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February 28, 2006


New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell has begun to keep a blog that may prove to be fascinating. Entries so far note rough-and-ready amplifications and corrective tweakings of material published ever so orderly in the magazine. For those of you who have been reading the Washington Monthly "debate" that I mentioned yesterday, between Mr Gladwell and his colleague, Adam Gopnik, about the merits of different health-care systems, please note that the discussion is six years old and that Mr Gladwell has completely changed his mind. Now he agrees with Mr Gopnik that the generous French and Canadian systems are far better than ours.

Lost in Translation? Not.

In the interest of improving my French without writing out all the possible variations of je ne m'en suis jamais entendu parler, I ordered a copy of Adam Gopnik's De Paris à la lune (translated by Jean Lefèvre). I already had the original, although I'd never opened it, having read the contents when they appeared in The New Yorker in the Nineties. It occurred to me, though, that the translation would be reasonably hip - I was not taught ONE useful phrase in school and I want my money back!!! - so that, if I came across a phrase that I didn't quite grasp, I could see what it was supposed to mean in sophisticated English.

Didn't have to read far. I began with a very short (but very trenchant) piece about an incident at the Tour Eiffel, "Problème à la Tour." Here's the very first sentence.

En juillet, Paris est quasiment abandonné aux touristes et à leur suite tandis que les autres filent vers le sud ou vers l'ouest, bref ailleurs.

Oh, that word, it drives me crazy: ailleurs. Don't tell me what it means, because "elsewhere" never works in the translation of any sentence that I've found it in. "bref ailleurs" stumped me completely. "Brief elsewhere?" No dictionary would ever clear up this mystery. I hoped that Mr Gopnik's original, "Trouble at the Tower," would. (Note "Problème" for "Trouble" - trouble wouldn't be correct, but the alliteration is lost.) And it did.

Paris in July is pretty much left to the tourists and the people who look after them, while everyone else goes south, or west, or, in any case, away.

There's a lot to learn from this example beyond the meaning of "bref ailleurs" - which, I also note, is not preceded by ou. "Abandonné" replaces "left to," and "filent" replaces "goes." "The people who look after them" becomes "leur suite." I'd have never figured that out, because (I think) I know what suite means, and it sort of makes sense, sort of, except that of course it doesn't. Is "quasiment" a spot-on equivalent of "pretty much"? I suppose that it is, although the fat red dictionary gives "almost, practically" and "more or less." I know that presque would be wrong, or not quite right, but until now quasiment has not taken its place in my speaking vocabulary.

And that's what this is all about: my speaking vocabulary. It is much, much smaller than my reading vocabulary. The only way to import more words into my speaking vocabulary is to use them, but you can see the problem right away. Without massive drilling, it's going to take forever. Working out sentences such as these is a powerful substitute. What's more, it translates the kind of English that I aspire to write (and hope that I sometimes do). Mr Gopnik is a hugely talented writer with a command of nuance that frightens me, because I can't gauge its shelf-life.

It's sobering for any serious writer to wonder how long the writing will be intelligible, easily read. Educated Anglophones still read Shakespeare as Shakespeare wrote it, although with copious notes. The same is not true of Montaigne, a writer not quite a generation older than Shakespeare. One reads Montaigne in "translation." It's true that modern French doesn't really take off until the latter third of the seventeenth century, but English as we speak it isn't much older than Jane Austen. (Of course, Shakespeare is Shakespeare.) Interestingly, Dante, I believe, is still largely intelligible to Italians, while Chaucer, who learned a lot from Dante, writes in Middle English, a foreign language.

It's fun to see what happens to references that French readers could be forgiven for not understanding. This

exactly the look you see on the face of an impatient commuter at the Holland Tunnel who is stuck in the exact change lane behind a woman who has entered it on a hunch


le regard assassin qu'un automobiliste respectueux des règles lance à une resquilleuse écervelée.

The "impatient driver" becomes a scrupulous one, while the French lady driver has taken on a cast of criminal intent that is sweetly at odds with being scatterbrained. And the "you" who sees the exchange, so basic to stand-up humor, disappears altogether. This is the wonderfully unfaithful fidelity of sound translation. French and English are so different, but so complementary. That's why it's great not to have to choose. 

February 27, 2006

"As well as could be expected"

After a weekend away from the Times, I was sickened by the tenor of the news in general and by this first-page story in particular:

One of Halliburton's most persistent critics, Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform, said in a written statement about the Army's decision, "Halliburton gouged the taxpayer, government auditors caught the company red-handed, yet the Pentagon ignored the auditors and paid Halliburton hundreds of millions of dollars and a huge bonus."

What made this so appalling was something that I'd read over the weekend, in an amazingly instructive debate about health-care systems that New Yorker writers Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell conducted at the Washington Monthly. A fan of the generous French system, Mr Gopnik observes that

Although I should add that we pay in France almost to the penny the same amount of tax that we paid in New York City, because by the time you add in the state tax and the city tax and the taxes we pay to build weapons we will never see and will never be used, it comes out to be very much a wash.

(Read the whole discussion here). How did the Land of the Free get taken over by guys who are so into death? The title of Bob Herbert's Op-Ed piece in today's Times is entitled "Ike Saw It Coming." Remember Ike's warning about "the military-industrial complex?"

Lord, how long.

Le sérieux

When we were in Paris last, at Thanksgiving time in 2003, Kathleen picked up a book at the Brentano's on the Avenue de l'Opéra. It was Sarah Turnbull's Almost French: A New Life in Paris (Nicholas Brealey, 2003) Ms Turnbull is an Australian journalist who surrendered to a whirlwind romance with a French lawyer, whom she married along with the project of making her own home in a distinctly un-Antipodean society. Almost French is a delightful read. The author presents herself as somewhat more naive and incredulous than I can quite believe; she certainly knows what stories will get a rise out of Anglophone readers. The toughest nut that she has to crack is the reserve with which her future husband's friends close themselves off from her. She winds up, I think, believing that if the nut could be cracked, it wouldn't be French. Revelation comes in the form of a film, Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (1996). After recounting the movie's tale of a rustic aristocrat's unsuccessful attempt to get state aid for a marsh-draining project on the eve of the Revolution - he fails because he is not witty enough - Ms Turnbull applies the lesson to her own life.

These days in France no-one gets expelled from the dinner table for being dim-witted. But in educated circles conversation can still be played like a game, dominated by those possessing an elegant command of the language and an awesome general knowledge, or grande culture. The French all adore wordplay. People still fear being made to look stupid ('appearing ridiculous kills you,' goes the French saying) which is why the less confident say nothing at all.

To me Ridicule was a revelation. I finally understood French dinner party conversation. It isn't about getting to know anyone better or trying to include everyone in the discussion. No-one really cares about guests establishing a rapport with each other, not even the host. Quite simply, it's about being brilliant. Everyone wants to shine, to impress. The film forced me to face facts - my style of communicating doesn't work in France. It had to change.

If there's a French equivalent of "It's the thought that counts," I have yet to hear it. The inadequately-executed thought not only doesn't count, it counts less than a thought never acted upon. If you are going to do something in France, you had better do it well.

And, really, why not? What is so precious about our amateurism? What is useful about our dishonest self-deprecation? What makes the mediocre good enough?

I realized that it was time to stop wearing shorts in the winter, even in the apartment, unless some sort of exertion was involved. I also completely clammed up in the speaking-French department. My first lesson in two months went nicely enough as lessons have gone, but my clunky hesitations, my susceptibility to dead-end constructions drove me wild. I must practice, and practice seriously. Reading French is fine, but it is not a substitute for self-expression. At the moment, however, I'm stuck at the stage of scolding myself in public, and apologizing to Francophone readers (over three percent of my visitors are in France) for not having filled out the L'Hexagoniste corner of the Daily Blague.

I have learned one thing about French that I didn't get before: it is not common practice in French to preface thoughts with "I think" or "I wonder" or "It seems to me" as a matter of course. Such phrases are a touchstone of American modesty, and I would feel very brassy without them, but I see that in French they merely convey weakness of intellect. If you think something, it's enough to say it outright. Weaseling with qualifiers isn't going to make a bad idea any more palatable. Allez, courage!

February 25, 2006

Book Review

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


Ten novels are covered this week, five of them in Gregory Cowles's Fiction Chronicle. You decide.

The Fugitive Wife, by Peter C Brown. A Minnesota farm wife leaves her husband for the Alaskan gold rush at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. "In the end, Brown's impressive debut is less about the search for gold than the search for self."

Whale Season, by H M Kelby. A writer of two high-minded novels about mercy and nuclear physics, takes  holiday in Hiaasen country. "By insistently dressing her story in empty religious imagery, from a resurrection to a vision of the Virgin Mary, she comes off as the good student who has finally ventured out to a frat party, only to spend all night talking about her favorite class.

Don't Tell Me The Truth About Love: Stories, by Dan Rhodes. A hit in England. "The 34-year-old Rhodes plainly has talent to burn, but in these stories he generates more smoke than fire. Considering his ample gifts, it's a shame to discover he's taken the book's title to heart.

Paradise Travel, by Jorge Franco (translated by Katherine Silver). An illegal alien from Columbia spends a year tracking down the girlfriend from whom he was separated on his first night in New York. The hero "never loses his faith in the mysterious, larcenous Reina or the power of his love for her. His purity and his tough-tender voice, ably preserved by Katherine Silver's translation, give Franco's novel its own kind of magic.

Year of Fire, by David H Lynn. Nineteen stories by the editor of the Kenyon Review. "Many of Lynn's characters are uncertain and adrift: secular, multiracial or just reliably tolerant, they have shed their labels and consequently have no clear sense of who they are until somebody asks them to change."

Of the remaining five, there's a revealing imbalance. The review of Strivers Row, the third installment of Kevin Baker's series, City of Fire, has everything: an author shot, an illustration, and four columns of type by - Pete Hammill. Clearly this historical novel about Harlem in the Forties, juxtaposing an imagined Malcolm X and a fictional pastor who contemplates "passing," is Important. For the most part, Mr Hamill summarizes the novel and then wraps things up with "a brave, honorable work, taking us into a vanished world that should be better known." The routine piety is anything but seductive. Nor did the review of Purity of Blood make want to read Arturo Pérez-Reverte's new novel, itself the second in a series of novels about the Spain of Philip IV (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden), despite the author shot, illustration, and three columns of print - by Terrence Rafferty. There's a bit more analysis here, but there's also a lot of "real men, men's men, macho men." That's really too much stink.

This is hokum of an exceptionally high order - the masculine pathos of having done too much violence for too meager a reward - and for those of us susceptible to this particular strain of boys' book post-bellum tristesse, Purity of Blood is a wonderful, stirring entertainment.

On what appears to be the distaff side, Elizabeth Schmidt's two-column review of Elizabeth Nunez's Prospero's Daughter appears just inside the back cover of the Review, where the editors like to place books that are quirky enough to discourage all but the most determined readers. Prospero's Daughter retells the Bard's sublime story of shipwreck and deserted island in a way "that is inspired by Shakespeare, but not beholden to him. Ms Schmidt notes the apparently extensive library of fictions and criticisms inspired by The Tempest, but makes no effort to convey the flavor of the book. We're told that the Caliban figure is here at the center, and that the Prospero stand-in is a genuine madman. The review is a genuine dud.

Dana Spiotta's new novel, Eat the Document, is already in my pile, so I read Julia Scheeres's review without any expectation of guidance. It is a favorable review, criticizing only a "collage of viewpoints" (there are four principal characters, but only one fully-developed one). I am particularly eager to read Ms Spiotta's "glorious sendup of contemporary social and ecological activists with all their preening idealism and absurdity." I did, however, detect more than a trace of anti-Sixties impatience in Ms Sheeres's paragraphs.

Sharing the page is Ann Hodgman's review of Rattled, a novel by Debra Galant, who contributes to the New Jersey pages of The New York Times. I suppose the editors thought that the common theme of suburban antics justified short-shrifting Ms Spiotta's doubtlessly more serious novel. Rattled, according to Ms Hodgman, is long on plot but short on character - a failing that one often finds in novels by professionals fictionalizing their subjects.  

Tally: the boys are given lots of space in which to say that they like the other boys' writing, while the girls are given half the space to critique the other girls.


There is one very interesting-looking title in this week's review. Just one. It's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, by Matthew Stewart. Reviewer Liesl Schillinger tells us the very engaging fact that Mr Stewart, having cashed in nicely on a management consultant firm, has retired to pursue a life of contemplation. Spinoza publicly cast off the belief in an intervening Creator at a time when it was dangerous to do so; he was excommunicated by the Jewish community at Amsterdam. The younger Leibniz, according to Mr Steward, shared Spinoza's lack of faith but lacked the courage to profess it. His hedging is very much with us today. Ms Schillinger writes,

Spinoza's mighty Nature may have been God enough for Einstein, but it was not enough for Leibniz, and it doesn't satisfy the proponents of intelligent design or those who put service of God above service to man.

Nicely put! Thanks for the opportunity to assert, not for the first time, that putting the service of God above the service of man is a perversion of humanity.

As for the rest - do I have to? Assigning The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times, by Jeffrey Hart and Imposter: How George W Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, by Bruce Bartlett to George F Will for review will certainly fascinate those who, like the Kremlinologists of old, read the tea-leaves at the Times to decrypt its political leanings, but it does not make for a very interesting review. Mr Hart's book is "a relaxed amble," while "Sometimes Bartlett is a tad too robust." Quick! A tonic for the wilting Mr Will! One would have said that the reviewer was all too much at home in this territory to be fair and balanced about it.

