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October 31, 2005


While everybody else was laughing or jeering, I was fretting. I had an awful feeling that we'd miss Harriet Miers. She seemed so preposterous as a nominee; now, with "Scalito" up for the seat, who - aside from the crabby quarter of the nation that wants to erase civil rights - who does not wish that we could bring the toady back?

October 30, 2005

North Country

As faithful readers know, I, who used to be quite firm in his dismissal of the whole going-to-the-movies thing, have buckled and surrendered. In the past five weeks, I have seen: Capote; The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; Good Night, and Good Luck; Dreamer; and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That's a lot of great movies.

Kathleen had been complaining for years about my unwillingness to show up at a theatre at an odd time. It wouldn't have been such a problem if the movies were like live entertainment in New York, which, with certain exceptions, always starts at eight o'clock. Now that I had five good films to chatter about, however, I knew that Kathleen would have to be taken to the movies as soon as she spent enough time away from Two Wall.

I wanted her to see two of the movies that I've seen. Capote, especially. It's a movie about writing! (It really is - the first.) And Good Night, and Good Luck. It's a movie about television! (Boo! Hiss!) I was even willing to see In Her Shoes, because I'd heard that one of my favorites, Toni Collette, walks away with the film. (A film that also stars Shirley MacLaine, no less. Poor Cameron! Didn't know what hit her!) But Kathleen wanted to see North Country. I tried to talk her out of this choice in a way that was brilliantly consonant with the movie itself. I put forth a subtle and arresting argument: "I don't want to see that movie. It's grim."

By yesterday, when it was clear that we were going to the movies this weekend come hell or high water, I had awakened to the inner cretinitude of my position. This afternoon, after lunch (chiens chauds - mais à la gourmandise!) I announced the showtimes of North Country, which is playing across the street, indeed, at the same theatre as Friday's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. From being an untutored rube, I have progressed to connoisseurship as regards the career of Michelle Monaghan, who is in both pictures. "I thought you didn't want to see North Country," said the princess of whom I am not worthy. I spared her the conversion experience.

I had "legitimately" been worried that the sexism of North Country would bring Kathleen down. In fact, it put all of her current problems in perspective and made her feel, in every pore, that she is a very lucky Wall Street lawyer who only takes shit from one or two richly-billable certifiables. As you must know, North Country is the new Norma Rae. That movie, starring Sally Field, was about oppressed women workers standing up for themselves. North Country is about women standing up for their right to do men's jobs. I hope that the young women of today will learn from it how unripely recent their opportunities are. (It was great to see Linda Emond, an actor whom we've encountered at MTC, playing the corporate lawyer who tries to talk her client out of being stupid - to no avail.)

While Kathleen was doing fine-to-great, it was I who walked out of the theatre trembling. That collective male power - God, how I fear it. Tall and bright but different, I may never have been in a fight but I know the deadening power of men in a last ditch. Deadening. There's a lovely guy in North Country, a supporting character with the name of Ricky (I think), who would love to stand up for the heroine but just can't, not against the tsunami of patriarchal contempt in which he must accommodate himself. Eventually, he does get to stand up, better late than never. He, in a way, was the hero of the movie for me, because I knew how he suffered. I was very glad that he was not the one to suffer Woody Harrelson's yellow ice/red ice harangue.

I haven't said a word about Charlize Theron - but there's no need. She's better, as always, than you thought she would be. It was fun to hear her on Leonard Lopate the other day, discussing her accent (she never spoke English in her native South Africa, and so had no accent to overcome) and her career as a dancer (try to tell me that she has no regrets about being too big - too tall - for a career in dance). It is always wonderful to see a woman "open" a film. Ms Theron's costars are mighty and puissant - Sissy Spacek and Frances McDormand are the other leading women - but Ms Theron's name also precedes those of Mr Harrelson and Sean Bean, no strangers to top billing. Am I the only person who thinks of Jane Fonda when Ms Theron is doing her thing? I certainly did in the union-hall speech that was happily commandeered by her character's father, played by Richard Jenkins. Mr Jenkins is one of those character actors whom only the attentive know about, no matter how many times they've seen him, because he's never the star. On the shoulders of such toilers Hollywood - and Bois-le-Gaumont - depend.

See the movie just to see Sean Bean and Frances McDormand as a loving married couple. That she carries it off is no surprise. That he does puts him back on my list, which he has been off ever since Stormy Monday.

Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

There's a special selection of recent books on the subject of our misadventure in Iraq. James Traub reviews a pair of compilations, one of essays by writers on the right, The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq, edited Gary Rosen, the other, from the left, A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, edited by Thomas Cushman. Neither of these books is on my list, because the question of just war simply doesn't arise in connection with the mess that we've made. The war that was beginning when the Mission was proclaimed to be Accomplished was not supposed to take place, because no war was foreseen. We would "cakewalk" to Baghdad and establish a democracy. Just like that. The question that did arise in connection with Iraq was this: how did a suit like Rummy overrule Pentagon experience by throwing out its exhaustive logistic procedures, the TPFDL. (If you will take the time to read Seymour M Hersh's reporting on the "tip fiddle" in The New Yorker, you'll be excused from reading the rest of this entry.) Reporter Michael Goldfarb has written a book that reviewer Dexter Filkins finds very moving: Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq, a biography of sorts of his late translator, a lecturer in anatomy who struggled for democracy only to be cut down by reactionary insurgents. According to Mr Filkins, Ahmad Shawkat's tragedy is anything but isolated.

And now, today, many of these Iraqis, if not most of them, are dead. They have been shot, tortured, burned, disfigured, thrown in ditches, disappeared. Thousands of them: editors, lawyers, pamphleteers, men and women. In a remarkable campaign of civic destruction, the Baathists and Islamists who make up the insurgency located the intellectual heart of the nascent Iraqi democracy and, with gruesome precision, cut it out. As much as any single factor, the death of Iraq's political class explains the difficulties of the country's rebirth. The good guys are dead.

Nice work, Rummy. George Packer has collected his reportage in The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, by George Packer. Fareed Zakaria joins Mr Packer in bemoaning the consequences of going to war on the cheap. In Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadows of America's War, Anthony Shadid, an American of Lebanese descent, writes of the impact of the war on ordinary Iraqis. In the words of reviewer Ben Macintyre, "Night Draws Near is a tormented human collage, a portrait of the grinding, quotidian conflict endured by ordinary Iraqis, struggled to make sense of the senseless. Finally, in the Essay at the back of the review, "The Reporter's Library," reporter Robert F Worth tells us what the pros are reading for background material. He gives pride of place to Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands (1959), but he notes the preeminent importance of David Fromkin's The Peace to End All Peace.  

In other non-fiction, Jessica Hendra gets back at her funny-man father, Tony Hendra - who gave us an earnest testimonial to the spiritual guidance of "Father Joe," a Benedictine monk who helped him through a rough patch - in How to Cook Your Daughter: A Memoir (with Blake Morrison). If there is one thing that I don't want to read about, it's children's claims of parental abuse, but it would seem that Mr Hendra has all but asked for his daughter's. Reviewer Jeanne Safer finds that How to Cook Your Daughter "barely rises above pedestrian reportage." In Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, Nate Blakeslee recounts the horrific outburst of racism that led to the arrest of almost fifty black Texans in a small Panhandle town. The charges of drug-running were completely spurious, and it took teams of lawyers and activists to free the innocents. Sara Mosle gives the book an A. (Readers of Bob Herbert's column will remember Tulia well.) Reviewer Jim Windolf likes Ken Emerson's Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era. This may prove to be a must-read, and I'm marking for future acquisition. "Brill Building" is a useful collective name for the folks who wrote the songs between the peak of Elvis and the arrival of the Beatles. 

Until this book, the story of these interrelated songwriters had been told in piecemeal fashion, via memoirs, magazine articles and four separate documentaries for the A&E network's "Biography" series. Here we get the whole tale in a single entertaining passage

In Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa, filmmaker Karin Muller writes about her search for harmony while shooting a documentary. Lesley Downes finds the book charming, but she does not persuade me to override my disinclination to go culture-hopping, which is what Ms Muller seems to do. The most interesting thing about Toni Bentley's review of Women's Letters: America From the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J Adler, is Ms Bentley's opening report:

"Unless a man is taking out my garbage or making love to me," I recently overheard a wife and mother remark, "I'm not really interested in his company. Women are simply more interesting."

I'm not sure how to take this. Is it a restatement of traditional views shared by both sexes since the dawn of time? Or does it mean that women are now interesting ways that men are, only more so? I would read American Letters if someone were to give it to me. I would not read Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption, by Christopher Kennedy Lawford, under any circumstances. What a tribe of louts the Kennedys turned out to be! From the other side of the last century's most fascinating union, we have What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love by Carole Radziwill, the widow of Ms Onassis' nephew, Anthony. Jodi Kantor has good things to say about the latter book, but I remain untempted. Nor am I tempted by two books reviewed by Buzz Bissinger, The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant, by Allen Burra, and The Lion in Autumn: A Season with Joe Paterno and Penn State Football, by Frank Fitzpatrick. I might have been tempted by Dylan Jones's iPod, Therefore I Am: Thinking Inside the White Box, but Dave Itzkoff's impatient review took care of that. 

As for fiction, three novels get full- or half-page treatment while five are rewarded with capsules. Only one is on my list: Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences. This book has garnered interesting reviews all round, and Alice Truax's is no exception. I wish I could read it right now, but it will have to take its place in the flight queue, which already stretches from here to Boston. Katharine Weber and Bruce Bawer make negative cases for the books under their review, respectively Pigtopia, by Kitty Fitzgerald, and Fallen, by David Maine. Pigtopia? Are you kidding? As for Fallen, it's a novelization of that old Cain-and-Abel story, that in Mr Bawer's view, fails by taking for granted emotions and concepts that were, er, new at the time and presumably nameless. Show, don't tell - isn't that how it goes?

According to Douglas Wolk's capsule review, Wolf Point, by Edward Falco, might make an interesting read - after Truth and Consequences - bien sûr! "Falco's prose is cold and brisk, with occasional flashes of hard-boiled eloquence, and the story hurtles like brakeless truck toward its bloody denouement." Diary of a Married Call Girl, by Tracy Quan, sounds as objectionable as Mr Lawford's memoir. In The Monsters of Gramercy Park, Danny Leigh "sometimes promises  depth he can't deliver." Sniper, by Pavel Hak, appears to have been translated by the author too directly from its French original, while still managing to sound flat and affectless. Finally, there's Faith For Beginniners, by Aaron Hamburger, which according Mr Wolk is marred by a sour tone.

According to a note, opening chapters of The Assassins' Gate and What Remains are available at nytimes.com/books.


My old friend George is still cooler than I'll ever be. He has just been up in a helicopter and down in a cave. You wouldn't want to be with me on either expedition. Are we alive yet?

October 29, 2005


If I were a respected theatre critic, I would just bellow, "Drop everything and order tickets to Souvenir right now. Don't even think of thinking about it. Just do it." And you would do as you were told.

I humbly acknowledge that I must work from a more gently persuasive angle. Let me begin by saying that Souvenir, the new play-with-music by Stephen Temperley that began previews last night at the Lyceum Theatre, may not be to everybody's taste. People who don't find it funny ought to be deported to somewhere else, although I can't think of any part of the globe that deserves such an affliction.

Take one great big helping of the funniest Carol Burnett skit that you can remember (Went With The Wind, perhaps), and another of the best stand-up comedy that you've ever seen, and top it off with the poignance of a good-to-great play starring Cherry Jones, and you'll have Souvenir.

Continue reading about Souvenir at Portico.

The Odd Couple

Ben Brantley's review of The Odd Couple, appearing in today's Times, seems desperate to find negative things to say about the new production that, because the ticket buying public rightly expected Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to do pretty much what they're doing with Neil Simon's famous comedy, has been sold out for ages. Never, perhaps, has a show been more critic-proof. But if Mr Brantley took the opportunity to say some unkind things on the understanding that they couldn't harm, I must say that he miscalculated gravely. Consider the following:

The humor of "The Odd Couple" is rooted in watching ordinary guys, equipped with an extraordinary arsenal of zingers, turn each other into irreconcilable caricatures of themselves, the way people do in bad marriages.

"Ordinary guys"? I don't think so. Oscar Madison is an extraordinary guy. As a sportswriter, he's a professional guy. Guyitude is second nature to him. He leaves messes all over his apartment the way dogs pee on fire hydrants, to prove that he was there. As everyone knows, Felix is of the opposite persuasion: leaving proof of his passing gives the enemy an advantage. Felix cannot cover his tracks quickly enough. He can't do small talk because small talk is necessarily unguarded. He requires a controlled environment. Oscar needs to show that he can survive in any environment. I don't think that either one of them is an ordinary guy - not, at least, for the purposes of this comedy. You could say that The Odd Couple is about Jewish mothers, offstage but waging their warfare through proxies. their sons do indeed seem more than a little bewildered by the turbulence.

I wasn't going to write about The Odd Couple, which is directed by Joe Mantello. I'm not a Neil Simon fan, and I have a limited interest in one-liners other than my own (which I immediately forget - you had to be there). The play was fun, and I'm glad I saw it, and really didn't seem to be much more to say. (I said it Wednesday.) But Mr Brantley's review seems too perverse to let stand unchallenged. The beautiful point of the production is to show that abandonment has hit these guys really hard. United in having wives who can no longer stand them, Oscar and Felix dig in to their respective foibles, and the impatience with one another is really their displaced rage. How could my wife not love me? each asks, only to answer the question with unalloyed and unenlightened male "wisdom," by doing what he did - what in fact irritated his spouse - only, doing it twice as hard.

So Oscar is volcanic, and Felix is - in Mr Brantley's word - "robotic." That's not a bad word to use of a shell-shocked man who clings to sanity in terms of routine. The Odd Couple is a comedy of discomfort, possibly the oldest kind of comedy there is. It is at least as physical a comedy as it is a verbal one. Mr Lane and Mr Broderick have developed a theatrical duo of amazing brio and finesse. They are just a bit funnier together than they are apart. Each can catch the other's leaps. It might be better to consider the high moments of this Odd Couple as a ballet written for two male dancers and laughter.

October 28, 2005

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

What a movie! Meta, meta, meta! (Whatever that means.) For all the violence - and the corpses do pile up toward the end - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a funny movie, with lots of LOL moments. It works by spoofing the clichés of detective movies, not at the level of the action so much as in its presentation. Val Kilmer, for example, plays the part of a gay detective straight; gay mannerisms are on a short to nonexistent leash. The spoof is in having cast Val Kilmer in the part to begin with. Having come up with a linebacker-sized gay detective, filmmaker Shane Black keeps the joke fresh by making sure that you never know where he's going to go with it.

Robert Downey, Jr has played more interesting parts - such as Joe Werbsha in Good Night, and Good Luck, which is also in theatres. But Harry Lockhart, like Blake Allen in Two Girls and a Guy, is a role that Mr Downey was born to play. A scamp on the spot, his Harry has eyes that careen more or less constantly in search of emergency exits. He has a good heart, though, and we're root for him all the way. We feel his pain, however, only to an extent, because his predicaments are too funny. And their arrangement, their sequence play with your expectations. Consider the history of one of his fingertips. Not now, but after you've seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Michelle Monaghan has been in a few movies that I've seen, such as The Bourne Supremacy, but I can't say that I've noticed her before. The simplest description would be: the new Sandra Bullock. I could not make up my mind whether her part would have benefited from deeper inflection, greater archness. As it is, she sends up the corn fed all-American girl who goes to Hollywood to be a slut. Well, not really, but close. The spoof is that it hasn't spoiled her.

