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March 31, 2006

Guilty Pleasures

If you're a fan of really bad reviews, then today is turkey day at The New York Times. Section E is stuffed with laughs - provided you're not a participant in the endeavors under review. Basic Instinct 2, Adam and Steve, Brick, and A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop all fare badly at the hands of Times critics Manohla Dargis, Stephen Holden, and Charles Isherwood. But the palm goes to Alessandra Stanley's response to "Liza With A 'Z'," the rebroadcast of Liza Minnelli's 1972 spectacular. It's weirdly worse than a bad review.  

As the orchestra plays the opening bars of Cabaret, the star strides onstage in a white Halston pantsuit and white feather boa and belts "Yes," and Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," her eyes shuttered by spiky false eyelashes and her long, painted fingers stretched out like Struwwelpeter's. She was only 26 and flush with the box-office success of Cabaret and she was already beginning to look like a Liza Minnelli impersonator.

But that's not the best. Here's the best:

Of late, she has become a Michael Jackson-ish figure, too preposterous to function even as a nostalgia act.

There's something about "function" in that sentence that I'm just not going to go into. Enjoy!

On Seeing Capote on DVD


Last night, I watched Capote for the second time. I had thought a lot about the picture since first seeing it at the beginning of October. I went along with what seems to be the conventional view: Truman Capote kept killer Perry Smith alive only long enough to get his story about murdering the Clutter family, and then couldn't wait for Smith to be hanged so that he could finish In Cold Blood. Awareness of this exploitation undermined Capote afterward, and wrecked the rest of his life.

What I saw last night doesn't really alter that summary, but it adds an explanation of Capote's motivation: Why was he so taken by Perry Smith? At first uninterested in the killers - or even in their apprehension - Capote did a volte-face when he recognized a kindred spirit in Smith. This is easily confused with an erotic attachment, but I think that, in Smith, Capote encountered a sort of brother. Whatever fraternal feelings this recognition may have aroused would have been distinctly secondary, however, to the fascinating possibility that Smith might show him something about himself. That's why he had to get Smith's story. That's what led to his exploitation of the condemned man.

It's this same fascination that leads some adopted people to unearth their birth families. I am not in principle opposed to finding out, and although I have elected against it myself I have left open room for my daughter to do whatever can be done to supply her with medical information that might be useful (her health is perfect at the moment). What I've noticed, however, is that when the excitement of discovering blood relatives fades, genuine affection doesn't necessarily follow.

Capote puts it beautifully. As she's leaving his place in Spain, Capote tells Harper Lee that it's as though he and Perry Smith grew up in the same house. Then one day Perry went out by the back door, while he, Truman, went out by the front door. Such "brothers" would share a dark bond - why the different doors - but could one count on love?

Something else occurred to me. If the movie is to be believed, In Cold Blood is grotesquely mistitled. Finally giving Truman what he wants, Perry claims to have slashed Herbert Clutter's throat almost unconsciously, overwhelmed by the difference between himself and this "nice gentle man." That crime committed, he yielded to a second violent urge to finish off the rest of the family. There wasn't anything cold-blooded about the killings.

But then, by the time he heard Smith's story, Capote was already married to his title.

March 30, 2006

Coming Down


It seemed about time to take this picture. The apartments on the upper floors have been empty for years; now, all the commercial tenants have departed. Although the squat turret at the corner suggests a bygone charm, the complex has become an eyesore, and nobody will miss it. It's to be replaced by something sleek, with, according to deafening gossip, a Whole Foods in the basement. The scaffolding and sidewalk shed will be going up any day now.

The Yorkville branch of Papaya King remains the Miracle of 86th Street in its one-storey corner building. (I'm standing in front of it.) In over 25 years in the neighborhood, I have never set foot inside the place. It's almost always very crowded, there's no place to sit, and I want my hot dogs to be fried.

In other real estate developments, Joe and I were talking a while back about having a drink at the Hi-Life some day; neither one of us had ever been there, and I'm a sucker for anyplace with a big neon martini glass on the marquee. But we dilly-dallied, and now the whole block of First Avenue, from 71st to 72nd (the Hi-Life was at the 72nd Street corner), will be coming down, to make room for a New York Hospital administration building. 

The New York Collegium at St Vincent Ferrer

For its fourth concert of the season (I missed the third, devoted to Clérambault), the Collegium offered a very interesting contrast between Handel and Telemann. I myself am crazy about Telemann, because he carries on the élan of Vivaldi. Vivaldi's effect upon Bach was momentous, but Bach completely transmuted Vivaldi's style into something serious and Saxon. Telemann, although his music never demonstrates the primacy of The Tune that Bach learned from Vivaldi, is the only one of the trio to display Vivaldi's exuberance.

Handel doesn't come into this discussion, because he learned about tunes, I suspect, later on in life, and from the English - certainly not from the composer he idolized as a young man, Arcangelo Corelli. That may be why I found the portion of Alexander's Feast (1736) that closed the concert...

Continue reading about the New York Collegium at Portico.

March 29, 2006

A World of Menus and Recipes

My mother-in-law called me up last night to ask for a recipe that she'd lost in transition. It comes from a wonderful old cookbook, A World of Menus and Recipes by a lady called Gertrude Bosworth Crum. Mrs Crum, who appears to have led an interesting life, ran Menus By Mail, a subscription service much used (it was said) by diplomats. When she published the book in 1970, it was rumored that Jacqueline Kennedy had relied on Menus By Mail, and that assured the book a success in certain quarters, notably my Jackie-holic mother.

In brisk, soigné prose, Mrs Crum pulls off the neat trick of appearing to address both the well-heeled and well-organized women who bought the book and their cooks. Efficiency is everything, and if there is a corner that can be cut, it's cut. Processed ingredients seem to appear in every recipe, and yet few of the recipes are budget productions. The menu from which the Beets in Aspic recipe is drawn is a "Weekend Luncheon" of Crab Salad (two pounds of crab meat - ouf! - 1½ cups mayonnaise and 1¼ cups mustard; simplicity itself), served with the beets ("If you have used a ring mold for your Julienne of Beets in aspic, fill the center of the ring with crab salad."), and followed by a Compote of Fresh and Cooked Fruits with Chocolate Cookies. I don't think that I've ever followed an entire menu.

Continue reading about Mrs Crum at Portico.

March 28, 2006

All Souls

When did the name of Cees Nooteboom first catch my eye? I'm pretty sure that I took it to be the name of a woman, but that by the time I bought one of Mr Nooteboom's books, I knew better. That was in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, and the book was Allerzielen, or All Souls Day. Buying the novel in its original text was a characteristic act of folly. I know a bit of Nederlands, but not enough even to attempt a literary novel of such richness. But I was thinking of tackling the language seriously, which I did until I fell ill. When I got better, I was already spending Tuesday afternoons with my French prof; Nederlands was set aside. I still have Allerzielen, though.

And I have All Souls Day as well - Susan Massotty's translation. It's no longer in print, but I found a copy somewhere. When it arrived, it went into the gross fiction pile, and there it stayed for I don't know how long. I ought to read that, my superego whispered. You know what that leads to: prolonged procrastination. All Souls Day is a serious novel by an unknown writer who's not, at the moment, a topos of buzz.

Then my French kicked in. I don't mean the language, I mean the sérieux. All Souls Day went into the bedside fiction pile. I finally opened it up because it was the book at the bottom, and getting it out of the way would diminish the clutter.

I say all of this because it's a very typical instance of the skirmishes that aspiration and laziness wage for my attention.

Most concisely, All Souls Day is about the end of a long mourning. Arthur Daane, a cameraman who occasionally produces his own documentaries, lost his wife, Roelfje, and his son, Thomas, ten years ago, when their airliner crashed in Spain. Arthur knows how to keep busy, but his busyness has become a way of not moving on. We find Arthur on the streets of Berlin on a winter afternoon. Arthur's Berlin circle of friends includes Viktor, a sculptor who also hails from the Netherlands; Arno, a German philosopher; and Zenobia, Arno's Russian sister-in-law. Together with the proprietors of their two favorite restaurants, these people comprise Arthur's family. He has an apartment in Amsterdam, and a woman friend, Erna, who barrages him with advice, but Arthur has become "a traveler without baggage." Whether working on an exotic project or loafing around a favorite city, Arthur does not have a home. And he is in mourning.

The quality of this mourning is not probed; it is clearly something that Arthur tries not to bump up against, and he does not examine it. His wife and daughter seem, from time to time, to be in the same room, but they're not happy, because they can't get older. I hesitate to say that much, because this is by no means a work of magic realism or high-toned science fiction. All Souls Day is very firmly planted on the geography of Berlin. And Berlin doesn't need any special effects to serve as the matrix for the novels rich meditations. The scar left by the wall, the ruins of the Gedächtsniskirche, the brutalist cement housing projects in the East, these are all explored for what they can tell us about mortality.

Surely no other century had seen as much murder, slaughter, and genocide as this one. It was common knowledge; so there was no point in bringing it up. Perhaps the worst part was not just the killing itself - the attacks, the executions, the rapes and beheadings, the slaughter of tens of thousands of people - but the amnesia that set in almost immediately afterward, business as usual, as if it were a drop in the bucket to a world population of six billion, as if - and this fascinated him even more - humanity wasn't interested in individual names, only in the blind survival of the species. The woman who happened to be passing by when the bomb exploded in Madrid, the seven Trappist monks whose throats were cut in Algiers, the twenty boys gunned down before their parents' eyes in Colombia, the entire trainful of commuters hacked to death with machetes in a five-minute burst of orgiastic fury, the two hundred passengers on the plane that exploded above the sea, the two, three, or six thousand men and boys killed in Srebenica, the hundreds of thousands of women and children slain in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Angola. For one moment, a day, a week, they were front-page news, for several seconds they flowed through cables in every part of the globe, and then it began, the black, delete-button darkness of oblivion that from now on would only get worse. The dead would no longer have names. They would have been erased in the emptiness of evil, each in the separate moment of his or her horrible death.

The range of Arthur's thinking is but one of the elements that mark All Souls Day as a European novel. Its focus outward on the world, and not inward on the self, is another. An untutored reader might dismiss them as "intellectual" or even "idealistic," but to do so is to miss the warmth and humanity of Arthur's internal monologue. Warmth and humanity also characterize the restaurant conversations with his friends. Arthur does not say much; guarding against stabs of loss, he refrains from launching tangents or offering comprehensive explanations. On the rare occasions when he does speak at length, we're simply told that he spoke; we already know what he has to say. All of this comports further with Arthur's profession, which in turn drags him into the romantic encounter that gradually comes to support the narrative trajectory. All Souls Day may feel rambling and even directionless at times during a first reading, but it is a beautifully composed Big European Novel.

The romance is unromantic in ways that we have come to appreciate in European films. There is a much deeper respect for patches of resistance, and there is no underestimation of how difficult it is to reconcile desire with difficult personal history. The relationship that Arthur develops with a woman whom he runs up against in a café, improbably names Elik Oranje, starts out on a difficult note and only gets more difficult. It's a relationship between two hurt and wary people who, though each becomes quickly obsessed with the other, react in opposite ways to obsession. When American lovers behave like this, it's because they're empty and inexperienced, not the case with Arthur and Elik. The romance is "resolved" on the novel's very last page.

This is not a novel that can be discussed after a first read. I can recommend it, but I can't assess the details - and perhaps that's as it should be. All Souls Day is a novel that needs to be read a second time. I'm out on a very windy limb when I ask: Will I ever?

March 27, 2006

Ishiguro Podcast

At The Guardian, John Mullan interviews Kazuo Ishiguro on the subject of Never Let Me Go. Mr Ishiguro says everything that I was trying to say last year, but much more clearly, and, obviously, with greater authority.

Industrial Revolution III

The March/April issue of Foreign Affairs is focused on Iraq; I found Joel Rayburn's "The Last Exit from Iraq" - about the British pull-out in 1932 - interesting and instructive. But it was an essay by Alan S Blinder, an economics professor at Princeton, that gave me pause. "Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution" seems to be an excellent analysis of the Internet's impact upon the world of work, but one from which the author fails to draw coherent conclusions. Or so it seems to this untutored mind.