My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope appears to be L Paul Bremer III's attempt to salvage his career from the imputation of incompetence. Dexter Filkins, a Baghdad correspondent for the Times, insists that the imputation can only be washed away by something much darker. Of Mr Bremer's assertion that he and General Richard Sanchez knew how desperately unmanned US forces were in Iraq, and that they asked for reinforcements that were denied, Mr Filkins writes,

By staying silent, Bremer ensured that there would be no public debate on the merits of deploying more American troops. By staying silent, he helped ensure that there would be little public discussion over the condition of the Iraqi security forces, whose quality he doubted. When his request for more troops was ignored, his silence helped ensure that the troops would never come.

A pox of L Paul Bremer III.

Jennifer Egan gets enough space (starting on the cover) to cannibalize Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: One woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia into a nice little essay of her own. Ms Gilbert's trip "was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write." This inspires me to plan in doing the same for my forthcoming A Year in the Seizième, if and when the blog book deal thing ever happens to me. Charisma - mine or that of Paris - will not be much of a topic, but I will grant Ms Egan's wish:

And while I wouldn't begrudge this massively talented writer a single iota of joy or peace, I found myself more interested, finally, in the awkward, unresolved stuff she must have chosen to leave out.

The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, by Joanna Kavenna, is enthusiastically reviewed by Florence Williams, a contributing editor at Outside. How bored would I have to be to pick up this myth-inspired travelogue through the Northern Hemisphere's chilly and deserted wastes? I don't want to know. William T Vollmann's contribution to the Great Discoveries Series (published by WW Norton and Atlas Books), Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and "The Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, looks daunting in Dava Sobel's review, but then my regard for Ms Sobel is not particularly extensive. (I found Longitude, her book about John Harrison's invention of the chronometer, all husk and no germ.) Mr Vollmann, of whom I really hadn't heard much before he took the National Book Award for fiction last year, seems to be a dark writer from a sunny place. I suppose that I shall give Mr Vollmann a try. I picked up Europe Central at Shakespeare & Co and was nearly knocked down by its fussiness. I've read one of the Great Discoveries, Madison Smartt Bell's smashingly good Lavoisier in the Year One, and am working on David Leavitt's book about Alan Turing.

Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieve, by Sandra M Gilbert, is, reviewer Thomas Lynch tells us, comparable to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking in "plumbing her own grief for what links it to the larger human predicament of death and mourning," but it is a much longer, and more extensively bibliographical book, weighing in at near six hundred pages. Mr Lynch agrees  with Ms Gilbert that the "closure" business is phooey, and he notes that memorial services have become "peculiarly cheerful." In my experience, mourning is not something that anyone does in the same way twice; each mourned loss is unique. As for Mr Lynch's salvo,

"Sex and the dead," William Butler Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear nearly 80 years ago, are the only two topics that "can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind."

I could not more emphatically disagree.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes a truly sympathetic review of John McGahern's All Will Be Well: A Memoir, and that is no surprise. Mr McGahern is widely admired for his ability to bring Ireland palpably alive on the page, and Mr Klinkenborg shares his interest in the natural world.

For McGahern, daily rourtine is the root of our being, the arena of our noticing. It has an ontological glow, as if life were best understood in the episodic rhythms of daylight and darkness.

It is very agreeable to live in the country and to submit to those "episodic rhythms," especially if you're a writer. But for me the ontological glow doesn't glimmer until the bed has actually been made and the shopping unpacked. I always suspect men who write piously of housework that they don't really do enough of it to know what kind of a religion it really is.

Sally Satel, a physician attached to the American Enterprise Institute (more tea-leaves) begins her review of Harry Bruinius's Better for the All the World: The Secret Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity by pointing out that this history has not been secret for a very long time, if it ever was. It is, rather, a story that the Holocaust rendered deeply embarrassing. Just reading about it, however, is a useful reminder of how extensive and even progressive ideas of ethnic cleansing were at the turn of the last century. On the whole, Dr Satel prefers Daniel Kevles's "more substantial study" of 1985, In The Name of Eugenics.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Better Friedan's Enduring Mystique," is a good assessment of Friedan's achievement, noting especially that her famous book had more in common with baleful social reports from the 1950s such as William Whyte's The Organization Man than it did with subsequent feminist writers. What prompted Friedan and Whyte and many others to write was the ghoulish lifelessness of "good living" in the postwar era. The essay is illustrated by a photograph of Friedan wearing the most peculiar dress. Did she often go in for the Mme Récamier look?

Running Scared

Regular readers of this site will be forgiven for gasping when they find out that I went to see Running Scared of my own free will. It is totally not my kind of movie. But I've seen everything else in the neighborhood (except for Something New, which is showing only in the evening, alternating with Curious George - which I have plans to see). And I wanted to calibrate my differences from Times reviewer Manohla Dargis. She writes good reviews, but I find that I disagree with her. I have, for example, enormous respect for the traditional American narrative. I thought I'd see if Paul Walker's acting were as bad as Ms Dargis suggested.

Running Scared is an exercise of blood and bluster executed with cheeky expertise. The editing is as tight as coherence permits. The story, which centers on a gun that a boy uses to shoot his abusive stepfather, unfolds in more ways than one as the body count soars. Mr Walker, playing Joey Gazelle, a nice-guy gangster, is on the move more or less throughout the picture. His embodiment of jittery American masculinity makes an interesting contrast to Romain Duris's French counterpart in De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté: where M Duris seems about to explode with barely contained tension, Mr Walker is in a state of perpetual outburst. This makes his Joey more irritating than interesting, at least to me, but I have to say that he was utterly convincing. Whether another actor might have made more of the role I really can't say. It is true, as Ms Dargis points out, that Vera Farmiga (Teresa Gazelle) and Cameron Bright (Oleg Yugorsky) make more personable impressions.

As it happens, Teresa and Oleg are principals in the horrifying episode that makes Running Scared, in the end, a remarkable, must-see movie. A pool of deadly tranquility in the film's onrush, this momentary diversion from the main narrative involves a jolly children's playroom with heavy-duty camera equipment and a floor that's covered in plastic sheeting. Nothing much actually happens during this terrifying sequence, but by leaving everything to the viewer's imagination, writer-director Wayne Kramer makes an utterly riveting bit of film. Nothing that I've seen in Quentin Tarrantino comes close to the spleen in Running Scared.

February 24, 2006


As I often feel creepily ancient here in the Blogosphere, I was heartened to discover the Elder Wisdom Circle, a collective of Bay Area seniors aged from sixty to ninety-seven that answers requests for advice. I wish that it had been around when a distant cousin, long since passed away, began to have serious incontinence problems. The elders whom I consulted all took a rather unhelpful approach, best summarized by a disclaimer: "If I ever do that, just shoot me."

How nice to have questions that older people can help out with. That has never been my good fortune. I've almost always been convinced that nobody older than I was had a clue about anything, and that's a conviction that has ebbed only as I've moved into old age myself. It still seems clear to me that we baby boomers grew up in a world that the parents didn't understand, a world, in fact, that was in many ways their rejection of what they had grown up understanding. They were very slow to realize, for example, that television was going to work very differently from radio.

In some wacky way, I knew that computers were going to change everything in general and my life in particular. I certainly knew this as a freshman in college, when I spent hours in the basement of the Computer Building typing punch cards for the student radio station. (Don't ask.) The computer of the day - there was just one in the building, an array of refrigerator-sized boxes with tape reels that hummed beyond a plate-glass wall - was obviously not up to "programming" the radio station's playlist, but I was fascinated by the possibility, and, had I been a generation younger, I might have tackled the problem seriously. Now I learn from younger people. I have a few things to teach, I suppose, and I'm very fond of quite a few really old people, but I don't ask them for advice, and they don't offer it.

In two years, I'll be old enough to apply for membership in the Circle. I doubt that I'd be accepted; my preference for the interesting, unusual solution to everyday problems marks me as the likely source of dodgy advice. But it's always nice to be asked.

February 23, 2006


A few weeks ago, I read somewhere that Jason Kottke was written up in The New Yorker in 2000. Wow, I thought, how'd I miss that? Then I realized that I hadn't missed it. Finding Rebecca Mead's "You've Got Blog," in the issue for November 13, 2000, was no trouble at all, thanks to The Complete New Yorker. Reading the article a second time was an experience loaded with dramatic irony.

Although I no longer have any proof with which to support the claim, I date my Web site, Portico, to the beginning of 2000. (I'm still using some of the code that Miss G wrote for me.) No sooner was the site up than I was oppressed by my ignorance of the care and feeding of a Web site. I knew that I had to keep it "fresh," but what did that mean? Years later, I would conclude that "fresh" means "daily additions," but in the beginning I spent a lot of time assuring myself that writing every day would not be necessary. Who could expect such a thing? What on earth would there be to write about? And then, before the year was out, I read "You've Got Blog." (I think I still had an AOL account.)

As I recalled, the article made blogging sound adolescent and ephemeral, an amusement, barely superior to video games, for geeky singles. And that was pretty much the last bit of thought that I gave to it until October 2003, when my nephew told me that I ought to have a blog. He couldn't say why; he couldn't really explain to me how a Web log differs from a Web site. So it took a while for me to see his point. If I fought doing so every step of the way, however, it was thanks largely to Rebecca Mead. Reading her piece again, I'm amazed by its infantilizing tone.

Most of the new blogs are, like Megnut, intimate narratives rather than digests of links and commentary; to read them is to enter a world in which the personal lives of participants have become part of the public domain. Because the main audience for blogs is other bloggers - blogging etiquette requires that, if someone blogs your blog, you blog his blog back - reading blogs can feel a lot like listening in an a conversation among a group of friends who all know each other really well. Blogging, it turns out, is the CB radio of the Dave Eggers generation. And that is how, when Meg Hourihan followed up her French-boyfriend-depression posting with a stream-of-consciousness blog entry a few weeks later saying that she had developed a crush on someone but was afraid to act on it - "Maybe I've become very good at eluding love but that's not a complaint I just want to get it all out of my head and put it somewhere else," she wrote - her love life became not just her business but the business of bloggers everywhere.

If I've learned anything in the last two years, it's that Jason Kottke and Meg Hourihan are truly serious people who have devoted their adult lives to developing the World Wide Web as a social space. Their intelligence and maturity, however, are glossed over in The New Yorker. Although Ms Mead does note that Mr Kottke "is widely admired admired among bloggers as a thoughtful critic of Web culture," this is the only statement in the entire essay that does not contribute to the suffocating atmosphere of cute solipsism that is conjured by the author's fixation with romance. In fact, the narrative arc of the piece is, rather vulgarly now that I think about it, the approaching consummation of of a budding relationship.

Sentences such as the one invoking Dave Eggers, moreover, create the impression that blogging is for kids. Interestingly, Ms Mead does not include the detail that no such article today would omit: the address of a site for finding out more about blogs, and perhaps for setting one up. It is clear that she thinks that blogging will remain cool and viable as a subject for New Yorker articles only so long as they're the property of the cool kids (to whom she tacitly compares her subjects at every turn). Fifty-two when I read the piece for the first time, I was leery of taking up youth-stamped pursuits and looking ridiculous. Kathleen and I had just celebrated our nineteenth wedding anniversary, and the part of our lives that wasn't too boring to write about was, given Kathleen's profession, too confidential. It's no surprise then, that I came away from "You've Got Blog" both anxious about a mystifying challenge - would anybody read my site if it weren't a blog? - and resentful about having been dismissed from the lunch room.

Yesterday, Mr Kottke announced that he is not going to continue to regard kottke.org as his principal project. A year ago, he raised nearly $40,000 in a fund drive pitched to visitors to the site. As long as six months ago, he began to doubt the viability of the project. In part, he wasn't giving it the attention that he thought that it needed, largely because of undisclosed but positive changes in his life (so much for indiscretion). Also, however,

I haven't grown traffic enough or developed a sufficient cult of personality to make the subscription model a sustainable one for kottke.org...those things just aren't interesting to me.

It seems that I'm to be a mystified by this as I was by "You've Got Blog." If traffic or personal branding weren't objectives, what was Mr Kottke out to accomplish? That's what I started wondering about when Mr Kottke began to have his doubts, and it explains my moving the link to kottke.org from the personal "affinities" roster to the list of useful sites. A year after becoming one of Mr Kottke's micropatrons, I haven't learned much about his life, beyond a knack for packing light and a taste for travel to exotic places. I certainly have never learned anything at all about his relationship with Ms Hourihan, which is funny in light of "You've Got Blog."

I'm not complaining. My purpose here is to note how wildly unpredictive the New Yorker article has turned out to be. Ms Mead all but promised us children; in the alternative universe that she foresaw, the happy couple would have documented pregnancy and delivered a bouncing media product. (Think of the naming rights!) It is evident that Mr Kottke would regard such publicity as a nightmare. Only deeply uninteresting people can afford to be Internet ingenues; anyone with a profession or a spouse will have to develop a robust persona and inhabit it as intimately as an actor inhabits a role. Blogging turns out to be a lot more serious than CB radio.

February 22, 2006

Loose Link

It's true: I never run Loose Links anymore. I hardly ever find candidates! But here's a treat for all you Dubyers. He is such a jerk! He always was a jerk, and it was always obvious that he was a jerk. How'd he get through? (Sadly, I'm not really asking.)