There are several bold forays into serious drama. They're momentary, but they break the prevailing mood. The miracle is that Mr Black can snap it back on the minute he wants to. There are also quite a few loose ends, but these don't occur to you until after the show is over. I will be interested to see how this movie plays after three or four viewings. But it's great fun the first time around.

Nothing interesting was showing at the Storage Unit Theatre (nothing that I hadn't seen, that is), and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was showing across the street. To even things up, I came home for lunch - a bowl of minestrone, and read "The Truman Show," Daniel Mendelsohn's glowing review of Capote, the The New York Review of Books. I hope that you've had a chance to see that by now.

 Can't wait to own it. It's an amusement park ride of the first order. Almost impossible to describe. Very, very meta, but never confusing. Robert Downey Jr was his usual self (his role in Good Night, and Good Luck is a more interesting part, but there's no down side to watching an actor doing what comes naturally.) I never made up my mind about his costars, Val Kilmer as a gay detective, and Michelle Monaghan as the girl from the past. But it really doesn't matter. The ride's too much fun. Despite all the shooting and some moments of real suspense, this is a good-time picture.

New Feature

After months of dithering, I finally got round to adding a new feature to the Daily Blague yesterday. It's the "Tune de la semaine," if you'll pardon my Franglais. You will find the link on the sidebar, below the portrait of the artist. As long as you've got RealPlayer on your machine, all you have to do is to click and hold on a sec. If you want to know what you're listening to, click on "about." Direct further enquiries to me. The inaugural song is "Hold Tight," sung not by the Andrews Sisters but by Fats Waller. Fododo-de-yacka saki! (So that's how you spell it!)


In August of 1453, King Henry VI of England ceased even to appear to be a competent monarch. He fell into a mysterious catatonia that lasted about eighteen months, and emerged with an irremediably tarnished reputation. In May of 1455, at St Albans, forces led by the Duke of York defeated the royal army, and the Wars of the Roses began. When, thirty years later, Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, English government was on a new footing. The transition from Henry VI to Henry VII is arguably the most interesting in English history. In 1453, England was unmistakably medieval. It was something else in 1485.

For what it's worth, the cause of Henry VI's illness was genetic. His grandfather, Charles VI of France, spent most of his long life running in and out of madness. Royal unsteadiness, in both cases, created a power vacuum. In France, the king's powerful brothers fought to control access to royal power. In England, where Henry VI came to the throne as a child without siblings, the factions that would eventually launch a string of short-lived civil wars gathered around the king's cousins, descendants of the prolific Edward III and his equally philoprogenitive son, John of Gaunt.

"Lancastrian" and "Yorkist" are anachronistic terms that nobody used in the fifteenth century. "Lancastrian," in fact, meant little more than "anti-Yorkist." The Yorkist party gathered round Richard, Duke of York, descended from Edward III via two different ancestors. York would die at the threshold of victory, in 1460, fallen in the battle of Wakefield. In the following year, his eldest son would climb the throne as Edward IV. Edward turned out to be a good king in that he used his strength to introduce many streamlining innovations to the functioning of government, most notably in the field of fiscal management.

The Lancastrian party was led by Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's queen. Margaret was vilified from the start as a transgressive woman who rejected her rightful role (submissive spouse) to interfere with Yorkist control of government. Even when her husband regained his health, he failed to demonstrate any monarchical backbone whatsoever. Margaret rallied the Lancastrian cause largely to protect the interests and claims of her son, Prince Edward. As a woman, however, she could claim no authority of her own. It was only as the representative of her husband and her son that she could act. An interesting recent book by Helen E Maurer, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England (Boydell, 2003) strips away the myths about Margaret and replaces them with a carefully reconstructed context, in which Margaret's position is shown to have been untenable.

I have never read a history book quite like this. Professor Maurer scrupulously presents her evidence as it would have been seen by its actors - without foreknowledge.

Continue reading about Margaret of Anjou at Portico.

October 27, 2005

Squeaky Clean


It's very nice to be healthy. At least in one department.

Fun's Over

Happiness is... never having taken Harriet Miers to be a serious nominee for the Supreme Court. Never having gotten worked up about her inadequacies. Never having quite tuned in.

Happiness is not... wondering who the serious contender, whether in the running all along or settled on during the Miers silliness, might be. There are plenty of badass women on the District Court bench, and whichever one Team Dubya chooses, she'll be ridiculously more qualified than the president's toady.

October 26, 2005

Open Season

This update gets its own entry.

Despite everything - and everything is a supersized miscellany here, ranging from arthritis to splashers (watch for my post on splashers) - despite supersonic adversity, albeit supersonic adversity that had somewhat faded away, Kathleen and I got to the Met this evening so that she could see the van Gogh drawings. We arrived at eight-fifteen. The invitation read "Six to Nine." In Gotham, we write our numbers out.

At eight-thirty, I was seized by the conviction that anybody who showed up at 8:59 would be allowed to enter - only to be told a minute later to leave. So I began hustling Kathleen through the show (which I had already seen). She was docility itself. I learned from her leisurely study of the early, Dutch-subject rooms that her natural pace contemplated a ten-o'clock departure. And while the early stuff is very good. the later stuff is IMMORTAL. So I hustled. When we entered a new room, I led Kathleen straight to what I thought was important. This is what Miss G means by my telling Kathleen what to do, I suppose, but in fact we had seen nearly all the drawings - but only "nearly" - when a guard announced, not that the galleries would close in fifteen minutes, which is what I'd expected, but simply that "these galleries are closed." You can imagine the insurance issues that the museum faces with members' previews. For the record, there was no search of bags. A delicate balancing act meant that some unscrupulous thief-of-an-invitation (there was none of the new swiping* of membership cards) could have blown the joint up.

But this entry is really about dinner, at Caffe Grazie. Caffe Grazie is a boîte that advertises itself as a cheap Italian place. And it's cheaper than many other Italian places on the Upper East Side. But I want to know if $135 for two (including generous tip) is really to be thought of as "cheap." I don't think so, myself. But it was good. The food was fine-to-great, where "great" is "just what I wanted." And the service was great, too, where great means "how long for the next martini?." And the eavesdropping - well, the eavesdropping was world class.

The guys we were eavesdropping on came from Minnesota or Wisconsin. Or perhaps Nebraska. One of the Wholesome States. They were old friends who live here now.  Accents aside, they spoke like naturalized New Yorkers, and one of them was married to a denizen of Queens. But they were obviously corn-fed. My own family, after all, moved here from the Midwest in the Thirties. I Know What It Sounds Like.

The conversation was riveting - possibly because it was conducted at a volume that New York natives avoid. A Nebraska, we're-all-friends-here volume. Not that anybody was loud exactly. But the two old friends from out West were speaking with a complete disregard for the dangers of being overheard. Correspondingly, they said nothing, absolutely nothing, that was indiscreet. Except that one was gay and wanted to talk about Fernando Ferrer vs Michael Bloomberg vis-à-vis "the Community." I should have loved to know his opinion, but officious waiters kept interrupting with dessert choices. And Kathleen actually thought that the entire table was for Bush. (It WASN'T!).

The married couple asked the gay guy when his apartment on Seventh Avenue would be renovated. The usual tale of delayed kitchen cabinets followed.

And I could have thought: out-of-towners. Sure. I was born here, and Kathleen was being tortured in 96th Street about proper diction at the age of five. ("We don't say 'sneakers'; we say 'tennis shoes'.") Kathleen and I are the locals. But New York is different from Paris and London and Rome and Tokyo and everywhere else. Here in New York, you can become a Genuine New Yorker within your own lifetime. You will be welcomed as a native, under certain circumstances, even if you're not one.

I broached my new theory to Kathleen. She said, "What about the Book?." It's true that the Social Register remains a vitally important source of other people's information for certain New Yorkers. It is equally the case that neither Kathleen nor I appears in its pages. But we know enough people who do to know that New York has moved on to a new social register. It's the one that includes Martha Stewart and Donald Trump. Even if we're not in the Book, we didn't go to school with Martha Stewart and Donald Trump. On the other hand, we did go to school with George Bush. So we're ready for a new set of distinctions.

The people from a town in the Midwest that would probably embarrass me by its civic excellence if I knew what it was - they're New Yorkers.

Then What Have I?

When you think how often a day passes without my even leaving the eighteenth floor of this building, much less the building itself, my schedule for the day is a hoot.

¶ 9:45: Routine colonoscopy. I'm an "at risk" sort of guy, so checkups are frequent. So far so good. During my first colonoscopy, back in the Eighties, I was so high on Demerol that I had to fight the urge to ask the physician, "Do you like what you do?", a remark that I found screamingly funny. The doctor asked me if I wanted to watch what he was doing on the monitor. I declined. Years later, I lazily opened my eyes in the middle of a procedure, and and there it was, my squeaky-clean interior.

¶ 2 PM: The Odd Couple, with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. How did this happen? We will never really understand how Kathleen, ordering tickets from the office with her gold card, wound up with matinee seats for what promises to be the hit of the season. Except it's not really a hit in the usual sense, because it's already sold out. "Presold." It doesn't matter what anybody thinks about the production, from the producers' point of view. Did I say "producers"? As it happens, Kathleen faces a million deadlines today - of the kind that popped up yesterdday - and really oughtn't to be spending her afternoon on Broadway. I hope that she'll be able to make the third item on the calendar, which is

¶ 6 to 9 PM: A members' preview of Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings. Attentive readers will know that I have already seen this spectacular exhibition, and they will also have inferred that Kathleen hasn't. At 5"1', she needs to see this show, which is spectacular in a quietly intense way, like slow-motion fireworks, in preview.

Crazy, huh?


Vincent van Vincent van Gogh, Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Update: the colonoscopy was completely uneventful. Everything's fine. Thanks for the good wishes! If I didn't have to dash off to the theatre, I'd share some pictures with you, and try to describe the effects of Propofol. Difficult to do, because the drug induces conscious oblivion.

Update: The Odd Couple is amazing, and for precisely the reason that Kathleen and I expected it to be: the astonishing fluency, the ballet-quality athleticism, the gift for physical comedy that made The Producers a hit four years ago. Nathan and Lane and Matthew Broderick are unsurpassable comedians, not just because of the great shtick - Mr Lane with the baseball bat, Mr Broderick with the air-freshener - but because they pull you into the sadness of two abandoned husbands. Mr Broderick's Felix Ungar is a lot stranger - a lot stranger - than Tony Randall's was. It's a role as far from his normal work for film as Truman Capote is from Philip Seymour Hoffman's.

We still can't figure out how she wound up with matinée seats.

From the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, it was a short and delightful stroll, mainly along Fiftieth Street, to Kathleen's firm's midtown office, high atop a glorious art-deco building, 570 Lexington Avenue (the GE Building that General Electric actually built). The views are great, but I wasn't carrying a camera. Hoping that Kathleen will be able to come home before going to the Met tonight - she doesn't want to go through security with her backpack - but suspecting that we may indeed meet at the museum, I left Kathleen in a borrowed office rolling up her sleeves and getting ready to put out fires. On the subway, I realized that for the first time in nearly twenty years I was using the subway at both of the same day's rush hours.

October 25, 2005

Jell-O Day

It is Jell-O Day. Nothing but Lemon and Island Pineapple from now until tomorrow morning. Not to mention four liters of "lavage" - a substance that has been greatly improved in the past ten years. I've never had a problem with the procedure. The gastroenterologists used to be generous with the Demerol; now their anestheticians administer a drug that blocks short-term memory. It's over before you know it.

But fasting has never been my style. Not being able to do something ordinary has always fixed my attention upon the momentarily impossible. Until now. I'm not saying that a day of Jell-O will be fun. But I'll be fine. I'll run over to the Video Room and rent a pile of videos. I'll wantonly waste hours surfing the Net.

A few years ago, the doctor discovered an adenotemous tumor. Had it remained undetected, it might have killed me by now. The tumor was "sessile" - more a puddle than a projection - and the doctor couldn't remove it. I had to go to a specialist, a surgeon who had taken time off to master fiberoptics. He got it out. Until recently, this was my number-one "lucky I'm alive today and not X years ago" story. Now it's my number-two.

You're reading the number-one.

Explication de texte

Even if your grasp of musicology is slim, even if you can't read music, take a a few minutes to read concert pianist Jeremy Denk's exploration, at Think Denk, of "Memphis Skyline," a song from Rufus Wainwright's Want Two. I don't know the album very well (yet), but I have certainly gotten to know "Memphis Skyline" a lot better in the past twenty-four hours. Mr Denk renews my faith in serious writing about music: while it never reproduces the magic, it shows you where to look.


Friday night's Parthenia recital brought a clutch of firsts: Parthenia itself, the ensemble of viole da gamba; Corpus Christi Church - the most New Englandy Catholic church that I've ever set foot in; lutenist Andy Rutherford; the music of Tobias Hume (1569-1645); and, not least, the sound of baritone Thomas Meglioranza's speaking voice. Overcoming my ingrained reluctance to horn in on performers after concerts, I stood at the edge of a small crowd until Tom directed his attention at me. We shook hands. "Hi, Tom, I'm RJ," said I. "I know," said he. Now I can say that I have met a fellow blogger.

So much for "disinterested observer" status.

Tobias Hume, as you can see from his dates, might be considered Elizabethan, but I root him in the seventeenth century. He published two books of music, in 1605 and 1607, in furtherance of his enthusiasm for the viola da gamba. This instrument, which at first glance resembles a miniature cello, is also played upright, but its base is nestled between the players thighs. There are three registers: treble, tenor, and bass. The instrument's sound is warm and not quite as focused as that of a modern stringed instrument. Perhaps because of its deep chest, the viola da gamba not only looks like a little cello but sound like one, too. It does not sound like the instrument that Ms G used to play.

Continue reading about Parthenia at Portico.

October 24, 2005


As the Daily Blague approaches its first anniversary, and I consider the different kinds of Web logs that different people maintain, I wonder whether the future holds more variety or less. How many bloggers have passed the "let's see what this thing is all about" stage? How many will continue to post once they do? When will the blogosphere cease to be dominated by IT workers?

That blogging began as a way of keeping friends up to date about new developments on the Internet makes perfect sense, but it's just as obvious that this robust format would proliferate in every direction. I detect a note among some veterans, Jason Kottke among them, of rededication to Foundational Blogging (my term), of distaste for long written entries, which seem to be associated with punditry. Mr Kottke remarked the other day that something he'd just come across reminded him of an article about blogging written by Julian Dibbell and published at Feed (an online magazine) in 2000. The article is still worth reading.

A Web log really, then, is a Wunderkammer. That is to say, the genealogy of Web logs points not to the world of letters but to the early history of museums -- to the "cabinet of wonders," or Wunderkammer, that marked the scientific landscape of Renaissance modernity: a random collection of strange, compelling objects, typically compiled and owned by a learned, well-off gentleman. A set of ostrich feathers, a few rare shells, a South Pacific coral carving, a mummified mermaid -- the Wunderkammer mingled fact and legend promiscuously, reflecting European civilization’s dazed and wondering attempts to assimilate the glut of physical data that science and exploration were then unleashing.

This is very apt, and I'm glad to have it. But I've found that the Wunderkammer opened up by the Daily Blague has been a network of associations running from things happening in the world through my brain and out to other things that I'm reminded of. Only some of those externalities are situated on the Internet.

