don't know that I changed my life, but my life has certainly changed, and I'm holding on tight. Malcolm Gladwell's lecture was an announcement of the change, of its nature and extent, and also an explanation of the change. So my version of the lecture is all bound up with me. Sorry.

I will note that both Ms NOLA and I expected a different personality. We didn't expect Mr Gladwell to be sharp. He does not open his mouth without knowing pretty well exactly what he is going to say. (This may be, and in fact I hope that it is, unconscious.) He speaks very clearly and, for the most party, with a tiny but witty smile. Watching him at the podium for nearly two hours also helped to clarify his features, which never seem to come through in photographs. I would love to know the history of the non-haircut.

When asked, during a Q&A session that lasted rather longer than the lecture, if precocity was going to be the subject of his next book, Mr Gladwell said "no." What he's really interested in right now is late blooming. It was at this point that the bulb popped, illuminating everything for me and opening my brain to a strong, destabilizing current. For as it happens, I was a precocious child, I am also a late-blooming adult. According to Mr Gladwell, the one may have led to the other; the experience of precocity may have doomed me to a late bloom.

Malcolm Gladwell argued, quite persuasively, that the qualities that produce precocious children are not in synch with the qualities that distinguish productive adults. Children learn things to the extent that they mimic doing them, and precocious children are just faster mimics. Mimicry, however, is obviously not an important, or even desirable, trait in adults. Somewhere along the line, the outer-directed (or -focused) precocious child must grow into the inner-directed adult, and quite often this doesn't happen. One of Mr Gladwell's examples was the Hunter College Elementary School, an extremely selective institution that was designed to nurture future Nobelists and the like. It hasn't produced them. What it has produced is a crop of happy and successful people, but few superstars. Mr Gladwell's hunch is that these kids were so smart that they grasped the great sacrifices that aiming for the top requires - and decided to go for happiness instead. It seems clear that precociousness is not the fruit of ambition; it's simply an inborn characteristic. So it may well be that the gifted children at Hunter lack the deep competitiveness that drives some people toward the attainment of honorable fame.

The downside of privileging the precocious is that it demotes the importance of work. Of practicing an instrument. Of editing a text toward perfection. Of doing all the research that a project requires, unstintingly. Of leaving no stone unturned. Now, you can regard such work as drudgery, the necessary evil associated with achievement. Or you can look at it as the whole point. Achievement? There is no such thing as achievement, not for the achiever. Achievement notifies other people that something remarkable has been done, but it's the doing, not the having done, that matters. The only thing that we ever achieve is, as the French have it, death itself. We are achieved. At the risk of appearing to reinvent an "Eastern" philosophy, I am opening myself up to the idea that mindful work is the thing that counts most, perhaps even more than love. Perhaps the two go together.

Mr Gladwell's larger point, which underlies his interest in late bloomers, is the price that we pay for rewarding - and demanding - early success. His example here was the celebrated band, Fleetwood Mac. A music executive recently highlighted the importance of patience to Mr Gladwell by pointing out that the album that is generally regarded as the band's best, most critically acclaimed, and so forth - Rumours - was its seventh LP. Nobody gets to make seven albums today unless the preceding six are all big sellers. In one sense, this is just another example of the pernicious effect that bottom-line mentalities have on the arts. But in another, it's a story that many of don't want to hear: that it took Fleetwood Mac seven tries to strike it rich. We'd almost prefer the lesson that if at first you don't succeed, you never will. There's something easy about that, something that assures almost everybody plenty of company. 

I was not an ordinarily precocious child, I don't think. I didn't learn things quickly in order to please adults. I didn't give a damn about pleasing the adults. It was great if it happened, but when it happened less and less because I really was doing my own thing, I gave up thinking about pleasing anybody but myself. That was an awful condition to land in, especially as I had also learned that precocious children don't have to work hard. Perhaps if I'd grown up in the city, and gone to more challenging schools, that wouldn't have been true, but in leafy Westchester, I was simply one child less to struggle with. My parents certainly had no regard for the critical and unsentimental intelligence that I had developed by the age of nine or ten. They may have hoped that keeping me in "good" schools would restrain my eccentricity. In any case, I coasted, on the understanding that application and perseverance were for the less-gifted. I don't think that I arrived at this judgment on my own. I believe that it is a central precept of what I'm going to call the American Scream.

The American Scream is the nightmare version of the American Dream. If I may be permitted a moment of craziness, let me call it the spawn of television. It is a siren call to alluring leisure that, if followed, can only end in tears. I don't see much television advertising, but an enormous bloc of it seems to involve cars snaking dreamily along empty roads in remote places. Like any New Yorker reader, I see a lot of print ads for fashion and vacationing. In both, there is a tremendous accent upon idleness and unoccupation - except where sports enters the picture. We seem to be looking forward to a sort of peacefully pleasant death-state in which we will no longer have to lift a finger. What sort of dream is this for healthy people to have?

I have recently observed that the happy people whom I know do not dream this Scream. The happy people whom I know are too busy doing what they're doing. They love what they're doing, and, what is not quite the same thing, they love doing it.

Malcolm Gladwell's talk showed me that I what I'm doing here is important - to me. Sure, I'd like it to be important to "innombrables lecteurs" (Journal d'un Vrai Parisien). Vastly anterior to that, however, keeping my sites fresh and full of "content" has to matter, vitally, to me. I see that I've been holding back from that kind of commitment, or perhaps had just made it. I would discuss it a bit with Kathleen (my biggest supporter in every way), but I'd keep quiet about it, even with myself. It wasn't something that I felt comfortable acknowledging; it was too final. But I walked out of the Director's Foundation on Saturday morning silently trumpeting the fact that I have responded to Rilke's admonition. I have changed my life. Here I am, and here I will stay.

Long before Mr Gladwell was done, Jane Smiley's ambitious horses were galloping through my corral. I will refrain from repeating myself on that subject, except to point out the relation between repetition and intelligence. Doing something worthwhile over and over, and with satisfaction, does make you smarter. Getting away without having to do anything is not smart at all. It's not only imprudent, it's life-denying. Just getting things done without minding much how they're done isn't much better. What I learned from Malcolm Gladwell is not that I want to be a better blogger in the sense of writing more and better entries. I do want that, but I want to do it well. I want the doing of it, which you can't see, to be as good as what you can see. We're not talking about my blog. We're talking about my life.


I will save the interesting connection between the degradation of the workplace and the collapse of the American work ethic for another time. There is also another facet to this nugget that, while it catches my eye, I'm ill-equipped to address, and that is the problem of untalented and moderately-talented people for whom the opportunities of interesting work are not numerous. (Nor will I take on the interesting theory that everyone is talented in some way or another, but that societies depend a lot more upon some talents than upon others, leaving the talents of many to go to waste.) What I want to focus on is the importance of determination and persistence, not as a prerequisite of success but as a quality of life. Good work is good because it is the mind's way of breathing, just as it is the body's route to health. (There are bad sorts of work, involving excess, stress, and danger, but that's another matter that I'm foreclosing.)

September 29, 2005

David Remnick in The New Yorker

In all the rush of the week - well, I took off most of yesterday to finish reading Zadie Smith's On Beauty - it took me until today to get to this week's New Yorker, and I want to lose no time in urging you to read David Remnick's report, "High Water," which is one of the very best things that I have read about the Katrina disaster.

Five years of George W Bush have disciplined my sense of outrage into a sixpack state. I don't blow up about every little thing, and I spend as little energy as possible in despising the despicable. I use my savings to look at the situation in unusual ways. I usually keep them to myself until something with better credentials airs them, as Mr Remnick has now done. While I don't believe that any local groups or individuals sabotaged New Orleans as a way of ensuring ethnic cleansing, I do believe that reckless disregard for the city's defenses was motivated by a dream of letting nature do the dirty work.

Putting this entry next to the preceding one, I feel a tension between the literate class that I belong to - a class whose business it is to look at and report upon human experience - and a commerical class that is not interested in "people" or "humanity," but only in "I" and "we." This thought disciplines my outrage even more strictly than the Bush Administration! When we write about its horrors, who, besides us, is listening?

Jambalaya de Crony

New Orleans developer and banker Joseph C Canizaro emerges today in two New York Times stories as an important behind-the-scenes adviser and campaign contributor, and also as a man who will have a major say in how New Orleans will be rebuilt. Interestingly, Mr Canizaro is not a native New Orleanian. He came to town from Biloxi in his late twenties. In spite of that, he has worked his way into the centers of local power. He does not appear to have ever served as an elected official, however, and as a private citizen now, Mr Canizaro is under no obligation to speak to newspaper reporters. So I was tickled by Times reporter Gary Rivlin's delicate handling of Mr Canizaro's assumption of practical power.

Mr. Canizaro, who earlier this year hosted a fund-raiser in his home for the mayor, tiptoed around the topic of his behind-the-scenes role. Only when pressed did he acknowledge that he is fully engaged in the creation of the advisory council: "The mayor and I have spoken numerous times about getting the commission together," he said, but he stressed that ultimately the mayor, and no single private individual, would fill out its roster.

"This is the mayor's thing," he said, over a breakfast of ham and eggs in Baton Rouge last week. "I'm just doing what I can to help."

This contrasts quite starkly with an earlier bit of reporting in the same article.

Since Katrina, Mr. Canizaro has spent much of his time in Utah, where he owns a second home. In mid-September, when the mayor invited a group of business leaders to Dallas to discuss the city's future, the mayor took the time for a phone conversation with Mr. Canizaro.

"It was an incredible thing to witness," said one participant in the Dallas meeting, who did not want his name used because he was talking about a private gathering. "The mayor stood there on the phone, nodding and jotting down notes, as if Joe were passing on bullet points directly from the president."

Mr Canizaro may be the nicest, noblest man ever to go into real estate; I don't mean to say anything about him personally. He seems exemplary of an entire class of wealthy but insulated American businessmen whose principal skill - aside from their grasp of the balance sheet, if they've got that - is a synthetic candor, by turns oleaginous or tart, that will call a spade almost anything but a spade. In our democracy, it's the guys with the money who call the shots. Elected officials merely implement them. It is no wonder that voter turnouts keep dropping.

Rufus Wainwright at Satalla


I discovered Rufus Wainwright on a compilation that Ms NOLA burned for me earlier this year. I was listening to it while surfing the Blogosphere, and everything sounded okay until I was quite suddenly gripped. And I was even more gripped by the song that followed. Somehow none of text information had made it onto the disc, so I had to wait for Ms NOLA could tell me that the songs that I'd fallen so hard for were "Oh What A World" and "I Don't Know What It Is," from Mr Wainwright's CD Want One.  

At the beginning of the summer, I put Want One and Want Two away. Not literally; I just needed some time away from the overwhelming phenomenon of Rufus Wainwright. I didn't know which to fear more, intoxication or overexposure. And I had two problems. The first was his flamboyance. I couldn't decide how to take this. If it was just gay spectacle, I would inevitably tire of it and wind up embarrassed by my poor taste. The second problem was his eccentric enunciation. Most of his songs turn out to be incomprehensible to me until I've seen the lyrics in print. On the hunch that, after a sufficient break, these questions would be cleared up the moment I heard Mr Wainwright's work again, I gave it a rest.

The hunch turned out to be correct. The next time that I heard Rufus Wainwright was last Saturday night, and I was in the same room, along with a few hundred other New Yorker Festival goers, at the world-music club Satalla, near Madison Square Park. With his song, "The Art Teacher," he convinced me that his flamboyance is far more musical than sexual (if that makes any sense), and that his decadent way with words is not a problem, because his voice is pure gold.

