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December 31, 2005

The Family Stone

When you see the print ad for Thomas Bezucha's The Family Stone, with its seven principals, after seeing the movie, you might want to suggest a rethink. Actors Tyrone Giordano and Brian White may not be as famous as any of the movie stars in the ad, but their contribution to the film is enormous. (So is that of Elizabeth Reaser.) I haven't read every review of this movie, but I don't recall reading in any of them that, of the five Stone children, one is both deaf and gay, and that his lover is black. The detail might strike you as decorative or trendy, but in fact the relationship occasions the story's moment of disaster, after which all the pretences set up in the earlier part of the film are shaken to pieces and the ground is cleared for a better ending than might have been imagined. This occurs at the dinner table - the only such scene in this Christmas-family-reunion movie. Thad (Mr Giordano) and Patrick (Mr White) are hoping to adopt a baby boy. Meredith Barton (Sarah Jessica Parker) - at this moment apparently destined to be Thad's sister-in-law - proceeds from wondering if the men are afraid of transmitting their sexual orientation to asserting, even more boorishly, that no parent could ever want a child to grow up homosexual.

Like Diane Keaton's Sybil (Thad's mother), you want to kill her, if only for her tactlessness. It must be conceded that Meredith has a point. Until very recently, it is unlikely that there were many parents who were happy that their children were homosexual. They might be happy that their children had found happiness with a good partner, but what loving parent could be happy about the burdens and disadvantages that society heaps upon its misfits. The Family Stone, if nothing else, stands for the proposition that homosexuals are not misfits - period - and this is where Mr Giordano and Mr White work their magic. Their characters are so obviously not misfits. Patrick is a black man in a white home, and Thad speaks with the alien accent and intonation of the deaf, but both belong to the Family Stone as much as anyone does, to the point of not being particularly special. (A fine touch in this film is the apparent artlessness with which family members sign while they talk.) Amy (Rachel McAdams), the "mean" Stone, took "years," according to Thad, to accept Patrick, but the fact is that she has accepted him; that's over and done with.

When the movie was over, I was running over, but I had nothing to say, even to myself, about what the movie was like. It took a while to return to normal, and, when I did, I saw that The Family Stone has captured the spirit of crisis and misadventure that afflicts every family when a prospective addition is introduced during the holidays. The film is funny and tart, and it is certainly recognizable as a romantic comedy from Hollywood. But the actors who play the eight Stones, the two Bartons, and the lovelorn ex all work hard and successfully to spike the proceedings with that special terror that we experience whenever our intimate lives are ruffled. The actors look no more and no less like each other than actors usually do, but the illusion of a genuine Family Stone is very convincing. I felt like the one who heard all about it later.

December 30, 2005

Recapturing the Past


The photograph above, André Kertész's New York, 1954, may be the only photograph reprinted in Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment that I recognized, immediately, as a scene, and not as a photograph that I had seen before. The figure at the right, casting a long, wintry shadow, is standing on the John Finley Walk, by the East River. The massive building in the distance is New York Hospital, still standing but obscured from this vantage by many intervening taller buildings. The building beyond the nearer figure's head is 1 East End Avenue, a grand old co-op. I was puzzled by the picture, because 1 East End seemed to be standing where the highway ought to be. I was forgetting the curvature of the island at this point.

An attentive viewer of New York, 1954 who hadn't stood on this spot might have been greatly puzzled by the span stretching over the walk, parallel to the Queensborough Bridge in the distance. What is it part of? Another bridge, perhaps? An elevated subway line? And while it is easy to tell that the East River runs far below the walkway, it is not at all clear why that should be so. Kertész must have been tickled by the mildly inexplicable elements of his image. He could have cleared things up a bit by entitling the picture, Beneath the Brearley School Playground, 1954. For that's what the span is: one of four roughly equal sides of a rectangular level, reachable from the second floor of the Brearley School (girls K-12; Kathleen went to high school here), and still in use, I suppose, even though Brearley shares a nearby field house.

In 1954, the Walk was rather new. Now it's over fifty years old, and you can tell that from my photograph, taken yesterday in very different weather.


Those delicate "x"s have been obscured by some sort of bunting, and the view is further spoiled by a works site farther along the walk, where an adjacent building is having its balconies coped with metal, to prevent chips of cement from falling upon innocent heads.

It was my job yesterday to buy caviar for New Year's Eve at Agata & Valentina, where the quality is good and the prices are low - well, low enough for this neighborhood. I had already lugged a big shopping bag of stuff home from Eli's. The sensible thing would have been to walk along 79th Street from Third Avenue to First, where Agata is, but I didn't like the thought of lugging a big Eli's shopping bag through Agata & Valentina where all I would be buying would be tiny tins of caviar. I prefer to deceive each store's personnel into thinking that I'm loyal to its establishment. Don't I wish I could be, too. But there are lots of things that one store sells that the other doesn't. For example, frozen croissants and hors d'oeuvres. Like everything at Eli's, they're a bit overpriced, but they're also fantastic. Although I can't get M le Neveu to get beyond the pigs-in-blankets. Ms NOLA always takes pity on him and lets him have hers; it's a free country. With luck, or at least scheduled flights flying on schedule, the four of us will be together to ring in the New Year.

So I brought home the big bag of Eli's stuff - cheeses, crackers, San Francisco salamis, and a chicken pot pie for dinner tonight - and put everything away. Setting out again, I was still in the driveway when I remembered that I wanted to see what goes into Lobster Newburg, which I'm thinking of fixing for New Year's Eve. On my way back upstairs, I remembered, too, that I wanted to see Kertész's view for myself. I grabbed the camera for good measure.


Here is the Brearley School, sort of. It's obviously a reflection of the building in a puddle, flipped both ways. I hope it doesn't make you seasick. Perhaps Kathleen will post a comment, sharing her first-day feeling of going to a women's prison; my photograph captures something of that, I think.

You can see the playground's upper fencing at the lower left. I apologise for all the brown dog-bones of cheap repaving fixes. Like most park walks in New York, this one is "tiled" with asphalt hexagons. They wear out pretty quickly. If I were Geoff Dyer, I might call attention to the brown spot that appears to be an illuminated lamppost. Sitting down to write about The Ongoing Moment, I saw right away that I must first re-read Susan Sontag's On Photography, paying closer attention this time. One of Sontag's six chapters is devoted to the impact of Surrealism upon photography, which, I now see, was enormous. Sadly, Surrealism has always been, for me, a matter of paintings by de Chirico and Magritte, and the sliced eye in Un chien andalou. I have never taken it very seriously. I thought that it intended not to be taken seriously, but in that I was incorrect.

Click here to see the original image, full-size.

December 29, 2005

A Night Out

Kathleen couldn't find her cell phone, so we decided that trying to meet on the Upper West Side without a restaurant in mind was a bad idea. It would be better if she came home after the doctor's appointment and we went to dinner from there. She walked in just as I was buckling my belt; I had finished writing just in time. We still didn't have a restaurant, but I remembered that the last time that we went to the Blue Note, we had dinner at Ennio and Michael, an Italian restaurant in LaGuardia Place, right around the corner from the jazz club. Not only did they take my reservation for a table in half an hour, but we were actually there in half an hour. Sometimes the FDR is the only way to go, even if you do have to drive all the way across Manhattan at its widest to get to Greenwich Village.

At a quarter past nine, we were in line outside the Blue Note, not far from the head. We were even closer after a woman from the club culled people who didn't have reservations. It wasn't very cold, and the rain that was already falling in New Jersey hadn't reached Manhattan (it would arrive much later, long after we were tucked in), so we had no complaints. "Oh, that's where the IFC is," I said, noting the marquee across Sixth Avenue, and wondering if you can still change at 51st Street for a train that will take you to West Fourth. 

At about ten, they let us in, and, not surprisingly, we got ringside seats. Boy, the place looked scrubbed. Kathleen attributed the clean feel to the same factor that had struck her at the Village Vanguard: no smoke. But it seemed like more than that to me. I'd have said that the entire place had been refurbished after the Mayor's smoking ban. True, it had been a while since our last visit. But I think that the Japanese who run the place (don't they?) have simply cleaned it up. There was a Japanese couple seated next to us. The gentleman was very tired, and actually rested his head on the table from time to time before the set began. But for the most part the room really did look and - more important - sound like a night club. But for the attire, the place sparkled. The Blue Note sparkling? It used to be so ... college.

We were there to hear Cassandra Wilson, who's singing at the Blue Note through New Year's Eve. Kathleen and I were slow to warm to the charms of this great blues singer; it took "The Weight," on Belly of the Sun, to win us over, but won over we were, Kathleen especially. Ms Wilson uses her bottomlessly dusky voice to deconstruct her material; she can make a standard sound completely unfamiliar, singing it as if it were jazz recitative. The effect is earthily meditative: if Ms Wilson were a Wagnerian, she'd be a great Erda. As it is, she reminds me of a completely unleashed Carmen McRae. The more I talk about Cassandra Wilson, the higher the contradictions and paradoxes are going to pile up, so I'd better move on to her great backup, which has a Latin tightness even when the rhythms are pure Delta. It is also colorful, especially since Gregoire Maret added his harmonica to the blend. Bass player Reginald Veal, percussionist (!) Jeffrey Haynes, and guitarists Brandon Ross and Marvin Sewell made a fine blues band. Here's the Muddy Waters number, "Honey Bee," that opened the set.

December 28, 2005

Reading Black Mischief

Starting on Friday, I'll be reading Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief online, at Good For You. It has been in my pile for some time, always passed over in favor of something else. A lamentable side-effect of relentless blogging is a focus on the timely, or at least upon the recent, and my contact with the classics (which Good For You was supposed to ensure) has suffered.

This is not a group read, exactly, but you're welcome to read along and to comment, either or both, as always.

Meme of Four

Having followed the recent rash of "Meme of Four" postings with avid interest, and finding myself in the middle of several pages with nothing quite ready for publication, I have decided to jump on for a free ride - with commentary. The number four poses interesting problems of scarcity and superfluity.

¶ Four jobs that I have had: I have not had four jobs. I was a summer clerk at the Bank of New York in the Sixties, a radio announcer and music programmer in the Seventies, and a paralegal and a lawyer in the Eighties. None of them meant nearly as much to me as the current uncompensated position whose job description I'm making up as I go along.

¶ Four movies that I could watch over and over: This is a tough one. There are dozens of movies that I do watch over and over. Every once in a while, in the kitchen, I watch a movie again right away. I'm going to give two sets, funny and not funny. Funny: Something's Gotta Give, Le Divorce, What's Up, Doc? and The Awful Truth. Not funny: Dolores Claiborne, The Gift, Runaway Jury, and The Road to Perdition.

¶ Four places I have lived: Once again, I don't quite meet the mark. I grew up in Bronxville, New York, which is a suburb sixteen miles from Times Square. Is that so different from living in Manhattan? Yes and no. Whenever I traveled as a youth, I would say that I was from New York, and my interlocutor would say, "But you don't sound like you come from Noo Yawk." In between Bronxville and Yorkville, I've lived in Notre Dame, Indiana (it has its own Zip code) and Houston, Texas.

¶ Four TV Shows that I love to watch. Not applicable.

¶ Four places that I've visited on vacation: The most recent hits, all of which I'd like to revisit, are London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Istanbul, but now that I think of it, Kathleen wasn't on vacation in three of them. I'm looking forward to Dorado Beach in a couple of months. That's in Puerto Rico. But the important thing to know, since it's not where you travel but how you travel, is that staying home is my idea of roughing it. What I really want from travel is a little bit of the ancien régime.

¶ Four Web sites that I visit daily. Now that would be a great way to get into trouble. See the list of eighteen blogs to the left. I visit all of them every weekday.

¶ Four places I'd rather be. See above.

¶ Four of my favorite foods: Fried chicken, spaghetti alla carbonara, spring rolls, and just about any cheese.

¶ Four places I would rather be. I am too old for this question; I am simply glad to be alive.

December 27, 2005

Our Christmas

Here's hoping that everybody's Christmas was warm and tonic, free of all the arguments that ought to be off-limits for this one day at least. For those who didn't celebrate Christmas, I'm hoping for a warm and tonic day just the same, to be enjoyed somewhere about now. Whatever else the week between Christmas and New Year's may be, it's a grand caesura in the winter doldrums. In a few weeks from the First, it will be March, and buds will be popping. The older I get, the more alarmingly quickly winter ends - as does everything else.

There were three of us here. Miss G was in Houston, with her uncle and his little twins, Ms NOLA was in New Orleans, and Kathleen's brother couldn't get away from his neck of the woods. M le Neveu arrived at about four, and we sat down about two hours later. I'd have gotten an earlier start in the kitchen, but having been so enthralled by the fun of reorganizing the linen closet on Christmas Eve, Kathleen and I could not deny ourselves the pleasure of culling our vast collection of shopping bags, which I had ripped from various closets on Friday, in a vain search for a Christmas-tree stand. When we were through, we had five bags of bags, four - S, M, L, XL - to keep in the coat closet, and another bag of souvenirs from far-flung shops, and from a few boutiques that are no longer in business. That bag we'll keep somewhere else entirely.

When the bags were behind us, I set the table, using our best porcelain, which was nice to see for a change. I dug out a linen tablecloth that required only minimal pressing. I must say that the napkins felt soft and lovely, almost like diapers but richer somehow.

Among other things, we discussed Rousseau's concept of the foreign lawgiver, as it applies to Westerns such as Shane. We are very high-end here.

After dinner, I threw the odd pots and implements into the dishwasher, clearing out the kitchen so that Kathleen could wash the dishes. When she was through, she came into the living room and sat with us. It was warm enough outdoors to crack the balcony door and get some fresh air. Christmas carols continued their shuffle play. We were almost too relaxed.

It was decided that we should watch a movie. But which one. Running through my collection, which is not small, I discerned an allergy to Christmas themes. True, I've got Christmas in Connecticut and Holiday Inn, but neither of those is a first-rate Christmas offering. As for Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life, I can't handle such overt manipulation. So what did we settle on but Quiz Show! This excellent 1994 film by Robert Redford is even more studded with talent than it seemed to be when it was new. I won't go so far as to call it a Christmas movie, but in its sensitive grasp of of the very different home lives of contestants Herbert Stempel and Charles van Doren, it is certainly a family movie. Quiz Show also shatters the notion that there was ever a "Golden Age" of broadcast television.

As promised, here is the recipe for our main course, Beef Stroganoff.

December 26, 2005

And the First Annual Daily Blah-Blah Blah...

If there's one thing I'm tired of, it's contents that nobody has nominated me for. So I am going to bypass the nomination and voting procedures entirely and simply award the First Annual Daily Blague Christmas Photograph Award to David Olivier, a/ka/a Slimbo, for this picture-worth-thousand-character shot of his post-Katrina, post-mold hearth.

Book Review

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

The Book Review is very thin, almost skimpy. Great, I thought. But I was wrong. The Book Review is skimpy because there are no advertisements. The issue contains the usual complement of reviews. I really must protest. Joe Queenan's Essay, "Wish List: No More Books!" certainly struck a nerve. And looking at the books reviewed, I had to wonder what sort of desolate, anti-seasonal state of mind the Book Review's editors wished to conjure for its readers.


