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January 31, 2006

Not Seen on Television

Yesterday morning, I dragged myself out of bed only to pitch headlong into the slough of despond. Reading the Times only made things worse. It occurred to me to issue an SOS: can anybody out there buck me up? Gradually at first but then quite quickly, the malaise evaporated.

When I wake up, I think of all the things that I have planned for the day. Normally, they amount to something to look forward to, but on days like today they're empty burdens, chores to be performed for no good reason. Except for that best of all reasons: don't make things even worse.

What's causing this spontaneous negativity? A dread that I have to talk myself out of every day - a dread that the United States is in a rudderless little boat heading straight for Niagara Falls. Does it matter which particular rocks destroy the ship and its passengers? An oil shock? A debt shock? The evisceration of the Republic's vitals by theocrats? The rudderless little boat is, of course, the Administration. We're still too far from the precipice for outright panic. But the anxiety is wearing.

We liberals stand by uselessly while our countrymen swallow the line from Washington. Here's a sterling example of how stupefying that line is, taken from a Times editorial about the White House's refusal, so far, to do anything about New Orleans.

But the Bush administration refuses to support the plan of Representative Richard Baker, Republican of Louisiana, which would give everyone the capacity to rebuild and which had the backing of the mayor, the governor and the state's Congressional delegation. (To add insult to injury, two days after the White House shot down Mr. Baker's proposal, President Bush suggested at a news conference that Louisiana's problem was the lack of a plan.)

How does the man get away with it? Thomas Frank sheds some light on the problem in the current Harper's (February 2006). Mr Frank has been trying to understand how Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America has held onto its Best-Seller listing. After all, as Mr Frank is able to show, there is nothing, quite literally nothing, in Mr Goldberg's book that could not be cobbled together from popular conservative Web sites. How can it be that so many book-buyers lack the critical acumen to see that Mr Goldberg brings nothing new to the discussion? (And that they are really - unless they wish to support Mr Goldberg - wasting their money?) Mr Frank eventually hit upon an explanation.

Like so much of today's right-win thought, 100 People owes its success to the remaking of American consciousness by television. The book's episodic structure, for example, reflects TV's amnesiac style: Each little hit-piece flickers by, the previous installment's outrage instantly forgotten, the staggering, mind-stopping contradictions between them (were Goldberg somehow to critique himself, he would no doubt call them "hypocrisies") flowing without narrative consequence.

Mr Frank does not leave it at that, but goes on to suggest why television has such mindless impact.

A convenient rhetorical benefit of this emphasis on electronic speech is that it solves the difficult problem of real-world power - by which I mean a problem that is difficult for conservative populists who like to depict themselves as society's victims. If offensive speech is the raw material of politics, then things like ownership or wealth distribution are not worthy of consideration. Nor can the threat posed by liberals be minimized or made to seem less dire by pointing out those liberals' inability to win elections: as long as liberals exist, getting their ten seconds on TV or posting their liberalisms on the Internet, the danger to America is clear and present.

Just as speech trumps deeds, so do individuals trump larger social forces. In the world of the right, as in the world of TV, personalities rule. Character is king. "There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher said; there are only individuals.

And so Bernard Goldberg scolds Kenneth Lay of Enron but has nothing to say about the moldy climate that has spread through the nation's executive suites as the sun of federal regulation has been dimmed. I want to take Mr Frank's point one half-step further, if only because I've never thought of this before and am feeling somewhat eureka-ish: television can't handle institutions. It can only reduce them to individual representatives or spokesmen. Institutions, insofar as they are more than rude collections of individuals, are necessarily abstractions. They're very real abstractions: they own property and file lawsuits about it all the time. But when television inquires into a bit of litigation, it can't see the abstraction that is, say, the General Motors Corporation. It can only see lawyers and executives - individuals all. You, meanwhile, following the camera and trying to understand what it's showing you - you will find it very hard to keep the abstraction in your mind, no matter how bright and sophisticated you might be. The only way to judge television footage critically - to discover, that is, what is being ignored or withheld - is to have seen it before.

The invisibility of abstract institutions, from the "Federal Government" on down, is dandy for conservative pundits, because if we could see institutions on television we'd be asking a lot of questions about how, for example, so few people own so much of the country. Instead of which we see the occasional plutocrat, on his way to prison or not as the case may be. We don't see his wealth, however. We see a few of the things that it has bought, but we will never learn from television that most of the assets of the rich are highly liquid, and therefore much too boring to look at. (Television is also constitutionally incapable of registering quality, obvious to the naked eye, on the screen. That's what makes the home-shopping networks so successful. Visit a TV set if you doubt me.) And we will never see "the rich." So they don't exist - on television. There are only rich people, and someday, if you're lucky, you might be one of them. Although that's highly unlikely, given the collective power of "the rich" to keep you right where you are.

Torture:Others :: Watching Television:Self.

January 30, 2006

Upon finishing The Origins of Totalitarianism

In general, I'm very pleased with the education that I received at the University of Notre Dame in the late Sixties. The version of the Great Books program that the faculty had devised suited me down to the ground, and in all my later reading, I have never felt that anything fundamental, at least in Western thought, was omitted. Upon reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, however, I can no longer claim such pleasant innocence. A book that had been in print for over fifteen years when I went to college, Totalitarianism is perhaps more important than ever, as the United States fumbles amidst reckless experiments and faces underestimated dangers in debt finance and fuel supply.

We are still too close to the twin dawns of the late eighteenth century - the industrial revolution and the inauguration of the nation-state - to understand how each effected the other. Nor, to follow the analogy to natural cycles, do we know where to put totalitarianism. (I'm inclined to regard it as an adolescent breakdown.) What we do know is that all three developments are related. It is possible that the nation-state might have eschewed totalitarianism, instead of steaming toward it, at least in Arendt's view, with deliberate speed, had there been none of the uprooting of the industrial revolution, filling the cities with superfluous people. I am only beginning to reassemble my grasp of modern European history from the rubble to which Arendt reduced it, but I do see that some sort of totalitarian episode was inevitable by the end of the old regime and the upsurge in scientific and technological expertise, both of which occurred in the late eighteenth century. Because I had not been properly grounded in modern European history, and also because I grew up in an exceptionalist America that has not suffered modern Europe's ongoing crisis of political legitimacy, I had a very hard time understanding Hannah Arendt until well into The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In the American view, the American and French revolutions put an end to monarchical tyranny and ushered in an era, perhaps more than just an era, of democracy. The proposition that democracy is a boon is one that Americans have a very hard time questioning, possibly because it means little more to them than the right to elect their own leaders. Democracy does indeed seem to be the least-bad political system, but its benefits are hardly unmixed with serious drawbacks. Local circumstances, however, worked to shroud these drawbacks in the United States. Take, for example, the very European problem of identifying the "demos" in the first place This was swept aside in the United States by degrading a slave class identifiable by skin color and facial features, compactly if erroneously recognized as a "race." Everyone who did not belong to this outcast group was included in the American demos. That's because the American "nation" (as distinct from the formal American state) consisted wholly of immigrants. Earlier-arriving classes invariably tried to lord it over late arrivals, but without long-term success. (It was perhaps vital for the persistence of racial bigotry that, from first settlement until quite recently, the American Southeast did not attract immigrants from outside the United States.) Regardless of personal prejudice, Irish-Americans are no better or worse than Italian-Americans, or Jewish-Americans, or any other kinds of American. Everybody is equally American. The struggle to extend this equality to the descendants of slaves persists, but it is under way.

From the moment of emancipation, however, the people of Europe had a hard time defining their nations - initially, races in the political and characterological sense, but soon enough racial in a voodoo biological sense - and the relation of those nations to states. France, the pre-eminent nation-state, declared that everybody living within French frontiers was...

Continue reading about The Origins of Totalitarianism at Portico.

January 29, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

We have nine novels this week, five of them in Etelka Lehoczky's Fiction Chronicle. Good reviews go to

The Bird is a Raven, by Benjamin Lebert and translated by Peter Constantine. Mr Lebert is something of a prodigy, having published his first novel in his teens. Now 23, he gives us a conversation between strangers on a train. "Lebert explores the limits of trust, blending broad humor and sudden bursts of melodrama while maintaining a sense of delicately balanced tension." Sounds good.

Billie Morgan, by Joolz Denby. The memoir of a fictional "aging biker babe" in the North of England. "Denby's other characters aren't as full-fleshed as Billie," writes Ms Lehoczky - but why should they be, in a memoir? - "but she's got enough personality to carry the novel." Given my interest in motorcycles and their owners, this is a novel that I would read only if commanded to do so by a very close relative.

Becoming Strangers, by Louise Dean. This is about a bad vacation, centering two couples at a luxury resort in the Caribbean. One of the four principals is dying of cancer and in search of some meaning. Like this character, Ms Lehoczky writes, the author "never quite finds deeper meaning. But Becoming Strangers is still a diverting trip.

Not-so-favorable reviews go to

Against Gravity, by Farnoosh Moshiri. Ms Lehoczky doesn't say what this novel is about, but she hates the characters even as she finds them unbelievable. The author "shares their belief that their extraordinary experiences make them interesting people."

Time Won't Let Me, by Bill Scheff. Mr Scheff is a columnist at Sports Illustrated, which is not a plus. His book could be about people I knew - prep school friends who formed a successful garage band in 1965, cutting an album before the inevitable breakup. (If there's anybody else out there who remembers Davy and the Badmen, please holler!) Now approaching sixty, the four old friends decide to stage a comeback - hugely embarrassing their children. Ouch.

Liesl Schillinger calls Olga Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov "subtle and vertiginous." I think that's good. The novel is about the downfall of a hack art critic as the dissolution of the Soviet Union approaches. Instructed by higher-ups to write an essay praising Marc Chagall, Ms Grushin's protagonist balks, suspecting a trick that will lead to his deportation. But it is not a trick, and, soon out of a job, Sukhanov falls prey to the radioactivity of his years of self-serving dishonesty. I'm going to read this book. I may also read Christmas in Paris 2002, by Ronald K Fried. According to reviewer Charles Wilson, this is a dismantling à la Balzac of pampered American lives, with an appealing Parisian setting. Also appealing is Joe Keenan's third novel, My Lucky Star. Fans of the first two, the side-splitting Blue Heaven and the somewhat less hilarious Putting on the Ritz will rejoice to hear that Gilbert Selwyn is still up to no good and still dragging Philip Cavanaugh and Clair Simmons into frightful imbroglios - this time, in Hollywood. Goodness, the possibilities! Reviewer Mark Kamine files a few complaints, but that won't stop me. I'll just wait for the QPBC edition.

Nothing in Blake Bailey's review of Over the Rainbow? Hardly: Collected Short Seizures, a collection of the late prose of Chandler Brossard (1922-93) edited by Steven Moore, nothing in this review suggests that its subject is a book that I would enjoy reading. Brossard Who Walk in Darkness, published in French before it appeared in English, has been hailed as "a pioneering work of Beat fiction." The present miscellany, which includes pornographic parodies of fairy tales, seems eminently missable. Mr Bailey concludes,

It's like listening to a lonely man mumbling to himself - and loneliness, it seems was very much to the point. "I've never felt comfortable with other people at all," Brossard admitted toward the end of his life. And so perhaps he kept company with the voices in his head, his various babbling personae, and wrote it all down for the benefit of some possible kindred soul.

Nonfiction

The big story this week is Garrison Keillor's emphatically unfavorable review of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, by Bernard-Henri Lévy and translated by Charlotte Mendel. Nearly every sentence in Mr Keillor's put-down is sarcastic, and much of it is funny. Be sure to read it. But don't let it dissuade you from reading American Vertigo, which is a lively look at the United States by a sympathetic outsider. Mr Keillor would seem to have been hand-picked to misunderstand BHL's assessment of what's distinctive about American culture; the writer and radio star has built a career on preferring the mundane. (Repeat after me: bay-ahsh-ell, and try not to say "béchamel.") I am going to read this book in French, when the "original" appears in a couple of months.

Another book on my list is Eric Foner's Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. This enormously sad book is about the mangled and untrue account of Reconstruction with which America salved its post-Reconstruction conscience, largely by falling back on the idea that the former slaves were not fully-developed human beings. James Goodman's review is almost as sad:

Four decades and untold political abuse later, our federal government is again held in low esteem. Many wonder if it is even competent to do what it used to do best: wage war. I would like to think that the prejudice at the heart of the old history of Reconstruction would prevent its revival. But as long as Americans continue to see government simply as a problem, we won't know much, or care, about Reconstruction.

There are a few books about Conservative America. Donald T Critchlow's Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade appears, in Judith Warner's view, to have been written by a camp-follower. Like Betty Friedan, I'd like to see Ms Schlafly burned at the stake for her opposition to ERA and other initiatives, but I acknowledge that this is a grudging way to respect her importance. I would much rather see Ms Schlafly lose her audience. Adrian Wooldridge gives Richard Reeves's President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination a favorable review, even though it adds little to our knowledge of this strange man who acted at being an actor. In My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front,  Jonathan Raban, a writer whom I've always admired, racks his brains in search of an explanation for the political success of the Bush Administrations in the teeth of failure and disaster; according to reviewer John Leland, Mr Raban doesn't understand how "infantilized" the American electorate has become. Nevertheless, this is a book that I look forward to reading.

One sign of the extent to which we've become infantilized is the apparent need for two collections of essays about torture. That any amount of valuable, even life-saving information can ever justify the infliction of pain and humiliation on the source of that information is a proposition that I refuse to entertain, period. If this makes me a sissy, then I'm happy to be a sissy. The alternative is to be a thug, period once again. Lance Morrow's largely thoughtful review of The Torture Debate in America, edited by Karen J Greenberg, and Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever Okay?, edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden, with Amy D Bernstein, made me sick: what debate? How can there be a debate about torture? What on earth has happened to my country?

Wild, creative types are represented by new biographies of Christopher Marlowe and John Cassavetes. Review Philip Lopate feels that journalist Marshall Fine is too great a fan, in Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film, to judge the filmmaker's work. I'm inclined to agree with Mr Lopate:

There are revelations in Cassavetes's films that show with startling clarity the map of human confusion, but there are also scenes where actors fumble and bluster through embarrassing shtick.

As for Park Honan's Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, I wonder at the folly of attempted the book-length treatment of a man about whom we know enough to fill no more than five pages of print. Michael Feingold particularly faults Mr Honan for refusing to acknowledge the sheer cruel cynicism that runs through all of Marlowe's powerful drama. (I wish I could find my collection thereof, by the way. If you borrowed it, please return it.)

John C Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group of mutual funds, has written a diatribe about the sorry state of Wall Street's ethics, in The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism. Jeff Madrick writes that while Mr Bogle's analysis of the situation is astute, his recommendations are wishful and fuzzy - for the simple reason that he won't face up to the fact that governmental deregulation is the true culprit here. On a more personal note, Liz Perle's Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash elicits the polite but firm scorn of Ariel Levy.