October 23, 2005

Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Who is Scarlet Thomas? I don't believe that I've registered her name before - possibly because of the "Scarlet" thing. That may change. Dee Mondschein's review of Ms Thomas's PopCo sounds very interesting. So does Fatema Ahmed's review of Yiyun Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a collection of stories on Chinese and Chinese-American themes. Otherwise, there's no fiction of interest this week. Two silly-sounding books about growing up privileged, The Inheritance, by Annabel Dilke (reviewed by Sarah Ferguson), and Nothing Serious, by Justine Lévy (translated by Charlotte Mandell and reviewed by Judith Warner), share page 18.  Mary Gaitskell's Veronica is a book about fashion victims and their predators that, according to Meghan O'Rourke, "constitutes some of the most incisive fiction writing around." But I read and disliked Bad Behavior, the author's first book, and Ms Gaitskell is no longer on my list. Salman Rushdie is not on my list, either. I read The Satanic Verses in a state of boggled cluelessness: why was this book being talked about? In case I have not said so lately, I'll repeat that I loathe "magic realism." I loathe it the way patriarchs loathe their wives' infidelity, and for much the same reasons. Consorting in public with the imaginable but the impossible is disgusting. So I rather guiltily enjoyed Laura Miller's quietly savage review of Mr Rushdie's latest novel, Shalimar the Clown. Even if I were open to the opportunities of Mr Rushdie's fiction, I might well be put off by the following cracks:

(A novel that affects to gossip worshipfully about its own characters is a tiresome thing indeed.)

Rushdie has no gift for pastoralism and he evokes the fabled natural beauties of Kashmir as if he were a man who knew them primarily through the medium of embroidery motifs.

Perhaps this thinness results from Rushdie's being essentially a comic writer, directed to less congenial themes by history of ambition, a commedia dell'arte player cast in a tragedy. The invention of grand or profound characters doesn't come naturally to him....

While I was reading this, I was musing on the fact that Shalimar hadn't followed in the footsteps of other novels by Mr Rushdie, in storming the Book Review's front page. What we have on the front page instead is Times columnist Nicholas D Kristof's review of Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. The authors, who are married, have devoted their work to the cause of completely demythologizing Mao Zedong. Even Mr Kristof thinks that they might have gone too far! That's the funny part. For split thinking, compare

And Mao says some remarkable things about the peasants he was supposed to be championing. When they were starving in the 1950's, he instructed: "Educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel. The State should try its hardest ... to prevent peasants eating too much." In Moscow, he offered to sacrifice the lives of 300 million Chinese, half of the population at the time, and in 1958 he blithely declared of the overworked population: "Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die."


I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But Mao's legacy is not all bad. Land reform... [blah blah blah]

"That side"? Can monsters have "good sides"? I think not. I doubt that I'll read this book, simply because I have already arrived at the authors' conclusions by other means, but I do recommend it.

Two new books about Shakespeare are reviewed by John Simon, perhaps our most acerbic critic. He likes them both, though. Of Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography and James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, he writes,

Needless to say, there is a good deal of overlapping, as there must be, but nobody who has read the one will fail to find pleasure and profit in the other.

But all I could think while reading the review was that surely its more important to read Shakespeare than to read about him. There ought to be a rule: for every hour that you spend on books about the Bard, you must spend ten actually reading what he actually wrote himself. In the late Spalding Gray's Life Interrupted: The Unifinished Monologue, you get to do both, authorwise; according to Charles Isherwood, this posthumous publication includes essays by friends of the noted storyteller as well as a draft of the monologue that he was working on when he died. Gray's suicide, sadly, was not a surprise; the surprise is that Abraham Lincoln didn't throw himself off the Staten Island Ferry in the middle of winter. According Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, this country's number-two president was inspired by a mental disorder to achieve greatness. Reviewer Patricia Cohen isn't convinced, and neither am I.

And while depressives may be politically acute, creative and spiritual, they don't have a monopoly on these attributes.

There are two books about ancient history. One is poet Robert Pinsky's The Life of David. Reviewer William Deresiewicz writes,

That David was himself a poetry turns out to be secondary. In fact, disappointingly, Pinsky spends little time on his subject's poetic achievement. Instead, he uses the biblical account, supplemented in places by legendary and rabbinic material, to make David present to the reader in a way the Bible cannot do.

The wrongheadedness of this exercise amazes me. It's not unlike reading about Shakespeare instead of reading Shakespeare himself. Whatever the real King David was like - if there was such a man - the Bible severely distorts his career for tendentious purposes that were conceived long after his death. To use such "materials" to compose a snapshot analysis of an historical figure is preposterous. I'm reminded that Israeli archeologists have disappointed their compatriots, not for lack of trying, by failing to produce the slightest evidentiary support for the grand things that Scripture says about David and Solomon.

The other history book, while rather more reality-based, seems even more determined to make a case. Paul Johnson writes that Victor Davis Hanson's A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War is aimed squarely at believers in American superpowers. Mr Johnson wants all of us to read the book, because

Americans, fortunate in their power and prosperity, have many unavoidable responsibilities in the world, and in discharging them should study the past, even the remote past, to find any guidance it has to offer.

I feel a choice coming on. Either I can let that stand, or I can burst in a shower of arguably unpatriotic remarks. Perhaps I can simply say that the guidance that Mr Johnson seeks for Americans is not going to come from case studies.

Part of me would really like to read Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall. Tim Folger's review makes this daunting title appear to be very approachable. If I were younger, I'd take it on. And I may take it on yet. But not on the strength of coverage in the Book Review. My life already has too many dimensions.

The concluding essay really deserves a separate entry. Elizabeth Royte's "Publish and Perish," a sort of twelve-step guide to the agonies of a newly-published author. It concludes with a remark by writer John Seabrook.

"The beginning of acceptance," Seabrook said, "is when you realize that the reason your book isn't in bookstores isn't because it's sold out. It's not there because the store never ordered it in the first place."



Don't miss Ben Stein's chin-stroking questions about the meaning of his alumni gifts to Yale. The size of Yale's endowment - and that of several other famous universities - allows it to participate in hugely profitable deals that most of Yale's wealthiest graduates can't buy into, and this occasions some interesting resentment on the part of the writer.

I love Yale, and I am deeply grateful to Yale. It is a star in my sky every day and night. But at this point, is it an investment bank or a school? I am really not sure, and this troubles me. I would love to be shown that I am wrong, but I am not certain that I am.

Well, duh. It's an investment bank with a little University of Phoenix thingy running on the side. At schools like Carleton, Grinnell, Coe and Bowdoin, in contrast, undergraduates are taught by real professors, not exploited graduate students. How much longer is this Harvard madness going to continue? 

October 22, 2005

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

The other day, Ms NOLA offered the temptation of seeing The Squid and the Whale with her yesterday afternoon, but I was a good boy and decided on something showing at the Storage Unit Theatre - Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. An unlikely choice, I know, but something about AO Scott's very favorable writeup in today's Times convinced me that I wouldn't hate it. And I didn't. I loved it. Kurt Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Shue, David Morse, and Luis Guzmán were every bit as good as I thought they be - Mr Russell a bit better than that, even - while the two stars whom I'd not seen before, Dakota Fanning and Freddy Rodrìguez were very pleasant surprises. Writer-director John Gatins clearly knows what he's doing, and, not incidentally, he uses the bluegrass landscape astutely.

Dreamer is being marketed as a family movie, and there were plenty of kids at the theatre, but, frankly, there was a great deal of grown-up tension between the characters, and the world of thoroughbred racing was not romanticized. The nuts and bolts were given much more articulate treatment than they were in Seabiscuit. Which is not to criticize the great Seabiscuit, but just to wonder how much of Dreamer will fly over kids' heads. Kurt Russell has always been good at playing wounded men, but here he's something more, a wounded man who decides to get over his way of getting over his wound. He takes off the bandages and resumes trying to live a full life. The pain of disappointment is always visible on his face until, eventually, it's replaced by hope and then contentment.

At the beginning of Dreamer, the Crane family lives on a horse farm with no horses. Dad is distant from his daughter Cale, and Dad's father, Pop, lives in his own house to one side, incommunicado. Dad's jockey no longer races, and he has a pronounced pot. You know that all these things will change, and at the end you are grateful that you've been spared most of the financial aspects of this transformation. The Cranes are living hand-to-mouth, but they manage, and financial hardship never occludes the horse story at the forefront.

As for the horse story, it's enough to say that a fine-looking animal that is almost put down at the beginning of the film goes on to more glorious achievement. The role is played by an animal named Sacrifice. Speaking of roles, the actress who plays the small role of Cale Crane's school teacher, Karen (I thought I saw "Kayren" on the screen) Butler really caught my eye. This is apparently her first film. I don't think that it will be her last.

October 21, 2005


It turns out that Harriet Miers is not entirely the woman of no accomplishment that she is made out to be. Even allowing for slant, Molly McDonough's piece for the American Bar Association's Web site, "Harriet Miers' 'Unknown' Story," ticks off a list of achievements - all related to the Bar.

Miers focused most of her career in behind-the-scenes trial practice. Colleagues say her penchant for being discreet won her the trust of her clients, including Microsoft, Walt Disney & Co. and, eventually, then-Gov. George W. Bush.

When she did take center stage, it was through bar activities. At the ABA, Miers served for nine years on the ABA Journal Board of Editors, and from 1995 to 1998 she served as chair. She also served in the ABA as chair of the Commission on Multijurisdictional Practice, chair of the House of Delegates’ Rules and Calendar Committee, and co-chair of the Section of Litigation’s Business Torts Litigation Committee. She also was a longtime member of the ABA Consortium on Legal Services and the Public, and is a fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

Ms McDonough writes that Ms Miers is "well-known" for not making an issue of her string of "gender-barrier breakthroughs." That may be genuine modesty, or it may be the character trait that made her attractive to Texan patriarchs, Uncle-Tom style. After all, the law firm that hired her as its first female associate did so in 1972.

In the end, this article confirms, once and for all, my sense that Harriet Miers is a first-class crony. The Delegates' Rules and Calendar Committee? Bingo.


After lunch yesterday, I put on Topper and got to work on the icebox. (Amazing that such a word should survive into the twenty-first century, but that's what both my parents, born 1914 and 1918, called it.) Its condition was, to use the term a plumber once applied to my sink, "neglected." A sticky brown goo had spread over the bottom shelf, and getting rid off it tore my sponge to pieces. But I prevailed. The refrigerator is much cleaner. More important, it's emptier. The challenge will be to keep it that way.

Because of my non-moving back, I would be much happier with the sort of refrigerator that is mounted over, not beneath, the freezer, but nobody manufactures such an appliance for the space available in my kitchen. As a result, I'm faced with the choice of knocking things over because I can't see them or getting down on my knees. A third alternative, and real solution, occurred to me a while ago: everything is either in bins or on sturdy trays. This makes cleaning the glass shelves very simple. But I don't always load the bins and trays properly. That's why I want greatly reduced load. Ideally, I'd have a "bachelor's box" - beer and a few condiments. It will never be that spare. For one thing, I have jillions of condiments. Jams and jellies too - something of a problem because I don't have a sweet tooth and Kathleen is avoiding carbs these days and has never been a bread-eater.

It killed me to throw away all the chocolate. But it was unusable. And what do I do with two small bottles of Medaglia d'Oro instant espresso (essential for many desserts)? How about "brewing" a cup? I wonder what that would taste like now, in the age of Starbucks.

There's still too much in the freezer, even though I threw much of what was in it away. At least I reclaimed the ice bucket.

Topper was great fun. It's possibly the most Archie Leach of Cary Grant's movies. Constance Bennett and Roland Young are perfect, although I always think of Leo G Carroll in the title role, thanks to the Fifties TV show. And while we're making comparisons, Billie Burke's Clara is a lot less amusing than Lee Patrick's Henrietta (why the name change, I wonder). But the supporting cast sparkles with such luminaries as Alan Mowbray (as the butler) and Eugene Pallette (as the house detective). Hedda Hopper has one of her socialite moments, and Hoagie Carmichael plays himself. In the end, Roland Young's Topper carries the movie - which is as it should be.

Urban Planning


Back in August, I posted an entry about Colin Jones's Paris: The Biography of a City. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from a gentleman who is participating in an urban-planning project for the Ile-de-France, the region of which Paris is the heart. My new correspondent concluded his most recent letter with a request.

I would be curious to know if, outside the town-planning community and specialised circles, there is any kind of public debate going on in the US on similar issues. What kind of look does the educated general public have on US cities today? I don’t know how interested you are in these issues of urban forms in relation to social and environmental issues, but I would love to know if by chance you have come across anything worth reading on these topics.

Today, I finally got round to responding.

Thanks for sharing your perspective on the Paris-banlieue divide.

Much of my admiration for Paris proper is a response to the complete lack of intelligent planning here in the United States. I believe that I understand certain special reasons for this (my hypothesis can be found here), and in any case there is a strong anti-dirigiste trend in the American psychology. How much longer we'll be abandoned to laissez-faire is anyone's guess. The educated American public does not seem to have thought beyond "the need to reduce energy consumption." It's a perfectly empty gesture, since turning out the lights and reducing the temperature a few degrees in winter barely a cosmetic "solution." I daresay very, very few Americans understand that rising oil prices will eventually make many plastics applications too expensive, a development that will have innumerable effects (packaging is the area I think about most). Our exurban sprawl is manifestly untenable in the mid-term, but nobody wants to hear that. We are, you might say, too busy being "productive." We have, if anything, taken too much to heart Voltaire's suggestion about the cultivation of gardens.

As you may know, American public education is financed largely by local property taxes. This not only explains why the quality of education in this country is so wildly uneven, but it also works against any regional spirit.

As for New York, I can only tell you that it is on the verge of falling apart. In fact it is falling apart, constantly, and being repaired on an ad hoc basis. But the plant itself is too old, and needs to replaced (I'm thinking of water mains and subways in particular). There is no political will for such projects. It doesn't help that our society has been so polarized by political manipulators.

In my haste to answer, I neglected to answer the gentleman's request for books on the subject. David Owen's fantastic article in The New Yorker last October, "Green Manhattan," certainly deserves mention (I didn't know that it was online!). And the work of James Howard Kunstler. Do any of you have further suggestions? I'd be grateful, as would my friend in Paris.

¶ The August entry on Colin Jones's Paris.

October 20, 2005

Orpheus at Carnegie

18 October 2005: The new season began with an elegant program, beautifully executed. The principal works were Mozart's first important piano concerto (Nº 9 in E-Flat, K 271, the "Jeunehomme" - named for blind pianist Barbara Jeunehomme to play on her tour stop in Salzburg) and Beethoven's first important piano concerto (Nº 3 in g, Op 37). Each was preceded by a roughly contemporary overture by a less exalted composer. JC Bach's Sinfonia in B-Flat, Op 18 Nº 2 opened the concert, while the overture to Luigi Cherubini's Faniska followed the intermission. Both "minor" composers were at least popular as Mozart and Beethoven in their day; neither was nearly as demanding.

This is not to say that the Sinfonia was as trivial as I was afraid it might be. "London" Bach, the youngest of Johann Sebastian's two broods, was, even during his father's last years, the most famous Bach in music. Instead of following in JS's footsteps, as his elder brother Karl Philipp Emanuel did - JC aimed at worldly success and achieved it. His operas have disappeared entirely, but their overtures, collected in his declining years as "symphonies" still serve as perfect indicators of the state of music that Mozart grew up with. Orpheus chose what was originally the overture to Bach's setting of Lucio Silla. Lively but focused, the outer movements were rhythmic riffs on attractive but unmemorable motifs. The inner movement sang a lovely song for the oboe, somewhat reminiscent of the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. The whole work gave the orchestra an enthusiastic warmup.