Take fiction, for example. You can have it all, this week. Consider:

¶ John Barth's collection of three novellas, Where Three Roads Meet, which, according to Deborah Friedell, works best when Mr Barth writes least self-consciously, and which becomes "almost unreadable" when he waxes "experimental." Let's just go to the dentist instead.

¶ Equally airless sounds Gabriel Brownstein's The Man From Beyond, in which Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle spend some time on the Jersey shore arguing about spiritualism. They are upstaged, reviewer Jennifer Haigh complains, by a twenty-two year-old tabloid reporter called Molly Goodman. I read Mr Brownstein's last book, a collection of literary hommages entitled The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, but found that I had nothing to say about it afterward. Mr Brownstein is far from the worst writer in the world, and if he could have his Barth modules (nodules?) extracted, he might even become a good one.

Rust and Bone - now, there's a Christmas title! Craig Davidson is the pseudonymous author of several horror novels, and you might think that he'd write straightforward prose, but, no; reviewer Lizzie Skurnick finds that "The writer in Davidson cannot get out of his characters' way."

In the title story, a boxer, unable to punch through ice fast enough to save his drowning nephew, destroys his right hand in a battery of increasingly violent fights. It's a fine setup, but Davidson subjects us, like his boxer's opponents, to the punishing blows of the symbolism until we're ready to scream.

¶ Finally, there's A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher. Ms Fisher has worked as a ranch hand and as a carpenter, Sally Eckhoff tells us, and in this first novel she has taken the story of her great-great-great-great-grandmother, Lucy Mitchell as the basis for a novel. Lucy Mitchell was taken by her second husband on a trek along the Oregon trail, and needless to say the experience was greatly unlike a spin on the Interstate. Ms Fisher hews too close to the facts for Ms Eckhoff's taste, however, and the reviewer found that she couldn't work up much enthusiasm for Lucy's romantic adventures. 

There's no harm in a historic novel whose scenery is more colorful than its characters, but as Lucy starts to fade from the page, we may be a little glad to see her go.

If there is a reason for presenting any of these books in a Review bearing a Christmas Day dateline, I don't want to know what it is.


¶ Just what I wanted for Christmas: to read about the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton as imagined by obsessive partisans! Spouses Dick Morris and Eileen McGann sex up their case against Hillary with the vision of a battle royal with Republican nominee Condoleezza Rice. Susan Estrich, on the other hand, seems wearily impatient with anyone who doubts that Hillary Clinton can not only win the next presidential election but go on to change the world. This is all such a waste of paper that I was initially titillated by Ada Calhoun's review of I'm No Saint: A Nasty Little Memoir of Loving and Leaving, by Elizabeth Hayt. But, no; "nasty" turns out to be exactly what Ms Hayt has written.

But what Sex and the City devotees want is not lusty honesty; it's Hayt's reassurance that it's cool to put up with abusive men if they'll bestow expensive gifts and that it's a sign of glamour, not snobbery, if you don't "do" public transportation.

A pox &c.

¶ Nor is there much seasonal jollity to be found in Thomas Powers' sober but sane review of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. As someone who believes quite fervently that real progress will not begin in Iraq until the last American troops withdraw, I'm sorry that I don't have more common ground with Mr Powers, who points out the authors are not actually so much concerned about "the next attack" as they are in assessing how much further damage to our reputation in the Islamic world has been wrought by our Iraqi misadventure. Mr Powers also makes it clear that anyone who buys The Next Attack for the solace that a strategy for "getting it right" might afford is wasting money:

The magnitude of the problem is suggested by the fact that at this point two writers with as much experience as Benjamin and Simon don't really what to do next.

¶ Not only is John Updike's Still Looking: Essays on American Art is very much on my list, but I've just finished reviewer Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment. This is not the place to talk of either. But it was serendipitous to encounter Elizabeth Royte's qualified boost for Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl so soon after looking at all the Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans photographs that Mr Dyer writes about. Mr Dyer, an Englishman, never explicitly mentions the huge role that the Dust Bowl disaster had in shaping the American photographic tradition and, as a result, giving it a thrust that constantly criticizes the naiveté of American dreams. The Worst Hard Time is a tale of American denial that suggests that the strain of courage that brought Europeans to the New World can have its foolhardy side when it comes to ignoring Mother nature.

¶ About Harvey Pekar: why can I not stop wondering why he's famous when he doesn't illustrate his own strips? Ideally, the graphic novelist writes and draws, but where the labor is divided, I put the illustrator ahead of the writer. I don't see why Dean Haspiel, then, gets one line of praise in Dave Itzkoff's review of The Quitter, while the rest is devoted to a discussion of Cleveland's most famous misfit.

¶ The six books reviewed in Jacob Heilbrunn's Nonfiction Chronicle have as little in common as they have to do with Christmas. The miscellany is so various that I'm tempted to overlook it altogether, an inclination that I overcome only by imagining what Joe Queenan would say about receiving any of them.

Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Move Star, by Guess Who, with Eddie Muller. This is probably a must-read for Hollywood-studio history, of which I'm one. I have admired Mr Hunter ever since he revealed his capacity to play a bastard in Polyester.

The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by Vivian Gornick. A good book about Stanton, a bad book about loneliness.

Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, by Moisés Naim. "Hijacking" can't be the right word for "ripping-off." Worse, readers will encounter "a mass of supporting detail that at times will excite only the most wonkish nerds." The better book would have compared and contrasted international businesses and the infranational thieves who steal from them as significant threats to sovereign autonomy and lawfulness.

A World of Light, by Floyd Skloot. "These essays, while laudably free of false sentimentality, inadvertently commit the opposite sin of becoming almost wholly antiseptic." Never having heard of Mr Skloot, I feel that an effective argument on his behalf would have required more than a roundup review. I do understand, that a lukewarm review is better than none, and I hope that Mr Skloot can manage to be grateful for that.

Elephant's Edge: The Republicans as a Ruling Party, by Andrew J Taylor. "This book is the latest entry in a growing field..." Next.

Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943, by Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Madeline G Levine. Milosz was a great poet and a witness to freedom's superiority to power, and the contents of this book may indeed "form a remarkable testament to an uncaptive mind," but you can't tell it from the title, which suggests nothing so much a very long series of books to come. Writing that stretch all the way from one year to - the next? Applying the Queenan formula, you would bad-mouth this book even if you really liked it, for fear of being burdened by further installments.

Perhaps it's a mistake to ask for the Book Review to strike the Christmas note. The cover article, which begins in a cascade of print designed to suggest the light cast by the Star in the East that guided the Magi, may be concerned with Christianity, but its connection to Christmas is a last-minute thing, a matter of Jon Meacham' quoting like-minded sentiments from the religious John Cardinal Newman and the agnostic Robert Ingersoll. For the most part, "Tidings" is taken up with Rodney Starks's The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. This astonishing bit of claptrap hardly deserves such prominent attention from the Book Review. Mr Stark's opus apparently contrasts some very threadbare prejudices about "them" - the emphasis that non-Western faiths allegedly place on "mystification" - with the novel idea, no doubt gagging to philosophes past and present, that Christianity itself, far from partaking of such faults, has been the principal engine of Western superiority because of its commitment to reason. Mr Meacham, whose day job as the managing editor of Newsweek tells us nothing about his background in religious history, faults Mr Stark's book for rampant chauvinism and for a disinclination to consider the very unreasonable things that have been done in Christianity's name, but everything about the review presents The Victory of Reason as an Important Book. It was quite seasick-making to read.

In the last third of his piece, Mr Meacham turns to two other books, neither of which has much to do with Mr Stark's. Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously: Spiritual Politics on America's Sacred Ground, a collection of essays edited by Barbara A McGraw and Jo Renee Formicola, sounds like a good, if possibly to academic and theoretical book. Mr Meacham highlights a contribution by Derek H Davis, "The Baptist Tradition of Religious Liberty," as a work of historical reflection that might well give pause to the highly politicized and rather intolerant religious right of today. Mr Meacham then turns to Prayer: A History, by Philip and Carol Zaleski, but without positively indicating whether the book is a greeting card or a something more serious.

Mr Queenan's Essay reminds me that what I want for Christmas, and not necessarily at Christmas, are recommendations, not books. The last book that I remember receiving as a gift was a devotional tract about Mother Teresa; you can imagine how long that stayed in the house. Mr Queenan manages to stud his complaint about unwanted books with plenty of shafts aimed at well-known titles, Angela's Ashes and The Tipping Point among them; it wouldn't be Joe Queenan writing if he didn't gore at least one of your sacred cows. Whatever your feelings about Dan Ackroyd - actor, musician, writer - you have to admit that you read Joe Queenan because of passages like the following one:

I do not avoid books like Accordion Man or Elwood's Blues merely because I believe that life is too short. Even if life were not too short, it would still be too short to read anything by Dan Ackroyd.

Not to mention (as Mr Queenan does) Hi-Ho Steverino! If you line up the titles that Mr Queenan regards with respect (such as Junichiro Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles) with the items on his "still too short" list, a distinction between readerly pleasure on the one hand and packaged information on the other will emerge.

Do you have a problem with gift books? My guess is that the closer you get to reading and writing for a living, the more highly differentiated your taste becomes, such that, aside from reading a few of the books that all the other reading and writing professionals are talking about, you don't require much outside input, and the harder it will be for others to hit upon books that you will want to read.

December 24, 2005

In the spirit


Here's hoping that, if you're living in the Western world, in what used to be called "Christendom," you're having a warm and loving Christmas Eve. If this is just another Saturday night, then for heaven's sake, turn off the computer and get out for some fresh air. If you're in New Zealand or Australia, you may be just getting up on Christmas morning - time to head for the beach.

Kathleen and I have had a festive afternoon, reorganizing the linen closet mostly. That's how it ended up. Ironing was involved, as was the 1754 version of Handel's Messiah. In a little while, I'm going to make hamburgers. M le Neveu was to come for Christmas Eve, but he asked if he could come on Christmas instead, and that worked very well for us - allowing us extra time for organizing the linen closet as it did. I made a velouté de champignons for tomorrow's dinner; the main course will be Beef Strogranoff, using a wonderful recipe from Saveur that tops the dish with, of all things, frites! I've made it before, and if it comes out as well tomorrow, I'll publish the recipe. Dessert will be a bûche de Noël from Agata & Valentina; we will shed tears for Madame Dumas, who was last heard of in Queens.

In addition to fending off a cold that can't make up its mind what to do next, I've suffered a pre-holiday depression, wishing that I would magically wake up a few days before New Year's Eve - an uncomplicated holiday involving champagne, caviar, and shouting from the balcony at midnight. And Radio Days; we always watch Woody Allen's Radio Days on New Year's Eve. Christmas I was not enthusiastic about. Would I do the tree thing or not? That's really what Christmas is about, logistically. Either you buy a tree and move the furniture around, or you don't buy a tree and feel embarrassed in the privacy of your own home. Here's how I came to buy a tree.

On Monday, I think it was, I was changing lightbulbs in a ceiling fixture. This is not something that I ought to be doing, because I can't really see what I'm doing, and I took note too late that a small brass collar had unscrewed itself along with one of the lightbulbs. Don't ask me why, but this led to the dreadful pop of a short circuit. Kathleen and I were both traumatized; I'm sure she thought that I was going to drop from the stepstool. On Wednesday, I bought a replacement dimmer switch. By Friday, I'd convinced myself that the whole thing was going to be more complicated than just replacing the switch, but I hung around waiting for a handyman to come and repair a fixture and a dimmer switch that are definitely not building-issued. I should note that the fixture in question illuminates the corridor in which a lot of CDs and DVDs are shelved. Trying to read the spines of CDs and DVDs by flashlight is not recommended: all you get is reflected glare.


The handyman came, and he was one of the methodical Africans, francophone I think, who have joined the building staff in recent years and who prove over and over that plumbing and electricity are universal languages. Which is not the feeling that you get from the very cross and impatient Croatian guy with the shaved head who reminds me of Prime Suspect 6. I was fiddling with something in the bedroom - I never try to read when a handyman is on the premises, but I tie up lots of little loose ends; I must have made seven trips to the garbage chute - when I was summoned. Did I have some glue? The handyman was about to screw on the switchplate, but a painted chip of plaster had come off during the repair process, and if we glued it back on everything would look better. It was as a sidelight that he told me that the fixture was working.

That's when I decided to spend the rest of the day on a tree.

Living where I do, I didn't have to go far to buy one; 86th Street and Second Avenue is an arboreal node at this time of year. I had my fir in minutes. All I had to do - beside moving furniture and so on - was to change the group listing on the auxiliary CD carousel beneath the sofa. I've only programmed two groups: one of jazz copies and one that slots every Christmas CD that we own. Shuffle Play - it's the only way! I was in the Christmas spirit in no time.

But that was yesterday, when I wasn't thinking about the linen closet.


December 23, 2005

Art and Criticism

On the Sunday before last, I promised that I would get round to Barry Gewen's essay, "State of the Art," which appeared in the Book Review for December 11. Mr Gewen mentions eight books in the course of his piece, but it is not a review so much as a consideration of the current state of art criticism. Art critics, after all, are the people who tell us about the art world, distinguishing, in the process, the good from the bad, the worthy from the meretricious. What most critics have not been distinguishing, for the past half century, however, is art from non-art. We have been living in an anything-goes art world, largely because critics have resisted the urge to reject, to exclude offerings from the rubric of art.

There are conservatives, of course; Hilton Kramer, founder and still editor of The New Criterion, is an unhesitating debunker of much of what passes for art these days. But as Mr Gewen points out, there are limits to what we can expect of a critic who proclaimed, in 1980, that Juan Miró was the greatest living artist. More typical of modern criticism is the moonlighting philosopher, Arthur C Danto, of The Nation. Mr Danto finds room for almost anything in his big tent, and he writes (as I know from reading him) with an almost amused pleasure about his encounters. His actual philosophy of art is rather more difficult to grasp, which is perhaps as it should be. The question that I came away from Mr Gewen's overview was this: why have theories in the first place?

Continue reading about Art and Criticism at Portico.

December 22, 2005

Scènes de la vie de bohomo

As I was getting dressed this morning, it crossed my mind that a gifted composer and a gifted librettist could take the serial stories that Joe Jervis tells at Joe.My.God and weave an opera of his tales. Joe has just concluded his latest, "The Mommy Box," and it's as strong as any of them.

Back from the framer


Although I didn't expect to see them before Christmas, the two photographs by JR of L'homme qui marche that I'd bought prints of through Flickr were ready to be picked up on Tuesday. As you can see, I chose to frame them together, side by side; for I don't believe that I could ever choose just one of them without eternally regretting the loss of the other. Of all the snaps that I took, the one that I've chosen best captures the warmth of the corner of our bedroom. To see the images themselves properly, look for the thumbnails here and enlarge them. Despite being crazy-cheap, the prints are excellent, capturing all the detail that you can see on screen.

The framer beamed as she brought the frame out. "Everybody likes how it came out," she said. She has said this once or twice before in the course of framing two dozen pictures.

