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November 30, 2005

The Daily Blagueurs on Frappr!

(PS: I'm going to nudge this entry toward the top of the page for a few days.)

Hot on the heels of Joe.My.God, I have set up The Daily Blagueurs Frappr! Map. I hope that you will stick your pushpin in it.



An old friend - all right, the oldest of friends (think Williamsburg. Agincourt. Lascaux.) - wrote to me privately today to say that, in his opinion, the people who commented on the other day's hissy-fit entry were "very brave." It is true that, had he, this old friend, made any remarks, there would have been nothing but a few bones and cinders on the plate when I was through. But to the rest of the world, I am the New Me! I have discovered the ultimate therapy: when I'm in a jam, I blog. I share.

Anybody who thought that I wasn't going to make my way down to A T Harris first thing yesterday morning to rent a tuxedo like a good boy gets a D minus. Do you honestly think that I could face my "innombrables lecteurs" if I succeeded in worming my way out of Thursday night's dance? Not on your life! I'd have had to close the site down and creep off in shame! The wonder of blogging, you see, is that I get to do the King-Kong thing and then, first thing next morning, distance myself from it. Tomorrow is another entry! In the end, I show myself to be capable of making a little sacrifice when it counts. Mind you, don't think that any of this faux magnanimity won points with Kathleen. She saw through it all from the start, responding to my Sunday-night imprecations with the "Yes, dear 101" technique. "I'm sorry," she'd say on the multiple occasions that called for this concession. "I'm so sorry." But that was all she'd say. Her beading progressed uninterrupted.

As if to make me even more ridiculous, the gent at A T Harris asked me if I lived in the city, in which case they'd deliver and then pick up. So much for my three trips.

My palsy being what it is, my proof-of-purchase will be valid only with those readers who (a) know what East 44th Street looks like, next to Brooks Brothers (on the right) or (b) trust me when I say that the number on the butterscotch marquee is "11." A T Harris is on the second floor.

During the transaction, I couldn't keep my eyes off the two manikins that were dolled up in Ralph Lauren. One suit was a tux, and the other was tails - as in "white tie and." It's only when you study such an outfit that you understand why it is that, in the language of proper invitations, the word "Informal," tucked into the lower right corner of the card, means that male recipients are to wear tuxedos. Happily for our less cryptic modern world, the term "Black Tie" does the job nowadays. Deny, if you can, that "Informal" was a mocking snare for the unwary. But when you contemplate the two possibilities side by side, it's true that the tux looks, well, casual.

Absurd Person Singular

We saw a marvelous show last week, on the night before Thanksgiving - that's why I haven't got to it sooner. It was Alan Ayckbourn's umpteenth play, Absurd Person Singluar. This was the sixth or seventh Ayckbourn that we've seen; it was by far the best. And for once, I have to begin by praising the director, John Tillinger.

Alan Ayckbourn is a master farceur. He knows more about doorways that the god Janus. He moves his characters - and their stories - with the precision of a clockmaker. He has a fantastic natural sense of humor. The problem comes in when he tries to be serious, to make a point. He does make a point in Absurd Person Singular: it is the point of the title. We're all absurd when all we think about is ourselves, as the six people in this play do. (The humor of "Absurd" is that, while it rhymes with "third," it refers to the first.) This is not a show that even an Olivier could muddle through without strong direction; the roles require exact synchronization. Mr Tillinger has directed lots of plays at MTC, including several by Mr Ayckbourn, but never has his choreography worked to such magnificent extent - a fact that I attribute to Mr Ayckbourn's staying out of the way. John Lee Beatty's amusing sets, Jane Greenwood's spot-on outfits, and Brian MacDevitt's superb lighting showed off the play's full comic potential.

The construction of Absurd Person Singular is elegance itself...

Continue reading about Absurd Person Singular at Portico.

November 29, 2005

Amanda Huggankis

Ms NOLA and M le Neveu returned from points north for dinner last night. We had a lovely meal at Maz Mezcal, but the nephew was so tired after driving in fog that he gladly accepted my offer of keys to return to the flat for a snooze while the rest of us talked. (Is he my father's grand nephew or what?) Giving him the keys was a brave gesture on my part, as Kathleen, Ms NOLA and I agreed that we would probably spend the rest of the night palpating the pavement of East 86th Street for dropped articles - but, no: the apartment door was open upon our return, and M le Neveu was stretched out on the living room sofa. The keys were symbolically draped upon the cashew canister.

The thing was, music was playing in the living room. It hadn't, I'll almost wager my life, been playing there when we left. The music that was playing when we left was playing in the blue room, as it still, gently, was. When I asked M le Neveu which particular buttons he had pushed, I was only curious. He, reasonably, was slightly defensive. "I only pushed that one," he protested, pointing to one of the two dozen remotes in the remote corral. At the same time, he was kind enough to say that the music (Radio RJ) was very pleasant. It was clear that he had wanted to turn on the television.

So that's what we did. We watched the tail end of Reno 911, and then The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Kathleen was out of the room during the Daily Show segment in which Saddam Hussein was seen in a courtroom calling for a witness by the name of Amanda Huggankis. When Ms H was not forthcoming, the other personages in the trial went through a call-without-response for "Miss Amanda Huggankis." As in, "Oh why can't I find Amanda Huggankis?" It was so brilliantly puerile, so totally my own private sixth grade, that I am still weeping just typing. Telling Kathleen about what she missed was excruciating - for her as well, probably, if in a different way. "This is why we don't let RJ watch TV every day," Ms NOLA explained to Kathleen. I only wish.

The Kite Runner

Nothing that I am going to say about The Kite Runner (2004; Riverhead, 2003) ought to diminish in the slightest any reader's satisfaction in this extremely strong story of redemption and protection.

One of the blurbs on the back cover of Khaled Hosseini's first novel, from the Washington Post Book World, runs,

A powerful book ... no frills, no nonsense, just hard, spare prose...

It's not as hard and spare as all that, but The Kite Runner is one of the most artless novels that I have ever read, and I was quite confused by it until a possible resolution became clear, well past the half-way point. The Kite Runner turned out to be the very opposite sort of book from the kind that Miss G's remark led me to expect. "It's hard at the beginning," she said, while non-verbally challenging me to read a book that had meant a great deal to her. I assumed she meant that the story would be hard-going at first, difficult to read for some reason, such as violent subject matter or narrative obliquity. But it was the end of the book that I found hard: suspense overwhelmed my eyes to the point where they could hardly read.

But the novel remained artless right up to the last page. By this I mean...

Continue reading about The Kite Runner at Portico.

November 28, 2005

The Noble Collection

The other day, a new catalogue surfaced among the many regulars. "The Noble Collection: Holiday 2005" offers "Gifts and Treasures for the Season." Before my eye found the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter logos at the bottom of the cover, I was wondering if this was some sort of Disney Dark offering. The castle on the cover, basking in moonlight, looked vaguely like Cinderella's, but the mood said "Vlad the Impaler." I couldn't tell if the castle was drawn or real. It's real - "resin," no doubt. Thirteen inches tall and perhaps slightly more than that square, this model of Hogwarts is yours for $295.

What would you do with it? Where would you put it? How long would it interest you? (It has no moving parts.) If someone gave you one, perhaps as a "gift for the season," what would you think the donor was trying to say? And what do you think it's going to look like in ten years?

I'm sure that there are jillions of Harry Potter fans who think that this architectural digest is more wonderful than any real castle. For them, happily, there is the actual Neuschwanstein, in deepest Bavaria, to look forward to. In the meantime, I hope that their parents and guardians find a better use for the three C notes.

What I want for my birthday, however, is this magnificent Revolutionary Guillotine Cigar Cutter. It's not only charming, but edifying, as well. Every time you use it, you can meditate on some hapless aristocrat, dragged from a burning château in her nightclothes... Or whatever lights your cigar. The cigar cutter is a steel at $97.50. Stainless steel, that is. Aren't good razors always?

There's nothing new about bad taste. There's nothing new about expensive bad taste, either. But I think we've reached new heights of expensive, mass-produced bad taste. I really am curious about the quality, too. There's a cunning collapsible Batman desk clock made of - well, it doesn't say. It does have a "High Polish Finish," however, and at four inches (collapsed), it won't take up much houseroom. Fully expanded, it can be priced at ten dollars the inch. Do you think I should buy it and find out how long the high polish lasts?


It has been a while since the last time my stubborn streak interfered with harmonious relations; I may even have been lulled into thinking that it had melted away. But it has me by the neck this morning, and when I'm not sulking, I'm furious. You don't want to have lunch with me today. Maybe not until next week.

Here's what I don't want to do: make three trips to A T Harris Formalwear, on 44th Street, to have measurements taken for, to pick up, and to drop off a tuxedo. I own a tux, but I've outgrown it, I'm sorry to say. It has been ten years or so since I last wore it. "Formal" events have ceased to be part of our lives, or at least I've successfully backed out of them. For some reason or other, Kathleen didn't give me the chance this time. Months and months ago, she accepted a friend's invitation. Done deal.

I left out the fourth trip: to a charity ball on Thursday night. I can't tell you how unappealing this sort thing seems to me. It didn't always. I used to like getting dressed up and going out. Maybe I still do, but I can no longer hear people in crowded, noisy rooms, and explaining just what it is that I do often draws odd looks.

Kathleen has offered (a) to go alone and (b) to ask another man to escort her. The very worst thing about this business is how tempting these offers are.

No, you don't want to be around me this week. For the first time in a while, I am very unhappy in my skin.

November 27, 2005

Book Review

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

This week, there is a lot of interesting non-fiction. There is Bob Spitz's The Beatles: The Biography, enthusiastically received by pop authorities Jane and Michael Stern.

When the Beatles began, it would have been unthinkable to read a well-written biography about rock 'n' roll performers that was as serious and thoroughly researched as an important book about Faulkner or Picasso or Mao. For better and for worse, the Beatles changed off that. Their evolution sent shock waves radiating into culture and commerce as they took rock 'n' roll from the periphery to the mainstream and gave pop music a gravity heretofore unknown.

In the Sterns' opinion, Mr Spitz book is indeed such a serious and thoroughly researched book. It also had them hooked in ten pages.

Then there's Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath, by Paul Berman. According to Johann Hari, this book demonstrates that student unrest in the Europe of the late Sixties and early Seventies was much more than a matter of riots accented by terrorism. "Those were the rancid afterbirth of the street protests. The baby itself, [Mr Berman] writes persuasively, grew into a vibrant European antitotalitarian tradition." That seems right to me; I only wish that it had been the case here in the United States as well, but our hippies were far less serious about anything than their European counterparts.

There's Jesus and Jahweh: The Names Divine, by Harold Bloom. This book is right up my alley, except that Harold Bloom's prose style is deeply unattractive. Mr Bloom distinguishes sharply between Jahweh, Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus Christ, arguing that they have nothing to do with one another, and he insists that there is no such thing as "Judeo-Christian" beliefs. I'd like a lot of my Christian friends to read this book. Joshua Rosen's review may just have to suffice for me.

Three books explore important black American careers. First is Jill Watts's Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award; reviewer Dana Stevens doesn't say so, but I've read that, in order to get into the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel to receive the award, the actress had to pass through the kitchen. The dilemma facing all black entertainers until very, very recently, was whether to be true to their black roots or to work at all, at a time when working meant caricaturing themselves. Hattie McDaniel worked out a compromise, but it was not good enough for many in the NAACP, and her Oscar didn't do her much good. (She got to reprise the role of Mammy in The Great Lie, an underrated Bette Davis vehicle.) Mr Stevens reviews this book together with Mel Watkins's Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. Perry was an altogether less attractive person, grandiose and deferential at the same time. He appears to have owned a pink Rolls-Royce with his name spelled out on the boot hood - in neon. That must have been one of the earliest automotive applications of an inert gas.

A more redoubtable black American is the subject of Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. Mr Franklin has combined scholarship and ardent advocacy over a long and eminent career. David Oshinsky writes,  

Franklin has studied his nation for nearly three-quarters of a century. His scholarship tells us that people must be judged by their willingness to remove the obstacles and disadvantages that oppress society's most vulnerable members. His conscience reminds us of how much remains to be done.

Now for the books that are not on my list. The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, by Mike Davis, has the misfortune to appear at a time when almost everybody is singing in the choir of the converted; the question is what to do, not whether to do something, and books such as this can't be saved even by the great writing that reviewer Matt Steinglass finds here. Nor am I going to read Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, by Robert D Kaplan. David Lipsky astutely captures the problem with Mr Kaplan's thinking, which I'd noticed myself in various articles in The Atlantic: Mr Kaplan likes war.

Toward the book's end, Kaplan reflects that no to have participated in some kind of war was to be "denied the American experience," to be "not fully American." He continues, "the war on terror was giving two generations of Americans vivid memories." This might strike a reader as a somewhat more cosmopolitan notion that anything the elites could cook up at their "seminars and dinner parties." War as self-enhancement, as an experience not-to-be-missed. "The American experience," Kaplan writes, "was exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once. It was a privilege, as well as great fun, to be with those who were still living it."

You can't beat that for catastrophic wrong-headedness - I hope. In his front-page review, John Simon argues that Richard Schickel's Elia Kazan: A Biography, is a book not-to-be-missed. Kazan made a lot of important pictures, among them A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, but I've never really liked them, and the review suggests that the director was far too involved in issues of "manliness" to appeal to me.

According to Gregg Easterbrook, Benjamin M Friedman fails to make the case, in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, that liberal democratic society requires constant growth. That's all I needed to know. Richard Sandomir pulls of the stunt of making David Halbertstam's The Education of a Coach sound interesting to me - but the review of this new book about Bill Belichick will have to do.

There are only three novels in this week's issue. The Jungle Law, by Victoria Vinton, is about Rudyard Kipling's sojourn in Vermont. Mark Kamine's review failed to rouse my interest, as did Wendy Smith's look at Robb Forman Dew's latest, The Truth of the Matter. Both novels appear to be rather well-done, but just not to my taste. John Banville's The Sea is more problematic. A few years ago, I read and disliked another novel by Mr Banville, Eclipse. If reviewer Terrence Rafferty is to be believed, The Sea is a somewhat different production, at least at first. As it goes on, however, it reverts to Mr Banville's natural style.

What's strangest about The Sea is that the novel somehow becomes simpler and clearer as it gets more self-conscious: a consequence, I suppose, of its author dropping the pretense of being one kind of writer and giving into his authentic and much more complicated creative nature.