Maybe I was helped along to these conclusions by the conversation that Mr Wainwright had with Andy Young before he moved to the piano. The event had been billed as a "conversation," coyly offering no assurance that music would be played, and I was prepared not to be disappointed if it wasn't. (Of course, I knew from the moment that I walked into the club and saw the piano that there would be music. And now I would know to anticipate it just on the strength of the artist's zest for performing.) The topic that kept coming up, again and again, in the interview and in the Q&A alike was - opera. I was ready for this, having read a recent Anthony Tommasini story about Mr Wainwright in the Times. Mr Tommasini does not write about popular music. The point of his piece was to report that Rufus Wainwright not only loves opera but knows about it. I'd had an earlier tip from the DVD, Rufus Wainwright Live at the Fillmore, a fantastic freebie thrown in to the Want Two jewel box. How does this open? With, of all things, "Absence," the third of Hector Berlioz's six songs, Les nuits d'été. It is likely that most of the audience at the Fillmore took "Absence" to be a Wainwright composition, larkily tossed off in French. There was not a touch of "classical" in the performance, but unlike other refittings of classical music for popular venues, this one was utterly true to the spirit of the original. I was breathtaken.

"Opera needs me," Mr Wainwright said more than once on Saturday night. We'll see. The possibility of operatic innovation seems as immured in stone as Excalibur, and in "Gay Messiah," the singer proposes himself as John the Baptist, not Arthur. But there is something about his great big voice and his great big "temperament" that bodes well for something both new and satisfying. (Country music might also in danger of upheaval; Mr Wainwright scampishly observed that it's in need of "gay dust." For my part, I think that a new opera is more likely.) To tell the truth, Rufus Wainwright is a "popular" singer only insofar as he makes use of pop instruments and pop tropes. His compositional rigor, his eagerness to bend forms to suit his material, and his fearless commentary are all more characteristic of composers like Philip Glass than they are of Mr Wainwright's great admirer, Elton John. I ought to add that his senses of harmony and melodic invention are like no one else's. That can also be said of Elvis Costello, but I think that Rufus Wainwright is more powerfully drawn to that suspect article, beauty. So am I.

Rufus Wainwright is a very handsome young and talented gay man who, thanks, perhaps, to all of that, combined with some family history, has already been through a couple of personal hells. There is no denying a muted but persistent bitterness in his work, although it is more a flavor than an emotion. For the time being, he carries himself with a reckless swagger that seems to invite catastrophe - but the act is so finished that it's more ironic than worrisome. He is a great entertainer who may someday become a real legend, simply for having survived. If he hasn't done so already, I hope that he finds a nice boyfriend who will take good care of him. Rufus Wainwright is dangerously gifted.  

Cleaning out my bag on Monday, I came across the flier that was handed out as we trooped into Satalla. And acted on it pronto. The best seats available by the time I interacted with an excluvely robotic Ticketmaster were in Row P. I grabbed.

September 28, 2005

Trains and Gains

Otis White writes in today's Times about something that occurred to me in the early days of the Katrina disaster: why did nobody think to evacuate people by train? If anybody did have that idea, it was shot down and not widely discussed. Earth to United States: railroads are the future, not the past.

If the federal government needed another reason to support the development of modern, high-speed passenger rail, then here it is. Not only can it reduce congestion, save energy and strengthen regional economies, in times of emergency it could be a critical third way out.

Mr White's piece is available to all; that is, it isn't Times Select.

In other news: Citigroup analyst George Friedlander puts it very well:

A clear case of justice DeLayed.



Booksignings at the New Yorker Festival: I showed up for two on Saturday afternoon, and they were very different. Plenty of people were on hand to have Ian McEwan sign their books at one o'clock - although not nearly as many as were already lining up, hours in advance, for Stephen King, at least two of whom had spent the night on the sidewalk outside the Festival headquarters, the Union Square branch of Barnes & Noble. Gathering up books for Mr McEwan to sign, I managed to bring one, Black Dogs, that he had already signed. Well, that was bright. Showing off as usual, I'd brought my English editions of Atonement and Saturday, with their superior covers. I said how much I liked the jacket for Saturday, which for all I know may be the view from Mr McEwan's Fitzrovian abode. He preferred, however, Atonement's jacket, with its pictures of a girl whom the author assured me was not to the manner born but rather a Cockney waif whom some booking agency had discovered. I had wondered about the girl myself, without coming to any conclusions. I also got Mr McEwan to sign a used copy of The Innocent that I bought a few years ago at that used bookstore on Connecticut Avenue, NW, not far from Kramerbooks. Do you think I ought to have asked him to sign Black Dogs twice? He just might have complied. 

When I came back at four for George Saunders, whose Brief and Terrible Reign of Phil has jumped to next place on my fiction list, as soon as I finish On Beauty (something I'm in no hurry to do), I asked the big guys in suits where the line formed. They waved me right up to the stage, where there was no line. There was a very long line for Flanimals, the children's book by actor Ricky Gervais. But none for Mr Saunders. I was sure that I'd been misdirected, but after a bit of awkward ballet, I was whooshed to the table where Mr Saunders sat signing books for no one in particular. He was very game about the situation. I saw at once that other, more prominent authors would have drawn readers of literature to their signings, and that the whole setup was all but bound to humiliate Mr Saunders - who, as I say, was not humiliated. He offered his hand, and we talked about his interview at Maud Newton with Roy Kesey. (Don't ask me how I chanced on that.) Commenting on the length and depth of the interview, I asked if having conducted it via email had been a contributing factor. The very model of the cool author, Mr Saunders smiled sheepishly and told me that his wife had been out of town at the time, and that he'd been a bit lonely.

There was also a kiosk demonstrating The Complete New Yorker, which is a set of eight computer discs. Each disc holds roughly a decade's worth of complete issues. Ads, goings-on, inside back covers, the works. What tops everything is that the resolution of the drawings is so superior to that of the Complete Cartoons. I told the presenter that my copy had arrived the night before, literally as I was on my out the door to hear Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen read. "That's creepy," he said. 

September 27, 2005

Modern Architecture


What can one say about this? Well, one can say that newly rich Americans are going through another period of really bad taste. Having money to spare, they can build castles that, if they were really castles, would be as unaffordable as they are improbable. Look at that cut stone in the turrets. Here in New York, we call this sort of thing "Garden State Shitface," after a prominent company, Garden State Brickface, that provides remodeled walkups with an unconvincing patina of venerability.

What's especially lovely here is the scale of the turrets versus the scale of the entry. In real castles, entry is, well, difficult. Castles are not easy to get into. Their gates are not the warm welcoming Arts & Crafts portico that we see here. As for medieval towers, they rarely sport generous, lower-storey windows, such as the one on the left, beyond the entry. What I'm dying to know is whether the three graduated windows on the tower at the right really do signify a staircase to some marvelous attic chamber. I'm inclined to think that, if they do, the space is also accessible by elevator.

But what's really clear, after a long view, is that the entire façade, insofar as it is not dedicated to a Plasticville idea of the middle ages, is really a sort of amplified sweet English cottage, to be populated by vicars and maiden aunts. A century ago, the great architect Edwin Lutyens  found the secret of providing very rich people with houses that didn't, somehow, look very rich, and his work has been much imitated in the past twenty years. But this is a house that makes its inhabitants look ridiculous. Even Enid Lambert would sniff at this fantasy - to her credit.

September 26, 2005

On Buying Burgers for Your Dorm

It will take a while, and several entries at least, to do justice to the impact of The New Yorker Festival. Working out the implications of Malcolm Gladwell's talk on Saturday morning alone will take ages, and probably nudge me a little further and a lot faster along my career.

But here's something that happened during the weekend that, while not sponsored by The New Yorker, tied in very well with everything else. On Saturday night, before heading over - too late for comfort, it turned out - to Satalla, a club where Rufus Wainwright would entertain us - we found ourselves at the Shake Shack. Ms NOLA and I were delighted to find that we were introducing our companion, Graf von D, to the Shack. Graf is a burger aficionado, and the Shake Shack has been on his list of destinations. But, probably like every native New Yorker, he could not really believe that there is a pavilion in the middle of Madison Square Park that dispenses boardwalk fare. Exclaiming in delight, he judged the Shack Burger to be better than the offerings at In & Out, the Los Angeles chain.

This drew the attention of a young man seated nearby. He must have been an Angeleno, because he was bursting with joy at the opportunity to sing the praises of In & Out. He seemed very young. His face was still a teenager's, and I actually wondered, worried, what he was doing out alone on a Saturday night in the Big Apple. He spoke with the unmodulated enthusiasm of an eager ten year-old. I couldn't follow much of what he said, because, like all enthusiastic youngsters, he assumed that I knew what he was talking about. Graf von D, of course, actually did know what he was talking about. The two guys were promptly engaged in a litany of four-by-fours and three-by-elevenses. Wrapping up, the boy noted that In & Out only takes cash, so "if you're buying burgers for your dorm you've got to carry a lot of money." He said this looking at me square in the face. It was very alarming. Did he think that I faced this problem, this buying of burgers for my dorm?

When I told her about it, Kathleen was not alarmed. "He simply thought you were a professor."

Spending so much time with Ms NOLA in settings where youth was always well-represented, and talking with the very intelligent Graf almost as if we were old friends, I had forgotten that I am in fact just a couple of dozen months shy of sixty.

September 25, 2005

Book Review

Note: The freshman-orientation intensity of this year's The New Yorker Festival has left your correspondent prostrate. Nevertheless, his determination and commitment to this new feature of the Daily Blague has kept him at his desk for nearly two hours of unremitting funk. He thanks Handel for the violin sonatas that have made the work proceed more comfortably than it would have done otherwise. He is glad that you could not hear his continual whining of Do I have to?

There's a lot of interesting stuff in the Book Review this week, but nothing that calls out to me for instant purchase. In fiction, there E L Doctorow's The March, reviewed by Walter Kirn. The March is an historical novel that recounts the horrors of Sherman's march through Georgia in 1864. Mr Doctorow is not on my list; I haven't read anything since Ragtime, which I found irritatingly spotted with anachronisms. But Mr Kirn's review has a lot of interesting things to say about war, and I hope that it will appear in a collection of the writer's non-fiction.

Of the other fiction covered, only two novels seemed to be of any interest, and then not much. These are 26a, by Diana Evans: about the unraveling of intimacy between the twin daughters of a mixed marriage (set in London); and Vita, by Melania G Mazzuco (translated by Virginia Jewiss): a contemporary Italian writer utilizes surviving documents to recreate the immigrant experiences of young siblings in the New York of a century ago; evidently, at least one of their descendants returned to the South of Italy. Sven Birkerts observes,

In truth, fiction and nonfiction belong to separate spheres: we process them differently, projecting via fancy with the one, weighing and judging with the other. Taken together, they can cerate problems. Late in the novel, for example, against all storytelling wisdom, Mazzucco tells us how things finally worked out for Vita and Diamante, in a storke robbing the final chapters of all natural suspense. Here her two engines are one too many.

I so completely disagree with Mr Birkerts's "separate spheres" doctrine that I'm tempted to read Vita just to see if those last chapters are made disappointing by prior revelations. Alas, where would I find the time to conduct such an experiment?

The big book on the non-fiction side is Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work, which reviewer Michael Gorra pronouces "the best contemporary introduction" to its subject. There are also two new additions to the Library of America, both collections of the work of James Agee. (Film Writing and Selected Journalism and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction - both edited by Michael Sragow.) I am tempted to buy the first volume, because Agee is often held out as the first important film critic; but I suspect, on the basis of remarks about Preston Sturges and Jean Arthur quoted in the review, that I would find the author to be unsympathetic. John Leonard uses the review as an occasion for sketching Agee's reckless life, and I once again registered that Agee's careless excessiveness in the booze and nicotine departments may be more interesting than his writing; his example makes an alluring memento mori.

There should have been so much more that he never wrote. He didn't because he couldn't. From blackouts to coronary thrombosis i not one of the 12 steps. He ought to have paid more attention, if not to his worried doctors, then to his own review of The Lost Weekend, which spoke of "the workings of the several minds inside a drinker's brain," "the narcissism and self-deceit which are so indispensable," "the self-loathing and self-pity which are so invariable" and "the sudden annihilating loneliness and fear of God."