Now begins the scramble. JR's photos take the place of a larger but similarly shaped print that never belonged in the bedroom. It's an extremely austere, fastidiously black-and-white drawing of a railroad bridge somewhere, I should say, not far from Philadelphia. The angle between the humdrum intersection in the left foreground and the rail line, which is indicated by a parade of the pylons from which power lines are suspended. There is neither a vehicle nor a human figure in sight; the more I look at it, the more it seems to capture an industrial ideal that we have abandoned, even though we're still surrounded, here in the Northeast, by its remains. This picture will go into the blue room, where I spend my day, and displace, ultimately, a shadow-boxed platter. The platter, nineteenth-century English pseudo-export, broke cleanly in two one day when something so surprising happened that I no longer recall what it was. It is now one of three or four porcelain survivors of my maladroit manner that hang on our walls.



Syriana is that rarest of films, the highly-intelligent thriller. Based on Robert Baer's See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, Syriana does a fine job of laying out the global web of big oil. It is fresh and current. As all such stories must, if they're to be at all true-to-life, Syriana ends on a cynical note; it is in no powerful person's interest to alter current arrangements here or in the Middle East. (It is certainly turning out not to have been in our interest to topple Saddam Hussein.) The acting is uniformly excellent and the writing is first-rate. But what's most commanding about Syriana is its dry, quiet beauty. Violence is often seen but not heard, and the score, by Alexandre Desplat (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, the soon-to-open Casanova) is cool and discreet. I don't mean to suggest that Syriana is calm itself; it's anything but. I was truly terrified on at least four occasions - rightly so, in the event. This is not a film to set up a scare and then let you off with a "boo."

There are three stories in Syriana, and they take most of the film to converge, and to reveal themselves as facets of the same story all along. George Clooney is a CIA field man who masquerades as an arms dealer; he becomes concerned when a client in Tehran trots off with only one of two devices; the other seems to slip into Arab hands. Matt Damon is a derivatives trader, based in Switzerland, who makes use of an unfortunate event to establish lucrative contacts with the enlightened heir-apparent to an emirate. Jeffrey Wright is a rising Washington attorney who learns how to play rough without betraying his lessons. All three men swim in extremely dangerous waters - I don't think I've ever worried so much on behalf of a screen lawyer as I did for Mr Wright - and they all learn that any frontal attempt to straighten out the oil mess will only make things much worse. 

I hope that young people will talk about the issues behind this ripping story, and that the dwindling state of oil reserves will register upon the consciousness of coming generations. Competition with China for energy resources is a recurring theme of Syriana, and it probably won't be long before the Chinese turn out to handle the Middle East much better than we'll ever do, so long as we are identified as an active player in Israeli affairs. It was true when I was in my twenties, but sadly it's just as true for those who are in their twenties today: listening to your parents about energy is foolish; they don't get it because they don't want to get it. Young people need to get it before they become overworked, tired, and comfortable.

It is clear to me that humanity's only happy future will require the mastery of stewardship. I cannot imagine how this will happen or what the world will look like when it does, but I foresee plenty of bumps. The main thing, now, is to think about it. I hope that everyone will bear in mind Benjamin Franklin's extremely irreligious advice: God helps those who helps themselves. That's certainly how the earth's material future is going to unroll.

December 21, 2005

Urban Legend

So, the other night, M le Neveu and I were wondering if Anderson Cooper would ever amount to anything in the news; he was so good in New Orleans but he's so vacant behind a desk, or at least that's what I hear; I've never seen him. It occurred to me that perhaps Mr Cooper ought to take on causes, the way Geraldo Rivera used to do, and M le Neveu said that Anderson Cooper was at least better looking, and I disagreed, adding, impudently, "You know, his name is really Jerry Rivers."

Incredulous, my nephew turned to Google for verification. The short answer is that the urban legend according to which Geraldo Rivera's real name is Jerry Rivers is false. I promise never to mention it again - except in connection with the true story, which is even stranger.

"Gerald Riviera."

You decide.

Home Early

The Transit Strike has had an unintended benefit for yours truly that I intend to enjoy loudly and unashamedly. Because Kathleen depends upon her law firm's vans to get to work - and to get home - she had to leave the office at 5:30 yesterday afternoon. Why, when she goes in to the office on weekends she doesn't leave that early! I shall pretend that we're simply having a long weekend until the strike ends. I know that a lot of people are in terrible jams because of the strike, and that this is probably not going to be the most happily-remember Christmas season ever, but I refuse to regret the opportunity to pass normal evenings with my dear wife.

Who, the night before last, forgot that M le Neveu was coming for dinner. "Start without me," she said at twenty past nine. Well, I really didn't want to do that. I don't think that anyone ever wants to do that. So I temporized and she hustled and we sat down at ten, by which time my appetite was a shambles.

I'm inclined to sympathize with the strikers. Working conditions on New York's subways are not very pleasant, and the entire system ought to be rebuilt from scratch. The MTA - a board of flunkies who do the bidding of the elected officials who appoint them, thus deflecting all accountability to the Crab Nebula - has been squeezing workers harder while failing to take infrastructural problems seriously. I mentioned revenge fantasies yesterday in another connection, but declined to reveal them. Here I will say that I think a sort of Place de la Révolution event, with a few guillotines in the public squares, and tumbrils full of the MTA board, the TLC commissioners, and all the taxi-medallion owners who do not drive their own cabs. Oh, and the people who're supposed to bring this dump into the twenty-first century with public toilets! An end to governmental fecklessness, say I!

December 20, 2005

Lines on a Headache brought on by the "I" word.

President Bush has admitted that he systematically instructed subordinates to violate the law, to wit, 50 USC 1802. He feels that this violation was justifiable, but that's an argument that he would have to make in court - in Congress, at impeachment proceedings. Mr Bush would, of course, prefer to be tried in the court of public opinion, and we'll soon see if that's going to happen. Right now, those of us who dislike and mistrust Mr Bush and his administration are asking ourselves whether trying to stir up a racket would be a good thing.

That's what it feels like to me, anyway. If I can't work up much enthusiasm, it's because the violations - pointless, it seems; the wiretaps could have been imposed lawfully - seem so slight and technical when placed alongside the administration's War on Truth. For the sake of my sense and sanity, I pay the White House as little attention as possible, because it is nothing but a compost heap of disinformation and pep talk. When the president's voice comes over the radio, I rush to mute the sound: his is a voice that makes me want to stand on the rooftop and bellow.

Already I have thought about this matter for longer than is good for me. I begin to see that the fabric of American government has been rent to tatters, and that the executives of large corporations, in the blind pursuit of self-enrichment, will eventually push our economy into the abyss. Language has been so adulterated by fools and scoundrels on the right that the discourse without which a democracy cannot sustain itself will never be resumed.

And I begin to have dark, adolescent revenge fantasies. No, it's not good at all. I must not think about impeaching the president.

I do harbor hope of seeing the man in the dock at the Hague some day. That would be suitable.

December 19, 2005

Brokeback Mountain II

On Friday, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain came to the nabes, so I ran around the corner to see the first showing. I wanted to get the experience of seeing the movie for the first time behind me as quickly as possible. As it happens, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have adapted E Annie Proulx's story of the same name so faithfully that, if you know what Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal look like on screen, then the movie does little more than fill in the color - so far as seeing it the first time goes.

When I saw how faithful Brokeback Mountain is to "Brokeback Mountain," I stopped paying attention to what was going to happen next, and a second story emerged. ...

Continue reading about Brokeback Mountain at Portico.

December 18, 2005

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Perhaps I ought to point out, every so often, that there are three areas of Book Review coverage that I don't follow: Crime, Science Fiction, and Children's Books.

There, that's out of the way. Now for something truly surprising: a bad review for Nadine Gordimer! Get A Life, reviewed by Sophie Harrison, doesn't sound very inviting. A man afflicted with a variety of thyroid cancer that Ms Harrison assures us is not as deadly as the novelist thinks it is - take that! - a man with cancer goes off to live with his parents so that his wife and son will not be exposed to his radioactivity. Odious comparisons with The Magic Mountain are invited. "Sickness may be a universal human affliction," Ms Harrison writes, "but that doesn't mean each person's experience of it isn't unique. This novel forgets that. I've always felt bullied by Ms Gordimer whenever I've tried out one of her stories in The New Yorker, and I'm not a fan.

Nadine Gordimer, however, is a celebrated writer. First-time novelist Jennifer Vandever is not, and I wonder why reviewer Chelsea Cain was given two-thirds of a page to enumerate the faults of The Brontë Project: A Novel of Passion, Desire, and Good PR. I'd like to stop right there, with the PR crack, but the review itself has a great line. Sara Frost is a Charlotte Brontë scholar in search of a lost letter that will make or break her dissertation. I have learned to dislike this sort of book, of which the following sentence, mutatis mutandis, always seems apt:

There are quotes from Brontë's letters, some biographical trivia, a bit of gossip about an unrequited love - but Sara's devotion to Brontë's work is never entirely believable.

That's because it's literary appliqué, meretriciously tarting up a routine bit of chick-lit. Another tell-tale sign: the bad girl, Claire, is the sparkling character at the center of the satire that Ms Vandever ought to have written.

The symposium at which Claire quotes Yeats, Versace and Donald Trump, all in relation to Princess Diana [her subject], highlights not only Claire's ridiculousness but the inherent perils of taking pop culture seriously at all.

Dawn Drzal's review of Cooking With Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson, set off a surprisingly intense siren wail, the one that signals backfiring humor, than which few literary mishaps are more unpleasant. "When going out to dinner with someone you would be relieved to learn had died during the course of the day," runs the note to one of the facetious recipes that stud this novel about one of those Englishmen who dislikes just about everybody. Once upon a time, I found this sort of thing hugely funny. I don't know what happened, but it certainly happened. Now, when I read that note, I'm simply relieved that I'm not likely to have dinner with anyone whom I'd prefer to be dead.

Former counterterrorism official Richard A Clarke has penned a thriller, Scorpion's Gate, that would probably start up a gale of constructive questioning by the people who ought to read it, were they to read it. According to thriller-writer Joseph Finder's review,

The Scorpion's Gate is unlikely to alter American foreign policy and as a thriller it's not going to set anyone's hair on fire. But its geopolitical arguments are no doubt as plausible as any you might find in the President's Daily Brief. Probably more so. After all, whatever his enemies in the Bush administration may say, Clarke's talent really isn't for fiction.

Nice touch, that. Helen Shulman's review of Music Through the Floor: Stories, by Eric Puchner, is a rave. Mr Puchner's tales, she writes,

are told in a classical mode - not groundbreaking in terms of form or content (misfits forced to swim against life's current), but executed with such fluency, constructed with such surprising plot twists and blessed with so many bright, memorable lines that they rise above the contemporary din.

The problem was, I came to Ms Shulman's judgment. She writes with more enthusiasm than appreciation. David Kirby's similarly favorable review of Kay Ryan's new book of poems, The Niagara River, seems more reliable on that score. He places her verse in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and notes that she "cautions us against our strengths rather than our frailties."


I'm tempted to ignore Hugo Lindgren's review of two new books about video games on the theory that they're science fiction, but that, of course, is exactly what they're not. Imagine how pleased I was to read the editorial suggestion that they "may show us where the whole world is heading." Edward Castranova, author of Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, is "bullish," Mr Lindgren writes.

Life in these alternative zones may eventually become so fulfilling, he contends, "that a fairly substantial exodus may loom in the distance." He means this, really. Like the Irish and Italians who left their native lands in the late 19th century to come to America, gamers could create a genuine human migration, away from the real and into the virtual. What will be real then?

Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, the authors of Smartboard: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big bucks in the Videogame Revolution, are apparently more realistic. They write about an obsessive gamer who frequently loses his jobs and has to move back in with his mother. This is one pastime that I'm grateful I was simply too old for. (Full disclosure: I play FreeCell during interruptions, and I'll play the same hand until I've played every card ("won"), but I have never actually sat down at the computer to play it.)

There are two books about science. One, A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks," by Clifford D Conner, is doomed from the start. I didn't need Jonathan Wiener's review to underline the sad truth about so many of the discoveries that contributed to our comfort and convenience: they were made anonymously and not recorded. There are a few gadgets - zippers, for example - whose invention can be traced, but most cannot, and some discoveries, such as that of bronze, probably required "generations of experimenters." While speculating about such matters, Mr Conner is huffy about Great Men - the Newtons and Einsteins who discovered universal laws of little everyday application. At least our scientific endeavor forms a continuum from theory to practice; in the middle ages, engineers built cathedrals without any input from academics. Mr Clifford is guilty of grudging wishful thinking. Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science, in contrast, is quite level-headed, even if reviewer John Horgan calls his book a "diatribe, from start to finish." There is simply no question that Republicans have been intervening in what used to be non-partisan projects in order to free enterprise from restriction on the one hand and to pacify religious conservatives on the other. The former is by far the more damaging, because it invariably involves environmental degradation. You would expect a patriarchy to take its stewardship responsibilities seriously, but the one currently running the United States couldn't care less about what human beings will have to cope with fifty years from now. Or perhaps they really do believe their own misstatements and adulterations of language. The Republican War on Science is essential reading for anyone who has just begun to have doubts about the Bush Administration.

In Come Back to Afghanistan, Said Hyder Akbar, a teenager from California, writes, with help from Susan Burton, an editor at "This American Life," about a recent sojourn in his ancestral homeland. His father, Said Fazel Akbar, returned to Afghanistan at the request of his old friend, Hamid Karzai, who appointed him governor of Kunar. His son spent summers with him, and, at the urging of Ms Burton, he kept the audio diary that is the basis of this book. I doubt that there will be many surprises for readers of The Kite Runner, but Mr Akbar does appear to have developed a critical view of the American military presence, which, as usual, is poor at effective communication with the locals. (All I have to do is imagine Manhattan's occupation by troops of undereducated Appalachians, and I'm as good as in Kabul myself.)

Cambridge don Richard J Evans is working on a three-volume look at Nazi Germany; the second, The Third Reich In Power: 1933-1939, looks like a good read for anyone who can stand that sort of thing right now; I'm still recovering from Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography of the Führer. (Under a different administration, I'd have recovered a long time ago; instead, I'm getting worse.) Brian Ladd praises the book but in the end pronounces it "less gripping ... than Shirer's." I'm not sure that being gripping is what a history of fascist misrule needs to strive for. I believe that Professor Evans is a leading opponent of Holocaust-denier David Irving.

On the whole, Luke Mitchell doesn't see the need for The Gang That Couldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution, by Marc Weingarten. The high-profile journalists that came out of the Sixties had and have little in common beyond the cultivation of distinctive narrative voices; if they are all mildly paranoid, they're not afraid of the same monsters. A book that set out to distinguish these writers from one another would have been much more useful. Of no use whatever is Peggy Noonan's hagiography, John Paul the Great. I didn't know that Ms Noonan grew up in a household of lapsed Catholics, but everything else in Kenneth L Woodward's review was predictable. Why does Ms Noonan bother? Aside from a brief greeting, she did not know the late pontiff, and she has no original scholarship to offer. I have a hard time allowing this book to line up under the nonfiction rubric. "John Paul the Great," writes Mr Woodward,

is as much about Peggy Noonan as it is about the pope - which is probably why her name is in larger print than his on the cover, and in the place where book titles normally appear.