In the Mail

Yesterday's mail brought treats from Amazon here and abroad. I've got The Blind Boys of Alabama's Higher Ground in the tray, and I've got my dico at the ready, the better to read Philippe Garnier's Caractères: Moindres Lumières à Hollywood. No way I can wait for it to be translated; I'll just have brave M Garnier's robust vocabulary and make the most of things when the dictionary is silent (sans-grade, greluche). The opening chapter, "La Confrérie de la Redingote" ("The Brotherhood of the Tailcoats" - as in butlers and majordomos) is devoted to such greats as Eric Blore (who to my mind must be spending his afterlife in the Susquehanna Street Jail) and Franklin Pangborn. I have already learned that Blore was a songwriter who enjoyed West End successes before heading to New York - after a stint in a military balloon toward the end of World War I. I've long regarded myself as a connoisseur of character acting, but M Garnier's Introduction promptly disabused me of my right to such grandiose claims. He has seen everything. Caractères is going to be one of those books that really expand my grasp of the movies. James Harvey's 1987 treatise on screwball, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, was such a book.


The mail also brought the new issue of The New Yorker, with Mark Ulriksen's parody of the Brokeback Mountain poster. The Vice President has figured in a few of these already; who knew he'd shoot his way into earning one? It still surprises me to see such topical covers on The New Yorker. Topicality was just what the magazine shunned when I was young. I don't mind the change, but I do miss the beautiful drawings of Arthur Getz and Abe Birnbaum.

And the mail finally brought my Times-Picayunes - a week's worth. Nothing could be more quixotic than this subscription, because I haven't got the time to read news that's days old and focused on New Orleans, but I took it anyway as a way of supporting one of the city's premier institutions. There - aren't I good. And what d'you know but that the brown wrappers in which the newspapers are rolled up remind me quite a lot of how The New Yorker used to arrive, a very long time ago. It's funny to think: there was no Internet then. It's funny to think because it's simply unimaginable.

You may recall that I was invited to join the hosts of Joe.My.God and Perge Modo on a "blarg hop" a few weeks ago - the night of the blizzard in fact. Accounts of the evening's antics have been piling up at participants' blogs. Aaron, at Meanwhile, got round to writing about it the other day, far more guardedly than most, and even then as a tangent to the larger context of the anonymous, often meth-fueled sex that the Internet has made so accessible. Ease of access has a price: it makes it less necessary to get to know people. On the whole, Aaron does not regret blogging.

What's the connection between blogging and the way I live? And the way you live? Does this experiment make our lives better or worse? I think my life is better for it.

I know that mine is, and that not least of the wonderful things that keeping a Web log has made possible is the chance to meet people whose writing I've come to like. I foresee a time when I will no longer feel the slightest bit nervous about such encounters. That's not to predict that there won't be disappointments. But I'm as ready to meet fellow writers as any business person is to make new contacts. Please remember me when you come to New York.

And, as long as you're at the keyboard: Those who appreciate moral conundrums will relish the unpleasant situation detailed at Lost Camera, a site that I came upon via Breed 'em and Weep.

February 21, 2006

Lower Education

First it was $12,000 garage renovations. Now it's outrageous email written by students with poor ideas of boundaries. Jonathan D Glater's "To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It's All About Me" had me spluttering this morning. The students who, having missed class, request notes. From the professor! The students who pre-submit their term papers for comments. Consider:

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor's response to an e-mail message.

"One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back," Professor Worley said.

I'd have thought that students raised in a house with indoor plumbing would have the sense to know what Professor Worley has to teach. The question may be whether students understand that they are the less powerful persons. As more and more families regard the university experience as a service that is purchased with the price of tuition, students will come to see themselves as customers, placing the burden of instruction squarely on the faculty. This is the ultimate trivialization of education, which can have no intrinsic value under such circumstances.

When I went to college, students proved themselves - or not. Nobody would have put it this way, but tuition bought the chance to fail. Where there's little or no chance of failure, degrees, including degrees from Harvard, don't mean a thing.

February 20, 2006


The latest silliness to appear in the pages of the The New York Times is covered in a story by David Kocieniewski, "After $12,000, There's Even Room to Park the Car." It's about cluttered garages and the professionals who tidy them up. Peter Walsh, a cable TV celebrity organizer, talks of "an orgy of consumption" and "acknowledges that he is a lonely voice calling for a new era of American asceticism."

More and more, I regard Pascal's attribution of human misery to the inability to sit quietly in a room* as the most ruefully useful bit of wisdom that has come down to me. Everyone I know is running in some sort of rat race, deluged by unwanted mail, distracted by the glamour of celebrity, and overbooked by too many phone calls. Sitting quietly in a room, engaged, presumably, in prayer - now, that's asceticism.

I sit in a room most of the time, but I am not quiet. I fidget horribly. When the phone rings; I bring up FreeCell at once. I follow tangents on Google. For example, I finally got round to finding out about donating books to the Housing Works Used Books Café. (They don't make it terribly easy.) That's what I would have in my garage if I had a garage: books. In fact, if I had a garage, I would turn it into a regular library, with aisles of stacks. That would be the end of my book problem. Or the end of one book problem. My library catalogue is in sorry shape at the moment. I wonder if part-time librarians pay house calls.**

There is an image of the act of writing in my mind that, sadly, fails completely to correspond to the reality of writing. In my dreams, I write with a quill pen at a very steady pace, the words flowing out of me onto the page in a river of calligraphy. In reality, my hand screams with fatigue if I have to do more than sign my name. And I am always "trying things out" - sketching sentences that I wouldn't bother with if there'd be any trouble to getting rid of them. For some reason or other, I don't read at my desk (it's a matter of chairs, I think), and that slows me down.

I'm as guilty as anybody of having 'way too much stuff. Getting rid of bits of it gives me enormous pleasure. Christmas, I feel, ought to become a celebration of subtraction: become more Christ-like by unloading things. I've been getting rid of a lot of CDs. Sort of. I make copies on a high-speed copier, and put them in a wallet from Staples, together with a two-sided photocopy of pertinent liner material. Then I give the originals to Ms NOLA. This opens up shelf space for more CDs.

Yesterday was to have been spent in the kitchen - where even celebrity organizer Peter Walsh would be stumped - preparing a Monday-night dinner, but neither Miss G nor Ms NOLA could make it, and I quickly settled on the steak-frites menu that was a regular in the days before Ms NOLA. I came back from Agata & Valentina with not only tonight's fixings but also the ingredients of a ragù that I've developed over the years and which came to mind the other day when George at Quality of the Light described a dish that came to him, he claims, in a dream.

When I got home, I thought, "I'll just dash out something about those crazy neat garages and then I'll unpack the groceries. It's a good thing that I put the bag out on the balcony, though, because it was several hours before I did the unpacking.

Where was I?

* If only I could find this in my Modern Library dual-language edition!

** It's amazing that I even found my copy of Pascal.

The End of Emma

In Puerto Rico last week, I read Emma for the sixth time. It is more than ever a beloved book. This go-round, the horrors of Mrs Elton came even more to the fore, while Emma's cocksure marital schemes for Harriet Smith and Frank Churchill seemed less gratuitous stunts than unavoidable hurdles to her own understanding of connubial love. When I got home, I slid the Douglas McGrath's 1996 adaptation (can it really be ten years old!) onto the tray, and was instantly reminded of Monty Python's "Summarize Proust" sketch. How the movie dashed about in mad abbreviation! One performance stood forth as immortal, Juliet Stevenson's as "Mrs E," and I only wished she'd been given more lines. Lots more lines. Such as the speech in which Jane Austen makes clear that "explore" is not a verb that becomes a lady's vocabulary - a nicety that I'd missed in earlier readings. (It is a bit overwhelmed by repetitions of "barouche-landau.")

What most caught my attention in this reading was the extent of the material that follows the happy ending. Emma and Mr Knightley finally reach their romantic understanding in Chapter 49. That leaves six more chapters for tying things up, and I suppose that that's how I've read those chapters in the past. This tim ...

Continue reading about Emma at Portico.

February 18, 2006

Book Review

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

We break from practice this weekend to begin with the reviews that face each other at the center of this weeks' Book Review. New York is very much the subject here, and, as is so often the case, the truth is stranger than the fiction. The fiction is Jay McInterney's The Good Life, reviewed by Paul Gray as unfavorably as one has come to expect. Poor Mr McInerney! Whether he's trapped in an Eighties Zeitgeist by his own sensibility or by the critics who won't let him live down is bad-boy party animal days, he still ought to have foreseen where bringing together his adulterous couple in a 9/11 soup kitchen at Bowling Green would land him. Here is the nub of Mr Gray's review.

Corinne and Luke apparently deserve attention because they move in circles that sometimes intersect with those of the famous, occasionally even those of the ultra-cool one-name variety. "Salman" cancels at the last minute from the Calloway dinner party. A director who does show up regales a "rapt" table with tales of "me and Marty and Peter and the gang" back in Hollywood in the 1970's. Corinne and Russell attend a book party at "Nan's" and "Gay's" townhouse. When Sasha McGavock requires a frock for a society benefit, "Oscar" provides.

Perhaps recognizing that readers able to fill in these last names don't add up to the sort of numbers that produce best sellers, McInerney gilds such glitter by throwing in a steady stream of brand names, arcane and familiar, to attract the demographic of inveterate shoppers.

Attorney Edward Hayes would probably not only be able to "fill in these last names" but claim to be on retainer from some of them. The celebrity defense attorney and rough diamond, immortalized by Tom Wolfe (who supplies an introduction) in The Bonfire of the Vanities, has enlisted Susan Lehman to patch together his memoirs, in Mouthpiece: A Life in - and Sometimes Just Outside - the Law. Former Book Review editor Charles McGrath gives Mouthpiece a jittery review. After summarizing some of Mr Hayes's more provocative opinions about how the world works, he writes,

Some of this may be slightly put on, to get a rise out of liberal, middle-class readers, but the disquieting thing about this otherwise engaging book is that it eventually suggests that the Hayesian philosophy might be more accurate than many liberal, middle-class readers would like to believe. That almost anybody can be bought is the apparent lesson of the book's most interesting section, which describes on of the few times when Hayes has found himself in over his head.

[That would be when he represented the estate of Andy Warhol.] In addition to sharing Manhattan topography, both books appear to cover really well-made suits, and neither review is a heavyweight. Now, back to normal.


In addition to The Good Life, six novels are reviewed this week. Two look interesting. White Ghost Girls, by Alice Greenway, is a spare novel set in Hong Kong during the Vietnam war that tells of the moral awakening of the daughter of a Time magazine photographer. Vendela Vida writes, "Greenway employs brevity and marmoreal prose, trusting the reader to fill in the relevant facts - something many first-time novelists lack the courage to do." In Company, Max Barry has written an unsparing novel set in Seattle. According to Douglas Coupland, it's a spot-on satire of soul-sucking cubicle life.

OK, we all know that corporate culture and jargon are easy targets, as are self-improvement programs and management systems. But it takes an accomplished social anthropologist from the schools of both Dilbert and Evelyn Waugh to make topics like outsourcing, mission statements and HR come alive, breathe fire and then vomit all over your in-basket.

The picture of Stephen Wright that is run twice, small- and medium-sized, in the Book Review shows him wearing a Yankees cap and three piercings. I understand that this is immaterial to his skill as a writer, but it's mighty off-putting. I read Meditations in Green years ago but have read nothing by Mr Wright since. The Amalgamation Polka, his new novel about a young man named Liberty who enlists on the Union side at the outbreak of the Civil War. Laura Miller's enthusiastic review celebrates Mr Wright's powerfully disorienting storytelling but leaves me feeling more than ever the truth of Susan Sontag's conceit of Manhattan as an ocean liner berthed at an American dock.

"Is it the climate," a British character asks of Liberty's countrymen, "some quickening agent in the air, sense you all mooning helplessly through the woods, scavenging for God in every tree, paradise behind every rock?" There's something absurd about conceiving of a nation in terms of a morality so prone to drastic reversals and inversions. For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads.

I am very tired of this sort of writing - of this kind of thinking. In another historical novel, Steven Heighton's Afterlands, we're taken on an ill-fated expedition to the North Pole in 1871. Bruce Barcott hails it as "magnificent."

Heighton extrapolates from historical accounts of the crew's six-and-a-half-month journey aboard the ice floe to create a sophisticated, densely-layered fictional exploration of survival, love, betrayal and the personal cost of history.

Which reminds me that I have got to read Moby-Dick.

Tom Shone reviews Utterly Monkey without mentioning that author Nick Laird is married to Zadie Smith. That's good. Even better, he faults Mr Laird for pursuing a high-octane plot (blowing up the Bank of England) when it is clear that the writer is "more at ease with the threat of violence than the thing itself." This novel carries a lot of personal warning flags - I try very hard to read nothing about the Irish Troubles, or about the difficulties that Northern Irishmen encounter in London. Utterly Monkey appears to be well-written, however, so perhaps I'll give it a try. What I will not try is Maile Meloy's A Family Daughter. As Jeff Giles, notes, Ms Meloy's first novel, Liars and Saints, was accorded gushing praise from the moment it appeared. You can read what I thought about it here - on the understanding that I probably wouldn't be so generous today. Mr Giles writes,

Despite Meloy's drab, if efficient prose - and I'd suggest there's a difference between good writing an the absence of bad writing - A Family Daughter veers perilously close to the soap-operatic at times.

Been there, &c.


The most serious review this week is Leon Wieseltier's critique of Daniel C Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; the piece also raises a serious question about the Book Review's editorial judgment. Mr Wieseltier's essay is eloquent, and it highlights at least one interesting weakness in Mr Dennett's deconstruction of the religious impulse; I'm grateful to have been able to read it. But perhaps the review would have seemed less inappropriate in The New Republic, where Mr Wieseltier is literary editor. I cannot see any constructive point in the Times' having assigned a book by an aggressive atheist to a writer who piously respects religious wisdom even if he does not quite believe in it. Predictably, Mr Wieseltier has nothing good to say about Breaking the Spell, and he says it very well.

Here is a passage from Breaking the Spell:

Like other animals, we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal. But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives. This fact does make us different. But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.