There is also Garrison Keillor's review of a biography of the even briefer self-destructive career of country music star Hank Williams, who died, astonishingly, at the age of twenty-nine (Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams, by Paul Hemphill). And Tracy Kidder's memoir of serving as a second lieutenant in Vietnam (My Detachment). Verlyn Klinkenborg almost chastises Mr Kidder for his earnestness.

But there is something else at work here, too. By being tough on his young self, Kidder knows, I think, that no one will laugh too hard at the man he used to be, who would have been wounded most by laughter. And yet if you refract the irony of this memoir a little differently, the result is high comedy. This absurdly earnest young man is guilty of not much more than being young and absurd. From time to time, he imagines a movie camera tracking his motions. If he were a more sympathetic director, the audience would be rolling in the aisles.

If I thought that Mr Klinkenborg and I were on the same wave-length, I would get a copy of My Detachment on the strength of that passage alone.

Also covered are books about the great explorers of Western history (Off the Map: Tales of Endurance and Exploration, by Fergus Fleming), mounting poorism in American schools (The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America), the romance of nocturnal Gotham (New York Night: The Mystique and its History, by Mark Caldwell), counting cards and beating the market (Fortune's Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street, by William Poundstone), and Nancy Drew (Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak; yes, Virginia, Carolyn Keene had multiple personalities). Nicholson Baker and his wife, Margaret Brentano, have compiled a selection of graphic art from The World, Joseph Pulitzer's populist newspaper: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911). Reviewer Jonathan Mahler reminds us that rescuing the last remaining complete collection of original issues of The World from dispersal on eBay is one of the sometimes quixotic-seeming projects that Mr Baker has thrown himself into; since the collection was eventually housed at Duke, I wonder what kind of library catalogue they keep there.

Finally, Adam Goodheart wonders if the world that welcomed John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might not have turned a few too many revolutions to take a matching interest in the gratin of Venice and the incineration of the city's recently-reopened opera house, La Fenice ("the phoenix"). To me, the most memorable thing about the earlier book is the statue of the Bird Girl, reproductions of which I see in catalogue after catalogue. In other words, I don't remember a thing, not really - although Mr Goodheart refreshed my memory. John Berendt is an almost hypnotic storyteller, but when you snap out of the spell, the stories lose their interest.

I can't even think about, much less read, Nora Krug's essay, "The Corrections," which is about the sloppy state of book editing today. I'm still trying to gel my recollection of Jonathan Franzen's voice, which I heard in person on Friday night. Ms Krug's subject is of great interest to me, however, and I'll let you what she has to say when I pull myself together.

September 24, 2005


Jessie.JPG      Gerard.JPG

Now that I've gone to the trouble of capturing these images, I begin to suspect that you had to be there. Certainly the resemblance between the two film moments is reinforced by vocal expressiveness. At left, Jessie Royce Landis, playing Cary Grant's mother, surrenders to the nonsense of even thinking that anybody would want to kill her son. She's the last in the elevator to laugh, but when she does, it's with an almost Viennese light-headedness that even Gloria Swanson couldn't have pulled off. On the right, Gérard Depardieu pretends to surrender to the nonsense of thinking that he could have been talking pejoratively about a certain sexual preference. In both cases the risible proposition happens to be exactly right, but that's incidental. Once you've seen North by Northwest, M Depardieu's little flutter in Le Placard (The Closet) becomes twice as funny. Of course, the plot of Le Placard will take M Depardieu's character deep into another kind of Viennese light-headedness. Now, back to your fine weekends!

September 23, 2005

Waiting, Again

Another storm - it's hard to believe. I don't know what to expect. A lot of flattened buildings along the Texas Gulf Coast, and a lot of flooding. As in New Orleans, parts of Houston sit below sea level, owing to subsidence of the water table. Flooding is normal in Houston. I asked Miss G last night if she remembered the time I brought her home from day care on my shoulders, like St Christopher. She did indeed. Neither the day school nor her mother's apartment was flooded, but the streets were, and I seem to recall the water on Montrose Boulevard reaching my thighs. It was fun, sort of. Miss G also remembered the time on Nantucket - my only visit there, in 1983 - when I had to stride through the surf to pull her in through an extraordinary undertow that even gave me some trouble. These were my only waterborne heroics, and both involved my daughter.

Ms NOLA and Miss G are both firmly of the opinion that there is nothing that the President can do in dealing with Hurricane Rita that will rehabilitate him. I'm not so sure - but that's only because I won't let myself get set up for another disappointment. How the man has made it this far is beyond me. Now come revelations that top everything. I am not going to link to the National Enquirer's Web site, because it's easy enough for you to find if you're interested, but what do you think the most embarrassing (and not fantastically unlikely) allegation about the President would be?

Meanwhile, the weather here is all but glorious. How can there be meteorological terror in another corner of the country? The combination of fatigue - September 2005 ought to be remembered as "Katrina Month" - and cognitive dissonance - I'm sitting quietly in my room, sipping tea, thinking of reading On Beauty and having spaghetti alla carbonara for dinner at a time when two family members will be hit hard by Rita - makes it difficult to know what to take seriously. I wish Kathleen were home.

When Kathleen travels, she is under strict orders to contact someone in New York - preferably me, but I won't feel slighted if she checks in with the office - before noon. At 12:25 today, Kathleen's secretary noted that Kathleen hadn't opened any of her emails this morning. I took a Xanax. I spoke to Miss G, who still hadn't reached her mother. Finally, at 12:48, Kathleen called. The story is always a good one. Having rushed to the conference from another hotel, she moderated a panel and then left her backpack on the podium when it was over. So she couldn't call me during the following panel. She was just about to borrow someone else's phone (does she think I was born yesterday?) when the morning meeting finally broke up. I know perfectly well that what happened was that Kathleen just got lost in the bustle of the conference. Exactly the opposite, really: everything that wasn't the conference was lost to her. I can hear her looking down at her watch and, seeing that noon was history, muttering merde. So to speak.

September 22, 2005


My dear daughter, Miss G, arrived for dinner at 7:30 and said, "Can we watch CNN?"

Miss G doesn't watch CNN as a matter of course, but she's understandably agitated about Hurricane Rita, which is going to make a landfall, so the experts say, somewhere between Corpus Christi and Galveston, and there's no way that the storm isn't going to wreak a lot of horrendous havoc. Ms G's mother lives in Galveston, and was to have evacuated herself during the evening. Problem was, she left no messages for Miss G during the evening. Nor could Ms G reach her uncle in Houston, who might have had some good information. It's terrible to be without information about the near and dear. Since I go bananas when I can't get through to Kathleen on the simplest of business trips, I never, ever tut tut somebody else's concern, no matter how likely it is that the worried-about person is safe and sound and busy doing other things.

So we watched CNN. And what we watched was the Jet Blue emergency landing. I hope that you missed this remarkable nonevent. Nobody was killed, and in fact nothing but a landing gear was damaged. Even the plane will be fine. But for two hours, instead of eating dinner, Miss G and I watched the plane land. That's a long time, no? Listen, I'm not complaining. Clearly, everybody waited until everything was just right for a plane to land without its forward landing gear. You'll probably have seen a tape of that by now. The plane coming down, nose up, slowing down, gradually putting its weight on the defective gear, and then the flames that turned out to be inconsequential. (Best line ever: Larry King asking, "Is that fire?") Finally, the plane came to rest, somewhere in the desert of LAX's airstrips. God knows what the passengers who had boarded a JFK-bound flight at Burbank made of it. Well, they were lucky of course. They will have a good story for life. Except that every expert who spoke about the situation insisted that it was not a story.

All right, the landing gear failed to retract after takeoff. A serious problem, if only from the standpoint of fuel consumption. Instead of heading to New York, the plane circled over Los Angeles - and the ocean into which it dumped a lot of its fuel - for almost three hours. Toward the end, the continued looping was attributed to the need to "burn off fuel" - what little remained. Fine and dandy. But about an hour before the story came to an end, it was clear that the only way that this Jet Blue Airbus was going to blow up was in a Jerry Brookheimer movie. So why the story?

I've never said that, if I did watch television, I couldn't be hooked. On the contrary!

From the Rooftop Playground


In the lower right of this photograph, just beyond the green playing field (which comprises the roof of a field house), you will make out some fencing. The plain fencing borders the playing field. The blue, angled fencing beyond it protects a preschool playground (also rooftop). When I took this shot, there were no children on the playground. Now they're back out there, screaming their heads off. They're at just the right distance from my windows to be charming.

I don't know when the playground opened, but it has something to do with Leighton House, the really very tall building to the right that went up in 1989. The old Rheinlander Center, a recreational building dating from the Fifties, was demolished (the Center itself moved downtown), and the developers fixed up the parish house of Holy Trinity Church. That must be when the playground opened. I don't remember when I first noticed the screaming enough to look for the source, but it can't have been long after the children began playing beneath the blue fence, because I have no ability to shut out extraneous noise. The screaming is eternal, but the children are not. This first bunch of preschoolers, who may have been five at the time, are getting out of college this year. They have been replaced by fifteen or sixteen classes of identically-sounding screaming children. I hope to be around for the first crop's first children - which in New York may require another fifteen years.

Is this an old man's reflection?

September 21, 2005

Hee Hee

It's rude to gloat, but I can't help it. Read "Katrina's Cost May Test GOP Harmony," a Washington Post story by Shailagh Murray and Jim VandeHei. Republican Senator Lincoln D Chafee

predicted Republicans will increasingly be faced with the choice of propping up Bush or protecting their own. "I think they're going to collide," Chafee said of the two options.

Of course, Rita may make a hero out of the President.

The Awful Truth

The idea that I am going to state here for the first time is really nothing but the convergence of many observations, most of them not new, that by means of some internal attraction have gravitated toward one another, bumping through the racket in my head. I can't put a date on the moment of crystallization, but I can say that it was the opposite of a "Eureka" moment. Archimedes was working toward the solution of a problem. I was just minding my own business whistling "Dixie" - "Is It True, What They Say About Dixie?" to be exact - when the idea sloshed over me like a barrelful of cold water. It was a new way - new to me, anyway - of understanding how this country got to the situation that it's in.

I discussed the idea with Kathleen, who made lots of refining objections even while she agreed more or less from the start. I may have ventured it in casual conversations with M le Neveu and Ms NOLA. It popped up parenthetically in some Front Pages, as the home page of Portico was called before I started blogging. For the most part, though, I kept it to myself for months. Although I thought it explained a great deal with a satisfying elegance, I thought that broaching it here would simply upset people. But when I read Paul Krugman's column this morning, I knew that it was time to get my idea into presentable shape, because Mr Krugman had said much the same thing, with just enough difference for me to claim a little attention for mine.

In "Tragedy in Black and White," Mr Krugman traces the origins of the Katrina disaster - the human part of the disaster, not the storm itself - to the Civil Rights Act. (See below for the full text.)

But in a larger sense, the administration's lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina had a lot to do with race. For race is the biggest reason the United States, uniquely among advanced countries, is ruled by a political movement that is hostile to the idea of helping citizens in need.

Race, after all, was central to the emergence of a Republican majority: essentially, the South switched sides after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, states that had slavery in 1860 are much more likely to vote Republican than states that didn't.

And who can honestly deny that race is a major reason America treats its poor more harshly than any other advanced country? To put it crudely: a middle-class European, thinking about the poor, says to himself, "There but for the grace of God go I." A middle-class American is all too likely to think, perhaps without admitting it to himself, "Why should I be taxed to support those people?"

You may think that this is far-fetched. To me, it has been God's own truth for quite a while. The aspect that has captured my attention is the connection between the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1960, 1964, and 1968 (see Wikipedia entry) and the erosion of American public spirit. The first unpleasant thing to say is that solid groups almost always reaffirm their identity by demonizing an excluded group - so there was nothing uniquely wicked about White America's disgusting treatment of American Blacks. If I were to write "Black America" there, I'd be committing an anachronism, because prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act there was no "Black America." America was a country for Whites only; Blacks were suffered.