David Leavitt's new book about Alan Turing looks appealing, and I may get it on the strength of Madison Smartt Bell's incredibly good book about Lavoisier, an earlier entry in the Atlas/Norton "Great Discoveries" series. Reviewer George Johnson likes The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer well enough, but he feels that Mr Leavitt did a better job of getting into the mind of one of his fictional characters than he goes of entering Turing's, but I'm not sure that is quite what's required. If Mr Leavitt can make Turing's work as obviously indispensable as Mr Bell made Lavoisier's, then I'll be quite happy.

Neither The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America, by Richard M Fried, nor Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home, by Harvey Araton, gets an entirely favorable review. Michael Kazin is not sure that the world is a better place because of the advertising ministrations of the huckster from BBD&O, much less that he had anything to contribute to the making of America. Upon a second look, I see that I'm wrong as to Mr Araton's book - Alexander Wolff likes it. It cannot be said even now that I have read the review.

Tara McKelvey, an American Prospect editor whom I read in The Nation, rounds up five books for a Nonfiction Chronicle. The first of these is 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building, by Michael Gross. On all the evidence - not just Ms McKelvey's - this book is too silly to mention. It is what we New Yorkers call "real estate porn," certainly no less salacious than the other kind. How Not To Get Rich: Or Why Being Bad Off Isn't So Bad, by Robert Sullivan. This is not a serious book, either, although it might have been.

Ultimately, the book reads as if it had been dashed off by a guy telling his wife he was a fool not to buy the first apartment they lived in, even though she recognized "an on-ramp to financial security," and not, unfortunately, by a guy who take any of this stuff seriously.

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, by Heather Rogers, is one measure of how far we have to go before we start taking stewardship seriously. It might make you think, but it lacks the visual impact of David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries. Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin, by Larry Beinhart, ought really to have been called Fog Brain: Trying to Think While Watching Television, but that would have been a different book, I suppose.

The lone history book in the Chronicle fares no better under Ms McKelvey's discerning eye. Court Lady and Country Wife: Two Noble Sisters in Seventeenth-Century England, by Lita-Rose Betcherman, is about offshoots of the Percy family who prospered, after a fashion, during the Stuart Restoration. One was a beauty, the other a prolific mother. On balance, neither was an interesting woman. Ouch!

Pamela Paul's Essay, "What Are They Saying About Me?" discusses authors and the bloggers who write about them. This will be an interesting piece to look back on in five years, by which time the blogosphere will have become far more articulated - organized in regions and levels - than it is now. The essay was compulsive reading for me, needless to say, but it didn't have anything interesting to say about the vineyard in which I'm toiling.

Finally, Byron Calame, the newspaper's public editor, weighed in, in "The Week In Review," on conflict-of-interest procedures at the Book Review. I tried to read it three times but could not make any headway.

December 17, 2005

The Village Vanguard

Last night, Kathleen and I got to do something new: we went to the Village Vanguard. We'd never been! We've been to the Blue Note often enough, but never to its venerable downtown rival. It turned out that, all unknowing, we'd been playing Jack Sprat with Miss G. She sounds an habitué of the Vanguard, but has never been to the Blue Note. We'll have to take her there soon, now that she has taken us to the Vanguard.

The Blue Note is basically a storefront operation with a stage in the back - only it's not placed where a stage ought to be. It ought to have its back to the rear wall, but it doesn't; instead, the stage backs on to the rear end of one of the long west wall. It's an odd configuration, and because the tables are set perpendicular to the stage, getting yourself into a good position to see the musicians while watching them is tricky. It's very easy to be much too close or much too far. The Vanguard, in contrast, is an agreeably fan-shaped room, and although all the banquette seats face the middle of the room, and not the stage, the end result, when everybody's seated, is that of an irregular auditorium. I don't know what it's like in the back, but I don't think that sitting too close is a problem.

Pianist Cedar Walton led a trio, with David Williams on the bass and Lewis Nash on the drums, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove appeared as a "special guest." All the musicians were new to me, but they were all gifted pros who knew their way blindfolded through the labyrinths of coherent improvisation. Mr Walton sounded a bit like Keith Jarrett at the start, but with his second number, a commemoration of his mother, he pursued Ellingtonian leads. In short, he is a versatile virtuoso. Mr Williams seemed to have more to say than there were bars to say it in, and he even contrived to command a virtual solo even though Mr Walton and Mr Nash were playing at the time. Mr Nash is a young but masterful drummer, and his big solo, when it finally came, brought down the house.

Roy Hargrove, who warmed up with "The Very Thought of You" on the flugelhorn, and who gradually convinced the audience to wait until he was finished with his beautifully dynamic closes before applauding, is a minimalist who likes to keep his solos short and to the point and then to sit on the sidelines. Such self-effacement is not common among trumpeters (or so Miss G assured us). His warm tone could be bright and snappy when called for, but his musicianship is touched by a sacred beauty that certainly made me want to hear more. As indeed I shall, Tower willing.

The most interesting note of the evening was struck by Miss G herself. She seemed genuinely surprised that Kathleen and I would have a great time listening to great jazz. I don't think that Miss G understands that, as she said at breakfast this morning, Kathleen likes nothing so much as to sit in a small room while people play jazz. I wish we had more time. But one things for certain: Miss G, Kathleen and I have hit upon something that we all like to do.

December 16, 2005

Reading Notes from my Sickbed

Let's try to do this without tiring me out; just dragging the stack of magazines to the computer was wearying.

Granta 91: Wish You Were Here. How long has Simon Gray been scribbling memoirs on the Barbadian strand? This installment is eventually about Mr Gray's friend and colleague, the late Alan Bates; it takes seventeen entries for the piece to reach its subject. Happily, Simon Gray is an adorable procrastinator. Also absorbing was Simon Garfield's memoir of stamp collecting, "The Error World." Not that I've read much, but this is an excellent essay on the pleasures and pitfalls of philately, which all boys ought to be made to take up between the ages of eight and eleven. Stamp collecting is the royal road to mastering geography, and a subtle witness to modern history as well. Mr Garfield, his interest reawakened in middle-ages, teeters on the edge of an obsession with Errors - misprinted stamps - that, now that he can actually pay for them, might ruin him. As long as I'm on this issue, I have to point out Geoff Dyer's short and shocking "White Sands." The shock comes early and resonates right up until the end.

The Atlantic, December 2005. James Fallows has the cover story, "Why Iraq Has No Army." Since I don't want to know any more about the mess over there than I do, or in any greater detail, I skipped what was probably a lucid analysis. Like most Americans right now, I wouldn't know what to do with a lucid analysis. (I'll have more to say about this a little further along the list.) What I did read was Paul Bloom's "Is God an Accident?" Studies of infant and juvenile behavior suggest that we come into the world hard-wired to believe in the supernatural and in a creator. Adults just tone this down and rationalize it - and of course they exploit it for purposes that would never occur to a child. Apparently, we learn about the material world - the one in which rocks fall and things stay where they are until someone moves them - much earlier than we learn about the "social" world's rules.

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for the understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity - a mind or soul - are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.

According to Mr Bloom, science and religion will always clash, because science makes no room for the duality that most of us (but not all) feel so intimately that we don't notice it. Science says, "that doesn't exist," and we feel robbed. The first lesson of science, of course, is that you don't go by your feelings; they're to be mistrusted at every turn. For lots of people, this is no way to live; it's not nice at all.

¶ In The Nation for December 26, 2005, Sasha Abramsky recounts the charming life story of Charles Graner, the ex-Marine prison guard who, recalled to Iraq, organized the Abu Ghraib follies. Nothing that he did surprises anyone back home in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Tara McKelvey writes about the think-tankers and scholars who have developed the Bush Administration's justifications of torture. Barry Schwabsky's long and knowing review of Art Since 1900 will have to wait until I sink my teeth into Barry Gewen's essay, "State of the Art," one of these days when I'm not feeling poorly. In The Nation for December 19, Daniel Lazare reviews two very different books, The Jewish Century, by Yuri Slezkine, and A History of the Jews in the Modern World, by Howard M Sachar. Mr Slezkine's looks to be the more interesting book by far, but it is contentious about Israel and Palestine.

¶ Michael Massing concludes his two-part look at the American media in The New York Review of Books, Volume LII No 20 (December 15, 2005). The first piece concentrated on structural problems, such as corporate ownership; the second focuses on the rot within the profession of journalism itself. What it comes down to, in argument after argument, is a failure of courage. Reporters and, more significant, as gatekeepers, editors, don't want to rouse the wrath of wingnuts.

When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, deounced as a an antiwar activist, and sent death threats. Such  incidents feed the deep-seated fear that many US journalists have of being accused of being anti-American, of not supporting the troops in the field. These subjects remain off limits.

In other words, we're no better than Turkey, where discussing atrocities that occurred almost ninety years ago is still taboo. If you don't talk about it, it goes away. I wish that Paul Bloom would go back to those cognitive scientists who studied children and see if there's something in our early development that makes denial appear to be a successful strategy. Not that it ever, ever is.

Mr Massing correctly points out that, for one reason or another, the weekly New York Times Magazine is considerably bolder than the daily paper in its Iraqi reportage.

December 15, 2005

Memling's Portraits

The other night, Kathleen and I met at Shakespeare & Co's Hunter College branch. She was coming uptown, I down. We cut through the icy winds over to Fifth Avenue and the Frick Collection, for a rare Monday-night members' viewing of the current special exhibition, Memling's Portraits.

Hans Memling is one of the very greatest fifteenth-century Netherlandish painters, in company with Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Robert Campin. He died in 1494 at the age of fifty-four, at a moment when Dürer was in his apprenticeship. From the growth on evidence in the exhibition, I think there's no telling how far into the new sensibility Memling would have pushed, but the latest painting in the show reminded me of Holbein. Not that I'm complaining.

The thirty-odd pictures in the show are very choice, and they come from all over the world. The Frick Collection (which owns one of the pictures) is the only American venue for the show - aren't we lucky! To be perfectly vulgar, the show is a cross between the best Met retrospective and a private viewing of the thirty most expensive objects ever sold by Harry Winston. I know that there are still people who feel that what was going on in the Netherlands in the fifteenth century is hopeless primitive when contrasted with contemporary Italian work, and to them I will say that one of the Memlings on view was bought by the Uffizi in the 1830s as an Italian picture.

Sadly, the Frick has put nothing on line, so there's nothing to show or tell, and I haven't yet acquired the catalogue. The pictures hit me strongly in two ways: first, they were so old (and yet in such good shape), and second, everyone was very mortal, even the very well-shaven nabob in the leopard-fur collar who was mistaken for an Italian in the 1830s. Almost all of the faces were cheerful and engaging, but they were all amazingly mortal. Portraits are often designed to survive their sitters, to maintain the illusion that the painted face still corresponds to a living one. That is not true of Memling's portraits. Their mortality is the source of uncanny power.


December 14, 2005


Will the cold that has me in its sights kindly attack forthwith or withdraw? Feeling mildly lousy has lost its charm. I shall keep to my bed today; that's as good a place as any to make a dent on the periodicals.

In the evenings, waiting for Kathleen to come home, I usually perk up. Last night, I copied a bunch of LPs onto CDs. The idea is to get rid of the vinyl, but in a few cases I think I'm just going to hold on to the originals. The artwork is too good - Hipgnosis's jacket for Synergy's Cords - or the album is just too dear. At the top of the "dear" list is Ray Parker, Jr's debut album, Raydio, released by Arista in 1978.

By the fall of 1979, "Jack and Jill" had penetrated my general inattentiveness to pop, and I got to think so highly of the song that I would pull over, if possible, and just hear it out. I wouldn't have said this at the time, but now I take "Jack and Jill" to be a parody (possibly unconscious) of an enthusiastic church meeting, with Mr Parker substituting a justification of Jack's errancy for a sermon, with affirmation from the choir. The swelling chords the open the song are particularly churchly.

"Jack and Jill" seems to appear on every "best of" CD that Mr Parker has reissued, but the other songs on Raydio have fallen by the wayside. That's why I'm offering, for your amusement and edification, "Betcha Can't Love Me Just Once." Mr Parker's running trope is that he's the one with the commitment; most of his lyrics would sound just right coming from Aretha Franklin. But his inflection is totally lascivious. Kathleen cites Rick James as an influence. So is Barry White, in whose band Mr Parker was once a sideman. Mr Parker's combination of silk and sin, unusual in a male singer, sounds both serious and gently self-spoofing: he's making fun of himself while he's unbuckling his belt. Betcha can't listen just once. (But you can try.)

Back to bed.

Orhan Pamuk in The New Yorker

It is immensely sorrowing to read Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk's assessment, first, of the charges that he is facing (as I write) in an Istanbul courtroom, but beyond that, of the pressures that have inspired a prosecutor to bring those charges against him. Mr Pamuk, having told a Swiss newspaper last February that millions of Armenians lost their lives in Turkey during World War I and that what bothers him most about this is that the subject is taboo in Turkey (and, apparently, for Turks everywhere), is on trial for having "publicly denigrated Turkish character." He traces the animus behind his indictment to the rise of a Westernizing middle class that attempts to hold on to the allegiance of a traditionalist population by "brandishing a virulent and intolerant nationalism." He sees the same phenomenon - the persecution of artists and writers by otherwise cosmopolitan elites - in India and China.

Mr Pamuk's thesis is sound, but not exhaustive. Checking The New York Times's site for late news of his trial (there wasn't any), I was reminded of events in Britain, where Islamic groups have shut down at least one play that criticizes traditional gender roles and where artists are upset about the new crime of "glorifying terrorism." As for us - US - "virulent nationalism" is Rush Limbaugh's stock in trade. The problem is bigger than Turkey, bigger than the developing world, bigger than all of us. We're in an awful muddle.

Looking back at the Enlightenment, we can see it for the elitist project that it was. Ordinary people simply didn't count, in the eighteenth century, except as mobs to be feared and controlled. In time, wealth and education would spread throughout the land, and mobs would simply evaporate, leaving a residue of thinking men and women. This is still a dream today, but implementation has grown increasingly ramshackle. Where once a program of teaching Enlightenment values was at the core of every American high school outside of the South, school boards now see to it that community values, whatever they might be, are taught instead. This is simply another form of not teaching anything.

The Enlightenment was a prestige project. Much of its initial funding came from self-interested aristocrats, and in time two of Europe's greatest despots became sponsors. Writers were not squeamish about accepting such support. I may be naive, but I believe that most of today's serious writers would feel dreadfully compromised about living on grants from the aristocrats of today - the managers of large corporations. But most of today's creative political thinking is conducted very much on that footing, in think tanks across the ideological spectrum. We can be happy that no one has pointed to their activities as constituting a new enlightenment, but I suspect that they are indeed engaged in the important job of refashioning such Enlightenment principles as now make up the American political tradition. Sadly, they're writing very much as the philosophes did - for the attention of a very small readership. The broad general public couldn't care less about what they're doing, and this gives each faction abundant wiggle room for misleading statistics and tendentious argument. In the marketplace of ideas, we are doing very little to improve the quality of the market itself. The goods on offer can hardly benefit from this neglect.