There is no Essay this week, just a Rick Meyrowitz cartoon suggesting the books that "hatchet job" Dale Peck might have given us instead of the "genial fantasy for children" that he actually wrote. They're almost all delicious: How to Cook Your Editor, Liizzie Borden Was An Amateur, Murder at Churlish Peeve, and The Twelve Stupidest Vegetables in My Garden.

Finally, in "Poetry Chronicle," Joshua Clover and Joel Brouwer review ten new collections. Of Mr Clover's five, two stood out for further exploration: The Life of a Hunter, by Michelle Robinson, and Company of Moths, by Michael Palmer. I'll let you know. Heather Fuller (Startle Response) David Baker (Midwest Eclogue) and Arthur Sze (Quipu) will require further advocacy. Of Mr Brouwer's five, the same outcome obtained: Simone Muench's Lampblack & Ash and Brian Turner's Here, Bullet got my attention; I had already heard good things about Mr Turner's verses on the themes of our Iraqi misadventure. Elizabeth Alexander (American Sublime), Adrian Castro (Wise Fish), and Patricia Ferrell (Thirty Years War) didn't catch my eye. I won't say more, because it's idiotic to measure a poem by extracts from a review. I don't know how grateful these poets will be for their somewhat crammed exposure.

November 26, 2005

Against my better judgment

Every now and then, I make a mistake in a bookshop. I buy something against my own better judgment. I can count on one hand - one finger, perhaps - the times that buying a book against my better judgment hasn't led to disappointment. If I remember correctly, the last time that this happened, I allowed myself to be persuaded by Lenox Hill Book Store proprietor Jeannette Watson's pitch to another customer; perhaps I deserved what I got for eavesdropping. The book was The Da Vinci Code. Empty calories! Not only did I dislike the book, but my respect for Ms Watson dropped a bit, too.

After a certain procedure late last month (see the entry for 27 October, but don't say I didn't warn you), I did not call Kathleen to tell her that I was fine, as I was supposed to do, but, still somewhat dazed - feeling okay, but not a hundred percent grey-matter-wise - wandered instead into Shakespeare & Co's Hunter College branch. Memo to self: don't buy books on anesthesia. Piled on a table of recent paperback releases, A Weekend at Blenheim, by J P Morrissey, roped me in.  The blurb from Dominick Dunne on the back cover signaled that the book would be light entertainment at best, but the opening paragraphs read nicely enough, and the packaging did promise a visit to the most formidable of England's stately homes.

I visited Blenheim with my father, in the summer of 1977. We were driving from London, through Oxford, to a hotel not far from Birmingham where he and my mother, who had just passed away, had enjoyed a stay some years earlier. Woodstock was on the way, so we pulled in for a look. There was no question of going indoors. The baroque bulk seemed rather urban for the gentle countryside, but it was handsome nonetheless, and the slope from the water to the Great Court was a nice stroll. My memories of Blenheim are pleasant enough.

The Blenheim of Mr Morrissey's novel, in contrast, is malign.

Its monstrous square towers and commanding arcades gave the palace a romantic, medieval air, as it it were a fortress high on a cliff over the Rhine or along the road to Damascus.

Built with a grant bestowed upon a victorious general - "war money" - it is more mausoleum than home, a prison for the dukes and duchesses who must somehow keep it up. The current, ninth, duke of Marlborough - the story is set in the summer of 1905 - has married very well, if not for love, in order to pay off debts and repair the fabric of his ancestral pile. His duchess is the former Consuelo Vanderbilt - and the future Mme Jacques Balsan. Other real folks on hand for a country-house weekend are the duke's first cousin, Winston Churchill, and the duchess's mother, Alva Belmont. So is the duke's mistress and future wife, the American Olive Deacon. Rounding out the party are John Singer Sargent and a Monsignor Vay de Vaya. These people are used to living in the presence of great power, and they're all - even the Monsignor - very sophisticated. If you want to know more about them, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Into this Edwardian scene are introduced John Vanbrugh, a young American architect, and his English wife, Margaret. Margaret is the daughter of the local vicar, and the duchess, intrigued by the young man's name, which is the same as that of the architect of Blenheim itself, has decided to hire him to "do some work" on her private rooms. (This project never sounds plausible for a moment.) At first charming, thoughtful, and even adorable, the duchess eventually shows herself to be worldly and calculating, willing to do anything to preserve appearances. In the course of less than forty-eight hours, John goes from protectiveness through worship to disenchantment. To say more would spoil the story.

Throughout the book, I thought how much better A Weekend at Blenheim would be if it had been written in the third person. Van's narrative voice is annoyingly fussy. His middle-class Yankee's first impressions of English stately grandeur are predictably obsequious and naive. His respectability is especially tiresome. With a little more art, and rather more acid, too, Mr Morrissey might have turned his hero into a very unreliable narrator, a sort of dry Charles Pooter. As it is, Van simply doesn't know his own mind on the subject of Blenheim. He thinks he hates it, but he can't stop describing it in minute, enthusiastic detail.

She left our group and turned to the duke, who was standing with Mr Sargent, who looked troubled. She whispered something to the duke, and a flash of irritation crossed his face. At that moment the butler announced dinner, and as a group we proceeded to the dining room, which had been simply but exquisitely arranged. A crisp linen tablecloth, two silver vases spilling over with white orchids, two tall bronze candelabra, their red candles covered with small opaque shades; the china rimmed in scarlet, turquoise, and gold; the myriad crystal wine glasses and sparkling silverware - all contributed to the beauty of the table.

It's paragraphs like that that make me long for Henry James's obliquity.

Another, related, failing of the narrative voice is that it is characterized by a sort of intervening amnesia. The illusion of the first person story is that the writer is reporting events that occurred in the past. Presumably the intention is to show how things came out. Mr Morrissey's narrator, however, seems to be genuinely unaware of what is going to happen next. This is necessarily true of the character in the story, but it makes the reporting narrator look very, very stupid. There is no irony, no foreboding, no intimation of the denouement. As a result, the plot begins to look like an excuse to linger in an ohh-and-ahh environment.

A longer discussion of this novel would explore the hypocrisy and contradiction of Van's marriage - or, rather, the strong impression that Van is notaware of them. (More stupid.) There are moments when he seems ready to run off with the duchess, although in a strangely platonic way. If Margaret weren't pregnant, I'd wonder if John's friends and relations failed to tell him about the facts of life.

Much of A Weekend at Blenheim is thoroughly delightful. Mr Morrissey appears to be in thorough command of his history as well as of his architecture, so much so that I wonder if the novel might be a metastasized dissertation. It is always very agreeable to read about lively figures who really trod the earth. Mr Morrissey's Winston Churchill, still a bachelor in 1905, is always a welcome voice, and his cousin is humorlessly dim. Miraculously, for an historical novel, nobody says anything noticeably anachronistic - although I do question "soul mate," perhaps mistakenly. "Downstairs" life, insofar as we see it at all, takes place upstairs, in the attics of "Housemaids' Heights." But I may as well say that I was grateful for the nice photograph of Blenheim's rooftops in Country Houses from the Air. It turned out to be helpful for following the novel's somewhat unlikely climax.

November 25, 2005

La Côte Basque redux

There's an old saying - well, not that old - that when you see married couples having lunch on a weekday, it's because they're on their way to the divorce lawyers. This always makes me chuckle, on the rare occasions when I do have lunch with Kathleen on a weekday. It doesn't happen often.

And it happened only accidentally today. When I got up at 9:15, I was surprised to see that Kathleen was still asleep, since she'd told me that she was going in to the office. I decided right away that I was going to go see Derailed across the street at ten, and when I left the apartment, Kathleen was reading the Times. Walking home from the movie - there is nothing that can be said about Derailed except: Clive Owen owns this film; he makes you forgive its creaky plot points over and over and over again; and "See this thriller!" - I wondered if I would find my dear wife snuggled up under the covers. It turned out that if the movie had been a half hour shorter, that's just what I would have found. Coming into the lobby when I did, however, I ran into my Prof's wife, and we were talking about La Côte Basque when Kathleen slunk into view. She said that she was on her way to lunch, and, after introducing her to Mme Prof, I invited myself along. We went to Burger Heaven, where we sat and talked for a long time, although not about divorce. On the contrary. We talked about how blogging has cleaned up my life. Ordered it and made it work.

But just now I'd rather talk about La Côte Basque, or, as it appears to be styled nowadays, LCB Brasserie Rachou. (The last part refers to chef-owner Jean-Jacques Rachou.) "LCB," which I find I automatically pronounce as "Ell-Say-Bay," seems quite arch, since it can't mean anything unless you know the name of the restaurant that, prior to last year, occupied the same space. La Côte Basque was one of New York's premier "temples of gastronomy," very grand and very expensive. Kathleen and I went perhaps six or seven times over twenty-odd years, almost always to mark a birthday or an anniversary. But the grand old French restaurants are no longer popular, and for the most part they've closed. M Rachou is to be applauded for coming up with an attractive, and, I hope, successful rethink. The quaint old murals and the Louis Quinze chairs have been retired (the Villeroy & Boch "Basket" is still in use, however). The new color scheme features a distinctive ocher mustard, with black trim. The walls have been lined with mirrors and adorned with belle époque light fixtures (with frosted glass shades) and amusing medallions of sporting folk circa 1900. There are even more banquettes than there used to be, which is very good, because - the only design error - the unupholstered bentwood chairs are almost shabby and obviously not comfortable. The floor has been covered in small tiles.

Other diners were presented with the full menu, but we, for some reason, were not; nor did we mind. The holiday menu was just fine, even though it didn't announce just where the prix had been fixed. (The figure turned out to be "$50" - extremely reasonable.) Kathleen chose salmon tartare, sea bass, and pumpkin pie. I went the supplemental route ($3.50 tacked onto each dish) and had crabmeat salad, filet mignon Périgourdine, and the restaurant's signature Grand Marnier soufflé. Everything was great, but the Périgourdine sauce was sublime. Complex but elemental, it was the earthiest thing that I have ever tasted; it was as though the meaning of existence could be packed into an exotic mushroom. Well, why not? It was. Thanks to an amuse-gueule of pumpkin bisque, we could hardly clean our plates, but I struggled manfully with that sauce (one slice of filet would have been enough). Almost as extraordinary was the bottle of wine that I chose, Lynch Bages 2001. Two glasses of Pauillac were enough to put Kathleen to sleep, but she managed to get home under her own steam, or at least with her head on my shoulder in the taxi. And so our luxuriously quiet Thanksgiving Day crept into the night. We hope that yours was just as warm.

November 24, 2005

Thomas, Jefferson, and Stewardship

The featured Essay in the current issue of Harper's, Erik Reece's "Jesus Without The Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas," would be an arresting read at any time, but in coming at the time of national thanksgiving it packs an even mightier punch. Briefly, Mr Reece, the lapsed son and grandson of Baptist ministers, traces an unexpected connection between the version of the Gospels that Thomas Jefferson knocked off by removing everything miraculous and entitling the result, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, on the one hand, and the Gospel of Thomas, an non-canonical writing, probably older than the canonical ones, that was unearthed in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These documents are far too concerned with what Jesus said to be called "Christian." Christianity is a carapace built around the figure of Jesus that also obscures him; it stands in the same relation to Jesus as one of Tutankhamen's glorious coffins does to the young king's mummy. Χρίστος - "Christ" - is the Greek translation of "Messiah," something that Jesus did not claim to be. It represents the fabulous constructions of Paul and his followers. Most important doctrines, from the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception through Original Sin and the Resurrection, completely lack the authority of Jesus' word. They are the mainstays of a formidable institution that has served a majority of Westerners well enough while crushing and maiming those who question its authority, which it claims to derive directly from God, in the person of Jesus. I doubt that Jesus would have much good to say about its non-charitable operations.

It is not surprising that the Gospel of Thomas was declared to be heretical in the second century, and that copies of it were ordered to be burned. It is not surprising that the Apostle Thomas's best-known appearance in the canonical gospels, at John 20:24-29, discredits him as lacking faith in Jesus' resurrection; at the time that the Gospel of John was written, the Gospel of Thomas was probably still in circulation and increasingly disputed. These are not surprising because the Gospel of Thomas, like The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, is wanting in miracles.

Continue reading about stewardship at Portico.

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's hard to believe, but the computer tells me that I haven't told this story here.

Two years ago today, we were in Paris. Kathleen was convinced that the only way we could get out of sharing turkey with friends and relatives was by leaving the country. So we checked into the Park Hyatt in the Rue de la Paix. It's a great little hotel, but I hope that they have a new chef. Do you really want to eat a club sandwich that has fava beans in it? No, I didn't think so.

Park Hyatts, wherever they are, are super business hotels, very quietly luxe. The concierges are always très fiable. They'll get you where you want to go. Even so, I was truly surprised when we were told that we had a table for two at Taillevent, one of the most remarkable restaurants in the world, on Thanksgiving Day. As JR at L'homme qui marche has noted, this is just another Thursday in France; you go to work today and you don't faire le pont tomorrow. We thought that having Thanksgiving dinner at Taillevent would be our own private Idaho. But, no.

We were not seated in the inner sanctum. My mother-in-law would have complained about the table - not that it would have done her any good. One hears that there is a quota system at Taillevent: no more than forty percent of the diners can be foreign. Nevertheless, we were very happy to be where we were. I believe that I had lamb, because I remember a brief conversation with the genial patron afterward, in which he told me that the lamb came from the Pyrenees. But what I remember most clearly is what happened across the room at a table for two.

Two. Because of my stiff neck, I didn't get a good look at the couple, but as I recall it was composed of a prosperous gentleman and his niece. She at any rate couldn't have been a hearty eater.

A waiter rolled out a metal table on wheels, one of those fancy "hotel silver" affairs, on which there was a large silver cloche. This got everyone's attention. When the waiter got to the table across the room, he whisked off the cloche to reveal a full-sized roast turkey. After slicing a few pieces of meat from the breast of the bird and serving them, he wheeled the largely-intact carcass back into the kitchen in unmistakably embarrassed haste. It was only the sophistication that all Taillevent guests must possess that kept the room from bursting into applause (or laughter), for you may be sure that no one in the room did a thing but stare at this incredible production. Need I say that roast turkey was not on the menu?

We asked our waiter, and were discreetly assured that the gentleman was "not American." Even so, it was the best floor show that I'll ever see.

Thoughts on Plenty

Because of the Times Select paywall, I have not supplied links to the writings discussed in this entry.