The Civil Rights Acts proclaimed that Blacks were equally American. At first, this was just a law, something to be got round or accommodated. After all, nobody could require Whites to like the new arrangement. The initial response was "White Flight," private schooling, and recourse to clubs. This was the first step in the abrasion of our social fabric, because it spelled the end of White commitment to public projects. Now that the res publica was as accessible, at least in theory, to Blacks as it was to Whites, White America would take care of itself without relying on the government. Or by co-opting the government through pork. Civic projects intended for the good of one and all, however, dried up, and the United States became two countries living side-by-side. The only crossing over was done by Black bureaucrats and, of course, Black servants.

The second unpleasant thing that I have to say is that the initial Black response to the Civil Rights Acts was equally regrettable, and possibly even tragic. Tragic in flowing inexorably from centuries of injustice; tragic precisely to the extent of its foreseeably. If Whites wanted their own America, well, so did Blacks. Many young Black men went out of their way to make White America's worst fears seem to come true.

As the decades passed, and increasing numbers of Blacks achieved eminence in America, racism came to be replaced, at least in most people's minds, by poorism. My bet is that Dick Cheney does not harbor a well-concealed contempt for Condoleezza Rice. He accepts her - her. Many powerful and privileged White Americans have opened their arms to the Blacks who have scrambled to their altitudes, and I don't think that the sincerity of the welcome should be questioned. But in the vast middle of the body politic, where people are neither rich nor poor, such openness does not appear to have taken root. Middle-class Whites probably do bite their tongues and pretend to be gracious. Blacks certainly attest that they can see through the pretence. It is not clear to me that either American wants to unite. Coexistence, yes, with minimal services in common.

And nothing for the poor. "Why should I be taxed to support those people?" It would not surprise me to learn that this is a biracial attitude. After all, the Civil Rights Acts opened the door; anyone not persevering enough to escape the pen deserves to stay there. This is poorism, and it is as bigoted as racism. Whereas racism belabors skin color with imaginary negative attributes, poorism just as blithely assumes that comfortable people deserve their comfort because they have worked for it without outside help. Almost nobody in this country gets anywhere without outside help. Sure, there are isolated cranks who make the occasional fortune, but it is nonsense to downplay the role of connections in achieving social and financial success. That is why little Manhattanites are routinely confronted with batteries of admissions tests to pre-schools. It is true that connections, in America, signify open doors, not magic carpets; they confer the opportunity to demonstrate skills, not a guarantee against the lack of skill. But they're vital, and luck has a lot to do with them. This cannot be acknowledged. The power of luck is perhaps this country's deepest taboo.

One could sigh and echo Mark 14:7 or Matthew 26:11. But even setting the awful plight of the poor to one side, we're left with the fact that there are two Americas that show little interest in maintaining their common fabric. That may be why no one will attend to our soaring debt, our unraveling health-care system, our impending fuel crises, and, perhaps most signally, the environmental concerns that Katrina dragged right to center stage, and dumped there as an awful truth. 

Note: As of today, The New York Times no longer makes every daily feature available at no cost. Home subscribers have access (as we damn sure ought to!), but others must subscribe to the on-line edition in order to see such things as Paul Krugman's column today. For that reason, I have copied the text and pasted it here, below the jump. I am not going to make a habit of doing this, and do so today only because the appearance of the column was of such great importance to me.

Note: As of today, The New York Times no longer makes every daily feature available at no cost. Home subscribers have access (as we damn sure ought to!), but others must subscribe to the on-line edition in order to see such things as Paul Krugman's column today. For that reason, I have copied the text and pasted it here, below the jump. I am not going to make a habit of doing this, and do so today only because the appearance of the column was of such great importance to me.

Tragedy in Black and White, by Paul Krugman

By three to one, African-Americans believe that federal aid took so long to arrive in New Orleans in part because the city was poor and black. By an equally large margin, whites disagree.

The truth is that there's no way to know. Maybe President Bush would have been mugging with a guitar the day after the levees broke even if New Orleans had been a mostly white city. Maybe Palm Beach would also have had to wait five days after a hurricane hit before key military units received orders to join rescue operations.

But in a larger sense, the administration's lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina had a lot to do with race. For race is the biggest reason the United States, uniquely among advanced countries, is ruled by a political movement that is hostile to the idea of helping citizens in need.

Race, after all, was central to the emergence of a Republican majority: essentially, the South switched sides after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, states that had slavery in 1860 are much more likely to vote Republican than states that didn't.

And who can honestly deny that race is a major reason America treats its poor more harshly than any other advanced country? To put it crudely: a middle-class European, thinking about the poor, says to himself, "There but for the grace of God go I." A middle-class American is all too likely to think, perhaps without admitting it to himself, "Why should I be taxed to support those people?"

Above all, race-based hostility to the idea of helping the poor created an environment in which a political movement hostile to government aid in general could flourish.

By all accounts Ronald Reagan, who declared in his Inaugural Address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," wasn't personally racist. But he repeatedly used a bogus tale about a Cadillac-driving Chicago "welfare queen" to bash big government. And he launched his 1980 campaign with a pro-states'-rights speech in Philadelphia, Miss., a small town whose only claim to fame was the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers.

Under George W. Bush - who, like Mr. Reagan, isn't personally racist but relies on the support of racists - the anti-government right has reached a new pinnacle of power. And the incompetent response to Katrina was the direct result of his political philosophy. When an administration doesn't believe in an agency's mission, the agency quickly loses its ability to perform that mission.

By now everyone knows that the Bush administration treated the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a dumping ground for cronies and political hacks, leaving the agency incapable of dealing with disasters. But FEMA's degradation isn't unique. It reflects a more general decline in the competence of government agencies whose job is to help people in need.

For example, housing for Katrina refugees is one of the most urgent problems now facing the nation. The FEMAvilles springing up across the gulf region could all too easily turn into squalid symbols of national failure. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which should be a source of expertise in tackling this problem, has been reduced to a hollow shell, with eight of its principal staff positions vacant.

But let me not blame the Bush administration for everything. The sad truth is that the only exceptional thing about the neglect of our fellow citizens we saw after Katrina struck is that for once the consequences of that neglect were visible on national TV.

Consider this: in the United States, unlike any other advanced country, many people fail to receive basic health care because they can't afford it. Lack of health insurance kills many more Americans each year than Katrina and 9/11 combined.

But the health care crisis hasn't had much effect on politics. And one reason is that it isn't yet a crisis among middle-class, white Americans (although it's getting there). Instead, the worst effects are falling on the poor and black, who have third-world levels of infant mortality and life expectancy.

I'd like to believe that Katrina will change everything - that we'll all now realize how important it is to have a government committed to helping those in need, whatever the color of their skin. But I wouldn't bet on it.


September 20, 2005

The Origins of Conversation

The idea of literary salons used to interest me a lot. I dreamed about having one. I saw salons as large tea parties, with groups of people getting together at set times to discuss interesting things. The host's job was to build up a list of interesting guests. I learned about competitive salon-running from Proust, but it was the salons of the Enlightenment that interested me. How did they work? It was hard to find out. Historians would mention them in passing, as a group, as if they were interchangeable. Every now and then, one would hear of Madame Geoffrin or Madame du Deffand in isolation. But one had no idea of what the events were like. Was there food? Was everyone assembled in a big circle? How often did guests have to sit through (endless) readings? In time, the desire to have my own salon, or even to attend somebody else's, flipped, turning into a desire to stay away and leaving only a residue of curiosity about the old days.

When I read Peter France's review of The Age of Conversation, I thought, better not. The review suggested that author Benedetta Craveri was trafficking in nostalgia for vanished, doomed elegance. And, as Mr France pointed out, nobody really knows what the conversation in great Parisian salons was really like, because nobody kept a transcript. (Almost all contemporary writing about salons was tendentious, aiming to flatter or dismiss the salons and their hostesses, not to inform a reader.) 

Craveri refers to this negative aspect of "the art of conversation," but she is more inclined to celebrate the positive achievements of the new politeness, which she rightly sees as quite separate from the royal court. Salon culture, centered in the great town houses of the nobility, is seen in Craveri's book rather as a refuge from public affairs, the creation of a beautiful world of leisure. If court politeness has the cold polish of marble, town politeness is "easy," relaxed, entertaining. From this perspective, true politeness is a moral quality, whereby the self is abnegated (concealed, Pascal would have said) in order to further the happiness of the group—although there is a tricky frontier here between complaisance (obligingness) and insincere flattery

Mr France also pointed to problems with Teresa Waugh's translations, although he did not identify any. My conclusion upon finishing the review was that I had a lot of other books to read.

This was no protection against fingering the book at the Met's gift shop. I happened to open to a particularly interesting passage, one that Mr French alludes to. It was about...

Continue reading about The Age of Conversation at Portico.

September 19, 2005

Where There's A Will, There's A Way

Three Duke students were determined to help out in New Orleans. And, despite everything, they did. They drove some ailing people from the Convention Center to a hospital in Baton Rouge.

"We felt pretty satisfied that we got involved," Mr. Hankla said. "But we all kept talking about how it was possible that three kids in a two-wheel-drive Hyundai were able to move people out of the city and the National Guard wasn't."

The story's by Ian Urbina.

As Good As Homemade


Throughout my little career in the kitchen, I have loved making soups. My tomato soup is a specialty of the house, as is my curried butternut squash soup. I make two mushroom soups, one a simple broth with marjoram, shallots, and chopped mushrooms, the other Julia Child's Velouté de champignons. And then there's Billi Bi, the great steamed-mussel soup that couldn't be more elegant. Don't forget chilled cucumber soup. Or Vichyssoise.

Most of the soups that I've listed hold for a few days, or longer; otherwise, I couldn't make them, since there are only two of us and only occasional guests. You will also note that most of the soups are purées. Soups with things in them don't last quite so well, and some don't last at all. Among these are New England Clam Chowder and minestrone. Not only doesn't minestrone hold, but it's impossible to make in small quantities. It is also a lot of work. I made it once, and it was almost okay.

One day, at the store, I was remembering lunch at my aunt's in New Hampshire. This was always a simple affair of soup and sandwiches and iced coffee. The soup was often Progresso minestrone. I was suddenly consumed by a desire to consume minestrone, but I thought I might do better than Progresso, and, boy, did I ever. I discovered Wolfgang Puck soups.

Wolfgang Puck New England Clam Chowder, French Onion Soup, Hearty Beef with Lentils Soup, and Old Fashioned Beef and Barley Soup. I don't know how they do it, but the manufacturers behind Wolfgang Puck soups have figured out how to put very good soup into cans. I could not make these soups any better myself. And the convenience! You don't even add water. Just heat the soup in a small saucepan and serve it with a bit of toasted baguette and a glass of wine. (Each can feeds two, but I can put one away all by myself.) This is really the way to enjoy life on one of those weekends when everybody in the house is deeply involved in a special project and nobody wants to spend a lot of time at the table. There's no reason to settle for a demoralizing snack.

Owing to the always-limited shelf space in Manhattan's supermarkets, the Food Emporium downstairs doesn't carry a dependable selection of Wolfgang Puck soups. Sometimes they've got nothing but Chicken Noodle and Tomato. That's why I looked for and found the Wolfgang Puck site. At first, I was disappointed, because nothing's on offer. Looking a little more closely, I had a voilà moment, and was soon at Foodlocker.com.

Now, the soup is cheaper downstairs that it is at Foodlocker. Depending on how much you're willing to buy at a given time, a can of soup costs between $3.15 (case price) and $4.49 (the four-can minimum - shipping included). Yes, that's pricey. But what you're getting here is a restaurant-quality product that I would have no shame in serving to guests. And I don't think that four dollars is a lot to spend on a nice lunch for two. It would cost twice that, at least, in the simplest neighborhood restaurant, and it wouldn't taste as good.

If you don't live one of the major American cities where Wolfgang Puck soups are distributed, then Foodlocker is your only option. Try it! You've read my recommendations; I'll vouch for all the ones I've listed. Maybe you've got a few friends who will go in with you on a case.