Prof Blinder sketches the industrial revolutions of the past. The first turned farmhands into factory workers, while the second, after World War II, turned factory workers into office workers. The third revolution, if that's what it is, will turn office workers into people whose clients and employers may never see them, owing to thousands of miles of physical distance. Prof Blinder notes, for example, that radiologists are already feeling a competitive challenge from India. Having thought long and hard about this revolution, he sketches a prediction of the kinds of jobs that Americans ought to be training for.

But first, some figures.

Contrary to current thinking, Americans, and residents of other English-speaking countries, should be less concerned about the challenge from China, which comes largely in manufacturing, and more concerted about the challenge from India, which comes in services. India is learning to exploit its already strong comparative advantage in English, and that process will continue. The economists Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya, and T N Srinivasan meant to reassure Americans when they wrote, "Adding 300 million to the pool of skilled worker in India will take some decades." They were probably right. But decades is precisely the time frame that people thinking about - and 300 million people is roughly twice the size of the US work force.

Prof Blinder astutely draws a distinction between personal and impersonal services. Your barber and your divorce lawyer provide personal services involving face-to-face contact. Your bank and your answering service provide impersonal services. You want a barber who's nearby, but you don't care where your answering service is. The providers of personal services, according to Prof Blinder, have relatively little to worry about. It's the impersonal service providers whose jobs will be offshored.

This makes sense. It's in his what-to-do phase that Prof Blinder breaks down. Of course he is adamantly opposed to any attempt to hinder or prevent offshoring. Such interventions won't work - and perhaps Prof Blinder is right about that as far as today's world goes. But how long would today's world continue into a future populated by investors and their personal service providers? Prof Blinder never asks this question, but all of his (admittedly tentative) explanations point to the question.

Am I being naive? Am I wrong to assume that we don't already live in this world?

Prof Blinder blithely posits ever-falling transportation costs. It seems clear to me that we are going to have some serious reckoning about fuel allocation - the more serious the longer the reckoning is put off. How much of our oil to we commit to power generation? How much to industrial production (plastics, &c)? And how much to transportation? I don't believe in a free-market answer to this question, just as I don't believe in a free-market solution to the problem of smoking. Some things must be decided by society, pre-empting individual choice.

I was no socialist in my early life, and the extreme forms of socialism attempted by Russia, China, and other countries was demonstrably a failure. But the perils of the free market are not so modest, either. When are we going to hear reasoned, non-partisan discussion of them?

March 26, 2006

Old Joke, Well Told

From my sister, an old joke, well told.

A couple had only been married for two weeks when the husband, although very much in love, couldn't wait to go out on the town and party with his old buddies.

 So, he said to his new wife, "Honey, I'll be right back."

"Where are you going, Coochy Coo?" asked the wife.

"I'm going to the bar, Pretty Face. I'm going to have a beer."

The wife said, "You want a beer, my love?" She opened the door to the refrigerator and showed him 25 different kinds of beer, brands from 12 Different countries: Germany, Holland, Japan, India, etc.;

The husband didn't know what to do, and the only thing that he could think of saying was, "Yes, Lollipop... But at the bar...You know...they have frozen Glasses... "

He didn't get to finish t he sentence, because the wife interrupted him by saying, "You want a frozen glass, Puppy Face?" She took a huge beer mug out of the freezer, so frozen that she was getting chills just holding it.

The husband, looking a bit pale, said, "Yes, Tootsie Roll, but at the bar they have those hors d'oeuvres that are really delicious... I won't be long. I'll be right back. I promise. OK?"

"You want hors d'oeuvres, Poochie Pooh?" She opened the oven and took out 5 dishes of different hors d'oeuvres: chicken wings, pigs in blankets, mushroom caps, and pork strips plus smoked oysters.

"But my sweet honey... At the bar.... You know there's swearing, dirty words and all that..."


And, they lived happily ever after. Isn't that a sweet story?

Book Review

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

It has become clear to me that I undertook this weekly review of the Book Review in order to find out what the Review is about. What's it for? Why do people read book reviews, and for whom are they written? What are the elements of a good book review? None of these questions were present to me when I started the feature last fall, but they've emerged as I've paid close regular attention to the publication, reading all of the reviews and not just the ones that interest me.

The principal purpose of a book review, it seems pretty clear, is to provide readers with some idea of what the book under review is like, and there are two reasons why people want this idea. The first, and more innocent, is the search for recommendations. "I'm looking for a book to read; what do you recommend?" I would say that no more than one person in fifty is such a reader. More common, and less innocent, is the search for inside information. "What can I learn about that book without reading it?" This information may or may not be used to enhance such a reader's conversation, but it is acquired with little or no intention of making a purchase. The Book Review allows its readers to stay roughly current with the latest important books - that's the idea, anyway. Defining "important" involves demographic calculations that don't interest me right now; on the whole, I think that the Times does a fairly good job of fulfilling its mission. Bearing in mind that no source of buzz can be comprehensive, the Book Review is a reliable provider of the commodity.

Book reviews have an important afterlife, however, and I often wonder how conscious reviewers are of it. In time, they become historical documents that reflect the Zeitgeist in which they were written. What did people think of Gone With The Wind when it was published? The easiest way to find out is to collect book reviews and seek a consensus. What this research will show, of course, is what professionally literate writers thought of the book, but I think that we can depend on editors to know their markets. Most book reviews that appear in The New York Review of Books would be wildly out of place in the Book Review. They're much longer, for one thing. They're more demanding, and they focus on more demanding books. And they're much less ephemeral than the reviews in the Book Review.

It is important to note the difference between a book review and a book report. Book reports are pedagogical devices designed to test literacy skills, and teachers grade the students who write them, not the writers of the subject books. I fear that many book reviewers, doubtless adepts of the form in elementary school, have not fully realized that grown-up readers are not looking for book reports.

Fiction & Poetry

First, the poetry. Aliki Barnstone has published a new translation of the poems of C P Cavafy, the Alexandrian Greek (1863-1933) so often quoted by Lawrence Durrell. In his exemplary review, Brad Leithauser makes a case for Cavafy, concluding with a roster of poets whom he has profoundly influenced. The review grips the essence of Cavafy's aesthetic:

The poems themselves are like little rooms; most are of modest length, most are concerned with either private action or with scholarship's interior forays. Cavafy certainly was no nature poet. His poems give little indication that he ever saw with any clarity a tree or an animal or - despite Alexandria's maritime history - a seascape.

Mr Leithauser praises the translations, but explains that he still prefers earlier work by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, because their renderings give a better sense of "how Cavafy put his poems together."

Joyce Carol Oates's review of Some Fun: Stories and a Novella, by Antonya Nelson, is a classic book report. The stories and the novella are summarized - rewritten, in effect. Fragments of Ms Nelson's prose don't quite convey the feel of her prose; they're cut off too soon. I am not entirely sure that Ms Oates liked the book.

The stories of Some Fun are so similar in tone, characters and situation that they tend to overlap in the memory like a single story with numerous, proliferating subplots. This is domestic realism, with something of the aura, jarring and yet convincing, of the TV sitcom.

I think that that's positive.

Donald E Westlake's review of John Mortimer's new book, Quite Honestly, belongs to a genre of reviews that I have yet to find the name of. Perversity has something to do with its composition - the editor's or the reviewer's. Why does Mr Westlake feel called upon to make a big brouhaha (in a half-page review, no less) about differences between British and American English? Is it to disguise

... the problem that I'm having here? If I tell you much about the plot I'll give the whole thing away. There's an inevitability to it, to tell you the truth. Not exactly the inevitability of the Greek tragedies, a little more clockwork than that - which sounds awful, but isn't.

How about the inevitability of farce? Say "farce," and you don't have to apologize for saying something that sounds awful but isn't? This would have been a perfect occasion to some up the distinctly British type of funny novel at which Mr Mortimer is a pastmaster.

Leonora Todaro's review of Rose of No Man's Land, by Michelle Tea, is a much better piece.

With Rose of No Man's Land, Tea is trying to do for working-class teenage lesbians what S E Hinton's Rumble Fish and The Outsiders did for greasers and street-brawling tough guys in the 1970s and 80s: to let them be heard and felt.  ... with this novel, Tea moves forward into her imagination, reining in her story so it can buck free.

That's not only well done, but it persuades me, not so much to order the book, but to listen for other comments on what might, despite it area of interest, be a very good read.

This leaves David Leavitt's book-reportish review of The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters. It is difficult to resist the impression that Mr Leavitt's job is to say something nice about a cohabitant of his ghetto - another writer of "gay fiction." He tries, valiantly, counting, perhaps on the reader's coming to an early decision that he likes the book when in fact it's clear that he sees it as a failure.

The problem is Water's decision to use reverse chronology. ...

Indeed, by the time we reach the end (or is it the beginning?) of this otherwise estimable and moving book, we know so much more than the characters that our knowledge dilutes the impact of what should be the most dramatic section. For all the vigor and intensity of its prose, The Night Watch leaves us with the sense that both the reader's experience and the characters' lives have been manipulated to suit the author's design.

To which I'd add that I'm only too happy to be manipulated by a writer, as long as I'm never aware of it.


I hope you've got a while.

On the cover, there's Paul Berman's cautious assessment of Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. With this book, Mr Fukuyama withdraws his allegiance to the neoconservative program that is ruining the country and parts of the world. One is reminded of David Brock's Blinded By The Right. It isn't always nice when former opponents come to share your point of view; you want to be sure. And Mr Berman is not sure.

The neoconservatives, he suggests, are people who, having witnessed the collapse of Communism long ago, ought to look back on those gigantic events as a one-in-a-zillion lucky break, like winning the lottery. Instead, the neoconservatives, victims of their own success, came to believe that Communism's implosion reflected the deepest laws of history, which were operating in their own and America's favor - a formula for hubris. This is a shrewd observation, and might seem peculiar only because Fukuyama's own "End of History" articulated the world's most eloquent argument for detecting within the collapse of Communism the deepest laws of history. He insists in his new book that The End of History ought never to have led anyone to adopt such a view, but this makes me think only that Fukuyama is an utterly unreliable interpreter of his own writings.

Mary Roach has some quibbles with Annie Cheney's  Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains, but she bestows the highest imaginable honor:

Like Jessica Mitford's American Way of Death, this book's combination of readability and investigative firepower will, one hopes, draw the broad readership and outrage needed to instigate change.

Dominique Browning, the chief editor at House & Garden, reviews Winifred Gallagher's House Thinking: A Room-By-Room Look at How We Live, and in the process tells me exactly what I want to know: House Thinking is as fizzily earnest as was Ms Gallager's The Power of Place (1994).

Gallagher speaks to many of the professionals of house thinking (thought they wouldn't think of themselves that way) - not just architects but also behavioral scientists and environmental psychologists. And this is where her book runs into trouble. There's something intriguing about a subculture devoted to studying the way we live at home, but do we really need a PhD to understand "environmental psychology's most important, and deceptively simple, principle regarding home: yours should meet your physical and psychological needs"?

In another strong review, Erica Wagner all but trashes Fernanda Eberstadt's Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of France, and you ought to read the piece for yourself.

You can learn a lot about Fernanda Eberstat in this book, and perhaps more than the author intended. But if you too wish to go in search of these Gypsies and their music, do as I did, and buy their CD.

Ouch! The other review that you have to read is Ron Powers's piece on Arnold Weinstein's Recovering Your Story: Proust Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison.

Before you know it, Weinstein is managing to make Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison sound like the editorial staff at Self magazine.

Funny stuff, and Mr Weinstein comes across better than you'd think.

James Reston Jr's Fragile Innocence: A Father's Memoir of His Daughter's Courageous Journey, gets a sympathetic review from Polly Morrice, but it's not a particularly inviting one. I can't what it was the Hillary Reston's, but a nonmedical term might be "permanent nightmare." Diane Johnson reviews The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, by Ross King. There's a blooper: Ms Johnson writes that it was Meissonier, not Manet, who led the revolt that founded the Salon des Refusés. Otherwise, she gives this somewhat revisionist history moderately good marks.