As befits the eve of our annual fête de food, yesterday's Times Op-Ed page is given over to three essays on the state of the national cornucopia. Farmer Nina Planck urges us to look beyond claims that food products are "organic" for proof that say, beef is "grass-fed." This is because food giants such as General Mills have acquired "organic" brands and now, as members of industry associations, are lobbying to relax some of the restrictions.

Unfortunately, the organic rules are all but silent on the importance of grass to animal and human health. 

Chef Dan Barber urges us to change our diets, not only for our own health but also to encourage mid-sized farms by consuming less of the mega-crops - corn, soy, and sugar.

We're going to have to support a diet that contains fewer processed, commodity-based foods. We're going to have to pay more for what we eat. We're going to have to contend with those who question whether its practical to reduce subsidies for large farmers and food producers. And we're going to have to reward farmers for growing the food we want for our children.

Finally, New Orleans professor John Biguenet writes with disgust of the national stinginess that has driven many in his city to wonder if it will ever be viable again.

So far, the president, Republican leaders in Congress and even the reconstruction czar, Donald Powell, have declined to provide any commitment beyond repairing the levees already breached. But if the United States refuses to protect New Orleans, what will the world - and what will history - make of a nation that let one of its most celebrated cities die?

There is also a silly column by Thomas L Friedman, urging the president to change course. What I can't understand is Mr Friedman's faith that this is possible. If there's one thing that I can't be thankful for, it's that the United States has been well-served by democracy in recent years. Because it hasn't been.

What all four pieces point to is the importance of responsible stewardship in human affairs. That's a topic that Eric Reece addresses with surprising force, and from a surprising direction, in an essay that I will write about later today. Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving to all my countrymen, at home or abroad.

November 23, 2005

A Quiet Birthday

Changing course on the travel front left me rudderless yesterday. I can't remember the last time I accomplished so little on an otherwise free schedule. Eventually, I made myself sit down and read The Kite Runner, so that I could tell Miss G how far along I am. In the event, I forgot to mention it. When I see her next, I'll have finished the book. And our next meeting may be sooner than later. If the musicians are good, she'll want to take us to the Village Vanguard a week from Friday. It's curious: Kathleen and Miss G both love jazz, but while Kathleen has never been to the Vanguard, Miss G has never been to the Blue Note. There's something very NYC about that. (I appreciate jazz deeply, which is different. I love Mozart and Schubert)

Miss G was delighted with the scarf that Kathleen gave her: she has elected Kathleen as her source for scarves. Kathleen has an extraordinary eye for color - for absolute color, even - and she also picks up people's coloration. She knows what colors will look good on someone and and she knows what colors someone will like. The last scarf that Kathleen gave to Miss G was one of the many that she brought back from Istanbul, and Miss G was floored one night when someone asked her if she'd gotten her scarf in Turkey. For a moment, she couldn't make the connection: how had she come into possession of a Turkish scarf?

My gift was less certain to succeed: a couple of books about cities, and Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment, which I'm going to get for myself when I've cleared a little space. (See last Sunday's "Book Review.") I had just spotted it at the St Mark's Bookshop, along with a recording of John Ashbery reading his own poems. I'd read in The New Yorker that people often say that Mr Ashbery's poetry makes more sense to them after they've heard him read it, so I'm giving that a shot. In my opinion, all books of poetry ought to be recordings. I can't tell you what hearing Wallace Stevens read "Credences of Summer" does to me.

Dinner at Jules was good as always. We had a bottle of Château Loret, I think - it's the wine from Cahors that I always order. Miss G and I split an order of interesting but delicious steak tartare, and then I had half of a small roast chicken. The chicken was a little dry; I suspect that it spent some time waiting in the kitchen, because the delay between courses was unusual. The ladies had tuna. We sat in the back, where the live jazz is still quite loud but not too loud for conversation, and between us and the music there was a table of five young French persons, deux gosses et trois gonzesses. I could not make out a word of their animated conversation, but, as Kathleen pointed out, I wasn't supposed to be listening to them. It's frustrating, though, because despite all my work (hmmm), the casual exchanges of native speakers remains so opaque.

Boy, was it cold when we came outside! The wind was downright nasty. We walked Miss G the few blocks to her building, but Kathleen declined the offer to pay a visit upstairs, because she has a big conference call this morning and wants to be fresh. I was tuckered out, too, after my day of doing nothing much beyond eating well and accumulating books.

Can I really be the father of a beautiful thirty-three year-old woman? Yes, thank heaven, I can.

November 22, 2005

Guess who's not going to be in Puerto Rico on Thanksgiving Day

As a rule, I don't talk about our travel plans much, because they're likely to fall through at the last minute. The trip to Paris and Amsterdam that we proposed for earlier this month fizzled out sometime in October, making me glad that I hadn't really written anything about it. But even I was surprised, yesterday, when our Thanksgiving Day trip to Puerto Rico became untenable.

There were two culprits. First, there was - is - will be - Hurricane Gamma. According to weather reports, we would be spending our days by the sea under a more or less permanent cloud of rain. That would more or less defeat the purpose, at least for Kathleen, because she really needs the sun right now. The second factor was a combination of the Securities and Exchange Commission (I can say no more than that) and the lack of high-speed Internet connections in the charming casitas at Dorado Beach. (There is, apparently, wi-fi, but Kathleen and I haven't got that far in the alphabet, as Mrs Grimmer would say. Wireless communications don't work in plastered Manhattan apartments.)

At first, I suggested that we postpone the trip a week. But that would interfere with an annual convention that Kathleen never misses. As it happens, the convention is always held in, or just outside of, Phoenix, where the sun shines in a reliable manner at this time of year, so it didn't take screwing in a light bulb for me to suggest that I might accompany her for an extra couple of days before or after the convention. The convention usually takes place at the Biltmore, designed by famous small-person Frank Lloyd Wright - he must have really loathed people of my height, because he certainly created spaces that make me truly uncomfortable - but, this year, it has been moved out to the edge of Scottsdale, to the Hyatt resort at the Gainey Ranch.

So, no sleeping to the sound of surf. A real bummer, that. I will say right now that I have no desire to spend a week in Arizona. Those mountains and open spaces out west - they make me ask if this is still my country. Don't they belong in Mexico? (Yes, they do.) I share with the late Bourbons an idea that nature is very fine in its place - and that it's up to me to decide where that place is. There is something rude and impolite about mountains. It's fine when they're ornamental, as they are in Hong Kong and San Francisco. But there ought never to be more than five or six.

Now, what to do about Thanksgiving? The Puerto Rico trip evolved out of a passionate desire to escape this holiday. We hate the menu! Everybody we know will be somewhere else, which is good for them, but it's a bit demoralizing to spend holidays at home, pretending that they're days like any other. Can anybody recommend a restaurant that, at this late date, has a table for two?

November 21, 2005

Remember Politics?

Looking back a bit, I see that I haven't written much about politics lately. There hasn't been much occasion to do so, or so I've thought. But the echo of last week's "Mean Jean" Congressional outburst, which I heard by chance on the radio, has been hard to shake. It reminds me that, while I'm waiting for the Democratic Party to be replaced by something more constructive, the political scene becomes ever more malignant. How far off our rocker can Bush & Co push us? Given time, I am certain that it could and would destroy the United States of America and every man, woman, and child in it. No point in saying that every day, however. So I'll let Ellen Moody have the floor.

Politics? I don’t write politically regularly. Well, while the present US administation is so egregiously, shamelessly brutal, doing all it can to grind down the vast majority of people in the world for the benefit of a very few; torture is now open and institutionally encouraged; soon many more US women with no money or wherewithal to leave the states may have to endure compulsory pregnancy (admittedly many don’t seem to mind; this way they hope to nail some man to them?); but this is really more of what’s been developed by US institutions since WW2. Bush did get enough votes to steal the two elections. I am literally sickened and disgusted—amused too as they're clearly dangerous and absurd—by the gross SUVs which make driving harder, and parking a nightmare: you can’t see over or beyond them. Road pigs, no warts getting fatter and taller every year; yesterday at Kaiser’s parking lot two couldn’t get past one another in a lane.

The world we have is the world human beings as a group allow, seem to want.

Is it the world that you want?

On the Radio

Patricia Storms, of Booklust, was invited to participate in a CBC radio program that aired yesterday. Hosted by Rex Murphy, it's called Cross Country Checkup. Patricia talks about two books dear to her heart (one of which is very dear to Kathleen's as well), and she explains what a Web log is as well as anybody has ever done. Patricia's segment, which lasts about ten minutes, begins at about 56 minutes into the show, so push the ball along the Real Audio line to there to hear one of my favorite bloggers. 

Marie-Claire Alain at Holy Trinity

Thursday night, I walked a couple of blocks to Holy Trinity Church, the bold quasi-Gothic spire of which is part of the view from the window to my right. In 1987, the church inaugurated a new Rieger pipe organ, situated at ground level in the right transept, with a console visible to about half the nave and all of the left transept. Being able to see the organist makes organ recitals a good deal more interesting, if less mystical.

And what I learned, or figured out, or finally realized, on Thursday night, was that you can be a petite ginger-haired septuagenarian and make the instrument roar without breaking a sweat. I have never seen so relaxed a performing musician as Dr Alain. Her hands played with the same feathery motions regardless of the sounds they were called upon to produce. A similarly disengaged-seeming pianist would probably be hospitalized for observation.

I must confess to the surprise of discovering that Dr Alain is still alive, much less ...

Continue reading about Marie-Claire Alain at Portico.

November 20, 2005

The Word on Sunday


Today's word is actually a pair of homonyms. They have come to share the same spelling: caddy.

There is the golf caddy, formerly a human being, formerly a "caddie." This word comes, via Scotland, from the French cadet, or young man. Specifically, a young man who would hang about, available for brief hire as a messenger. This meaning was set by the early eighteenth century. Printed references to golf caddies date from the 1850s.

Then there is the tea caddy, derived from a South Asian measure of weight used for tea, or catti. Eventually, the container took the name of the measure. A tea caddy is a small box made of wood or porcelain. Tea caddies became merely decorative vessels when people began brewing their own tea in their own kitchens, instead conducting the whole elaborate (and inconvenient) operation at a tea table in the drawing room.

All of this was brought to mind by a small porcelain cache-pot that I bought for Kathleen at Tiffany a thousand years ago. It's really much too small for anything but a minute pot of African violets, and for years it has held items that approach two dimensions: ticket stubs, business cards, and bookmarks. Going through its contents last night, it occurred to me to call it - the cache-pot - a caddy, and I wondered why. I think that it's some subterranean confusion of the two words, caddie and caddy. It's small, like a caddy, and it helps out by carrying things, as does a caddie.

The ex-cache-pot now holds (a) bookmarks, (b) a small magnifying glass in the brocade envelope it came in, at China Arts & Crafts in Guangzhou, (c) a map of Bermuda, together with a plan of the Dorado Beach/Cerromar campus that we'll be heading off to (in Puerto Rico, not Bermuda) on Thursday (didn't have to hunt for that!), and (d) a few miscellaneous items - who's perfect? The ticket stubs are in a box of their own, while the old credit cards, of which that for B Altman, above, is my favorite, not because of the color but because of the store itself, which was everything that a department store ought to be, are in a "souvenir" box that will probably fill up faster than I want it to. But everything looks neat.

Book Review

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

Nonfiction first, shall we? Alan Riding reviews Benedetta Craveri's The Age of Conversation this week, exactly two months to the day after my enthusiastic entry. The call-out pretty much summarizes Mr Riding's casual grasp of Ms Craveri's important book: "It was shrewd: Parisian women invented a social game where they set all the rules." On the facing page, Jonathan Alter dismisses Mary Mapes's attempt, in Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privileges of Power, to explain away her disastrous rushing of the Texas National Guard story in last year's run-up to the election. Although the substance of the story about the President's shirking, during the Vietnamese War, was probably true, the slipshod documentation opened the door to right-wing attack. Even Dan Rather had to resign in the end. If I were Ms Mapes, I wouldn't be writing about my professional competence.

Roy Blount Jr, a funny man from the South whose humor usually eludes me, writes up Richard Porter's Crap Cars, a catalogue of the fifty worst cars ever made in modern times. Mr Porter writes with great brio, which more or less salvages his project from fatuity. According to John Leland's review of Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, by Peter Guralnick, the versatile musician proves to be as elusive as the humor of writing about automotive lemons.

But like Cooke's friends and associates, we are left trying to grasp a cipher. His cool what what the art historian Robert Farris Thompson calls "the mask of mind itself." We don't know how Sam felt about the white audiences he so methodically cultivated, or the women he so tirelessly took to bed; we can't measure the anger he kept hidden.

Take my advice, and beware the shape-shifting subjects of books of 750-page lengths!

Joe Queenan takes the words out of my mouth when he places Greg Critser's Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Lives, Minds, and Bodies in the category of books announcing that "the world is going to hell in a handbasket." Mr Queenan likes the book, although his ninth paragraph kicks the book off of my list. 

Because of the dry nature of the subject, Generation Rx is unlikely to replace Harlan Coben as bedtime reading. Moreover, while some details may be new, the overall theme - doctors are on the drug industry tab, Republican legislators view regulation as Stalinist, consumers have developed an almost Incan belief in the power of chemicals, lobbyists run everything - is not. Still, the book is a lively well-told tale, chock-full of fascinating tidbits that will bring a smile to the face of even the gloomiest Gus.

Gloomy Guses ought to spend their time pondering regulatory schemes that Republican legislators would not find Stalinist, and not reading books that, while making one smile, intensify one's feeling of powerlessness.

I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir, has an interesting title, once it's explained. Rafi Zabor is a jazz drummer who grew up in Brooklyn. According to reviewer Liesl Schillinger, I, Wabenzi is a long meditation the author's reaction on two traumas, one involving an abortion and the other the care of his ailing parents. Although Ms Schillinger complains that "spontaneity is both Zabor's strength and his liability," she seems to like the book. "After all, he's riffing on nothing smaller than the human experience..." So I give this week's "You First" prize to Mr Zabor's memoir. If you read it and like it enough to recommend it to me, I'll read it, no questions asked.

It was a close call, that award. It might easily have gone to One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, by Nathaniel Fick. Differing from Jarhead primarily in being the work of an officer, not an enlisted man (at least as I gather from the review), Mr Fick's book is a paean to competence, and, as such, an implicit condemnation of our way of waging war in Iraq.

Witch hunts simply doesn't interest me, which is why I'm not going to read Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy, by Malcolm Gaskill. Mary Beth Norton's review fails to suggest any aspect of this new history of the Essex crusade of 1645-7, during England's Civil War, that would distinguish it from other accounts of humanity at its rock-bottom worst. Nor do I want to read about Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, by H W Brands. I'm with William L O'Neill: "Jackson's presidency left a lot to be desired."