Written in 1777, the "Jeunehomme" concerto is scored for the standard Salzburg orchestra: two oboes, two French horns, and strings.

Continue reading about this concert at Portico.

October 19, 2005


Jason Kottke writes today about - not writing. Well, writing less. "The further away from punditry I can get, the better it will be for all of us," he concludes, having already revealed that writing does not rank very high on his list of pleasures. What he proposes to do instead is to steer kottke.org in the direction of "tumblelogs." To see what one of these looks like, visit Anarchaia. We will not, I think, be heading in that direction here in the Porticomplex.

But who wants to sound like a pundit - besides pundits? I try very hard not to sound like one, but to some extent, I'm sure, in vain. What I've discovered is that the Web log does not have to be a hurry-up what's-new medium. I still recommend readers to print the longer entries and read them at leisure, but I've also done what I can to keep the look of Portico, where everything on the blogs is destined to wind up, as crisp and uncluttered as possible. I've also cut back on what I call self-evident links. There's no reason for me to interrupt my text - and every link is a bit of an interruption - with a link to Amazon or Google that you, gentle reader, can easily fashion for yourself simply by copying, say, the title of a book into the search window.

As I write, I'm hearing a previously unopened 1973 recording of Radu Lupu, with the London Symphony Orchestra under André Previn, performing the wonderful slow movement of Grieg's Piano Concerto in a. I once told a music teacher that I hoped, some day, to have an entire summer like this music; it seemed a sophisticated thing to say and I meant it. I also mean this: it's nice to have arrived at a point where blogging is no longer cool. All right, not cool, but coolio.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

George Saunders's new book, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (Riverhead, 2005), is a parable, but a parable about what? In the Book Review a few Sundays back, Eric Weinberger took it to be a no-longer-necessary warning against Hitler types. Sometimes, you'd think that Hitler invented genocide!

The genocide in Reign of Phil doesn't get very far, because there aren't very many people to work with. But let's not be silly. The tenor of this parable is every good writer's Topic A: language.

Did I say something about "people"? There aren't any people in Reign of Phil. There are creatures, sort of - amalgams of organic tissue and machinery. The author does not begin to describe them coherently, and that's part of the fun. (I do wonder about the sinister illustrations that don't appear to be credited to any artist. Does this mean that Mr Saunders has a sideline?) Phil, the bad guy, has a problem with his brain: it slides, from time to time, off of its "tremendous sliding rack." And when it does, Phil's manner of speech changes from bullying but understated sarcasm to blaring Victorian oratory. Here's Phil with his brain in place:

"You know what?" said Phil. "After spending some time with you folks, I am tempted, in terms of our most important National Virtue, to replace 'Generosity' with 'Remarkable Intelligence'."

This self-congratulatory nonsense is amusing because even ordinary intelligence is barely in evidence. Here's Phil with his brain in a ditch:

"I'll tell you something else about which I've been lately thinking!" he bellowed in a suddenly stentorian voice. "I've been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I've been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We're big, we're energetic, we're generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God the Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big beautiful land God the Almighty gave us!"

Suddenly Phil didn't seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with such certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

Note "under-appreciated." Phil's political advance in the notional land of Outer Horner owes almost entirely to his willingness to appreciate the dickens out of his compatriots. Reign of Phil is at the same time a hornbook of demagogic language and a critique of it. Mr Saunders's ear for the unconsidered language of ordinary people is equally pitch-perfect.

Not too long ago, I wrote about Harry Frankfurt's little treatise, On Bullshit. I admired Professor Frankfurt's argument that the liar is more interested in the truth than the bullshitter is. The bullshitter speaks...

Continue reading about The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil at Portico.

October 18, 2005


Ever since Vermont instituted civil unions in 2000, granting gay couples (among others) the same civil rights as married folks, I've been waiting for another state to refuse to recognize such a union. To my great shame, my own state is the first that I know of to take this terrible step. The Appellate Division Second Department, which has jurisdiction over Long Island, rejected a Supreme Court ruling that permitted John Langan to sue St Vincent's Hospital for the wrongful death of his partner, Neil Spicehandler. The opinion is marred by red-state ugliness.

"The thought that the surviving spouse would be of the same sex as the decedent was simply inconceivable," the appellate court said of the law's original intent.

(Click here for Newsday's full account.) But the original intent of our wrongful-death statutes is not the issue. It is wholly irrelevant to the case. According to Article IV of the United States Constitution,

Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.

If Vermont says that Mr Langan and Mr Spicehandler were partners, then they are partners everywhere in the United States, and invoking the term "spouse" to conclude otherwise is the meanest sort of legalism. The Appellate Division's opinion is plainly unconstitutional. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is in on the case. Let's hope that the Court of Appeals reinstates the trial-court judgment.

Another, much sillier but somehow more informative spoor of the wingnut male mind crossed my desk later in the day. It starts out on a jocular note but gets nastier and nastier, attacking liberals as being, among other things, like women. I put it after the jump, so you don't have to look at it unless you want to. But I do wonder that its manly author remained so obviously unaware of his resentful self-pity. I don't believe that anyone who felt good about his own life would have forwarded this to a friend, much less written it.

I'm not trying to make a political statement here, but I couldn't pass up this one.

Important history lesson omitted in public schools...

History began some 12,000 years ago. Humans existed as members of small bands of nomadic hunter/gatherers. They lived on deer in the mountains during the winter and would go to the coast to live on fish and lobster in the summer.

The two most important events in all of history were the invention of beer and the invention of the wheel. The wheel was invented to get man to the beer. These were the foundations of modern civilization, and together were the catalyst for the splitting of humanity into two distinct subgroups: Liberals & Conservatives.

Once beer was discovered, it required grain, and that was the beginning of agriculture. Neither the glass bottle nor aluminum can were invented yet, so while our early human ancestors were sitting around waiting for them to be invented, they just stayed close to the brewery. That's how ! villages were formed.

Some men spent their days tracking and killing animals to B-B-Q at night while they were drinking beer. This was the beginning of what is known as "the Conservative movement."

Other men who were weaker and less skilled at hunting, learned to live off the conservatives by showing up for the nightly B-B-Q's and doing the sewing, fetching and hair dressing. This was the beginning of the liberal movement. Some of these liberal men eventually evolved into women. The rest became known as "girlymen."

Some noteworthy liberal achievements include the domestication of cats, the invention of group therapy and group hugs, and the concept of Democratic voting to decide how to divide the meat and beer that conservatives provided.

Over the years, conservatives came to be symbolized by the largest, most powerful land animal on earth, the elephant. Liberals are symbolized by the! jackass.

Modern liberals like imported beer (with lime added) , but most prefer white wine or imported bottled water. They eat raw fish but like their beef well done. Sushi, tofu, and French food are standard liberal fare.

Another interesting evolutionary side note: most of their women have higher testosterone levels than their men.

Most social workers, personal injury attorneys, journalists, dreamers in Hollywood and group therapists, are liberals. Liberals invented the designated hitter rule because it wasn't "fair" to make the pitcher also bat.

Conservatives drink domestic beer. They eat red meat and still provide for their women. Conservatives are big-game hunters, rodeo cowboys, lumberjacks, construction workers, firemen, medical doctors, police officers, corporate executives, soldiers, athletes, and generally, anyone who works productively outside government.

Conservatives who own companies hire other conservatives who want to work! for a living.

Liberals produce little or nothing. They like to "govern" the producers and decide what to do with the production! Liberals believe Europeans are more enlightened than Americans. That is why most of the liberals remained in Europe when conservatives were coming to America. They crept in after the Wild West was tame and created a business of trying to get more for nothing.

Here ends today's lesson in world history. Now you know everything that's really important

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October 17, 2005


When it emerged that Mme NOLA was going to stay with her daughter in Brooklyn a few days longer, I decided that we had to do something about her birthday. And, in the process, to introduce her to some of our other regulars. And to give her a chance to see Kathleen, who was in Seoul for most of Mme NOLA's visit.

It was clear that only Balthazar would do. So, on Thursday afternoon, I called the restaurant to see about a table on Sunday. Imagine my impudence. Balthazar is one of New York's most popular restaurants, and it's easy to see why. The only advantage that Le Grand Colbert, an equally popular spot tucked behind the Palais Royal, and the setting for the antepenultimate scene of Something's Gotta Give, has over Balthazar is that it is actually in Paris, although, now that I think of it, there's no corresponding disadvantage on Balthazar's part, since we're all here together.

Mme NOLA purred, "I feel like I'm in Paris." We were all purring.

"I have tables at 5:30 and 9:00," the reservationist had said. Now, I'm as inclined as any New Yorker to gag at the thought of a 5:30 reservation. It's not so much the thought of eating early that's repellent; it's the insult of being forced to book a table at a child's dinnertime, of being excluded from the adult, "hot" hours of the evening. But I resisted the impulse to say, "No, thank you." Wasn't 5:30 ideal? Mme NOLA would be flying back to New Orleans the next day. It was a school night for the early-rising PPOQ. Kathleen and I would still have an evening together. No, 5:30 was perfect.

Balthazar is a great big brasserie with a voluble clientele. It feels like the relaxed center of the world. The light in the high room is just dim enough to keep curiosity at the bubble. The mirrors, the caryatids, the tile floor, the ancient woodwork, the paper tablecloths - there are hundreds of restaurants in the United States that aim for this atmosphere without capturing it nearly as well as Balthazar does. The troop of waiters in white shirts and aprons convey something of the darting reassurance of emergency-room personnel, which, while that may not seem the most inviting association to you. perfectly meets the average Manhattanite's neurotic pursuit of just so in a tumultuous city. Located on the edges of SoHo and NoLIta, Balthazar is perhaps the only "downtown" destination that many Upper East and West Siders have ever ventured into. There are families - grown-up families, to be sure - everywhere.

M le Neveu wore a suit and so was quietly overdressed. I myself wore some of my best duds, under the inexpensive corduroy jacket that I can fit into again since, perhaps because I've found what I want to do with my life, I'm slowly, unprogrammatically losing weight. Mme NOLA sported her anti-war lavaliere, a miniature Tour Eiffel on a silver chain. She and Ms NOLA had just returned to New York from a wedding in Philadelphia and were stylish in just the right way. Ms G looked terrific, and it's heartwarming to see that she and Ms NOLA talk like old friends. PPOQ reminisced about his NOLA days, comparing famous murders with the birthday girl. Kathleen, who had slept most of the day (bien sûr!), had managed jet lag with sufficient expertise to enjoy the party whole-heartedly.

I didn't think, "I'm in the movies." I thought, "this is what movies about New York try to convey." With more or less success.

The proprietors of Balthazar have imported a Parisian enterprise to Manhattan. Manhattan has responded by providing deserving customers.

October 16, 2005

Gossip and Rumor

When I first heard what I'm going to report, I thought, that's not for the DB. Even though I'm not shy about my political opinions, this is not a political site. And it is certainly not a news source.

But I'm impatient with my news source of choice, The New York Times. So, here goes.

The other day, a good friend had lunch with a former Cabinet member. I'm not making this up, nor do I have any doubt that the former secretary did indeed make the attributed remarks.

First, my friend was told that certain parties have been asked to write their letters of resignation. Nous verrons.

Second, he was told about a recurrent drinking problem. 

This second rumor is very serious. If I've heard it more than once (and read it at Web sites that don't go in for casual mud-slinging), where is The New York Times? The rumor ought to be stilled, replaced by reportage one way or the other. Once upon a time, the private life of public officials was pretty much their own affair. Those days, for better or worse, are over. What's the story, Grey Lady?

Book Review

Making my life easier, the Book Review spouts quite a few good reviews this week. Because this feature is about the books that I don't plan to read, I don't have to say much about the ones that I do. I'd have read Walter Kirn's Mission to America no matter what Paul Gray's review made of it, and Mark Costello's piece on Karen Olsson's Waterloo pricked my ears to a new voice. Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning gets a discouraging review from Andrew Solomon, of all people, so I'll have to see what other people say. A collection of stories, In Case We're Separated, by Alice Mattison, sounds interesting, if perhaps a bit Too Jewish. Rachel Cusk's In The Fold looks like a book that I'll have to examine at Barnes & Noble for the quality of the sentences; Ada Calhoun's favorable review doesn't tell me what I need to know. The Other Shulman, by Alan Zweibel, and Seven Lies, by James Lasdun, reviewed by Neil Genzlinger and Ken Kalfus respectively, are the only two works of fiction that I can cross off with ease. Shulman is about an impossible middle-aged man, and Lies appears to be misconceived.

As for non-fiction, there are several inviting books. There's Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England. This may be the book that will relieve of confirm my misgivings about Alison Weir, a writer who has managed, without my having read a word of her prose, to strike me as a romance novelist posing as an historian. The Isabella in question is not the famous Spanish duarch but the mother of Edward III of England, whose descent would spark the Hundred Years' War - the most unnecessary military engagement that I've ever heard of. Also interesting is Summer Doorways, a memoir by poet W S Merwin. Tempting but not tempting enough are J Anthony Froude: The Last Undiscovered Great Victorian, by Julia Markus (covered by Walter Olson) and White Savage: Williiam Johnson and the Invention of America, by Fintan O'Toole (Caleb Crain). I'm eternally grateful to Mr Olson for attesting that "Froude" rhymes with "food," but the subtitle is, in the end, far too desperate. As for William Johnson, he was a pre-Revolutionary Irishman who consorted among the Mohawk; that's two strikes right there. Alana Newhouse's review of The Tiger in the Attic: Memories of the Kinderstransport and Growing Up English, by Edith Milton, left me wondering what my women friends will make of the book; ditto Louise Jarvis Flynn's review of Holly Morris's Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine.

Do I want to read about Theodore Roosevelt's expedition up the River of Doubt? No. So Candice Millard's book is not on my list, despite Bruce Barcott's good review. I've said it before and I'll say it again: my idea of "roughing it" is staying at home.

There are three "important" titles in this week's Review. The one that I may buy is Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery, by Helen Vendler. If there's anyone who can save verse for me, it's Helen Vendler. I still haven't finished her last book, Coming of Age as a Poet, and I've never given Shakespeare's sonnets the attention that she claims for them, but I'm still (just) open to the argument that "poetry" is primarily found in "verse." I'll probably feel guilty about not reading Jed Perl's New Art City, a study of New York's colossal role in the unfolding of modern art, and Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt. John Updike's lavish review of Mr Perl's book, however, failed to persuade me that modernism is worth thinking about; more and more it seems to be no more than a bad dream from which we shall all soon awaken. And I haven't forgotten Mr Perl's opinion of painter John Currin. Mr Judt's essays in The New York Review of Books, notable as they are, have convinced me that he is somebody whom I should heartily dislike were I to meet him: if there's one type of person I can't stand to be in the same room with, it's a highly literate Man's Man. Anthony Gottlieb's review manages to cast little light on the book itself, but I decided against Postwar, ironically I suppose, while reading Alan Ryan's review in the NYRoB. The following sentence did it:

One might take a more generous view. It was, among other things, a time when large numbers of people, women particularly - and women do not get very close attention in Postwar - began to ask whether the prosperity of the previous decade had brought them commensurate happiness.