King doesn't miss the character flaws of any of his large cast, and the effect is a meticulously detailed panorama not unlike one of Meissonier's grandest battlefield scenes.

I may find myself reading this book. Moving right along through the Kings, Will Blythe's review of Larry L King's In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor is pretty pungent, stressing Mr King's complete lack of objectivity.

Appropriately for a book in which enough alcohol is consumed to fill Long Island Sound, In Search of Willie Morris feels like a reminiscence spilled over a long night sitting at the bar - rambling, bawdy, score-settling, gossipy, partisan and sentimental with occasional bouts of weeping. There are even a few places where King seems to have fallen asleep next to his drink before lurching awake to resume his monologue.

Aside from making In Search of Willie Morris sound irresistible, that passage makes me mourn the great days of Esquire, of which Mr Blyte was literary editor for a spell.

On facing pages, Peter Beinart and Rick Lyman cover new books about - what, exactly? Politics? Electoral Engineering? Process? Policy? Let me begin by saying that I can't imagine why anyone would buy either Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future, by James Carville and Paul Begala or Rebel-In-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W Bush. Mr Lyman wryly describes them as "fresh logs to stoke the nation's partisan furnaces." Crashing the Gage: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, by contrast, sounds almost worthwhile in Mr Beinart's hands. I ask myself, however, why the authors of this book aren't busy laying the foundations of a new party, organized entirely differently and run by altogether different personnel. Their book appears to stop just short of such audacity, but Mr Beinart catches a whiff of it.

It's possibly no coincidence that Moulitsas, the founder of the popular blog Daily Kos, did a stint in Silicon Valley. In his complaints about the Democratic establishment, he sounds like the head of Google describing General Motors: the party is slow, top-heavy and destined for obsolescence unless it makes a radical change in its culture.

Mr Beinert dwells on the authors' concession that they don't know which "common principles" are shared by Democrats. This is perhaps backward: it's the Democratic leadership that ought to leading their supporties in a common purpose.

If there's one book in this week's Review that I'm definitely getting, it's Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music, by English conductor Jane Glover. It is wrong to see a "feminine" quality in Mozart's music, when what's really there is an esteem for women. Reading Anthony Tommasini's review, it occurred to me that there are two strains of heterosexual men: those who really like women, and those who need women but don't like them. (I'd further posit that women who only care for the latter type are doomed to the same unhappiness that afflicts gay men who pursue straight lovers.) Mozart was assuredly in the former camp, as the briefest reading of his X-rated letters to Constanze make clear. Mr Tommasini praises Ms Glover's book but doesn't talk about it much; instead, he retells its story and then winds up, incredibly, with this:

Is it permissible any longer to say that only a woman could have written this refreshing and valuable book?

No, Mr Tommasini, it is not permissible. I can't believe the thought occurred to you.

At the other end of the musical spectrum - well, perhaps not quite the very end - is Karen Schoemer's Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music, reviewed, not entirely favorably, by singer Nellie McKay. Great Pretenders profiles seven pop singers who specialized in "unspoken passion, earnest preachers at the altars of puppy love," among them Patti Page, whose recording of "You Belong To Me" was a great favorite of mine when I was about ten and just beginning to be interested in music. (Nowadays, however, I'm likelier to listen to the great Yao Li sing it. You can, too.) Despite her reservations, Ms McKay concludes that Great Pretenders is "a truly unique background to a grossly underappreciated era in American music."

Lucy Ellman doesn't care for My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud, by Janna Malamud Smith, and has no trouble saying why.

Smith should be asking why she would want to write a book about a novelist when she seems to have so little idea of how or why fiction comes into being.

I know that critiques of American intelligence gathering is a hot and important topic, but David Holloway's moderately favorable review of Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence From Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea, by Jeffrey T Richelson, simply makes me want to turn the page. Mr Holloway does not convey an idea of the book that he would have liked this one to be. Indeed I had a hard time distinguishing what Mr Holloway, as a specialist in this area, was reporting from what he might be interjecting. Reviews that try to tell a story and pass judgment in the same passages often lose me.

All right, I've been at this for nearly three hours, and Short Shrift is all that Pets in America: A History, by Katherine C Grier (reviewed by Alida Becker) and Glory Road: My Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever [Oh, please!], by Don Haskins with Dan Wetzel (reviewed by Gerald Eshkenazi), are going to get from me. Who slept with whom?! Nor will I discuss Blake Eskin's Essay, "Books to Chew On." Is it permissible to say that literal bibliophagy is a topic that doesn't belong in the Book Review?

Like, I mean, Yikes.

March 25, 2006


On my way to pay for a painting, driving an armored minivan with a few million dollars in the back seat, I encountered a Brinks (armored) truck. I drove straight into it, to see what would happen. There you have my entire childhood! What happened was this amazing ka-chunk as the armor was activated (whatever that means). Nobody was traveling fast, and I emerged unscathed. I knew I'd done something wrong, but it amounted, in the dream, to no more than an inconvenience. The dream changed the subject: in the next scene, I was being presented to the seriously leftist aunt of an old friend. She was impatient with me - doubtless because of my "troublemaking" entry.

V for Vendetta

Yesterday's entry about Rachel Corrie rang in my ears all through V for Vendetta, James McTeigue's shooting of the Wachowski Brothers' latest output. The story is taken from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and I understand that Mr Moore is not happy with the adaptation. That's how it goes in movieland. Twenty years from now, someone will make a period, pitch-perfect film of the original.

Interestingly, V for Vendetta is true to the airless and remote atmosphere of most graphic novels and their comic book predecessors. There is a stunning want of windows with a view. One ascends from the Underground to a rooftop in a matter of moments. Hugo Weaving, the actor playing V, never shows his face, but everything is done to vary the effects of light and shadow on his mask. The important shots seem taken from drawn frames. Except for a heartbreaking episode in the middle of the film - meant to show England's slow but sure slide into dystopia - V for Vendetta recycles the same compositions, with the same characters (the people watching television, for example). There is a strict economy to the feel of the picture; only certain emotions and responses are interesting. That's both characteristic of graphic novels and the marker of a sick society.

The film tells its (confected) backstory very well, so I won't. It's about how a democracy became - well, a dictatorship, certainly, but not a totalitarian state. People seem to be leading recognizable lives. Despite the future setting, the clothes are pretty much what you'll see on the street today. The filmmakers have been careful, in other words, to show these complicit citizens as folks like us. Out of fear, they - we - let the fascists take over. (In the movie, the United States has sunk into a ruinous civil war and has run out of almost everything.) I jumped aboard the Impeach Bush bandwagon about fifteen minutes into the show; we'll see how that lasts before I say more, and if I don't, it didn't. Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) rules England from a bunker, and until the very end, all we see of him is his craggy, badly-barbered face, and, behind it, his lower teeth. He's about as pleasant as a scorpion. In all but one of his scenes, he addresses his principal lieutenants from a giant TV screen.

One of these is Dascomb (Ben Miles), the director of broadcasting. Another is Finch (Stephen Rea), the chief of police. The KGB cognate appears to be Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith, and I hope he gets counseling for playing despicable characters again and again.)

Who is V? Well, he is a comic book hero. Although mortal, he has a supernatural way with knives, and he can really take a beating. He likes to weave Shakespeare into his punctilious conversation. He rescues Evey (Natalie Portman) when she is intercepted by a couple of Creedy's toughs after curfew, on her way to dinner with Dietrich (Stephen Fry), a TV comedian. V takes the pretty young woman to his lair, and keeps her there for a few days. Little by little, troubled pasts emerge. Evey's parents were executed as dissidents. V was subjected to malignant biological tests that eventually went awry, rendering him a superhero. (Who wants to know?) 

The most interesting performance is Stephen Rea's, as his Finch shifts his allegiance. Mr Rea's perennially sad face registers the stale defeat of life in a broken society. Rupert Graves, as Finch's aide, Dominic, looks sharp and still somehow boyish.

Mr McTeigue, who has directed many second units, knows what he's doing, and V for Vendetta barrels along to the final uplifting fireworks. I don't know how often I'll want to watch this movie again, but it gets its important message across with great power.

March 24, 2006

The Corrie Affair

When Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer two years ago, I shrugged. It was awful, but Corrie was a troublemaker. I don't like troublemakers. Don't try telling me that troublemaking is effective. Patriots on the right can wail that it was lack of support at home that cost us the Vietnam War, but this is nonsense. The war ended when it became clear that it could never be won. Now we're on a similar trajectory in Iraq, only, this time, opponents of the war are careful to honor soldiers, not revile them. To people in power, demonstrators are unarmed terrorists - and all the more contemptible for that.

I say this knowing that the struggle for equal civil rights for all Americans required a lot of troublemaking. Trying to figure out how to respect people who fight for a good cause with my bone-deep, profoundly bourgeois dislike of disorder keeps me busy. 

I make an exception, very characteristic, for troublemakers who are very amusing, but I don't believe that there was anything amusing about the idealistic twenty-three year-old Washingtonian who suffered such a horrific death. Whether I'd change my mind about Rachel Corrie is pretty much a matter of how I felt about My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Like most people, I didn't even know that a production had been slotted, if not scheduled, until the day its cancellation was announced. It was dreadfully discomfiting news, because it seemed that unnamed "Jewish interests" were pushing for censorship. Perhaps the play ought to have opened somewhere else in the United States. When I was growing up, they used to say that there were more Jews in the Metropolitan Area than there were in Israel. Is that still true? I somehow think not. But anti-Semitic folks can expect to be made very uncomfortable in the Big Apple.

And, as Bernard-Henri Lévy asserted at the end of January, anti-Semitism = anti-Zionism. By a quick equation, Rachel Corrie = terrorist supporter. In "Why These Tickets Are Too Hot For New York," Philip Weiss's clear-eyed account of the very much ongoing Corrie affair, in the current (April 3) edition of The Nation, playwright Tony Kushner explains his own reluctance to step forward in to denounce the New York Theatre Workshop's self-censorship, attributing it to fatigue. In part, he has just been through a similar brouhaha about Munich, which he co-wrote. But the longer perspective is daunting.

There is a very, very highly organized attack machinery that will come after you if you express any kind of dissent about Israel's policies, and it's a very unpleasant experience to be in the cross hairs. These aren't hayseed from Kansas screaming about gays burning in hell; they're newspaper columnists who are taken seriously. ... [They leave challengers] overwhelmed and in despair - you feel like you should just say nothing.

When Tony Kushner is too worn out by wingnuts to speak out, I conclude that my canary is about to give up the ghost, and that I'm in trouble.

Regardless of what I feel about Rachel Corrie, a play that memorializes her words - drawn from her diaries, the show professes her to be its playwright - should be mounted without hindrance. At a minimum, the NYTW's director, James Nicola, owes us a list of the names that brought pressure upon him not to open My Name Is Rachel Corrie.

Readers of Mr Weiss's story will discover that there is a constellation of New York theatre blogs. Oui bien sûr! The impatient can start reading Parabasis, Superfluities, and Playgoer right now.

March 23, 2006

Karl Zéro

Wednesday is the day for refreshing the "Tune de la Semaine" feature of the Daily Blague (under the thumbnail to the right), but I didn't get round to it yesterday. I don't call attention to the Tunes as a rule, but I'm making an exception this week because I'm hoping that someone will tell me just who Karl Zéro is. His cheeky retro album, Songs for Cabriolets and Otros Tipos de Vehiculos is one of my favorites: beautifully produced but totally preposterous.

Cars in California

Sensible people around the world ought not to miss V X Sterne's spot-on confession about high-end California car culture. You are what you drive! Just as my part of the world, Manhattan, is an antidote to American follies, Southern California is their vector. If you're out there wondering how George W Bush got to be president, perhaps this essay will give you a clue. (But thanks to V X for being so amusing about it all!)


Yesterday, I was exhausted. I could not really get up, and didn't make the bed until after dark. The dishwasher remained full of Monday night's dishes. I got dressed several hours after I cleaned up. I kept falling asleep over All Souls Day, the mighty Cees Nooteboom's novel, and it certainly wasn't the writer's fault. I re-read an unwittingly alarming piece in Foreign Affairs; I'll be sharing my thoughts about that presently. And then I watched Kinsey. I expected it to be distracting, and it was.