I'm not going to say anymore, lest my enthusiasm begin to seem suspect.

September 18, 2005

Book Review

It's very important to me to avoid novels that I won't like and works nonfiction from which I won't learn much of interest. I suppose it's important to anybody who's not a professional book critic. From forty-odd years of buying books, I have developed antennae that fairly reliably distinguish the appealing from the annoying. That may sound paradoxical - how can I judge something that I haven't read? But it has been tested. Every so often, somebody gives me a book about which I'd had misgivings, and the misgivings turn out to be right even though I'm hoping that they won't. And every once in a while I fall for an unexpectedly favorable word - which accounts for my having read The DaVinci Code. (I'll never listen to her again.)

The result is that the books that I write about here are books that I've liked. In an effort to avoid the appearance of saintliness, or of boosterism, or of indiscriminateness, therefore, I propose to run through The New York Times Book Review every weekend, and let you know why I'm not going to read most of the books covered. (I'd have written this yesterday, and had it read for you first thing this morning, but owing to "production delays," the paper didn't arrive yesterday morning until well after ten, by which time I was rolling out the vacuum cleaner and choosing a recording of Der Rosenkavalier to accompany Saturday's domestic straightening-up. I will try not to have too much fun dismissing books that, as I know full well, took their authors years of effort to create.

Five works of fiction are featured today (18 September 2005), and five are given capsule reviews. I am thinking of reading only one of them, Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I haven't read White Teeth, although it's here somewhere; aside from a piece in Granta, I haven't read Ms Smith's work. An academic satire sounds like a good place to begin. Interestingly, the Times's culture czar, Frank Rich (and long may he reign) wrote the review.

Why Not: a swashbuckler written ages ago by Marlon Brando (you read that correctly) and Donald Cammell, Fan-Tan? This is not for me. Wickett's Remedy, by Myra Goldberg, an apparently awkward and somewhat exploitative novelization of the 1918 flu epidemic doesn't make the cut. I must confess that I didn't give The Holding, by Merilyn Simonds, a chance; the first sentence of Sue Halpern's review stopped me cold. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's memoir-thriller of summer camp in the Fifties, The Mad Cook of Pymatuning, appears to have a lot of baseball and other activities of the kind that I worked so hard to avoid so many summers ago.I must confess that I didn't give The Holding, by Merilyn Simonds, a chance; the first sentence of Sue Halpern's review stopped me cold.

Stories are embedded in the earth, issuing from rock and loam to tell what came before the visible world.

Someone else will have to take a shot at interesting me in Ms Simonds's book. As for the capsules, all written by Gregory Cowles, I will quote the words that turned me away. Wounded, by Percival Everett: "modern-day western." Infidelities, by Josip Novakovich: "11 deadpan stories." Love, Work, Children, by Cheryl Mendelssohn: a hard choice, because I kept reading the review after the first wound, "schmaltzy setup and fussy prose," all the way to the end: "A novel of manners is supposed to depict the way people navigate the rules of their society, but this one - the second in a projected trilogy - seems content to fetishize the faded standards of the past." The Every Boy, by Dana Adam Shapiro: the proximity of "coming-of-age story" and "drowned under mysterious circumstances" - both phrases referring to the boy of the title - didn't stop me. "But he leaves behind an unusual journal, color-coded and thousands of pages long, that lets his grieving, estranged parents belatedly eavesdrop on Henry's strange fixations, his developing interest in girls and his frustrated efforts to define himself." That stopped me. Thousands of pages long? I can just imagine. Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino: "Though there's no narrative to hold everything together". Chris Ware's graphic novel, The Acme Novelty Library, gets a plug, in the form of an excerpted page (too reduced to be legible, however). Chris Ware depresses the hell out of me. I take his work to be a sign of something radically wrong with the United States, or perhaps with modern Western culture altogether. To me, that something is television. I don't watch it. You oughtn't to, either.

As for nonfiction, again, there's only one book that's got my interest, Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Barbara Ehrenreich is a hero to me, so I'd buy the book just for that. But Bait and Switch has gotten some carping, mildly nasty responses. most accusing Ms Ehrenreich of capitulating (in the form of this "sequel" to Nickel and Dimed) to the corporate culture that she despises. Reviewer Alexandra Jacobs also accuses Ms Ehrenreich on looking down on her fellow aspirants for middle-management happiness, something she certainly didn't do in the earlier book. I want to see for myself if this is true. Even if it is, I think that I can understand it: the people whom Ms Ehrenreich encounters in Bait and Switch presumably enjoyed educations. We'll see.

Why Not: there's a compilation of Times articles about class in America, but I don't need to make that bonfire any bigger right now. There's a book about "Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" that barely mentions Madonna - not that I'd have read it even if it did. There's a book about human beings and hunger to which reviewer Natalie Angier gave short shrift. There's a book by the Dalai Lama. There's a sociological study of love and money, and a biography about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, both dismally reviewed. Finally, a book that compares baseball and soccer.

The last page, a "Letter from Istanbul" by Ted Widmer," entitled "Death to the Crusaders," is about a book that I can't read, because it hasn't been translated from the Turkish. Metal Firtina ("Metal Storm"), by a science-fiction writer and a reporter, foresees an American invasion of Turkey in 2007 and concludes with the destruction of Washington, DC. It's selling like hotcakes, particularly to young men between eighteen and thirty. (If you follow the link, you'll find that the title has been changed to "Death to the Crusade.")

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September 17, 2005

Jittery over nothing

At her blog, the other day, Ellen Moody mentioned Janet Frame's An Angel at my Table, and I dimly recalled seeing part of a film adaptation. What I remembered wasn't pleasant, so although I rented the video right away, I didn't get round to watching it for a week. Yesterday, it was either sit through it or send it back unwatched. I sat through it. As you'll know if you've seen it, Jane Campion's 1990 movie is huge. It covers the extremities of life in completely new ways, largely by throwing narrative establishment out the window without losing the story to incoherence. There is a real sense of life's being "one damned thing after another," but instead of making the film inconsequent, this intensifies its flavor.

An Angel at my Table was Kerry Fox's second movie, but she may well have learned everything she'd ever need to know about carrying a film in the process of making it - including the manipulation of her weight. Her Little Orphan Annie mop of unruly red hair is hardly flattering; neither are the rotting teeth that don't get fixed until halfway through. But her fragility is so worrying that you can't let her go; you have to see her through. I felt awful pretty quickly after the adult Janet Frame, played by Ms Fox, succeeded her younger selves.

Misdiagnosed as schizophrenic by New Zealand doctors in the Forties, Janet Frame was subjected to hundreds of instances of electric shock therapy. She wrote her way through it and became a published author from the institution. As her talent was recognized, she received a great deal of help from supporters, and eventually got to England, where she turned into something like a normal young woman. A season on a Spanish island introduced her to love when her youth was passing. But she was always a writer, and a reader when she wasn't. It turns out that I always thought that what I'd seen years ago was My Brilliant Career.

I had woken up very early and in a bad mood. Comment spam has been particularly nettlesome lately. Spam in guise of comments, consisting of nothing but objectionable links and usually attached to very old entries, is a real violation. It seems so pointless and so malicious! (It isn't pointless, alas. The multiplication of links increases the search-engine rank of the linked sites Thanks to a plug-in, comment spam doesn't appear on my site, and it's very easy to get rid of. But it's very dispiriting to find out that a new comment that I've just been notified about is garbage. Wrong on two counts: it's garbage and it's not comment. I thought that disabling the comment facility for a few early hours today might stem the attack, but it didn't, and when I began watching An Angel on my Table I was already jittery.

Then there was the FreshDirect screw-up. The doormen and I were not aware of any attempt to delivery my groceries between ten o'clock and noon, the stated time-frame, but a FreshDirect driver claimed to have been here without finding anyone at home. Three or four phone calls later, I was once again waiting for a delivery, which in the event came at about three-forty. I wasn't inconvenienced, but I hated waiting for the buzzer, and trying to make sure that I wouldn't miss it.

When the movie was over, I sat down to work at a rather late hour in a state of near sea-sickness. But a few comments from real visitors cheered me up, and polishing off a long page set me to rights. (You can visit the page now, if you like, or you can wait until I "front" it here on Tuesday.)

September 16, 2005



Joe Jervis at Joe.My.God. has been turning his fine narrative skills to his experiences on and about 11 September 2001. A week after the attacks, he saved this drawing of the Twin Towers hugging from a schoolyard wall during a downpour. Although it's hard to tell now, the towers are weeping.


A new friend writes,

I am glad that you are living in a time when, even as you are holed-up in deep and soulful contemplation, you have this amazing internet as a resource! The whole world, in all its complexity and richness, a mouse-click away. And the ability to share your thoughts with so many people...

Not a day goes by without my thanking the powers that be for allowing me to live into the age of Web logs. Please pardon the immodesty, but I believe that blogging is what I was born to do. For decades, I cast about unsatisfactorily scribbling away. That I was a writer, I never doubted. But a writer of what?

Blog entries, that's what.

I am not a "creative writer." Over the past nine months I have finally acknowledged that I have no ambition to be a novelist, or to write fiction of any kind. I tried to write a haunting thriller in the Eighties, but the parts never quite cohered. Different people liked parts of it but nobody liked the whole. While I'm glad that there are novelists willing to do turn real people into characters, but I'm not ruthless enough. I have no genuine impulse to write a novel. I'd never have given it a thought if the form were it not so "privileged."

In short: it's possible to love novels and to want to write without writing a novel oneself.

At the same time, I am no journalist. I don't do research; I just try to get the dates right and the spelling correct. I would hate assignments and deadlines if I didn't set them myself. Almost everything that I write is moved by some actual event. Sometimes, it's true, the events are almost manufactured, in that I go to things in order to write them up, but I'm still relatively passive, waiting for things to happen. And why not? Life happens, especially in Manhattan, at a clip brisker than the nimblest hand can track. And when something does happen, there's so much within me that resonates with it! To switch metaphors, I don't think that I will ever get to the bottom of this well.

My dream is that a core of people who enjoy visiting this site will eventually start their own blogs, and that, as I said in an earlier entry ("Palaces"), we will all visit one another and comment on our different thoughts. It's going to take a while. Thoughtful people are often shy. And there is an age factor: older people who could really make a contribution are as yet inclined to dismiss blogging, while so many bright younger people are the victims of the Cultural Revolution of the Eighties and Nineties - they learned nothing in school, and everything that they really know, they taught themselves. So the soil is pretty thin, and I am very disheartened sometimes. I never think of giving, up however.

There are two objections to blogging that I can appreciate. You don't get paid, and the entries are ephemeral. As to the first, I believe that I will get paid, in the future, some small amounts, whether because I've joined a group of blogs that collects revenues in micropayments and then divides them up - easy as pie if computers are doing the work. (Perhaps I don't know what I'm talking about, though.) As it happens, I don't have to do this for a living, which of course is another factor working for rarity. But I don't worry about it much. As to ephemerality, I worry about that even less. I'm awed by the task ahead of me, and I think about it obsessively, but here's what's going to happen in November, when I go into the thirteenth month of doing this: I will dismantle all of last November's entries, and either fold them into pages at Portico or discard them if they can't stand on their own. So what I'm writing isn't, for the most part, going anywhere but across the hall. Since this involves almost doubling my work, I shall have to become mighty efficient!

But I'm so grateful for the chance to do this. You, gentle reader, are part of the blessing.

September 15, 2005

C'mon, Mr President

This just in from the ether. I've no idea of the provenance, but it does sound like Bill Maher, and I don't see why he wouldn't want to take credit for it.

C'mon, Mr. President, it's time for you to quit while you're behind.

By:  Bill Maher

America must recall the president.  That's what this country needs: a good old-fashioned California-style recall election complete with petitions, finger-pointing and a ridiculous cast of replacement candidates.