What's frustrating about Perle's tropism toward generalizations and evasions is that her subject matter and, at times, her writing about her own fiscal experiences and feelings are so interesting. But whenever she gets too close to nuance and specificity, Perle seems to run for cover under pronouncements about womankind rather than continue on the unmarked path toward insight.

This leaves two books: Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People, by John Lahr, and A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, by Susanne Antonetta. I've enjoyed Mr Lahr's insidery New Yorker pieces (Mr Lahr is the son of the Cowardly Lion), but not quite enough to reread them. Reviewer Ada Calhoun writes of Mr Lahr's interview with Laurence Fishburne that the writer "sounds more like a prom date than a leading drama critic." As for A Mind Apart, Polly Morrice's review suggests the  quirky and inconsistent poeticizing of bipolar disorder and autism. I remain stubbornly convinced that true creativity arises, when it does, despite and not because of serious mental disturbance.

Jeffrey Rosen's Essay, "Judicial Exposure," is a sensible call for restraint to memoir-writing justices. "Too much revelation may undermine the public's respect for judges as apolitical authorities." Amen.

January 28, 2006

The Matador

Is it me, or is it the neighborhood? Possibly it's Hollywood's aversion to the Bush Administration, which as several critics have noted has begun to show up in movies that were greenlighted after the 2004 election. In any case, there always seems to be a movie in the neighborhood that's worth seeing. This was not always the case. In fact, it was almost always not the case. The screens were reserved for films directed at teens and children. Dumb cop sequels. High concept trash. Now, even a movie as formulaic as The Last Holiday is a delight.

The Matador, which I saw yesterday, spends its entire run playing with formulas and derailing expectations. I'm not sure that I can say more about it than that, because this is definitely one film not to "spoil." It is a fun movie that likes to fool around with gasoline; the urge to urge businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) to steer clear of assassin Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is constant, and never more pressing than when Julian dances with Bean, Danny's wife (Hope Davis), in the Wrights' living room. In this parody of a thriller, Mr Brosnan, always sleek and debonair in said thrillers, leaves his customary mien farther behind than George Clooney, in O Brother, Where Art Thou? got from his. In fact, the man is repellent - but amusingly so. Mr Kinnear takes "sidekick" to new levels, so that it does not seem quite fair to think of him as a supporting actor. Ms Davis is a bit loopier than usual - just a bit, but the only thing straight about her is her blond hair. Philip Baker Hall and Dylan Baker do their usual good work in smaller roles.

Director Richard Shepard has injected a juicy tic into The Matador: every time the action changes location (something that happens fairly often), the name of the city in question is spelled out in huge blue letters that cover the entire screen, a truly preposterous (and hilarious) send-up of the thriller genre's penchant for datelines.

Don't see The Matador if you're in a meat-and-potatoes mood. Mission Impossible III is coming up.

January 27, 2006

Mozart 250

It's not only Mozart's birthday, it's Mozart's 250th birthday. Do you think they're going to remember yours?

Here's how we ought to say "Happy Birthday." No singing, just listening.

The composer himself, I am almost certain, would have been surprised that this is the piece by which I think we ought to remember him on this big day. It's the second movement of the String Trio, or Divertimento, in E-Flat, K 563, supposedly a party piece, but still the work that I put at the top of the list of Great Mozart Works. If listening isn't enough, you can always read.

Un amour de film

Last night, TV5Monde (the Francophone cable station) broadcast Un Amour de Swann, the 1984 Volker Schlöndorff adaptation of the novella-within-the-novel by Marcel Proust, starring Jeremy Irons as a dubbed Charles Swann. I hate dubbing, and the voice chosen for Swann en français was nowhere near Mr Irons's baritone, but it was clear that the actor knew his lines, even if he couldn't say them. Once I realized that the movie could have been called Deux Jours de Swann, I was completely won over. The first day occurs in the 1880s, when Charles Swann is besotted with the courtesan Odette de Crécy. It takes up most of the footage. The second is an elegiac retrospective set on the eve of World War I, when Charles is dying.

Can you make movies out of A la recherche du temps perdu? Out of even a part of it? Raoul Ruiz made a gallant stab in 1999's Le temps retrouvé. Everybody who was anybody in French film, at least on the distaff side, was lined up to play one part or another, and by adapting the conceit that a drowning - here, dying - man sees his whole life passing before him, the project ended up being amazingly comprehensive for a movie that lasts only two and a half hours. Un amour de Swann is an entirely different animal, and in its way it's devilishly untrue to "the Marcel of the author." When it was over, I was positively attacked by the idea that the characters had escaped from Proust's novel and gone out for a night on their own; in a way, I don't think that the author would have disapproved. Schlöndorff gives us Odette, Charles, Charlus, Oriane de Guermantes, and Mme de Verdurin as they were, before Proust got hold of them and wrote them down in his book.

The broadcast was, inadvertently, saturated in a very Proustian passage of time. Jeremy Irons, Fanny Ardant - so young. Alain Delon (as Charlus) still young-ish. What a novel Proust would have written about film, and its preservation of the young, firm faces that we used to have. Un amour de Swann, despite every obstacle, is a success.

Catching Up Not Required

With well over a year of solid blogging behind me, I'm finding that the experience has taken a few unexpected turns. For one thing, I'm no longer so interested in the links to impish or naughty pages; in fact, I'm not really interested in links per se. I've discovered that, with a moment's thought, I can get to whatever's being talked about via Google. For another, I've all but eliminated single-purpose blogs from my rosters. Blogs that are always and only satirical, political, self-absorbed or preoccupied with any one thing might be useful from time to time, but I can't bring myself to check them out every day. The time that I would devote to Go Fug Yourself - a very funny blog that invariably reduces me to tears by the fourth entry - goes instead to exploring the Blogosphere in search of sites that resemble my own. And there isn't much of such time. Trying to keep up with my the many blogs that I've "bookmarked" since June 2004 would be a full-time job if I were diligent about it.

Which I'm not. I've only just taken a first look at Jasper Emmering's eminently sensible and progressive blog, Hollandaise since September, when Mr Emmering posted some amazingly insightful entries comparing New Orleans to the Netherlands as to flood-prevention and preparation. The author is a physician whose English is just about native, and I don't know where he finds the time to read as widely as he does. (I'm not doing anything besides this, much less tending to the sick.) Nor have I noticed that Ronnie Cordova is writing a lot less these days at Sublethal, where, to be sure, the prose style often suggests slo-mo self-flagellation. Just as self-punishing, bar bouncer Rob, of Club Life, is somehow getting his book written for - Harper, was it? And I'd forgotten the existence of Mr Sun altogether!    

The other day, JR, at L'homme qui marche, proffered a bunch of cool photographic links. JR has been experimenting with "faux lo-mo," Photoshopping his digital images to give them the undernourished look of pictures taken with old Soviet cameras. Turns out that a lot of Flickr patrons are doing the same. Hours fly by! Then Amy, at The Biscuit Report, announces that she's being plugged by a site called King of Zembla. So I visit King of Zembla and have a look at the other plugged sites. One of these, Daai Tou Laam Diary - kept by an American expat in Hong Kong - links in turn to a site that I haven't visited in a very long time, Jesus' General. Scrolling down at JG, I find the General having some fun with a Mr Andrew Longman, born-again contributor to Renew America who is very unhappy about Brokeback Mountain. Mr Longman is, indeed, fun - if unintentionally.

Has it occurred to the great bulk of our people that we need to quit tolerating the forces of internal destruction which work night and day to deconstruct our manliness at a time when our nation faces an absolute need for valor, ferocity, the force of arms, and the defense of the innocent pregnant woman and her children at home? Has it occurred to anyone, anyone at all, that it is immoral to assault masculinity? In a time of war?

The writer wins this week's Mr Patriarch award.

It goes on and on. There's one thing I've learned. It came to me when I was talking about this to Kathleen and she told me about a former colleague who likes the site but who, like Kathleen herself, doesn't always have the time to check in. "I'm a bit behind with The Daily Blague," she said. I told Kathleen to tell her, "Don't worry about catching up!" I used to say - at Portico, and with profound wrongheadedness - "this is not a blog." Now, I say, "this is not a book." You don't have to catch up.

January 26, 2006

Coming Attractions

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Do you know this secretary? More to come.

A presidential volume worth purchasing?

Garry Wills's review of Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis is so favorable that I'm actually tempted to buy a presidential tome. The piece, "Jimmy Carter & the Culture of Death" (I'd have swapped the ampersand for a "vs"), appears in the New York Review of Books for February 9, 2006, and it is perhaps the strongest essay yet to contrast true religion with hateful religiosity. What few people knew at the time was that Jimmy Carter was awkward when he made religious statements because he didn't really believe that he ought to be making them, but felt badgered by the press. Mr Carter belongs to the Baptist World Alliance, an organization with which the more fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention has severed ties, the better, in Mr Wills's view, to promote its culture of death.

Mr Wills' deftly argues that the "pro-life," anti-abortion movement of the Religious Right maintains an anti-life agenda. When abortion is illegal, women desperate enough to get them not infrequently die, but that is only one part of a program that focuses on death. By refusing to limit the distribution of guns, this movement makes the United States a world hub of homicide; it is also among the top four sovereignties that inflict capital punishment. It insists on the United States' right to the first use of nuclear weapons; its myopic foreign policies reap a world-wide harvest of contempt for this country. Mr Wills winds up beautifully, with solid praise for the former president:

Carter is a patriot. He lists all the things that Americans have to be proud of. That is why he is so concerned that we are squandering our treasures, moral even more than economic. He has come to the defense of our national values, which he finds endangered. He proves that a devout Christian does not need to be a fundamentalist or fanatic, any more than a patriotic American has to be punitive, narrow, and self-righteous. He defends the separation of church and state because he sees with nuanced precision the interactions of faith, morality, politics and pragmatism. That is a combination that once was not rare, but is becoming more so. We need a voice from the not-so-distant past, and this quiet voice strikes just the right notes.

"Punitive, narrow and self-righteous" - a comprehensive description of patriarchs on the defense. I wish that Mr Wills had mentioned the word "patriarchy," but perhaps to do so would have raised an awkwardness. The "not-so-distant past" to which he hearkens was a settled patriarchy, with white men firmly in possession of all executive power,. Not only that, but their possession was not seriously questioned by most Americans. If you wanted a secure place in this patriarchy, you sucked up to it if you were a man and served it if you were a woman. Those who were drawn to alternatives could take their chances (in the big cities), but with no expectation of rescue in case of failure. Welfare wasn't wrong because it was expropriation - that just made it "unfair." What made it wrong was that it rescued folks who had opted out of the patriarchy. PS: It is understood, in a patriarchy, that those who haven't found a place within its structure have chosen not to, at least insofar as they haven't tried "hard enough."

Whether we are living through the patriarchy's last gasp, or whether natural and economic catastrophes will make the patriarchy look like the best chance for survival yet again, remains to be seen.

January 25, 2006

The Atlantic's State of the Union

The current issue of The Atlantic contains the magazine's fourth annual State of the Union section. Arguably the most centrist periodical in the country, inclined these days to snort at the left while blandifying the right, The Atlantic publishes the occasional alarmist article (usually by William Langewiesche), but its editors seem determined not to get flustered about American life, and that in itself is a good thing, or at least a respite. In the kickoff essay, "The Values Racket," they make two very interesting points. First: the culture war  

is between those who want a culture war - a vocal minority demanding political attention - and those who don't.

This is an idea that E J Dionne works out in his contribution, "Why the Culture War Is the Wrong War." The other point is well worth ponderation.

As Paul Starobin argues, the United States has become isolated by its values. Many of the cultural attributes that have made America attractive to outsiders - boisterous democracy, economic opportunity, respect for human rights - have proliferated abroad. Some have been tarnished at home. At the same time, many of the values that remain uniquely American do not endear us to most other societies. No other country is both as devout and as libertarian as America, and this unusual mixture has of late exacerbated mistrust of the United States.

Implicit here is the fact that there has been no real need for the United States to "export" its democracy; the citizens of other countries, admiring it from afar, have cleared the way for its welcome import. We're at our best when we're simply being our best and not worrying about the rest of the world. I would go so far as to say that the world would be a better place without official United States charity (always excepting Lend-Lease and the Marshall Plan, the latter of which reflected a cosmopolitan pragmatism rarely approximated in our aid schemes). 

Reissued Reissues

A small box arrived from The Musical Heritage Society, containing two CD albums of Bach, and I'm finding this extremely quaint. Extremely. My membership in the MHS can be divided between three distinct periods: three years of high school, about four years ca 1988, and since 2000. At all times, of course the MHS has been a redistributor of other labels' recordings; the difference between now and the 1960s is that now it reissues recordings that have already been released here on major labels. In the 1960s, it was the American (North American?) licensee for minor European labels.

Yesterday's arrivals add another layer. Both albums were recorded in Vienna by an undisclosed label and released in the United States on the Bach Guild label, which, while not quite premium in those days, was certainly not a budget line, either. The Bach Guild was targeted to the growing body of listeners, largely professional people I expect, who found in Bach an intellectual tonic and who preferred a lean, "original instruments" sound, preferably performed by a small chamber orchestra, to the lush arrangements by Leopold Stokowski and others that one encountered in the concert hall. There weren't many professional chamber orchestras in the United States in those days; there were plenty of academic and amateur groups, but they didn't travel. I remember the New York Pro Musica coming to Notre Dame - and I remember how exceptional that sort of thing was. Chamber orchestras would begin to appear in the Seventies. By then, the repertoire - Vivaldi through, say, KPhE Bach - had been made more or less familiar by imported recordings. The notable performances appeared on labels such as The Bach Guild, while people you never heard of played on LPs released to MHS subscribers. Now, today, 24 January 2006, I have on my desk two albums that, having been redistributed decades ago by the Bach Guild, have been reissued by the MHS.

Bach is the only composer to whose music I can listen when I work - if I can listen to anything at all. I can guess why this is so, but my surmises probably wouldn't make much sense to anyone who hadn't experienced the same thing. Almost everything that I can think of makes Bach sound trivial and very limited. In fact, Bach limits himself. Every piece - and it's worth noting that very few approach ten minutes in length, much less surpass it - sets a very specific goal, such as working out the possibilities of casting a given musical fragment in a certain canonical structure. (If you don't know what that means, just think "puzzle.") And that's that. There are no distractions and few surprises. Bach writes with a beautiful craftsmanship that accords with and soothes the working brain.

If Mozart makes you smarter (temporarily, by making paying attention more interesting than it usually is), Bach actually makes you think. 