My first thought, after rewinding the disc to prove that, yes, that was Lynn Redgrave playing the "Final Interview Subject," was that I wish that everybody felt the way I do about other people's actual sex lives. I don't want to hear about them. That's my sex hang-up. If everybody shared it, then nobody would care much what other people did (and they'd know better not to entertain comparative guesswork), and, in that case, Kinsey's research would never have been necessary. Nobody would make anyone else's life a hell by proscribing certain acts. Aside from protecting everyone from any involuntary sexual encounters, society would simply not recognize sex. This would greatly improve flirting.

Sex for me becomes plumbing when I am not personally involved, and hearing about other people's plumbing alienates me from myself. We all work more or less the same, it's true, but unfortunately our nervous systems don't recognize this fact.

I suppose I'd better note that none of the foregoing means that I'm against sex education! On the contrary. Perhaps everybody ought to flip through the Kama Sutra and The Joy of Gay Sex. Nor am I against sex writing that's really well-written, where the artistry interposes a screen of discretion.

In any case, Kinsey made me squirm, because it was constantly running along the knife's edge of dissociating love from sex. Lots of people can keep the two distinct, but lots of people can't, and almost everyone around Kinsey seems to have discovered that the ability to do so can vanish in an instant, leaving dreadful hurt. The performances were as marvelous as everyone said when the movie came out, and the film was beautifully shot. But there was one expectation that Kinsey turned into a conclusion: I wouldn't want to watch it with anyone else in the room.

March 22, 2006


I share Maureen Dowd's indignation: if Harry Samit can provide evidence of the seventy memos that he sent to FBI superiors on the subject of Zacarias Moussaoui, then David Frasca and Michael Maltbie should be terminated at once. These gentlemen were the recipients of the memos, but declined to take action because to do so would be "troublesome" for the Bureau. Makes me feel safe and protected.

It's heartwarming, but not satisfying, to read further that, according to an "administration official," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "does not hold the same sway in meetings anymore," but is regarded "as an eccentric old uncle who is ignored." One imagines an entire cabinet of eccentric old uncles, all being ignored. What a can-do country we live in.

In the Business Section, there's a dark little story about the so-called Wright Amendment, enacted some thirty years ago to stunt the growth of Southwest Airlines. Moral: democracy works, eventually. But O that Lone Star State. The Texans are different.


The other night, while Kathleen was having a long nap, I went surfing. I seem to spend most of my days surfing the Blogosphere, but at that moment on Sunday, I was very relaxed. Dinner was as good as made.

I opened the bookmark folder marked "AAA." The blogs linked from here are the ones that, at the moment, interest me - and the ones that I've already listed on my blog roster. Lots of sites look interesting but don't hold my attention, or lose it altogether with infrequent entries. It's much easier and less embarrassing to remove them from the privacy of the AAA folder than it is to delete them from the published roster.

Conversational Reading is a service blog that I don't know enough about yet to list it among the Utilities, but I check it often and usually get something out of what Scott Esposito has to say. On Sunday, I scrolled down to this very brief entry and bit. I read the piece about William H Gass's The Temple of Texts, and was convinced that this was a book that I'd have to read. I kept reading down the blog, taking time out to learn something about Michael Smith, the owner of CultureSpace. Eventually, I reached the entry about a cut from Herbie Hancock's Inventions and Dimensions (1963). Mr Smith heard the number at a record store and was immediately taken by it.

The tune that caught my ears was "Succotash"; it begins with a 6/8 melody that makes you feel as if you're standing on a precipice. The sense of abandon, especially in the song's structure, is the result of Hancock's eager, if somewhat conservative, foray into the jazz avant garde. He assembled the great bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Willie Bobo, and percussionist Osvaldo Martinez and told them they could play whatever they wanted within the very basic boundaries he set for each song, none of which, save one, were written beforehand. "I didn't tell Paul what chords to use," Hancock said of "Succotash" (in the original liner notes), "because I didn't know what they were to be myself. All he and the musicians knew was the time signature. The melody and the form of the piece developed spontaneously." Hancock employed this off-the-cuff approach to music after working with free-jazz experimentalist Eric Dolphy just a year before. And like the playing, listening itself becomes an exploratory experience. "There's no telling what's going to happen," Hancock said. "In music, all things are possible."

Several years ago, I was standing by the stereo at a cocktail party. Prominent among the litter of jewel boxes was a boxed set: Herbie Hancock: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions. (It appears to be out of print.) Lust and ignorance convinced me that I must own this six-disc set, even though I only knew of only one of the albums therein collected, Maiden Voyage. One of Kathleen's LPs, and not one that I'd listened to much. But the Blue Note package was exactly what a magisterial jazz album would look like if such an article were wanted. I had to have it.

It was much more Hancock than I could chew. I listened to one of the discs in the set for a while and then put the set aside. It was never hidden away, and it often reproached me. In vain. Until Sunday.

It occurred to me that "Succotash" might be on Sixties Sessions, and indeed it is. It's the seventh of nine cuts on Disc 2. I prepared to stand on a precipice.

But instead, I wondered if I'd lost my left speaker. The racket coming out of it sounded somewhere between typing in another room and mashing up plastic wrap. It is produced by Mr Martinez's guiro. It was so novel that I really didn't pay much attention to the rest of the performance. I found the piece interesting, but not interesting enough to play again. I let the disc play on while I continued with FreeCell.

FreeCell is an ideal device for capturing interesting music, because it lets me continue to hear what's playinig without paying attention. Good hooks will reach out and recapture that attention. Somewhere in the middle of "Triangle," the eighth cut on Disc 2 of Sixties Sessions, my ears perked up enough to note that Mr Hancock was really rolling, displaying enormous and well-honed technique. "Triangle" comes in three parts, and the beat of the second and third parts obsessively highlights the piano virtuosity. Happily, I can play FreeCell without paying attention. "Triangle" mesmerized me.

And "Mimosa," the final cut on the disc, came through as a deluxe bonbon of Latin jazz, svelte and cut on the bias.

I was immensely grateful to Mr Smith for the prodding me to listen to this music, even though I assessed "Succotash" rather differently and even though I preferred the two following songs. And, for once, the narcissism of small differences wasn't working. I had no desire to say anything but "thank you" to Mr Smith. There was no pressure to launch a super-persuasive version of my response in an attempt to convert Mr Smith to my point of view. Was I really that relaxed?

Talking about the experience after dinner last night, I hit on what underlies my relaxation. The Blogosphere has begun to teach me that I don't have to fight to have certain discussions. I've known very few people, in person, who share my interests (I've known very few people, period), and the effort to turn a conversation in my direction used to be so much trouble that on the few occasions when I succeeded I'd be talking, by the time I had the floor, at full throttle, a boiler of self-assertion no matter how politely masked. I genuinely wanted to know what other people thought, but I was too worked up to listen, and any discord triggered debate. I still get worked up from time to time, but the occasions are becoming rarer. Blogging has taught me, I think, to listen. I don't have to fight to get interesting discussions going. I can listen in on others'.

Thank you, CultureSpace. 

March 21, 2006


For weeks, I've been listening to ancient recordings of Bach's Keyboard Concerti. They're not as old as I tend to think they are, but they completely antedate modern performance practices. And yet they sound great.

They were made in Vienna, in 1958 (the solo concerti) and 1964 (the multiples). I Solisti di Zagreb, led by Antonio Janigro, with Anton Heiller and others at the keys. How exotic that name sounds - "I Solisti di Zagreb." I can't tell if they're still going, because their site is in Croatian. I see that I have to do some research: were these Yugoslavian exiles working in Vienna, or did they travel to the West to make their recordings?

The recordings have a driven, dramatic quality that I like in this music. When the music's in the minor, I'm reminded of horror films. There was a time when I thought that the Concerto for Four Harpsichords in a, BWV 1065 would make the perfect score for a Dracula movie. (It's a transcription of the last concerto from Vivaldi's L'estro armonico.) There is a spooky quality that one doesn't ordinarily associate with Bach. Perhaps it's worth mentioning that I first heard these works at a time when harpsichords were beginning to be used by soundtrack composers.

I was crazy about harpsichords in those days, so much so that I built my own clavichord from a kit (harpsichord kits were too expensive). But I take the view nowadays that everyone from Bach to Mozart would have killed to play on Beethoven's Broadwood. Get this dinky tinkly thing out of here! Wanda Landowska, the pioneer of harpsichord revival, used to say, "You play Bach your way, and I'll play Bach his way." I think she's mistaken about what Bach's way would have been if he had been given the choice. The keyboard concerti, in any case, are the only works by Bach that I can bear to listen to on the harpsichord; conversely, I can't stand to hear them played on pianos. Clunk-eeee. But the piano is the only instrument for the solo keyboard music. I'd give anything to have Keith Jarrett's recording of the Goldberg Variations on a piano - if he would make it. (He has recorded the work on the harpsichord.) His piano recording of several of Handel's keyboard suites is, to my mind, the gold standard of Taste.

Ah, here's the movement that's playing when Michael Caine rams Barbara Hershey up against the record player, making a frightful scratch (Hannah and Her Sisters).

As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, MHS has made these recordings available

March 20, 2006

Metropolitan Diary

When I finally woke up this morning, the black dog was panting at my side. I'd had a bad dream, which was bad enough, but the taste of Diet Coke - my soda of choice, but not first thing in the morning, thank you - was in my mouth. I felt existentially null.

So I skipped the first section of the Times for the nonce and went straight to the Metropolitan Diary. Here I found six short stories drawn from True Life. In the fifth one, a woman got lost in Queens while trying to change Interstates. (She made the Sherman McCoy mistake - which I don't believe any genuine New Yorker would dream of doing, Mr Wolfe - of getting off at the next exit and looping back.) When she asked a policeman in a squad car for directions, he did the right thing, the only thing, the thing that I hope I'd do in his place: he told her to follow him.

I have no idea how drivers who grew up somewhere else ever learn their way around New York's tangle of roadways. Simply aiming a car in the right direction is enough of a challenge for those of us who know all too well that we're going to have to move through four lanes of Triborough Bridge in order to get to "Downtown NY," as the pathetic little sign puts it. When Kathleen and I had a house in Connecticut, I would begin my instructions with the assumption that visitors could get themselves to the south end of IH 684 in one way or another. That's almost ten miles beyond the city limits.

Two of the Metropolitan Diary stories involve small children and the darnedest things that they say. In one, a little boy asks the denizens of a senior center, "How do you get to be old?" It sounds almost like a wish. My answer would have been, "Continue breathing and wait," I don't know how old I was when I finally understood that I would really grow up some day. It would just - happen! I couldn't wait, and now look what happened. I've got as many years as Heinz used to have varieties.

(That's the first time that I've made that quip, but I've got an awful feeling that it's not going to be the last.)

In other story, a little girl, recently transplanted from the city to New Jersey, asks her mother, "Do I have a New York accident?" This reminds me of my childhood dream of owning a set of "Resonance" chessmen. (I never got them, but that was okay, because my obsession eventually taught me that they were pretty cheesy.) It also reminds me of how often I was told, when I went to school in Indiana, that I had an English accent. O were it so! I'd think to myself.

Then there's the correspondent who betrays his alien status by thinking that he's overheard someone order "a Kofi Annan bagel." Proximity to the United Nations is no excuse.

As for the story about the hero on the subway, it speaks loudly for itself. If only God would advise his churchgoing adherents that their selfishness gives him a bad name!

Bait and Switch

In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich at least got some jobs. They were lousy, no-collar jobs that didn't quite support her. She lived on the margin of poverty and reported a lot of her co-workers' very serious headaches. The grit was bearable partly because of her humor, but also because you knew that the author was going to experience a happy ending - you were holding proof, in the form of a printed book, in your hand. This good feeling is absent from Ms Ehrenreich's account of trying to get a better, white-collar job, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, because she never gets a job to begin with. The only people she meets are sadly laid-off people and the hucksters who "teach" them how to find their way back to work. The futility noted in the subtitle suffuses the entire book. There is still plenty of mordant humor. But there is also plenty of despair.