As Mr Wieseltier observes, it is unreasonable to look to natural science - the best method that we have so far of analyzing the world we live in - to explain our transcendence. If our transcendence is explicable in terms of natural science, it is per se not transcendence. It is clear that Mr Wieseltier and Mr Dennett do not understand "humanism" to be the same thing. In the present context, however, the disagreement doesn't mean very much. It can be meaningful to those who have read Breaking the Spell and considered its arguments, not as Mr Wieseltier picks them, but as Mr Dennett lays them out. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, far from serving the general reader as a helpful reviewer, Mr Wieseltier has been commissioned to discredit the book in a way that will prevent full consideration of its propositions. I don't mean that Mr Wieseltier ought to have written otherwise. I do mean that the Book Review ought not to have published it.

Kevin Baker praises the latest book about Abraham Lincoln. 

In Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, the British historian Richard Carwardine makes it refreshingly clear from his title on that he is more interested in Lincoln the politician. It's not that Lincoln's political abilities have escaped notice. Most recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, told the overdue story of how Lincoln, as president, was able to mold the oversize, contentious personalities in his cabinet into a remarkably effective unit. But Carwardine provides a more comprehensive study of how an essentially good man could gain and wield power, even in scoundrel time.

Mr Baker has no use, however, for Lincoln in The Times: The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in The New York Times, edited by David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer. Mr Baker is amazed that the editors have contrived to omit the role played by the newspaper's founder, Henry J Raymond, in the notorious draft riots of 1863. (Raymond "stood down" the mob with Gatling guns position in the newsroom windows.)

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age gets a largely favorable review from Francine du Plessix Gray. Ms Gray likes the Consuelo parts and thinks that the Alva parts are too long. It would have been nicer to have a book focused solely on the daughter, who was married off to the Duke of Marlborough in 1895 and left him twenty-five years later for the love of her life. 

Surmounting most obstacles through her innate intelligence and self-discipline, abandoning the harsh glitter of her life as a peer's wife for the pure gold of her happiness with a man she chose to love, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan left an ineffable legacy of style and grace that Stuart narrates with an elegance equal to her subject's.

Mother Alva, however, is more problematic, and what warrants her inclusion in the book is the progressive thinking that she instilled in her daughter. That she could regard marrying her daughter to a rather unprepossessing duke as "progressive" goes some way to explaining Ms Gray's judgment of her character: "quick-witted, endlessly self-publicizing and diabolically ambitious."

A far less functional parent-child relationship is the subject of Bernard Cooper's The Bill From My Father: A Memoir. As reviewer Norah Vincent suggests, "bill" may have a double meaning. First of all, it refers to the grotesque bill for two million dollars in payment of parental service rendered with which lawyer Edward Cooper presented his son. But it may also refer to the writer's unavoidable struggle to understand such a parent. But Ms Vincent doubtless unintentionally strikes this book from my list when she concludes,

The bond, though contentious, is inescapable, and in mapping its tortuous contours, Cooper has produced a nuanced, pained portrayal of how - and often how awkwardly - men love.

On the evidence of Ada Calhoun's review of A Plea for Eros: Essays, Siri Hustvedt is one of the most insufferable women on the planet. "Unfortunately, much of this book suggests a similar lack of engagement with the real world."

And Hustvedt's tales about her Norwegian-Lutheran childhood and New York adulthood have punch lines that don't so much land as waft down in a billow of gauze. Her clincher, about a drunken bum, has a familiar premise. He props himself up on his elbow for just one reason: he wants to tell her that he finds her beautiful.

There are five reviews in Tara McKelvey's Nonfiction Chronicle.

The Film Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Filmological Knowledge, by David Kamp with Lawrence Levi. Ms McKelvey primarily notes this treatise's terseness; both writers "have burnished the 28-word and under profile to a sheen." Sounds undernourishing.

Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, by Anna Politkovskaya and translated by Arch Tait. The reviewer hails the writer as "a master at depicting horror and suffering" and concludes, "The more Westerners know about Putin's Russia, the better. I'm afraid, however, that dismissing Vladimir Putin as a KGB thug is a dangerous underassessment.

I Hit It Under The Sheets: Growing Up With Radio, by Gerald Eshkenazi. So much for sportswriting:

Woody Allen (Radio Days) and Stanley Elkin (The Dick Gibson Show), among others, have mined this material. Yet Eshkenazi, who writes about sports for The New York Times, isn't in their league; his writing is flat, the book's structure is disjointed and he seems to have done surprisingly little research, relying instead on a static-y memory..."

¶ Confessions of a Wall Street Analyst: A True Story of Inside Information and Corruption in the Stock Market, by Dan Reingold with Jennifer Reingold. This revenge fantasy come true runs out of steam when its villain, Jack Grubman, resigns in disgrace from Smith Barney.

Time Bites: Views and Reviews, by Doris Lessing. What is this book doing in a roundup? Lessing is one of the great writers, and her nonfiction deserves less perfunctory treatment. It is hard to say just what Ms McKelvey thinks of the collection.

Finally, there are two sporting books this week. One of these days, I'm going to have to decide whether to continue covering reviews of books of which I can scarcely understand the existence. I'm told that some of the best prose in English is sportswriting, but this is not much different, to my mind, from praising the cinematography of an adult sex film. For the moment, I'll simply say that boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar likes Barney Ross, Douglas Century's biography of a popular lightweight boxer who emerged from the Chicago ghetto in the late Twenties and whose career illuminates the diverse ethnic aspect of boxing prior to Joe Louis's reduction of the matter to black and white. As for John Feinstein's Last Dance: Behind the Scenes of the Final Four, weren't we just remarking on Joseph Nocera's rough review of the sportswriter's last book? Why yes, on 4 December! Jay Jennings doesn't think much of the new one, calling it "particularly shoddy" and suggesting that this be not only Mr Feinstein's last "Last" book but his last book period. Sports occupies the final-page Essay. Keith Gessen's title, "In Search of the Great American Hockey Novel," speaks for itself. Apparently, ice hockey is endearing in no small part because its fans tend toward the shambolic. 


Permit me to recommend Firewall, the new Harrison Ford film. I did not expect to like it very much; I was drawn primarily by the interest of seeing what Virginia Madsen would do (more on that in a moment). But director Richard Loncraine surprised me. Working with a Joe Forte story that shuns plot-padding red herrings as nimbly as it does the predictable setback of action-stopping police custody, Mr Loncraine quickly aroused my concern for Jack and Beth Stanfield. I was sitting on the edge of my seat more or less throughout the film. Although there is nothing surprising about Mr Forte's brew of heist and hostages, Firewall treats the Stanfields and their two children as real people.

Jack Banfield is the security chief of a large bank that has just been swallowed by an even bigger outlet. Unhappy with the new team, he is ready to consider an offer presented by Bill Cox - and terrified to discover that the offer has been timed to coincide with the capture of his family by Cox's team of hackers and tough guys. The deal that Cox really wants Jack to work on is the robbery of Jack's bank. Except that it is not really a deal; Jack realizes early on that Cox intends to leave a lot of dead bodies behind when he gets his money. Firewall does not reverse the tradition of Harrison Ford's film endings, but it keeps you wondering.

Amazingly, Mr Ford is a believable Jack. There are critics who feel that the actor never does his best work in a suit, but Firewall may be an exception. (To tell the truth, I think he's pretty great in Working Girl.) During the first half of the film, when is Jack is tethered by microphones and cameras to Cox's surveillance system, Mr Ford looks uncomfortable, not to say constipated, and every hour of his sixty-four years. Once Cox has his money, however, the years fall away, and Mr Ford is rejuvenated by the challenge of foiling his adversary. He faked his way around the hard- and software with totally convincing aplomb.

As I say, I went to see Virginia Madsen. Until Sideways, Ms Madsen seemed to have had a career that went nowhere from her somewhat brainless turn as Princess Irulan in David Lynch's Dune, swishing about in bogus ball-gowns and delivering sententious voice-overs. (A look at IMDb demonstrates, however, that the actress has been very busy.) In Alexander Payne's movie, she displayed a quick-witted earthiness that I found really endearing, and the same quality is on display in Firewall. There's no question that her Beth is Jack's equal; she carries off the additional role of being an architect capable of designing the showplace in which much of Firewall takes place. And she has chemistry with Harrison Ford. "I don't deserve you," says Jack at the beginning. "No, you don't," Beth with a loving smile, and you sense both that this is true and that Beth is perfectly happy about it.

That Paul Bettany makes a dashing villain ought to surprise nobody. Looking more like Tab Hunter than ever, he is a joy to detest, and when he gets his comeuppance the blow is highly satisfying. My only complaint is that the film ended too soon thereafter. There ought to have been a nice, rehabilitative scene with his trusty secretary, Janet (played by 24's Mary Lynn Rajskub).

For what it purports to deliver, Firewall is super-duper entertainment. Don't let the critics misguide you.

February 17, 2006

Mahler Note

Although it's interfering with my writing, I'm listening to a new recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado and, for the final movement, soprano Renée Fleming. I still think of the Fourth as one of Mahler's two single-LP symphonies. the other being his first, the "Titan." As you can imagine - or perhaps you can't, because you're too young to remember LPs as a fact of life - the fact that these symphonies fit onto one LP meant that there were far more recordings of them in the old days than there were of the others. It also meant that they were far more often performed at concerts. Delightful as the Fourth is, it nonetheless carries the weight of having been done too often. The upshot of all this is that I'm never much inclined to play it, except when it's actually coming out of the speakers. Then I forget all about overexposure and just listen to it.

Mahler's first four symphonies are usually grouped together as the "Wunderhorn" symphonies, because they work out motifs that first appeared in Des Knaben Wunderhorn - The Youth's Magic Horn - a collection of folk poems that Mahler set to music between 1888 and 1896 (with later additions). Although the music is not at all naive, it breathes the memory of unsophisticated innocence. And because there was a time, in the bleak postgraduate years in Houston, when I-forget-whose recording of the Fourth Symphony was one of the few records that I owned, the music tends to take me back to a very different life.

My favorite Mahler symphony will probably always be the Third, just in case you're curious. At a slightly later point during the bleak time, I bought a recording of the Third by mistake, confusing it with the then much-better known Second. I didn't have the money to buy the Second, so I adopted the Third with a certain fierceness. The symphony's third movement is extraordinarily dear to me. I have a new recording of the Third, too, but it's about two years old. I'm slowly acquiring Riccardo Chailly's cycle, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Here, he is joined by mezzo-soprano Petra Lang, the Prague Philharmonic Choir, and the Netherlands Children's Choir.

February 16, 2006

Desultory Day

I've had a very desultory day. That's what comes of watching a DVD right after lunch. I was mad to see Donnie Darko. I'd intended to watch it last night, but by the time I was ready to sit down with it, Kathleen came home from her evening at the financial printer. I don't know why I had to see the movie right now. The reason may have been that I made the connection, finally, between the movie and Jake Gyllenhaal. Someone described it as a "cult favorite." Well!

I didn't get it. I was entertained by the many star turns - where has Katharine Ross been all this time? - but I couldn't begin to get involved with the advanced physics in the old-timey textbook. (It was all sort of Ninth Gate goes to the Manhattan Project.) I think I grasped a measure of suburban satire, but while the perfections of Middlesex were definitely over the top, they didn't clear it by much. If you'd like to explain Donnie Darko to me, I'll be content to hear you out. Until then, what I'll most recall about this film is not about the film at all. It's the incredible likeness of Beth Grant and Rutanya Alda (Mommie Dearest, Black Widow).

After the movie, I wasn't good for much of anything. I visited a bunch of sites and read The New Yorker. At seven, I was starving, but determined not to snack. So I made myself a nice dinner out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Chicken breast with mushrooms and cream. It was very easy to make, at least for me. Not only that, but the touch of green onion in the sauce filled the apartment with the fragrance of mushrooms and cream - onions carry other scents, I find. It was superb, and I will never look at another recipe for chicken breasts. It's great to have the cooking thing going again.

Briefly - I'll put the recipe up at Portifex when I've made it a few times - in a small casserole, you cook ("sauté" would be overstating the matter) one or two chopped green onions in a lot of foaming butter for a minute, and then toss in a few sliced mushroom caps. When the mushrooms have drunk up the fat and showered their moisture, you take a chicken breast that you have doused with lemon juice, salt and pepper and toss it in the casserole. Then you stick a buttered scrap of waxed paper onto the top of the chicken, cover the casserole, and pop it into a 400º oven for six or seven minutes. The breast is cooked if it springs to the touch. Removing the meat to a warm place, you put the casserole back onto high heat, and pour in a quarter cup of broth, a quarter cup of vermouth, and a half a cup of cream. This you boil down until it's nice and thick. Voilà. Sprinkle it with parsley for a dash of color. I'm thinking of committing a venal sin by introducing tarragon; I love tarragon, cream, mushrooms and chicken. Don't tell Julia.

Now all I have to decide is what movie to go to tomorrow. The choices are limited: Something New, which I know Kathleen wants to see, and Firewall, which nobody wants to see except fans of Harrison Ford's bizarrely extended career as an action hero. Manohla Dargis at the Times was not nice: "Mr. Ford does not look remotely comfortable in the role of the creaking action figure." My first reaction to Mr Ford's mature movies is invariably to dislike them. But I always end up buying the DVDs. I tell myself, for instance, that I bought Random Hearts because of Kristin Scott-Thomas, and that's true, but Harrison Ford is really the secret of the movie. Finding out that his wife was having an affair outrages his character after her death, but not in quite the usual way; what gets him is the fact that he missed it. He's really furious with himself, and that's something that Harrison Ford does better than anybody else.