Orhan Pamuk is an Istanbullu, a man of Istanbul. He may be the greatest novelist of our time - he is at least a worthy heir of Dostoevsky, and I don't see many of them on the scene - but he is also a man who wrestles with his roots, with his rootedness itself. Is he a Turk? What would that mean? Insofar as it means denying that millions of Armenians perished during World War I, then, no, he is not a Turk. But that's precisely what he wants to change about "being Turkish."

I already knew that my case was a matter worthy of discussion in both Turkey and the outside world. This was partly because I believed that what stained a country's "honor" was not the discussion of the black spots in its history but the impossibility of any discussion at all. But it was also because I believed that in today's Turkey the prohibition against discussing the Ottoman Armenians was a prohibition against freedom of expression, and that the two matters were inextricably linked. Comforted as I was by the interest in my predicament and by the generous gestures of support, there were also times when I felt uneasy about finding myself caught between my country and the rest of the world.

It is important, here, not to rail on about "Turkey!" as Mr Orhan's oppressor. His oppressors are opportunists with other agendas. Turkey itself is a nation like any other, under the control of more or less virtuous people. Whatever happens to Mr Pamuk, we should do what we can to strengthen the influence of the more rather than the less virtuous in Turkey and elsewhere. And we can start, Mr Pamuk advises us, right here:

As tomorrow's novelists prepare to narrate the private lives of the new élites, they are no doubt expecting the West to criticize the limits that their states place on freedom of expression. But these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret CIA prisons have so damaged the West's credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world.

(Hats off to New Yorker editor David Remnick for giving Mr Orhan's apologia the magazine's pride of place.)

December 13, 2005

Brokeback Mountain I

No, I haven't seen the movie yet. I've just read it.

This afternoon, I came across not one but two links to The New Yorker's upload of "Brokeback Mountain," the Annie Proulx story that appeared in the magazine in October, 1997. I know I missed it then. I had had such a hard time with The Shipping News that I'm sure I didn't even give the story a try. Whatever that was all about, "Brokeback Mountain" read quite beautifully today, and I was crushed by its outcome, even though I'd read in all the reviews that it doesn't end "happily." In fact it ended much better than I thought it would. Nobody seems to have pointed out that Ennis Del Mar holds back from the relationship with Jack Twist - as a relationship - because his father decked his innocence by taking him to see the mutilated corpse of a local rancher who lived with another man. Jack, untested by such sights, imagines that the unimaginable is possible. Ennis is no fool, and he ends up ruefully alive. Maybe it's better to be dead than excluded from every hope of love, but Ennis's temporizing has a practical optimism that makes Jack's acting-from-the-heart just plain stupid. There is a symbolic story here about gay marriage that I hope will stir up truly serious debate. As someone even stranger to the people among whom I grew up than a gay man would have been, I sympathize completely with the gay community's solidarity, and only wish that I had some solidarity of my own, which I don't. But, like Ennis, I know that the choice is between life and death, not life and love. There are still too many unhappy men out there who want to play golf with their tire irons.


What I'm Reading

The books that I'm reading at the moment include:

¶ Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment. It's a nonpareil meditation on photography that's loosely organized around the different ways in which famous photographers have shot the same sort of subject. The first subject is blindness, with its corollary, begging, and its sub-corollary, accordion-playing. I'm learning to read the book as if it were a novel (see preceding entry): avoiding judgment until Mr Dyer has more or less finished. I wish that there were more reprints, as I'm sure the author did as well.

Is photography an art? I'm asking this question against the background of steeping my brain in Barry Gewen's essay, "State of the Art" (see "Book Review," below). I have made a decision about art: it must be long-lasting. Shakespeare's Hamlet is art, and perhaps Laurence Olivier's 1948 film of the play is art (if it's not camp), but no actual stage performance of Hamlet is art, because it can never be experienced a second time, neither by a member of the audience nor by the actors. A work of art must be experienced by several generations, and survive the reversals of taste that temper the patina of art.

Performance art and the occurrence art that M/Mme Christo produce belong in a pigeonhole with the pageants, tableaux, marriage festivities and World's Fairs. We read about these things in history books, but we can never know what they were like. Admiring a painting by Titian puts us on quite a different footing vis-à-vis the past.

I do not mean to be conservative. What's I'm suggesting is not that stuff has to be old to be good. It simply has to be old to be art. Until then, it's cool stuff. It's on probation.

Photography certainly passes the long-term test. But what the question really asks is this: can there be art without skill? Most of us have taken at least one photograph that would rank with the finest and most famous, and some amateurs seem to take nothing but revelatory, first rate pictures. (Vous vous reconnaissez, monsieur!) I am not saying that complete idiots can take great pictures. As a rule, I doubt very much that that is the case. But good pictures can be taken by people who have never studied photography. Good pictures are good pictures. If they survive in the ordinary way of cool stuff becoming art, then they're "art."

So craft is an accident of art, not an essential.

That's quite enough theory for one entry.


¶ Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder. I've read this before. I can still recall seeing it on my father's dresser. But I'm re-reading it not for sentimental reasons but to gauge as concisely as I can the changes that Otto Preminger wrought in adapting the novel for his great film of the same name. The most interesting discoveries, so far, are that Lieutenant Manion (the defendant) has a "Hitler mustache," and that Maida, Polly Biegler's secretary, really does talk a lot like Eve Arden. Oh, and there's a rival defense attorney in the neighborhood, completely excised from the film.

Interesting reading - but it's work. I'm really reading between the lines. It's not quite as bleak as comparing the two texts of Lear, but it tires me out at bedtime without making me sleepy. So I've slipped another film source into the pile: Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas, by Su Tong and translated by Michael S Duke. Zhang Yimou's 1991 adaptation, starring Gong Li, is one of my favorite films, and I can't wait for it to appear on DVD (I've got it now on laser disk, of all things). I wish I could read the novella in Chinese. (I wish I would make some progress with the two French novels that are in my basket at the moment!)

December 12, 2005

Jane Smiley: The Novel and History

Planted deep in the heart of Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf, 2005) is the most important essay written by anyone, anywhere, in the year 2005. It is an indispensable item of nonfiction. Entitled "The Novel and History," it makes the case that our liberal, tolerant, and progressive society is inconceivable without the novel. The claim is audacious, but Ms Smiley is persuasive. She will at any rate persuade anyone who has loved a novel that reading novels, far from being a pastime, is the engine of our social development.

Let's be clear right away what this does not mean. It is not that novelists propose social change. Sometimes they do, but the best novelists accept the status quo well enough to study the parts that interest them thoroughly and to compose fictional reflections, stories that illuminate the problems that some people have in the world. It is really the readers who mulch the social bedding with their reactions to novels.

Sometimes, of course, the solution proposed by the novel is a passive one, such as acceptance of the idea that evil exists or fate exists and nothing can be done about it. We often react to such novels with special admiration and respect, as I react to The Good Soldier. The Good Soldier is told entirely in retrospect by a narrator who has no hope of changing the outcome and not much hope of understanding it - his premise is that certain events have taken place right in front of him, but out of obtuseness and complacency, he was never able to see what was going on until it was too late for anyone to be saved. I read this with enjoyment and appreciation for the author's perspicacity, but even as I am understanding what has happened for Ford's narrator, John Dowell, I am vowing to learn from his mistakes - I will never be so unobservant. The very process of accompanying him while he disentangles his experiences reassures me that they can be disentangled.

Ms Smiley focuses on two institutions that have been overhauled by fiction: marriage and the sense of self. "Sense of self" is no less an institution than marriage, for it, too, has been institutionalized by all the major religions in such a way that, ideally, everybody's sense of self is the same - just as all marriages are the same, governed by a handful of simple if severe rules. The novel has blasted such complacencies to bits, and it is no wonder that orthodoxies rail against the resulting "individualism." The very idea of orthodoxy...

Continue reading about Jane Smiley on the novel at Portico.

December 11, 2005

Book Review

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


Why, one wonders, have the editors of the Book Review given Marcel Theroux's ultimately unfavorable review of Cold Sun, the Catalan novel by Albert Sanchez Piñol, the same amount of space that they've allotted to Caroline Alexander's thoughtful coverage of three obviously more significant books? Mr Theroux's piece summarizes Mr Piñol's gothic monster story, set in Antarctica, and then trashes the author's way of telling it. This looks like free-riding to me. Ms Alexander's books are the first offerings of a new series, from the publisher Canongate, of celebrated myths retold by eminent authors, and also Karen Armstrong's non-fiction introduction to the series, also in book form, A Short History of Myth. The review is guardedly enthusiastic about Ms Armstrong's book. As for the two novels, she really likes Jeanette Winterson's Weight, which retails the mythic episode in which Herakles relieved Atlas of the weight of the world, so that Atlas could fetch the Golden Apples of the Hesperides for him, and she really doesn't like Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which, in her opinion, is just one missed opportunity after another. "This marvelous material seems not to have been metabolized by Atwood's imagination, and the result is merely a riff on a better story that becomes dangerously close to being a spoof.

Other fiction is rounded up in Polly Shulman's Fiction Chronicle.

Twins, by Marcy Dermansky, sounds intriguing. Chloe and Sue have contrasting feelings about their twinship which repolarize over time. I'll have to check out the quality of the prose, first.

¶ So does The English Teacher, by Lily King. An adolescent tries to save his mother from alcoholism and to get her to tell him about his father, whom he never knew.

Macdougal Street Ghosts, by Hesper Anderson, does not come across very well. It is the story of a rather nasty-sounding wife living in Greenwich Village during the Sixties, and Ms Shulman's review is somewhat ambivalent. Does the following passage mean that this novel is a "devastating portrait" or a "boring read"?

Callie's little rebellion may be part of that larger story, but only accidentally; she's too wrapped up in self-pity and a sense of entitlement to care about advancing anybody's cause but her own.

¶ Tim Winton's The Turning: New Stories appears, on the evidence of this review, to channel Cormac McCarthy's austere horrors in an Australian setting.

If You Want Me To Stay, by Michael Parker, is a coming-of-age novel very unlike The English Teacher, taking place as it does (part of the time) in the locked cab of a pickup truck, where three boys seek protection while their father loses his mind. Eventually, the eldest turns on the engine and embarks in pursuit of Mom.

Emily Nussbaum generously reviews The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch. The most accessible of the famous New York School poets, Koch was, in Ms Nussbaum's opinion,

"sloppy, in other words - willing to chatter on, lacking precision. But then, it was these very weaknesses, and his avid pleasure in the flux and mess of the world, that made Kenneth Koch - as a writer and as a poetic persona - such a delight. An unrestrained celebrant of the urban appetites, he gave excitement a good name.


We'll start with two charming books, A N Wilson's After the Victorians, which Walter Olson doesn't think much of, and Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples, by Dan Hofstadter, about which Shirley Hazzard is enthusiastic. Mr Olson, of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, has little patience for Mr Wilson's anti-US judgments, and not for the first time I have to wonder what the editors were thinking when they aligned book and reviewer. It's at times like this that I feel that the Times is not-so-covertly right-wing. After the Victorians is a sequel to a book that I have written about here. As for the Naples book, you can be sure that I'd be buying it Ms Hazzard herself were the author. Two of her novels, Cliffs of Fall and The Bay of Noon are indelibly set in Italy, the latter in Naples. (And of course there's her sparkling memoir, Greene on Capri.)

There's a book about Buffalo Bill, that, according to Geoffrey C Ward, will be indispensable to readers who are

interested in Buffalo Bill, 19th-century show business or the many meanings of the American West,,,

As I fit into none of these categories, I'll be giving Louis S Warren's Buffalo bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show a pass. Even if it were otherwise, I'd be put off by such prose as Mr Ward quotes. Professor Warren has set out to write the definitive book about the mythogenic showman, and in more or less academic terms. I would just as soon find myself on the moon as in "the American West" - the region between Omaha, Nebraska and Pasadena, California. I saw it first in the days when advertisements sometimes included the proviso, "shipping slightly higher west of the Rockies" - or even "of the Mississippi." I am still in therapy.

Lynn Truss, author of Eats Shoots and Leaves, does not strike me as a very gifted writer. For all her vexed fretting about punctuation, she doesn't seem to have an ear for the music that punctuation creates (sometimes by omission). Like so many writers about language - and good old William Safire will remain at the top of my list of sinners in this regard until he stops pontificating in the Sunday Times Magazine - Ms Truss is cursed with a tin ear, and I for one refuse to seek advice from those incapable of felicitous prose. Her new book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today seems, in reviewer Bob Morris's view, "more likely to empower her fellow sticklers to set themselves upon the world, causing, in this rage-prone age, more incivility, not less."

This leaves two books about current affairs. One, reviewed by Andrew Wheatcroft, is The Great War for Civilization, by reporter Robert Fisk. Mr Wheatcroft feels that this compendious volume is "several books fighting each other inside the sack": a memoir, "an intelligent young person's guide to western Asia," and a tirade against American and Israeli activities. The reviewer acknowledges that he shares many of the author's views, but he wishes that Mr Fisk would be less contentious and more circumspect about laying them out. Helpfully, Mr Wheatcroft reminds us that today's troubled state of affairs dates back to mistakes finalized, so to speak in 1919.

Matt Bai's review of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob S Hacker and Paul Pierson, may save you some money, because this book has nothing to add to the What's the Matter With Kansas school of political analysis.

In fact, Hacker and Pierson cannot seem to find any significant fault among Democrats at all, save for their chronic but so darn lovable disunity. Like Frank and Lakoff, the authors seem to prefer the more self-ennobling explanation that conservatives have seized power from an unwitting electorate. For all its pretensions to objectivity, Off Center deteriorates into just the latest example in our political discourse of what might be called confirmational analysis - that is, a work whose primary purpose is to confirm what its audience already believes.

When will intelligent progressives recognize how deadly and self-defeating this "self-ennobling" is? And when are young politicians going to realize that what's wrong with the Democratic Party is nothing less than its continuing existence? To be sure, I share much more with Democrats than with Republicans - today's Republicans especially - but that does not blind me to the fact that the Party, as an association of actual individuals, can go nowhere but down, and that the only question is how long individual Democrats, by holding on to their personal power, will prolong the rule of right-wing-nuttery. I admire Senator Hillary Clinton; I voted for her in 2000 and will do so again next year. But any party that seriously proposes her as a presidential, or even vice-presidential candidate is simply delusional.

This week's Essay is by Sean Wilentz, and it clearly represents a sliver of research from his monumental The Rise of American Democracy. It is nowhere near as dire as its title, "The Rise of Illiterate Democracy," suggests. Rather, it compares the once robust contact between politicians and literary men (during the period covered in Rise) with today's mutual indifference. He's not talking about political novels - although there haven't been too many good ones lately; he's talking about men such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was described, in The Democratic Review, as a politician. As indeed he was. Everybody knows that he wrote The Scarlet Letter because a Whig victory had cost him his post at the Salem Custom House, but many prefer to imagine that he got the post in the first place from a rich and benevolent patron. That's true only in the sense that the Democratic Party was a rich and benevolent patron.

There is another, much longer essay in this week's Review, Barry Gewen's "State of the Art." An octet of recent books about art today provides the pretext for a lucid discussion of modernism, post-modernism, and the place of art in American society. I believe that it deserves its own entry, and I will try to get to it later this week.