The reissues in question are: Gustav Leonhardt's 1953 recording of the Goldberg Variations and a complete set of the keyboard concerti (single and multiple), played by I Solisti di Zagreb under (who else?) Antonio Janigro. Anton and Erna Heiller, Kurt Rapf and Christa Landon are the soloists. I haven't listened to the Leonhardt yet, but the concerti are clear and lively. 

January 24, 2006

Telling you so

Good Morning again! It's a bright, cold Tuesday - perfect weather for "I told you so." Today's headline:

IRAQ REBUILDING BADLY HOBBLED, US REPORT FINDS

PROBLEMS FROM THE START

Understaffing, Infighting and Lack of Expertise Are Cited in Draft

by JAMES GLANZ

The first official history of the $25 billion American reconstruction effort in Iraq depicts a program hobbled from the outset by gross understaffing, a lack of technical expertise, bureaucratic infighting, secrecy and constantly increasing security costs, according to a preliminary draft.

Except, I didn't tell you so.

2 May 2003: Hurrah! The war in Iraq is over! Saddam Hussein hasn't been accounted for, and neither have his weapons of mass destruction, but military opposition to American troops has ceased. As our intervention in Afghanistan ought to have taught all thinking people, the American mission would come down to this: the war would be over when resistance to our invasion melted away. Installing a US-friendly person as the nominal head of local affairs (in the case of Afghanistan, 'local' means 'Kabul and environs,' no more), we would hale our troops home to a hero's welcome. The Administration could rest assured that no one except nigglers like me would fault it for having altogether failed to accomplish its trumpeted prewar objectives. Is it so hard to remember six-week-old headlines? (Link)

I truly had no idea what a disaster our Iraqi misadventure would be. I knew that it wouldn't succeed, but my conception of its failure was pretty limited.

Of course, it's not over yet.

"Problems from the start" will keep me chuckling all day. Oh! Almost forgot. The headline is from The New York Times.

January 23, 2006

Monday Note

Good Morning! It's a cold, wet Monday, and the Times is correspondingly cheering.

¶ As Profits Soar, Companies Pay US Less for Gas Rights

¶ Seeking Edge in Spy Debate

¶ In a Stronghold, Fatah Fights To Beat Back a Rising Hamas

¶ Potent Mexican Meth Floods In As States Curb Domestic Variety

¶ Held in 9/11 Net, Muslims Return To Accuse US

¶ Answering the Fire Bell in the Company of Women [an upbeat story, but not exactly front-page news]

And "Inside":

¶ New Orleans Hospital System Overwhelmed

¶ Another Warning From Iran

¶ Deal for ABC Radio Is Near

¶ A Big Story With Big Risks [Jill Carroll's captivity]

¶ Prime-Time Moves at NBC

And what do I do when I finish reading the paper? I pick up The Stories of John Cheever and read "The Country Husband," a masterpiece that returned me to the suburban emptiness of my childhood. Francis Weed, Cheever's protagonist, is roused from his utterly unreflective commuting life by touches of violence - the emergency landing of an airliner in a Pennsylvania cornfield (nobody's hurt), and an encounter of sorts with a woman whom he recognizes as a collaborator who was shaved and stripped while he and a few other GIs stood by - and primed, as it were, to fall in love with the first beautiful girl he sees. Besotted, Francis embarks on a half-willed course of destroying his life, but is saved before any permanent damage has been done by a psychiatrist who recommends woodwork. Woodwork works. Francis calms down and rediscovers domestic happiness.

Looking around, I see a nation that is manifestly not in great shape. Our res publica, as the first Times story indicates, is steadily passing into the hands of private interests; I sense that many Americans, dimly aware of this, would rather liquidate public holdings than share them with their fellow-citizens, rather as if we were all contentious siblings squabbling over an estate. Cheever's story, however, reminds me of a more somnolent era. The country was apparently healthier, but its managerial class was living in whited sepulchres. In many ways, life back then was worse.

Until very recently, I've always felt that things were getting better, more or less, overall. Serious problems lay ahead, but we would figure out how to deal with them. Five years of Dubya and his minions, however, have shown me how naive I was, how untested my optimism. I'm still hopeful; the United States may be the mega whatever but once you factor out its energy consumption and its production of pap, it's not such a big deal. But we have a lot of fixing to do here. More than just woodwork, I'm afraid.

Dyer's Photography

Ormerod.jpg

Here is the ending of Geoff Dyer's introduction to The Ongoing Moment:

Dorothea Lange said that "the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." I might not be a photographer but I now see the kind of photographs I might have taken if I were one.

What are we to make of this amateur's production? It is clearly an exponent of what Barry Gewen called "the belletrist option" of art criticism, which 

allowed for the exercise of personal style, the careful inspection and precise expression of one's own reactions, and it found adherents among poet-critics like John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, and individualistic, iconoclastic intellects like Susan Sontag.

In The Ongoing Moment, Mr Dyer writes about photography, for the most part American photography as practiced by a handful of masters. It is not a book for beginners; it assumes not only some knowledge of the history of American photography - the famous photographers and what sort of pictures they have taken - but also access to the many photographs that Mr Dyer talks about but does not reproduce. It is certainly not a picture book; the black-and-white reproductions are quite small and just as matte as the text. There are section breaks, but no chapters - no formal organization of any kind. I was reminded of the French phrase, de fil en aiguille, which is best translated, "from one thing to another." The "things" are photographic subjects, the subjects that have caught Mr Dyer's eye. Sometimes these subjects are real objects, such as hands or barbershops. Sometimes they're much more conceptual, such as seeing the world in black-and-white but photographing it in color, or variations on that theme. Sometimes it is the relationship between the photographer and his subject, a matter that's illustrated by nude photographs taken by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. Always playing somewhere in the background is some idea or other of "America."

Photography presents three unique aesthetic challenges - challenges that don't arise in other, older art forms. First...

Continue reading about The Ongoing Moment at Portico.

January 22, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The name of Charles Reznikoff is new to me. His shorter poems, edited by Seamus Cooney, have been collected in the Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975. Reznikoff was a lawyer by day but a very serious poet at all times. He summed up his ars poetica thus: "images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse; words pithy and plain; without the artifice of regular meters; themes, chiefly Jewish, American, urban." I'm attracted by everything that reviewer Joshua Clover has extracted, including the relatively well-known couplet

Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies

A girder, still itself among the rubbish.

Sold!

I'm also caught by Ligaya Mishan's favorable review of Thrity Umrigar's novel, The Space Between Us. Ms Umrigar is a Parsi from Mumbai, which tells of the relationship between a poor housemaid and her middle-class employer, a widow with good reason to think about "the unclean." I'm liking Indian literature more and more, not least because of a quiet local lilt that it's just possible I'm imagining. Gustave Flaubert's conundrum of a novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, has been newly translated by Mark Polizzotti. Left incomplete at the author's death, the novel - if that is what it is - rambles on about the adventures of two ambitious dimwits; Christopher Hitchens's solid review is entitled "I'm With Stupide." It does not make the novel sound like a fun read.

Flaubert is pitiless with his wretched creations, allowing them no moment of joy, or even ease. It is enough for them to turn their hands to a project for it to expire in chaos and slapstick, and after a while this, too, shows the shortcomings of the unpolished, because we can hear the sound of collapsing scenery before the stage has even been set. True bathos requires a slight interval between the sublime and the ridiculous, but no sooner have our clowns embarked on a project than we see the bucket of whitewash or the banana skin.

And then there would be the shame of reading this in English when I ought to be reading it in French. You should see the queue of books en français waiting to be read by moi.

Joyce Carol Oates's fiction is not on my list. Not, not, not, not, not. The quality of her prose is that of cake made from cake mix. Even reviewer Hillary Frey can't restrain herself from saying, in what's meant to be an enthusiastic review, that "this collection ... works best as a source of cheap thrills.

Nonfiction

Kenji Yoshino's Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, is on my list. I've already written about its central idea here, and I don't know how much the book will add to that, but I recommend it sight-unseen. Professor Yoshino distinguishes between "covering" - minimizing the display of your personal peculiarities for the sake of maximizing your swim in the mainstream - and "passing," which is simply denying that you're peculiar. Norah Vincent has written very well, according to David Kamp's glowing review, about passing as a male in Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again. Ms Vincent's masquerade was entirely cosmetic, but perhaps because she wasn't trying to impress anyone that she was really a man, she was undistracted enough to see just how different public life is for men. Mr Kamp can only fault her for being too forgiving; but then Ms Vincent is a lesbian without a number-one reason to regret that the same men who would avoid eye contact out of respect for another man would indulge in that famous gaze were she in skirts. He does point out that

Conspicuously absent from Self-Made Man, though, are men leading full, contented lives.

Sounds like a very interesting read.

There are several works of biography and memoir. Sherwin B Nuland's Maimonides looks like an important book, one in which one intellectual Jewish physician examines the career of another, albeit one who flourished in the twelfth century. Eminent solicitor-advocate Anthony Julius writes that Dr Nuland "endeavors to find 'the common ground on which Maimonides can walk together with a man or woman today," but he regrets that "Nuland does not concern himself with the tension between what Maimonides stood for and what modern Judaism stands for."

Maimonides was concerned with maintaining the simple faith of the uneducated. The arduous business of philosophy, the esoteric understanding of religious truth, was not for them. He had no conviction that the profound truths of Judaism were within equal reach of all Jews. Maimonides was a bold and (to use an anachronism) fundamentally undemocratic thinker.

Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr Nicholas Murray Butler, by Michael Rosenthal, sounds grim. Review Thomas Mallon suspects that, in researching the life of a celebrated president of Columbia University whose celebrity dimmed the moment he died, in 1947, Mr Rosenthal "endured a long, depressing surprise as the vacuity of his subject fully dawned, or dimmed, on him."

Naysaying jabs from Walter Lippmann, H L Mencken and others never made a dent in this ermine-trimmed nullity while he was being chauffeured from one testimonial to another or writing the autobiography whose only revealing phrase may have been its title, Across the Busy Years.

Sorry as I am for Mr Rosenthal, but I'm not going to read this book. Nor am I going to read Between You and Me: A Memoir, by Mike Wallace with Gary Paul Gates. Even if Tara McKelvey had pronounced it the Book of the Year, which she most certainly doesn't, her review would not have moved me. What Mr Wallace has done to newscasting forces me to imagine cake mixes using no natural ingredients except fear and loathing. Another memoir that I probably won't read, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir, but this only because the subject of growing up in working class Hartford, known at another well-written Web log as "the Wretched Little City," is just too depressing. And in the Fifties, no less! 

Wyatt Mason gives Colin McGinn's The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, a very mixed review. As a philosopher at Rutgers, Mr McGinn is perhaps not best-qualified to deal with what seems indisputably to me to be a question of neurophysics, and indeed Mr Mason soon charges him with "twaddle." But he does not dismiss the book:

That few readers will have the patience to get past the book's first 60 turgid pages is doubly unfortunate, for when McGinn calms down he can be a lucid, rewarding writer. His chapter "The Metaphysics of the Movie Image" is as enlightening as the book's earlier pages are undistinguished. Staring at an actor on screen, McGinn notes that we feel "no alienation from a body like this, no division into me and it. It is the body as transformed into another type of material, an immaterial material.

If I encounter the book, I'll be sure to start checking it out well past the beginning.

A posthumous collection of the essays of Joan Didion's late husband could, in Edward Lewine's view, have been better edited; the editor of Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne is anonymous. More problematic is Dunne's preoccupation with Hollywood. I'm going to get this book anyway; if I'm lucky, I'll be able to dig out a copy of Dunne's novel, The Studio. I used to have one.

There are three books about money that I'm tempted to pass over. Gary Sperling's The Pro-Growth Progressive: An Economic Strategy for Shared Prosperity is all but damned out of hand by Noam Scheiber for failing to acknowledge that the Bush Administration does not bargain in good faith, and that the political outlook that enabled Mr Sperling's former boss, Bill Clinton, to eliminate the deficit has vanished from Washington. On a more personal level, Neil Genzlinger reviews The Number: A Completely Different Way To Think About The Rest of Your Life (please! when will editors understand what a turn-off such titles are?), by Lee Eisenberg, and Dave Barry's Money Secrets, by Dave Barry. Mr Barry's book, of course, is a send-up of books such as Mr Eisenberg's. According to Mr Genzlinger, both books bear "shamelessly misleading subtitles."

Judith Shulevitz has written a thoughtful essay, "When Cosmologies Collide," in which she urges elite followers of Darwin to listen to themselves talk. In the course of reviewing two books - Eugenie C Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism and Michael Ruse's The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Ms Shulevitz asks, "Could something as trivial as scientists' lack of self-awareness help explain why, nearly 150 years after Darwin, creationism in its various forms has become the most popular critique of science? Praising Mr Ruse for distinguishing between "evolution" and "evolutionism," she writes,

Evolutionism addresses questions of origins, the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. In other words, it does all the work of a religion, but from a secular perspective. What gets billed as a war between hard science and mushy theology should rather be understood, says Ruse, as "a clash between two rival metaphysical world pictures."

As for the substance of each sides' debate, Ms Shulevitz praises Ms Scott's book for its explanation of "the scientific method, which many invoke but few describe vividly."

Paul Beatty's Essay, "Black Humor," is a call to lighten up on the gravitas thing in black literature. After listing writers whom he only discovered as grown man - Ishmael Reed, Fran Ross, Bob Kaufman, Bert Williams, and even W E B Du Bois - Mr Beatty laments,

I wish I'd been exposed to this black literary insobriety at an earlier age. It would've been comforting to know that I wasn't the only one laughing at myself in the mirror.

 

January 21, 2006

The Last Holiday

It's still something of a surprise to me that I went to see The Last Holiday this afternoon. Qua hip-hop diva, Queen Latifah is not a draw, and while she has always seemed accomplished in the few movies that I've seen her in, I shouldn't have thought that I'd go to see something that for all intents and purposes is a vehicle for her good spirits. But I did go, and those spirits are very good indeed.

Every movie leaves its own aftertaste. Leaving the dark theatre for the humdrum banality of a movie lobby and a too-bright street (or sometimes one that's incredibly gloomy), I am usually overwhelmed by a particular emotional reaction. (Sometimes, as after The Family Stone, this feeling took a while to condense.) Last week, after Match Point, I felt very dark and fearful; I felt as if I'd done something awful and was about to get caught. Walking out of The Last Holiday, the emotion was quite simple. I felt the remorse of the chastened, and I wanted to be a better person.