Is Casanova already out of the theatres? It never penetrated Yorkville.

Momentarily Cryptic

Message to any Boston attorney who hasn't heard of Dianna Abdala: Nobody likes you!


The cover story in this month's Atlantic is "How Do I Love Thee," by Lori Gottlieb. Here is the tag:

A growing number of Internet dating sites are relying on academic researchers to develop a new science of attraction. A firsthand report from the front lines of an unprecedented social experiment.

While interesting enough, Ms Gottlieb's piece strikes a somewhat underwhelming note after such an organ blast. "A growing number" turns out to be three. As for "academic researchers," I was more than a little dismayed to find Dr Helen Fisher, of Chemistry.com, has built her site's questionnaire on the familiar Myers-Briggs personality assessment test. Dr Fisher may be right to correlate each of the MBTI's four poles - Extroversion/Introversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling and Judgment/Perceiving - to a specific hormone or neurotransmitter, but so long as subjects are presented with the test's grossly ambiguous questions, the results are destined to be oracular rather than empirical.

By chance, the very next thing that I picked up was Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, a book that has languished in my pile for a disgraceful stretch of months. One of the very first things that Ms Ehrenreich has to do in the job hunt that forms the book's narrative spine is to take a Myers-Briggs text. This, she finds,

is marginally craftier than the [Wagner Enneagram Personality Style Scales], in that I am not asked simply to choose the attributes that fit me, but am given somewhat more roundabout questions, such as "Do you usually get along better with (A) imaginative people, or (B) realistic people?" Once again, the only sensible approach is a random one. Do I usually show my feelings freely or keep my feelings to myself? Hmm, depends on how socially acceptable those feelings might be. If it's a desire to inflict grievous bodily harm on some person currently in my presence - well, no. When I go somewhere for the day, would I rather plan what I will do and when, or "just go"? Again, it's somewhat different for a court appearance than for a trip to the mall. I race through the test with the mad determination of a monkey that's been given a typewriter and assigned to generate Shakespeare's oeuvre, hoping that some passably coherent individual emerges.

Having fiddled with the MBTI myself, I conclude that its predictive force will increase as the subject approaches language strictly as a utility. Such people are unlikely to be faced with Ms Ehrenreich's dilemmas; they'll see "going somewhere for the day" as a spot of vacation, and they'll have no trouble writing off "imaginative" people as unrealistic. For more nuanced individuals - writers especially, perhaps - the test is all good for only one thing: identifying abnormal constitutions. At the beginnin of her piece, Ms Gottlieb is told by Neil Clark Warren, MD, head of eHarmony.com, that his service has been unable to provide her with any matches because

You're too bright. You're too thoughtful. The biggest thing you've got to do when you're gifted like you are is to be patient.

Thanks, doc.

I don't mean to badmouth online dating services. I don't happen to know anybody who has actually found love, long-term or otherwise, through such a service, but then I don't get around much, and most of my friends are, well, like Ms Gottlieb. But Chemistry and eHarmony seem to operate on premises just as phoney as the hurdles in Ms Ehrenreich's fruitless search for a PR job. The point of tests like the MBTI is to weed out the oddballs. If corporations are less inclined than ever to leave this weeding to prospective employees themselves - Ms Ehrenreich notes that more and more large companies are running credit checks, which sounds like a great way to keep the unemployed unemployed - then the dating services probably aren't too far behind. eHarmony's Galen Buckwalter notes, "I don't think we'll be relying on self-report twenty years from now." What's that supposed to mean? In the end, a would-be suitor at Match.com is no different from a Human Resources staffer: both are in the market for a desirable commodity but hamstrung by incurious caution. Both appear to assume that there isn't enough time to get to know anyone the old-fashioned way. 

February 15, 2006

Les soeurs floridiennes


Kathleen and I spent the closing hours of St Valentine's Day talking about this photograph. The women in the picture are sisters. Once you start looking, a family resemblance stands out. But that's not what occupied us. Most people, including the lady on the right, would say that, while the sister in the pink top is gorgeous, her companion is - nice-looking. She does not have her sister's dazzling American smile, and her eyes are not half-masted by the pleasure of being young and lovely and free. Most important, the lady on the right leads with her forehead, not her chin.

If you wander through the Louvre or the Met in search of pretty faces, you won't find anything like the very American girl on the left. Her expression, if it existed at all before modern photography, was of no interest to the Old Masters. For example - speaking of Old Masters - consider Rubens's picture of his sister-in-law (here represented on postage stamps). The lady, Susanne Fourment (hmm!) smiles with her lips pressed together, but she holds her head down, just like the sister on the right. In the context of the photograph, there is something self-deprecating about that downward tilt vis-à-vis the upward thrust to the left. But if you consider Ms Right's picture by itself, an astonishing self-assurance emerges. The sort of assurance that allows one to resettle (just like all good Americans!) across an ocean. 

Stare at the photograph long enough, and you'll be bedeviled by two very pretty young ladies, each lovely in her own way. It's entirely possible, of course, that "long enough" is something that only an old clochard like me would devote to the picture. All I hope is that they had a great time partying last night in Gainesville.


What are we calling it? The Whittington Affair? Shotgungate? (Drop a 't' and a 'g' there, and you have the kind of regime Dick Cheney wishes he were running.) Whatever we call it, I hope that we all learn its lesson, which is that the Bush Administration regards public opinion with an indifference that masks fear and contempt. There was no good reason for Mr Cheney not to step forward with a prompt, sportsmanlike statement. Instead of which he's huddling in an eye of Utter Irresponsibility. Poor old Whittington stepped into the line of fire; the Armstrong lobby decided how and when to break the news. God only knows what Mr Cheney meant when he told Mr Whittington that he "stood ready to assist." "Don't let that asshole near me" would have been an apt reply. But the Vice President, however characteristically clumsy and maladroit, did nothing wrong. Accidents happen.

So, what held the Vice President back? I would say that it was an adherence to the CEO playbook that, so far as I can tell, is the only explanation of the Administration's behavior overall. CEOs fear public opinion because it can be surprisingly powerful. They have contempt for it because it is so often unintelligent and misinformed - no thanks to CEOs and their flaks. These uncomfortable responses are powdered by an indifference that almost but not quite sincerely wonders why a "personal" matter is of any interest to strangers. I am convinced that the Vice President believes that what happened at the Armstrong Ranch on Saturday concerns no one but the people who were present and (possibly) their families. The accidental shooting - O! how I'd like to believe that the trigger was pulled nefariously! (but I can't) - in no way amounts to an affair of state. The normal thing to do, if you're following the CEO playbook, is to wait to see how bad the damage is before going public. If the damage is slight, then there's no story and no problem.

Who knew how serious Mr Whittington's injuries were? The important thing, from the playbook point of view, was not to fly off the handle with lamentations and regrets. I can almost hear Mr Cheney patting himself on the back for "holding it in" while waiting for the doctors' report. Right. Sadly, Mr Cheney is not a CEO. He is employed by the most public company of them all, the government of the United States of America, and he was elected to that position by voters who are not to be confused with shareholders. Shareholders might be as interested in keeping mum about the shooting as Mr Cheney; who knows what such news might to do the share price. But American electors are not investors. They see themselves as the investment.

At last we have a scandal that parallels the Clinton debacle. The original sin was not so bad, and it would have been forgiven if the sinner had 'fessed up. But the sinner in question didn't and doesn't want to do that. Mr Clinton denied that he'd had sex with Monica Lewinsky because he was misguided by pollsters. That was not an impeachable offense, but it was a serious presidential failing (lying about the relationship was more serious still). Mr Cheney didn't lie about anything, but there seems to be a strong feeling that his letting a day go by before confronting the story in public was inappropriate at best.

I'm not calling for impeachment - please! I'm simply pointing out that Mr Cheney's behavior after the accident is identical in spirit to that of corporate desperadoes from Ken Lay to Martha Stewart. Treat the public like the fool that it usually is, and hope for the best!

February 14, 2006

The Onion Soupçon

Not one, but two, recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking were on this evening's menu. We started with onion soup à la Beck, Bertolle & Child and went on to Poulets grillés à la diable. Not only that. There were five courses in all. The chicken came with steamed new potatoes. For salad, we had asparagus vinaigrette. Then, two cheeses, a camembert and a Shropshire blue, served with the Latest Thing, Late July saltines, made by the makers of Cape Cod Potato Chips. Finally, a store-bought, heart-shaped chocolate cake just right for four.

Neither of the Mastering dishes was difficult for me, but I wanted to follow the recipes as exactly as I could, and, aside from the conclusion that I need a better broiling pan - I'll consult Mastering for suggestions - I came away with a feeling of real success. One might not expect a chicken daubed with mustard, green onions, and cayenne to be subtle, but what we ate was subtle. It was also, to use Child's favorite poultry accolade, "chickeny." Ms NOLA saved the white-meat half of her split chicken and bagged it for leftovers: I was honored.

But the recipes aren't the half of it. The real secret of our good dinner was my understanding that I would focus on it all day. How obvious! And yet... For a few years now, I've been kidding myself with the idea that there are things in the kitchen that I can do in my sleep. In fact, although I can do them without much preparation or forethought, I end up doing them in a state of extreme pique, as if I were the Zsa Zsa Gabor of blogs. Of course darling but do you really expect me to cut up all these green onions when I should be reading The Huffington Post? Darling.

So today was devoted to kitchen matters. And what do you know? Dinner was easy and pleasant and even interesting - from a culinary point of view. It's been a long, long time since that was the case. (Conversation, with M le Neveu at the table, is always interesting, if you know what I mean by Chinese proverbs.)

Moral of the story: Once a week, I'll be a bonne femme. I won't be wearing it, but you can imagine me in Shapeless Black.

February 13, 2006

Weather Conditions

As for the little blizzard we had in New York this weekend, Kathleen and I stayed indoors. When I went out this morning, I found that most of the sidewalks up here are clear, and that the corners are no worse than they would be after a less bountiful snowfall. Corners are a problem because building owners are required to clear the sidewalks only to the kerb. (You can tell that a building's vacant, or at any rate that it doesn't have a retail tenant on the ground floor, by the presence of compacted snow in front of it; and Yorkvillians are advised to avoid the southeast corner of 86th and Third for the time being, because a group of buildings stretching away from the corner in both directions has been bought up for demolition and development, and the walking there is a little rough right now.) Many owners shovel through the pileup of snow in the parking lane, but even when they do, two-way pedestrian traffic is impossible. The lakes of slush that collect at the base of these canyons present additional hurdles. But as I say it wasn't remarkably bad. The sun felt very warm on my back as I lugged a ton of stuff back from Eli's.

Thanks to a tip from Ms NOLA, I picked up the current issue of New York, a magazine that I normally do not permit in the house. This week's cover story is "The Blog Establishment: The Emerging Hierarchy of the New New Media." It promises to be slick, superficial, and, ultimately, pretty stupid, but in fact it's full of familiar stuff, including a nice power-law curve. New York being New York, Clive Thompson, the writer, is very interested in advertising rates.

How much would you pay to read the Daily Blague? Let's say that you had only to click a button (not that it's much harder than that as it is). Would you pay a quarter a year? A dollar? I'm not asking what you think it's worth, but how much you would pay. Because in fact you have never paid anything. This is not a guilt trip. I'm simply asking you to think about it for a moment. Here's a second question: would you rather I supported the site with ads? Is that how you think things ought to work? Just curious.

Thomas Meglioranza at the Thalia


Last Thursday night, Thomas Meglioranza gave a recital at the Thalia at Symphony Space. When I got there, I wished I'd brought a camera, because Tom's name was running around in lights on the marquee ribbon. The recital, sponsored by the Concert Artists Guild together with Symphony Space, featured pianist Reiko Uchida and violinist Jessica Lee.

As the intriguing postcard announcing the recital made clear, the program would consist of works by living American composers. Not too long ago, it would have taken several earth movers to get me to show up for such an event. Most of the contemporary American music that I've heard is either jazz-inflected, which is agreeable but something of a cop-out, or blandly aimless and anodyne. On top of that, it is so often in English! Which, when it comes to full-throated singing, is a language that I grasp only with difficulty; German and Italian are so much more intelligible, even if I don't know what the words mean. But if I was happy to go to Tom's recital, it wasn't because I'd be doing him any favors by padding out the audience. I've learned, in the past year, that Tom Meglioranza is an exceptional singer with a very strong gift for performing (among other things!) music by living American composers.

What I didn't expect (aside from Tom's name in lights) was a brilliantly composed program. I don't mean that it was perfect. But it was built to grow, to cultivate over what I hope will be a long and fruitful career. I have never heard another singer (no, not even Dawn Upshaw) with Tom's ability to render art songs the respect that is their due while making them not only thoroughly approachable but really great to hear. You can check your sense of duty at the door and trust that Tom will entertain you. How does he do it? The short answer is that his commitment to the music is total. The beautiful voice, the skilful execution, the personal charm - these are all very well, and Tom has them in spades. But he believes in what he is singing. Perhaps it would be more helpful to say that his voice believes.

The program began with "The Pregnant Dream," by Aaron Jay Kernis, who also composed the last work on the program, "A Song on the End of the World." "The Pregnant Dream," which I'd heard Tom sing at the Naumburg competition last spring, sets a droll poem by May Swenson.

I had a dream in which I had a dream,

and in my dream I told you,

"Listen, I will tell you my dream,"

And I begin to tell you. And

you told me, "I haven't time to listen while you tell your dream."

Mr Kernis's setting turns the much-repeated word "dream" into a humorously maddening ostinato - humorous because, in the dream, the dreamer couldn't remember the dream. This a capella number hides its virtuosity with a smile, and it was the perfect opener to the recital that followed.