The last-page Essay, by Jonathan Tepperman, is about foreign-policy books. It contrasts the Big Idea offerings of Natan Sharansky and Niall Ferguson with Realist offerings by Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinsky, and Nancy Soderberg. Mr Tepperman is almost as impatient with the former as I am.

After 9/11, the president seemed to fall for the big idea. The intervening years, however, have not been kind to his black-and-white idealism. Maybe it's time to bring back boring, and put big ideas back on the bookshelf.


October 15, 2005

Friday at the Movies

Wet, wet, wet. But a little warmer, which is nice, since the building hasn't turned the heat on. At least it turned the air-conditioning off.

Since nothing interesting was showing at the Storage Unit Theatre, I waded over to Third Avenue and saw Good Night, and Good Luck, a film which ought to shame audiences into overcoming their network news addiction, at least until television pulls itself out of the sewer that Edward R Murrow foresaw in 1958. George Clooney has made an extraordinary picture, compulsively watchable even though shot in black and white by cameras aimed for the most part at men in white shirts and ties, none of them really young, primarily in office settings. Minimalism actually heightens the drama. The serious, airless (and smoke-filled) atmosphere is ideal for capturing the personal and professional anxiety of newsmen working for a corporation in panicky times. David Strathairn, whose performance grows more remarkable with every scene, registers the menace of McCarthyism simply by staring at its potential victims. His Murrow, a taut man without a ready smile, almost obliterates my recollections of the man himself. There are great parts for Frank Langella, Ray Wise, Robert Downey, Jr, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and for Mr Clooney, but none of them pull your attention away from Mr Strathairn for long. Hurry.

At Burger Heaven, right next door to the theatre. I took a booth next to a gent about my age who was crouching on his legs in the seat. There was a sock on one foot, but the other was, ew, bare and not very clean. The man was wrapping up one call and about to start another; I considered sitting elsewhere. But he kept his voice down. I learned even so that he's in the grief-counseling business. What a marvelous world we live in: you can turn the whole world into your office! I thought to myself that if and when the political scene brightens, I can devote my grumbliness to cell phone users, who seem to have no idea how rude cell phones can make them. Time and again, I have lost friends momentarily to spontaneous leaves of absence. Imagine what your companion would think if you picked up a book in the middle of dinner and began to read. Conducting cell phone conversations is no different. Cell phones are for emergencies only. Attend to the one you're with. And spare the world your professional arrangements.

October 14, 2005

The Year of Magical Thinking

It was so gloomy the other day that I spent most of the afternoon in bed, reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005). It is always satisfying to read a good book in one go. But this book has a quality that I don't think I'd have noticed if I read it sporadically. That is its vulnerability. How can a book be vulnerable? Well, it can be incomplete. From our window, I see where Beth Israel North Hospital used to stand; it has been demolished, and will be replaced by an apartment block that will block part of our view of the horizon. Ms Didion's daughter, Quintana Roo, who was hospitalized there for the better part of a month, almost two years ago, died this summer, while her mother's book hung between galleys and publication. The book, in short, does not tell you the whole story.

No book tells the whole story. What writers do, though, is to create a plausible narrative and say, "That's the whole story." Ms Didion doesn't begin to make this pretence in her new book, which is a record of grief deferred at the same time that it is an act of mourning. It is not told in any obvious order, although I'm sure that it will be taken apart and shown to be quite ingeniously constructed. Any capsule summary is bound to be off-putting; just yesterday, a friend wrote to say that she wasn't inclined to read this book simply because of its doleful subject matter. Why, given everything else that you've got to deal with, would you voluntarily read an account of loss as deep as this?

It's my job, I suppose, to tell you. And not to waste your time attesting to the book's "monumental importance." It's much too soon to guess how "important" The Year of Magical Thinking is going to prove to be. And you already knew that death and mourning are important subjects. That in itself is perhaps a turn-off. Nor can I say...

Continue reading about The Year of Magical Thinking de veau at Portico.

October 13, 2005

What I'm Reading

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders. It's a short book, but it's also, shall we say, "imaginative." And I've been hectic. Right now, I'm finishing up William Finnegan's piece in The New Yorker about rare-map thief E. Forbes Smiley III. With a little poking around, I found the dealer's mug shots. For history, I'm reading Helen Maurer's Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England. This is a readable book, but not one for anyone unversed in the history of the Wars of the Roses. Ms Maurer's thesis is that Margaret's reputation as a "she-wolf" owes to her simply having acted in her family's interest while her husband, Henry VI, was incapacitated by madness. Queens, it appears, were held to different standards than those imposed on other women of substance; they were expected to exemplify an ideal womanhood that was essentially passive and supportive - and pacifying. A consciousness-raiser.


Mme NOLA is in town. M NOLA was to come too - this visit to Ms NOLA was planned ages ago - but as he was engaged in finally getting back to work, he thought it best to remain at home. Home, at the moment, is an apartment in the French Quarter; I believe that he is moving in this evening. There is not much to move. The contents of chez NOLA were pretty much obliterated by the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. Every piece of furniture save one - every piece including the upright piano - was tipped over by the flood. The other day, I saw photographs that were hard to believe. Flooding, yes, ruination, yes. One grasped that. One hadn't, in advance, grasped the filth and the mold.

But Mme NOLA is here for the week, and we had to have a tour of the museums. On her last visit, Mme NOLA and I were alone, but this time Ms NOLA got the day off to join us. We met at the Barnes & Noble near the 86th Street stop of the Lex. Arriving all at the same moment, we headed out again, through sprinkling rain, to the Guggenheim, where the show, Russia!, occupies the entire spiral. Our plan was to head to the Met for lunch afterward, and then to see the exhibitions of medieval treasures from Prague and of "Spiritualist" photography.

The show at the Guggenheim was a miscellany of Russian art from the fifteenth century (or perhaps earlier) to the day before yesterday. All of it was very competent. There were a few awkward pieces that reflected the unsure accommodation of East and West, but these were always arresting in their perplexity. There was a great deal of frankly derivative work - derivative of Western styles not much in favor today outside the Dahesh Museum. There was a very jolly bust of Catherine the Great. Among the nineteenth-century works were several beautiful oil paintings of twilights and moonrises that I should have called "Luminist" if only Google would support the claim; since it doesn't, I'll say that these paintings seemed to address the same yearning as does the work of our Hudson River School. Around 1900, things begin to get interesting in a new way; I saw quite a few things that would be at home at the Neue Galerie (which I have yet to revisit). Then the first bursts of native greatness: Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich. The show ends with a bunch of installations that demonstrate that Muscovites are no better than New Yorkers at working out the godawful confusion of flat-panel art and sculpture. And no worse.

My knees can handle the climb, but the descent is bruising. We took the elevator downstairs. I thought briefly of buying the catalgue, so that I could write more learnedly about Russia! But that seemed pretty fake. If I go back - and I probably won't - I'll take notes. There is one really beautiful Portrait of the Artist's Son from the early nineteenth century, and I'm sorry that I didn't scribble down the father's name.

After lunch in the other museum, we took the magic elevator up to the Old Master galleries. This elevator is seldom in use, but it cuts hours from getting from the cafeteria in the basement to the Tisch Galleries on the second floor. You pop out amid Italian Renaissance paintings, proceed through a German gallery, and then take the Netherlandish enfilade to what I call the Lavoisier Room. Proceeding through the Tiepolo gallery takes you to the top of the grand staircase, where you turn toward the south - oh, I'm getting tired just thinking about it. I marched briskly along the path just described while Ms NOLA and her mother complimented themselves upon having someone who really knows the museum to lead them through it - "And even if you don't know where you're going, you look like you do."

Just how true this jest was would soon be demonstrated. For I had no idea where we were going. I had no idea that it was there to go to. Later, I would remember an article in the Times, and a preview-invitation-sized envelope that I hadn't opened. But at one end of the Lavoisier Room stood two nice ladies by a little table that read "Members Only." I caught that first. Then, Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings. Well, this was a show that my guests would certainly want to see. I whipped out my membership card and asked if it would get me in. It would get us all in. We spent the next hour in a state of Deep Treat.

I am not a fan of van Gogh. I tried very hard, at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, to like his paintings, but they seemed increasingly fantastic and - suitable for children's books. Their excessiveness oppressed instead of exciting me. Since Kathleen loves van Gogh, I always feel a little left out by this painter. But left out I shall feel no more. I will admire any number of paintings if I can bear in mind the extraordinary works on paper that I saw the other day. From the very beginning - A Marsh (1881 ) - to the very end - Corridor in the Asylum (1889-1890). All the extravagance of the painter's colors reappeared to me, in the drawings, in a form much more appealing as an extravagance of beautifully organized detail. I am still shaking a little from having seen Rock and Ruins, Montmajour (1888). That rock!


Many of the drawings are studies for the famous paintings. Several are "souvenirs," drawn simply to inform a correspondent of the colors of the painting, with bleu or chrome written in between the lines of a given area. But the most striking compare-and-contrast occurred for me when I came upon the multimedia Harvest in Provence hanging next to its version in oils (both works 1888). The painting, Harvest in Provence, is a star at the van Gogh Museum, and I remember studying it hard, trying to identify what it was that kept me from liking a picture so colorful and yet so ordered. In the end, I came away thinking that it was too simple, and while you may dismiss me as a barbarian, I found that the counterpart, drawn in everything from reed pen to wax crayon, vindicated my judgment. This is the not-too-simple version of the picture, and one has only to look at the sky to see what I'm talking about. The painting's sky is an uninflected uniform French blue. The drawing's sky is hardly blue at all, so busy are the cumulus clouds drifting across it. The vitality of penned scribbles makes the profusion of brush strokes look tired. In the drawing, we're shown what's really there, not the color of what's really there.

This show will close at the end of the year (literally), and then reopen in Amsterdam. It is the van Gogh show, so get yourself to it on one continent or the other. Let's hope that the fact that there aren't many paintings on view will keep the crowds somewhat smaller than they might be. Then again, let's not.

After van Gogh, Prague, The Crown Jewel of Bohemia, 1347-1437 seemed as miscellaneous, if more spectacular, than Russia! I'll have to go back. As for The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, it was icky. Most of the images are tiny and tawdry. Example: Three Phalluses. Maybe I haven't got that right. It could be The Phalluses. It is obviously a photograph, one way or another, of three fingers. There is a jokey sequence of shots of two men in which one makes reappearances in transparent garments - a curious anticipation of X-rays, but more salacious. We know what they were thinking, the photographers who produced these documents. As for the customers, they just weren't thinking at all.

And then it was out into the rain. The rain that fell faster and heavier the closer we got to my apartment, where we would drink tea. When I turned my head and shoulders a bit, at one corner, to see if the ladies were still behind me, Ms NOLA called out, "We're here," and her mother echoed, "the ducklings are following you." It appeared from my trousers that I'd taken a great deal of the wet that might have soaked them.

Mme NOLA has been homeless since 28 August, when she joined the evacuation of New Orleans. On 17 October she will hang her hat under her own roof for the first time since then. Showing me the before-and-after pictures of her home, she joked that her husband had mowed the lawn on the 27th. It was a lovely green lawn - Mme NOLA thought to take a picture as they drove away. It is now a dank, brown and ugly waste. But why stop at superficial gardening. How would you like to have this happen to your kitchen?



The minor miracle on display in this photograph is that almost all of the photographs and other memorabilia taped and magneted to the refrigerator door and side survived, thanks, I suppose, to really good gaskets. Note that the waterline on the appliance is rather low; it clearly floated out the storm. Had the water risen no higher than that watermark, a lifetime's collection of artwork would have been spared.

All of the photographs of chez NOLA are horrifying, but there's something obscene about the tilted refrigerator that stopped me cold. I wanted to publish it the moment I saw it, and yet I felt that asking for permission would be gross. That was Monday. By last night I'd hardened a bit, and decided to ask. I was given permission at once - and I was surprised by that. To me, this picture represents such an unforgivable invasion of personal space that I would never want anyone else to see it - although, in my capacity as daily blogger, I'd have run it anyway. But the tragedy has taken my very evolved friends and evolved them a little more.

October 12, 2005

On Meeting Famous People

Walking the dog yesterday, I discovered two of the writers on my Affinities list posting about the challenge of maintaining their mere mortality in the presence of a celebrity. Vito Esterno, at Outer Life, characteristically did not identify the eminent (and apparently venerable) TV star who showed up in one of his children's classroom, while Jennifer Mattern did a fair amount of gushing about Meryl Streep. Both entries fairly choke with the awkwardness of being near a very famous person, but, beyond that, they have nothing in common. Not for an instant does Jenn pretend that she has gotten all dolled up to take part in the dedication of Don Gummer's new sculpture, Primary Separation, at MassMoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, because she follows contemporary sculpture or admires Mr Gummer's work. No. She is hoping to meet, somehow, anyhow, Mrs Gummer, Award-winning star of, among other things, Sophie's Choice. I won't spoil the suspense; Jenn's two-part entry at Breed 'em and Weep is also very funny. (Can Jenn Mattern be the new Erma Bombeck?) Vito, on the other hand, would willingly go out of his way to avoid the proximity of luminaries. They make him jealous and bitter, because, as he says, he is still, mentally, in high school, wishing that he could get used to not having a chance at popularity. Of course, he does choose to live in a part of the world where movie stars are thickly clustered. I look forward to more on this at Outer Life.

I was thinking about this sort of thing, too, because I've seen some notable writers this fall, as previous entries attest. And each time I've stood up to ask a question or present a book for signing, I've known that I am just another unit in the composition of a crowd. We all want the famous people whom we meet to carry away some inkling of our individuality, but anyone who undertook to squirrel away memories of each the hundreds of new people that they might meet beneath their spotlight would soon be driven mad. You often read that there's an upper limit of 150 to the number of people that most of us can keep meaningful track of. Worse, the effort to present yourself indelibly often backfires, so that, sure, the famous person remembers something about you: that you're a doofus. The doofus from White Plains.

Writers do not spend much of their time at the center of any group's attention. They are not famous for being charismatic. Quite the opposite. The image of teleportation, if that's what it is, from the first Matrix film often strikes me as descriptive of writing. Insofar as second parties are concerned, the writer's mind is cataleptic and inert, but in some other mode of being, it is active and alert. There's something paradoxical about a writer's real-world, meet-and-greet celebrity, because it goes against the fly-on-the-wall habit of mind that every serious writer cultivates. From their podiums, writers must be mightily disappointed by their polite, earnest, admiring audiences, when what the want to see is unselfconscious humanity going about its good and bad deeds. But I doubt that the sound of applause is ever really unpleasant.

When you meet a celebrity, make sure that you come across as a self-possessed human being, not as a nuisance. It is never lame to say, simply, "Thank you." Never! Don't say anything else if you fear that stress will jam your speech production. Never put yourself forward as a commodity that the celebrity might desire. That sort of thing is done by appointment, not in passing. And don't say anything about the famous person unless you're absolutely sure that it's correct. In short, be polite.

October 11, 2005


After she signed my book, she looked up at me and I looked into her very clear eyes. At last: Joan Didion without sunglasses. We both said something along the lines of "thank you."

At the other end of the evening, home from dinner with Ms and Mme NOLA at Cuba, on Thompson Street - where the fried shrimp with coconut is truly super -  and having lost my wits to at least one too many martinis, I concluded that I'd lost my wallet. The first thing to do was to notify American Express. The second thing was to find the wallet in my bathroom. The third thing was to try to get American Express to forget that I called. This did not work. I will be depending upon the kindness of other cards until Thursday.