It's not easy to break into a line of white-collar work without some serious educational channeling. Ms Ehrenreich, an investigative reporter, figures that she can find something in reporting's evil twin, publicity. She legally resumes her maiden name and cobbles together a plausible resume. She devises a schedule, which ends every afternoon with a trip to the gym,

as recommended by all coaches and advice-giving web sites. I would work out anyway, but it's nitce to have this ratified as a legitimate job-search activity. In fact, I find it expanding to fill the time available - from forty-five minutes to more than an hour a day. I may never find a job, but I will, in a few more weeks, be in a position to wrestle and job competitors to the ground. On the downside, I have no clue as to how to use the gym as a networking opportunity. With whom should I network? The obviously unemployed fellow who circles the indoor track for at least an hour a day? The anorexic gal whose inexplicable utterances on the Stairmaster are not, as I first hoped, attempts to communicate but an accompaniment to the songs on her iPod? No matter how many inviting smiles I cast around the place, my conversations never seem to get beyond "Do you mind if I work in?" and "Whoops, I guess that's your towel."

As this passage suggests, the business of looking for a job involves a lot of pretense - and very active pretense at that. I'm not talking about the bland politeness with which I navigate formal social settings. I'm talking about always appearing to upbeat and interested in other people. For a happy few, such behavior comes ...

Continue reading about Bait and Switch at Portico.

March 19, 2006

Loose Link

My correspondent, Empress in Pittsburgh, sent me a link that has been keeping my cheeks wet (I cry when I'm amused). "Microsoft designs the iPod package."  Does anybody know where the music came from? It's so - catchy-Khatchaturian! And I know I've heard it before. 

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

First, the poetry. Eric McHenry doesn't like Dave Smith's Little Boats, Unsalvaged: Poems 1992-2004.

Immediacy may be what Smith is after, but he achieves very nearly its opposite - a halting, stilted speech that substitutes accumulation for arc, a sort of rhythmless repetitiveness for the "sentence-sounds" that mattered so much to Robert Frost. "A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung." Frost wrote. "You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, but - it is bad for the clothes.

That's a lovely image, Frost's is, and I'm grateful for the encounter. Mr McHenry does exploit his bad review of Dave Smith as an occasion to say some very nice things about the poetry of the late William Matthews.

David Orr, in "On Poetry," deplores the proliferation of poetry prizes. I'm not sure that I understand the full measure of his words, but I like this:

With the fading of transcendent ideals in certain areas of American life comes the inevitable fading of the dream of unsullied, undying art - and the nostalgic desire for prizes that remind us of that dream, if nothing else.

The occasion for Mr Orr's essay is a "Neglected Master Award," concocted by, among others, the Library of America. The first volume in this series (itself an award of sorts) goes to Samuel Menashe. The bit of verse that's quoted in the essay is very attractive indeed. Mr Orr notes that Mr Menashe belongs to the "austere Dickinsonian school."

There are seven novels this week. Collectively, the views make me wonder if there's a point to writing up novels just because they're new. Each of the reviews is more book report than critique, and each of them fails to quote enough original text for a reader of the Book Review to assess the novelist's command of sentence-sounds. Sam Lipsyte (author of Home Land) really likes Chris Abani's Becoming Abigail: A Novella, but instead of showing us why, he falls back on sketching the novella's (grim) story. Megan Marshall's review of A Million Nightingales, by Susan Straight, is equally enthusiastic and a little less lame in that it appraises Ms Straight's grasp of the race and gender issues that naturally rise in a story about a light-colored slave girl in antebellum Louisiana.

Straight's book is a deep consideration of the servitude all women experienced then - and, in some ways and some places, continue to experience even now.

But the bits of text that are quoted all function as book reports: evidence of plot points. Susan Cokal's review of Dara Horn's The World To Come is mystifying rather than interesting. The plot hangs on the provenance of a small painting by Marc Chagall.

No single character can unlock the secrets of the Chagall because the answers lie both too far back in history and too far into the future - the "world beyond" this life, which Horn depicts as a kind of ethereal mixer where old souls meet new ones, who learn from them before being born. This realm of the spirit is also the place where art may take us, and Horn offers sly reminders that we may not like what we find there.

This is all very teasing, but I don't have time to scratch my head over it. If I'm not puzzled by Andrey Slivka's review of The Woman Who Waited, by Andreï Makiine (translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan), that's because I've read the novelist's first book, Dreams of My Russian Summers. Mr Slivka's book report makes the new book sound unintelligible. While it praises "the dreamy lusciousness of Makine's prose images," it offers only a pair of thumbnails, not quotes.

Three novels get short shrift (half a page - admittedly better than a roundup). Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series (and other books), really likes Passarola Rising, by Azhar Abidi - and spends a surprising number of words saying just that. Comparisons to Candide are intriguing, especially as Voltaire turns up in this historical fantasy. Why does it sound like something that would make a better read in French? Dawn Drzal really likes Hilma Wolitzer's The Doctor's Daughter, but seems content to rely on fans who have already read Ms Wolitzer's previous fiction (Hearts and others) to generate their own enthusiasm.

In the only unenthusiastic review, Max Byrd is tepid at best about The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, by Dominic Smith. He likes the first couple of chapters, but wonders why Mr Smith has changed so many of the facts in Daguerre's life and then observes that "Daguerre's compulsions never generate much urgency."

Aren't these reviewers being paid enough?


On the cover this week is Alan Brinkley's frightened review of American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips. There isn't anything in the review that regular readers of the Daily Blague won't have read right here, but it's nice to see that the alarm is spreading and perhaps getting louder. Mr Brinkley concludes thus:

There is little in American Theocracy that is wholly original to Phillips, as he frankly admits by his frequent reference to the work of other writers and scholars. What makes this book powerful in spite of the familiarity of many of its arguments is his rare gift for looking broadly and structurally at social and political change. By describing a series of major transformation, by demonstrating the relationships among them and by discussing them with passionate restraint, Phillips has created a harrowing picture of national danger that no American reader will welcome but that none should ignore.

Buy the book! And give it to someone who needs it when you're done.

Now we need a laugh. And Walter Kirn gives us one - a bushel, actually, in his review of Manliness, by Harvard Professor (of Government) Harvey C Mansfield. The review is acute and funny, and you've got to read it for yourself. But here's a little preview:

After a section on the history of "the great explosion of manliness that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries" (an image that gives even me, a straight man, erotic chills), it's time for Mansfield to stop preheating the oven and cook up the goose he's already got trussed and cleaned: the feminists.

The cheesy photo accompanying the review is wrong in so many ways that it's almost right. On the facing page, Budd Schulberg (author of What Makes Sammy Run) writes about Dave Kindred's dual biography, Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship. The two lives belong(ed) to Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali. This certainly looks like the one sports book so far that it might be interesting (for me) to read, and in Mr Schulberg's opinion it's clear and candid, notwithstanding the author's friendship with the boxer.

A note at the beginning state's the author's intention: "My ambition was to recover Muhammad Ali from mythology and Howard Cosell from caricature." With the Niagara of words that has been pouring over these two superstars for more than 40 years, that's a heady assignment. But Kindred is up to it. Mission accomplished.

Another biography, Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova, by Elaine Feinstein, is everything that it oughn't to be. Olga Grushin holds it in such contempt that she won't use Ms Feinstein's translations of the poems - except to expose them as shoddy. Ms Grushin refers interested readers to Akhmatova's memoirs. Gossipy and hyperdetailed, the book "lacks depth."

When Akhmatova does step fully into the light, Feinstein seems primarily interested in her amorous entanglements. The chapter covering the mid-1920s - titled "Infidelities" - begins, "Amidst Russia's turmoil, Akhmatova was about to enter the longest and most intense relationship of her life."

Sniff! Of Elizabeth McCracken's review of Are You Happy?: A Childhood Remembered, by Emily Fox Gordon, I wasn't able to make a lot of sense. It appears that Ms Gordon looks back on childhood not as a story but as a sequence of moments, most of them "radiant" - notwithstanding some serious family problems. The secret: she was left to herself most of the time. Lucky girl!

Lucky guy Mike Mullane visited near outer space twice, and he writes about his experiences in Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut. Tom Ferrell likes Riding Rockets, not noting, however, that it's the sort of book that's usually "told to" a professional writer. He does give Mr Mullane high marks for respecting his female colleagues, but I'm not so sure that they would; Mr Mullane is simply a gentleman (or so he seems to be here).

Russell Shorto reviews Slavery in New York, a collection of essays published in conjunction with an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. He singles out essays by Jill Lepore (on slavery in British New York) and Shane White (black popular culture) for high praise. Most New Yorkers were largely unaware of the city's engagement with slavery until the discovery of the African Burial Ground a few years ago. But this book and the show at the museum will bring home the awful truth to any of the unconvinced.

There are two books about the fight for civil rights under review. Historian Eric Foner has a few quibbles with Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault. He feels that the data collected by Mr Arsenault ought to have been more deeply analyzed.

One wishes for a more detailed account of the riders' political backgrounds, organizational connections and later experiences.

Mr Foner appears to regard Freedom Riders as an exam that he (Mr Foner) is supposed to grade, and not a book that he is supposed to pronounce good or bad. On the facing page, Samuel G Freedman complains that Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto, by Alexander Polikoff, is "overlong, poorly organized and plagued by clichés and corny puns, starting with the title." It's a story that Mr Freedman would have preferred to read about Gautreaux case in "as told to" format.

At the other end of the habitat scale, there's The Caliph's House, by Tahir Shah and reviewed by Adam Goodheart. Mr Shah is an English travel writer of Afghan extraction who bought a fixer-upper palace on the border of a Casablanca slum.

Writers are, far more than the general population, a high-risk category for the renovation virus. We can live and work almost anywhere, have a talent for blocking out inconvenient facts (like the slum next door) and are more than usually prone to delusions, not least those of grandeur. Couple this with a tenuous cash flow and the further delusion that we have an instinctive understanding of things like cabinet hardware, and the situation becomes positively dangerous.

And on top of that, we get a story out of the experience! Of Mr Shah himself, Mr Goodheart writes that he "is no negligible craftsman - with words, that is - and his somewhat predictable narrative is enlivened by well-wrought descriptions of life in Casablanca." In other words, a fine piece of "house porn."

Back to poverty: Virginia Postrel gives The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly, a good review. That is, she does her job, and makes clear that while Mr Easterly's critique of most aid programs is astute, "his alternative is undeveloped," and she gently explodes his distinction between "Planners" - whom he despises - and "Searchers." Searching for solutions to the poorer world's problems is certainly in order; ever since the Age of Discovery, the West has been telling the Rest what it ought to do. That's usually the only way we know how to offer help - at first. "At first" was five hundred years ago, and we ought to be doing better. Ms Postrel grades Burden favorably: it's an "important" book.

Just when you thought it was the last thing you'd want to read about, Rachel Donadio's Essay offers an interesting global survey of much-contemned new genre. In "The Chick-Lit Pandemic," Ms Donadio compares and contrasts contributions to the form from around the world. The Japanese and the French, she notes, haven't contracted a yen for it yet, but Indian readers and writers certainly have. Polish chick-lit - is this a joke? - often involve tragedies, while the Scandinavian version - no surprise here - displays anomie. South America doesn't even come up. Ms Donadio also provides a handy thumbnail of the chick-lit demographic:

20- and 30-something women with full-time jobs, discretionary income and a hunger for independence and glamour.


I just had to end with the photo from Walter Kirn's Manliness review. Why do I have the feeling that this photograph would get people in a lot of trouble today?

March 18, 2006

The Libertine

Of all the movies that I've seen since I began seeing them every Friday, Laurence Dunmore's The Libertine is the only one that I've wanted to walk out on. It's not that Libertine is a bad picture. It's rather that I don't enjoy horror films. And that's pretty much what Libertine is. You don't have to posit extraordinary powers to account for the aura of decay that surrounds Johnny Depp's 2nd Earl of Rochester. Rochester was too cynical to realize his talents, so all that we have left of him is a string of ditties and an unholy reputation. He died at thirty-three, a wreck disfigured by venereal disease and alcoholism.