In "Nonfiction Chronicle," Mark Lewis rounds up six books for short-shrift treatment. Here are the titles and, in parentheses, my reason for not reading each of them, stated succinctly.

Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood. (misleading title; nothing new.)

The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved, by Alan Dershowitz (a certain Harvard Law professor is full both of himself and of it.

My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement, by Price M Cobbs (Second runner-up for "You First" award. A noted black psychiatrist "tries to cram six decades of his life into 249 pages, and they won't fit.")

Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts are Wrong for America, by Cass R Sunstein (I need to read about to find out?)

The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons, by Samantha Barbas. (Ew.)

The Tulip and the Pope, by Deborah Larsen. (Third runner-up. Hey, I think I've found something. This week's most interesting sentence appears in this review: "Now a writer herself, [Larsen] recalls for us an era when life in a nunnery, for many women, was the only counterculture available.")

Three books that I'd like to read are Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs (reviewed by Curtis Sittenfeld, who cautions that this is not a book with which to approach Woolf's life for the first time); Geoff Dyer's book about photography, The Ongoing Moment (Richard B Roundwood writes that Mr Dyer "pulls off a string of shrewd, often original ideas ... about a group of artists whose work had until now seemed thoroughly digested); and The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate by Marjorie Williams, edited by Williams's husband, Timothy Noah (Williams comes off as an uncommonly appealing writer).

There are two books of or about poetry this week, and this will allow me to cross from "Nonfiction" to "Fiction and Poetry." Dana Goodyear, a New Yorker editor and poet, reviews two books about poet Jane Kenyon and Kenyon's Collected Poems. One of the "about" books is The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon, by Kenyon's husband, poet Donald Hall; the other is Simply Lasting: Writers on Jane Kenyon, edited by Joyce Peseroff. The handful of examples of Kenyon's poetry are attractive, but since I'm in the middle of trying to come to grips with John Ashbery - probably by relaxing my grip - I beg to be excused. Nor can I take on Don Chiasson's Natural History, a collection of apparently feverishly hip poems. I'm not sure how to take reviewer Kay Ryan's last line, "It's the strangest thing how poetry that matters can be just an elephant's hair away from poetry that doesn't. Somebody at the Times must like Mr Chiasson, however, because his picture graces the review. Interestingly, it is a portrait; the photograph of Jane Kenyon shows her hard at work at the typewriter.

Gregory Cowles covers four novels in his "Fiction Chronicle." As is my wont, I provide the line from the review that made up my mind not to read each given title.

If The Sky Falls: Stories, by Nicholas Montemarano. ("...remarkable stories are united by their dyspeptic outlook and not much else...")

A Perfect Pledge, by Rabindranath Maharaj. ("In the end, the book is like a music box: it's charming and you have to admire its elaborate craftsmanship, but you know more artful versions of the song exist.")

The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, written and illustrated by Walter Moers, and translated by John Brownjohn. ("...further evidence ... that the Germans like their entertainment goofy and a bit bloated.")

The Mercy of Thin Air, by Ronlyn Domingue. ("Readers interested in heartbreaking ghost stories from New Orleans will do well to pick up a newspaper instead.")

The Elagin Affair: And Other Stories, by Ivan Punin, and translated by Graham Hattlinger. ("his writing veers between the melodramatic and the merely mellow.")

Of the four fictions given full treatment, Absolute Watchmen, by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons is an expensive comic book that Dave Itzoff didn't sell me on. Karoo Boy, Troy Blacklaws's apparently autobiographical account of enduring teen-aged hell in the "vast, desiccated hinterland" of South Africa known as the Karoo, thirty years ago, is making its first appearance here in paper, which means that it may well develop into a sleeper hit. Rob Nixon, however, feels that the central interracial relationship in the novel, between the hero and a retired black miner, feels "unearned" by the boy. More likely to appear on my bedside table is The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, a classic of Chinese literature by Han Bongqing (1856-1894) that is making its first appearance here in any kind of book, translated by the Eileen Chang, and revised and edited by Eva Hung. Sing-Song Girls is all about courtesans and their reckless, irresponsible clients. It sounds quite scrutable.

Finally, there is Witold Gombrowcz's Cosmos, translated into English by Danuta Borchardt. Reviewer Neil Gordon writes,

Praised by Sontag, Updike, Kundera, Sartre and Milosz, he is the underdog in late modernism's literary competition - perhaps, in part, because he left Poland in 1939, just before the German invasion, and remained in exile in Argentina for the next 25 years. He died in France in 1969, but since then his fiction and plays and his renowned three-volume diary have stubbornly refused to be forgotten, not only in Poland but throughout the world.

Yes, one of those guilt-inducing books that really do make you feel better for having read them, thus justifying the nagging of Sontag, Updike & Co. You first?

This week's Essay is by Jonathan Lethem. "Italo for Beginners" appears to argue for an anthology of the "best" Calvino, so that newbies will be sure to confront what the late Italian writer's dedicated admirers savor most, while regretting the interposition of editorial assistance between writer and reader. In short, Mr Lethem seems to be conducting an argument with himself in public. Unfortunately, he doesn't finish it.

November 19, 2005

Saturday Afternoon Opera

To anybody who's interested in writing an opera about blogs, I propose the following rough scenario, the first act of which is drawn from fellow blogger's personal experience, as disclosed in private correspondence with yours truly. All names have been omitted.

The Bloggers Betrayed (This will sound better in Italian, as, indeed, the whole opera will, if anybody writes it. As Tom Meglioranza complained the other day, there are really only three moods in Italian music: happy, sad and angry. I think that I might add a fourth, pleading.)

Act I: Forty-something keeps racy Web log. By means of Google, the blogger's Mom discovers the blog and is shocked. Mom and Blogger swear eternal oaths, Mom never to read the blog again, and Blogger to refrain from publishing the fact that Mom knows anything about the blog.


Act II: Reading in Blogger's blog that she has discovered it, Mom posts a comment, furiously denying that she even knows what a blog is.


Act III: Mom starts up a blog, describing marital relations with Blogger's Dad, Blogger's toilet training, &c. The finale ought to be bloody, with Blogger dying of poison after having stabbed Mom. 

PS: Tom Meglioranza's Tomness is NOT the source of my inspiration.


November 18, 2005

The All of It

Jeannette Haien's The All of It beguilingly occupies the thinly-populated frontier between the novel and novella. At just under 150 pages, it is rather long for a novella, but its concision is characteristic of short fiction rather than long. What is essentially a short story frames the telling of a long tale. The events related in the tale occurred nearly fifty years before the present action, which in turn is confined to the space of four days. If nothing else, The All of It is a beautiful composition.

But this is not a case of "nothing else." Now almost twenty years old, The All of It looks back to the relatively unadvanced Ireland of the Thirties. We see a beautiful widow at two points in her life, her teens and her sixties. We also have a middle-aged priest, who moves from a determination to root out an old sin to the contemplation of committing  a new one. Surprised by the woman's companionate charm, he is drawn to consider abandoning his celibacy, and we are left with the understanding that the widow will see to it that this does not happen.

The writing is clear-eyed and poetic, by which I mean that Ms Haien bends language to signal and provoke ineffable feelings.

Enda's house, he supposed with a sink of his heart, would be alike: dark, shut and still.

His mind tripped then on the memory of it having been but yesterday - only yesterday! - he'd driven in a retreating way up the lane in the opposite direction. But that had been after. After so much...

Continue reading about The All of It at Portico.

November 17, 2005

Somebody's Baby

One of the privileges of membership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is access to the Trustee's Dining Room. Situated over the Modern Art galleries at the rear of the museum, it is as close as Kathleen and I will ever come, probably, to eating at a club. The room is beautiful even if it is beige, and the view into the treetops around Cleopatra's Needle, with the grand buildings of Central Park West beyond, is one of the rarest in New York.

We hadn't been there at night before Saturday last. Kathleen had the bright idea of taking Dr B, one of her oldest friends in the world, to dinner there. Dr B was in town from Los Angeles to pay a visit to her parents, and we had planned for her to spend her last evening with us. But we hadn't planned anything else. I was surprised that Kathleen was able to get a table at short notice. The room, when we got there, was fairly full. Dr B loved every bit of it. Just for the record, I had a Maryland crab salad - they were out of Kumamoto oysters, which is actually a good sign late in an evening - followed by breast of guinea hen. (Oh, the sauce!) My dessert - and I was the only one to have any - was "Bananas Foster Brûlée. I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone matched the famous New Orleans treat with Manhattan's favorite.

But what prompts this entry is the reflections that were spurred by two portraits in the lobby area outside the restaurant. The museum has, of course, far more art works than it can display, and some of the overstock appear on rotation in this lobby. On one wall, there was Lawrence's John Julius Angerstein. On the other, a Portrait of a Man by Romney. The pictures are virtually contemporaneous. Yet we know the identity of only one of the sitters. The subject of the Romney picture is a blandly handsome young man with bright, clear eyes and an affable expression. It would appear that he never amounted to much. Can you think of another explanation? Lots of bright young men fail to make a mark on history. But this gent was evidently placed well enough to have his portrait done by Romney. I couldn't help thinking of Christine Lavin's wistful "Somebody's Baby," from Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind.

He once was somebody's baby

someone bounced him on her knee

do you think she has any idea

what her little boy's grown up to be.

As for John Julius Angerstein, I looked him up in Chamber's Biographical Dictionary, and found out why the name rang a bell. The entry reads,

a London underwriter of Russian origin, whose thirty-eight pictures, bought in 1824 for £57,000, formed the nucleus of the National Gallery.

That would be the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. How'd his portrait wind up on rotation at the Met? Another line of rumination altogether.

November 16, 2005



At long last, I have embarked on a long-contemplated household project. To make room for recently-purchased CDs (where "recent" means "during the past year"), I have no choice but to "de-accession," and yet I'm loath to part with good recordings, even if I don't listen to them often. What to do?

It came to me in a vision. I would buy one of those large CD wallets - the kind that holds four to a "page." Then I would burn copies of the CDs that I planned to give away, and scan all the necessary booklet information. And, hey, it's working! I've removed one foot of jewel boxes from my shelves. And I've only just begun. The Martian-looking CD copier that has been gathering dust since last spring takes about three minutes tops to copy any CD. I wish that I could listen to the two dozen I've copied in that amount of time. So far, I've enjoyed the performances without being tempted to reconsider.

So far, each CD that I'm giving away contains duplicate recordings, which is to say that there's another performance in the collection that I prefer. Eventually, I shall have to dispose of unique recordings, but I've got more than a few, if I'm honest, that I am never going to spend any time with. But right now I'm more concerned with putting together a halfway rounded collection for Ms NOLA, who will be the first recipient of my castoffs. What she doesn't care for, I've encouraged her to give away, until the recordings find their natural homes, either with genuine music-lovers or with pack rats.

Tune de la semaine

Let's hope that there are few instances of a singer gifted with a voice as beautiful as Bing Crosby's yet as prone to sing rubbish! For all of his hit recordings, Crosby sang very few songs from the American Standards canon, and most of what he did sing he alone sang. Every once in a while, thank heaven, he bumps into something that shows off his voice so well that you don't really assess the song. "Goodnight, Lovely Little Lady," from the 1934 film, We're Not Dressing.

(See right)

November 15, 2005

Even Truer Romance


Like everyone else, I bought the new edition of The Elements of Style, stylishly illustrated by Maira Kalman, on the understanding that "I lost the copy that I had in school" and "needed" a new one.

Sorry, Charlie. The old one, dating from law school days, turned up over the weekend. The only book it's bigger than is A Uniform System of Citation - a lawyer book that is, however, somewhat fatter. Tucked in the middle of Elements was the file card shown above. I proffer it as proof that I know when to stick an awkward preposition at the end of a sentence.

Neither one of us can remember what contretemps prompted this particular stay in the nuisance corner. There is no doubt that I had done something to make me smell like a bad cheese. In those days, most of my contacts with Kathleen were in public, necessitating surreptitious notes by the ream. It was a long courtship, as you can imagine.

What drives me crazy with love for my wife of twenty-four years is the squiggle under "I." You'll note that she underlined "don't," but then found that that wasn't strong enough. Ergo: squiggle. That is Kathleen.

De Kooning's Bicycle


The Sunday before last, in the course of my weekly Book Review review review, I listed the nonfiction books that I was not planning to read. The following is an item from the list.

¶ Local son Robert Long has written a book about the artists who made the Hamptons interesting as well as glamorous, De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons. I would read this book, but only if asked to do so. Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart covered this territory well enough for me.

What could I say, then, when on Tuesday evening I received a note, via e-mail, from the author himself, asking me "to do so"? By Wednesday afternoon, I had the book in possession, and by Thursday evening I'd read all of it. Thank you, Mr Long, for your persistence.

I could write a few words about Jim Lewis's review (oops! I omitted his name from the item), and how it misled me to expect a very different sort of book, but I've been spending enough time on the Book Review, thank you very much. It's enough to say that I was not surprised ....

Continue reading about De Kooning's Bicycle at Portico.

November 14, 2005

Don't Miss This Comment

A recent entry, "Free Market Fires," has elicited an illuminating comment from M François Peyrat, a Parisian who is involved in the redevlopment of the Ile-de-France, the region of which Paris is the heart but which also includes the banlieues that surround the city. M Peyrat sees the recent troubles as primarily economic, and I'm inclined to agree, although I would like to see a clearer connection between the isolation of so many maghrébins (North Africans) in what we would call housing projects, and the greater difficulty that their young men seem to have getting jobs, on the one hand, and the French economy on the other. I most heartily agree with M Peyrat that neither the US nor the UK is a "multicultural" society.


Jarhead surprised me by not being harder to take than it was. The one really painful scene came early on. Marines, still at Camp Pendleton, are watching Apocalypse Now. On the screen within the screen, Lt Col Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) directs an aerial attack on a coastal Vietnamese village, to a sound track of "The Ride of the Valkyries." The Marines in the theatre cannot contain their excitement; they bounce like kernels of popping corn. They're gung ho, rooting for the thoroughly undermatched American forces as if unaware that their team will ultimately lose the game. The irony of this momentary cluelessness and the tragedy of their predictable but lamentable enthusiasm for colorful carnage combine to make a bitter pill. It is a scene from Lord of the Flies, but one instigated by adults. The Marine Command must presumably be aware of the young men's inappropriate excitement. Excuse me; it's not inappropriate on the eve of engagement. Is it.