Just like Gray Davis had to do here in California, George W. Bush must now defend his job against...Russell Crowe!  Because at this point, I want a leader who will throw a phone at somebody.   Naomi Campbell can be vice president - only phone throwers, people!

Come on, Mr. President, this can't be fun for you anymore. You can't spend more of our money, because you used it all up. And you can't start another war, because you've used up the troops. And when it comes to reacting to hurricanes, you made your old man look like St. Francis of Assisi.

Your job has turned into the Bush family nightmare:  helping poor black people. The cupboard's bare, the credit card's maxed out and no one's speaking to you --- mission accomplished!

Now it's time to do what you do best:  lose interest and walk away, like you did with your military service and the oil company and the baseball team.  Time to move on and try the next fantasy job. How about cowboy or spaceman?

Oh, I know what you're saying:  "Hey, I've got three more years, and there's so many other things I want to.....touch."  Please don't.

I know. I know.  There's so much left to do:  war with Venezuela, eliminating the sales tax on yachts and diamonds, turning the space program over to the church, handing  healthcare over to Halliburton and Social Security to Fannie Mae, giving embryos the vote.

But none of that's going to happen now.  Why?  Because you're the first American president to lose a whole city.  Jimmy Carter never lost a city.  Herbert Hoover was a lousy president, but he didn't concede an entire metropolis to rising water and snakes.

You've performed so poorly you should give yourself a medal. You're a catastrophe that walks like a man.  On your watch we've lost almost all of our allies, the budget surplus, four airliners, two trade centers, a piece of the Pentagon and the city of New Orleans.  Maybe you're just not lucky.

I'm not saying you don't love this country.  I'm just wondering how much worse it could be if you were on the other side. Yes, God does speak to you.  And he's saying:  "Take a hint."

Jane Smiley in Person


Last night, I had an odd and discomfiting experience. You will have to read this all the way to the end to find out what it was; I hope that the experience will not be tedious. I went to my first Barnes & Noble reading-cum-book signing. The book in question was Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. The Barnes & Noble branch was a new one to me, the one at the corner of West 82nd Street and Broadway. I arrived early enough to get a fairly good seat in the back of the little "events" area on the second floor. I brought two Smiley books of my own, At Paradise Gate, the author's second novel, which I was about to finish reading for the first time, and Le paradis des chevaux, a translation of Horse Heaven that I hope to read at some point. Bringing a translation was pure showing-off, of course, and perhaps a little off-putting. But I have the feeling that there are not many copies of this book that bear the author's signature. Ms Smiley must have thought the array rather odd, if she thought about it at all. Book tours are said to be mighty fatiguing.

Although tall, Jane Smiley is slight. The word was "willowy" was I was young; I have a feeling that that term is no longer entirely unoffensive. The big surprise was in the timbre of her voice. Because she bears a resemblance to someone I knew when I was a boy, I expected her to have a deep, hearty voice, with a big laugh. In fact, her voice is rather high and reedy. (It also turns out that she bears the resemblance only when she stops to smile.) I speak only of the sound of her voice. Her manner of speaking is exactly what I was led to expect by her writing, which, while articulate, is essentially conversational.

She read from two parts of the book. The first was about her having been shaped as a novelist by the reading of novels as a pre-teen. The second was about the vital importance of novel-reading to liberal society. It's particularly urgent for leaders to read novels, Ms Smiley rightly claims, because the novel remains the only device that human beings have invented for enlarging the sympathetic imagination. Ms Smiley sees that the novel has wrought many changes in society during its thousand-year run, largely by conferring dignity and autonomy on subordinate persons, from outsiders to women. I will have more to say about this anon.

The writer had announced that she likes to do a couple of short readings and then proceed to a question-and-answer period. This was what I had hoped for, but I hadn't formulated any questions. I thought about it all through the reading. I wanted to come up with a question that was intelligent, focused on Jane Smiley's books, a little out-of-the-way but easily grasped, and interesting to everyone else. This last point was crucial. I have tended to dream up questions that underline my eccentricity while displaying the fact that I know a lot of minor, recherché details about the askee. I wasn't going to do that tonight. I caught Ms Smiley's eye on the third or fourth time that I raised my hand, and was sure to speak up. I referred to the theory of ambition that she developed in A Year at the Races, and asked if she applied this to would-be novelists as well. In response, she began, "Horse ambition," which surprised me, since I was already applying it to people. In the end, she agreed that the same principle was at work: going back to her first reading, she repeated that, as a child she learned about novels and what novels were about, and - she didn't say anything about ambition, because I suspect that for her "ambition" as applied to human beings is the old worst-man-wins affair - that, having discovered the possibility of novels, she gave writing novels a try herself. Just as that horse of hers had taken all those jumps, without being prodded to do so - and had learned to jump better in the process. (I've written more about "horse ambition" here.)

All of Ms Smiley's responses demonstrated a real gift for framing answers in the terms of her book. That's of course what the author is supposed to do - plug the book, "sell" it. But Ms Smiley did it very artfully. She fell back on the formula, "As I say in the book," very rarely.

I do have to note that the first questioner was a rogue, a nutty guy who mumbled something about having a theory of his own, a theory that disagreed with her theory, about the novel, and that he had self-published a book about this theory, and what did she think about that? To everyone's amazement, Ms Smiley said, "Well, why don't you come up here and tell us about your book?" The gasping was major. The wiry, highly-strung Asian man rattled off his theory in a completely unintelligible fashion, and when he came to a pause, the audience applauded desultorily, and Ms Smiley took that as a cue to poll the audience - did we want to listen to him, or to her. It didn't take long to settle that, but we all wondered what the nut would do. He simply strode away purposefully. I have a feeling that Ms Smiley's adroitness came from dealing with obstreperous equines. She certainly exhibited no fear of him.

One questioner asked the writer if she felt that her writing had been changed by the move from Ames, Iowa, where Ms Smiley taught in the famed writers' workshop for years, and Northern California, where she lives now. The answer - that it was giving up teaching and taking up horses that had had a transforming effect - I was with her completely. The novels that Jane Smiley has produced since the early Nineties have all been far more playful than the ones written before; there is a real caesura between A Thousand Acres and Moo, so much so that I owe Moo a re-reading; I wanted another Thousand Acres. (It was Horse Heaven that showed me where Ms Smiley was going.) She remains a very serious writer, but her range now extends to the absurd and the ridiculous and to the just plain funny. It didn't when she was starting out.

I muffed the signing part. For a change, I wanted the inscriptions to be "personalized," and with this in mind I had tucked one of my cards into Le paradis des chevaux. But the French thing caught Ms Smiley's attention (as intended, non?), and the card was swept aside. We chatted about the cheeseburgers in Good Faith. (Ms Smiley writes extraordinarily well about the pleasures of good old-fashioned American cuisine.) She flashed her smile and thanked me for coming. I tried to reply in kind but I felt bitterly disappointed. Why? Why had I wanted her to write "To R J Keefe," and why was I feeling like a stalker?

It could be that I had just read another one of Ruth Rendell's stalker novels. Stalker novels are something of a Rendell specialty. Thirteen Steps Down (hey! "13" again!), an ordinary-looking guy who's beginning to age and who has a tortured past and a very limited education - this ordinary guy stalks a rising model. He is convinced that, given the chance, he will win her heart. He thinks he's in love, but we're shown that he's longing for the celebrity life that the model leads. He wants the world to recognize an importance to which he has no claim whatever. In his pursuit, he is tripped up by surprises that an balanced person would have foreseen, and his attempts to clean up after himself invariably make things worse. There is nothing funny about any of this. Repellent as Mix Cellini is, you're as desperate as he is to work his way out of sticky fixes.

Now, I didn't want to capture Jane Smiley's heart. I'm doing fine in the heart department. What I wanted, as I very soon saw neon-lighted shame, was recognition as a writer. That is undoubtedly why I had relied on my Portico card, instead of letting the handler write my name on a Post-It, as she did for everybody else.

When I get round to writing about 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which will be sooner than you think, I hope to remember to hammer home the fact that I was able to dissect my own shady motives a lot more quickly than I might have done because I had just read a novel that, as lawyers say, was completely on point.

By the time I got off the crosstown bus, I was fine.

Une journée « manque de fun » (Récit hebdo)

J’en ai assez des obligations aujourd’hui, hélas. Le matin, il a fallu régler la facture. Je l’ai fait, mais d’une manière maladroite. (J’ai cacheté par exemple le cheque destiné à la société carte bancaire dans l’enveloppe de la société d’assurances.) Après le déjeuner, j’ai lu un roman à mon aise, persuadé que le rendez-vous chez la pédicure aurait lieu à quinze heures trente. En conséquence, j’ai dû téléphoner au Prof pour lui dire que la leçon ne pouvait pas commencer avant mon retour, quand ça se passe.

D’où est venu cette idée de quinze heures trente ? De mon ordinateur portable, une machine folle. Lorsque je synchronise mes rendez-vous entre le grand ordinateur et le portable, le logiciel du portable ajoute une heure précise au calendrier. Moi, je ne me souviens jamais de reconnaître cette débilité mesquine. Alors, j’ai été rappelé par le grand ordinateur du temps correct – trois minutes en avant ! J’ai volé à la clinique, j’ai fait le retour aussi vite. Et maintenant j’écris ce récit interminable.

Donc il faudra qu’on attende au lendemain pour expédier la facture !

NB: C'était hier que je redigeai tout cela, mais je n'ai aucune idée de le reviser.

September 14, 2005

Het Overstromen

Zounds! It has taken me a while to resume my regular blog-reviewing, checking out the provisional lists of blogs that I keep in my "Favorites" folders. Among the first in "Foreign Blogs" is Hollandaise, written by Jasper Emmering, a research physician in Amsterdam. I discovered the site just in time for Mr Emmering to take a vacation, from posting blog entries, anyway, and I got into the habit of skipping the link from "Favorites." Until today, and, oh, my, am I blushing. Why didn't it occur to me to check out Nederlander blogs after Katrina? I have copied the permalink to an entry in which Mr Emmering quotes an account of the 1995 Rhine flood. The flood destroyed a lot of property, but the evacuation of half a million people (and many more livestock) was effected without casualty. The event needs more study by all intelligent Americans. If Nederland can do it, so can we.

Be sure to look over all of Mr Emmering's flood-related entries.



A very good friend sent me a link to this photograph, on Astropix, of the Boomerang Nebula. It seems just the right thing to be looking at on this momentous day. Actually, yesterday was the momentous day, but I didn't know that. I had to wait for the Times to announce this morning that President Bush publicly took responsibility yesterday for the federal government's failure to do what it ought to have done for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Why I'm coming across the following allegations for the first time in a Times Op-Ed column by Maureen Dowd is a very disturbing question. But I do want to know more. (Follow the links.)

Even though we know W. likes to be in his bubble with his feather pillow, the stories this week are breathtaking about the lengths the White House staff had to go to in order to capture Incurious George's attention.

Newsweek reported that the reality of Katrina did not sink in for the president until days after the levees broke, turning New Orleans into a watery grave. It took a virtual intervention of his top aides to make W. watch the news about the worst natural disaster in a century. Dan Bartlett made a DVD of newscasts on the hurricane to show the president on Friday morning as he flew down to the Gulf Coast.

The aides were scared to tell the isolated president that he should cut short his vacation by a couple of days, Newsweek said, because he can be "cold and snappish in private." Mike Allen wrote in Time about one "youngish aide" who was so terrified about telling Mr. Bush he was wrong about something during the first term, he "had dry heaves" afterward.

The media appear to have taken off their gloves.

September 13, 2005

Looking Homeward

¶ An expat from New York looks back at her damaged, self-destructive homeland.

¶ But here's a fun graphic from the Washington Post. I find sustenance even in that silly green line. It's so low.

Ghastly But Perfect Joke

Here's one for the ages.

"So, Mr. President, what do you think about Roe vs. Wade?"

"Well, those poor people in New Orleans had to get out of there somehow."