The Last Holiday remakes a 1950 J B Priestley screenplay of the same name that starred Alec Guinness in the Queen Latifah role (I've put this on my to-rent list). Georgia is a young and reserved New Orleans woman who sells cookware in a department store while pursuing culinary ambitions at home. When she slips and falls at work, a CAT scan is prescribed. The scan reveals that Georgia is suffering the final stages of an obscure disease -although she feels just fine. Assured that she has mere weeks to live, she decides to try to realize a few of the dreams in her scrap book of "possibilities." Cashing in her IRA and some bonds that her mother left her, Georgia flies off to Carlsbad - Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia - a wedding cake of a spa in the mountains. Here she bumps into some people from home - she knows them, but they don't know her. The outcome is perfectly obvious within ten or fifteen minutes of the opening credits. While the plot unfolds on cue, Georgia opens up and lives for the first time in her life. She treats herself liberally, and is only just beginning to tire of luxury when the plot conveniently takes her to the next level. This opening-up to life is the whole point of the movie, and it would be insufferable if Queen Latifah, lit from within, didn't so powerfully demonstrate her character's consciousness of a conversation with God. Beginning with "why me?", this conversation ends with what can only be called the most pious of winks. It's as though Georgia decided to spend her last days on earth on a fabulous package weekend with the Almighty as her escort. When she accumulates a fortune by placing the same bet betting three times in a row at roulette, Georgia does indeed appear to have some extraordinary assistance.

Director Wayne Wang shows his trust in his star by keeping the other actors out of the her way until it's time for Georgia to change their lives with a smile and a few wise words. Hotel chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu) is won over immediately; Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), the heroine's erstwhile boss and a corrupt, overcompetitive businessman, is her last beneficiary. Queen Latifah's Georgia confronts the high life with precisely the correct balance of abashed surprise and shrewd assessment; she's not a slow learner. She is always a lady; for a good while at the hotel, she's the only lady. The screenplay gives her two episodes of wild physical abandon, once on a snowboard (hilarious) and once beneath a parachute (terrifying), but her exuberance is never crass. Meanwhile, she is never the cocky, full-of-herself person that the plot might easily have elicited. Even when eating cucumber slices that she has just peeled from her eyes, Georgia seems to be in some sort of prayerful converse.

After talking Matthew off the ledge of the Hotel Pupp, it's time to go home in earnest, with Mr Right on one arm and the news of her misdiagnosis on the other. Mr Right is played by LL Cool J. If this gentleman was ever (or is still) an habitué of the bling monde, no trace of it shows in his collected, grown-up Sean. Who knew that little Alia, of Dune, would grow up to be Alicia Witt, the new Julianne Moore? Ms Witt handles her character's transformation from scheming bitch to grateful friend with intelligent tact, never asking the audience to like her too much too soon. Giancarlo Esposito, who just turned in a powerful performance in Derailed, plays a US Senator here with dash and soul. There are lots of fine things in the small touches - Jane Adams, Jascha Washington, Julia LaShae, Ranjit Chowdhry and Susan Kellerman are just a few of the fine supporting actors. Ellen Savaria was arresting in a very small, one-line part; I liked the look of her. M Depardieu is such a pro that he repeatedly gave the impression of having worked with Queen Latifah in many previous films.

The Last Holiday is a Class A treat. Despite its picture-perfect ending (which Mr Wang has the wit to muss with a funny touch), it's not a "feel good" movie - it's not easy. Google's Movie Showtimes bills it as a "Drama/Comedy/Action/Adventure" feature, but, if you ask me, it's a movie of faith.

January 20, 2006

Just a thought

Late the other night, I was reading a John Cheever story, "The Wrysons," in which a suburban woman is afflicted with a recurring dream of nuclear holocaust. The dream winds up with a sort of yacht-club immolation scene in which boaters are drowned as they over-crowd the waters of refuge. In the dream, she weeps "to see this inhumanity as the world was ending."

Well, it isn't the world that is ending. The post-holocaust planet will go on spinning somehow, and opportunistic life-forms that have been waiting for the opportunity will flourish. (For example, a virus that replicates through the digitized memory of chatted vacuities such as "I'm standing outside your building, where are you?") Life will begin the long trek back to Descartes. This much we know. But I found myself wondering this evening about cultural extinctions in our own long past. One hundred fifty thousand years is no time at all on the geological scale, but it's plenty of time, I imagine, to scrub the traces of human artifact from the face of the earth. We think of the time between the moment of homo sapiens's unmistakable arrival (whenever that was) and the composition of the first granary account as a long, boring and unrecorded progression toward us. But what if we've done this already a few times? What if there were was a New Yorker seventy thousand years ago - and all record of it has been obliterated by natural processes, just as natural processes would clear Earth of our record in, say, fifty thousand years? What if, far from living in savannahs and bumbling our way toward speech, we've done this sophisticated cultural thing a few times already, but with such catastrophic results that We Don't Remember?

As you know, my mind doesn't drift toward science fiction. But I found myself plausibly wondering...

(But it's another Cheever story altogether that I urge you to read, a lovely tale called "The Duchess.")

January 19, 2006

It Never Stops

A few days ago, I responded to a storm of comment spam by requiring commenters to acquire and use TypeKey Identities. As of this morning, however, the attempt to sign in meets with the following:

Comment Submission Error

Your comment submission failed for the following reasons:

The sign-in validation failed.

Peachy, huh? While I wait for advice from Six Apart support, I've removed the TypeKey Identity, and rolled up my sleeves to repel more spam. PS: It's already back.

Update: The storm resumed immediately; in a few hours, I've brushed off well over a hundred comments. TypeKey sign-ins appear to work again; I can only assume that there was a glitch at the server. In any case, I'm requiring authentication once more, as you'll see.

Modes of Transport

Until a few years ago, I never took MTA buses. The only exception was to take the crosstown bus (M86) through the Park to Broadway, where I'd change to the downtown IRT (the 1 train). The crosstown bus crawls through Yorkville; I outwalk it routinely, without even trying. But it does pick up beyond Lexington Avenue, and pretty soon you're crossing Central Park West.

Eventually, I discovered that the buses that run up and down the avenues move a lot more quickly than the crosstown bus, and I started taking the M15 down Second Avenue to 70th Street, which is by curious chance the address of most of my doctors. Coming back, though, is a different story. I'll take the bus sometimes, but I'm just as likely to grab a taxi, and, in fine weather, I'll walk along the river. Today, I actually walked several blocks out of my way, to the 68th Street IRT station (to catch the 6 train). Why? Even though I was a commuter for a brief seven years, a long time ago, I still feel fine waiting on a subway platform, and I still feel faintly ridiculous standing out in the street (even in the shelter) for a bus. There's another thing. The train you want is usually the only thing that's going to pass by; on the avenues, the urge to stare into the oncoming traffic for the sign of a bus is irresistible but also annoying. In the subway, I can read until I hear the approaching roar. In the bus shelter, I can't pay attention to anything but the monotonous and disappointing traffic.

BlockBlock.jpg

I walked by Shakespeare & Co, which has a branch on Lexington between 68th and 69th. Last week, I stopped in and bought a couple of things, Consider the Lobster (David Foster Wallace) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (David Leavitt, on Alan Turing). I bought my own copy of Tauranac Maps's Manhattan: Block by Block A Street Atlas. This is an indispensable book for all persons who find themselves, for whatever reason and whatever length of time, on Manhattan Island. (It seems to be hard to get at the moment. The latest edition came out in 2004, but someone told Kathleen that a new edition was in the works and would be coming out soon - and that sounds about right.) Today, however, I walked right on by. Consider the Lobster is indeed very funny.

January 18, 2006

Sportswriting

The other night, I was reading The Origins of Totalitarianism and coping with the tangents that shoot forth from Hannah Arendt's pages like guided missiles. I wonder if the New School offers a course in this book. I'd love to be guided through it by a seasoned professor. Quite aside from the main thrust of Arendt's thesis, there is much historical interest in this book that is about as old as I am. Arendt's contempt for the bourgeoisie, for example, strikes a quaint note. It's quaint precisely because I can remember the prevalence of such an attitude among "thinking" people, among whom bourgeois values and, more vehemently, bourgeois hypocrisy were invoked to explain everything that was wrong with the world.

I can no longer recall just what it was in Origins that triggered a sudden recognition: to wit, that, because the implicit template for journalism in American life is the sportswriter or -caster, reporters will always struggle to reduce current events to some sort of contest between two teams. They will also root for whichever team performs better (not necessarily the winning team). And for the simple reason that sports are value-free - teams have no 'content,' no non-game agenda - media rooting will always tend toward the amoral. Hence today's "liberal" media falls over itself presenting right wing elements in a positive light. Regardless of the programs that Republicans and Democrats stand for, the Republicans are obviously performing better in the "game of politics."

Whoa, you say. Just where did I get that bit about sportswriting as the template for American journalism? Hell knows. M le Neveu would call this another one of my "Egyptian beer" brainwaves. (I was right about that one, though.) But it is difficult to read political journalism without encountering the language of games.

Following a link from Joe-of-Joe.My.God's friend Aaron, I discovered a magnificent term of abuse at Steve Gilliard's The News Blog: "Vichy Dems." (Scroll to the bottom of the entry.) It's brilliant! In an ashen sort of way, of course, given that this is a mid-term election year.

January 17, 2006

In the Magazine

Kathleen woke up with a sore throat, and decided to take a sick day. I seem to be doing the same, by association.

In case you've thrown away the weekend's Times Magazine without opening it, here are links to two unusually interesting pieces. The first is Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino's essay proposing a replacement of jurisprudence of equality with one rooted in liberty. Where the former seeks to redress the inequities of the patriarchal culture from which we are emerging (a movement that Islamists have resolved, for the time being, to resist), the latter simply refuses to recognize any patriarchal values. Mr Yoshino's primary concern, as his title indicates, is "The Pressure to Cover," where "covering" is the tendency of individuals in outsider groups (black, lesbian and so on) to minimize their deviations from mainstream behavior and appearance. Current jurisprudence encourages covering by refusing to uphold discrimination charges brought by employees for, say, having been fired for wearing a skullcap while in uniform.

When I lecture on covering, I often encounter what I think of as the "angry straight white man" reaction. A member of the audience, almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue. Why shouldn't racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal protection against discrimination for things they cannot help. But why should they receive protection for behaviors within their control - wearing cornrows, acting "feminine" or flaunting their sexuality? After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depressions, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. I, too, am one of the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation. Why should legally protected groups have a right to self-expression I do not? Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?

I surprise these individuals when I agree.

The other piece, not intentionally related but oddly inverse, is about hikikomori, or the withdrawal of as many as a million Japanese teenagers and men from all social contact. Maggie Jones's "Shutting Themselves In" describes a disturbance that has taken root in Japanese culture, which presses young men to succeed while discouraging their parents from acknowledging failure. The "solution": to withdraw to one's bedroom. I was about three fourths of the way through the text when I realized that a friend of mine suffered from something very similar after a bad job experience (and, for all I know, he still does).

January 16, 2006

Comments Redux

Comments have been enabled, but commenters must be authenticated. This means that, in order to post a comment, you must have a TypeKey identity. If you don't have a TypeKey identity, you can create one very handily by clicking on the "Sign In" link (I agree that it's fairly pale) at the bottom of the comments page. Please feel free to drop me a line if you have any difficulty with the new régime. Your comments are extremely important to me, and I've resisted the hurdle of TypeKey authentication for over a year just to keep the posting of comments simple. Until the wizards of comment spam have been banished from the Blogosphere, however, authentication will be my best defense against a very demoralizing intrusion.

Marvelous Party

We went to a marvelous party on Saturday night. It was given by a banker who wanted to celebrate a birthday in high style. Just under three hundred people made their way to a Park Avenue town house that currently houses a prestigious organization that, like most clubs and institutes and such, rents its facilities for parties. The facilities in question were pretty grand: five large rooms on two floors. In the ballroom, upstairs, a very accomplished big band provided the music for some very accomplished dancing; the host has taken up ballroom dancing with a vengeance, and old relics such as Kathleen and I quickly learned that our comfortable shuffling just got in the way. On top of which the rhythm wasn't right for comfortable shuffling. The finger food was very tasty - and filling, too - as were the pastries. The bartenders were kept busy mixing Cosmopolitans. We left just before the cake - a bust of Albert Einstein - was cut. The rain had stopped, and we leapt into a taxi. It was ten-twenty.

The party animal in me, once rather formidable, has certainly passed on. Seeing avid faces all around me, I could recall the yearning for surprise and the craving for new and interesting people that propelled me through countless overstimulated hours. But I was so relieved not to be similarly afflicted that I didn't try.

January 15, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Of the five novels promoted today, I'm going to try to read Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury (translated from the Arabian by Humphrey Davies). Lorraine Adams calls it "a genuine masterwork" at the end of a review that supports that conclusion. She calls it a Sheherazade in reverse: as if believing that the longer he talks, the longer his comatose patient will live, a doctor relates "a swirl of stories" about the Palestinian exile that began with the foundation of Israel.

Julian Barnes's new novel, Arthur and George, gets a glowing review from Terrence Rafferty that nonetheless says "Stay Away" to me. Mr Barnes has taken up the odd story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's successful attempt to clear a half-Indian, half-English lawyer from false charges of - did I get this right? - livestock mutilation.

To clarify: Julian Barnes has written a deeply English novel, in the grand manner, about the sorts of existential questions the English on the whole prefer to leave to the French.

Julian Barnes is, to me, something like John Updike, a novelist whose non-fiction I much prefer.

There are two books after the aftershocks of colonial expropriation, Lisa Fugard's Skinner's Drift (South Africa) and Andrew McGahan's The White Earth (Australia). The former gets a somewhat better review from Allegra Goodman than the latter gets from Geoff Nicholson, but the story lines of both books appear to be unappealingly dismal. As does that of Anita Brookner's Leaving Home; Caryn James has the brass to come out and say that

a musty smell wafts from each new Brookner book, a stale whiff that arises partly because she has tweaked the same novel 232 times in 24 years, and largely because her shrinking-violet heroines live in a hermetic, increasingly unconvincing world.  

I'm not sure that I've read two Brookners, but I recall the "stale whiff" quite well.

Nonfiction

We have two books about the Cold War. First, there's John Lewis Gaddis's The Cold War: A New History, which Michael Beschloss hails as the book to read on this fast-fading chronic crisis that deformed the minds of generations of American officials, many of them still in power. It may be more useful to read Edward Lansdale's Cold War, by Jonathan Nashel. Reviewer James Gibney sketches the strange career of this college dropout who, having averted a revolution in the Philippines, was deputed to do the same in Viet Nam, and points out that he was "one of the few Central Intelligence Agency operatives known to Americans before Congress investigated the agency in the mid-1970's." JFK apparently thought that Lansdale was "America's James Bond," revealing the immature adventure-story approach that this country's operatives have so often taken toward cloak-and-dagger work.

But however well documented, Nashel's effort to portray Lansdale as purely a creature of the cold war seems misleading, if not mistaken. Some two decades after Lansdale's death in 1987, the flawed assumptions that guided his thinking still strive. Just ask the American pundits and policy makers fond of calling people like the former Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi the "George Washington of Iraq.