David Liptak's Under the Resurrection Palm is a set of three songs to verse by two poets, Linda Pastan and Rita Dove, for voice and violin. Unsupported by a piano, the voice sounds vulnerable next to the violin, and that suits the poetry very well. "The Bookstall," a bibliophile's fancy run loose, but finding a serene climax in the line, "every book its own receding horizon, was my favorite here. Next on the program - Ms Uchida, the gifted accompanist with whom Tom works when he can, made her first appearance here - was Russell Platt's The Muldoon Songs, setting four poems by Irish poet Paul Muldoon. Once again, I was treated to the second performance of something that I'd heard at the Naumburgs (the cycle's first song, "Cuba"). The Muldoon Songs and Into the Still Hollow, by John Rommereim - the music that followed - were the only items in the program that seemed ordinary to me. Mr Rommereim's setting of WS Merwin's poem is a set of seven linked monologues, delivered by archetypal characters ("King," "Scholar," and so on), each one ending in the Latin tag, "Et ecce nunc in pulvere dormio." I did not find enough distinction between these characters, and if it hadn't been for the Latin, I wouldn't have known where one stopped and the next began. But I suspect that I was alone here; the audience clearly liked both the Platt and the Rommereim.

After a brief pause. Tom sang a bitter song by Milton Babbitt, "The Widow's Lament in Springtime." Its text, by William Carlos Williams, compresses a widow's grief into an inability to delight in the blossoming of her beloved fruit trees. Love and death are not mentioned, making the sense of loss as stark as Mr Babbitt's music, which is sore beyond regret. Arresting on its own, "Lament" prepared the audience for The Plundered Heart, a set of two songs written by Jorge Martín and commissioned expressly for Tom. This was the dramatic high point of the evening. The poems, by JD McClatchy - "Fado" and "Pibroch" (Portuguese and Scottish folk forms, respectively) - follow the anguish of jealousy with the numbness of loss. The piano writing never shakes off the beating heart that constitutes the startling image of "Fado"; in "Pibroch," a low-throbbing pulse alternates with chords of Celtic placidity - a placidity that, having nothing to do with the sentiment of the text, powerfully underscores the lover's hopelessness. (It shouldn't work, but it does.) I was as wrapped up in all of this as I've ever been in any opera, and deeply shaken when it was over.

Derek Bermel's Nature Calls is a set of three delightful songs, to verse by Wendy S Walters, Sylvia Plath, and Naomi Shihab Nye. "Spider Love" is a wicked vamp on an ancient theme (don't say you weren't warned about romance). "Mushrooms" rather fearfully announces the conquest of the earth by stealth: "Our foot's in the door." The final song,  "Dog," is a barcarolle that compares the sky to the belly of a sleeping canine; it couldn't be gentler. Mr Bermel's vocal line was perhaps the most dynamic of any of the songs; it had something of the spunk of Ned Rorem's jauntier pieces.

Aaron Jay Kermis's "A Song on the End of the World," for voice, violin, and piano, sets a poem written by Czeslaw Milosz in 1944. A hauntingly arched phrase violin phrase brackets the song's decidedly unapocalyptic meditation on final things that, musically at least, has it two ways - beautiful music for an ominous proposition. It was the perfect formal close to the recital. As an encore, Tom sang Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeanie," to accompaniment written by Ned Rorem. Oh, what a difference Mr Rorem's accompaniment makes! Instead of the sugary chords and curlicues that nineteenth-century practice would dictate, the piano sets the voice free with a string of loose, wide-ranging arpeggios.

The recital absolutely at an end, all I could think of was a line from Wallace Stevens's "Credences of Summer":

                             This is the barrenness

Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

The barrenness was in my ears; I could hear no more music that night.

February 12, 2006

Book Review

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


Don't miss Alexandra Jacobs's smart review of Jackie Collins's latest sashweight, Lovers & Players. It's very funny and all of a piece, and its best bits must be read in context. The only line that I could extract was the statement that Ms Collins "lives in Beverly Hills and continues to embody its moneyed, soulless 1980's ethos in perpetuity, as if pickled in a vat of Giorgio perfume." I don't mind that the Book Review deigns to notice Lovers & Players, so long as the writing is as biting as this. On the other end of the enthusiasm scale is Ben Marcus's encomium to Deborah Eisenberg's collection of stories, Twilight of the Superheroes. Mr Marcus succeeds without trying at making Ms Eisenberg's characters sound repellent and her stories unintelligible. Still wondering just what it was that Mr Marcus was trying to say in his noted anti-Franzen piece in Harper's last fall, I suppose that this review is to be read as part of a developing literary theory.

Pankaj Mishra favorable review of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss concludes with a bit of waffling.

This is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need t agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it.

Vision or reality? Ms Desai apparently takes a grim view of globalization, multiculturalism, and other trends that writes such as Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru extol. She sees them as merely furthering the humiliation of the less-than-fortunate. I'd have expected Mr Mishra, who has written highly nuanced fictional and nonfictional accounts of the West's impact on India, to take a clearer stand on Ms Desai's pessimism. Equally hard to assess is Dan Chiasson's favorable review of Justin Tussing's The Best People in the World. On the one hand, he finds that Mr Tussing is a virtuoso of factual description. On the other, he observes, "His characters try really hard to remember to notice small shifts in one another's moods ... but they're really much more interested in the aeronautical trade magazines strewn around the house or the proper way to make your own firecrackers." I seem to recall that Mr Tussing published a memorable story in The New Yorker in which, as in his new novel, an adolescent runs off with his high-school teacher; the story was evidently an excerpt from the novel. Mr Chiasson does not persuade me that I'll benefit from the longer version. Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, by Ayelet Waldman, gets a good review from Chelsea Cain. Ms Cain reminds us that Ms Waldman has admitted - in the Book Review, no less - to loving her husband, writer Michael Chabon, more than she loves her children. She also claims that Ms Waldman has something "new and interesting" to say about "women, families and love." Too bad she labels it a work of "chick-lit."

The one novel that stands out this week thanks to a favorable review is Olympia Vernon's A Killing In This Town. Maud Casey doesn't say just when this Jim Crow-era novel is set, but perhaps that's not important. The graphically portrayed brutalization of independent-minded blacks by fledgling Klansmen sounds almost unreadable, but that is undoubtedly the reason why A Killing In This Town must be read.


For the most part, this week's nonfiction reviews make me want to crawl back into bed in search of an alternative to reading. I really do not see the point, for example, of either Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, edited and introduced by Bruce Lawrence, or Noah Feldman's full-age review.

In the long run, the only way to cut off the international jihadi movement at the root is for Muslins to conclude that their own religious tradition does not countenance the deviations of recent years.

What a startlingly unhelpful judgment! I begin to associate Mr Feldman with pious hopes. Gary J Bass likes Jonathan B Tucker's War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda, but the issue of toxic-gas stockpiles, while sobering-to-horrific, seems dependent on other problems that must be solved first, such as the accountability of office-holders generally and the presence of George W Bush in the White House in particular. No less appalling is the subject of Rebecca Lemov's World as Laboratory: Experiments With Mice, Mazes and Men. This grisly account of attempts to alter human behavior by "scientific" means is almost humorously stuffed with crackpot ideas. Not so crackpot, but just as heartless is David Brooks's  grand conservative inference.

What is nefarious is the assumption - and this is where the tradition Lemov describes is indeed very much alive - that in the most important realms of life, human beings respond in uniform ways to material stimuli. [Fair enough.] In this view, humans are not the authors of their own lives, or are not influenced by mystical and unknowable forces, which we call the soul. [Where are we going here?] This materialistic determinism undergirds the work of thousands of economists, wonks and social experts who believe that [Aha!] poverty can be understood primarily as material deprivation and has nothing to do with cultural or behavioral factors; who believe that education can be improved merely by pouring in more money, as if a child were a machine to be filled up with the right investments; who discount cultural explanations for why some societies thrive and some stagnate. [Ergo: abolish welfare and other support for culturally-driven layabouts, completely overlooking the damage done by slavery to that culture.]

This is why I call Mr Brooks "Foxy Dave." He's very clever and must be watched closely.

There are two books about British-American relations. In American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror, Con Coughlin tries to explain his prime minister's seemingly self-destructive attachment to Bushist foreign policy; in Jonathan Freedland's view, Mr Coughlin does not succeed. German journalist Josef Joffe thinks somewhat better of Chris Patten's anti-neocon "cri de coeur," Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain, and Europe in a New Century. The author, Hong Kong's last British governor, is about as representative of the United Kingdom's establishment as one can be, and according to Mr Joffe he writes very well.

Patten's is also a brilliantly catty and nicely constructed text - so felicitous in its language and subtle in its jabs that one wishes for a bit more Oxbridge in America's top schools. If back in college they had been obliged to deliver two essays per week, American mandarins might sound more like Patten and less like PowerPoint. In Oxford, they teach you not only to write well but also to think beyond the talking points of the day, and this is why the standard prejudices of the Good European do not overwhelm his intelligence, erudition and wit.

Amen! Jim Holt finishes off his review of Darrin M McMahon's Happiness: A History with a pithy quote that also finishes off any desire to read the book in question. After summarizing Mr McMahon's disgruntled account of happiness through the ages, Mr Holt recalls a quotation the attribution of which seems, unfortunately, to have been garbled by an editor: "A man is occupied by that from which he expects to gain happiness, but his greatest happiness is the fact that he is occupied." Indeed.

Let's hope that Karenna Gore Schiff has written more of Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America that John F Kennedy wrote of Profiles in Courage. I expect she has. Alexandra Starr oddly sees fit to identify only five of Ms Schiff's subjects, and the only interesting thing that I learned from her review was that FDR's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, and Mexican-American labor organizer Dolores Huerta both found it useful to project themselves maternally. I'm going to have to find about this book from some other source.

Curtis Sittenfeld's Essay, "You Hate Me, You Really Hate Me," is about the writer's visits to book clubs, something that more and more writers are doing. Surprise: she doesn't like it when readers hate the protagonist of her novel, Prep. "Such varied reactions make for lively debate, and I wouldn't want to stifle it, but I have no desire to be present for it, either." -There are apparently two recent novels with quasi-satirical book-club scenes, The Quality of Life Report, by Meghan Daum, and Little Children, by Tom Perrotta. Must keep my eyes out.

Blog Brunch

Yesterday afternoon, I had brunch today with the Farmboyz - T and C of Perge Modo - and Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God. I think that we all had a good time; I know that I did. I look forward to getting together again soon, for the conversation was good, and there are lots of things that I forgot to ask about. I did let Joe know that I'm green with envy about his million hits; to which Joe replied that he keeps links to Wikipedia and the dictionary at the ready when he reads the Daily Blague. I found out what everybody does for a day job, but like most of what we talked about, it stayed, so to speak, at the table.

This was not my first encounter with fellow Internauts, but as happens I never did mention the first instance, which was a very friendly lunch at the Metropolitan Museum. Such discretion is undoubtedly perverse in a blogger, but there it is. Is it my legal training? My bourgeois upbringing? Perhaps it's a conditioned response to the consequences of having been unduly garrulous in the past. In any case, both Joe and T have blogs on which they can tell general readers what they'd like general readers to know.

I was asked to come along on last night's Blarg Hop down Christopher Street, but the prevision of myself lying in the gutter, trying to stare the stars into stillness, was all it took to prompt my regrets. The party animal in me is quiescent and ought not to be roused. But I can't wait to hear all about it - on the blogs.

February 11, 2006


Being out and about yesterday was deeply satisfying. It was the sort of day that, before Remicade, I'd grown afraid to try on. What with uncertain bowels, creaky joints, and abysmal energy levels, I rarely left the neighborhood, and the homebody habit persisted even after the infusions banished my ailments. It's still something of a surprise to find that I've gone out not once but twice. The first trip took me to the podiatrist's, where six of the seven pieces in which I'd returned from Puerto Rico - little bits of reef - were removed from my heel. I felt better at once. Then I crossed town a bit to Sixth and 52nd, where Rochester Big & Tall has its Midtown Manhattan branch. I needed handkerchiefs desperately, but I could have gotten those anywhere. I was looking for comfortable everyday trousers, and I found them bearing a Polo label. On sale, happily. There was also an irresistible lime-green sports shirt with a salmon and yellow plaid that was obviously made with me in mind.

If I'd had the clothes delivered to the apartment, I'd have proceeded uptown to the Tower Records branch at Lincoln Center, but my big and tall clothes filled such a large bag that I occupied the space of two pedestrians. So I took the clothes home, sat down for about ten minutes, and then headed downtown to the main Tower branch, at Broadway and East Fourth. I hardly ever go to Tower anymore; I find that a policy of online purchases, as needed, conduces to greater restraint in the acquisitions department. But I had to buy a few jazz CDs as a gift, and while I was at it... I bought the great 1978 Carlos Kleiber Der Rosenkavalier on DVD, a high-water moment in the career of Gwyneth Jones.

At the check-out counter, two dudes were talking about a colleague. They looked exactly like the scruffy young men of my youth, except that the clerk who was totting up my purchases sported a nose ring. The colleague under discussion was apparently a heavy marijuana smoker who, more remarkably, has been working at Tower since the store opened, twenty-four years ago. The nose-ring guy turned to me and said, "So, what do you think." Did I think that he and his neighbor ought to do the same - work at Tower for a quarter century? I answered in the negative. I hadn't been to the store in over fifteen years, and everything was just where it was the last time I visited.

In another passing exchange, I pointed out to a very little girl in the elevator who told her mommy that I had "a lot of beard" that that's better than not having enough. But I wasn't fast enough; she had turned her attention to a boarding passenger, about whose gender she wondered even less discreetly. 