So far as plot goes, Stephen Jeffries's screenplay disposes of Rochester's later career in the usual way. Factual details are sexed up a bit, unlikely stories are leaned on, and the sentiments expressed are, with the exception of a reverence for wit, totally 2004. The women in Rochester's life are made to love him in the manner of modern women saddled with addicted boyfriends. Rochester's relationship with Charles II (John Malkovich) is incredibly presumptuous.

And was there ever so brown a movie shot in color? The problem with trying to recreate the unhygienic "realities" of Restoration England is that they turn the past into an exhibit, not the setting of a story. Londoners slog through muck-ridding streets without sharing our revulsion - what's wrong with them? The groaty side of life is played up to exceedingly in-your-face levels.

Johnny Depp has no trouble playing a bad boy, but here he's often sulking, and that's not attractive. Rochester's good times are behind him in this picture. Mr Depp's Jack Sparrow, in Pirates of the Caribbean, is so charming that he gets an adult viewer through an otherwise silly movie; there's nothing charming in The Libertine except for the actor's good looks, which weirdly persist even as his skin breaks out in lesions. I wonder if the double assault of "History!" and "Literature!" simply deflated Mr Depp's interest in his character. Curiously, as an actor he seems to be behaving himself - not letting go.

The cast is really very good, with great turns by Samantha Morton, Rosamund Pike, and Kerry Reilly among the ladies. Tom Hollander is almost unrecognizable as George Etherege, and not notably shorter than everybody else. Richard Coyle is very good as Alcock, Rochester's servant. I couldn't take my eyes off of the fake nose that was stuck on John Malkovich's face; even he was unrecognizable half the time, betrayed only by his voice.

In the end, I'm not a good judge of The Libertine. I suspect that it is a distracted adaptation of a powerful play - distracted into horror.

March 17, 2006


There was music when I woke up. Mendelssohn's first string quintet. I love the work, and it sounded fine for a while. Then I began to wonder. Wasn't it a little loud? And when did I slip it into the tray to play? Who, for the matter of that, turned on the music at dawn? And how could I do this to Kathleen, who'd worked so late into the night?

Kathleen had worked so late into the night that she still hadn't come home. It was when I came back from the bathroom that I realized this. Somewhat unmoored, I picked up the phone. She answered, at the office. It was not quite seven in the morning. Go back to bed, she said.

I went to the front door to pick up the Times. By extraordinary chance the deliveryman was walking by, and he handed me the paper. Yay for my knees.

It would appear that I fell asleep to music, and that the machine just worked its way through the discs.

Rabbit Hole

Going to the theatre fairly often eventually teaches you, inter alia, to infer from the folding of a small child's clothes, when there are no children in the cast, that the character folding the clothes is experiencing a terrible grief. And so it turns out in Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire's new play at the Manhattran Theatre Club. This is a third of the playwright's works that I have seen at MTC, each one in a larger theatre. There was the nightmarish farce (or perhaps it was a farcical nightmare), Fuddy Meers, at Stage II, the bad-surburb bleakness of Kimberley Akimbo at Stage I, and now, at the Biltmore, Mr Lindsay-Abaire's best work to date. Unlike the other two, it is completely naturalistic.

When I was in school, there were comedies and there were tragedies. There were funny plays and sad plays. Now, as if the "richest man in Vienna" were running things, plays handle very sad material with a lot of laughter. Think, for example, of Reckless, at MTC a little over a year ago. It begins with a wife's being rushed out of the house by her repentant husband so that she won't be home when the hit man arrives. He hired the hitman, and now it's too late to cancel. The whole scene was played an at antic speed that drew helpless laughter.

The humor in Rabbit Hole is strictly verbal, but its purpose is the same: laughing softens up the audience, makes it glad to be there. This makes the hard work much easier for everybody. Who wants to sit through a play about grieving parents? Who wants to read The Year of Magical Thinking? The success of works that make you laugh so you won't mind crying is probably a telling timestamp of our moment in history. The curious thing is that, while I remember laughing heartily, I don't remember what was so funny. It certainly wasn't the situations.

It's often said that the loss of an only child will drive a couple apart, and, in Rabbit Hole, Mr Lindsay-Abaire dramatizes one explanation of the phenomenon. The play begins...

Continue reading about Rabbit Hole at Portico.

March 16, 2006


If I were gay, I could probably explain why the bathing suit that you will see if you "continue reading" has not already been featured at Towleroad or Joe.My.God. I have another picture of what it looks like down the back, if anyone's interested. The picture was taken "near Tampa." It comes to me courtesy of my great sister, Carol. Carol's book of American Kitsch would be pretty encyclopedic.


On and Off the Avenue

Who was the last person to write an "On and Off the Avenue" column for The New Yorker? My guess would be Kennedy Fraser, but I haven't been playing close attention and I'm much too lazy to check The Complete New Yorker. "On and Off the Avenue" has always been a somewhat whimsical feature, but Patricia Marx turns up the humor setting in her contribution to the form. (It should be noted that Ms Marx teaches "comedy writing" at NYU.) The avenues in question are not our north-south axes named with numbers but the labyrinthine roadways of Los Angeles. I couldn't care less about this sort of fashion - the stylish women of Los Angeles strike me as nothing less than demented (they're certainly not attractive). But Ms Marx makes a must of her brief.

Near the entrance to the tiny boutique Luxe de Ville (2157 West Sunset Boulevard) stands a mannequin of a young boy who seems cheerful, considering that he's missing an arm. He is naked save for a jockey cap, a navy leather bikini with a big brass brooch, and strands of beads around his neck. The boy fits right in with the merchandise, a curious mixture of old and new: green plaid men's slacks from the forties; an I Magnin black velvet hat with a marine-blue feather, circa 1945; a new moss-green dress that looks so complicated I can't imagine how one would put it on (a label inside says, "Sometimes catastrophes become trophies"). It's easy to imagine the cheerful boy mannequin wearing any of these pieces. But what about me?

Sadly for nonsubscribers, the piece is not online.

How long has The New Yorker been running "World Beat," an out-of-town "Goings On About Town"?

The Pyx

In the old days, you'd go to a movie, and maybe you'd be really captivated. But you'd leave the theatre with one thing only: a determination to remember what you'd seen. You didn't have the time or the money to go back and see the film again (or maybe even the opportunity). You couldn't say, "Gee, I can't wait till that comes out on tape/DVD." The movie was history. If it was a great movie, you might catch it at a university film series - if you paid attention to film society calendars.

(Conversely, if you traveled in different crowds, you got to see Help! and Star Wars seven times at least.)

In the early Seventies, I saw a movie that stuck with me forever. I would talk about it often; I remembered how it was put together and what made it different. I know that I knew this because I've just seen it again, and I was flabbergasted, watching it, by how much I'd held on to. When movies began appearing on tape about ten years later, I looked for it all the time. Then I gave up, or at least checked it out only once in a while. The other day, I don't know why, I did an IMDb search, discovered that the movie was out on DVD - and very cheap! - and bought it pronto. As I say, I really remembered it well. You had to, in those days.

Now, everybody's going to howl at my demotic taste. So I'm going to use the title of the film that I saw back in 1974: The Pyx. Do you know what a pyx is? I certainly didn't, but after the movie, I never forgot it, either. Whether or not you know what a pyx is, though, you'll agree with me that The Pyx is a much better title than The Hooker Cult Murders. How can I be writing about The Hooker Cult Murders at the magisterially respectable Daily Blague? I feel that I owe an apology to every woman who frequents the site. Can we go with The Pyx?

The movie does not merit extensive comment. It's simply not complicated enough. But its memorable angles have aged well to make it watchable despite a ghastly transfer to DVD. ('Bootleg' would be more like it.) The narrative strategy is, so far as I know, unique. Everything starts with a woman falling from a penthouse terrace to the ground. Then, in well-judged autonomous chunks, the film proceeds to alternate the course of the investigation into her death with the course of her actions the days before. Christopher Plummer is the lead detective, and if he's not as hateful as he is in Dolores Claiborne, he's well on the way, and a big slob to boot. Karen Black is the unfortunate faller. The supporting cast, when you can see it in the staticky print, is magnificent. A minor character - a driver for the bad guys - gives an object lesson in "the male gaze."

Production values are just as awful as you'd expect them to be in a 1973 release by a low-budget Canadian enterprise. A lot of people will hate the settings of scripture that Ms Black wrote and sung, but they have the virtue of being very, very period. So is the cinematography. As a film, The Pyx is worse than TV was at the time. Except for everything in it. While the film's in print, rent it at least!

March 15, 2006

Field Day, Kegelcisor Division

Jenn Mattern, at Breed 'em and Weep, is thinking doing something special for her mother's birthday. She's thinking of "something special" as in a device called the Kegelcisor. Seasoned readers will not be surprised to find Jenn and The Mater having a field day with the euphemisms with which the Kegelcisor is marketed.

Think Again

Carl Elliott's "The Drug Pushers," in the current Atlantic, reminds me how important it is to disassociate our health care from free market ideology. The idea that people consume medical goods and services in the same way that they buy cars is imbecile. It doesn't make sense to anyone who has suffered a chronic illness or a serious crisis. The detached attentiveness required to make intelligent free-market choices plays no part in the psychology of an ailing and probably panicking human being.

Dr Elliott writes about drug reps, the salesmen who tout their medicines to doctors. There is almost always one of these people in the waiting room of my internist's group practice. Sleek and organized, they're usually dragging a small suitcase on wheels, like business travelers. They're certainly not sick, and if they look a little bit tense or stressed, they do so without the worry that creases the faces of patients and their companions. I know that my doctor sees the reps, because when he starts me on something new, he accompanies the prescription with a generous supply of samples. He has even, on occasion, had small shopping bags for carrying all the boxes, which typically contain only a few pills. I have to hope that he has chosen these drugs without considering anything but my health, and no sample drug has ever hurt me. But I don't like seeing the reps in the office. They wear their business like a cologne, and I don't want to think about business when I'm not feeling well.

Everything is not, in a word, business. Trying to make a business - a big business - out of everything is degrading the world we live in.

Heaven knows I've benefited from pharmaceutical research. But I wonder if the enrichment of stockholders is the only imaginable incentive to guarantee that such research is undertaken. Why can't universities develop and test drugs, receiving healthy grants into the bargain? These can then be licensed to mere manufacturers, whose only product costs would be ingredients and purity assurance. Why wouldn't that work just as well, if not better, than the current system. Bear in mind that conditions suffered by the poor and disadvantaged are said to go begging for treatments.

March 14, 2006

In The News

There's so much in the Times today that it's given me a headache. Plans for the Greenwich house that I mentioned yesterday have been withdrawn - just like that! Bush aide Claude Allan appears to have screwed up in a weird way. Kalefa Sanneh has fun at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions ceremony at the Waldorf:

Still, there is something amusing about watching rock 'n' roll being celebrated during dinner at a fancy hotel. With all those tables and all that catered food and all those tuxedos, the ceremony almost seemed like a wedding. But there was one small but telling difference. A wedding has a dance floor.

Carl Zimmer tells us something that we already knew, but in a different way: pregnancy, as a tug of war between mother and fetus, hasn't adapted to the benefit of either. Maureen Stapleton, dead at 80, wasn't related to Jean Stapleton!

But the catchiest story is not in the Times. It's in The Guardian: Annie Proulx's Campari-flavored write-up of the Academy Awards pomposities that climaxed in Brokeback Mountain's not winning Best Picture. "For those who call this little piece a Sour Grapes Rant, play it as it lays," writes Ms Proulx, raising unfortunate comparisons with Joan Didion, who would have been much, much deadlier.

Update: And to think that I forgot to mention Francis Fukuyama's strong renunciation of the Iraqi misadventure!

Mom's Cancer


At his blog, also called Mom's Cancer, writer and cartoonist Brian Fries complains,

I hate stories that makes cartooning sound easy. It's too disrespectful to an artform I love and the professionals who work hard to make a living at it. Everybody already thinks it's easy, and a few famous examples of everyday folks who sent their doodles to a newspaper syndicate and hit the million-dollar jackpot only reinforce that idea. I would hate to contribute to that misperception.