There are three books about important American figures whose eminence did not rise directly from politics. Louise W Knight's Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy is, in Alan Wolfe's view, a "bildung:

an account of how a person's character is formed. ... We know a great deal about Jane Addams the public figure. We know relatively little about how she made the transition from the 19th century to the 20th. In Knight's book, Jane Addams comes to life.

Michael D'Antonio's Hershey: Milton S Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams has a title that tells it all. Benjamin Cheever's review captures an interesting fact: the secret of making milk chocolate is skim milk and slow heating. This is interesting because Hershey planned his chocolate empire before discovering the secret; his Utopia, which is still with us, would have been just another American business disaster if researchers hadn't solved the problem as soon as they did. Hershey's is a rags-to-riches story that Mr D'Antonio is said to have told fairly: "It's the man he's after, not the god."

As for Richard Lyman Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Walter Kirn writes that its author,

a retired Columbia history professor who also happens to be a practicing Mormon, has a tricky dual agenda, it turns out: to depict Smith both as the prophet he claimed to be and as the man of his times that he most certainly was.

and then concludes

For Bushman, the fact that his church continues to grow is proof that [Smith] was onto something big, though. For logicians, this is tantamount to arguing that Santa Claus probably exists because he gets millions of letters each year from children. But since logic played almost no part in Joseph Smith's life, it may be fitting that it's largely absent from this respectful biography.

Ana Marie Cox (more Wonkette!) doesn't think much better of Kate O'Beirne's Women Who Make the World Worse: And Hos Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Families, Military, Schools and Sports. I have to say, looking at that subtitle, that the patriarchal agenda couldn't be more clearly laid out, especially if one regards "schools and sports" as a unit, not two ill-wed institutions.

Indeed, it is O'Beirne's desire to demonize feminists in general, rather than naming names, that really disappoints. When she's not picking off the old and weak, she's aiming for the broad side of a barn.

The most interesting thing about Po Bronson's Web site is that it doesn't explain the writer's unusual first name, which seems custom-designed for the kind of writing that Mr Bronson turns out. Rather than discuss Alexandra Jacobs's unflattering review of Why Do I Love These People: Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families, I refer you to Mr Bronson's response to it. Oh, all right. Ms Jacobs, having noted the writer's resemblance to actor Richard Gere, asks, "Could it be that the author loves these people because they make him look like a sensitive journalist?"

Belinda Rathbone's The Guynd: A Scottish Journal tells the story of a privileged American's late marriage to a Scottish laird in his fifties. Bella Bathurst's review does not disclose the current state of this union; one suspects that the laird may have gone to his reward. Ms Bathurst does outline a book that seems just the ticket for my mother-in-law, who will appreciate all of the stately-home problems that Ms Rathbone encountered at the eponymous "large but decrepit" estate in Angus. (Hint: rhymes with "the wind").

Corey S Powell reviews Leonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. The problem with string theory - of which Mr Susskind is a founder - seems to be that instead of yielding a single model of physics, it yields about 10500. I hope it isn't facetious of me to acknowledge that I don't need that many reasons not to buy this book.

Finally, there is a book that, if I read it, will almost certainly make me explode. According to Melissa Holbrook Pierson's The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home, New York City is the big bad water thief that flooded small settlements in the Catskills and elsewhere. To which I roundly reply, Tough! I have not an iota of sympathy for rustics who cling to their cabins at the expense of the only thing that my city gets out of the rest of the United States (aside from much of its population): an excellent water supply. Jane Jacobs long ago persuaded me that cities ought to govern their hinterlands, not, as we do in this country now, the other way round. Anthony Swofford's review hits an unintended nail on the head:

A primitive wailing can be heard in these pages, and Pierson implores us to join her. Or else.

Or else right back to you.

Henry Alford's Essay is an amusing decoupage of some of the strange things for which authors have thanked their friends, relatives, editors and others in acknowledgments. Of the twenty-six works from which extracts were taken, I have read one, and I have another in my pile. I look forward to the inevitable "Acknowledgments" section that is as long as the text it accompanies.

No Comment

We're midway through the long Martin Luther King weekend. Sleeping in seems to have been the order of the day this winter, especially on weekends. I can't decide whether the comfort is outweighed by the loss of daylight. It will be dark in a couple of hours, and I've only just finished reading about half of the weekend's Timeses. It was heartening to see that two of the newspaper's three film critics "nominated" Romain Duris, of De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, for the Best Actor Oscar. I doubt that M Duris has a chance, though, given the fact that his film is in French.

Owing to a storm of comment spam that began shortly before Christmas, I have temporarily disabled the comments feature on this site. As of yesterday, I was receiving over three hundred pieces of crap a day. They're easy to delete, thanks to a handy plug-in, but the rising tide was demoralizing. I am considering the option that Six Apart, the makers of MovableType, recommend: limiting comment access to TypeKey identities. This oughtn't to pose a real problem, because the identities are free and easily acquired. But in practice, I know that it will chill many commenters. It's possible that simply turning comments off for a while will send some kind of message to the bastards behind the bombardment - I'm not on top of the technology. (I'd be supremely grateful, and even willing to make a small cash prize, for any effective help in dealing with this intrusion.) I do beg you to write to me directly for the duration, about anything that strikes your fancy, making clear whether or not your remarks are intended for publication.

And now for my wonted Sunday pastime, reviewing the Book Review.

January 14, 2006

Match Point

Woody Allen has made several fine pictures that aren't at all funny. Interiors, Stardust Memories, and Another Woman are beautiful, romantic films with few laughs or none. Significantly, Mr Allen does not appear in two of them, and that is also the case in his latest film, Match Point. Unlike the other movies that I've singled out, however, Match Point is thoroughly gripping. Mr Allen has never made a film quite like it.

In Match Point, Woody Allen takes the story line from Crimes and Misdemeanors that featured Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston and moves it to London. The central characters have become a generation younger; they're starting out in life. And whereas the romance in Crimes and Misdemeanors is presented in a handful of flashbacks, Match Point follows the illicit relationship from its beginning to its end. Finally, the all-but-omnipotent Judah Rosenthal has been transformed into the foundling Chris Wilton, a young man of few personal resources. All of these changes make Match Point more conventional that Woody Allen's tend to be, but they also make it more sympathetic.

Something else is new: Woody Allen has never made a film that isolated its hero from his surroundings - if only morally - as Match Point cuts off Chris Wilton. Given his handiness with a shotgun, we may prefer to think of Chris as an anti-hero, but, as in Crimes and Misdemeanors, we are on this guy's side whether we want to be or not. We watch him twist and writhe, we sense the despair that attends his ruthlessness, and the cynicism that takes its place. We're helplessly complicit in his wrongdoing, and we're as desperate to save his hide as he is. That's because Match Point is about the very pretty face of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, an Irishman in his late twenties who, not surprisingly, has played Elvis Presley in a miniseries. His face sells us Chris Wilton's crises without giving us time to consider the offer. It also assures us of something that I hope is not true of its owner, which is that Chris Wilton is weak.

The trailer for Match Point was so high-strung and suspenseful that I wondered if the actual film would be "a Woody Allen movie," and here I've enumerated so many deviations from standard that you may be wondering the same thing. I haven't yet made up my mind; I'll have to see it again a few times. Match Point is, visually, very beautiful; following the characters around the nicer parts of London, the camera likes what it sees. Beyond that, however, I can't yet tell whether Mr Allen's budget of tics has been wiped from the final product, or whether it has been transformed into an invisible iron grasp of filmmaking. Match Point may not be a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, but it's as sure and serious as anything made by The Master.

January 13, 2006

Short Stories

As this Web log has greatly heightened my sense of responsibility as to what I read, even as it has severely cut into the time that's available for reading, it makes sense that I've "rediscovered" the short story. I am reading short stories now, instead of passing them over in favor of books. I do read books, too, but at a pace that by former standards is unprepossessing.

The latest stories have all appeared in the last three issues of The New Yorker.

December 26, 2005 & January 2, 2006 (International Fiction Issue):

¶ "The Word," by Vladimir Nabokov (translated by Dmitri Nabokov)

¶ "Last Evenings on Earth," by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)

¶ "Pregnancy Diary," by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

¶ "Beauty Is a Fate Better Than Death," by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated by Deborah Treisman)

¶ "The Albanian Writer's Union as Mirrored by a Woman," by Ismail Kadare (translated by Robert Elsie with the editorial contribution of David Bellos)

 

January 9, 2006

¶ "The Cryptozoologist," by Tony Earley

 

January 16, 2006

¶ "Three Days," by Samantha Hunt

Two of the foreign-language stories - those by Roberto Bolaño and Ismail Kadare - made the strongest impressions, which comes as no surprise. I have come to expect that American short fiction will impress me while I'm reading it but lose its appeal when I'm done; I never seem to know what the American writer has in mind. "Last Evenings" and "The Writer's Union" are in sharp contrast replete with intention. The first is a flashback narrative: it is 1975, and a Chilean youth and his father, political exiles living in Mexico City, set out for an aimless vacation to Acapulco. Dread and estrangement clot every paragraph, as do honor and liberty. The father and son are not close, are not even particularly alike; there is menace in their traveling as strangers. When they get to Acapulco, the father wants to party, to "get some action," but the son wants only to read.

There are things you can tell people and things you just can't, B thinks disconsolately. From this moment on, he knows the disaster is approaching.

In spite of which, the next forty-eight hours go by in a placid sort of daze, which B's father associates with what he calls "The Idea of the Holiday." (B can't tell whether his father is serious or pulling his leg.)

What things? What disaster? What keeps the mystification from being annoying is the story's sunstruck atmosphere. The final scene, set in a dive, where B's father plays cards with shady characters, is highly distilled pulp fiction, a panting read. (For an interesting article about Bolaño, who died two years ago, click here.)

"The Albanian Writer's Union as Mirrored by a Woman" promises, for most of its length, to be a coming-of-age story, in which the narrator, recalling his early days as a writer in locked-down Albania, tells of his desire to make contact with the city's only prostitute, the beautiful Marguerite. The narrator learns about her after seeing her for the first time.

Despite what I'd imagined, she was in her mid-thirties, and the light summer dress she was wearing made her look even younger. She had a pale complexion and chestnut-brown hair that fell in loose curls to the nape of her neck, and she didn't look the least bit vulgar. A sort of Anna Karenina, but without Vronsky or the screech of carriage wheels - in place of which she had assumed the fate of a fallen woman in a Communist country in the Balkans in the sixties.

As we returned to the Writers' Union, I listened attentively to what my colleague had to say about her. She was the classiest prostitute in all of Tirana, and apparently the only one of her kind. It was amazing that she was still here in Albania. Her clients were a select group of gentlemen who learned of her by word of mouth. She used the forbidden form of address, "Sir," and let them stay all night. At three in the morning, her mother would serve coffee, and the client would slip payment, a thousand leks, discreetly under Marguerite's pillow.

Rarely had I listened to the details of a story with such fascination.

It was only later, thinking the story over, that I realized that at no point does the narrator ever have proof that Marguerite is a prostitute, or even that she is named "Marguerite," and that is very much part of the tale. Marguerite is simply the dream of an open, Western society, in which old-fashioned gentility is not proscribed and puritans do not make the laws. Curiously, Marguerite's significance only intensifies when troubles within the Albanian Writers Union displace her from the page. The narrator is rusticated - "sent on rotation" - to a provincial backwater. When he returns he learns that something has happened to Marguerite, and it is in this way that she mirrors the Writer's Union. This is a coming-of-age story without the coming-of-age. (Mr Kadare won the first Man Booker International Prize last summer.)

So much for the stories that really appealed, or, rather, that appealed without letting anything get in the way. Tony Earley's "The Cryptozoologist" is a lovely story, for the most part, but it was badly dented, for me, by the interposition of a "bigfoot" or "skunk ape" figure that made delphic quasi-appearances at two points in the tale. There is also an abortion-clinic bomber, who may or may not be alive in the hills. Neither is necessary to the story, and I could have done without the cryptozoon altogether.

At heart, "The Cryptozoologist" is a beautiful story about a long and rocky marriage. Fieldin Kohler was forty-three when he married one of his art students, twenty year-old Rose. He resigned his teaching post before he could be fired and took Rose deep into western North Carolina, where they settled in a hollow "as close as one could get to the end of the earth and still have access to a grocery store." That's a magnificent phrase. The following paragraph explains, in three brisk sentences, why the young Rose was drawn to Fieldin.

Rose's father had been an Air Force intelligence officer who came home at night prohibited by federal law from talking about what he had done during the day. Her mother was a perfectly coifed and made-up alcoholic with even more stringent standards of secrecy. Fieldin had been the first adult who ever actually told Rose anything.

At the beginning of the story, twenty-five years later, Fieldin is dying of lung cancer. Gazing out from her back porch, Rose fancies she sees a strange figure. It might be a skunk ape; it might be the bomber. When she goes inside, Fieldin has died, and Rose concludes that the creature was a Charon-figure, a ferrier of souls into the next world. This figure will reappear at the end, with results that you might expect. Whisking Rose off to "the other side," however, spares Rose the full burden of living with the proof of her mistake.

This mistake is about Fieldin's paintings, which were never popular and which never sold - while Rose, herself, became an established, if "sentimental," artist who actually paid the bills. Fieldin's theme was the Trail of Tears - the banishment of southeastern Native Americans to Oklahoma. This despite his inability to get along with any living Native Americans or any public support. Fieldin was a handful, impractical, temperamental, and something of a mountebank, and one of the reasons why Rose becomes a "cryptozoologist" after his death because it distracts her from acrimonious recollections.

Studying these reports gave Rose something to think about besides Fieldin, at whom she unexpectedly found herself violently angry. Late at night - when she just wanted to kill Fieldin, and was stymied by the fact that he was already dead - she gratefully followed the CSA...

("CSA" stands for "Cryptozoological Study Association," but it's hard not to believe that Mr Earley intentionally worked out organizational name with resonant initials.) Near the end of the story, Rose pays a visit to her recently-widowed neighbor, Plutina Shires. The Shires are country people, utterly unsophisticated, and Mr Earley carefully presents them as people who would not be expected to "get" a modernist painting, even if they did dutifully hang one over their sofa when Fieldin gave them one of his Indian pictures. But the visit proves that it was Rose, and not Plutina, who failed to understand Fieldin's art. This grand surprise reverses all of the story's polarities, but the thrill is neutralized by the far more spurious excitement of the skunk ape's lurking in the bushes.