Last week's Review offered a list of the year's hundred "notable" books. This has been distilled to a ten-best list. Nothing is going to make me try Haruki Murakami again; I found The Wild Sheep Chase one of the most annoying books ever. I do not begin to understand his appeal. That everybody would like On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, makes perfect sense, but this novel, if nowhere near as irritating as Mr Murakami's, added up to a big nothing. I found the situations and relationships altogether willed, and believed in none of them. Had the book been centered on Levi's identity problems, as a mixed-race adolescent ashamed of his privileges but probably not capable of living without them, I might have found some power in the book. Ms Smith writes very well, and even uses a couple of words that are new to me, but her central couple, Kiki and Howard, proved unable to sustain her literary pretensions. As for the nonfiction books, Tony Judt's Postwar catches my eye. I ought to avoid it, probably. Everything that I have read, either by Mr Judt (in The New York Review of Books), or about him, has presented an unpleasantly muscular thinker, an analyst with attitude and an impatience with the more common human sentiments. I gather that he has a blind spot where women are concerned, at least as political beings. All reviews have been favorable, but I don't need a book that in countless small ways will raise my blood pressure.

My candidate for Single Most Important Book of 2005 did not make the list, and that tells me a lot about middlebrows at the Times. It is the subject of the next entry.

Souvenir of Tristan und Isolde

Here it is, the middle of Sunday afternoon, and I haven't even begun to write my Book Review review. I'm still shaking the music out of my ears. Yesterday's round of housecleaning was accompanied by a recording of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde that I didn't know well. On it, Daniel Barneboim leads the Berlin Philharmonic, with Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier in the title roles. The recording was made in 1994, when Mr Jerusalem could still sing the part. Ms Meier is still singing Isolde, and as far as I'm concerned she owns the role. When she and Mr Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took part in a concert performance in Carnegie Hall a few years ago, I was blasted off to a new plane of music appreciation. If I hadn't listened to the Barenboim recording, it was because I preferred to watch the DVD from Munich (in a regrettably whimsical staging by Peter Konwitschny), with Jon Fredric West, Kurt Moll, and Marjana Lipovšek. Ms Lipovšek, another favorite voice, also appears on the Teldec CD.

I heard all sorts of things that I'd never heard before. Such as the hurricane of violas behind Isolde's mounting ecstasy in the first scene of Act II,

Die im Busen mir die Glut entfacht,

die mir das Herze brennen macht,

die mir als Tag der Seele lacht...

And I kept hearing Rufus Wainwright's "Memphis Skyline," the scoring of which now strikes me as patently adapted from this opera.

Ordinarily, I write up the operas that I listen to on Saturday afternoons as operas, at Good For You, and not as experiences, as I'm doing here, but Tristan still overpowers my critical faculties. It remains the most surprising work of art in Western history, almost unimaginable before its creation and still mighty startling. The better I know it, the less I understand it; the more simply miraculous it becomes. Richard Wagner seems so unlikely a character to have created Tristan that I am tempted to attribute it to divine intervention. It is both the supreme product of its age and the antidote to its repressions. As a work for the stage, it is hieratic rather than dramatic; all the excitement has been sealed into the score, which thrills as it unwinds no matter what's going on onstage. Even more than the great Ring cycle, Tristan has the force and heft and even the menace of myth.

I haven't yet figured out how to make Tristan und Isolde sound appealing and accessible to the uninitiated. From the outside, it is long and dark. The action is glacial. The singers sound melancholy, distressed, or angry - never was an opera so free of genuine good humor. Why on earth, you might ask, spend time in such depressing company? And I think that the opera will strike most listeners as depressing at first. It takes a while to sense that, just beyond the brown scrim of "opera," Wagner has seized every romantic yearning ever conceived, drained it of all thoughtlessness and frivolity, and fused it into a shimmering, iridescent rainbow that from time to time bursts open, like a cosmic nova, in a sublime ecstasy that has nothing to do with potions and lovers and everything to do with concentrated musical pleasure. 

December 10, 2005

Radio RJ

As long-time readers know, I spent most of my twenties working in classical FM radio, principally as a music director. I selected the music that was played from late morning until midnight. I did so, ideally, sufficiently in advance to allow offset-printed program guides to be produced and mailed to subscribers. But that is another story.

My database was a set of long trays of 3 x 5 inch cards. Each card listed a composition. The cards were arranged by composer, and the composers were arranged by birth date, so that early music was on my left, modern music on my right, and the music that most people want to hear was in the middle. I would pull the cards one by one to build up hours. In those days, federal regulation required station identification on the hour, so the hour was the basic programming unit. Because KLEF was a commercial station, I aimed to program hours of four or five pieces (to allow for breaks) with a play-length of fifty minutes. Staff announcers filled in any remaining air space ad libitum.

Programming music - laying out a sequence of compositions - is an art form in the sense that the Japanese tea ceremony is an art form. It is not so much creative as responsive. To follow a Rossini overture with a Schubert impromptu is to remind the alert listener that the relatively unknown Schubert imitated the wildly popular Rossini on several occasions, and might even be said to have shared something of the Italian composer's sense of humor. Or it might mean nothing; it might simply be pleasant. As a rule, clashes are to be avoided. One doesn't progress from early Mozart to later Ives, because the juxtaposition would be unflattering to both. Schumann followed by Brahms is always satisfying - and there's a danger of overdoing it. Scarlatti followed by Chopin can be clarifying, if you've chosen the right Scarlatti; Chopin assigned Scarlatti to his piano students. The more you listen, the more the connections proliferate.

After six years of programming music for a living, law school looked like a good thing. But I did not put programming behind me. Now I do it just for myself, on a facility that I call "Radio RJ." No broadcasting is involved, but I can be certain that, when I tune in, I won't hear anything that I don't like. Drawing on my sizeable CD library, I have filled over a hundred blank CDs with an ongoing sequence of symphonies, quartets, masses, nocturnes, concertos and even some overtures. I have almost three hundred more to burn, before filling my Sony carrousel to capacity.

Why go to all this trouble? Because it deals with the problem of choice so well. Without having anything particular in mind, I want to hear music. But what? There's so much to choose from! And if I want to hear one Mozart piano concerto, that doesn't mean that I want to hear the other one that's on the same CD. Radio RJ is, for me, a glorious filter. I would say that I've played through the existing circuit twenty-five times in the two years since I last worked on it. (Radio RJ is on only when RJ is actually listening to it.) It will also be, when it's complete, a pretty good record of my musical taste, something that I think would be very hard to infer from my collection itself.

Why did I stop two years ago? It's a long story, one that involves an incompletely backed-up database - an electronic one, this time; an Access file. As my last desktop computer lay dying of spy ware and other intrusions, I madly copied files onto discs. But something miscarried when it came to the Access databases, and in my confusion I didn't realize this until the hard drive had been wiped clean. (Even that didn't save the machine.) The result was that I lost the listings for CDs 70 through 101. Providentially, I had printed complete reports, not only of the sequence itself but of the works listed by composer - an important resource that provides a quick overview for planning new discs. (It tells me - to give a simple example - that Schumann's Piano Concerto appeared five discs ago, so don't burn it onto this one.) So all was not lost.

But, still. The idea of typing in thirty CD's worth of selections killed my appetite. There was also my own little Y2K problem. Unintelligently, I had started the database by listing tracks in four digits: cd/cd.tr/tr. Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 2, for example, starts at 77.02, while the next work, Telemann's Concerto for Trumpet and Oboes (also a chamber work, despite its title) begins at 77.06. (The Brahms is four movements - four tracks - in length.) The number is obviously vital to the undertaking; it's what tells the computer (and me) that the Telemann follows the Brahms instead of preceding it. Just as obviously, when I reached the centennial disc and ran into three digits, I had a problem. Very laboriously, I fixed the problem, prefixing each track listening with a "0." That labor was lost along with the listing of thirty CDs. This will give a better idea of why I just made do with what I'd already recorded by the fall of 2003. Did I mention that I was also chronically ill at the time?

It's only very lately, with my enormously amplified commitment to this site, that I've found the time and energy to forge onward. Because I'm out of practice, I resorted to the expedient of starting out from CD 201, instead of trying to follow the sequence at CD 101. (I'll worry about that later.) So far, I've completed five discs, and the database itself has been completely updated as to track listings, while one third of the missing CDs have been typed from the printouts into the computer. Pretty soon, it'll be good as new.

December 09, 2005

Closed for Christmas

Front-page story, New York Times, today.

Some of the nation's most prominent megachurches have decided not to hold worship services on the Sunday that coincides with Christmas Day, a move that is generating controversy among evangelical Christians at a time when many conservative groups are battling to "put the Christ back in Christmas."

At first, Laurie Goodstein's story made sense. Why should people have to work on Christmas Day? Even if their employer is a megachurch? Why not make this wonderful family holiday a day of rest, and let everyone stay home, quietly, with loved ones. Why not?

Of course I was smirking sardonically. If these huge congregations, with membership reaching 25,000 and beyond, are the future of American religion, then the break with traditional Christianity will soon be complete, and there will have to be some sort of reckoning about just what it means to be a Christian. Until the Reformation, being a Christian required subscribing to the Nicene Creed, and even the earliest breakaway sects (Lutheran and Anglican) retained this requirement. But Calvin and other more radical reformers, intent upon returning to an earlier and allegedly "truer" church, were bothered by some of the metaphysics that the Creed implied - and that was the end of orthodox Christianity. Now we have orthodox Christian sects (Roman Catholicism among them), but "Christianity" itself is, shall we say, open to interpretation.

But if I was not surprised by the news when I read it, I found myself becoming surprised, the longer I lived with the story. Sunday is the Lord's Day. Christmas is the Christ's birthday. How do we combine these principles to yield the result (church closed)? Just how debased is this religion? One begins to suspect that megachurch services - which are rousing and long on the multimedia, I understand - are a sort of Sunday, "feel-good" equivalent to Friday night football. They're not supposed to interfere with traditional, family holidays.


Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences (Viking, 2005) is Alison Lurie's eleventh work of fiction. Of the preceding ten, I've read at least five, and on the strength of that acquaintance, for what it's worth, I'm going to pronounce Truth and Consequences the best of her novels. Its elegant construction and pitch-perfect writing make it a joy to read, and the romantic developments are as absorbing as diplomatic maneuvers on the eve of a war.

This quadrille for two couples is told, in odd-numbered chapters, for the point of view of Jane Mackenzie and, in the even-numbered ones, from that of her professor husband, Alan. The other couple, a much more rickety union, comprises writer Delia Delaney and free-lance editor Henry Hull. The four meet at the Matthew Unger Center for the Humanities at Corinth University. Jane is the Center's director, while Delia and Alan are, for the school year, Fellows. Henry appears at first to be Delia's personal assistant.

You may be muttering that all the elegance in the world couldn't save a comedy of manners stocked with such familiar tropes. Academic adultery has been cultivated for too long, and by too many novelists-in-residence, to promise fertile fiction. Truth and Consequences, however, takes place on the other side of cliché. Ms Lurie assumes that you know...

Continue reading about Truth and Consequences at Portico.

December 08, 2005

Comfy, "voluptuous," even


A few minutes ago, I finished P D James's latest Adam Dalgliesh Mystery, The Lighthouse (Faber and Faber, 2005), and a very satisfying read it was. Incriminating evidence was not discovered until forty-two pages before the end, and the suspect, while unexpected, made a great deal of sense. More than that, I can't tell you.

About the mystery, that is. I'd like to share two or three amusing passages, however. First I have to tell you something about the setting, a redoubtable island off the Cornish coast. (It doesn't exist, we're told, and neither does the mainland jumping off point, a town called Pentworthy; but helicopters come and go from Newquay.) The site of Combe House, the former summer home of a once-great family, the island has been turned into a sort of Yaddo for VIPs. Because the island is impregnable, accessible only through a small harbor into which it is impossible to sneak, world leaders and tycoons can escape their entourages and security details along with their responsibilities. Guests may stay in the main house, but most prefer the stone cottages that are sprinkled at either end of the island. They can dine at the big house or alone in their rooms. The staff is minimal but proficient.

In short, Lady James has invented another variation on the theme that has underlain at least three other recent novels, The Murder Room, Death in Holy Orders, and Original Sin. All four books take place at great houses that have been converted to some interesting use. The settings are either literally or figuratively remote. And the denizens are to varying degrees engaged in resisting change. Has anyone noted this? It's not a trivial detail. Here, to be sure, it is the entire island, and not just Combe House, that has been endangered by murder, but as in the three predecessors that I've named, the location is a character in its own right. Certainly one of Lady James's abiding themes is mortal man's vain but impassioned desire to claim monuments that will outlive him. Sometimes this impulse is related to the crime; sometimes, as here, it is not. But in each book the police effort to get to the bottom of things is baffled by pride of place.

Needless to say, the last surviving Holcomb, octogenarian Emily, lives in one of her cottages; happily, it is semi-detached, and the much smaller adjoining cottage shelters her butler. I really liked Emily, as I always do, on the page, like somewhat crusty but very intelligent and impatient English gentlefolk - a class that included Lady James before she was granted her peerage. Here is Emily/the author, musing on the butler's holidays.

She had no idea where he went of what he did, nor did he ever confide in her. She had always assumed that long-term residents on the island were escaping from something even if, as in her case, the items on her list were too commonly accepted by the malcontents of her generation to be worth dwelling on: noise, mobile phones, vandalism, drunken louts, political correctness, inefficiency and the assault on excellence by renaming it elitism.

Hear, hear! The other two passages come in the course of Commander Dalgliesh's interview - "interrogation" would be too strong a word - with Combe's cook, Mrs Plunkett, and they are both anecdotes that she retails. Not surprisingly, she attests, her contact with the guests is limited to serving them at table, but there have been a few times when, instead of ranging the island's scrublands, a bigwig found deep contentment remembering childhood, as indeed Dalgliesh has done the moment he entered the kitchen.

They come here to be alone. Mind you, we had a prime minister here for two weeks. A lot of fuss that was over security, but he did leave his protection officers behind him. He had to or he wouldn't have been allowed to come. He spent a lot of time sitting at that table just watching me work. Didn't chat much. I suppose he found it restful. Once I said, "If you've nothing better to do, sir, you might as well whisk those eggs." He did.

Now, that's what we pay P D James for. Or this:

There was a gentleman - I think they called him a captain of industry - he liked his bread and dripping. If we had roast beef - we did more often then, especially in winter - he'd whisper to me before he left the dining room, "Mrs P, I'll be round to the kitchen just before bed." I would've done my cleaning up before that and be having a quiet cup of tea before the fire. He loved his bread and dripping. He told me that he'd had it as a boy. He talked a lot about the cook his family had. You never forget the people who were kind to you in childhood, do you sir?"

"No," said Dalgliesh [who was just thinking about his father's housekeeper], "You never do."

Janet Maslin, in her Times review, writes of Lady James's "voluptuous tone." That's it, exactly. And nobody "makes up" more nicely in TV serial form. I've read that actor Ray Marsden has grown a bit impatient with Dalgliesh, but I'm sure that there are very few readers who don't see him and hear him as they follow the Commander through the author's intricate imbroglios.