February 10, 2006

Love Story?

In the not-too-distant future, Brokeback Mountain is going to be released on DVD, and it will probably win some Oscars, too. There will be a lot of talk about why this movie is such a big deal. As Daniel Mendelsohn points out in his essay on the reception of Brokeback Mountain (NYRB, LIII.3), much of this talk will be anxiously wrong-headed. The next time you catch someone in the act of assuring others that Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two lovers who just happen to be men, cough discreetly. Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two lovers who have been brought up to hate their love and to hate themselves for loving as they do. It is a story of the closet: of denial and repression and strangled family life. It's not the love-story part of Brokeback Mountain that makes for great film, but the long aftermath of furtive coupling and feigned romance. Mr Mendelsohn concludes:

The real achievement of Brokeback Mountain is not that it tells a universal love story that happens to have gay characters in it, but that it tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it. If you insist, as so many have, that the story of Jack and Ennis is OK to watch and sympathize with because they're not really homosexual - that they're more like the heart of America than like "gay people" - you're pushing them back into the closet whose narrow and suffocating confines Ang Lee and his collaborators have so beautifully and harrowingly exposed.

In short, the "universal love story" approach simply doesn't hold up. Maybe it's useful as a permission for otherwise homo-averse people to see the movie. Certainly the film has done almost everything to shield tender sensibilities from direct contact with actual true love between two men, and perhaps we're still at the stage where it would have been foolhardy rather than courageous to cast openly gay actors. Having seen the movie, however, viewers ought to find the "beautiful love story" thumbnail empty and unfeeling.

This brings The Family Stone to mind. I've seen it again, and liked it even more - and decided for certain that the dinner-table scene will prove to be an important one for people to talk about. As Kathleen said afterward, of course Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) is right to say that no parent would wish a child to shoulder the burdens imposed on homosexuality in today's society (lightened though these may have been). But she is an ass not to recognize that the Stone family has created a world in which those burdens simply don't exist. It is not hard to imagine that sensitive parents would bend over backward to accommodate the needs of a deaf child, but it's not necessary to ask why it is that Sybil and Kelly Stone have flushed away any and every trace of reproach or disregard for the sexual preference of their son, Thad (Ty Giordano). (Kathleen didn't even recognize that Thad and Patrick (Brian White) were lovers until well into the action.) All we need to know - and what we take away from the dinner table - is that we're striving for a world in which Meredith's position really is nonsensical. A world in which Ennis Del Mar would grow up unashamed to love another boy. The more indignantly the high priests point to their sacred texts in support of their anathemas and abominations, the more clearly we see that their world makes no sense.

February 09, 2006

Girl Sleuth: Identity Crisis

No doubt some scholar has written a learned paper analyzing the significance of motherlessness in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery series. Isn't it curious that, in both cases, the loss of a mother in early childhood makes the heroes of these books not only more self reliant than most youngsters but also closer to their admiring fathers? Whatever the "explanation," it doesn't lie in the biographies of the people who dreamed up and wrote the books. Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) was the youngest child in a large, comfortable family; his father had married his brother's widow and proceeded to have three children of his own. Stratemeyer's career as a writer of popular fiction took off without a hitch, and he soon had more work than he could handle. In 1903, he set up the Stratemeyer Syndicate. This formidable-sounding organization consisted simply of Stratemeyer himself, an administrative secretary, and a fluid stable of ghostwriters. The Syndicate sold series books - the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift - to publishers; the genius of the system was that the pseudonyms attached to each series were not attached to any particular writers. Stratemeyer concocted brief outlines for his books and paid $125 for each manuscript. Needless to say, the Syndicate held all the rights, and the ghostwriters were advised not to think of themselves as authors. They might say that they were "doing work for the Stratemeyer Syndicate," but no more. A self-assured and imposing man, Stratemeyer had little trouble maintaining his regime, and when he died rather suddenly of pneumonia, at the age of 67, he was a very prosperous man.

He was also someone who had not given much thought to succession. He had taken on no junior partners - no one to take his place. The Syndicate was inherited by his two grown daughters, Harriet and Edna. Harriet (1892-1982), a Wellesley graduate ('14), was the mother of four children, married to a childhood sweetheart. Edna, who hadn't gone to college, lived - take note - at home with her ailing mother. After quietly seeking a purchaser for the Syndicate, they did what they could to keep it going - moving, for example, its office from Madison Square to a building in East Orange, New Jersey, convenient to their homes - and were somewhat surprised to make a success of it. From the start, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took charge, but her sister did not fade into silent partnership until 1942, and together they rode out the Depression - which, it must be acknowledged, affected neither one materially. It would seem that the Stratemeyer girls were motivated more by filial piety and fiscal responsibility than by a real need for money when they stepped into their father's shoes. These were shoes, however, that not even Harriet would ever really fill.

At the time of his death, Edward Stratemeyer had just launched the Nancy Drew Mystery Story series, and earmarked the ghostwriting for one Mildred Augustine Wirt (1905-2002), a graduate of the University of Iowa's recently established school of journalism who lived in Toledo, where she worked at the Toledo Times and Blade. The daughter of a prosperous small-town doctor, Mildred was a champion swan-diver and avid journalist as an undergraduate at Iowa. Like Nancy, she graduated early from high school; unlike Nancy, she graduated early from college, too. She connected with the Syndicate by responding to one of its ads, and by 1929 had so impressed Stratemeyer that he handed her the "scenarios" of the first the Nancy Drew stories as soon as their publisher-to-be, Grosset and Dunlap, greenlighted the project. If you are an American woman, the chances are that you've read the first in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock. Let it be said for the record that while the plot of the novel was conceived - formulaically, of course; what was new about Nancy Drew was Nancy herself - by Edward Stratemeyer, the book that you read was written by Mildred Augustine Wirt. "Carolyn Keene," the ostensible author, never existed.

What interested me about Girl Sleuth was not the reasons for Nancy's continued popularity among young readers, or the ways in which the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories have been tweaked over the decades to jibe with the times. What interested me was the dissonance between the brisk allure of Nancy Drew, an attractive but not beautiful sixteen year-old with all the worldly independence of an Emma Woodhouse - and also with Emma's complete lack of plans for the long-term future - and the "moral clarity" of her solutions to the mysteries into which she was repeatedly drawn, on the one hand, and the complete muddle of credit and identity in which she was born anew in book after book. What would Nancy have made of The Mystery of the Ghostwritten Mysteries? Not much, I'm sure. You can argue that there never was a Carolyn Keene, but that's hardly more satisfactory than the only alternative, which is to claim that there were two Carolyn Keenes. Put very simply, Harriet and Edna lacked the business sense that had enabled their father to deal with writers. Although both were bright women, and notwithstanding Harriet's undergraduate experience as a reporter, they clearly lacked a nuts and bolts command of business. After Edna's withdrawal from active participation in the Syndicate's day-to-day, the sisters would bicker for the rest of the younger one's life over accountings. That Harriet did as well as she did testifies to rich native ability. But having been sheltered from commerce by their somewhat preening, upwardly mobile father stood the women in poor stead when it came to dealing with their talented and creative employees. As a result, "Carolyn Keene" was treated to two waves of obituary tribute, first in 1982 and again four years ago.

Because the relationship between Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and - as she eventually became - Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson was a muddle from the ground up, I am not going to attempt a summary here. It's enough to say that Harriet and Mildred were exceptional but very different women who were limited by the second-class opportunities with which the women of their time were presented. Harriet, allowed to follow her own lead, might have achieved something more remarkable and less embarrassing than the claim to be Carolyn Keene - a claim, that even though she could back up once she replaced Mildred with herself as the actual writer of the Nancy Drews, remains fundamentally bogus. As for Mildred, there could never have been any question of holding her back, but, equal rights advocate though she was, she retained an ingrown respect for employers and, one suspects, for strong men that prevented her from openly defying Harriet on the authorship issue until the question went to court in 1980 - and even then, Mildred was a witness, not a litigant.

Melanie Rehak's wonderful book has one of the happiest non-fiction endings that I've come across in a long time. Mildred Benson died with her boots on. On 29 May 2002, she handed in her column at the Toledo Blade, went home, went to the hospital, and died.

In the end, her past with the Stratemeyer Syndicate became a burden, but Mildred never forgot why she had started writing children's books in the first place. Her final column, posthumously published, was about her love of reading and her admiration of public libraries, the very institutions that had both provided her with the detail and atmosphere that made many of her books so magical and provided so many young readers the chance to read them.

Girl Sleuth is bigger than the sum of its parts.

February 08, 2006

Ass over Teakettle

In truth, I knew better. I knew that the tide would be coming in when I went out for my afternoon wade on the table-top reef. A table-top covered with tiny razor-sharp growths that resemble inverted clamshells, and a table-top pitted with cistern-like holes with sandy bottoms. While I was lazily watching the surf inundate the miniature cliffs of seaweed at the head of the reef, and then pull away with an even greater force, a large wave took me by surprise. I lost my footing and tumbled into one of the holes. I kept my head above water and my wits about me: I knew better than to seek purchase in the reef before I could be sure that I wouldn't be reaching into any of the plenteous urchin burrows. My flip-flops were instant history. Pretty soon, I was crawling over mossy rocks to the shore. When I stood up, I saw that I was pretty cut up in several places, but the wounds were nothing that a long shower couldn't close. No biggie - but I'd been very foolish. The couple in the cottage next to ours were sitting at a far end of the beach, absorbed in sun and conversation. They never noticed my fall. Nor did anyone else.

It was a turning-point in the vacation; ever since, I've been ready to get on a plane for New York. As it is, our flight leaves San Juan at nine-thirty tonight, but Kathleen's looking for an earlier booking. If she can't make a change, we won't get to bed until two in the morning. But at least we'll be home.


We did go back, for our last supper, to Su Casa, the hotel's restaurant in this charming old building, erected in the late Twenties by an American woman. I was very tempted by a shrimp dish with Thai rice, but in the end I had precisely what I had last Saturday night: filet of beef and Isla flotante. The beef came with a scrumptious compote of sweet smothered red onions - so sweet, in fact, that I'd be tempted to serve it as a dessert (without telling anybody what it was). I actually asked for the recipe (something I never do), and was surprised to get it from the waiter. He claimed that soy sauce was a key ingredient, but that seemed utterly wrong, as there was nothing salty about the dish.

All day long, it seemed, we talked about favorite movies, and we've have been glad to watch one if we'd only had it with us, among the nearly ninety titles that we did bring. Ninety movies is a ridiculous number to take on a week's vacation, I know, but in fact all I did was shove into my satchel an album of DVDs that I've removed from their cases in the interest of taking up less space. These are for the most part movies that you have to be in the mood to see. Seconds, Primer, Zardoz, Kiss Me Deadly. Very little in the way of lighthearted fare, and of course no Jane Austen adaptations.

Now to pack, and while away the day until it's wonderfully tomorrow.

February 07, 2006



Among the senile amusements of my vacation, none exceeded that of teasing the mourning doves (id est pigeons) who roam the vicinity with bits of thin pretzel knots. Choosing broken but not crumbling pretzels, I break them up into a few pieces and scatter them on the patio. Eventually, the doves screw up their courage and peck at what must seem to them to be a kind of worm. Dove beaks are not suited to hard pretzel, however, and almost invariable the fragment gets tossed spastically to one side. At first, the doves will walk away from this frustrating encounter, but eventually they are certain to give way to avian rage, flaying the pretzel to bits. In one horrifying instance, a particularly thwarted dove swallowed much too big a piece. It stood there for a minute, incapable of forward motion so long as its esophagus was occupied, and gulped blinkingly if uncomplainingly. This went on for - too long. I was sure that I'd done a very bad thing, that the poor thing was going to suffocate to death before my eyes. This didn't happen, however. Within moments, the dove was feuding with an interloping colleague. I did take to breaking the pretzel into smaller, less challenging pieces.

After three days of this, the doves have built up a certain resistance to pretzels, and are no longer so entertaining. Tant pis pour eux - I've eaten all the pretzels.

Even more entertaining than the mourning doves on the patio are the blackbirds on the breakfast terrace. The terrace is netted, but there are at least half a dozen blackbirds darting among the tables at any given time, and they are better than a show. This morning, we watched an enterprising fellow tackle a bit of English muffin, which he promptly swallowed down with a gulp of cream. His beak emerging from the pitcher in "Got Milk?" form, he proceeded to wipe it on the tablecloth! At lunchtime, the thing to watch for is the stray French fry. We've seen birds lift off with fries half their body length. For while they might nibble on breads à table, fries can only be enjoyed aloft, in the relative privacy of umbrella struts.

Just beyond the netting, there is a quaint, hip-roofed bird feeder. It's popular with the blackbirds, but if it's meant to distract them from the table scraps, it's a bust.

February 06, 2006

What a concept


For most of my life - nearly all of it, really - I've been a great fan of room service, or, as it's called today (but not here in Puerto Rico, not yet), "In Room Dining." When I was a boy, room service was a big deal, by which I mean that waiters would roll in tables laden with cloches and warming ovens, push them to the center of the room, lock the casters, and set the table. When they were through, a little bit of restaurant had moved into the suite (my father always took suites). I loved the fuss, which was a kind of circus. And then there was the food. Everything tasted better from room service.

Lots of people hate room service, but I'm so addicted to it that whenever I used to travel by myself I would take dinner as well as breakfast in my room. Like all good travelers, I'm conscientious about filling out the long cards that major hotels supply for breakfast: you tick off the things you want, specify the desired delivery time, and hang the card on the outer doorknob. But it never occurred to me before the other night that you can do the same thing with dinner. There's no card to fill out, of course, but, thinking ahead, you can ask the room service operator to schedule your dinner for a certain time. Far from minding this request, the operator will be downright pleased by the move, for the same reason that prompts hotels to organize breakfasts the night before.