On the other hand, Kathleen just called from the Grand Hyatt in Seoul. It's after ten in the evening there, but she has had a nice American breakfast delivered to her room, and after she eats it she's going straight to bed. She'll call again when she wakes up, at about 1900 my time.

October 10, 2005


Kathleen has just left, on a trip to Seoul that will bring her home on Friday. Not until late tomorrow morning at the earliest will I hear from her.

Kathleen and I are wired very differently, which is a good thing. Kathleen is focused and low-key. I'm widely curious and high-strung, easily irritated by small things. If we were both like Kathleen, the bills would never get paid. If we were both like me, we'd have flipped each other out years ago. Kathleen likes to fly. I hate flying so much that I'm miserable when she flies.

Kathleen is going to Seoul to speak at a convention. I ought to know more about it than I do, but my magical thinking about the trip more or less precluded finding out. I see now that I really hoped for Kathleen to cancel at the last minute, something she would really never do. There was no pressing reason for her to accept the invitation. It's good for her career, I suppose, but I don't think that she'd have gone just for the self-promotion. Her hope was that her father, who did a lot of contracting work in Korea, would go with her. She wanted to treat him to a trip to a country that he has always admired. She wanted to have a time alone with him. But she ought to have asked him before she committed to making the speech. For reasons all too foreseeable, her father pleaded this and that reason why he could not go.

I offered to take his place. I swallowed hard and offered. We talked about it for a while. But it didn't take long for Kathleen to decide that I ought to stay home. My value as a companion would be limited. She would worry about me as much as I'm going to worry about her. As it is, she'll have a chance to read Horse Heaven in peace, followed by a day or two in Seoul, followed by more Jane Smiley on the flight home. A very quiet week for her. (Needless to say, she'll be escorted everywhere in Korea, more or less like Bill Murray's character in Lost in Translation.)

We'll see if I can swing a quiet week, too.

Reading Pipe

On Saturday afternoon, M le Neveu and his Dartmouth chum, E**, stopped by to join me for a pot of Earl Grey. E**, who just started his second year of law school at Michigan, had come to town for an interview. He was spending his Saturday hopping around Manhattan, and I was flattered to be squeezed in. The visit lasted not quite an hour.

The conversation stuck pretty much to law school. I asked E** what his favorite course was, and he named Property Law, I got him to state the Rule Against Perpetuities to my nephew, whereupon we both piqued the latter's interest by assuring him that the Rule would make no sense to him and that he shouldn't even try to understand it. So much waving of red capes in front of bulls.

I asked E** if he had read "the Reading pipe case." He remembered it instantly, and together we related it to M le Neveu. This case, which is formally styled Jacob & Youngs v Kent (230 NY 239; 129 NE 889; 23 ALR 1429), appears early on in Contracts, another first-year course, in connection with the equitable remedy of specific performance. In 1914, an evidently wealthy man paid $77,000 for the construction of a country place. The contract required the contractor to use pipe manufactured by the Reading Manufacturinig Company. When the house was completed - with most of the pipe buried in the walls - it was discovered that all sorts of pipe had been used. The pipe was of uniform quality, "as good as" Reading pipe. But the buyer refused to pay the final few thousand dollars when the architect refused to issue a certificate of completion. The contractor sued. At trial, evidence of the uniformity of the nonconforming pipe was suppressed. The buyer-defendant won his counterclaim, which sought specific performance of the contract. Somehow, the contractor would have to rip out a lot of work and replace all the piping in the house. Not being an idiot, he appealed the judgment first.

Eventually, the case came to the New York Court of Appeals, New York State's highest court (just as our Supreme Court is the lowest, or trial-level court.), which was then graced by the genius of Benjamin Cardozo. By the time that I read his opinion in Jacob & Youngs, I was a connoisseur of Cardozo's prose style, even though we weren't very far into the semester. It was a style at once clear and literary. It illuminated the ideas upon which it rested as much as it argued them. Jacob & Youngs was decided in January of 1921. The issue, as issues on appeal usually are, was very narrow: should there be a new trial, at which evidence of the uniformity of the pipe might be admitted? Cardozo thought that there ought to be a new trial. If the pipe was all of the same quality, then let a jury of reasonable people decide whether or not the contractor must rebuild the house. In other words, submit the facts to the doctrine of substantial performance.

Those who think more of symmetry and logic in the development of legal rules than of practical adaptation to the attainment of a just result will be troubled by a classification where the lines of division are so wavering and blurred. Something, doubtless, may be said on the score of consistency and certainty in favor of a stricter standard. The courts have balanced such considerations against those of equity and fairness, and found the latter to be the weightier. The decisions in this state commit us to the liberal view, which is making its way, nowadays, in jurisdictions slow to welcome it (Dakin & Co. v. Lee, 1916, 1 K. B. 566, 579). Where the line is to be drawn between the important and the trivial cannot be settled by a formula. "In the nature of the case precise boundaries are impossible" (2 Williston on Contracts, sec. 841). The same omission may take on one aspect or another according to its setting. Substitution of equivalents may not have the same significance in fields of art on the one side and in those of mere utility on the other.

A dissenting judge by the name of McLaughlin wrote an impassioned dissent, based upon the "illiberal" view that Cardozo's opinion would replace. M le Neveu, when it was explained to him. agreed with the dissent. Many law students do the same. Tear the house down! If the contract stipulated Reading pipe, give the man Reading pipe! As the three of us talked about Jacobs & Young, I saw that its importance lies beyond the fact that it provides an instance of specific performance sought but withheld. The case matters - and figures early in the education of most attorneys - because it embodies a core principle of modern American jurisprudence. Obsessions, fanaticisms, and whims are not to be encouraged by the courts. If the owner of the new palazzo couldn't sleep at night because some of the pipes in his house were stamped "Cohoes" instead of "Reading," then, in the absence of any more substantial disappointment, that was his problem. Our system of justice will not going to require senseless destruction just to gratify an insignificant quibble. Everything about Cardozo's judgment steers away from the hard-and-fast implementation of rules and the unthinking imposition of rules, and toward the willingness, liberal indeed, to consider each case in context. In the facts at hand, Cardozo found a perfect opportunity for breaking with ironbound tradition, and he evidently persuaded a majority of his colleagues on the bench to make the break with him.

When I was in law school, I certainly never thought that the Supreme Court of the future would house the reactionary mentalities of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

October 09, 2005

Jarrets de veau

Here's a good winter dish: Jarrets de veau, or veal shanks. The recipe comes from Michael Roberts's charming Parisian Home Cooking, one of the few cookbooks that stand at the ready in my kitchen.

The first thing to do, of course, is to get hold of good slices of veal shank, properly tied up by the butcher. If you have never dealt with veal shank but are attracted by the idea of a meltingly good and simple stew, then simply ask your butcher how much "osso buco" costs today - you'll need between a pound and a half (for two) to three pounds (for four) of meat - and, if you can bear the expense (which will not necessarily be great), order two to four pieces. Ideally, all the pieces would be of the same size, but in practice they never are, because they're sawed from the same shank, and the calf of a calf is not unlike the calf of a human being: it swells and then tapers. Don't worry about this, though; you'll probably never prepare this dish for four matched appetites.

The second thing to do is to make mirepoix. You will already have done this. To make mirepoix, take two bunches of fresh carrots (the kind that are sold with their tops), three heads of celery, and two or three Vidalia onions (depending on size), and chop them up very fine. If you're like me, you'll cheat and pulse the vegetables in a food processor. The result won't be pretty, but then the result rarely makes it to the table, because, as "aromatics," they're used to infuse liquids with their flavors and then discarded. You want equal amounts of all three.

Over low heat, sweat the vegetables in clarified butter or oil...

Continue reading about jarrets de veau at Portico.

Book Review

Joan Didion stars in this week's Book Review. Not only does her new book, The year of Magical Thinking, get a cover story, written by poet Robert Pinsky, but there's Rachel Donadio's three-page interview (sort of) as well. I'll be buying a copy of the book tomorrow night at Barnes & Noble, after Ms Didion's reading, so that's that as far as this entry is concerned. The other book that I'm not going to talk about here - because I've already read it - is Leslie Savan's Slam Dunks and No Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever. In a textbook case of editorial prejudice, this book was given to PJ O'Rourke to review. Once funny, Mr O'Rourke is now a crabby, dyspeptic Republican who can be counted upon to complain about anything. Assigning the book to him was the work of someone who wanted to see Ms Savan's interesting book panned. It's that simple. Stay tuned.

Other non-fiction reviews include A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, by Simon Winchester. I have stayed away from Mr Winchester, guided perhaps by magical thinking. His book about the madman and the OED looked 'way too cute. Reviewer Bryan Burrough is deadly about Crack:  

If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough can lay claim to being the Miles Davis of popular history, Winchester is becoming the Kenny G.

Ouch! Mr Burrough softens up later, conceding that the book might have been more appealing under a less objective title, but I wouldn't be reading it anyway. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach, the author of the best-selling Stiff, looks like a good read for readers interested in cranks. Of whom I am not one. Lynn Freed's memoir of the impact of her South African upbringing upon her writing life, Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home is a book that I might have been drawn to had anyone but fashion writer Holly Brubach reviewed it; Ms Brubach contrives to endow the book with a ghastly self-satisfaction. Two history books, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C Mann, and Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850, by Maya Jasanoff,  would be welcome if there were not too many books and too little time. Ms Jasanoff's premise appears to be that imperialism manifested itself not just in authoritarian control but in the quasi art of collecting. In this view, the great museums of the West are the repository of hunting trophies. This is an intriguing idea.

And yet we might ask what they really learned, those crowds that gazed upon the lot stacked in the British Museum or upon the Belzoni's Egyptian Hall in Picadilly. More than ever, Europeans saw themselves at the center of the civilized word. That, after all, is the grand illusion empire tends to breed.

This would have been nicer if reviewer Mark Mazower had taken cognizance of the fact that today's happier minds understand that the civilized world has no center at all. Both his review and Ms Jasanoff's book are exponents of cultural repentance. Finally, in Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, Frans de Waal, according to Temple Grandin ("a person with autism"), plays the Mars/Venus game by lining up humanity with its two closest cousins, the hardy but patriarchal chimpanzees and the affectionate but stress-averse bonobos. I was not surprised to learn that

When bombs fell on Munich during World War II, de Waal tells us, all the bonobos died of heart failure, but all the chimps survived.

Ms Grandin's review seems to capture everything that is important about Mr de Waal's book, if you know what I mean.

This week's fiction includes novels by Joyce Carol Oates (Missing Mom), who is not on my list, and by Neil Gaiman (Anansi Boys), who is probably never going to be not on my list. The difference between these positions is that I have actually read something by Ms Oates - Them - and hated it. (The juxtaposition of lurid situations and lifeless writing was really revolting.) Of Mr Gaiman's writing I may die an innocent man. Charles Taylor's review might be somewhat less than coherent, but I can tell well enough that Mr Gaiman is not my sort of writer.

The tales of Anansi outwitting his foes leave you feeling you've eaten something heavy and sugary. There's an Uncle Remus folksiness to the stories that sends the airy blitheness of the farce plummeting down to earth.

There is another novel about Oz by Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked. This one, Son of a Witch, is about Elphaba's little boy, Liir. Sophie Harrison's review makes me wonder why the book was covered by the Book Review at all. It seems to be nothing more than another piece of best-selling metapop, and Ms Harrison doesn't seem to realize that it ought to have been tackled as a Guilty Pleasure - Judith Krantz for the bookish. Just because it's a book and you have to read it doesn't make it okay. Lucy Ellman inflicts a brutal review upon The Pagoda in the Garden, by Wendy Lesser. Two snippets:

This book by the author of the Threepenny Review is like a novel-writing kit: inside are a few rudimentary characters, plot lines in need of development, the choice of three possible eras and three writing styles, bags of banal banter, a small assortment of intellectual interjections and the bare bones of jokes. Not bothering to read the instructions, Wendy Lesser has excitedly dumped all this stuff straight on to the page. She'll be painting by numbers next!

Think that's bad? Try this:

Lesser also laughs at her own jokes, presenting her charmless heroines as witty and alerting us to any "levity," as she stiffly calls it, that may have issued from them.

I don't know enough about Lucy Ellman to gauge the O'Rourkitude of having asked her to review this novel, but I'm glad that my name isn't Wendy Lesser.

Five novels get capsule treatment in Chelsea Cain's "Fiction Chronicle." They all sound ideal for a convalescent. There are two Anitas, Shreve and Diamant, writers whom I've wondered about but never gotten to know; Ms Shreve seems to occupy territory adjacent to Joanna Trollope's. I would have to have been weakened by a serious illness to get through anything by Stephen King, a fabricator who knows that most people, sadly, want to get the story without having to read it. Martha Southgate's Third Girl From the Left may well be a worthy novel, but I reject the proposition that "there's just about nothing cooler than a soul sister in 1970's Los Angeles." Kim Ponders's The Art of Uncontrolled Flight appears to be the novelization her experience as "one of the first women to fly in a war zone." If someone I trusted recommended it, I'd read it in a heartbeat.

James Atlas's essay about biography, "My Subject, Myself," compares the different approaches to biography that prevail on either side of the Pond. The Americans produce monumental and apparently objective tomes that document their subjects' every laundry list. The British are more casual and familiar, and they rely on the much better term, "Life." What a difference there is between The Life of Johnson and "the biography of Samuel Johnson." Not ever British biographer has been in the room with his or her subject in the way that Boswell was, but you wouldn't know it from the easy tone of books such as Eminent Victorians. Mr Atlas ventures a suggestion about the difference between Here and There that adds to my evidence for the proposition that Americans are Germans who speak English:

To begin with, our literary culture is hindered by a division-of-labor mentality that fails to encourage the versatility and sophisticated amateurism so natural to the English temperament.

Conscience obliges me to return to Brian Burrough's bad review of Simon Winchester's book. The piece could easily be read as a critique of blogging itself, or at least of blogging as I pursue it.

At the risk of appearing doctrinaire, I have trouble saying what this book actually is. It is not a memoir, a geology text or a narrative history, though it contains elements of all three. Rather, it seems to be Winchester's ruminations on things already researched by others, wrapped in lectures on geological arcana. It's the kind of book where an author spreads the paint around - that is, goes wandering down endless back alleys in hopes of finding something interesting, or at least a Halibut Bay oyster. Sometimes Winchester finds a nugget, a metaphoric lost wallet. Other times he spends page after page sorting through garbage.

I'll bear this in mind.

October 08, 2005

Redeeming the Pass

After weeks of sunshine, we're having some dismal weather. It's warm enough for the air to feel humid rather than damp, and there's a drizzle. But I had a doctor's appointment early yesterday afternoon, so as long as I had to go out I thought I'd make something of it. Remember, I had that pass from last week's imbroglio at the Clearview Theatre at First and Sixty-Second. I was curious to see if it would be honored. It looked totally worthless, the kind of thing that used to admit everyone to everything but that is now used only at cash bars. We were told that it would be good at any Clearview Theatre, but I decided not to press my luck. And, besides, there was no reason not to repeat last week's routine, once I left the doctor's office.