The rest of the film poses the question, Is what I'm seeing necessary? Do you have to push men this hard in order to make effective soldiers out of them? (Remember that the team of snipers featured in this drama are elite shooters, as far from Army "specialists" as you can go, at least on the ground.) It is not my place to answer, but I suggest that the price is too high. Jarhead suggests that the men killed in action - and none are, here - might be the lucky ones. Their survivors may go on drawing breath, but only at the edge of an excruciating and dismal nightmare. A nervous system stretched past maximum for months at a time will never relax to a healthy calm.

As such, Jarhead takes issue with the current manner of training and maintaining crack troops. (It's important to remember that the snipers in this drama are elite shooters, not "specialists.") The film itself is not gung ho. There is no climax to redeem the months of grueling boredom. On the contrary, there is only the anticlimax of not being allowed, ultimately - very ultimately - to take out an Iraqi target.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the star of Jarhead, but the film works best when his character, Swofford, is interacting with his partner, Troy, played by Peter Sarsgaard. While the guileless Swofford has nothing to hide, Troy is a locked trunk of secrets, and Mr Sarsgaard could have stolen the picture if director Sam Mendes hadn't resolutely featured Mr Gyllenhal. It would be silly to see anything homoerotic in the relation between the two soldiers, but it might be argued that Jarhead illumines depths of non-carnal male intimacy, which, much line sonar, functions as a series of answered challenges. 

Comparisons to Three Kings, the other movie about Desert Storm, are unavoidable. What the two movies share is a complete lack of nobility. Ideals that were still available to the Greatest Generation were finished off, it would seem, in Vietnam.

What do I think about Jarhead? I don't know. But I want to see it again. Not tomorrow, but soon.

The New York Collegium at St Vincent Ferrer

The Church of St Vincent Ferrer is a beautiful venue for evening concerts. Shadows cast by stone tracery draw the imagination into an idle play that doesn't distract from the music. But it is important to remember to bring some sort of cushion to sit on. The pews are excessively Benedictine.

Last Friday night, the Collegium presented some very familiar music in relatively unfamiliar terms. Four of Bach's six Brandenburg Concerti were played, along with ...

Continue reading about The New York Collegium at Portico.

November 13, 2005

Book Review

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

Before I look at this week's Book Review, I want to say that the author of one of the books that I dismissed last week wrote to me to suggest that I reconsider. As it happened, I was in no position to refuse, and I'm very grateful for his persistence, as his book is a great read. I hope to discuss this further on Tuesday. For the moment, I want you all to know that I am an ardent flip-flopper when it comes to revising ignorant assessments.

Fiction first. There are four novels this week, as well as Garrison Keillor's collection, Good Poems for Hard Times, reviewed by David Orr. My own feelings about verse have gone through something of an earthquake this month, but although I'm pretty sure that I would be impatient with many of Mr Keillor's selections, I can't see any reason not to acquire this book if your library, or, as is more likely, someone else's, is bereft of poetry books. It looks like a sound beginning. Unless you're in school, and in a position to be forced to read poetry for your own good - and I often think that what Dr Johnson said about teaching Latin to small boys applies to poetry as well - then you're going to have to like what you read before you'll read more, and Good Poetry for Hard Times appears to be chock full of likeable poems. Ideally, readers will eventually tire of easy satisfactions - but only ideally.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D, California) has concocted a political novel, about a senator's successful bid to block the nomination of a conservative Supreme Court nominee, written with Mary-Rose Hayes. The Wonkette herself, Ana Marie Cox, does not think much of the result. The quoted passages are all wooden at best, and, as for politics, here's Ms Cox's closing: "Conservatives like to charge that liberals have no new ideas. Unfortunately, A Time to Run seems to prove them right. Mother's Milk, by Edward St Aubyn, is the second number in what looks to be a series of novels about an aristocratic English family on the way down. I recall that reviews of the first entry, Some Hope, characterized Mr St Aubyn as an exponent of disagreeable dyspepsia, and Charles McGrath's review gives me no reason to revise this impression.

Churlish and irritable, suffering through what he calls "this rather awkward mezzo del camin thing," Patrick is in fact just a notch or two from falling into ordinary middle-classness, and fastens on the one vestige of his family's more distinguished past - the house in Provence. Even that proves to be a fragile bulwark, however, as over the course of the novel it's slowly wrenched from its grasp.

Mr McGrath suggests that Edward St Aubyn is a successor to Anthony Powell, but I see none of the late writer's clear and decidedly not irritable grace here.

Marlon James's, debut novel, John Crow's Devil, looks interesting. Set in the author's native Jamaica in 1957, it recounts the struggle between rival preachers and their adherents. According to reviewer James Polk, it is written "with assurance and control." At the other end of experience, we have Albanian writer Ismail Kadare's The Successor (translated from the French by David Bellos). Reviewer Lorraine Adams provides a useful introduction to Mr Kadare's fiction, and notes that the author won the first Man Booker International Prize earlier this year. The Successor appears to be a historical novel of sorts about twisted relationship between the late Albanian strongman, Enver Hoxha, and his heir apparent, Mehmet Shedu.

This novel finds its truth in the imagined words of a dead man, setting the individual over the many. It valorizes the imagination by arguing that the truth of man is not always found in what he does or says but in his numinous interior, the place all great literature celebrates.

I have no plans to run out and buy any of these novels, but I'd probably try to get to them if they materialized in one of my increasingly Borgesian stacks.

Sure things: I'm going to get Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. I didn't need Gordeon S Wood's lengthy and enthusiastic review to decide that this is a Must Read. I hope that everyone will find time for Mr Wilentz's massive tome, which, as Mr Wood suggests, might better be taken in three big doses. There is a lot for all of us to learn about just how democracy flourished in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century - and at what cost. Another sure thing is that I'm not going to bother with Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide. Ms Dowd writes pithy columns for the Times that all too often put wit ahead of substance, and I, for one, will never quite forgive her for her treatment of Bill Clinton. The Times Magazine offered us a taste of Are Men Necessary a few weeks ago. It's certainly true that millions American men have a long way to go on the way to Growing Up, but I doubt that Ms Dowd's book will inspire a single one of them to get a move on. It's possible that Maureen Dowd ought to give up on books altogether. As Kathryn Harrison points out, 

Consumed over a cup of coffee, 800 words provide Dowd the ideal length to call her readers' attention to the ephemera at hand that may reveal larger trends and developments. But smart remarks are reductive and anti-ruminative; not only do they not encourage deeper analysis, they stymie it. 

Nor am I going to pick up Kenneth Chong's somewhat knuckleheaded Neil Young Nation: A Quest, an Obsession (and a True Story). According to reviewer Gary Kamiya, Mr Chong got into his car and drove to lots of places, many of them without any other significance, that Neil Young visited on his tours and other travels. I'll just listen to "Southern Man." It was with some relish that I lapped up Marcia Bartusiak's review of Dava Sobel's The Planets. But looking it over, I see that it is actually a favorable review.

Unlike Sobel's previous works...The Planets isn't a straight science book or a strict history book or memoir but a frothy blend of all these forms. In one chapter, Sobel entertains us with Galileo's horoscope (which predicted he would travel far), moves to a discussion of Gustav Holst's symphonic tribute to the planets, and then artfully describes how the Cassini spacecraft reached Saturn last year and soared through a gap in the planet's legendary rings.

I've no doubt whatever about the froth. I found Longitude to be among the emptiest books that it had ever been my misfortune to read. In response to my complaint that the book completely neglected any discussion of the actual mechanics of Harrison's chronometer, a friend replied that I probably wouldn't have understood it, to which I could only say, "Try me." At least show me where my ignorance lies! That's what Ms Sobel specializes in not doing, which undoubtedly explains her success. An easy read about something as, well, colossal as our planetary system can only contribute to reader's easy but false sense of knowingness. Together with Galilieo's Daughter, these books by Dava Sobel have consistently failed to do what they ought to have done: open new wings in the reader's mind. Instead, they merely stuff cozy and familiar corners of mens cognita. Ms Bartusiak actually uses the adjective, "cozy."

According to reviewer Joel Slemrod, neither The Fairtax Book: Saying Goodbye to the Income Tax and the IRS, by Neal Boortz and John Linder, nor Flat Tax Revolution: Using a Postcard to Abolish the IRS, by Steve Forbes, rises promising that tax reform will deliver a free lunch. Mr Slemrod sensibly writes,

These books, to use the language on the jacket of Flat Tax Revolution, are calls to join a crusade. We'd be better of just starting a conversation.

I had learned, from John Keegan's Penguin Life, Winston Churchill, that The Second World War was written with a lot of outside help, but I didn't know that Churchill's helpers were called "The Syndicate." In In Command of History: Chuirchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, David Reynolds demonstrates how little of the six-volume opus was written by Churchill himself, but far from disparaging the putative author, Mr Reynolds admires him all the more. According to Max Boot,

In the end, Reynolds's respect for Churchill as writer and statesman appears undiminished by the lengths to which he went to shape his own reputation.

For while Churchill may have distorted countless facts in the burnishing of his reputation, those errors are largely correctible by professional historians, and we are left with a not-inconsiderable statement of Churchill's beliefs and objectives. Mr Reynolds's book will probably prove to be a good test of readers' Great Man sympathies. Those who resist the attractions of authority and leadership, even when it is well exercised by benevolent minds, will probably dismiss Churchill as an aging fraud. To me, he remains the most magnificent example of Statesman from my lifetime, such that his faults and misjudgments contribute to his greatness, if only because they teach me not to expect perfection. But I had better read The Second World War before turning to Mr Reynolds.

There are three minor histories under review this week. The Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, by James Horn, is, according to Russell Shorto, an admirable if plodding attempt to replace the Virginia colony's story alongside that of the New England Puritans, as a foundation story of the United States. The Lost Painting, by Jonathan Harr, "reads better than a thriller," writes reviewer Bruce Handy. It's about the rediscovery of Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, a much-copied 1603 painting that, with the languishing of Caravaggio's reputation (not reversed until after World War II), slipped into oblivion. It sounds like a book to read on vacation in Rome. Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art: the Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks is Diana Souhami's celebration of lesbian life, then and now it seems. Americans Barney and Brooks, both born at the end of the nineteenth century, met in Paris in 1915, and remained a couple of sorts for fifty-five years, having more than a few wild times along the way. Indeed, Ada Calhoun's review has me imagining a WASPy counterpart to the Stein-Toklas ménage, substituting exuberance for intensity. I'll be delighted to know what any of you make of these books.

In a Nonfiction Chronicle, Susannah Meadows covers five books, at least one of which, Paula Fox's The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe, would seem to have merited its own review. Ms Meadows doesn't say so, but this would seem to be a sequel to Ms Fox's gripping Borrowed Finery. An "artist of omission," Paula Fox works amazing tricks with shadows, and I look forward to The Coldest Winter. James E McWilliams's A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America will, Ms Meadows's surmises, will prove "either unfortunately heavy or pleasingly filling, depending on your taste. Either way, the prose is shamelessly unexciting." Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers, by Shashi Tharoor, is little more than a piece of self-promotion. "Tharoor achieves new levels of self-satisfaction..." Similarly, Diary of a Drag Queen, by Daniel Harris, which is about the author's decision, at the age of forty-six and notwithstanding the fact that stiletto heels made him six-foot-seven-inches tall, to take up cross-dressing, left Ms Meadows "feeling that the whole thing was just an exercise for the book." One can just imagine Mr Harris's conversation with this agent. Finally, Conduct Under Fire: Four American Doctors and Their Fight for Life as Prisoners of the Japanese 1941-1945, by John A Glusman, "is a chaotic, undisciplined, seriously flawed, and wonderful book." One of those.

In Jesus Land: A Memoir, Julia Scheeres tells a harrowing tale. The daughter of Christian fundamentalists who, in addition to their own three children adopted three more, among them two black boys, whom they treat entirely differently from their white wards. Jesus Land is about the bond that grew between one of them, David, and the author. Such was her devotion to David's welfare that she followed him to an evangelical reform school in the Dominican Republic - an establishment doubtless operated on principles that would be illegal in the United States. If Ms NOLA recommends this book to me, I shall read it, I promise.

The subject of A O Scott's Essay, "Medal Fatigue," is The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, by James F English. Mr Scott, who reviews film for the Times, is called upon annually to make predictions about the most well-known of prizes, and I don't mean the Nobels, and he's more than a little intrigued by Mr English's finding, which he summarizes thus:

In other words, prizes flourish to the extent that they are not taken seriously, but this does not mean they are all a big joke. Rather, they exist in a limbo of anxiety and uncertainty about the status of artistic and intellectual endeavor in a global consumer economy. We assume - we know - that art and thought have value, but we lack agreed-upon means to measure that value, so we come up with tools that are transparently and grandly inadequate to the task. Prestige, that is, functions as a poor substitute for even less tangible attributes; it is not necessarily the same as excellence, but it is not necessarily not the same. It is not ratified by commercial success, except on those occasions when it is. And prizes sometimes do go to the best candidates, which are sometimes (and sometimes not) also the most popular.

Mr Scott doesn't mention the possibility that the awarding of prizes is a fine pretext for muckety-muck banquets.

Pages 17 through 48 of this week's Book Review are given over to books for children.

November 12, 2005

"This Life"

Anyone who follows JR's blog, L'homme qui marche, knows that its author is a brilliant amateur photographer. He has taken some of the most startling botanical photographs that I have ever seen, and there are two shots of a still green pond that I would like to have on my walls, even though that would mean taking down something that I love, just to make room. But it seems that there isn't anything that JR can't capture. The other day, JR collected about two dozen pictures of people, mostly in Paris but not with any particularly Parisian flavor, and mounted them at flick'r.com, under the rubric "This Life." That's exactly what you'll see, too: this life that you are leading, or at least its ordinary public moments. In almost every picture, you will see people going about their errands or taking a break from doing so. Nobody is rich, and nobody looks very poor. There is an unselfconsciousness that would be sloppy if JR didn't frame the shots so well. By that I don't mean that he has put form over substance. It's rather that the lens is always directed at or just below a head. Almost everyone wears the peculiarly modern combination of slightly stressed thoughtfulness and relaxed posture. We're on the lookout for something new, but we don't expect to see it.

My favorite is the one of the three girls chatting by the reflection pool, but I'm also nuts about the little tyke tearing away on his training-wheeled bicycle. 

November 11, 2005


Why can't this week have an extra day? I'm not ready for the weekend! I have too much to do!