This week, The New Yorker published Samantha Hunt's "Three Days." I found it wearisome from beginning to end. Beatrice, a thirty year-old woman goes home for Thanksgiving over a year after leaving the house upon her father's death, and endures an unsatisfying repast with her mother and her younger brother, who will never leave home. "Home" is what's left of a farm that Beatrice's parents took up, whimsically, before she was born; what was countryside at the time has been for the most part paved over and built upon. Beatrice grew up loving her father and not loving her mother. We don't need to know anything about her looks to suspect why she's not married. The writing is intense, if not quite clear.

Beatrice thinks, If I sit in the living room with my mother watching a movie, I will explode and all that will spill out, all that I will have left inside will be a dark-green syrup of boredom that my mother will have to sponge off the floor with some Fantastik and a towel.

The forestory concerns a Wal-Mart security guard, a construction site, and a horse on which Beatrice and her brother, stoned, decide to take a ride after Thanksgiving dinner. It pains me to read of such emptiness as I found here.

Another rather empty story, Yoko Ogawa's "Pregnancy Diary," offered the distraction of kinkiness - I think. My problem with contemporary Japanese fiction in general and with the writing of Haruki Murakami in particular is cultural: I have trouble making do without the markers that older writers, such as Junichiro Tanizaki, implanted to distinguish behavior that might seem strange to Westerners from behavior than even the Japanese would find odd. This makes it very hard to judge the moral atmosphere. In "Pregnancy Diary," a woman poisons her sister's fetus with jam made from imported grapefruit. How weird is this? No motive is given; the project itself is never openly declared. The poisoner might, moreover, be doing her sister a favor, because the pregnant sister, whose very marriage is a shadowy affair, expresses a fear of "meeting" her child. I was reminded of Roland Barthes's The Empire of Signs.

Vladimir Nabokov's "The Word," published in Russian in 1923 but hitherto unpublished in English, is an exhalation of prose that attempts to portray a transcendent vision in which an angel explains everything to the dreaming author in one word - a word that the author cannot, upon awakening, remember. Rich as Nabokov's prose style could be, I don't think that he'd have Englished his story quite so floridly as his son has done. 

I didn't mean to save Taphar Ben Jelloun's "Beauty Is a Fate Better Than Death" for last, but here we are. A fable about marital infidelity that ends with a tidy twist, it is wry about nervous husbands, palm-reading, and vivid dreams. I'd have liked it better if suspense had been kneaded more lightly into the story's texture, but then I don't deal with suspense very well and usually look to the end of an eventful novel to see who's still alive. For me, suspense is a distraction, not an enhancement.

January 12, 2006

James Who?

As the scandal soaks up ever more attention, I feel that I must disclose the fact that, until Monday night, I had never heard of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Those of you who regard me as omniscient deserve the caution.

This latest literary crisis has inspired at least one patch of genuinely silver lining, however: a new strip from Patricia Storms.

Ambition

A recent encounter has set me to thinking about ambition again, about the kind of ambition that I've never had - the ambition to shine.

We all want to shine in some way or another. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than the kind of letter that I received from a new Australian reader the other day. There's no need to quote it, because all you need to know about it is the deep pleasure that it gave me to read that what I'm doing here is appreciated. I will never receive an excess of such letters, I assure you! So I can't say that I don't want to shine. I do, I do.

But the ambition to shine entails a certain something else: a willingness to do things that have nothing to do with, in my case, writing. At the head of the list of such things, in my case, would be the pursuit of official recognition and credentials. Don't misunderstand me; I don't mean to be sniffy about marketing, as if it were ignoble. Marketing isn't ignoble - if you're any good at it and it pays off. But I'm no good at it at all, and the failure has been almost deforming at times. It's as if trying to position myself makes me uncertain and awkward, and I don't even do what I'm supposed to do well well.   

The minus side is that I'm toiling in obscurity, which is no fun if you like to shine, and everybody likes to shine. The plus side is that my growth has been entirely natural. I haven't concerned myself with things that were fashionable, or cranked out sawdust to meet deadlines. For years - from college through my twenties - I filled notebooks with self-centered who-am-I ramblings that I just may burn unopened one of these days. The sheer solipsism might give me a tumor! It was writing about music for the radio station's program guide that sounded my first good writing, but that was gratuitous as well, in every sense. Eventually, the Internet reinvented correspondence, and my letters to friends kept tending toward the fully-shaped critique of something or other. Me voilà.

What's new and different now is that I am finally, at fifty-eight, doing something worth being ambitious about. You may not agree, but that's not the point. The point is that I've never done anything that I took seriously in the way that I take writing for my sites seriously. In whatever else I've done, I've been guided by a sense of duty to others; now I'm goaded by a responsibility to myself.

My failures at marketing in the past, therefore, may have simply reflected a lack of conviction. Could I learn some new tricks now? We'll see!

January 11, 2006

Requiescat

What a grey day! The cupola of St Joseph's Church is damp-dark down to its waist, but no further, so the wet can't be very heavy. But the white glare of the fogged light is almost deathly. It looks as though the idea of a future, any future, has been retired. This is it.

News has reached us of Birgit Nilsson's death. Born in 1918, the singer had long since retired, but she remains a dear presence on recordings, and an even more lively one in the memory of our correspondent PPOQ, to whom she was and perhaps now more than ever is "The Goddess." By a curious circumstance, I was just listening to the sleepwalking scene from Verdi's Macbeth the other night. I wish that Nilsson had sung more Verdi. She sang German music with transcendental aplomb, but I never felt that she believed in it. Here she is as the guilt-haunted Lady, singing "Una macchia è qui tuttora."

Book Review

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

We begin with a prayer for slack. Yes, it is Wednesday, and this feature is three days overdue. But we will not enumerate excuses. Our bad. Like the MTA, we thank you for your patience.

Fiction & Poetry

Have you heard of Justin Cartwright? According to reviewer Tony Eprile, Mr Cartwright is often mentioned along with Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis as a leading light of British fiction. His latest, The Promise of Happiness, doesn't sound very promising so far as Mr Eprile's summary goes, but I'll definitely have a look at this writer. He'd better be more like Messrs McEwan and Ishiguro than Mr Amis, however. Mr Amis is off my list. So is Paul Auster. Walter Kirn gallantly tries to find interest among the shards of Mr Auster's cleverness in The Brooklyn Follies. "An incredibly loud finale," Mr Kirn writes of the Follies finale, "with lots of smoke." File this title under "Life is too short."

Is Christopher Buckley to be trusted when he claims that Ana Marie Cox's Dog Days is "very well-written"? Since he also says that it's "knowing," he must be referring to the quality of the prose, and on the strength of that recommendation I'll give Dog Days a chance, despite many misgivings. Ms Cox is, of course, the former editor of the one-way political Web log, Wonkette. Washington is one sausage factory that I can't take an interest in; it tries, from time to time, to be disgusting, but it rarely transcends the fug of massed, nerdy careerists. Pity, because it's a beautiful town in a charming part of the country.

Daniel Soar writes of Elliot Perlman's collection of short stories, The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, that they're "unashamedly various without being feeble, a series of exercises in voice, perspective and style, [dealing] in violence, exile and much else besides." I missed Seven Types of Ambiguity, Mr Perlman's second novel, when it came out a few years ago, but it did make me want to learn more about William Empson. I'll give The Reasons I Won't Be Coming a personal exam the next time I'm in a bookshop. But I'll be giving Zakes Mda's The Whale Caller a pass. Madison Smartt Bell finds this romantic triangle, involving a middle-aged couple and a whale, unclear.

It more resembles a story made up serially for children who are not expected to remember all the episodes together or try to understand them as a coherent whole.

There are two books of poetry to consider, both by American eminences. Charles Bukowski's latest collection, Come On In! is reviewed by D H Tracy. I can't tell if Mr Tracy means to be complimentary when he writes,

That his poems get an F for craft doesn't bother him; since his life gets an F also, he achieves an extraordinary correspondence between word and action.

Then there's The Trouble With Poetry: And Other Poems by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate. David Orr has written a Collinsesque poem which you ought to read for yourself. It ends:

In the end, what we need

from a poet with Collins's talent

is not a good-natured wave

 

from writer to reader,

or a literary joke, or a mild chuckle;

what we need is to be drawn

 

high into the poem's cloud-filled air

and allowed to fall

on rocks real enough to hurt.

Nonfiction

The most important book in this week's Book Review is unquestionably Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Black: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Orlando Patterson's gravely affirming review claims that "Shelby's powerful critique of black cultural particularism incorporates and supersedes all previous discussions of the subject." Briefly, Mr Shelby calls for a "thin" black identity that binds blacks not because of their "race" but because of the insult that has been dealt to people of color. Mr Patterson wishes that Mr Shelby had more to offer poor and ghettoized blacks than the demolition of all conceivable arguments in favor of "thick" identity (cultural particularism).

But if he fails in the positive side of his project, he does so in a constructive manner that prepares the ground for a second try. Given his youth, energy, and enormous intelligence, that second try will be worth waiting for.

In the latter part of the review, Mr Patterson all but deplores Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, by Nell Irvin Painter. A textbook, Ms Painter's work devotes a third of its pages to illustrations, all of them by black artists. This, in Mr Patterson's view, both clots the writing by denying sufficient room for the huge topic and denies the reader an array of contemporary portrayals of black experience prior to 1920.

The assumption throughout this book is that black artists have valuable insights to offer on events and personalities in black history hundreds of years before their time, and that these insights trump the vision of any white artists of the period. The fact that an important scholar could embrace such a view attests, more than anything else, to the dangers of black cultural identity and the urgency of Shelby's overdue critique.

John Simon has been a curmudgeonly old critic since the reign of Good Queen Anne, or so it seems. Now his pronouncements have been bundled up in three collections, John Simon on Theatre, with an introduction by Jack O'Brien, John Simon on Film, with an introduction by Bruce Bereford, and John Simon on Music, with an introduction by Ned Rorem. I didn't need Liesl Schillinger's review to decide that I'm going to pass on the first two of these but get the third.

While Simon's theatre and film criticism can serve as a chronological aide-mémoire for what was onstage and on screen at any particular period, his music criticism is less snarky, less time-pegged, less inventive and, arguably, more useful. It consists largely of informative profiles of his favorite composers, written to accompany new recordings of their works.

I don't know why, but it seems odd that Applause Theatre & Cinema Books is the publisher of these collections, not the Library of America.

There are two books by or about people who, among other things, were famous photographers - Lee Miller and Gordon Parks. Lee Miller: A Life, by Carolyn Burke, elicits a sympathetic review from Elissa Schappell, but, as she writes, "It is unfortunate that when Miller cracks up under the strain of depression and alcohol, her character doesn't crack open." More life-affirming, A Hungry Heart: A Memoir is the second installment of Gordon Parks's autobiography. John Wranovics writes, "Parks was a one-man wrecking crew of racial barriers."

There are two works of history this week. One attempts to kindle interest in the career of May Duignan, aka Chicago May, a woman of crime. I gather from Ben MacIntyre's review that Nuala O'Faolain's The Story of Chicago May doesn't succeed, except insofar as it recaptures the immigrant experience of thousands of Irish men and women who encountered undreamed-of freedoms in the New World. Considerably less dispensable is Fred Anderson's The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. Jay Winik concludes thus:

In this little primer about a little-studied conflict, Anderson, a meticulous historian, writes with intelligence and vigor. He has given us a rich, cautionary tale about the unpredictability of war - then no less than today.

Equally interesting, and saddled with an equally unfortunate title, Journalistas: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Women Journalists, editedby Eleanor Mills with Kira Cochrane will probably find its way into my pile. The title of Jill Abramson's review, "The Lionesses," would have served much better. Photographs of Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, Emma Goldman, Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag adorn the text, and make it clear that Journalistas is a solid work. Ms Abramson is right to berate the editors for exclusing Hannah Arendt "because she wrote mostly in German." Even if true, that's preposterously irrelevant, considering the importance of her writing in English.

Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making "Rebel Without a Cause," by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, looks like a must-read for film buffs, not least because of the authors' proposition that, in review Stephanie Zacharek's words, "Dean helped redefine Hollywood's idea of masculinity." I am not above taking a lurid interest in the fact that director Nicholas Ray's son, Tony, slept with Ray's wife, Gloria Grahame, at the age of thirteen.

 I'm tempted to overlook Neil Genzlinger's Gambling Chronicle. I find gambling almost as profoundly boring as it is pointlessly risky. But Mr Genzlinger has an amusing hook: he describes each book with an expression that sounds as though it might mean something at the poker table.

Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids: How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas, by David Kushner. "Shoot the Puppy: to be overeager like a puppy, to the point that it detracts from your message by making people want to shoot you."

Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kids Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees, by Ben Mezrich. "No Monte, Just Carlo: Something that appears glamorous but isn't; inspired by Carlo Rizzi, the hapless brother-in-law in The Godfather, who marries into the family but is beaten to a pulp by Sonny."

Annie Duke: How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, by Annie Duke with David Diamond. "Grody Flush: a gratuitous reference to vomiting."

How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard, by Penn Jillette and Mickey D Lynn. "Bald Weasel: a person or thing that is transparently manipulative."

All In: The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker, by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback. "Pair of Lees: Anything that simultaneously invokes gorging (as in Sara Lee pastries) and spiritual emptiness (as in Peggy Lee's, 'Is That All There Is?')."

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Keeper of the Canon," is an interesting piece about a changing-of-the-guard at the Norton Anthology. I was very snooty about this tome when I was in college, but secretly I wanted to have one just like everybody else's. It's true that I spent my collegiate years reading many of the books from which the Norton took its extracts, and I'm still appalled, in still moments, by the thought that there is not sufficient time in the undergraduate career for reading and discussing Great Books. If not there, where? And what else, really, should college students be doing?

January 10, 2006

"DON'T BLOG!"

That was Leon Wieseltier's advice to a young man who asked how to begin a career in writing about the arts. The question was actually directed at Jed Perl, art critic at The New Republic (where Mr Wieseltier is literary editor), the evening's featured speaker, and Mr Perl had replied with sensible advice about persistence and finding one's own voice. But Mr Wieseltier thought it important to add an up-to-date caveat, which caused a ripple of laughter from the audience and a smile from me. I knew exactly what he meant. I may even know better than he does how important it is not to "settle" for writing any old thing for the Web if you seek to make writing your career. I would intend, of course, to be the exception to his rule, if I were not - like the parents in Radio Days - "already ruined."

I should note that Mr Wieseltier was moderating the event, which took place at the 92nd Street Y - the only real New York address that sounds taken from The Royal Tenenbaums.

Mr Perl's remarks, à propos of his latest book, New Art City, startled two thoughts into life. The first concerns the evaluation of art. How do you know that what you like is any good? Ultimately, you never do, and while we're on the topic, just who are "you"? If you like something now, and you think it's good, what about ten years from now, when you can see why you thought it was good, and might still even admire it, but, in the end, you somehow see through it? This is only one reason why, ultimately, you can't know whether what you like is any good.