This time I had lunch at the Baker Street Pub before going to the movie. Did that stop me from buying a big combo of Diet Whatever and popcorn? No, it did not. (But it did keep me from consuming much of either.) Having misread the fine print in the paper this morning, I managed to miss all of the previews. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, which opened today, turns out to be a very powerful movie. It dilates your receptiveness with some clever and arresting visual play (my way of covering moves that I don't have the vocabulary to describe), such as having a second Julianne Moore address the audience on her character's specialty, which was winning prizes by writing jingles, while the first one frowns over her notepad. (You must see the film just for the giddy delight of the supermarket scene.) Then, when your pores are fully opened, it hunkers down for a story of the mundane but serious ordeals that beset the large family of a wounded male. As a result, you feel the hardship as your own, and marvel all the more at Evelyn Ryan's strength and good cheer. As Kelly Ryan, Woody Harrelson is occasionally terrifying and almost always a bit frightening; he is no longer a callow youth but a serious actor. The real point of Prize Winner seems to be to remind us of how much fun everybody used to have in the days of rigid gender stereotyping. Simon Reynolds and David Gardner make strong impressions in smaller roles, as a nasty milkman and a useless parish priest. Laura Dern heads up a wing of the plot that quietly underscores the desolation of the Evelyn Ryan's circumstances - a desolation that the Evelyn is determined to overlook.Director Jane Anderson wrote the script from Terry Ryan's memoir, which bears the same name but adds the following subtitle: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. Miss Ryan, along with a few of her siblings, appears at the movie's graceful end.

Still, I was not very happy about going next door to the storage unit, which has suddenly taken on an abandoned air, as if the owners were never coming back for what's in it. I stuffed a couple of bags - worn slipcovers, felt slippers (?) and a few books into my big tote and left. I couldn't have been there for ten minutes.

I was very lucky, securing a taxi as soon as I climbed up to First Avenue.

October 07, 2005

What's Gotta Give

There has been some talk around here about a "new me." Such talk is exhilarating, of course, in those early moments when a better future beckons with false assurance. I didn't fall for it this time; I knew that I was going to have to trudge every difficult step between where I am and the promised land, and that it wouldn't be easy. At my age, "new" cannot mean "additional." I am already fully booked. "New" has to signify "replacement." Something's going to have to go, and I hope that it won't be "cooking."

It will certainly, this change, involve a new approach to the kitchen, one that is very, very focused upon immediate needs. It is time for me to throw away - far away - the mentalité represented by my mother's deep freeze. It is time to stop having things "on hand." There's no need for that - I can scoop up the ingredients of a good meal without crossing the street, twenty-four hours a day. Walking a little further and planning a bit ahead, I can make a memorable meal in "no time." But there has been, for some time, a disconnect between the me who shops and the me who cooks. The latter has been showing a mutinous side, and the sooner I fire the me who goes shopping and replace him with the me who does the cooking, the better.

I really had no thought of dinner when I walked down to Agata & Valentina this afternoon. It was a multi-purpose trek. I dropped off a few items at the framer's, got a haircut next door, stopped at Cafe 79 for a grilled-cheese-and-bacon, and then crossed the intersection to my favorite cornucopium. The reason for the this stop was very simple: nuts were low. From the minute he arrives for dinner until dinner is actually on the table, M le Neveu is constantly reaching into the big jar of cashews on the hall table. I noticed the other day that there were so few nuts in the jar that I could see wood through the bottom glass. And I buy my cashews at Agata & Valentina exclusively. Why? Because I'm a man, and when something works, I do it over and over and over.

But, as long as I was there...

Focus! Focus! As the old granny says in American Wedding.

With Kathleen off in Korea for a few days, and Ms NOLA up at Yale, I thought that I might entice said nephew to a simple dinner of rib steak and fries. M le Neveu is qualified to offer up his cadaver for the Museum of Carnivores; no slouch myself, I am always impressed by his capacity. And his enthusiasm! Grrr. So I got a nice rib steak from Dieter, and then I thought about Kathleen's last supper before the trip, which, in my wandering mind, was to be tonight; somehow, we were already at Friday. I couldn't decide between veal and veal - veal scallops, that is, and veal shanks. I plumped for the latter. I make a great jarrets de veau - osso buco, more or less, without the tomatoes - and I will share the recipe with you over the weekend, perhaps, when nobody's paying attention. I also bought bags of cranberries (yay! cranberry season!) and a few fingerling potatoes - period. Incredibly austere of me. I bypassed the charcuterie counter altogether, because I haven't wanted sandwiches lately, unless they're grilled by somebody else. I thought about buying some shucked clams for a nice linguine dish, but firmness prodded me down toward the cash registers. On the way, I recalled that today is not Friday. All right; ya got me: I'm writing this last night. Today is Friday. But yesterday was not Friday, and that fact registered. So. What about tonight? I turned around and went back to the fish counter for some slices of salmon fillet.

The cranberries are cooling, the rice water is on the boil, and the salmon needed to be taken out of its poach ten minutes ago, but I was having much too good a time sipping Jack and blabbing with you. Ah! There's Kathleen - she's got a car in ten minutes. So we'll eat at about ten-thirty - not at all abnormal. It doesn't get abnormal until eleven-fifteen. At that hour, even I lose my appetite.

October 06, 2005

To a Friend in Distress, Upon Learning that "Connoisseur" is Not a French Word

I don't know when it happened, but I believe that the transition was complete by the time of the Revolution. The old pronunciation of words such as françois - "france-sway" - dropped the "w" sound and came to be spelled français, while in those few uses that retained the old spelling, ie the name François, "sway" shifted to "swah." So the French now speak of connaisseurs, and the Swiss have a canton called Valais, formerly Valois.

There is a very elegant remnant that proves the point. It is our word "oboe." This is taken from the Italian, where it is pronounced "o-beau-way." That is a rough and ready transliteration of the Renaissance French that first named the instrument: high wood, or hautbois.

Ruth Rendell and the Daily Blague


Little did I know, last Thursday night, that the photographer at Partners & Crimes was from the Times, or that reporter Dinitia Smith was presumably amongst us as we spent a pleasant hour with Ruth Rendell. I can assure you that the photographs accompanying her write-up are accurate. But I'll point out that the last one, showing the Baroness hard at work autographing, was taken at the very beginning of this part of the evening. The author was not nearly so spry by the time I got to her.

I have to learn how to write about Ruth Rendell. I used to think vaguely about a dedicated page, with a few paragraphs about whichever novel I'd just read. (Ruth Rendell averages three books every two years, and has been at it since 1964.) But what would those paragraphs contain? Little reviews? What on earth would be the point of that? Surely not to give away the story. And while I like some Rendells better than others (and all the earlier Vines quite a lot), it has to be stated that their quality is consistently good. One needn't (so far) to worry that the writer is slipping. One does not buy the latest Ruth Rendell in hopes that it will read like PD James or Ian Rankin or Val McDermid. Or Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro. Well, I don't. I expect to get a Ruth Rendell, and the Baroness always delivers. I suppose that most of her fans feel likewise.

Does that mean that the books are fungible? Certainly not. Like any narrative artist, Ms Rendell has her obsessions, but they are big obsessions, ripe with possibility. Certain figures recur. Mix Cellini, in Thirteen Steps Down, recalls (to me) the young man in A Sight for Sore Eyes, and I could argue that they are similar constructions. But the interest would be in their differences, and in the varying contrivances that their undereducated minds take up. (Come to think of it, neither is so much "undereducated" as "insufficiently intelligent." Equipped for ordinary life, they fumble when they think big.) Similarly, the past has a heavy hand in Ms Rendell's universe. Bad things that happened long ago "come back" to dent the present. Eventually, I'd like to write an essay about her work as a whole. But am I going to reread it? Some of it I have reread, and with great pleasure. But the summing-up seems rather too academic an undertaking. I'm not working on a thesis, after all.

So what do I do with Ruth Rendell? How do I write about her on my blog?

I write about her on my blog. Instead of writing about her books, I write about reading her books. How about that? I've avoided the "what I'm reading now" sort of blog entry because the ones that I see rarely get beyond a list of titles followed by a train of empty adjectives: "interesting," "great," not what I expected," "SUPER!!!" I doubt that the authors of such entries have any idea of how vacant they are, how depressing, really - for what is the point of reading a book if you don't have something distinctive to say. It doesn't have to be lengthy or complex. One can mention the vivid natural descriptions, or the the funny way a character worries about everything, or the hot love scenes. One can write about being reminded of a trip taken long ago, or an old lover. One can observe that reading about Paris is the next-best thing to being there. There are many, many things that one can say about the most ordinary book - and one need say only one of them.

In fact, I am not going to wait until the next Ruth Rendell to try weaving my reading into the writing of my blog entries. Ninety percent of my waking ife is spent doing one thing or the other, it seems.

Each Ruth Rendell novel is a treat, but if you're looking for "where to start," my answer is: One Across, Two Down (1971; Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1999), A Sleeping Life (1978; Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2000, and A Dark-Adapted Eye (Plume, 1993). I recommend these because they're all available. The first is a "plain" Ruth Rendell that demonstrates her grasp of the desperately outclasses male mind in distress. It will introduce you to Ms Rendell's atmospheric pace, which makes murder, when it eventually occurs, all the more horrific to the perpetrator. The second belongs to her series of "Inspector Wexford" procedurals; Inspector Wexford is a distant cousin (literature-wise) of Inspector Morse. The Wexfords are good for crime junkies who rely on the ground rules to tell them where they're going; in the "plain" Ruth Rendells and in the Barbara Vines, there are no ground rules at all, and it is not unsual for the officers of justice to play a notional part in the proceedings. Finally, A Dark-Adapted eye, the second of Ms Rendell's Barbara Vine novels, plunges deep into the terror of unintended consequences. When it comes to logging the slip of innocent, pleasant people into very dark crime, inch by awful inch, Ruth Rendell is unsurpassed.

October 05, 2005

Yeeeears Ago

I have better things to do than reading gossip columns, but unfortunately Campbell Robertson, who's running the feature now, is too funny to miss. Half the time, I don't know who the boldface names are, but Mr Robertson's sneakiness always makes me smile. Today it made me burst out laughing.

The event was the reopening of Walt Disney's Cinderella, which has just been issued on DVD. Then there was a bal at the Waldorf, in the middle of the day. "Dancers waltzed," writes Mr Robertson, making it perfectly clear in two words that the dancers were hired entertainment, not guests. This was, after all, a mother-daughter event. That's daughters as in "little girls."

Upon that, [Cynthia Rowley's] daughter dropped to the floor like a professional soldier and began demanding to leave.

"She is having a total sugar meltdown," Ms Rowley said.

You have to love it. Soon-Yi Previn was one of the - mothers.

Did you know the [Cinderella] story as a child?

"Yes, and actually my husband got me a Cinderella watch," she said, lifting up her petite wrist to show us the watch. "He gave it to me because he knew it was my favorite."

When did he give this to you?

"Yeeeears ago."

How many years ago?

She suddenly appeared uncomfortable. "I don't remember," she said. Then, taking her children by the hand, she scurried off.

Way to go, Campbell! Now, if you do not know who Soon-Yi Previn is - and there's no good reason why you should - and are correspondingly unaware of her husband's identity, then please write to me and I will tell you.

Forgive me for taking up your valuable time.

Gabrieli at St Bart's


St Bartholomew's Church is a jewel of midtown-Manhattan architecture, providing a vibrant counterpoint to a neighborhood of modern towers. It makes no assault on height, but rather sits in the squat manner of the Byzantine churches upon which it is modeled. Because San Marco in Venice is also a Byzantine church, I thought that St Bart's would make a perfect venue for the music of Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612), even more than Vivaldi the composer of Venetian music.

Well, I thought wrong. Or maybe it was the vulgarity of my ideas about Gabrieli that needed adjustment. Reading the notes confirms that the concert was designed to counter received unwisdom, which, come to think of it, is what Andrew Parrott is famous for doing. Jeffrey Nussbaum writes in the program,

However, Giovanni Gabrieli did not write his music for trumpets, horns and tuba, and the modern sensibilities of many brass ensembles can leave the listener with an inaccurate idea of his music.

That's what must have happened to me. When I was in college, Gabrieli was the composer par excellence of densely majestic fanfares that showed off stereo systems to great effect. Each of his canzoni appeared to be written for two mighty brass choirs, to be performed from opposite balconies high above the ground floor, and to be played with a highly competitive swagger. No, WE can play this louder than YOU can! It was rousing stuff, and we were having none of that last Friday at the opening concert of the New York Collegium season.

The building itself worked against the music's power, literally. Played in the chancel, in a sort of rainbow arc, the music blew up into the dome and, for the most part, stayed there, producing an underwhelming tone and giving the tricky trombone parts - er, sackbuts - a sound that one neighbor called "tentative." (My hunch is that the right church for this kind of music is...

Continue reading about Gabrieli at St Barts at Portico.

October 04, 2005

Through the roof

To any of you who visited this site yesterday (or today) on Joe Jervis's recommendation, a hearty thanks. No matter how brief your visit, it pushed my blog stats through the roof. As of right now, I've had more than half of last week's hits within a twenty-four hour period. And, from now on, I have two anniversaries to celebrate on the same day.

It was strange timing. Shortly after I'd posted my anniversary entry, showing Kathleen and myself tripping down the steps at St Thomas More, I got curious about the traffic and checked my referrals. Everyone was coming from Joe.My.God. What a laugh! In an earlier post yesterday, I'd written that  

I know that, if and when this blog ever takes off - and it very well may never take off, but just inch its way up, capturing one permanent new reader for every hundred visitors (I'm being optimistic) - that I'll have luck to thank. That the right person will have visited on the right day and been in a position to tell all the right people. My job is to prepare for that visit every day without expecting it.

Well, even though Joe sent me a heads-up in the morning, I didn't expect what happened to happen.

And I'm not counting on it to happen again. But if you will take a moment to tell me what you thought, I'll be very grateful. Comment, anonymously if you like, or write to me.


At the risk of writing ancient history, let me deposit a final note about The New Yorker Festival. ("the New Yorker Festival"? that's not what it was called; "the The New Yorker Festival"? please...) How it all began, to be exact.

It began with a Friday-night dinner at the Brooklyn Diner USA. Here's what New York is really like: last year, before Jonathan Lethem and Edward P Jones gave readings, I took Ms NOLA and her Bryn Mawr pal Riri Thibodeaux (not her real name) out to dinner first. A year went by, and then I took Ms NOLA and Riri out again, before a reading. It was as if we'd run into each other countless times. Dinner was a lot of fun, but I don't remember why. I was already "up" - at an altitude that I would retain for several days.

We got good aisle seats at the Directors' Foundation, an institution on the same block as Carnegie Hall. I stood up for a long time, waiting for the seats at the end of the row, up against the wall, to be filled. There was some confusion about that. Then we were all in our seats and the house darkened. A young lady named Cressida Leyshon came out to introduce Zadie Smith. Looking quite chic in a head wrap, Ms Smith went to the podium and proceeded to read the passage from On Beauty in which the Belsey family goes to Boston Common to hear Mozart's Requiem. I had just started the book a day or so before, but I'd already read this, so I enjoyed it all the more. Ms Smith demonstrated a versatility with accents that kept performing-arts options open.

Mr Franzen, after he was introduced, read three extended passages from "My Bird Problem," an essay that appeared in The New Yorker in August. With masterful control, Mr Franzen weaves three strands of thought into a passionate embrace of environmental responsibility. I had been impressed by the work in print, but Mr Franzen's reaading made of it something rather more powerful. The focus seemed sharper - there was of course a very great deal less about actual birds - but there was also the writer's stand-up delivery. Jonathan Franzen could spend the rest of his life speaking at university literary festivals and make a fortune. He writes like a tenor, but he speaks as a baritone, and the tension between his flights of fancy and the suspicious impatience that he must have inherited (or learned) from his father naturally resolves itself in laughter.