(Thanks, PPOQ)


For anyone who has to buy a present for a thoughtful man this season, Madison Smartt Bell has written the one you're looking for: Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution (Atlas/Norton, 2005). This is an almost perfect book, really. It addresses the complete overhaul of chemistry, by a team of French scientists working under Antoine Lavoisier in the 1770s and 1780s, in terms that, while not difficult to follow, require some thought on the reader's part. The writer is a novelist who has undoubtedly had to teach himself everything that he writes about here. Lavoisier in the Year One is part of a series, commissioned by James Atlas, of "Great Discoveries," with David Foster Wallace on Infinity and Rebecca Goldstein on Gödel, and, yet to appear, David Leavitt on Alan Turing. This is what the world needs now: cogent science books for the serious lay reader.

Lavoisier in the Year One will appeal to readers male and female because of its star character. "Man of parts" is an understatement as applied to Antoine Lavoisier. He will always be celebrated as a major chemist, but in his day he held a portfolio of government and NGO roles, one of which - his membership in the General Farm, or hired-out tax-collection service - cost him his life at the height of the Terror, in 1794. He was gifted, but he was also ...

Continue reading about Lavoisier at Portico.

September 12, 2005


Ms NOLA observes that a couple of Southern women novelists - Donna Tartt, Valerie Martin - have published agonized commentary Katrina's aftermath in the British press. Why should that be? They may be having a harder time finding a pulpit here, where the press is still loath to abrade the Administration and eager to appear to the public as helpful and cooperative. Ms Martin's essay concludes very bleakly:

Only the mad libertines who cling to power as if for dear life can fail to see, in the belching fire and smoke that blacken the skies over the Dantesque scenes of suffering in New Orleans, that our nation is not more secure, but over-extended, desperate, and more vulnerable every day to the fury of the coming storm.

Michael D Brown surprised me by resigning his post at FEMA three days after being relieved of his "Gulf Coast duties." I thought it would take a little longer, to distance the two moves and thus dampen their impact.

And now, in Los Angeles, a major power failure. Let's cross our fingers and hope it's short.

No Comment


These two dodos make Louis XVI look good. Marie-Antoinette, even.

In other news, I'm exhausted. Seriously out of gas.

There have been four incarnations of Madison Square Garden, the arena that long ago drifted away from Madison Square. Perhaps because of all the fun I didn't have going to the circus at the third Garden, in the Fifties, I have never been in the current manifestation. I wouldn't go even to see myself win an award. In my opinion, the Metropolitan Opera House, which seats nearly four thousand people, is far too large. The Garden holds up to twenty. I don't want to be indoors with twenty thousand other people. Not for anything.

The Times this morning tells me that there's going to be a fifth Garden. That's good news. Another ugly building gotten rid of. Another souvenir of an unfortunate time in New York history - a time when New York tried to be just like everywhere else, only bigger. There has been a lot of talk lately about New Orleans as this country's most unusual city, but I'm sorry, that has got to stop. With its huge immigrant populations, half from foreign countries, half from within the United States, New York constitutes this country's Loyal Opposition. 

Why not build the next Garden in Long Island City, and make Manhattan a blessedly grown-up, sports-free borough?

September 11, 2005


To say that I hated the twin towers of the World Trade Center is an understatement. I hated them so much that I still hate them. I will always hate them. Exemplars of American banality at its most offensive, those two dumb ding-dongs shocked me when they were built. I used to wish (not alone in this, apparently) that they would just fall over. Empty, bien sûr.

The windy plaza. The misanthropically narrow windows. The rattling, freight-car elevators. The sense of something done on the cheap that turned out to be all too true. I can't even say "good riddance!", because the towers proved how wrong-headed rich and powerful men can be. That they were built at all remains unforgivable.

I am sane enough to hate the towers most for clouding my response to the real tragedy.

September 10, 2005

The Brown Maneuver

Anybody who's wondering how Michael D Brown can be relieved of his "Gulf Coast duties" while remaining head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency hasn't been paying attention. The White House has been so profoundly reconceived that the President, while remaining the Chatterbox-In-Chief, was relieved of his duties from the start. This arrangement allows Mr Bush to serve as a warm, lovable, and unthreatening guy whom the less attentive among us can look up to, while dragons like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld hand the country over to corporations. It also allows Mr Bush to concentrate his energies on running the George W Bush Campaign, a Scout troop for untalented cronies, such as Mr Brown, whose only real "skill" is lockstep loyalty.

I hope I'm exaggerating. Nothing of this is new, but the Brown maneuver is an elegantly simple display of Bushism at work.

September 09, 2005

Ohh Nooo!

Kathleen woke me up this morning with laughter. She was reading about Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who gave a speech in the Senate yesterday with a dash of Cajun spice.

The senator went on to describe how the creator of Mr. Bill, the clay figurine whose cry of "Ohh noooo!" was long a staple of "Saturday Night Live," had used the character in public service announcements to warn southern Louisianians of the dangers they would face in an extraordinary storm.

"How can it be," she asked, "that Mr. Bill was better informed than Mr. Bush?"

Good old Mr Bill. How we laughed, those first few seasons of Saturday Night Live. Some of us had been laughing already, at the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which as I recall was broadcast on Sunday nights. There have been NLRH anthologies, but none of them has included John Belushi's beer-chugging "Perfect Master," or the "Mr Chatterbox" bulletins, or the surprise Nichols-May "my son the nurse" routine, or "The Censorless Woman." Not that I'm discontent. As long as I can have "The Indianapolis Academy of the French Accent," I'm cool.

The weather here has been unbelievably pleasant. The skies are cloudy at the moment, but the windows are open. Linda, the head nurse at the Infusion Unit, called the other day. I feared a glitch in my insurance, but she was only asking me if I could come a little earlier this afternoon for my Remicade. No problem! I saw my internist yesterday. What I feared might be a tumor at the base of my spine turned out to be a little skin problem, treatable by Gold Bond Powder and Spectazole. Remember, I couldn't see it myself. But really. What a hypochondriac.

I do have the perfect reading material for the infusion: Thirteen Steps Down, Ruth Rendell's latest. It beats all records for getting deeply creepy in no time. I'm about halfway through, and wondering if the story will end in conflagration.

The management of Ruth's Chris Steak House Inc has relocated permanently from New Orleans to Orlando. The question of just how the business of New Orleans is to continue will soon begin to swell over news of the disaster relief.

Poor Mr Bush is indeed as stuck as Mr Bill ever was. He's paralyzed by the evaporation of political options. If he fires Michael Brown at FEMA, he'll send the wrong message to his conservative base, which would like to see FEMA abolished. Likewise if he takes any responsibility for failing to come to New Orleans's aid in a timely manner. Or if he even admits that there was a federal problem. The option that he's counting on - launching a whitewashing "investigation" that will suppress any evidence against his team - is an illusion, because it will persuade no one who currently believes that there ought to be an investigation.

September 08, 2005

Tina Brown calls it

Allow me to recommend a concise essay on "the media-political axis," and how Katrina may (pray! cross your fingers!) have snapped it, by Tina Brown in the Washington Post.

And here's novelist Donna Tartt, in the Telegraph.

La douceur de vivre

There's a line in David Denby's piece about Susan Sontag in the current New Yorker that stung like lightning when I read it. It's still vibrating.

The period of Sontag's first essays—the early sixties, before Pop became omnivorous and Vietnam obsessed everybody—was surely the last earnest moment in American culture.

Boy, is that true. It was in the early Sixties that I woke up to the fine arts. Sure, I was a self-indulgent teenager, but when did that ever stop anybody from becoming a prig? Naturally comfortable with Bach and Handel, and with the art of the fifteenth century, I rejected all contact with what would come to be called popular culture. I made lists of works of art that people talked about in print, and forced myself to confront things that, in most cases, I didn't like at all. Not liking them wasn't a problem; nor was the hypocrisy of pretending to like them. Because when it was all over, that awful adolescence, I was armed with a reliable geography of the possibilities. If I hated Ravel (something about Daphnis and Chloe), well, at least I knew who he was and something of what he'd written; and when did I fall for Ravel, at the age of twenty-four, I fell completely. That's why I've called one of my blogs Good For You. It was just like medicine - and it was good for me.

In the early Sixties, there was a feeling in the air that, if you were bright and serious, then you had a responsibility to learn about certain things whether you wanted to or not. I held onto that creed until quite recently, when I realized that my remaining time on earth would be better spent in multiplying the connections between things that I already know and love than in working on acquired tastes. It's a question of mortality, not aesthetics. And I'm sure that many tastes will lure me into acquiring them. They will just have to work a little harder.

Although I was never amenable to modernism, I miss being obliged to understand Susan Sontag. Those who never tasted the light-hearted cultural gravitas of the early Sixties don't know the sweetness of life.

September 07, 2005


What you have here is the remains of a piece that upset a regular reader (Ms NOLA) so badly that I took it down. Self-censorship? You bet. But I've resolved to add a certain national conflict that happened a while back to my short list of proscribed subjects. That's to say that I won't bring it up. I may comment on it if somebody else does.

The entry began as an email to a friend, and probably ought to have stopped there. It was written in fury, caused by the WaPo's reporting that 74% of registered Republicans think that the administration has done a fine job of relieving New Orleans. Look at all those evacuees in the Astrodome, of whom Barbara Bush jested, "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway," she said, "so this is working very well for them."

I'm beginning to see how the Katrina fallout is, inevitably, no less a political disaster than a natural one. It appears to be taking us a step further away from any kind of national consensus. Liberals, progressives, Democrats - whatever you call them, they see an outrage. Republicans just don't see a problem. They really don't. "Life's not fair, and it's crazy to expect government to guarantee against that. Take personal responsibility!" That sums up their civic philosophy, their totally anti-Christian religion.

When are we going to hear from Barack Obama? His official Web site is faintly embarrassing.

A Great Tomato


Kathleen, overtired from weeks of late nights, took yesterday off as an extension of the long weekend, so I canceled my French lesson. When I called the Prof to tell him that we couldn't meet, I learned that he had brought back some tomatoes from his place by the sea. At about five, I went downstairs to pick them up, on my way to chercher le courrier (get the mail). They were beauties.

Two of them still are. I sliced one last night, and sprinkled it with salt and basil. The dinner was not a great success. I had poached some salmon steaks over the weekend, and I thought I'd figure out how to serve them with avocado. I made a buttercream-like sauce by processing the avocado, a bit of mayonnaise, tarragon and the remains of a lime from weekend cocktails. This "went with" the salmon all too well. It emphasized the salmon flavor while remaining utterly untastable itself. And of course it was too rich. I ought to have omitted the mayonnaise and increased the citrus. 

What with the richness of that dish, we couldn't eat the whole tomato, which made me very sad. (I did save it, but who knows what it's like now.) Seeing the platter by the sink, I was reminded of Chardin (by the lemon, probably), and I thought I'd immortalize the last slices of a great tomato.

September 06, 2005



Yesterday was the last day of summer. The Labor Day weekend is behind us, and it's back to work and business as usual. The weather here was extraordinary, and I spent most of it reading on the balcony. At once point in the early evening, I lifted my eyes and saw that the somewhat distinctive shadow of a building at the corner of 87th Street and York Avenue was falling on the rear of building on East End Avenue between 88th and 89th. Amazingly, my hands were steady enough to capture good pictures.

When I wasn't reading, I was thinking of the remark that I'd made in an earlier entry, about not understanding how this country holds together. I knew that I'd have to explain it, and I knew that I'd never be able to explain it all at once. I'm going to begin now - but only begin. First of all, the statement was does not reflect any sentiment other than common sense. My feelings about the South (say) have nothing to do with my remark. When I say that the South seems more foreign to me than the Netherlands, that is not a like/dislike statement. It's nothing but my observation that the everyday values of my part of the United States are more closely aligned with those of a people whose first language isn't even English than they are with a region that is still scarred by the legacy of slavery. 