Why would anybody think that cartooning is easy? The drawings in Mom's Cancer, a strip that began circulating on the Internet while Mr Fies's mother was undergoing treatment, have a casual, accessible feel, but only a moron would think that they'd been dashed off. Mr Fies says that he has been drawing cartoons for thirty years (he's in his middle forties), and it shows in every panel. That's what makes Mom's Cancer so accessible. The more time you spend with the book, the more sophisticated it becomes, but this sophistication is not what hits you on the first run-through. The sophistication, in fact, consists largely in the way Mr Fies's adroitly stands to one side while his story charges on.

And let's not overlook the fact that he hooks you immediately, vaporizing any resistance that you might have had to reading about somebody's bout with a mortal illness.

Mom's Cancer is a masterpiece of tact. Often frightening, it is never unpleasant, and the gross weariness of radiation and chemotherapy, while hinted at, never grips the narrative. For Mom, it's the most serious of battles. For you, it's a small, almost sinfully entertaining account of one very particular family's experience of Major Medicine. You will either smile (between gasps) because you've been there yourself, or you will learn something about a treatment that used to kill patients before their cancer could do so. Now it just wrecks their bodies while it clears out the tumors. "It takes us a while to figure out that oncology is an improvisational art," writes Mr Fies.

The sheer artistry of Mom's Cancer is breathtaking.

March 13, 2006

No Hedge High Enough


What do you put in nearly 39,000 square feet of home, with five more bathrooms than bedrooms? My favorite: the "Staff Lounge." "Servants' Hall," the traditional designation for such chambers, doesn't sound quite so relaxed, does it? Rightly not. What a ghastly euphemism "Staff Lounge" is!

Hedge fund manager Joseph M Jacobs is running into opposition to his plans to erect Greenwich's largest abode. The façade is curious: "stately French," but with the "stately" part vaporized. It completely lacks the air of having been built for the ages. Read all about it.

Eat the Document

Preposterously, I can't begin to write about Dana Spiotta's powerful novel without knowing how old she is. She'd have to be my age, or at least well over fifty, to have been around in the early Seventies, when the novel's principal characters engage in radical violence that forces them to go underground. But she doesn't look that old, and one would have to ask where she has been all this time. Her first novel, Lightning Field, appeared in 2001 (I look forward to reading it soon). According to her site, she runs a restaurant with her husband in the ground floor of their home, somewhere upstate. She's almost as mysterious as her ecoterrorists.

Perhaps I ought to begin by saying that I read Eat the Document in one day. I was pulled along by the brilliantly-crafted story lines even as I was fascinated by the brilliant craft. I was impressed by the author's ability to cue readers to significant connections before she spells them out; it's very flattering to the reader. The writing, for the most part, is hushed, tuned to remote disturbances. This is the flatness of the slab of cliff. The suspense is moral: Eat the Document is harrowing, haunted by an act of violence that is not described until the end of the novel is within view. On top of everything else, there is the ammonia-stab of a very confused time.

The novel opens in a motel room in 1972. Mary is on the run; the run, for her, has just started. As if it were too bright to look back upon, the event from which she is running ...

Continue reading about Eat the Document at Portico.

March 12, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

There are six novels and two books of poetry this week. The poets are Louise Glück and Harvey Shapiro, and they're both enthusiastically reviewed by Nicholas Christopher and David Barber, respectively. I'm not very familiar with either poet, but it would seem that they don't have much in common beyond the English language. In The Sights Along the Harbor, Mr Shapiro offers a "ledger" of brief but dense observation. In Averno, Ms Glück plumbs the Greek myths, particularly that of Persephone, to

take us where we don't want to go and bring us back as we never were before. Reminding us, too, that illumination is often accompanied by disillusionment, and that the spiritual awakening which allows us to see more clearly may well leave us in despair.

Two novels get strong reviews. Boris Fishman hails James Meek's The People's Act of Love as a "richly informed and imagined" novel about a remote Russian town in 1919, where true believers of different persuasions converge in "a suspenseful page turner." (This sounds like Louise Glück material, because I certainly don't want to go there.) Gary Kamiya likes Music From Big Pink: A Novella, by John Niven. Did you know that the publisher Continuum has launched a series of small books about "seminal" rock albums? Mr Niven's contribution is unusual in being fictional. He creates the character of a small-time drug dealer and insinuates him into the taping sessions; the only member of The Band who's fully drawn is its pianist, Richard Manuel (a good choice from the liability standpoint because he hanged himself in 1986). "What Music From Big Pink is really about," Mr Kamiya writes, "is loss." As in loss of youth, that ingredient essential to most mass culture.

That leaves one mixed review and three fairly negative ones. The mixed review is Lucinda Rosenfeld's taken on Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, by T Cooper. This appears to be a double-barreled production, and Ms Rosenfeld likes the first part, which tells the story of a family of Russian Jews who make their way to the New World but lose a son at Ellis Island. The mother, eventually convinced that the boy has grown up as Charles Lindbergh, is a narcissist so detestable that "the reader begins to wish her physical harm." Ms Cooper possesses "considerable descriptive powers," but she is also fairly meta; the second part of Lipshitz Six tells the story of one T Cooper, a present-day descendant of the Lipshitz immigrants, who goes to Texas to bury his parents; unlike the author, this fictional character bearing the same name is a man. "It is open to debate whether the two stories ... belong together," writes Ms Rosenfeld.

Finally, the three bad reviews. Erica Jong's review of In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant's latest brocade-athon, gets more acid with every paragraph, as it moves from what's good (vivid descriptions of Renaissance Italy) to what's bad, which is everything else. The language is chunkily anachronistic - Ms Jong points out that the language of historical fiction is necessarily anachronistic, "but we shouldn't be blatantly reminded of that." The plot meanders, writing about too many things without ever getting inside the title character's head. Indeed, Fiammetta Bianchini (note that both names signify colors) is "the mistiest of all the characters." (This might be a good moment to revisit Janet Maslin's crack about Ms Dunant's skills.) Elizabeth Judd feels much the same about What Caroline Knew, by Times styles reporter Caryn James.

The central flaw in this page turner is Caroline herself, whose exceptional allure is merely posited, never truly felt. A talented writer with a cinematic sense of scene, James has written a sepia-tinged novel about a scandal that holds little true sexiness.

Which isn't to say that these novels don't deliver exactly what's demanded by their readers.

The most wounding review goes a bit against the curve. It's unusual for the Times to give foreign fiction a genuinely negative review. I Loved You For Your Voice, by Selim Nassib (translated from the French by Alison Anderson), retells a true-life story about the great Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum and one of her lyricists, Ahmad Rami. The lyricist has a big crush on the singer, so much so that he's uncomfortable about the fact that other men can hear the words that he has written to/for her. Lorraine Adams appears to know this territory, and she advises thus:

Readers interested in the powerful story of Kalthoum's life would do better to read [Virginia] Danielson's intelligent and moving biography, The Voice of Egypt. There Om Kalthoum emerges in all her complexity and Ahmad Rami takes his proper place as merely noteworthy, one of many men liked to her over the years.

The review is accompanied by a shot of the smiling author - a cruel irony in the circumstances.

Naomi Wolf writes an omnibus review on the topic of today's fiction for teen girls. It's horrifying! According to Ms Wolf, the values of yore are inverted: more and better stuff = happiness; mean girls come out on top. If you have a teen in your house, you might want to take a look at her piece, which also features Justine Henning's recommended reading list.


The name of Javier Marías is new to me, but Christopher Benfey's review of Written Lives (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) makes me want to pick it up. He writes that it is "a collection of short and scintillating portraits ... inspired more by intriguing anecdotes and details than by a determination to capture basic autobiographical facts." It sounds like a treasure. "For Marías, great writers aren't riddles to be solved but paradoxes to be savored."

Garry Wills's What Jesus Meant, reviewed by Jon Meacham, is clearly a book that all Christians, particularly American Christians, ought to read. It is an unvarnished appraisal of the evangelical record that doubles as a "devotional exercise."

His is a kind of devotion, though, that engages heart and mind, to the ultimate benefit of both.

Carl Zimmer reviews two new books about climatic catastrophe, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, by Tim Flannery, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Mr Zimmer faults Ms Kolbert for deliberately back-burnering the "science" part of the problem, and Mr Flannery for seeking to explain too much with one theory. Despite their faults, however, he recommends both books. "Whatever their flaws, with any luck they may help force us to take more responsibility for our collective action."

I love to read obituaries, but I am not going to read a book about them, even a book as well-received as The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson. No matter what Jane and Michael Stern have to say about this topic, I've discovered for myself that the obituary is the journalistic form that stales the most quickly. That is, it becomes less the brief account of a life and more a core sample of the moment in which it was written.

This Changes Everything: the Relational Revolution in Psychology, by Christina Robb, gets a drubbing from Annie Murphy Paul. Of this account of an approach to psychology that was developed by three Boston women in the Seventies, among them Carol Gilligan, Ms Paul writes,

Robb has written what amounts to an authorized biography of the movement, with all the bland boosterism and careful avoidance of controversy the genre requires. The book has the feel of a project perhaps too long in the making; the author's lengthy immersion in the material, and her close identification with her subjects, has left her unable to discern these thinkers' broadest blind spot: an idealization of relationship that denies the very real value of autonomy.

I'm inclined to take a look at Ms Paul's own book, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies and Misunderstand Ourselves.

Sic transit: Once upon a time, Clarence King was a very famous American. I'm not sure how much about this surveyor, geologist, and fabulist I learned from Candice Millard's somewhat breathless review of The Explorer King: Adventures, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax - Clarence King in the Old West, by Robert Wilson. Dates would have been helpful, aside from a reference to "Bloody Kansas" and placement of the Hoax in the 1870s, the review is as preoccupied by King's fondness for whoppers as the man's original audience must have been. He seems to have tailored himself to appeal to his friends back East; educated at Yale, he cultivated a picaresque character nearly scalped by Indians here, narrowly missing a bad fall there. Wikipedia's brief entry clarifies things a bit.

This week's mystery is the review that begins on the cover. Kathryn Harrison has perhaps become a marquee name, but her coverage of Falling Through the Earth, by Danielle Trussoni, completely fails to convey a level of significance that would merit such placement, especially considering some other books covered in the same issue. Falling Through the Earth sounds like a merger of The Heart of Darkness and The Tender Bar.

"Two parts stubborn, one part insane," Daniel Trussoni believed he "could handle the worst of the [Vietnam] war had to offer and come out unscathed." Whether naive, self-destructive, or afflicted with hubris, he chose to do battle beneath the jungle floor, in a maze of sweltering, claustrophobic passages that connected arsenals, hospitals, and propaganda presses, as well as kitchens and bedrooms - sinister warrens whose entries were hidden and whose byways were mined and tripwired. If it sounds like hell, it was.

And of course Daniel Trussoni did not emerge unscathed. His daughter's book is an attempt to understand the damage that filled her father with demons. Ms Harrison is too busy summarizing Ms Trussoni's book to judge it.

The book that does belong on the cover is David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, not least because Pankaj Mishra, a writer fully at Mr Wallace's level, writes a real review! He assesses the passions that pull the writer toward a nostalgia for the good old days of meaningfulness. As you know, I believe that you can recreate those good old days just by staying away from your television set, but presumably this is not an option for real journalists. The glory of the review is that it casts light on a number of Mr Wallace's weaknesses without diminishing by one iota the pleasure that one takes in reading his work. Mr Mishra ventures to conclude that David Foster Wallace belongs "too much to his own times - the endless postmodern present - to persuasively explain his quarrel with them." Let's hope that Mr Wallace considers that possibility.

This week's goofiest book may well be it's most interesting-looking. It's Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatism Plan to Save America (or at least the Republican Party), by Rod Dreher. Take a breath - you've just read the book. Just imagine what is going to happen to this "movement," financially, when other kinds of Republicans read the following:

The core of the crunchy-con perspective is that "industrial capitalism and conventional left-wing bohemianism are two sides of the same coin." Both glorify consumerism and individual choice above all else, at the cost of undermining traditional mores and ways of life.