During the Q&A, both Ms NOLA and I asked questions. My own was inspired by Jane Smiley's theory, advanced in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, that novels have acted as engines of social development in Western history. I asked the writers if either of them wrote with such an idea in mind. I believe that I used the term "last best hope of Western Civilization," and of course neither Ms Smith nor Mr Franzen would acknowledge any such grandiose intentions. But they didn't dispute Ms Smiley's thesis, either.

A few days later, I attended another reading, this one followed by a signing, at the Greenwich Village mystery bookshop, Partners & Crimes. The idea was to get a look at Ruth Rendell, alias Barbara Vine, and to hear her voice in person. As I suspected, she looks like someone who would never be caught dead near the center of any of her stories. A trim petite, wearing a black suit and a nice perm, Ms Rendell (or "the baroness," as she's known chez nous; I just wish I knew of what - PD James is "Baroness James of Holland Park," surely the drollest title in England) has a bright smile and that air of slight but shameless befuddlement that the English play so adroitly in public. Because she could not manage to speak into the microphone - or perhaps because she had shut it off - the shop's ventilation had to be shut down until her Q&A was over. Her reading, from the opening of Thirteen Steps Down ("13" in the Crown edition published here) went nicely enough, and was soon done, and the questions were brisk, too. (Q When you wrote Chimney-Sweeper's Boy, were you thinking of Patrick O'Brian? A No!) So the ordeal of standing still at the front of the shop, far from the podium, was not more than I could bear.

Now, which books to have signed? As was the case with Jane Smiley, I saw what I ought to have brought the moment I stepped into line, when there was nothing to be done. I knew that I'd have to buy a copy of the new book. Well, I wouldn't have to, but it would be pretty rude. But I needn't have asked her to sign it. I could have brought my English edition, asked Ms Rendell to sign that, and given the American edition away. So I was dumb there. I also brought The House of Stairs and King Solomon's Carpet, Barbara Vines both - Ms Rendell explained the adoption of that pseudonym, and how it was never intended to be "deceptive" - and both works that I have read twice. But as I inched closer, I could see that the writer was flagging. She had quipped something about being tired, but up close she positively reminded me of my mother in the advanced stages of chemotherapy. Well, she didn't look that bad. But still. I felt ghoulish with my three books. Once again, a book-collecting mistake. I ought to have asked her to sign the two Vines, period. I'd so much rather have a signed House of Stairs than a signed American edition of the latest Rendell. I did get King Solomon signed, too.

For a generous appreciation of Ms Rendell by another eminent British crime-writer, Val McDermid, click here. And by the way, it turns out to be "Baroness Rendell of Babergh."

October 03, 2005

3 October 1981


Twenty-four is a lovely number, I've always thought. Fishing this candid out of the box in my closet - a larger print stands in a frame on my chest of drawers - I realized that it would take several lifetimes to mark every anniversary with all of the candid shots.

No day in my life has been happier. But I have to say that I had an awful lot of fun. My best man, Barry O'Connor, was a nervous wreck, but I've never been more carefree. My mother-in-law arranged a perfect, hitch-free day. Her sister hosted a sort of wedding brunch; my aunt and uncle were very surprised that the borrowed apartment (in a building that I can see from here) belonged to a couple one half of which was one of his (many) old girlfriends. The wedding service, at St Thomas More, was really lovely. Most people walked in the fine weather to the Junior League for the reception, which was a simple cocktail party with a band. It was all perfect.

Of course there are many good stories. One involves fiancés who really liked the music, which per my playlist consisted of American standards, but who didn't know any of the titles. I was jarred slightly when, months later, long enough to forget, I suddenly realized why the band at their wedding was playing one fave after another.

But the best story involves the processional. Kathleen refused - refused - to come down the aisle to the wedding march from Lohengrin. She wanted Purcell. (Mendelssohn was okay for the return route.) Her mother was distraught. "How will people know it's a wedding?" she asked. Kathleen took a deep breath. "Well, the sight of me in a wedding dress on my father's arm in a church on a date corresponding to the announced marriage of your daughter, per the invitations - that's how they'll know!"

My mother in law is très comme il faut. She might not approve of my concluding this entry with the wish that ALL happy couples could celebrate their union as wonderfully as we did.

Happy anniversary, my dear. And, yes, I've made the reservation.

On Luck

The other night, we were talking about luck. Kathleen reports that nobody believes in it on Wall Street, at least as regards personal prosperity. She knows this because most people are uncomfortable with the way she attributes her success. In the general view of her peers, Kathleen became a leader in the practice of ETF law because she worked very hard. She did work very hard. but in Kathleen's view, she became a leader because she was drafted to take the place of an associate who left the practice of law to have a baby. Kathleen continued to work very hard, and eventually she became a leader. But her hard work, while it made her available for promotion, did not ensure that promotion. Far from it. People don't want to hear this, however. Maybe it's wrong to say that they don't believe in luck. Maybe they're afraid of it. Because good luck is usually withheld.

I know that, if and when this blog ever takes off - and it very well may never take off, but just inch its way onward, capturing one permanent new reader for every hundred visitors (I'm being optimistic) - that I'll have luck to thank. That the right person will have visited on the right day and been in a position to tell all the right people. My job is to prepare for that visit every day without expecting it. This is the other side of what I wrote about last Friday. All too often in the past year I have wilted in disappointment because the day has not brought fortune's nod. But somewhere during the winter, I gave up the idea of giving up. It just wasn't realistic. And so life became simpler. Later, I learned not to wilt. Much later.

There's a difference between believing in luck and depending on it. It's the latter that leads to tears and resentment. It also tempts one to do nothing, to fail, in short, to be prepared for luck when it comes - and goes, without one's having known that the right visitor visited on the wrong day and left with nothing to say to all the right people. The greater the right visitor's acquaintance with all the right people, the more difficult it will be to convince that visitor that one is doing something worth talking about. It may indeed take many visits.

This is not whistling in the dark. I'm past that. But this does surprise me, this trim, athletic talk of being prepared. (Well, trim for me.) And the consciousness behind it. How can it  have taken so long to learn? Or is the marvel rather that one can still grow up so close to sixty?

October 02, 2005



Neither summery nor autumnal, the weather this morning is absolutely perfect. My right hand probably got too much sun, though, holding up the Times.

I am very behind the Times, not having read the paper either day last weekend nor this. I suppose I could spend all of today catching up. But, one way or the other, I will finish reading Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament this afternoon.

My dear wife is in North Carolina, visiting her parents. The city also seems absent. First and Second Avenues aren't sending up I-995 grunts and squeals; there is only the quiet whoosh of sedan tires on the pavement. Maybe all the trucks are still trying deliver ice to Katrina victims.

The wingnuts are claiming that Tom DeLay is the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy, and they would be right if there were anything secret about the move to purge Mr DeLay, or a left wing in America. (You can't even want a link on this one.)

Book Review

The late Elias Canetti has posthumously published another memoir, Party in the Blitz: The English Years (translated by Michael Hofmann). It has been given the boiling-oil treatment by Clive James.

On the threshold of death's door, Canetti saw nothing to be worried about when he examined his conscience. On this evidence, he couldn't even find it. Instead, he wrote a book fit to serve every writer in the world as a hideous, hilarious example of the tone to avoid when the ego, faced with the certain proof of its peripheral importance, loses the last of its inhibitions.

I'm grateful for this review not least because, for years, I've mixed up Canetti, Primo Levi, and Italo Svevo. Canetti, it appears, wasn't Italian in any way at all. I won't confuse him with anyone else ever again.

I read Joyce Carol Oates's review of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, by David Margolick. I did. It's about boxing, right? Nevertheless, I read the review, something I wouldn't have done if I hadn't undertaken this new feature. What will remain with me from Ms Oates's  piece is the fact that, while Joe Louis went on to be world famous and broke, Max Schmeling, awarded a Coca-Cola bottling license after World War II (he had never signed up with the Nazis, despite Hitler's adulation), wound up filthy rich. Ms Oates also demonstrates that prizefighting is a watcher's game. Joe Louis learned, from his mistakes in 1935, how to flatten Schmeling in the first round in 1938. But nothing about the review tempted me to rethink boxing. It still ought to be - surreptitious, like cock-fighting.

Geoffrey Wolff is full of praise for Ron Powers's Mark Twain: A Life. Twain is an exemplary American not because he captured the ambivalences of the United States before anybody else did but because he got away with doing so so well that it took critics fifty years to stop seeing stars. My personal problem is that Mark Twain reminds me of my maternal grandfather, whom I always thought of as a clever bully. So I'm much more likely to read Adam Phillips's Going Sane: Maps of Happiness. Mr Phillips - Doctor? - has a courageous faith in the curative powers of calling spades spades. He thinks that we ought to stop associating "sanity" with "zero risk." Maybe that's what our American problem is! Believing that bankers represent "sanity," we flee into excess and recklessness. Lawyer Charles R Morris, on the contrary, moonlights to produce The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J P Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. The subtitle alone tells you to stay away. The Review prints portraits of each of the four principals. Rockefeller comes off as looking - French (as in Huguenot). And Morgan is really good-looking! Of course the photo was taken before his skin disease, rosacea, blew his nose up into an unsightly appliance. Andrew Carnegie, lovingly remembered for his many New York libraries (locals had to buy the real estate first), stopped, we're told, at nothing to make his fortune. Enfin, A book for businessmen. I've held in my hands New York Burning: Liberty Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan more than a few times. Jill Lepore's look at an irrational outbreak that, numerically at least, outworsened the Salem witch trials, fifty years later, seems nevertheless to be just a tad too trendy for my taste. And there's something else: I don't like to be reminded of what a grubby outpost this island was in 1740, with the English and the Nederlanders coexisting in unseemly commerce. But it was nice of the Book Review to enlist Gotham pro Francis X Clines to write the review. Don't Get Too Comfortable, by David Rakoff,  may become indispensable, and then again it may not. Jennifer S Lee's mostly favorable review pushes the author closer to Sedaris/Vowell country.

Gary Rosen reviews Robert Wuthnow's America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity with a tone-deafness that may mirror the author's. It's a fact that most Christians don't know anything about Islam, and the same goes for everybody else, mutatis mutandis. But the differences between all "religious" people and their secular opposites always come down to the same thing: sex.

We stage protests over abortion, gay rights and stem cell research, denounce one another's views of human origins and even vote differently depending on how often we set foot in a house of worship.

When are the mainstream media going to wake up to the fact that religion, as traditionally understood, is simply not the issue? As if to make up for this dual insensitivity (writer and reviewer), M G Lord offers a provocative final essay about the feminism of Robert A Heinlein. Who'd a thunk it?

As for fiction, Eric Weinberger reviews The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders. I've already bought that book, so there's nothing more to say here. John Darnton has tried to write a Rule of Four that makes the utterly lovable Charles Darwin into a nefarious villain. When will this madness stop? If you think I'm going to read Liesl Schillinger's review of Lipstick Jungle, by Candace Bushnell, and Everyone Worth Knowing, by Lauren Weisberger, you're visiting the wrong blog. Caryl Philips, writing a promising novel based on an early twentieth-century vaudevillian, Bert Willaims, gets a grudging review from Brooke Allen. Witness

Dancing in the Dark is filled with compelling factual nuggets. But when Phillips frees his imagination and exercises his license as a novelist, the book loses force.


Dancing in the Dark is riveting when it recreates mores and social conventions our culture has done its best to forget, but Phillips's portrait of Bert Williams is not very convincing.

I know that I ought to take Stephen Metcalf's review of Rick Moody's The Diviners more seriously. But one quoted passage from the novel itself was all that  it took to preclude this book from my reading list: 

Light upon all these trenches and all these scars and striations of ocean floor marking the subduction of tectonic plates, where the molten earth bubbles up and makes its presence known in the indigo surface of the ocean.

Oh, dear, no. (Adorno?)

Two really serious novelists have offerings this week, and I can't do justice to either. Francine Prose's is about Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. I may be too young for this book, or I may be wishing that Arthur Danto had written it. I'm having, it's true, a bad time with "homoeroticism" these days; I can't figure out what it means. I mean, men are as gorgeous as women, and why not? What's the problem? As for J M Coetzee's Slow Man, I have sort of made a point of not reading Mr Coetzee ever since someone gave me Michael K. This country that I live in is too screwed up for me to be taking on South Africa as well.  

If I've overlooked a nephew's reverent portrait of a gangland uncle, Blood Relation, by Eric Konsigsberg, well, that's because it's very late. You didn't think I was waiting for Sunday to write this, did you?  

October 01, 2005

Capote isn't about In Cold Blood, either

On an impulse, I went to see Capote yesterday. I grabbed a tote bag and the the storage room key, because the theatre where it's showing is right next door, and lugging home a load of junk from the storage room would justify going to the movies in the middle of the day. Then I hopped on a bus, and, one-two-three, I was in my seat.

Five or ten minutes before the movie was finished, the screen went black and the house lights came up. The usual pre-show filler of ads and quizzes began to play. I ran off to the men's room, but when I came back nothing had changed. A few minutes later, a member of the audience nicely bellowed that he'd been unable to find the manager and that the ticket girl was giving refunds. So we all made our way to the lobby, where the ticket girl wasn't doing anything. She was one of those little creatures that completely collapses when asked to take initiative. The wonderful thing about being in New York is that we don't just accept stonewalling. We reply in kind. There were quite a few people in the lobby who seemed determined to occupy it until the management satisfied them in some way or another, and I myself actively discouraged an elderly couple from purchasing advance tickets on a nearby vending machine. I was inclined to stay, partly because I was in no hurry to visit the storage room, but largely because I was curious to see what would happen, which is the same as saying: how this blog entry would come out, for of course I was already sketching it. The moment anything out of the ordinary happens, I judge its blog-worthy properties and either move on or stay focused. This has the curious side-effect of relieving me of my habitual petulant response to frustrations and inconveniences. I'll let the other folks, most of them seniors, do the kvetching for me. It was with the strangest but also the loveliest lightheartedness that I stood in line - or, rather, in the clump of angry moviegoers.

Not that this euphoria would have lasted all day. Happily, the manager appeared on the scene and proposed to resolve the problem. He assured us that, if we went back to the theatre, we would see the rest of the film, and he would give each of us a "pass," a blank ticket to use at any Clearview theatre. Oh, the confusion between a sharp guy with the manner of Samuel T Jackson and a lot of querulous old folks. "What's going on? What did he say? What does the pass entitle us to? Do we go back to the theatre?" The machinery of complaint, having been set in motion, is difficult to halt.

We made our way downstairs to the theatre - this Clearview multiplex has six or eight theatres, two underground - and nothing happened for a bit. The the manager appeared after a while and asked us if we were all in our seats - the stupidest question. We called out yes, anyway. He said that he'd start the film. We applauded. Then we went back to nothing happening.

By now you're thinking that I'm going on about all of this because the film never came back on and I can't write about a movie that I haven't seen all the way through. But it did come back on - that's how I know we were five or ten minutes from the end. But I don't write about movies until they're available to all in DVD form, and I've had a chance to watch them several times. (I wouldn't write about a movie that didn't compel multiple viewings.) But since Capote is on the list of every serious moviegoer I know, I will say that Capote is a great film, one of almost unmatched quiet intensity, and that Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Clifton Collins Jr turn in award-worthy performances. Director Bennett Miller, whose first feature this is, certainly seems to know his onions.