You'll have noticed that I bought The Lighthouse from Amazuke, when the novel first appeared. It was Janet Maslin's review - which I didn't read until just now - that spurred me to pull it out of the pile. I'd been saving it for Puerto Rico (now tentatively scheduled for February), but with Kathleen out of town, and afflicted by a very minor bug, I decided that I needed a treat. And a treat it was. Ms Maslin is right about something else, too: The Lighthouse is better than The Murder Room. So, if you've been dithering, dither no more.

So, is there an unread Donna Leon lying around somewhere? 

Orpheus at Carnegie

3 December 2005: The principal work on this Saturday-night program was Bach's Magnificat, BWV 243. In many ways the ideal introduction to Bach's choral music, the Magnificat combines the festive, trumpet-brightened tone of the Christmas music, the urgency of the Passions, and the instrumental delights of the larger cantatas in a chorale-free setting of the Latin text. The more you get to know of Bach, the more you'll find that the Magnificat hits all the bases.

The words of this prayer are taken from Luke 1:47-55. I've always associated it with the Annunciation scene, but in fact it is Mary's response to her cousin Elizabeth's rejoicing. Bach treats every line of Scripture (except for the first two, which he breaks into four) as a separate number, and tacks the liturgical "Gloria" onto the end. The twelve-movement result takes slightly less than a half-hour to perform. (Listen!)

Orpheus was joined by the Bach Choir of New York, a body drawn from the Choir of St Ignatius Loyola, under the direction of Kent Tritle. The evening's soloists, in turn, were drawn from the choir.

Continue reading about Orpheus at Carnegie at Portico.

December 07, 2005

Man Overboard!

Oh dearie. Something went terribly wrong at a recent performance of Messiah. You can hear it coming, even if you don't realize it; perhaps you'll think that there's other music playing in the house somewhere. I'd been listening to a CD, which I kept pausing for no reason. Pop quiz: what instrument misfires in this quote? (Thanks, Felsenmusik)


Ms NOLA was right to correct me about Gilead and The Master (comments to "You knew I was a wacko, no?" below), both "Notable Books" of 2004. I apologize for my unedited outburst; I try to be more careful about getting the facts right. In any case, I saw that Gilead was still in my "to do" pile, so I rolled up my sleeves and - discovered that I'd already said just what I wanted to say about this extraordinary book. Perhaps I kept it back with thoughts of making it longer. But longer, in this case, would not be better.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's second novel (FSG, 2004) is a beautiful book. It is also the most profoundly Christian book that I have ever read. To me, the thrust of Jesus's message was toward compassion and forgiveness, and if there's another novel out there that meditates as lucidly upon compassion and forgiveness, I'll be very heartily surprised. Between the moral beauty of the tale and the aesthetic beauty of the novel, however, there is a delicate tension that makes me reluctant to say very much about this book. I'm far too clumsy not to bump into something, or to miss, completely, something else. While the narrator of Gilead, John Ames, gradually finds himself engaged in what might be called a spiritual crisis, the novel itself is all about mortality.

Not for all the world would I sketch the outlines of John Ames's struggle. Even to say that the struggle does not begin until well after the point at which this reader began to wonder if the novel were going to be more than the accumulated observations of an old man, afflicted with angina pectoris - even to say this is perhaps to say too much...

Continue reading about Gilead at Portico.

December 06, 2005

A New Affinity

Permit me to call attention to a new addition to my Affinities list. Laura Garcia, who signs herself LTG, keeps a thoughtful blog at Embracing Chaos. Writing in central Massachusetts, Laura came upon the Daily Blague via the shout-out conferred by Joe.My.God in October. She has been posting at Embracing Chaos with ever-increasing frequency, and her entry about Google Earth the other day made it clear to me that a kindred soul belonged on my list.

When I launched this site a year ago, I kept the usual blog roster - a few personal sites that interested me, and a few national brands, such as Fafblog and Obsidian Wings. It ended up looking something like this. What I didn't understand until well into 2005 was the deforming effect of starting a blog during an election cycle. As the dust settled, the national brands seemed less vital, and sometimes a great deal less healthy. I do not wish to be a monument to the failure - which I hope will prove temporary or even curable - of my country's electoral system (the actual one, skewed by campaign financing and de facto disenfranchisement, and not so much the one ordained by the Constitution). Issues are important, certainly, but I believe that they ought to be refracted through the texture of a lived life. Theorists and academics strike me as deeply out of touch with, and frankly not interested in, the thought of the "ordinary" people in their lives. 

We need to temper the practice of professionalism. While we can't take our specialties seriously enough, we need to do more to make sure that they're open to intelligent comment by laymen. I know from experience that lawyers have a lot of bizarre and not terribly humane ways of doing things, some of them quite literally medieval. Doctors are beginning to learn that failure to be frank and cordial with patients is the surest predictor of malpractice litigation. Research scientists have failed miserably at maintaining a literate public. It is their responsibility to make what they're doing interesting and comprehensible to nonscientists. Blaming the general public, or even the educational system, as Nicholas D Kristof does in today's Times, is a waste of time. There's probably not a profession or line of work in the world that couldn't be "taught" by a clever video game.

Because I'm positively neurotic about  giving offense, and would feel terrible about taking anyone off my Affinities list, I've grown somewhat cautious about additions. I visit the sites on the list every weekday, and comment as frequently as anything intelligent pops into my head. I also visit the sites on a list that I began keeping privately about two months ago. Embracing Chaos is the first to make the jump.

Because Mr Kristof's Op-Ed piece is available only to TimesSelect subscribers, I have not provided a link.

The Music of my private Bon Voyage

One of the things that makes Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Bon Voyage a huge favorite of mine is that, while Virginie Ledoyen plays the woman of whom I want to be worthy - and happily, in the form of my dear Kathleen, I am married to her - Isabelle Adjani plays the woman whom I want to take advantage of me. I've been lucky enough to have Adjani types exploit me once or twice; the compensation is knowing that they don't take advantage of "just anybody."

But there is the setting, too: that awful spring and summer of 1940, when, fortunately for everybody, Americans were faced with two presidential candidates who pledged war against the fascist menace. Well, one finds one's silver lining where one can. Bon Voyage reminds us that 1940 would have been a high point in French life if it hadn't been for the Germans; never has style so completely inflected high popular culture. That's made beautifully clear in the film's opening scene, as a posh audience in a grand theatre watches the finale of a farce and applauds at the end. The lights go up, and everything is glamor, chic. Even Gérard Depardieu is polished and debonair! And I hear music. It is, however, not music on the sound track. It is Jacque Ibert's Ouverture de fête. (Give this huge file a moment to load.)

The sound track of Bon Voyage is terrific. Gabriel Yared has written an exceptionally fine two-part score, one part for the tense parts and one for the lyric. But it remains, however unobtrusively,music of today. When I listen to the Ibert, it reminds me of everything in Bon Voyage. The crowds milling about the hotel in Bordeaux, the fun and irresponsibility of Vivian Denvers's escapades. the importance of safeguarding the professor's heavy-water bottles, the heartbeats of the hero's divided affections, and the knowledge, finally, that France will come out all right - the impudent belief that failing in high style is not failure. Puritans will have none of this, I know, but I am no puritan.

No puritan could possibly like the gloriously bluesy theme that punctures the carefully if exuberantly crafted crescendo at - miracle of technology - two minutes and fifty-two seconds (2:52) into the Ouverture. Although obviously inspired by American jazz, it has a French polish and peculiarity that makes it altogether new. This is precisely what was tops about French art in the late Thirties, a taste for enjambing low-life onto the high- that still seems sound. It is somehow, at the same time, chrome and sterling.

Five minutes into the overture, a sort of melancholy seems to take over, but the appearance is deceiving, a strategy for new triumph. But note, at 6:23, the American tonality - this could, for a moment, be Ives, or, more easily, Copland. What if I told you that this overture was commissioned by the imperial Japanese court. to mark some utterly incredibly polymillennial anniversary? Events, shall we say, intervened, and the work never did become the "Japanese Overture" that it would have become without war. Of course, there's nothing remotely Japanese about it. Except, just maybe, a very high style.

In the ninth minute, this reflective part begins to gird its loins for an assault on the summit. At 11:12, the foundations of triumph begin to be laid. At 12:22, the blues theme announces victory. A few minutes later, the Ouverture ends with the kind of racket that marks V-Days. Everything elides. And I feel that I've just watched Bon Voyage again. The real Bon Voyage.


December 05, 2005

Still More Political Humour

Suddenly, it just doesn't stop.

The Democratic Party is becoming the tool of an extreme domestic leftist insurgency led by the Michael Moores and the Cindy Sheehans and other neoreactionary, neoisolationist Americans.

(Actor Ron Silver, in the Times.)


You knew I was a wacko, no?

Just so you know how far off the axis of "mainstream media" taste I wobble, let me inform you that, of the New York Times Book Review's list of "100 Notable Books of the Year," I have read exactly seven: four novels (Home Land, Never Let Me Go, On Beauty, and Saturday), two memoirs (The Tender Bar and The Year of Magical Thinking) and Freakonomics, which I can't classify. New Art City is in my pile, and The Rise of American Democracy is on order. To tell the truth, I don't think that Home Land belongs on the list, while Colm Toibin's The Master most certainly does. So does Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences. So does Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel - which I read a while back and still need to write up. And where's Gilead? Who drew up this list? Not a committee, I hope.

December 04, 2005

Book Review

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

Taking on this week's Book Review is daunting. Instead of three or four novels, there are ten under review, a roundup of recent graphic fiction and the two volumes of Philip Roth that the Library of America has issued. Twenty one works of nonfiction are reviewed. And on top of all that, there are eight holiday roundups (photography, travel, and so on). By the time I'd finished reading the Review, I was sick of books.

Novels that sound interesting: Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide (Pat Walsh: "The author's declarative style and vivid imagery allow the science of the ocean to blend easily with its poetry. ... these small flaws do little to diminish the bittersweet joy that comes when finishing a strong novel by a fine writer."); Phone Rings, by Stephen Dixon (Sven Birkerts: "Violating every sacred canon of narrative construction, Dixon has nonetheless fashioned an intimate, wrenching picture of loss - how the impossibly great value of a life can be taken away and never brought back."); In Lucia's Eyes, by Arthur Japin and translated from the Nederlands by David Colmer (notwithstanding Kathryn Harrison's favorable review. This novel involves Casanova in Amsterdam); Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala (Simon Baker: "Still more impressive is Iweala's ability to maintain not only our sympathy but our affection for his central character." Indeed, given that the hero is a child drawn into tribal warfare.); and Making It Up, by Penelope Lively (Reviewed by Roxana Robinson. Ms Lively has written a contrafactual memoir: what might have her life have been like had she taken different turns?);

As for the rest:

¶ Philip Roth is very much not on my list. Every once in a while I read an extract in a magazine and end up repulsed. Gary Shteyngart's review is a largely unnecessary explanation of Mr Roth's appeal to Jewish readers.

¶ According to Lynn Freed, an important character in Joanna Scott's Liberation "comes off as an idea for a character - an idealistic youth from an exotic culture - and rather a sentimental  one at that."

¶ Alexander McCall Smith writes of Carlos Maria Dominguez's The House of Paper (translated by Nick Caistor and illustrated by Peter Sìs): "The delight in The House of Paper is not so much in the story of the search but in the poetic style of its telling and in Dominguez's whimsical asides on reading and bibliophilia." I have grown very suspicious of whimsical asides on reading and bibliophilia. They're often nothing more self-congratulatory procrastination.

¶ Judith Warner really liked The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, by Carolly Erickson, even though she doesn't care for historical fiction. I'm afraid of contaminating my brain with plausible but fictive observations put in the mouth of a woman who doesn't seem to have cared much for reading or writing. Remember what MA's husband wrote in his diary for 14 July 1789: "Rien." He was referring to the day's hunt.

¶ Ada Calhoun doesn't think much of Julie Baumgold's The Diamond, a "fictionalized history of the Régent diamond, which currently sits in the Louvre. "It's rather like being lectured at by an arts administrator about painting."

John Hodgman rounds up recent graphic fiction releases. I, for one, am delighted to retire the term "comics" and its variants. The French do it best: the spelled-out abbreviation, bédé (for "bande dessinée), works so well precisely because it doesn't pass judgment in the way that even "graphic fiction" does. Come on , try it: bayday, with an ever-so-slight accent on the second syllable. I can't wait to get David Clowe's Ice Haven; it seems to be an anthology of graphic possibilities. I'm also drawn to Red Meat Gold: The Third Collection of Red Meat Cartoons From the Secret Files of Max Cannon, but I probably won't, because I like to be the principal source of humor in this household. Walt & Skeezix 1921 & 1922 reminds me of how opaque "Gasoline Alley" was when I was a kid; amazingly, it's still being drawn (by its fourth artist). Black Hole, by Charles Burns, looks fascinating but creepy. There's no illustration from Der Struwwelmaakies, by Tony Millionaire, so I'll have to see a copy of this dark strip before I can judge. I will not be in the market for The Complete Peanuts 1957-1958 or any of its sequels. Nor for The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.

I had to look up It's Superman!, by Tom De Haven, to find out whether this, too was a bédé. It is not, even though Josh Emmons writes, "And yet the cartoon world of It's Superman! is often as delightful as the original created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Colors, sounds and emotions are exaggerated to great, infectious effect, so that when Superman is sent hurtling through the air by an explosion, we thrill to the ride." A novel about Superman?

Next, we have nonfiction. As noted, there's even more of this than there was of the other. There are two pop-music reviews, one of them a roundup of eleven books. I have decided to exempt myself from comprehending these reviews, even to the point of eliding their titles, although I'll note that Dave Itzkoff and David Kelly share the reviewing. Will Hermes reviews Nik Cohn's Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap. I'd skip it, too, if Triksta weren't given an entire page and set in New Orleans - but I'm afraid that that will have to do. Nothing makes me fear for the future more anxiously than rap. I attribute this to senility and move on.

There are two books about cold water that don't interest me much, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance, by Mariana Gosnell (reviewed by Elizabeth Royte) and Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches, by Jill Fredston (Florence Williams). I wasn't planning to read John Feinstein's Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL, so I'll just note that, according to reviewer Joseph Nocera, it's "not great. It is not even particularly good."

On the literary front:

¶ There is a new collection of The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy. Lucy Ellmann would have liked better notes.

¶ If I think of Sir Lawrence Olivier as a literary figure, that's because I can't forget how unintentionally funny his film of Hamlet is. Richard Schickel - who's book about Elia Kazan, you'll recall, was generously reviewed last week - writes the fourth review of Terry Coleman's Olivier that I have read.

¶ Francine Prose claims that John Worthen's D H Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider helped her understand a little better a writer whom she'd not much cared for. The last time I tried Lawrence, I thought I was chewing cement.

¶ Cristina Nehring, reviewing Hazel Rowley's Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, regrets that Beauvoir didn't stick with Nelson Algren. If she had, "perhaps their two opposing intensities - her "stern" theory of passion and his hot-blooded embrace of it - would have melded into a new amorous philosophy, the one we are still missing." Ms Nehring also finds that Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre was based on lies.

¶ According to Cathy Horyn, Penelope Rowlands doesn't understand why her subject was a great editor at Vogue and then at Harper's Bazaar. A serious impediment to reading A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters. "Because Rowlands never clearly identifies the qualities that influence [Snow's] choices, among them self-reliance and a tendency, as Nast put it, to 'befog' issues, her portrait is not as critical as it should be, nor as sympathetic as it might be."