Last night, Kathleen and I were going to talk about what's on her mind, and I thought it would suit us to have dinner on our patio. So, at 6:30, I called in the order. Kathleen was very pleased that the kitchen would prepare the smoked salmon hors d'oeuvre platter for just one person, while I was in the mood for chicken. We split a deadly-looking chocolate something for dessert, and enjoyed a bottle of Merlot. I set the table, but there was a nice tablecloth, and the waiter uncorked the wine. The surf crashed in the distance while the coqui chirped nearby. Fragments of Schubert drifted from indoors. It was better than any imaginable restaurant.

Kathleen said that ordering ahead had never occurred to her, either; nor had she ever heard of anyone doing it. I'm sure I'm hardly the first genius to think of it, but I recommend it anyway. If you specify a time, you won't be bothered by wondering when dinner will arrive. On vacation, you shouldn't have to wonder about a thing.

February 05, 2006



I awoke this morning with a deep feeling of dolce far niente. It's hard to say what it is about an empty schedule that induces pleasure rather than boredom. Thinking about boredom for a minute - it was the bane of my youth - I wonder if it doesn't stem from the belief, almost always without foundation, that there is some unknown or unattainable thing that it would be interesting thing to do - if only it would present itself. Boredom is passive; dolce far niente is active: you're doing - nothing, and it's sweet.

Of course I am not doing nothing at the moment; I am scribbling here and feeling a bit guilty about not having snagged a Times but really rather relieved that, because I don't have it, I can't review the Book Review. I asked Ms NOLA to pick up the paper for me, and I'm sure that she will if she can. In any case, no Book Review today. I do have an interesting book to write up, Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. A former colleague gave it to Kathleen a few weeks ago, and I found that once I'd picked it up I couldn't put it down. More anon. Meanwhile, Kathleen took a book from my pile, Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder, which I've been having trouble re-reading. She zipped right through it, and rattled off differences between the novel and Otto Preminger's great film adaptation. Her resume piqued my interest, so I'll try to pick up where I left off. This afternoon, however, I am going to spend with Emma.

The weather continues to be highly variable, with the only constant a dandy wind. Neither a breeze nor a gale, it's just right for me, keeping me cool and dry in the otherwise warm and somewhat humid air. I'm looking forward to wading in the later afternoon. Yesterday, I went down shortly after sunset and wandered out onto the flat reefs - if that's what they are - to look for urchins. It took me a while to find them, because instead of being bright red, as they were the last time I was here, at a different time of year, they were a much less conspicuous black. It would probably be incorrect to speak of tidal pools, but water does collect behind rock outcrops during the lowest reaches of the tide, and sometimes there are little creatures in them. No naturalist, I couldn't tell you what they are, and in any case I'm more interested in watching the overflow of an occasional wave drain out over the smooth mossy rocks or through the little gullies between them. I thought about the motions of the sea, about waves that pass through water molecules without moving them until cresting at the shore and pushing sheets of foam in all directions.

We saw a couple of honeymooners at breakfast. They had to be; they looked barely of age. I couldn't see her face, but he had a big, open smile that I thought boded well for that marriage.

February 04, 2006



This entry won't be posted until Monday morning, when the business center re-opens. I could dial up from the room, as I did in November 2004, but it's awfully expensive and even more tedious: wonderful as the room is, it doesn't have a desk, and in order to hook up to power and phone (I no longer bother with the battery), I have to work at one end of the high bed, cords stretched to the max while I crouch over the sluggish page loads. Hey, I'm on vacation! And it's the weekend! (I haven't decided what to do about tomorrow's book review Book Review.) Message to RJK: loosen up!

The trip to Dorado was insufficiently uneventful. Not long after we left the suburbs of San Juan behind us, I began to feel the effects of having guzzled too much ice-water in the morning. There was a smash-up on the local road leading from Highway 22 to Dorado, but traffic wasn't too backed-up, and I thought I'd be able to manage until we got to Dorado Beach, but then the driver took a shortcut that turned out not to be a shortcut. The moment we U-turned, on the unpaved, potholed road, bladder pressure just about doubled. The driver thought that it was all very funny, for some reason. Once we regained the paved road, I noticed, in my agony, a thick hedge with regular gaps for power poles. "Momentito!" I gasped. Getting the picture, the driver stopped, and presently I was equally relieved by the discretion of the my situation and by what it made possible.

Once again, we have a lovely room on the ground floor, so that a walk of thirty feet takes us to some steps to the beach. Although there is a strip of sand, the beach is suitable for wading, not swimming, which suits us just fine. How I used to love to swim! I could hardly see a body of water without throwing myself into it. (I swam across St Mary's Lake, at Notre Dame, one night in the very early spring. It was one of those stunts that, as a parent, you don't want to know about.) I still love the water and need to live near it. But I've lost the urge to plunge. I'd much rather sit here on the shaded patio, looking out over the surf when I'm not looking at the screen, writing about whatnot.

Two days ago at this time, I had just won permission from Kathleen to stay home, and to avoid the disruption of travel (not to mention the horror of flying). But then Kathleen said something about what was on her mind (unrelated to my going or not) that within an hour made me change mine. I wanted to stay home so badly that my self-respect still prevents me from acknowledging, or even admitting to myself, that I'm glad for my own sake (as distinct from Kathleen's) that I came. I can go no further just yet than saying that it's very nice to be here. Very nice indeed.  

February 03, 2006

Sur le balcon


Yesterday's clouds and rain took all afternoon and much of the evening to clear. After leaving the business center, I came upstairs, swiveled the armchair around to face the ocean, and read for hours. Reading for hours doesn't mean that I read a lot, though; I must have spent an hour watching the low and wispy charcoal-colored rain clouds swim toward the west while, from time to time, a patch of blue would pierce the dour carpet higher up. Not long after sunset, the sky was a harmony of grey, blue and pale pink.

Kathleen came upstairs and took a nap. At a little past eight, we walked to the beach, where the hotel offers, according to its Directory of Services, an "oceanfront dining experience." That ought to have tipped me off. My visions of Shake Shop fare met with complete disappointment. I asked for a medium-rare cheeseburger and was told that all burgers are cooked well-done, as a matter of policy. Kathleen whispered that she's run into this a lot, as health concerns send managerial wimps scurrying to their lawyers. And the martinis! The martinis were all hat and no gallons. Three of them came to less than eight ounces.

Walking back, we chuckled at the Splash Bar, which I had observed from the balcony. Swimmers (not that anyone actually swims in the sinuous canal that runs from the hotel to the beach) can avail themselves of submerged barstools, happily protected from the elements by a canvas awning (wouldn't want to get wet), and enjoy tropical drinks. The management is obviously too concerned about stray E coli in the ground beef to worry about lowering the bar on getting tanked in more ways than one.

The weather this Friday morning is glorious. It will get hot later, but at the moment the air is still fresh and only just beginning to be warm. By rights, Kathleen ought to be at the conference, but we have had a bit of excitement, involving a visit from the hotel doctor and a trip down Isla Verde Avenue to Walgreen's. Kathleen's left ear was already a little reddish when we left New York. "This happens from time to time," was her diagnosis. But as of last night, the pinna had swollen to Mr Potato Head dimensions, and was taking on a nasty color, as was the skin just below her ear lobe. The affable doctor arrived pronto, and prescribed the latest anti-biotic, something frightfully expensive (more than ten dollars a pill). We hopped in a taxi for the two-minute ride to the pharmacy, where Kathleen was told to come back after 12:30 to pick up the medicine. That will fit nicely, as we're checking out of this hotel at one and heading for Dorado, but I'd have preferred to get my hands on the fix once and for all.


There's still time for Kathleen to attend the remaining two sessions, after which she'll have a luncheon. Then we're off. I'm looking forward to the change in venue.

February 02, 2006

In San Juan

Writing from Kathleen's tiny VAIO, without the help of my text editor, I have managed to connect - and to report that I am alive and reasonably well. We're at the InterContinental San Juan, on Isla Verde - Puerto Rico's Miami Beach. It is pouring rain - which is not a problem, since Kathleen's at the convention, while I've got lots to read.

Kathleen had the bright idea of slipping me an Atavan on the flight, and I think that it had a healthy effect. The ride was really rather smooth, with only a few isolated moments of turbulence, never so rough as to prompt the captain to turn on the seat-belt sign. Even so, I detected a difference, a lack of apprehension. I wasn't waiting for the plane to rumble.

As a result, I was able to read the first dozen chapters of Emma, absorbed enough to pay attention to Jane Austen's unusual opening strategy. I'll write about this more when writing is a bit more convenient, but what distinguishes the opening of Emma from the conventional opening of a nineteenth-century novel is that, instead of beginning with a crisis that will set the action in motion while allowing the characters to present themselves, it dilates on the heroine's environment, widening the circle of her world a little bit in every chapter. Chapter 2, for example, expands upon the Weston connection, introducing the as-yet unmet Frank Churchill. In the following chapter, Harriet Smith steps forward - or, rather, is gently prodded into prominence by Emma's not entirely disinterested attentions. The opening action - disengaging Harriet from Robert Martin and preparing the field for -

But what's this? The good ladies at the Business Center have hooked my own machine up. Boy, am I dumb.

February 01, 2006


Benjamin Randow - Le Vrai Parisien a tombé amoureux - has fallen in love. Perspicaciously, he has decided to stop blogging. Or perhaps his chérie has urged discretion. I can't imagine anything stickier than being over thirty and trying to keep a blog while building a new relationship. Yikes.

My first thought was to replace the link to Journal d'un Vrai Parisien with another francophone blog, and I may yet do that, but for the time being, the slot has been given to MindSpinner. I don't know anything about the author of this site except that she's a single mother of teenagers who teaches at a high school. She is thus doubly yoked to the problematics of adolescence while being by no means an old phooey herself. In short, she's out to teach/show young people how to enjoy life without destroying themselves. MindSpinner has been on my shortlist since late last year; it was in the course of running through the list this evening that I discovered MindSpinner's link to this blog. Er.Go!


Sunday was a big day for "culture." There was  MET Orchestra concert in the afternoon, and in the evening a discussion, at the 92nd Street Y, of Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo, conducted by the author and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.

The place was packed - not a seat to be had (although the one to my left remained vacant). Mr Gopnik announced at the beginning that the discussion would also touch on M Lévy's thoughts about the implications of the Hamas victory in Palestine. At this moment, I sensed a presumption that everyone in the hall was Jewish. M Lévy (hereinafter "BHL") would shortly pronounce the 92nd Street Y "the beating heart of liberal Judaism in New York," or words to that effect. This was not your ordinary book talk.

In France, they still have overt intellectuals, and BHL is certainly one of them. Mr Gopnik would probably not put himself forward as an intellectual, but that's clearly what he is. What is an intellectual? Like a prophet, the intellectual critiques the morality of the moment, both as a standard and in its breach. But the intellectual eschews the prophet's stripped-down message; he would not agree that complication is necessarily bad.

It is a habit of American intellectuals to hedge their judgments with enough qualification to convince the ordinary man that they are incapable of making decisions. This is not a failing of postwar French intellectuals, most of whom have always been ready to interrupt their mandarin analyses unequivocal denunciations. BHL has concluded that the way to deal with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority is to refuse to deal with it, because while it is democratically empowered, it espouses an unacceptable program of anti-Zionism. Working up to this conclusion, he enumerated historical stages of ant-Semitism, noting a consistent displacement in their rationales. The latest brand of anti-Semitism, in BHL's view, is anti-Zionism. A century ago, Jews were hated ostensibly because they were an international group incapable of local allegiance. They didn't have a country. Now, according to BHL, Jews are hated ostensibly because they do have a country. What never changes is hatred of the Jews. Which is pre-eminently hatred of The Other, a premise that led to a neat discussion of the philosophy of Emanuel Lévinas.

But American Vertigo was not slighted. The discussion explored the difference between French and American conceptions of nationality, with America's seen as flexible and pluralistic; our country is currently inhabited by a hyphenated population. BHL was delighted to discover that the model for assimilation professed by the Arab-Americans of Dearborn, Michigan, is none other than the Jewish American. He also dismissed the idea of an "imperial United States." No - as he sees it, we're more like Carthage than Rome. A sobering comparison! 

Mr Gopnik and M Lévy spoke very highly of one another; sincerely, I thought. Mr Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, a collection of "Letters from Paris" to The New Yorker, is to some extent a counterpoint to American Vertigo - although, unlike Vertigo, it appeared in book form in its writer's native language first. It will be interesting to compare the two volumes. Friendly and like-minded as they appeared to be, however, I saw not two Jews but a New Yorker and a Parisian on the stage of the Kaufmann Concert Hall. Two ways of being intellectual; two different cosmopolitan accents.


This afternoon, Kathleen and I will be flying to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Kathleen will attend a conference, after which we'll retire to a seaside resort for a few days; we're to return on the eighth. I'll be taking the laptop that I haven't used in six months, but attaining connectivity may prove to be too much of a hassle for my somewhat low spirits. Having worked at my French for two years, I'm not a little miffed about traveling to a Spanish-speaking destination, but then I think I may have lost the taste for travel altogether. I have not set foot off the Island of Manhattan in over a year - since returning from Istanbul. (That can't be right, but neither can I remember anything to the contrary.) You'll probably attribute the touch of depression to that fact alone! But my Manhattan-bound year has also witnessed the greatest transformation in my life: discovering a vocation. Compared with writing here among my books, CDs, DVDs, and other scraps of information (beautiful and otherwise), anything that takes me away from it for more than a few hours feels worse than trivial.