Well, so would you, if you started off with the 11:15 show of Jarhead - a powerful movie that tripped a lot of my issues. And then filled two huge Bean's totes with flotsam from the storage unit. Followed by a leisurely lunch with Ms NOLA, who was taking the day off and who decided that, all in all, she'd be happy to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art afterward. I'd have liked to go to the MoMA, to see the DeKoonings and Pollocks, because I've just read De Kooning's Bicycle - there's a story there, too - and in it Robert Long kindled an interest in Abstract Expressionism that certainly took me by surprise. But there were De Koonings and Pollocks at the Met, too. After a dash through the bookshop to buy a book about David Milne, a Canadian watercolorist who's on display at the moment - what an agreeable surprise, and far more congenial than De Kooning and Pollock - we came back to the apartment for a spot of tea, and now I've got to dress and skedaddle down to St Vincent's for another New York Collegium concert. Brandenburg Concertos, of all things. I'm sure that Mr Parrott and his band will completely refashion them.


First of all, happy birthday to Miss G, who turns thirty-three today. I could do a shtick here, but I won't. The Sunday Styles section has persuaded me that nobody of any intelligence gets married before the age of thirty-five. You laugh at parents who want their children to get married at some point, find a companion and so forth, until you become one yourself. Hell, I'm so obsessed with companionship that I haven't given up on Joe Jervis. Just try to tell me that he isn't trying to look marriageable. Ha! And he's ten years older than my daughter, at least.

In other birthdays... I thought that I'd missed the Daily Blague's first. But, no. This time last year, I was moving from Earthlink to Hosting Matters, and nothing much was happening anywhere. This would have been the DB's first birthday, if Earthlink ran a newer version of Perl. Do I know what I'm talking about? Do I look thirty-three?

A kid ahead of me at Gristede's last night got carded, trying to buy cigarettes. Frankly, I did not think that he looked anywhere near underage. But there's a rule at the Food Emporium downstairs requiring that every purchaser of an alcoholic product - and this includes Angostura Bitters - show proof of age. Me, I'm fifty-seven. Do you think I'm even going to be flattered by your asking me to prove that I'm over twenty-one? No. During a period when I hadn't replaced a stolen driver's license, I had a little talk with the manager before I put the Corona twelve-pack in my basket. He assured me that there would be no problem. And when he showed up at the checkout just when I needed him, and rattled off what I realized was a birthday that happened in 1954, I saw how the system worked. I will henceforth say, "010648," and look keenly at the cashier, daring her to demand proof. All the computer needs is a date. Otherwise, the transaction can't proceed.

When was the last time you were carded?

November 10, 2005

"Coronation Luncheon"

You will hear people say that the fun of owning The Complete New Yorker is in seeing the old advertisements. Certainly the ads make the most immediate impact. In an unchanging magazine, it's the ads that have changed the most. That would probably be true of a publication less resistant to style rethinks than The New Yorker. You won't find any forty-five dollar back-to-college outfits for young ladies at B Altman. You won't find B Altman, period. Vanished brand names continue to reverberate for anyone who heard them in halcyon days. The older you are, the longer your reach into advertising history, and the richer the irony.

But not so fast. Would that the ads were the main attraction! Or even the drawings. Or the news flashes. Or the ongoing excerpts from Finnegan's Wake which ran in the "Goings on about Town" capsule reviews of The Fantasticks. Sadly - sadly for those of us who already have too much to read in too little time, who struggle just to keep up with current issues of the magazine - the writing remains compelling. It was always interesting. The passage of time has only made it moreso.

So buy The Complete New Yorker at your own risk. You may need a second lifetime just to comb it.

There used to be a kind of "Talk of the Town" piece that has long since disappeared. The magazine's anonymous Royal We would attend a publicity event celebrating the launch of some new widget or other, the more humdrum or dubious the better. The organizers would be quoted at just enough length to hang themselves, not to death but to ridicule. Aside from a mild sniff, the narrative tone would be perfectly deadpan. Knowing nothing about publicity, I really wondered why any organization invited the magazine to make fun of it. Didn't they know? Did everyone want some inner Margaret Dumont exposed?

For example, in the August 11, 1962 issue of The New Yorker, there appeared "Coronation Luncheon," written (as we now know but didn't then) by Tom Gorman and Geoffrey T Hillman. It begins,

The dog days matter little to those lucky ones who, like us, get invited to such events as the coronation of the Sandwich Monarch of the Year.

I defy you to type out that sentence without some sort of involuntary chortlement. The piece goes on in a style both zany and anaesthetic,

This singular ceremony, which was held under the auspices of the Wheat Flour Institute, of Chicago, and included the placing of a red velvet crown on the head of Mr Charles E Frowenfeld, general manager of the Brass Rail Restaurants in New York, took place in the unmasterminded Gold Ballroom of the Savoy Hilton.

("Unmasterminded" is a reference to an earlier "Talk" piece in the same issue.)

It was preceded by drinks in the Crystal Room, where Mr Howard Lampman, who is executive director of the Institute, introduced us to Mr A L Powell, director of consumer services of the Pillsbury Company, of Minneapolis, who addressed us in this fashion: "The Institute is the p r arm of the Millers National Federation, a trade organization supported by thousands of milling companies, which for the past twelve years has proclaimed August to be Sandwich Month.

(I hope that you're reading this aloud, to a friend, and trying to keep a straight face.)

It selects the Grand Champion Sandwich of the Year, which is then promoted to beat the band. This year's is called The McIntosh. It consists of - Wait! It's all in here." He handed us a folder entitled, "How to Make the 10 Best Sandwiches of the Year," and in it we read, under "The McIntosh":

  • 12 slices enriched white sandwich bread
  • Mayonnaise or salad dressing
  • Mustard
  • 12 1-ounces slices baked ham
  • 36 to 48 slices McIntosh apples (6 small apples)
  • 24 1-ounce slices process American cheese
  • Spread bread with mayonnaise or salad dressing, then with mustard.
  • Cover each slice with 1 slice ham, 4 slices apple and 2 slices cheese
  • Arrange sandwiches on baking sheet.
  • Broil until cheese melts and is slightly brown.
  • Makes 6 open-faced sandwiches.

(Forgive the bullets, which do not appear in the magazine.) Well, when was the last time you had a Champion McIntosh Sandwich? The piece goes on to describe the McIntosh's competitiors for top slot, the Nutwich and the Baked Crab Alaska. You may have heard the the fashion term, "self-belted." I never know quite what this means, but I'll adapt it anyway. The coronation of the Sandwich Monarch of the Year is self-sending-up. All you have to do is take it down in longhand. Later in the event, We finds himself seated between "two young ladies who looked like princesses." One works the Campbell Soup account at BBD&O. (Remember advertising behemoth Batten, Barton, Durstin & Osborne? A guppy by today's scale.) From her, We learns that the nation consumes thirty-three billion sandwiches a year. We asks how she knows, then turns to the other princess.

"I just happened to be in the building and followed the crowd," she said. "Not bad, is it?"

When lunch is over,

A couple in eighteenth-century British costume, representing the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who was the legendary inventor of the sandwich, and his wife, burst into the room, and manning two microphones on a platform, proceeded to introduce Mr Frowenfeld and the creators of....

I have to lie down now. I am overcome by a strange, anxious dream, in which I'm reading, in some future "Talk of the Town" piece, about the annual convention of The New Yorker Magazine Hobbyists of America, where the mikes are manned by a flock of Eustace Tilleys and oldsters recite News Flashes.

November 09, 2005

This Week's Tune (See right)

When "Mexico" was a big hit on French radio, a certain gentleman in my acquaintance had just been given his first bicycle. The only condition to his free enjoyment of this wonderful acquisition was that, for the time being, it was not be ridden outside the apartment building's courtyard. This was not an unreasonable restriction, given that the gentleman was then about eight or nine years of age, and living in Nizza la bella - Nice.

It must have been the song, blaring from a radio somewhere. Music can be very inspirational, bien sûr! As luck would have it, the boy's father came home from work a little early, one fine day, and encountered his son coasting, hands free, down the street, bellowing Luis Mariano's Mexican yodel.

"It was the only time that he ever punished me."   

Coq au vin

Coq au vin is a favorite dish of mine, and it's perfect for a relatively informal dinner for six. It can be made a day or two ahead of time, which is always great if, like me, you like to cook and you like to serve dinner to friends but you don't like to do both on the same day. Even without having to think of the main dish, I had plenty to do the other night before everyone arrived.  There was the salad of endives, walnuts, and forme d'ambert to prepare for starters, and the chocolate soufflé for dessert. (I started the soufflé before sitting down to the stew.)

The whole point of coq au vin is the soup-sauce in which the chicken braises. For this reason, I serve it with a good, sliced-up baguette. Noodles sound like a good idea, but they don't soak up juices, and rice and potatoes are not much better. It would not be totally insane to strain the dish and discard the solids - so long as you had a good piece of bread.

When I started cooking, coq au vin was, like boeuf bourgignon...

Continue reading about coq au vin at Portico.

November 08, 2005

Free Market Fires

The eruption of violence in France underlines, for me, a real problem with free-market thinking.

The North Africans parents of the rioters emigrated to France because there were jobs. The jobs were not good jobs, but they were better than the jobs at home, and came with much better benefits. Just living in France was a benefit. This much is very clear. Nobody was brought to France as a slave. Well, not so far as I know.

It was piously hoped by the French establishment that these immigrants would assimilate themselves to French culture. It was hoped that they would take care of this on their own, notwithstanding their isolation in grim cités on the outskirts of whatever town you care to name, and the resentment of the lower middle class, which soon came to see Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans as a threat. A threat to something.

You can blame the French lower middle class for xenophobia. You can blame the North Africans for not suppressing their North African customs. These are both cheap wastes of time, but they seem to make people feel good about a bad situation.

Or you can blame the French élite. Here we find the people with the education to foresee problems, the power to take preventive action and - sorry, you libertarians! - the moral responsibility to commit their gifts to the common good. Here, in the land of noblesse oblige, we have the class that reaped the benefits of North African immigration while doing little or nothing to smooth inevitable conflicts between immigrants and locals. The resolution of such conflicts was left to the people least equipped to deal with them.

That, that is the free market way.

November 07, 2005


Every morning, I have a little routine that I call "walking the dog." I check out all of the entries on my "Affinities" list, which, whether you're on the DB's homepage or not, you ought to be be able to see to the left. Partly because I walked the dog last night, after dinner, as a quiet way of unwinding from the weekend's obsession with such expressive prose as

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and partly because I could hardly walk myself to the bathroom (so to speak), I skipped it this morning, zeroing right in, instead, on Opinionistas. Opinionistas - one of the most compelling sites on the Web, if you happen to be an American attorney - is written by a 27 year-old associate at a big Midtown law firm. In it, "O" recreates the soul-crushing atmosphere that makes powerhouse firms so unpleasant to work in. You've heard it all before - the long hours, the suited savagery, the ultimate pointlessness of most of the work - and you've probably responded as one or another of Opinionistas's many commenters has. I don't read the site every day, but I visit once a week, usually to gauge how much worse things are today than they were when Kathleen started out on Wall Street. (In many ways - the work-related ones - not much. In others - psychotic outbursts - rather much.) Lately, "O" has been writing as though it's only a matter of time before she's outed as the author of her widely-read site, and promptly shown the door by her firm. In the Times on Sunday, she went even further, telling reporter Paul Berger that she has received numerous email threats from people who know who she is, "threatening to unmask her."

In the summer of 2004, when I was just beginning to follow blogs, I came across an observation that I've seen borne out time and again. Interestingly, the observation was made in the late Nineties, long before blogging as we know it was common. Here it is: if you're keeping an anonymous blog, assume from the start that everybody is going to find out who you are. The catch, as "O" is finding out, is that when you start keeping a blog, for whatever reason, you hardly expect to be well-known. You may, as "O" was doing, write for the therapeutic benefits of self-expression. Making your journal public increases the therapeutic effect. But it's not a big deal, and you naturally tell a friend or two. Because, if you don't, who's going to read your blog? Or so you think; you don't know that the surest way to find readers is to comment profusely at sites that you like. Even if you did know this, it wouldn't register, because you're just getting some stuff off your chest, not conducting a marketing blitz. You're happy with your circle of ten loyal readers, all whom ring changes on "Hang in there! We love you!"

As it happens, however, Producers-style, you write pretty well. You cover a humiliating episode with suspense and verve, and your ten friends link to ten of their friends. Very quickly, everyone in a situation similar to yours - and, if you're a third-year associate at a big law firm, you've got a potential readership of thousands of similarly-situated miserable but literate young lawyers - everyone in your boat is reading your site. You find yourself, as "O" recently did, overhearing your colleagues speculate about who "you" really are. 

You start thinking of writing a novel, at least partly because you fear that you're going to need a new line of work in the near future. But it needn't come to that. You may have to take a pay cut, and work at a smaller, less hysteria-driven firm, where the partners get along with each other (for the most part) and genuinely foster their associates. You may have to take a job that allows you to like the practice of law, perhaps even to love it. You can tell your new bosses about the Web log on the way in. The only problem is that you may not have anything very exciting to blog about.

Upgrade, concl'd

For weeks now, I've been running at relatively high speed, bounding out of bed in the morning, sometimes in the dark (at least since the time change) to check the stats for this site, buoyed by the fact that the numbers just go up and up. (Many thanks to each and every one of you! I hope that you like it here!) Lately, there has been a nervous edge to my energy, as I've contemplated and then opted for a platform upgrade. Once the upgrade was completed, there were plenty of housekeeping jobs to tackle. The first thing that I had to do was to edit the Index Template, which governs the look of the Daily Blague's home page, and the site's Stylesheet, from the which Template gets all the information that it needs about fonts, colors, borders, and so forth.

The old Stylesheet was seven pages long when printed out in ten-point type. The new one runs to twenty pages, and it doesn't look anything like the old one. Working with it was like taking a very, very bad examination. The difference was that I got to take it over and over again, until, in the manner of Groundhog Day, I passed. The site looked more or less the way it used to look.

Then, on the phone, Ms NOLA asked why I'd changed fonts, and gone for black letters? It was clear that she was seeing the site as it looked before I'd done all my homework. Thing was, she had rebooted her computer earlier in the day, and the DB still looked - strange. I felt a lot worse than strange. Somehow, I had "fixed" things so that the site looked great on my computer, and on my computer only. (You can see what my default settings for disaster-response are.)