¶ Frank McCourt's account of his life as a teacher in New York's public schools, Teacher Man: A Memoir, gets a sympathetic review from Ben Yagoda. My inner critic has warned me to keep away from Mr McCourt, although it feels curmudgeonly to say so.

¶ Samuel Johnson is one of the strangest eminences in English letters, and his Dictionary does nothing to make him more like the others. Charles McGrath, the Review's former editor, seems to be mildly disappointed that of Henry Hitching's Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary, is not just another biography, and he spends most of his space telling us things that we mostly knew. I come away insufficiently informed to judge.

There are two sort-of history books that I'm not going to read, despite their interesting subject matter. According to Caroline Alexander, Bettany Hughes believes that her Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore was an actual woman, but fails to "cite evidence for her thesis." Ms Alexander also writes of a "welter of detail." On the basis of reviewer Liesl Schillinger's quotations from Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy, 1400-1600, author Evelyn Welch has relied too heavily on learned tirades against consumer excess, tendentious at best and not reliable mirrors of contemporary behavior. The very idea of "shopping" is as anachronistic in writing about the Renaissance as "fashion magazine" would be. As for really good history, I'm definitely putting Edvard Radzinsky's Alexander II: the Last Great Tsar on my list. I'd have done so no matter what Richard Lourie wrote about it. Mr Radzinsky's book about Nicholas II, The Last Tsar, was compelling reading.

There are two books about local waterways. The Hudson: A History, by Tom Lewis, begins with Henry Hudson's travels and end with current efforts to make the river clean. Reviewer Robert Sullivan doesn't quote enough from the book to give me an idea of its readability (and in any case I'll want to check out the illustrations first). Liesl Schillinger avoids this pitfall when she winningly quotes George Matteson, author of Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History, on his topic: "It takes relatively little to get them moving and a long time to get them to stop, and anything that gets in their way is done for."

Peter Bearman has written a book about Doormen, and Judith Martin (Miss Manners) makes it sound totally must-have. I've already started saving up for this year's Christmas tips. We've got six doormen, and although I'm not going to tell you how much I tip each one of them - a new improvement from the late night guy's standpoint, since we used to give him less, until we realized that just because we never saw him he didn't mean that he wasn't keeping us safe - and you'd be a fool to believe me if I did, I will add that we throw in a bottle of Moët & Chandon White Star. New Yorkers will doubtless find much occasion for rueful chuckling in Doormen, but I hope that out-of-towner's will read it, because, contrary to the impression conveyed by Hollywood, doormen are not latter-day flunkies who open doors but sensitive agents in the operation of New York's culture.

It's hard to tell just how enthusiastic reviewers Jane and Michael Stern are about Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition. Having noted that author Walter Gratzer "reels out a historical pageant of science and pseudoscience teeming with remarkable characters who have advanced (and retarded) knowledge about what makes humans thrive," they go on to spend most of the review talking about pellagra.

We wrap up with two titles touching on humor:

The Truth (With Jokes) by Al Franken, glowingly reviewed by Carl Hiaasen. As Mr Hiaasen has made clear in his wonderful novels (and in his fiery tract, Team Disney) "we live in a great and bountiful country for joke writers." Sad but funny.

¶ Henry Alford does not write glowingly of The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales. "Anthologies can be wonderful showcases for personal essays, but The Worst Noel - which doesn't even identify its editor - is less memorable as a forum for good writing than as a reminder of four of the genre's more dispiriting traits." Which Mr Alford goes on to enumerate. The review is the point here, so find it and read it.


Kathleen left for Arizona at 6:30 yesterday morning. For some reason, I didn't feel like getting back into bed - I was probably too tired - so I made myself a nice breakfast and tidied up the kitchen, all the while watching Henry Hathaway's 1953 classic, Niagara, which may be the best Hitchcock film not made by Alfred Hitchcock.

Then I went back to bed. It was 8:15, and the Times hadn't yet arrived. It's not supposed to until about 9:30. When I came to, there it was. I reached for the Book Review. "Holiday Books"! Goody! Expecting lots of group summaries - the year's best gardening books, and so on - with few full reviews, I was disconcerted by the issue's thickness. What's this? More reviews than ever? The very opposite of "Goody!" By the time I was finished reading the damned thing, I was sick of books. So I read the paper itself and finished Margaret Talbot's excellent article on the Dover Area School District case.

At issue in this case is the legitimacy of proposing Intelligent Design as a scientific theory. I've been so scattered that it has taken all week to read the piece, but that has also kept the problem fresh in mind. Dover presents a veritable Problem of Democracy. If a majority decides that Intelligent Design is science, then that's that, at least so far as public schools are concerned. Scientists and other leaders can insist that the majority is mistaken, but the majority has the right to be mistaken. Until the Enlightenment, it was generally assumed that, given a broad franchise - "mob rule" as it was contemptuously described - the majority would be mistaken as a matter of course.

Regular readers will know that I trace Dover, as I do so many outcroppings of inappropriate sectarianism, to the civic upset of the 1960s. Where federal legislation enacting broader civil rights stopped, "activist" courts were willing to pick up. Apparently, there are a lot of people my age who, as teenagers, witnessed their parents' anger at and humiliation by "elitists," and many of them have devoted their mature efforts to fighting back - whether against evolution, women's rights, gay marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, or the ban on prayer in public schools. Call it the "Revenge of the Patriarchs" if you're drawn to exciting catchphrases. Or you can call me simplistic. I don't say that tectonic shifts occurring forty years ago are the cause of today's reaction. But I do trace its energy back to them.

In the evening, there was Orpheus at Carnegie Hall. As Kathleen was in Arizona, Ms NOLA stepped in to take her place, and M le Neveu met us at the Brooklyn Diner USA afterward.

December 03, 2005

The City That Never Sleeps

It's true.

My all-night days are a thing of the past. So I'm not entirely sure that the coffee shops at either end of the southern side of the block across the street are open twenty-four hours every day. According to this Google Map, they're not. But I'll bet that the map is simply incomplete.

One of the rudest awakenings that hits the acclimatized New Yorker on the road is that other cities really do sleep. Some of us are awake at every hour of the day. Our transit system never pauses, although of course service becomes much less frequent in the wee hours. (Thanks Gothamist)

Aeon Flux

Yesterday's movie, seen at the Storage Unit Theatre, was - stirring. Yes, that's the word. But only for the short-term. I'm a little jangly still, but it probably won't last. Going to the storage unit afterward, though, was creepier than usual. It's so hermetic in there that I can imagine that the world outside is just like the one that I saw in the movie.  Which, in the case of Aeon Flux, isn't reassuring.

Most of the raw materials here are familiar. The semi-distant future (four centuries plus), wipeout plague, survivors lodged in earth's only remaining city (which they're forbidden to leave), underground opposition, and lots of special-forces training. What kept me from being bored (when I wasn't quaking) was the intelligent way in which the background was revealed; the raw materials have all been given twists.

And Aeon Flux is very stylish. The nightmare of corporations running the future is never overt (as it is in, say, Rollerball), but it is suggested at every turn by architecture that suggests the very latest in top-notch office parks. There are no rough edges in Bregna (as the city is called, poetically but somewhat forgettably), and there are plenty of flowering gardens. Some of these, at least the ones surrounding the citadel, are lethal.

We are introduced to Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) right away. She is a "Monican" - hope I've got that right - or member of the not-so-loyal opposition. Hearing her opening narrative, which is also made up of raw materials, we might lazily assume that there's trouble in paradise simply because that's the way human beings are: after too many years of peace, they itch for trouble. So far as I know, this theory has never yet been tested, but here we have just one of many movie tropes derived from the Augustinian view of things. But that's not, in fact, why Bregnan society seems to be breaking down. There's a better reason.

When we learn that the ruler of Bregna is Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csakos), the doctor who came up with a last-ditch cure four hundred years earlier, we begin wondering what's going on. (Doctors in charge? There are more than a few half-conscious echoes of Zardoz here, although, stylish as it is, Aeon Flux is not as stylish as that John Boorman fable.) As it turns out... I have omitted a raw material from my list. (It is a five-letter word that rhymes with the kind of world that we live in.) Suffice it to say that Aeon's open-shut mission to liberate Bregna runs into a serious snag early on, and this is where director Karyn Kusama's direction and Phil Hay's and Matt Manfredi's script part company with cliché. True, they never wander out of sight of it, but they keep things nicely mixed-up. And they've got something altogether new: the Relical, ostensibly a monument to all the human life that has been lost but actually much much more. Looking like something between an amoeba and a gently floating beret, and bearing a festoon of trailing streamers, the Relical flies over Bregna every day, collecting information. (Now that I think of it, the Relical is another half-conscious echo of Zardoz.) When Aeon Flux leapt from a spire to grab one of the Relical's streamers, I almost lost my popcorn. It appears that Ms Theron studied trampoline with a trainer from the Cirque de Soleil. 

Will I get in trouble if I suggest that Ms Kusama makes Aeon Flux surprisingly interesting? It could have been a very bad picture, long on looks and devoid of anything else but violence. It would be silly to suggest that only a female director would know how to infuse the villain, Oren Goodchild, with more than a few dashes of Richard III, but one is sorely taxed to think of an actual male director who would have done so. Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Oren, seems bound for typecasting as a fine-featured bad-guy, and I hope that he will manage to steer clear. Sophie Okonedo and Caroline Chikezie do fine jobs as tough gals, while Pete Postlethwaite and Frances McDormand do the same as fantasy creatures.

On the whole, I would say that the trailer for Aeon Flux is not misleading, except insofar as it might tempt you in to thinking that the film is much better.

December 02, 2005

More Political Humour

Keep 'em coming. This one's from PPOQ.

One day a fourth-grade teacher asked the children what their fathers did for a living. All the typical answers came up - fireman, mechanic, businessman, salesman, doctor, lawyer, and so forth.

But little Justin was being uncharacteristically quiet, so when the teacher prodded him about his father, he replied, "My father's an exotic dancer in a gay cabaret and takes off all his clothes in front of other men and they put money in his underwear. Sometimes, if the offer is really good, he will go home with some guy and make love with him for money."

The teacher, obviously shaken by this statement, hurriedly set the other children to work on some exercises and then took little Justin aside to ask him, "Is that really true about your father?"

"No," the boy said, "He works for the Republican National Committee and helped re-elect George Bush, but I was too embarrassed to say that in front of the other kids."

Rights and Realities

Dalton Conley's essay in yesterday's Times, "A Man's Right to Choose," makes me more impatient every minute. The more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes that even to speak of "rights" in the abortion situation is unintelligent. I suppose that it was necessary to do so at the time of Roe v. Wade, but that case is over a generation old.

Let's talk about realities. Mr Conley writes,

Nobody is arguing that we should let my friend who impregnated his girlfriend off the hook. If you play, you must pay.

Ah, good old "personal responsibility," applied to an aspect of human life that more or less demands a surrender, or loss of control, that fairly rules out responsible thinking. To believe that people who have irresponsible sex must pay for the consequences by supporting a child that one of them doesn't want is patriarchal moralizing at its most intoxicated. Let's consider the reality of the life that such a child is likely to have. We are grown-ups, not idealists; we understand and accept that even the best-intentioned parents may not be up to the task. Unwanting parents are unlikely to be "best-intentioned."

Another reality: there are circumstances in which an unwanted pregnancy may lead to the mother's beating or murder by a husband who could not have been the father. "Pay and Play"? Is that really a decent standard of judgment? If your daughter were caught in such a bind, would you admonish her sternly that she brought the situation upon herself? Or are you sure that no one you're connected to could be caught in such a bind. Just less-advantaged folk.

These realities don't matter much to the patriarchs, because Christianity and its offshoots set themselves in the teeth of reality. Reality - the material world in all its failings - is precisely what religious figures such as Augustine command us to reject and contemn. Since life in this mortal world doesn't matter in itself, because earthly life is no more than a test of worthiness of divine love (I am choking as I write this), there is really nothing wrong with punishing people for their "sins." Even innocent children; because, after all, thanks to Augustine's utterly lunatic but strangely-appealing doctrine of original sin, there are no innocent children.

Forget "rights" - we're not talking about property here - and focus instead on probability, which is, indeed, all that we know about the reality to come. For my part, I would require obstetricians to abort fetuses in the absence of affidavits from each parent in support of the pregnancy. That's undoubtedly going too far for most of us, and doubtless it would lead to injustices of its own. Better, perhaps, to have no rules on the subject. Better to accept the reality that, even though some of us are passionately opposed, on the most deeply-felt religious grounds, to abortion, there is no consensus among the all-of-us in whose name any government must act.

There is a lot of talk these days about the possibly corrosive effect of teaching little boys that daddies aren't necessary. Won't they grow up thinking the same thing? As I understand human nature, children are never stunted by genuinely loving care; they don't learn eccentric behavior from eccentric parents. Mr Conley seeks to tap into this debate toward the close of his piece.

The bottom line is that if we want to make fathers relevant, they need rights, too. If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create.

Looked at from the vantage of "rights," this is arguable. From the standpoint of reality, it is obscene. It submits women to exactly the same pressure that existed prior to Roe: a forced pregnancy followed by adoption. As a child who was adopted in the good old postwar days when there was still thought to be a stigma about not being your parents' biological offspring - but no thought whatsoever was given to the possibility that you might never, ever think like one or both of your parents, something that, in my experience, does not occur in even the most dysfunctional biological families - I hardly know which I value less: the life that I wouldn't have had had Roe been decided a generation earlier, or the love that I lost because my mother was an unmarried woman who would have brought scandal upon herself and upon her family because she lived in an America still ruled by the patriarchs. Mr Conley does not, I assure him and you, know what he's talking about - he really doesn't.

Not that I expect him to care about that.

December 01, 2005

Official Announcement

This just in.

Official Announcement:

The government today announced that it is changing its emblem from an Eagle to a CONDOM because it more accurately reflects the government's political stance. A condom allows for inflation, halts production, destroys the next generation, protects a bunch of pricks, and gives you a sense of security while you're actually being screwed.


I don't make this up, you know.

Leslie Savan on Cant

Leslie Savan's Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever (Knopf, 2005) is a collection of clever journalistic pieces on assorted aspects of modern cant. As Ms Savan points out, cant has always been with us. But not nearly so inescapably.

There was a time - the twilight of respectability - when manufacturers and other businessmen wanted to associate their products with the highest standards, and this produced rather starchy copy. Now that they're interested only in projecting some refraction of cool, however, advertisers take jargon right from the streets, while it's still in limited use, give it a high shine, and pump it into the ether, where it presently becomes familiar to just about everybody.

Nor is this a question of vocabulary alone. Catchphrases are encapsulated in a package of accent and attitude. It's this, perhaps, that puts cant in the same relation to expressive speech that a scanned image has to a text file. Cant and image alike cannot be analyzed into component parts. When Coke calls itself "The Real Thing," the ensemble of red waves, pretty faces, or vocal charms dampen the meanings of "real" and "thing." What does "It's the Real Thing" signify? Ultimately, nothing...

Continue reading about Leslie Savan on Cant at Portico.