But we try. Mr Perl remarked in passing that things change in an artist's life during the course of making a work of art. If we can extrapolate from the experience of novelists, who write about this phenomenon often enough, one of the things that surely happens during the process is an alteration, however slight, of the artist's means or goals. A true work of art teaches its maker something, and does so in the making, not just afterward, when the artist is merely another spectator. How can we tell? I think that we can detect the absence of an alteration, the lack of a lesson. Because the change in plans disturbs the work of art in a way that disturbs us.

This is hugely tentative. We're not always ready to be disturbed. Encounters with art are always enormously intimate, frighteningly chancy. The click is at least partly erotic. As we get older, however - and by this I mean no more than that we see more and ever more art, at however slow a pace - we build up experience as spectators. (If we start out in possession of such experience, then we ought to have been making art ourselves.)

In short: when a work of art strikes you as pat, as executed according to plan, then it's not any good, no matter how alluring, as art. In the old days, they used to call what I'm talking about "struggle," but we don't want to go back to those burly times.

The other idea that Mr Perl sparked is the observation that the people who complain most about "elitism" in the arts are either elite themselves or elite wannabes. Mr Perl did not say this. But he did say that he thinks that there's nothing elitist about having the opportunity to enjoy the rare treasures of, say, the Morgan Library. The wonder of democracy (by which I think Mr Perl means a society without recognized classes) is that such experiences are open to everybody, thanks to our great museums. It was his feeling that he had to defend this wonder from the charge of elitism that woke me up. I realized that one part of the anti-elitist camp is made up of slackers like George W Bush, born to the elite but too arrogant and too lazy in every way to do the homework that makes privilege bearable; while the other part is made of very smart people with no personal connections or advantages who are too bitter and too lazy to do the homework that usually propels hard workers into "the elite." (If there's a third constituency, let me know.) Each of these types is easy enough to spot, and if you want to be courageous you can always be bold about identifying them, to their faces if possible.

Talking about this as we walked down Lexington Avenue afterward, Ms NOLA and I agreed that Mr Perl was not quite right in claiming that the museums are open to all. They're not. Nor are such events as the discussion that we had just attended. Thinking of the young man's question about how to start out, I said that it was a shame that we leave the real education of artists to chance - and to a young person's ability to put up with gruesome privations. There ought to be programs, I said... and pretty soon I was spinning yet another Big Idea. This one is a master's program that (a) lodges candidates in safe and not grossly inconvenient housing while (b) supplying an open-sesame to all or most "cultural" events in New York City and (c) requiring periodic reports and a final thesis. Some of the candidates will be artists, some prospective journalists, and a few will simply be "old souls." C'mon, someone out there must know the odd millionaire.

January 09, 2006

It's The Bunk

Thanks to a touch of food poisoning that kept me up for a while last night, I'm under the weather today, and I won't get to the already-late Book Review review until tomorrow. But here is something entertaining from today's Times: an article by Stuart Elliott about the fake products that were featured in movies of the studio period.

Before product placement became a lucrative business, movie studios mostly kept well-known brands off the screen. They generally considered the appearance of real products to be too great a distraction from the escapist worlds they conjured up for moviegoers at neighborhood cinemas.

This intrigues me, because I always found the fake products distracting. Being a noticing sort of person (as Miss Marple puts it), I identified the labels on cans and cereal boxes as fake simply because I didn't recognize them. Fictional brand-names and obviously phony dollar bills infected the world of screen entertainment with an ersatz atmosphere that was anything but alluring. Today's escapism, soundly rooted in product-placement, is much more convincing.

I didn't see Easy Living (1937) - directed by Mitchell Leisen but written by Preston Sturges - until I was all grown up, and could quickly spot the "Hotel Louis," pronounced à la française but sounding very à la Bronxaise, as a take on the very plush Pierre. Mr Elliott doesn't mention this one, but he does spot two other well-known Sturges inventions, Maxford House Coffee (Christmas in July, 1940) and Pike's Pale Ale (that won for Yale - The Lady Eve, 1941).

Renée Fleming with the MET Orchestra

8 January 2006 Never have I seen the lobby of Carnegie Hall in such a tumult. At 2:45, there were people streaming through in almost alarming volume. The spacious pavement outside the doors was also packed. Lots of people were trying to buy tickets, which wasn't a surprise, because this year's MET Orchestra series was going to feature soprano Renée Fleming. But the sheer crowdedness was unnerving. Happily, there weren't quite so many people pushing through the doors when Ms NOLA (taking Kathleen's place yesterday afternoon) arrived at last.

I still can't explain the excitement. I'll have to think about it for a while.

It was, as these things always are, a curious program. It sort of made sense if you squinted and looked at it sideways, but that was the printed program. The music itself...

Continue reading about Renée Fleming and the MET Orchestra at Portico.

January 08, 2006

Salivation

Ever since the NSA wiretapping revelations erupted last month, I've been uncharacteristically uncertain of how to respond. On the one hand, the President "broke the law." He contests that allegation, and could probably - I'm sorry to say - garner a fair amount of legal support if put to the test. Even if he couldn't, however, it remains the case that most Americans are not greatly dismayed by this aggrandizement of presidential authority "in a time of terror" - an allegation that, as the Administration wants us to understand it, I contest. The sad truth is that most Americans are afraid. There's plenty of reason to be afraid, quite aside from terrorism, but I often sense that the things that frighten me aren't frightening too many of my countrymen. Or perhaps they're anxious because they "know" that there are problems (fuel, deficits, health care) that they can't be bothered to think about.

Am I afraid to confront the President? Not at all. I'm afraid of something else. What? This morning, I was hugely relieved to find that Economist columnist Lexington nailed it, in a piece called "The paranoid style in American politics."

As for impeachment, the prospect of having to defend Mr Bush against the charge that he went a tad too far trying to avert a terrorist attack is the sort of thing Karl Rove salivates about.

Impeachment proceedings could push the American electorate further to the right. I understand that the reasons against appeasement are very practical: if you don't stand up for your principles, then why do they merit respect? I also believe, however, in picking my fights.

There's more to come on this, but I've got to get myself to Carnegie Hall for a MET Orchestra concert. This will probably make me late as it is.

January 07, 2006

The Other Side, at MTC

Ariel Dorfman's The Other Side is a short, neat, and ultimately unsatisfying experiment in mid-century absurdism. I hope that Charles Isherwood will forgive my quoting his pert autopsy.

In "The Other Side," Mr. Dorfman has set out to denounce the cruelty of global feuds fired by nationalism and ethnic prejudice.

But he has expressed this unexceptionable sentiment in the form of a ponderous comedy-drama that could itself be accused of a human-rights violation, albeit a minor one: the wholesale waste of two first-rate actors.

Rosemary Harris is Broadway's grande dame. She is our Helen Hayes, our Lynn Fontanne. At a minimum! John Cullum, who debuted on Broadway in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever - Lord, I saw him in that! - is a consummate man of the theatre. One would have hoped that Mr Dorfman, whose Death and the Maiden a few years back identified him a playwright of conscience, would have given these fine actors a drama of searing political difficulty. Instead, we have a watered-down Ionesco....

Continue reading about The Other Side at Portico.

January 06, 2006

And 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW will be Washington's latest golfing condo!

Why Dubya ought to esteem the Constitution with a bit more vigor.

Congress today announced that the office of President of the United States of America will be outsourced to India as of December 1, 2005.

The move is being made to save the President's $400,000 yearly salary, and also a record $521 billion in deficit expenditures and related overhead the office has incurred during the last 5 years.

"We believe this is a wise move financially. The cost savings should be significant," stated Congressman Thomas Reynolds (R-W A). Reynolds, with the aid of the Government A accounting Office, has studied outsourcing of American jobs extensively. "We cannot expect to remain competitive on the world stage with the current level of cash outlay," Reynolds noted.

Mr. Bush was informed by email this morning of his termination. Preparations for the job move have been underway for sometime. Gurvinder Singh of Indus Teleservices, Mumbai, India will be assuming the office of President as of December 1st.

Mr. Singh was born in the United States while his Indian parents were vacationing at Niagara Falls, thus making him eligible for the position. He will receive a salary of $320 (USD) a month but with no health coverage or other benefits.

It is believed that Mr. Singh will be able to handle his job responsibilities without a support staff. Due to the time difference between the US and India, he will be working primarily at night, when few offices of the US Government will be open. "Working nights will allow me to keep my day job at the American Express call center," stated Mr. Singh in an exclusive interview. "I am excited about this position. I always hoped I would be President someday."

A Congressional Spokesperson noted that while Mr. Singh may not be fully aware of all the issues involved in the office of President, this should not be a problem because Bush was not familiar with the issues either.

Mr.Singh will rely upon a script tree that will enable him to respond effectively to most topics of concern. Using these canned responses, he can address common concerns without having to understand the underlying issues at all.

"We know these scripting tools work," stated the spokesperson. "President Bush has used them successfully for years." Mr. Singh may have problems with the Texas drawl, but lately Bush has abandoned the "down home" persona in his effort to appear intelligent and on top of the Katrina situation.

Bush will receive health coverage, expenses, and salary until his final day of employment. Following a two week waiting period, he will be eligible for $240 a week unemployment for 13 weeks. Unfortunately he will not be eligible for Medicaid, as his unemployment benefits will exceed the allowed limit.

Mr. Bush has been provided the outplacement services of Manpower, Inc. to help him write a resume and prepare for his upcoming job transition. According to Manpower, Mr. Bush may have difficulties in securing a new position due to limited practical work experience. A Greeter position at Wal-Mart was suggested due to Bush's extensive experience shaking hands.

Another possibility is Bush's re-enlistment in the Texas Air National Guard. His prior records are conspicuously vague but should he choose this option, he would likely be stationed in Waco, TX for a month, before being sent to Iraq, a country he has visited. "I've been there, I know all about Iraq ," stated Mr. Bush, who gained invaluable knowledge of the country in a visit to Baghdad Airport.

Sources in Baghdad and Falluja say Mr. Bush would receive a warm reception from local Iraqis. They have asked to be provided with details of his arrival so that they might arrange an appropriate welcome.

Would that be "warm" as in "boiling oil"?

Proverbs 4:7

There's nothing like a pleasant surprise, and I had one yesterday when I found, in my mailbox, a small package bearing baritone Tom Meglioranza's return address. Now, Tom and I had had an exchange of email during the day, but there had been no mention of this! Inside the envelope was a card and a CD.

The CD is entitled Because: Choral Music by Mark Zuckerman, performed by The Goldene Keyt Singers. Tom's card explained that it was recorded a few years ago, as a demonstration of Mr Zuckerman's work. Instead of rounding up a chorus, he hired four singers and gave them plenty of time to rehearse. What he got was not your ordinary demo but a highly finished product. Soprano Mary Ellen Callahan, alto Hsi-Ling Chang, and tenor Michael Steinberger join Tom in a capella performances of Mr Zuckerman's intricate music. I've got permission to make it possible for you to hear one or two of the cuts, and I've chosen "Reyshit Khakhmah" for starters. This is the final number of Proverbs for Four at Fifty, a suite of Biblical settings in Hebrew. Turn to Proverbs 4:7 for the text. The setting is joyous and even playful, as the acquisition of wisdom ought to be. I'll bet you can't listen to it just once.

In the event, a dandy birthday present.

January 05, 2006

Current Reading

Today was Ana Marie Cox day in New York City. The newly-retired editor of Wonkette and author of the just-published Dog Days, Ms Cox had an Op-Ed piece in the Times and was the subject of an article by David Carr in the paper's Arts section. She also appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show, where Andrea Bernstein was filling in. Ms Cox is undoubtedly giving a reading somewhere in the city tonight or tomorrow.

I'm not a follower of Wonkette, or any of its siblings, for that matter, but it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Ms Cox. She says that she will probably continue to keep some sort of Web log. Asked what advice she has for new bloggers, she nailed the basics: post at least one entry every day, and do a lot of linking. She didn't say anything about comments, which led to a "duh" moment on my part. Why write comments (that is, work) when you can just type a link? I'm not the brightest bulb in this chandelier.

Much more exciting news arrived in an email from a favorite reader who never comments. Jane Smiley is keeping a literary blog at The Huffington Post. She has apparently been posting on political matters, but now, she says, she wants to continue the work that she was doing in writing 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Her opening book: Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. A few of the comments are downright unpleasant, and I hope that they don't chill Ms Smiley's enthusiasm.

But what you must read is Dan Baum's "Deluged," in the current issue of The New Yorker. This report of the collapse of the New Orleans Police Department in the floodwaters of Katrina is truly horrific, not because of what happened but because of what might have happened when the city's civic architecture evaporated.

The Bad Faith of the Democratic Party

You've heard me talk about the Democratic Party; you've heard me say that it gave up its strength to promote civil and economic equality. But does that make sense? Wouldn't the success of its efforts have strengthened the Democratic Party? What happened? How did the once-vibrant association of progressive Americans become a convention of zombies, sucking up political oxygen while betraying the nation to ideologues?

The other night, I was talking about this with M le Neveu when suddenly it occurred to me to say something about bad faith on the part of the Party. "What bad faith?" I was asked. I had to admit that, for the moment, I had no idea; it had just come to me, this thing about "bad faith." I was about to apologize to my nephew, and ask to adjourn the conversation until I knew my own mind better. But before I could do so, the bad faith of the Democratic Party was clear to me.

It wanted to be thanked.

It wanted the people who had benefited from its exertions never, ever to forget their debt of gratitude. It wanted those people to follow its lead, and it resented very much the fact that they did not and, for the most part, do not.

It wanted to be congratulated, fêted, patted on the back. It wanted to have plenty of opportunities to show off its false modesty.

I'm not really talking about "the Democratic Party." I'm talking about its supporters - individual men and women. I'm talking about any white person who has ever flared with resentment when treated with insufficient respect by a black person. I'm talking about any white person who pretends to wonder why young black men take to drugs and thuggery. I'm talking about anyone who can't feel the suffocating aftercloud of condescension that attends most bountiful gestures. 

I am especially talking about anyone bright enough to feel guilty about wanting to be thanked.

The people who used to be good Democrats need to forget their achievements. Making the world a decent place is truly - and necessarily - a thankless task.

January 04, 2006

"A Life, Wasted"

Sometimes, the most heroic action is to recognize the pointlessness of one's undertaking. Ordinary parents want to "redeem" the deaths of their soldier children by sending more troops to their doom. Paul E Schroeder is not one of these. What bitterness it must be, to recall what his son said about the campaign that finally killed him.

In our last conversation, Augie complained that the cost in lives to clear insurgents was "less and less worth it," because Marines have to keep coming back to clear the same places. Marine commanders in the field say the same thing. Without sufficient troops, they can't hold the towns. Augie was killed on his fifth mission to clear Haditha.

This in a war that ought not to have occurred.