The slavery thing is still hard to discuss, or rather, still very easy to get wrong. I believe that no group came out of the War of Secession in good odor. It was waged by a Union even more extensively plagued by fundamentalist radicalism than we are by the End Times folks. I certainly don't believe that the War accomplished very much beyond the persistence of the Union, a result that for me has no value at all, because I long ago lost faith in the myths that inflate it. What I do believe is that we are all - all - still engaged in resolving post-slavery issues. These issues have mutated so extensively that there is a widespread argument today about whether it was racism that doomed the poor of New Orleans. I'm inclined to agree with the "poorist" argument, which holds that today's discrimination runs along economic lines that just happen to jag along racial ones. But there can be no denying that "poorism" in this country is a child of racism. Just as slaves were thought to lack the wherewithal to govern themselves even in the smallest, most intimate matters, so now the poor are thought to lack "personal responsibility." The flip, from assuming dominion over slaves, and "taking care of them," to abandoning the poor to a fate of fending for themselves is not really a flip at all.

To say that I don't know how or why this country coheres is not to hope that it stops trying. But it is to ask that we stop pretending. Look what pretending, at every level, did to the good people of New Orleans.

A little while later, I looked toward the north, where the windows of the obliquely-sited Stanley Isaacs Houses, our view of which is almost completely obstructed, were flashing like the cities on an alien planet.


September 05, 2005


Be sure to stay in touch with David Olivier at Slimbolala. David and his family are well out of harm's way, having evacuated over the weekend. But he is writing very well about gradually grasping the enormity of the catastrophe.

New Orleans

It is Labor Day, the last day of secular summer. The weather is beautiful. I have no plans. I can sit here and think about New Orleans all day.

But I can't write about it. I don't have the right to do that. All I can say is that I'm feeling hugely guilty about never having gone to New Orleans during my seven years in Houston. This was not an accident. I was determined not to go. As I said in the previous entry, I don't have what it takes to be decadent, and, as far as tourism is concerned, that's what New Orleans has always been about. I was also learning, in Houston, to wish that the South had been allowed to secede from the United States in 1860. I still don't understand how we're all part of the same country.

In the Times yesterday, Richard Ford wrote,

"We're at the jumping-off place," Eudora Welty wrote. This was about Plaquemines, just across the river. It is - New Orleans - the place where the firm ground ceases and the unsound footing begins. A certain kind of person likes such a place. A certain kind of person wants to go there and never leave.

I'm the certain kind of person who rejoices in living on a block of granite.

"Plaquemines" has been a favorite word ever since 1968, when I discovered it while working in the dispatching office of the Columbia Gulf Transmission Company, a gas pipeline (or gazoduc in French - what a cool word) company. The romance ended last night, however, when I heard it pronounced, by someone who should know, as something like "plackamins."


At some point during the summer, I revived an ancient practice. While I tidied up the apartment, I would listen to an opera. I picked up this amiable practice from Richard-Raymond Alasko, one of the stars of my undergraduate days. Richard-Raymond, a grad student, actually had his own little house to clean up. He would tune into the Metropolitan Opera broadcast and dust away.

I don't remember when I fell out of the habit of sprucing up housework with opera recordings. There was a long period of Jonathan Schwartz. Recently, I went through a phase of watching videos, which is not, I can attest, a good idea. One Saturday in August, I pulled out Salome to listen to while I cleaned the bedroom. I hadn't listened to an opera in a very long time, and that worried me. So much has been changing in my life during the past two years, but surely I wasn't going to lose opera!

I remember telling Richard-Raymond that I had a fantasy of taking a long bath while listening to Salome. He told me that I'd grow out of it. I never actually grew into it, however. I have been too big for bathtubs since I was fourteen, and while other people may love a good soak, to me a bath is nothing more than lying in a dirty puddle. I don't have what it takes to be decadent. "Decadent"! What an almost forgotten word. It was so big in the Sixties.

A week after Salome, I pulled out Aida. I was going to be systematic, rotating among the four Greats - Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss - with contributions from the Rest - Puccini on down - assiduously worked in. Manon Lescaut was last weekend's choice. I really didn't want to listen to it, but I really did enjoy it. Two days ago, I picked Lohengrin.

My housekeeping is somewhat superficial. I will take everything off of a table before dusting it, and wipe things with a damp cloth before putting them back, but I rarely move furniture or take down drapery. It is more a matter of order than of genuine cleanliness. During the week, the rooms grow deranged and askew. The task of putting them to rights confronts me with living proof of the entropy that will eventually swallow up everything. It is also sheer drudgery. That's where opera comes in. It is not a distraction. It is not even an accompaniment. It is a metamorphosis. It transforms dusting into a kind of dance.

Assuming that you already know the opera by heart, that is. Well, I know most of them. But not the rarity that I'm considering for next Saturday, Mozart's La finta giardiniera.

September 04, 2005

And you wonder why

So, here is the problem, in miniature, right here in New York. Take a break from trying to get your mind round the catastrophe in New Orleans. If you're wondering how, how, how - well, here's how. Right here in the Big Apple.

About a hundred passengers were held up in a Roosevelt Island tramway glitch for two hours. I'll get to what the tramway is in a minute. Let's just see, first, why the ordeal lasted so long.

The delay in getting the tram running again was made more difficult because the only engineer familiar with the system was in Westchester County. He was brought in on a police helicopter.

Once the engineer arrived, he was able to start the power generator quickly and get the tram moving.

Link to the whole story, at least according to the Times. The tram is a no-longer-necessary link between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island, the twenty-five block long sliver in the East River where you will find that even New York City boasts a Main Street. (It's just about the only street on Roosevelt Island.) Subway connections were built years ago, and the city - or whoever it is in the city that's responsible for Roosevelt Island - would like to dismantle the tram. But that would be like telling the descendants of pioneers that they could no longer drive their Conestoga wagons to the shopping mall, and, hey, it's a scenic ride. So the save-the-tram constituency is pretty rabid.

New York is the American capital of low-budget engineering. There are a jillion elevators, and the density of outfits requiring mechanical know-how, from the backstages of Broadway theatres to the trains and subways and on to the  three major airports, may make our town a hub of Mr Fixits. Tell me, please, why there we are talking about "the only engineer familiar with the system." It's a tram - an amusement park ride with a slightly higher safety record - not a nuclear facility. It's true that the tram was imported from Europe. It may even be Swiss. But why was there only one guy in the vicinity - and not all that much in the vicinity - who knew how to flip a couple of switches? One guy fixed the tram quickly. With all due respect, I'm sure that this guy could have explained the necessary information over the phone to any intelligent handyman.

My legal training suggests that the tramway people are overly picky about who gets to look at their junk. Only tramway-authorized personnel can operate the light switch in the control room! I propose this explanation because I am certain that no better argument could possibly be advanced in defense of current operational procedures. That's how stupid they are. Sadly, they are not unusual. Our America is a procedurally fragmented place in which a million little Napoleons make up their own rules and don't care if anyone outside their jurisdiction knows them. If you think about it for a minute, you'll have no trouble seeing why New Orleans's levees weren't beefed up despite widespread consensus on their inadequacy. 

My favorite detail: the passengers conveyed their cell-phone numbers via "hand signals" to circling helicopters, which allowed the rescuers to keep the passengers informed and calm. I'm certain that there's nothing in the handbook about hand gestures, but I'm glad to see that they weren't ignored.

September 03, 2005

Sunny but a bit curdled

This is not going to be the best of Labor Day weekends. Not that we didn't know that on Monday.

In Paris, JR, at L'homme qui marche, reported having been down with "blogblues." I'm not sure that I know what that means, but I can sing it. Jason Kottke left for the weekend in what one would have thought was a very uncharacteristic frame of mind. I was feeling a little rancid myself. Reading Marilynne Robinsons's Gilead during this particular week was probably ill-advised, and following it with Madison Smart Bell's fantastic but ultimately you-know-what book about Antoine Lavoisier may have been the dumbest thing I've ever done. I don't know what would have become of me if a shipment from Amazon hadn't delivered Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of The Beach Boys. I put it on in the kitchen while I was making dinner and was presently right as rain.

This morning brings dueling Op-Eds from Maureen Dowd and John Tierney. Mr Tierney does the unspeakable, by lodging the "moral hazard" argument against Katrina's victims. According to this pet meme of the right, disasters wouldn't happen if we didn't permit government handouts to dazzle and disable our self-reliance. If you had to bear the loss, in other words, of your seaside home without federally subsidized insurance, and if you couldn't count on the government to rush in with food, water, and first aid, then you'd think twice about living on the Gulf of Mexico. There is an iota of truth in this argument, but only an iota, and it is deformed by a vain, masculine stoicism. Poor people, such as the thousands stranded in New Orleans, don't choose to be poor because the government will help them out. Why should they? It usually doesn't. We practice socialism for the rich in this country. Only.  

September 02, 2005

You Could Say That He Made An Impression

Having learned of a CD that contained a recording of "Nachthelle," possibly my favorite piece of choral music, I ordered the Hyperion album entitled An 1826 Schubertiad. The first cut on the CD is "Der Einsame" ("The Solitary"), which, despite its shall-we-say introspective title, is all about crickets, and, but for one isolated outburst, quite jolly. I pricked my ears at the piano introduction, and the moment the singing began, I saw baritone Thomas Meglioranza singing it.

At Tomness, Mr Meglioranza has written about a favorite Schubert song that I didn't happen to know, and I wondered if "Der Einsame" was the one. So I wrote to Tom and asked. And Tom was kind enough to remind me that I have seen him singing it, at the Naumburg competition last spring. (Because there were no programs, my recollection of the competition is somewhat inarticulate.)

You could say that Tom made an impression.

The song that Tom was talking about that I didn't think I knew is "Das Lied im Grünen" ("The Song in the Verdure"). A bit of Googling showed me that I not only know the song but love it. I've got the old Elisabeth Schwarzkopf-Edwin Fischer recording, once part of a precious and unavailable LP. I see now the error of going on a Winterreise diet for six years. Winterreise (Travels in Winter) got me through a terrible time in 1999, by sublimating a daily output of anxiety into great beauty and not trying to cheer me up. But there's more to Schubert than Winterreise, and I've lost track of a lot of beautiful songs. 

An 1826 Schubertiad is an album that I've lived without since it was released in 1996 but that I'll nonetheless pronounce "indispensable." Soloists Christine Schäfer, John Mark Ainslie, and Richard Jackson are joined by the London Schubert Chorale under Stephen Layton. Graham Johnson, the mastermind of Hyperion's "Complete Songs of Schubert" program, plays the piano.

September 01, 2005

A New Kind of Memoir (?)

Have I encountered a hitherto unknown literary genre? The memoir manqué? Displaced autobiography? Why don't I just write about it and let you dream up the moniker. In addition to the three books that I'm going to discuss here, Diane Johnson's Into a Paris Quartier counts as an extended essay about something external to the author that spools out plenty of self-disclosure along the way. How long has this been going on? Ms Johnson's book is about the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris - and it's about Ms Johnson, too. It would be hard to say which strain of the book is the more interesting. That's also true of the following, which I list in the order in which I read them:

  • Jane Smiley: A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (Knopf, 2004)
  • Orhan Pamuk: İstanbul: Memories of the City (Knopf, 2004)
  • Geoffrey O'Brien: Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears (Counterpoint, 2004)

These books, which have so little in common as regards style and subject matter, nevertheless argue a common premise. The wall, once so assiduously policed, between author and subject has come tumbling down. (Autobiographies and memoirs are the obvious exceptions.) Now, instead of transcribing observations, the writer transcribes the act of observation. The pretense of objectivity is seen as not only false but distracting. We readers are happily complicit. Don't tell us about horse racing, Istanbul, or American pop music. We probably don't care about any of those things - or else we know plenty and we're tired of them. Tell us, rather, of the impact that they have had upon your life. And tell us as much about your life as your ostensible topic requires.

I was already meditating this page when I encountered Mr O'Brien's book a few weeks ago. What suggested a connection between A Year at the Races and Istanbul was...

Continue reading about a new kind of memoir at Portico.