But the problem turned out to have a simple solution: reload. (Thanks, Max!) Reload or refresh this page, if you're a regular visitor and you're not seeing a lot of green. At fault here is Lazy Browser Syndrome. Browsers hold stylesheets in their temporary files, and are lazy about checking for changes. Reloading a page forces them to take a closer look. (I don't know if anything that I've said her conforms to digital reality, but that's what it looks like.) So, give your browser a little kick in the seat, and see what happens.

The second task facing me, embodying the whole point of this ordeal, was to adjust the Individual Entry Template - which I think of as "the permalink page," or what you see when you come to the site via Notification or an RSS feed, or maybe just via a link sent to you by a friend - so that it, like the main page, bore a white sidebar, with such important stuff as my picture, my blog roster, "Recent Comments," and all that sort of thing. And my stats counters. As of yesterday, visits that do not include the site's home page will be tallied along with those that do.

The rest of the jobs will have to wait. This morning, I woke to a wall of fatigue so mighty that I couldn't imagine getting out of bed, and, when I did get up, it hurt. It really hurt! I read the Times with something like despair. It wasn't fun to be too pooped to pop, as my mother used to say. But it made sense, and I went along with it. Here I am.

In Her Shoes

Kathleen's review of In Her Shoes: "About ten times better than I thought it would be." Seriously, it's a good movie. In an honest world, Cameron Diaz would get third billing, after Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine. Without those two actresses, her part of the movie would be an insufferable variation on the "spoiled babe grows up" theme. By the time Ms Diaz's Maggie Feller shows a little aptitude for poetry and hard work, your attention has shifted sufficiently to Ms Collette's Rose that you don't mind how easy Maggie's resolution is. Her inspirational scenes with a character known as "The Professor" (Norman Lloyd) were bearable only because I was hoping that Rose and her grandmother, Ella (Ms MacLaine), wouldn't be stuck forever with the care and feeding of a pouty pain in the neck. Coming from a director of Curtis Hanson's capabilities, the dyslexic poetry readings were disappointingly Hollywood.

In a nutshell, In Her Shoes tells the story of sisters who lost their mother to depression in childhood, and, immediately thereafter, their grandmother, who was cut off by a father who disagreed with her about how his wife and her daughter should cope with her disease. Rose, the elder, grows up to be a big-firm associate with no time for love but a killer shoe collection. Maggie, a hopeless narcissist, is scraping bottom when she comes upon birthday cards from her grandmother that had been withheld in her father's desk drawer. (Maggie, needless to say, is rooting for cash.) When an unforgivable betrayal forces Rose to throw Maggie out, Grandma is Maggie's last chance.

Shirley MacLaine made her first movie, Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry, fifty years ago, and so deserves a measure of slack, but she doesn't need it here. Her Ella Hirsch is a calm capable realist who guards her feelings but does not repress them. She knows when to give, and, even better, she knows how. When she catches Maggie rifling through her drawers, looking for money, she comes up with an intelligent business proposition. All of this is interesting because Ms MacLaine manages to deliberate right before your eyes, without making faces. She registers the decision to try to help her new-found granddaughter, and not to kick her out as everyone else in Maggie's life inevitably has done. You come to agree with Maggie and Ella alike, that the girls would have been better off had their grandmother fought harder to stay connected. You even share Ella's real, if low-key, grief and guilt. Ella's scenes are all deeply satisfying.

Toni Collette has a funny face. It is not conventionally beautiful, although it can be caught in momentary beauty. Its worst feature is its liveliness: there isn't an expression that Ms Collette won't throw herself into, no matter how goofy. It is great to see this terrific actress convincingly play a very bright woman, a woman who, unlike so many of Ms Collette's other roles, will not be victimized, will not take the blame for other people's shortcomings. It is also great to see Ms Collette in the hitherto unlikely position of sizing up a man whom she has dismissed and deciding that she really likes him after all. Her scenes with a cynical friend (Brooke Adams) also show the blooming of hopefulness.  

Mark Feuerstein is truly appealing in the role of Simon, the dismissed but reconsidered suitor. Like a true leading man, he makes a calm but resolute claim on your attention, and Mr Hanson gives him plenty of opportunity to do so. I look forward to his next film (something called Shut Up and Sing, apparently). Mark Isham's score, as always, is just right.

November 06, 2005

Book Review

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

Fiction this week is not very alluring. I must confess to a dislike of any literature that remotely partakes of "magic realism." This renders me unfit to say anything about Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel García Marquez, except that I'm not going to read it. Terrence Rafferty's review is somewhere between enthusiastic and respectful. At least in Bliss Broyard's account, Benjamin Markovits's novel, Fathers and Daughters would not be a book to look forward to if it were in my pile. Mr Markovits uses the story of Lot's wife to consider "how candidly we're willing to look at ourselves and the people close to us, whether we're helped or hurt by such frank appraisals." A real question for rude, self-regarding people, perhaps, but not an issue that comes up for me. Sarah Hall's The Electric Michelangelo doesn't come across very well either. Reviewer Susan Cokal writes,

The sheer scope of years covered in any bildungsroman can make dramatic tension difficult to sustain. Perhaps as a result, Hall's novel is short on event and long on exposition; it shows, but it tells far more.

Scott Turow - not on my list - has come out with something a little different, an intergenerational tale of a judge advocate general who manages to get court-martialed during the Battle of the Bulge, and his son's search for the truth. Joseph Kanon takes the opportunity to hail Mr Turow as "a bourgeois writer in the best sense of the word - his work is grounded in faithfully depicted realism." I'll take note. (This is not one of the Book Review's better weeks.) Finally - as if in counterpoint to Mr Rafferty's review, Lenora Howard weighs Shorts, a collection of stories by Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet (translated by Ezra E Fitz) and finds it wanting. Mr Fuguet has publicly repudiated the "boom" project of the older, now vanishing school of advanced Latin American novelists; he is much concerned with the difficulties of interaction with the North Americans. If this is a challenge to Mr García Marquez, it is not a success.

I'm tempted to claim that I found all the non-fiction titles so interesting that you'll have to wait for me to read them first. (The only books that get coverage in this space are the one's that I'm not going toread.) It has been a grinding weekend (I really do hope that this is not coming to you in Times New Roman), and I'd rather be reading Bait and Switch, which I've finally got round to. In fact, however, there are only three books that I can honestly claim to look forward to. They are Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (reviewed by Civil War historian James M McPherson); On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, by William B. Irvine (Kathryn Harrison); and America's Constitution: A Biography, by Akhil Reed Amar. As previously announced, I am not buying any more books for a while, so I can't promise to read these, but I'll be happy if somebody gives one to me for my birthday (6 January). The remaining fourteen are all off. Here's why, in one sentence or less:

¶ Reviewer William Saletan claims that John B Eisenberg, author of Using Terri: The Religious Right's Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights, and briefly a lawyer in the case, is just as guilty of using the late Ms Schiavo as his targets are.

¶ According to musician Greg Sandow, Edmund Morris shouldn't be writing about music, much less trying to make the case for Beethoven.

¶ Funny man Henry Alford fails to make The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman, sound like something that I need as long as I've already got Our Dumb Century.

¶ According to reviewer Bryan Burrough, Louis Freeh's My FBI: Bringing Donw the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror (with Howard Means) is not the serious book that we had a right to expect but surprisingly "low-cal."

One feels bad criticizing a man who dedicated himself so selflessly to public service. The truth is, the nation could use more people like Louis Freeh. But that can't obscure the fact that in the end Freeh's best wasn't good enough, and neither, sadly, is his book.

¶ According to Douglas Brinkley, James R Hansen's First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong is about the celebrated astronaut. While I believe in the importance of a space-exploration program, I personally hate to fly.

¶ Local son Robert Long has written a book about the artists who made the Hamptons interesting as well as glamorous, De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons. I would read this book, but only if asked to do so. Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart covered this territory well enough for me.

Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v Gore, by James T Patterson, is per se premature, notwithstanding Charles Peters's welcoming review. 

Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Lewis Stevenson, by Claire Harman, is a book that I'm just not ready for. A fan of A Child's Garden of Verses, I never read anything else by this interesting man. Under the circumstances, reading a biography would be ghoulish.

Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America, by Scott Poulson-Bryant, really is about penis length. Is anybody ready for a book about this tragic subject? The review is fun, sort of, with gay novelist E Lynn Harris skirting the perils of writing about men sizing up one another's dicks (I'm sorry!) for a "family newspaper." I don't know whether to laugh or run screaming from the room.

¶ Jerome Karabel's The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton doesn't, at least according to David Brooks's review, add much to a spate of interesting articles that have appeared in Harper's, The Atlantic, and, most scorchingly, The New Yorker.

¶ Vikram Seth's memoir of an uncle who married a German Jew and settled down in England, Two Lives, probably does not deserve to be in this space. I have nothing to say against it. (I've read reviews other than Pankaj Mishra's and been piqued.) Don't be surprised if you find me writing about this down the road. But so far down the road that I can't count the intervening pages.

¶ Leo Damrosch's Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius may be a worthwhile study, but it's about the man whom I would place, if I were Dante, at the Very Bottom. Rousseau had a genius for telling rich and idle people what they wanted to hear. I have always been amazed by his renown.

Dean and Me: (A Love Story), By Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan, reviewed by Stephanie Zacharek.

Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals, by Robert M Sapolsky, is perhaps something that I ought to read, Jamie Shreeve's appealing review tells me. But I don't want to. I don't like my primate cousins much, and I think it's odd that they're sources of insight about human nature. What was anybody thinking, that studying chimps might correct?

A trifle dyspeptic, I confess. But the Book Review was a slog this weekend, and I didn't finish reading it until this morning. Characteristic of the flavor of this edition is Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Political Fictions," about novels written by politicians. I beg you. 

Season of Pea-Soup


When I woke up at five, this view didn't even exist. (For a view of the tall slab of brick that is Leighton House, scroll down a bit to the next image.) Looking down into the intersection of 87th Street and First Avenue, I could see the lights over a few doorways and the neon signs at Radio Shack, all very muted. Fogs like this don't roll in very often, so I'm crazy about them when they do - and glad that I'm not flying anywhere. Glad that no one else is flying, either, because when the air is this humid, the racket of reversed engines at LaGuardia would be intolerable, if there were any.

There was a spectacular fireworks display last night. We don't have them at this time of year very often, either, and I chuckled when I looked at the clock on the screen and saw that it was only seven-thirty - two hours later than the Fourth of July show begins. I didn't see the display, because I was too busy working on this site's templates. But I liked hearing the noise.

Just as I'll like hearing the noise of - oh, my God: the Marathon! The fog will probably burn off by then. It probably wouldn't get in the way of the race even now. The sound of the crowd lining First Avenue would strike you as very peculiar if you didn't know what was causing it. It's actually never the sound of a crowd, but rather than of a lot of individuals, the noise version of Thomas Tallis's "Forty-Part Motet" ("Spem in alium") sung with one voice per part. The cheering comes and goes as by now somewhat widely-spaced runners appear. (I believe that the corner of First Avenue and 86th Street is some nineteen miles into the run.) It starts sooner than you think it will, for the disabled contestants in their wheelchairs and handcarts, and it lasts much, much longer.

To avoid tangling with the Marathon crowd, I went to Agata & Valentina (79th and First) yesterday, and found that Kathleen was absolutely right: A & V is going to occupy the old bank on the other side of 79th Street, a building that most recently housed a merchant of objets de vertu. They'll use it as their "food court," of all things, a place to sell prepared dishes. This will presumably open up the space at the existing store, which has already undergone at least one major expansion. The new facility is set to open today, I wonder why.

When I had finished making the Daily Blague's front page look more or less like what it used to look like before I prematurely "refreshed" the site's templates, I turned to what I call the "permalink page" - what you see when you visit the site via a permalink - and it looked like hell. It was readable, but it had the look and feel of some member of the pajamahideen's desk, complete with the remains of yesterday's sandwich and last month's PC Gamer. For about an hour, I couldn't even grasp why it looked so bad. Lisa, of MovableType tech support, had already let me know that she was done for the weekend, so I knew that the panic button wouldn't work until Monday, and this was oddly tantamount to having pushed it. My thoughts began to gather coherently. I recalled a few things from my exchange of email with Lisa over the past two weeks, went back and located them, and in Tom Sawyer fashion I soon had the Individual Entry Archive where I wanted it to be. Far sooner that I'd dreamed, the permalink page had all the features that I'd undergone the upgrade in order to allow it to have.


"It'll probably all fall down by lunch time" - Sybil Fawlty ("The Builders")

November 05, 2005

Upgrade, cont'd

If you're a regular reader of the Daily Blague and have a taste for very cheap entertainment, then tune in from time to time this weekend to watch the gradual restoration of the site's look and feel. As of this writing, I have restored my links and stats counters, and the color of the banner's background. Now I must go lie down.

Not that this will mean anything to you, but the old MT stylesheet was six pages long. The new one is twenty pages long. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that I got familiar with stylesheets four or so years ago.

Lisa, at MT tech support, has been a marvel of patience. I wonder if she's on to me yet. Facing a new problem, I am utterly bewildered. I cry home for help. Having sent that message, I proceed to think more clearly. It's as though I can tackle problems only after punching the panic button. So, if I were Lisa, I'd say, "let's give the old duffer a little time; he'll figure it out on his own." This is true in four cases out of five.

November 04, 2005

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness


It's been a while since I was up at an hour to take this photograph. To be awake enough to take it, that is.

It's another lovely day. I've got a Remicade infusion in the middle of the afternoon, and I'm happy to say that I feel as though I don't need it. That's the idea. I have a friend who also takes the drug - he's getting an infusion himself, today, as it happens, but at a different place. Because he worries about becoming resistant to Remicade, he spaces his infusions more widely than comfort would dictate, and endures about a week of feeling wretched before each refill. It's true that he's much younger than I am, and has a longer dependency to look forward to.

Nicholas Lemann explains the Judith Miller case in the current New Yorker. I must say that I was puzzled when the Times sprang to the defense of a reporter who seemed to have lost her credibility, and gallantly pumped out editorials urging her release from jail. Well, good for the Times. But Mr Lemann makes it pretty clear that Ms Miller went to jail not in defense of the First Amendment but in order to protect Team Cheney. Glad I never really felt sorry for her.

The Shakespeare Hour

Among the many positive consequences of having declared running this and my other sites as my Day Job, I now enjoy a vastly increased executive authority. When I make decisions, they are duly carried out by - me. The difference between a vocation and an avocation is you can concentrate on the aspects of an avocation that appeal to you, and neglect as much as you can of the rest. Vocations are much sterner.