Lobster Newburg

For the second week in a row, plans were changed in order to make life simpler. We waited until the New Year to celebrate New Year's Eve.

Think of the restaurant markups on: two ounces of Sevruga caviar; three bottles of Moët & Chandon White Star; three good-sized lobsters. It was expensive enough just to buy the ingredients. I need say nothing about the champagne and the caviar beyond noting that M le Neveu and Ms NOLA, initially skittish about the caviar, did not need to be prodded to partake further.

And what did I do with the lobsters? I made that ancient classic, Lobster Newburg.

It appears that Stouffer's, the frozen-food provisioner, no longer offers this dish, which I remember well from childhood. What I don't remember is whether I'd ever had the real thing, made from scratch or served in a restaurant. A dim, blinking message suggests that I may have made it before. That would account for the intense familiarity of the dish's fragrance that just about knocked me on Sunday night: Stouffer's can't have been as liberal with the Cognac.

Lobster Newburg is a dish of sautéed lobster meat, flamed with Cognac and robed in a custard sauce of eggs and cream, served in pastry shells. To do it right, you kill the lobsters...

Continue reading about Lobster Newburg at Portico.

January 03, 2006

Funny, But No Joke

Despair.com was one of the great discoveries of 2004. I bought a set of Demotivator™ note cards and had a little frame made so that I could rotate the display - notwithstanding which I have never been motivated to replace "Motivation." (Tag line: "If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.") This year, just in time for Christmas, I got a catalogue in the mail, just to remind me that Despair.com exists, I suppose. The catalogue was a lot of fun, and I jumped at the opportunity, promised last year, to buy The Art of Demotivation: A Visionary Guide for Transforming Your Company's Least Valuable Asset - Your Employees, by E L Kersten, PhD and head of Despair.com. The fact that The Art of Demotivation is bloodcurdlingly funny should distract no one from its profound usefulness as a hermeneutic of today's business world.

No, I still don't know what "hermeneutic" means. But it sounds good.

Dr Kersten will doubtless some day share with us the history of his enterprise, but I suspect that it began something like this: instead of throwing up at the sight of yet another vapid inspirational poster hanging on some toady accountant's wall - say, this one, "Teamwork," showing a circle of parachutists holding hands - Dr Kersten retired to a convenient drawing board, thereupon creating "Idiocy," and adding the great tag line, "Never Underestimate the Power of Stupid People in Large Groups." A good laugh was had by all.

As this critique of the motivational industry progressed, however - and it does have it coming, after all - Dr Kersten had an even brighter idea. Instead of aiming his argument at sophisticates like you and me who see right through the psychobabble of motivational coaching, Dr Kersten pitched it to a constituency that suffers a great deal more than you or I do at the hands of motivational coaches, to wit, CEOs. CEOs are admonished from every public pulpit to treat their employees as their most valuable asset! They don't believe this for a second; they know it can't be true. But they have to go through the motions. They're obliged to bring in the consultants, who only make things worse. Dr Kersten wrote his book, therefore, with the crusading purpose of convincing CEOs that they can forget about motivators! Not just that, but that they ought to de-motivate their employees, so as to get more work out of them, and less fuss, too.

Much of what passes for motivation in the motivational industry is little more than egoistic, short-term enthusiasm, or warm feelings generated by the creative packaging of the "principles" of the human potential movement, which itself is little more than a curious amalgam of common sense, humanistic religion, sophistry, and psychological snake-oil.

Can't argue with that. But watch the insidious appeal unwind:

The primary objective of the motivational industry is to stoke the fires of your employee's narcissism so that they fall in love with themselves all over again, just like they did when they saw their own beauty in the distorted reflection of their mother's adoring gaze, prior to their exposure to any of the objective, real-world criteria that would define them otherwise. The insights peddled to your employees resolve around the ideas that they are uniquely equipped to do something special, that they have a proprietary configuration of underappreciated skills that they have yet to discover (or show any evidence of), that their weaknesses are really strengths, and that they are winners who have simply not had the chance to win.

The breath of contemptuous Mr Moneybags for the Little People is actually quite chilling, I think. Dr Kersten attributes the confusion of today's business environment to the Myth of the Noble Employee. As anyone who has ever hired a cleaning lady knows, employees are never noble. They never do their jobs the way you want them to, even when you take the time to point this out to them. Employees, in fact and in short, are per se unsatisfactory. That being the case, there is no need to mollycoddle them; they'll just take advantage of you. What you want is Demotivated™ employees, and Table I shows you how effective Demotivation™ can be.

Demotivational Characteristics Demotivational Benefit
Feeling of powerlessness Employee is satisfied with less
Sense of victimization by fate Feels desperate loyalty to company
Low self-esteem Loses need for employee recognition
Acute defensiveness Does extra work as a means of ingratiation
Acute self-doubt Works hard as a means of salvaging identity
Lack of emotional resilience Works hard to avoid humiliation
Intense risk-aversion Is satisfied being an extension of executive ambition
Chronic pessimism Has better judgment; less money
Pervasive surliness Experiences accelerated acquiescence

These characteristics and benefits are then spelled out, one by one, with horrific clarity. The section closes with the following reassurance:

It should be clear that embarking upon a program of Radical Demotivation™ does not require filling your company with unskilled slackers who require more oversight than they are worth. Instead, it is an unobtrusive process of persistently changing the way your employees see themselves, their role in the company, and their sense of entitlement. Moreover, this process leaves your employees' skills intact and may even enhance them in some cases. It should also be clear that the "negative" emotions that most employees will experience in the process are not just natural, they are also instrumental in reinforcing the veracity of the path you are leading your employees down. In that regard, they can be considered "positive" emotions. But the key benefit - above any organizational optimization and heightened self-knowledge of your employees - is financial. Radical Demotivation increases profitability by raising productivity and lowering costs. In so doing, it improves shareholder value and the incentive value of executive profit-sharing-plans. As an executive who has been where you are, I can confidently say "there is hope." You can not only have it all, you can spend a lot less to get it. Progress begins when you boldly start a covert program of Radical Demotivation™.

Ah, covert. The Art of Demotivation™ is written in such deadpan prose that if it were not for little hints such as this, we might actually begin to take Dr Kersten at his word. For the book really is a catalogue raisonné of the abuses of power with which a manager can keep his workers in line. That's what keeps it from being a one-joke product. If you are an employee, you will find this a very helpful book - notwithstanding the stern warning on page vii:

This book was written for executives. If you are not an executive, do not intend to become an executive, or have no hope of becoming an executive, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. Early feedback from focus groups comprised of typical business book readers have repeatedly evidenced that non-executives find its contents confusing, controversial, and on occasion, offensive.

The Warning is followed by "A Special Note About This Volume":

Given the controversial nature of this book and its aforementioned potential to confuse and offend the non-managerial class, it is imperative that the reader exercise extreme caution when reading this book in the workplace. To that end, this edition has been equipped with a secondary dust jacket, a cover for a fictional book called Ethics, Integrity, and Sacrifice in the Workplace.

I took this to be a joke, but I fingered the dust jacket and it felt a little thick. Sure enough, there's a second cover inside the first! As an employee, you can use this cover to fool your manager!

The Art of Demotivation comes in three editions. I bought the cheapest, the Manager Edition. The Executive Edition comes with a more impressive binding - it's a "a costlier edition of greater style and declarative power" - and it retails for $39.95. What I hope somebody got for Christmas is the Chairman Edition, which runs for $1,195.00. In addition to a lot of bookish folderol, it comes in its very own humidor, complete with hygrometer. C'mon, you're worth it!

January 02, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction

What a predicament. I can't find the Book Review anywhere. In the holiday shuffle, it went missing. I must have done something "special" with it after I finished reading it. I have to tell you that reconstructing the Review from online resources is very unsettling and not at all fun. I am tempted to take a holiday.

But no. There were two novels, as I recall, given half-page treatment each, and a roundup of five more. Elizabeth Gaffney reviewed Jane Turner Rylands's collection of linked short stories, Across the Bridge of Sighs: More Venetian Stories, and Sarah Towers reviewed Myriam Chapman's Why She Married Him. Both reviews were mixed, favorable on the whole but shot with misgivings. The Venetian stories center on the death of two friends in an automobile accident; in Why She Married Him, a Russian émigrée in Paris finds dissatisfaction in marriage. The roundup, Sarah Ferguson's "Fiction Chronicle," was a very mixed bag, starting with the new Nicholas Sparks, At First Sight, a book that I will never open, having no doubt that the reviewer was correct to write of "dialogue [that] can be knuckle-bitingly bad." Marge Piercy's Sex Wars is another one of those historical novels - there was a book about Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle not long ago - in which really interesting real-life people, in this case Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and Anthony Comstock, are upstaged by a fictional character, in this case "a determined young Jewish immigrant from Russia who goes into the homemade condom business." Oy. The Prisoner Fear: Strories from the Lake, by Elissa Minor Post, is about strange doings in Lake Oswego, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, and it sounds like comfort reading for the mildly depressed. Jon Hassler, whom I've never heard of, has been writing novels about fictional Staggerford, Minnesota for nearly thirty years; his latest The New Woman, is about a feisty 87 year-old amiable busybody. I'm curious to know more. Finally, Kit Reed's Dogs of Truth: New and Uncollected Stories sounds ripely unpleasant, telling, among other things of "a high school riot 'worse than Attica'."

Nonfiction

The cover of the Book Review announces "Literary Lives," but the selection of biographies and autobiographies is motley to the point of illiteracy. The subjects of the nine books are, in alphabetical order, Isaac Babel, Zane Grey, Leigh Hunt, Franz Kafka, Frank Norris, Katherine Anne Porter, Siegfried Sassoon, Sidney Sheldon and William Wordsworth. The only one that tempts me is Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women, by Thomas H. Pauly. Jonathan Miles's review, "Rider of the Purple Prose," makes this book sound like a camp hit, between Grey's terrible writing and his "harem" of young women. On top of all that, Grey was an excellent sport fisherman, and broke a couple of records. Well, who'd 'a' thunk it? Second prize for camp lit may go to Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist, by Darlene Harbour Unrue. Paul Gray writes,

This biography devotes remarkably little space to critical analyses of Porter's fiction - a curious omission, since what Porter wrote is the only reason anyone would now want to read, or to write, her biography.

It's lines like that that keep me going. Mr Gray continues,

Unrue's attention turns instead to Porter's constant problems in finding sufficient funds to match her growing celebrity and to satisfy her burgeoning tastes in designer clothes and jewelry. There is an undeniable fairy-tale attraction to this part of Unrue's story. Porter was blessed with a small army of friends and admirers who offered her loans, outright gifts of cash and houses to stay in when she needed a roof over her head.

Franz Kafka and Isaac Babel are major writers whom I happen not to care for. perhaps because they embody the serious political problems of the twentieth century. Reading about them in passing is interesting enough. So neither Kafka: The Decisive Years, by Reiner Stach (reviewed by Marco Roth) nor Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel, by Jerome Charyn (James Campbell) is on my list. Nor, certainly, is The Other Side of Me, by Sidney Sheldon, even though Jane and Michael Stern (rather predictably) like it. I read The Other Side of Midnight when it appeared in paperback; it was a conversion experience. Hitherto I hadn't known that books could be Bad. 

My faulty memory told me that the subject of The Wit in the Dungeon: The Remarkable Life of Leigh Hunt, by Anthony Holden, had an affair with Agnew Lewes, the wife of George Eliot's lover, but in fact - I have just ransacked my library to settle the point - the adulterer was Hunt's eldest son, Thornton. According to Megan Marshall's review, The Wit in the Dungeon is more sensational than substantial.

Holden tells the story of Hunt's jailing for libel with the breathless fascination of a veteran royals watcher, giving little sense of the larger issues at stake. Similarly, some analysis of the shifting social scene that had Byron first seeking out Hunt in his jail cell, then turning his back on him as a member of a vulgar "Cockney" school of writers, would have been helpful.

Hunt went to prison for libeling the Prince of Wales; he would have preferred to be remembered for his poetry, which he is not. Also no longer famous for his poetry is Siegfried Sassoon, the reckless scion of a prosperous Anglo-Jewish family. According to reviewer Daniel Swift, "The great motorcar of modern life moved on, leaving Sassoon stranded in a ditch," and Max Egremont's Siegfried Sassoon: A Life isn't quite the tow-truck that's wanted. Still celebrated for his poetry, William Wordsworth has yet to make a hit with me; I find him wordy, period. So I'm not much upset that James Fenton can't quite enthuse about Juliet Barker's Wordsworth: A Life. Mr Fenton makes it clear that the English edition, which appeared several years ago to great acclaim, is superior to the new American edition, from which the scholarly apparatus has been deleted.

Victor Davis Hanson reviews Frank Norris: A Life, by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler. Norris, the author of The Octopus and McTeague, died very young, at 32, of appendicitis. He seems a sympathetic sort, and I've no doubt that I would read the biography - even though Mr Hanson characterizes it as a "hagiography" - if somebody gave it to me.

Finally, there's a very silly book about champagne. Alida Becker was not much impressed by Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times, by Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup.

Stone cold sober, you might find yourself irritated by their scattershot approach to the history of "the world's most glamorous wine." You might accuse them of being superficial and disorganized, or at least easily distracted. But if you put yourself in an amiably distracted state, their breezy factoids and vignettes become manageable, even charming. If nothing else, you'll sympathize when they confess to some research that "went straight to our heads."

In short, a magazine article stretched to book length. Non, merci.

John Horgan's Essay, "Einstein Has Left The Building," muses on the failure of any subsequent scientist to take Einstein's place in the popular imagination.

The budding scientists and engineers I encounter in my job give me hope that science has a bright future. But I suspect that we will never see Einstein's like again, because he was the product of a unique convergence of time and temperament. Besides, Einstein didn't think he lived up to his own reputation either. "I am no Einstein," he once said. Of course, such modesty only makes us admire and miss him more.

I wish you many hours of contented reading in 2006!

January 01, 2006

Happy 2006

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Wishing you all the best for the New Year.

Please take a few minutes to read Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay, appearing in today's Times Magazine, "The Case For Contamination: Toward a New Cosmopolitanism."

To say what, in principle, distinguishes the cosmopolitan from competing universalisms, we plainly need to go beyond talk of truth and tolerance. Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them. [Italics added] So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values. Another aspect of cosmopolitanism is what philosophers call fallibilism - the sense that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence.

Aside from a very small number of precepts concerning what one human being can and cannot do to another, I recognize no absolute truths. We so obviously have neither the information nor the understanding that absolute truths presuppose. A taste for certain knowledge is the hallmark of anxiety in the face of life's barrage of experience; it is a sign of immaturity. I remember so well the flush of pleasure that I felt as a student in the pursuit of metaphysical certainties; I should be degraded by such a feeling now.