So, when I decided that it was part of my day job to spend an hour a week reading Shakespeare, this hour had to be scheduled and then honored. Owing to the turbulence of start-up, I had my hour of Shakespeare yesterday afternoon, and not on Monday. (Monday is an idiotic choice, because I'm usually cooking dinner for Ms NOLA and M le Neveu. Perhaps Thursday is the right day after all.) Happily, I didn't have to decide what Shakespeare to read; I've been stalled in the middle of Troilus and Cressida for an embarrassingly long time. I have never read this play before, and I don't know the story line. It's primarily known, I think, for a speech that occurs in the first act that outlines Shakespeare's conservative political outlook.

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center

Observe degree, priority, and place.

Institute, course, proportion, season, form,

Office, and custom, in all line of order.

And therefore is the glorious planet Sol

In noble eminence enthroned and sphered

Amidst the other; whose med'cinable eye

Corrects the influence of evil planets...


                           O, when degree is shaked,

Which is the ladder of all high designs,

The enterprise is sick. How could communities,

Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,

Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,

The primogenity and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,

But by degree, stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows.

The whole speech, delivered by Ulysses, gives concise expression to a completely vanished world-view, one based equally upon a mistaken cosmology and upon the bootstrapped authority of a Supreme Being and Its representatives on earth (kings and the pope). The references to music show that Shakespeare understood Platonic ideas of mathematical harmony.

But monologues are easier to digest than dramatic passages in Elizabethan English.

PANDARUS How now, how now, how go maidenheads? Here, you maid, where's my cousin Cressid?


Go hang yourself, you naughty mocking uncle.

You bring me to do - and then you flout me too.

Pandarus To do what? To do what? Let her say what. What have I brought you to do?


Come, come, beshrew your heart! You'll ne'er be good.

Nor suffer others.

Pandarus Ha ha! Alas, poor wretch! A poor capocchia! Hast not slept tonight? Would he not - ah, naughty man - let it sleep? A bugbear rake him!

Happily, the boss says that I don't have to try explain this to you. He says that Shakespeare is not the point of this entry. The difficulty of reading Shakespeare is. My, we are rusty.

I asked one of my literate French correspondents if he reads Montaigne in the original French. Not at all, he replied. Montaigne in the original is unreadable. Here's a random sample from "De l'inconstance de nos actions."

Encore que je sois tousjours d'advis de dire du bien le bien, et d'interpreter plustost en bonne part les choses qui le peuvent estre, si est-ce que l'estrangeté de nostre condition porte que nous soyons souvent par le vice mesmes poussez à bien faire, si le bien faire ne se jugeoit pas la seule intention.

Well, not unreadable perhaps, but no picnic, either. My point is that, although Shakespeare's English is only a little more recent than Montaigne's French, it remains canonical. Fewer people in every successive generation, I am sure, are comfortable with Shakespeare's idiom; fluency with the Bard is certainly no longer the badge of educated literacy that it used to be. Worried that I might be slipping into incomprehension, the boss decided that the writer of this blog must refresh his acquaintance with the source.

I am not a Shakespeare enthusiast, by the way. I have read one or two biographies, and I have a clutch of critical studies, the most recent by Frank Kermode. I have visited Stratford-upon-Avon, but it was not my idea. I absolutely decline to entertain the authorship debate, and I am not curious about "what Shakespeare was like." Contact with his texts, however, is always revitalizing.

I expect to finish Troilus and Cressida during my next hour with Shakespeare. Then I'll have to decide what's next. Please send any suggestions to the boss, for his okay.

November 03, 2005

Rufus Wainwright at the Beacon Theatre

Someday, I hope to see Rufus Wainwright give a concert at Carnegie Hall, with no special lighting effects and no amplification, except maybe just for him and the backup vocals. I want to hear what he has put on his CDs, only live.

What I don't want is to hear Rufus when he is singing for the second night in a row. Last night, I heard, he claimed to have a cold. But he was in good voice tonight, except for his top. We're talking opera problems. The boy needs his sleep, just like all the other High Caesars. His singing three encores, the last of which was the hardly undemanding "Beautiful Child," made me almost cross.

Do you think I'm disappointed? Don't be daft. I'm just moving some criticism up front to control the gushing. It was great to hear him run through so many of the songs that I've gotten to know quite well lately. It was great. It was great. It was - I don't know how to write about rock concerts, because the quality of the sound is always so much worse than it is on recordings. When I go to a classical concert, I listen for the things that don't come across on recordings. The moments of excitement that you have to see, feel, breathe. Rock concerts impose huge compromises on the charts and then turn up the amps, drowning out most of the fine lines. At the risk of sounding like Margaret Dumont, I beg Rufus to take his taste for opera more seriously. Keep the amps if he must, but turn them down. "Inner voices"!

So the pleasure of hearing songs that I love sung in the same room by their creator was dampened by the dumbings-down that rock tradition requires. I expected this, however. I haven't forgotten the first big rock concert that I ever went to; it put me off such events for years. (Maria Muldaur in 1974, I think it was. The old Houston Coliseum - is it still there? "Midnight at the Oasis" - obliterated by noise.) I didn't go to this evening's concert to appreciate Mr Wainwright's art. I did want to hear him sing in the same room, yes, but as happens in the vocal world, he was suffering adversities and did not sound his best. Still think I'm disappointed? Only insofar as I didn't hear anything I hadn't heard before. But setting music aside, it was a gripping evening. I got to see Rufus with his public. That's almost a little too exciting.

In interview after interview (not that I'm reading them all under a hair drier), Mr Wainwright claims to be incapable of attaching himself to someone else for the medium-long term. This worries me. He needs a lot of protection, and not the kind that you pay for. He may be our best look at Mozart's life. It's obvious that he was a precocious little musician who learned very early that performance was a safe ticket to approbation, whereas talking - words - could get him into trouble. So, like some other loquacious little boys that I've known, he spoke at the speed of light and tried to fit four paragraphs into one sentence. For all his flamboyance, I think that he is quite shy. But as for tormented childhood, "Dinner at Eight" aside, I think that his - before puberty, that is - must have been full of extraordinary fun. He and his sisters had to have put on great little entertainments. We had one of them tonight. It was a riot. It was a diet. "The Old Whore's Diet" - a song that may take some listeners a while to like, because it's built on the Bolero model. A little bit of material is stretched to its maximum elasticity. In the middle of the recorded song, at the end of Want Two, there's a moody gypsy violin solo. During this solo - did I neglect to say that it was presented as the last number of the concert? (which it was not by any means) - most of the performers, including Mr Wainwright, left the stage. Presently they reappeared in white robes, suitable for Baptism. They arranged themselves in formation and proceeded to imitate (mock) every backup dance group, every black girl group, and every June Taylor Dancer, with their arms. It was very funny, but it was not as campy as some might have thought it; rather, it was the ridicule of children. Rufus got his ensemble to put on a show for the grown-ups, and they complied winningly. At the heart of the luxuriant decadence of Rufus Wainwright, there is a quick little boy who has known how to work a crowd since he was seven, and possibly younger.

And that's very appealing. There is nothing like an old pro who happens to be under thirty-five.

What I took away from this evening's concert was a pleasant sense that Rufus Wainwright, the performer, is still a child prodigy. Rufus Wainwright, the composer, as I already knew - and despite his dishy protestations - is very much a man. It's time for the man to make sure that the child gets his rest.  

PS The last time I went to the Beacon Theatre, it was a dump. That can't have been too long ago - the Bonnie Raitt/Keb' Mo' tour. The place was Dinge City. Mais voilà! The gilt has been regilded, the lobby is grand, the seats have been replaced, and everything has been restored to spiffitude.

PPS Regina Spektor opened the concert. She is an extremely good pianist with a compositional style that it will require further hearings to appraise - typical for me. Don't count on me to spot geniuses! She has a nice voice; its combination of timbres reminded me hugely of Stacy Kent, despite all the differences in material. Ms Spektor's song, "Wallet," is immediately affecting. Ms NOLA was quite taken with her. My response was positive, but taken under advisement.

PPPS Rufus did throw us a nice dog bone: "It's nice to be home."

November 02, 2005

Memo to Ms NOLA


Can you wait? I can't.


If the Daily Blague vanishes from your computer in the next couple of days, that's because I've signed up for an upgrade. The gifted technical folks at MovableType will take care of it - provided that I can understand their requests. MovableType is afflicted with multiple personalities. The tech support is super; I have been bailed out of every problem I've encountered by patient, good-humored women (I don't recall dealing with a gent). But the latest go-round has made me wonder if the reason I've needed tech support in the first place isn't the grimly uncommunicative prose of its manuals and bulletins. These make grammatical sense but convey nothing to the uninitiated. Whoever's in charge of writing English at MovableType ought to be fired, yesterday. MovableType already has a great product; now it ought to work on its partnership with its customers.

Another Souvenir Altogether


Art by Jeff Steinberg for the American Postcard Co

The Sanguine State

Women often complain that men don't notice things - meaning small but momentarily important things. Although I notice more than most women, even, I think that they're right about the run of men. For a long time, I thought that masculine inattentiveness was conditioned by taboo: boys who notice things are likely to regarded as sissies. But it can't just be that, I thought the other day. Most boys are hugely egocentric, and don't notice anything beyond their own immediate interest. Surely they're not conditioned by taboo; they never need to be.

So I asked myself, what are men paying attention to? (Bear in mind that what follows is more a bit of creative writing than a scientific hypothesis.) That question soon lost priority to another: what makes a man who doesn't pay attention to the small things pay attention to the outside world at all? Here's my highly imaginative and thoroughly unsupported non-thesis.

It's long been a hunch of mine that baseball cards and other collectibles tell us something about the masculine psyche. As adults, men replace these items with memories, but they arrange their memories with equal care. Arranging and  rearranging memories is an endless pastime. "I came out well in that encounter." "Don't want to go there again." Many expectations are really nothing but projected memories. "It happened to him, it could happen to me." The rearrangement is important because it's from this activity that a man can infer his place in the pecking order - he certainly doesn't want to be told. So he's sizing himself up all the time. This gives him the appearance, if looked at from a certain angle, of insecurity, but it's not that really. Nothing, after all, is secure. Call this state of mind, rather, hedging. Keeping the bases covered. (Whatever that means; I have no business using sports metaphors. Now PPOQ will post one of his scathing comments in order to tell me what "covering the bases" entails, but, dearest, let me remind you: it will go in one ear and out the other.)

A man who routinely passes his free time hedging needs a mental appliance that will alert him to the need to pay attention to the outer world. It's actually the sign of a man's security if such alerts are rare. The man may be a fool, but he's secure. An insecure man is always switching between the two states, hedging and observing. The only reason that I'm not a nervous wreck is that I don't hedge at all, so I don't have to be alerted. I was too tall and too odd too young to worry about my place in the pack. I didn't have any place in the pack. I was something of a rogue elephant, "exiled," according to the dictionary, "from the herd."

That's just what makes this matter so interesting to me now. I always knew that I was different, but like most young creatures I was too preoccupied by my own problems to devote much attention to the inner lives of other people. (I worked my way back into the herd, but on a Green Card.) One of the fruits of late middle age is the tranquility to be openly curious. So it occurs to me to ask, what's going on in the head of the other guy in the elevator? Assuming that he's not overburdened by care and woe - and that he's not wondering the same thing about me - what sort of thing is going on? What does consciousness feel like, when it's not tied to observing the condition of the elevator cabin and the state of its occupants? Since I'll never know empirically, I have to come up my own answer, and this is what I've come up with.

Experience sets the inner alarm system. Some men will always sense what they need to sense without suffering any harm, while others will be on the alert all the time. The difference between being on the alert and noticing things is that noticing things is non-committal; nothing's at stake. That's why most men don't notice the little things: they don't need to, and not noticing leaves them free to pursue their favorite pastime in a sanguine state.

November 01, 2005

Playing with the Switches

Eventually, the breathless phase of genetics publicity will peter out, as more and more people - victims of illness, certainly - learn how hugely complicated the interaction of genes is. What do genes do, actually? Well, they trigger the production of proteins, and the body either changes or maintains accordingly. Until recently, it was thought that only a small percentage of our genome was still functional, because most genes don't trigger protein production in a body-building way. For a while, these "non-coding" genes were dismissed as "Junk DNA," leftovers from evolution. Now they're understood to be switches that activate or deactivate the genes that do produce protein. Tracking down the secrets of this ballet will make finding "the gene for blue eyes" seem like a kindergarten game.

A few weeks ago, H Allen Orr published an article in The New Yorker, "Is evolution facing a revolution?" that is not, unfortunately, online. Such a revolution, spearheaded by evolutionary developmental theorists (hence "evo devo") would account for the staggering similarity of genes from across species lines by highlighting the role that the "non-coding" genes play as switches. It is an elegant solution to be sure.

Evo devo's emphasis on switch-throwing represents a profound departure from evolutionary biology's long obsession with genes. Animal evolution works not so much by changing genes, Carroll maintains, but by changing when and where a conserved set of genes is expressed. In the lingo, evolution is regulatory (involving patterns of gene expression), not structural (involving the precise proteins coded by genes). ... Evo devo tells us that animal species look different not because their structual bits and pieces have changed but because they switch on and off the same old bits and pieces in different combinations. Roughly speaking, then, penguins and people differ for the same reason you pancreas and eye differ: they're expressing different genes.

If evo-devo is right, then it's going to be a long, hard slog to identifying the "genetic" causes of just about everything. There's an infinite-regression headache, too: non-coding genes throw their switches, presumably, at the instruction of other thrown switches.

In any case, it was with a deep chuckle that I came across a review, in the current Wilson Quarterly, of a study (conducted by political scientists, no less) of the genetic consequences of political orientation. Thanks to the miracle of twins, you don't have to be a biologist to romp in the fields of genetic extrapolation. Because twins share the same DNA, any difference between them must be attributed to something other than inheritance. Comparing differentials between twins with those of the general public ought to tell you something about the role that genetics has to play. Right? Well, not hardly. Because it is possible that certain switches are thrown by environmental factors - disease, perhaps, or fetal trauma. Bingo: not the same DNA anymore! But even aside from this objection, there's the apples-and-oranges aspect of trying to link up ultra-precise biological blueprints with the fuzzballs of political discourse. How do you frame meaningful questions for such an experiment? The review doesn't give any examples, but I don't think that it's possible to shortcut arduous physical research with such quickie "studies." And, oh, the loose talk about "blue state genes" that this could give rise to! A little knowledge is truly a dangerous thing.

And, yes, I understand that all knowledge is little.