David O Kirkpatrick's respectful review, entitled "Moosewood Republicans," left me panting for the lost laughs that Crunchy Cons seems to promise. It's the Counterculture Redux - this time with real property.

Lee Siegel's Essay is a chain of hypothetical memos from fact-checkers to authors (including Yahweh). I found it a bit labored, but it does score some interesting hits about political correctness. 

March 11, 2006

Failure to Launch

It's hard to say why Tom Dey's Failure to Launch is so much fun, but I suspect that future viewings will reveal a clutch of subtle but fantastic one-liners, offering ironic comment on the proceedings. I laughed a lot, and so did everybody else in the theatre. Not always at the same time, but mostly. The film seemed to take us all by surprise. When it was over, however, only the improbable, almost slipshod story remained. I loved having seen it, but I can't say much more than "trust me on this one" - the very worst sort of review.

I can say that the casting is great. Matthew McConaughey repeats the winning performance that he gave in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days - a remarkably similar film, in many ways. Sarah Jessica Parker turns in her most impressively intelligent performance yet, with a dazzling smile to light things up. (She also wears better clothes than she had in The Family Stone, whose costumer must have hated her.) There's Kathy Bates - what is Kathy Bates doing in this movie? Nothing straightforward, that's for sure. She plays Matthew's mom. Whether or not she would like her grown-up son to move out of the house is a matter of mixed messages; Failure to Launch is not very good at warm understanding. It's much better at presenting Zooey Deschanel as an attractive, even appealing zombie who is determined to kill a mockingbird. (Yes!) Her character shares, on an entirely unexamined footing, a house with Ms Parker's, and she does not appear to have a job. Jobs are, in fact, pretty notional in Failure to Launch. Mr McConaughey's Trip sells yachts. Ms Parker's Paula is an "interventionist,"  hired by parents for her skill in motivating young men to get a place of their own. In Failure to Launch, football star Terry Bradshaw plays Dad.

I know, I'm making it sound awful. But the actors have a fine time pretending that all of this makes sense, and they're given great lines. Trip's two buddies, Ace (Justin Bartha) and Demo (Bradley Cooper) are more robust - more robustly wacky - than the gays who ordinarily tag along in Mr McConaughey's movies. Although a committed slacker himself, Demo is wonderfully fond of motivational language. Ace, who demonstrates actual maturity when he tells his friends that he owns the house that he shares with his mother, can do truly amazing things with computers.

If I were a bit less fastidious, I might call Failure to Launch a screwball comedy. According to my creed, however, all the screwball comedies that the world will ever know where made in the decade following It Happened One Night. Two screwball elements are clearly present in Failure to Launch. The supporting cast is impeccably funny, and the two principals do everything to resist the conclusion that they're, in fact, made for each other.

My guess is that you will read a lot of conflicting reviews of this movie. You'll have to see it for yourself. Just remember that everybody laughed.

March 10, 2006


Because I'm not clever enough to work for Jon Stewart, I can't say why the Brooklyn House of Detention story in today's Times is so delectable. Humor is a lot like sex, and this story is just today's perfect pinup. I don't recall having seen Paul von Zielbauer's byline before, but I think that he should be working for Campbell Robertson, the "Boldface" genius. Consider:

Other neighbors said they worried about shopping under a jail tower packed with criminal suspects. Correction officials, however, said the retail area would be securely separated from the inmate section of the jail. Inmates are not evident to the public; they arrive at the jail in buses that enter the bowels of the complex through a gate.

Bowels! This story has everything. And, you have to admit, "criminal suspects" creaks with suppressed laughter.

About "rjk"

If you are a correspondent or a friend of mine ("same difference"), you have become accustomed to the fact that I think of myself in initials. Always in the small case: rjk. It looks so nederlander, really; just add a letter and you have rijk - "country." Well, I never denied that I'm grandiose.

"RJK" looks noisy to me. I'm a writer, not a president.

My name, which I rarely spell out, is Robert John Keefe. (Just to be completely informative: I am male.) Trust me when I say that "Keefe" is a very difficult name to communicate via telephone. I was brought up to rattle off "K double-E F-as-in-'Frank' e," but, really, it's easier to say "Keefe as in 'O'Keefe'." That's what the name was, after all ("O'Keeffe," actually), and everybody gets it.

As for 'Robert John'!

If I am not a famous person today, it is because entirely too much of my youth was spent squashing the attempt to call me "Bob." There are, presumably, good people named "Bob," but I utterly and completely do not wish to be one of them. Problematically, I am also not a "Robert." There have been crazed moments when adopting the original, Teutonic version of this name - Rodibert - seemed attractive, but you'll agree that I was wise to resist.

"RobertJohn," though, has a certain alliterative charm. I discovered it as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, where, thanks to a widespread lack of imagination, there were lots of Roberts and Michaels. Now that I think of it, though, "Robert John" and "Michael Patrick" were the only brands - first names that needed no surname for identification. We were both tall, formidable, sports-hating men. I discovered all the attractions of Unhappiness at Notre Dame, but I also left with a double name - a double name that, in the Houston years that followed, quickly became double initials.

I ask you to remember 1979. Dallas. Nobody ever, ever asked, "Who shot RJ?"

The "JR" thing went on for about as long as recollection of my having lived in Texas went on. They were forgotten, eventually, together. I was simply "Arjay" to everybody. To everybody except a secretary at EF Hutton, where my career as a working person came to an end (shortly before EF Hutton's). According to the secretary, I was, delightedly, "Archie." She could have no idea how blessed I felt to share the real name of Cary Grant.

Now, a story from les temps bygones. We were on our way to Mass. It might have been 1960, but it was probably earlier. I announced that I was going to change my name when I grew up. Remember, I was an adopted child who felt a certain rootlessness. Doubtless I was "testing." If I didn't say what I was going to change my name to, that's only because my mother immediately turned toward the back seat and hissed that if I ever did such a thing I'd be completely disowned, and, believe me, she could make "disowning" sound like "disemboweling."

Is that why I haven't changed my name? No. Having lived with my name for nearly sixty years, I've gotten used to it. It's not the name I was born with - I may never know that - but it's who I've been for a very long time. The simple truth is that all the alternatives sound like other people - people I'll never be. I'm just rjk. Even though nobody ever says "arjaykay." To me, I'm not so much the sound as the look of those three lower-case letters. That's me - c'est moi.

When my first wife was pregnant, we in our ultrasound-deprived thinking picked two names. Miss G eventually got the one earmarked for a girl. Quentin Alexander Lindley Keefe never came into being, but the name is taken, don't you agree?

March 09, 2006


Hey, you. Yes, you. WTF! You didn't tell me about Office Pirates. I had to read about the site in the Times. Okay, it only started up late last month. But reading the blog entries and watching the videos that have accrued since then is going to send me to the emergency room with Laughter Fatigue and Tear Duct Abrasion.

There is so much to link to on this site that I'll just have to settle on the last one that I read. It's a collection of faux "urban office legends" that you can try out on your colleagues. Eg, "frozen glass cannot be broken."

You shoulda told me!

Kimono Environments

From today's Times, a bit of Andrew Fastow's colorful testimony against his former bosses at Enron.

Mr Fastow suggested to Mr Lay that "we have to open up the kimono, show them the skeletons in the closet, what our assets are really worth."

How absolutely arresting: open up the kimono and show the skeletons in the closet! Andy Fastow must be as creative a speaker as he is a financier! Not so, however. Kathleen says, "I hate that phrase, 'open the kimono'. I've never told you about that one?"

Another gem, from a story by Julie Bosman about marketing campaigns at spring break destinations.

"When you're in vacation environments, you tend to be a little more receptive to marketing messages because everything is slowed down," Mr. Martin said.

What's wrong, may I ask, with "on vacation"? "Vacation environments" has all the appeal of a bad rash.

Kathryn Davis's Versailles

All of a sudden, I had to read something by Kathryn Davis. Everyone seemed to be saying that she's an interesting writer, with a whiff of the experimental. I don't care for more than a whiff of experiment, at least of the visible, conscious kind, so I played it safe. I got a copy of Versailles. And I read it with surprised pleasure. Surprised by Ms Davis's ability to make Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, interesting and convincing at the same time. It is difficult to imagine Marie-Antoinette taking the trouble to write much of anything beyond letters to her mother, but the reminiscences of her soul, spoken from beyond the guillotine, are never implausible.

Marie-Antoinette is a bit of a black hole: she sucks up narrative. To use Harold Bloom's favorite word, she is over-determined. There are so many explanations of her downfall, first as an adored queen and later as a human being. Her being Austrian was a problem; the Austrians were traditional enemies of France. Her marriage to the future Louis XVI was in fact planned in a pro-Austrian treaty cobbled together at the instigation of the savvy but politically untutored Mme de Pompadour, at about the time Marie-Antoinette was born. There is no question that Marie-Antoinette's wardrobe was a problem. Supplied by the ingenious Rose Bertin, the queen seemed to have no sense of limits: she should be well-dressed - expensively-dressed - at all times. Well-dressed, however, did not mean well-behaved; Marie-Antoinette hated the rituals of court life, and preferred to retreat to smaller palaces out of public (that is, aristocratic and official) view. Almost everybody hated the rituals of court life, but it was unwise of Marie-Antoinette to think that she could dispense with them. I will come back to this.

Having nothing to do with the character of the queen, no matter how much she spent on her wardrobe, there was the bankruptcy of France. This had been coming for a long time, at least since the end of the Seven Years' War (our "French and Indian"). Helping the new American republic repulse the British tyrant ...<.p>

Continue reading about Versailles at Portico.

March 08, 2006

Tunes Update

My apologies about the Tune de la semaine. Rather neglected since January. The last upload was the first of three projected Bobby Short songs from Moments Like This. The second of the series, the unbelievably lost "Say It Isn't So" has finally replaced it. Just to be nice, I've made it extra easy to hear.

I Don't Know If It's Art, But I Know What I'd Like To Do To It

DETROIT - A 12-year-old visitor to the Detroit Institute of Arts stuck a wad of gum to a $1.5 million painting, leaving a stain the size of a quarter, officials say.

Read on...

Home of the Brave


This picture of extreme, collective stupidity deserves a pause. Drivers on a foggy highway in Florida complained that they could not see what was in front of them but they did not pull over. Pulling over would be unAmerican. Wait for the elements to clear up? Never!

I understand the economic pressures that drove the truckers to persist. But for the drivers of sedans, driving into the unknown was simply default mode.

The AP copy reads:

A fuel tanker was engulfed in flame early yesterday when a truck slammed into it on a foggy highway south of Belle Glade, Fla, the authorities reported. Six people were injured, two critically, in a pileup of cars and 13 tractor-trailers on US 27 near the Palm Beach-Broward County line. Drivers reported that they could not see in front of them.

Not that I wouldn't have been just as dumb.

Baked Napkins

Hmm! What's that in the oven?

Table napkins. Freshly washed and ironed but still somewhat damp table napkins.

Don't you find it easier to iron damp napkins and handkerchiefs? Or - doesn't the problem come up in your household? It does in ours, anyway, and there's nothing that's unpleasant in quite the same way as a damp napkin. You'd think that the ironing would dry them out, but it doesn't, and despite what everyone says about the Saharan lack of humidity in New York apartments, I find that napkins don't dry out for four or five days if left to their own devices.

I had the idea of drying them out in the oven during the worst of the winter, when I keep the kitchen warm with a slow oven. I put the napkins on cake racks, one of which is just the right size to slide in between the oven's own racks. Then I forget about them until I need the oven for the baking of food.

Nobody asked, but I think that this is the nuttiest thing that I do.

March 07, 2006


In the 26 February issue of the New York Times Book Review, Ann Hodgman wound up her review of Debra Galant's exurban satire, Rattled, on a negative note.

But the novel's plotting and perceptive details are generally stronger than its characterization. Heather, especially, seems to consist of nothing but ruthless ambition punctuated by occasional, unconvincing jabs of conscience.

I reprint that because I completely disagree. Heather Peters, the major character, is the carefully-drawn figure of a woman who has lost her way in the world. Having grown up in nondescript inaffluence, and having been wounded to the core when a high-school acquaintance laughed at the plastic seatcovers on her mother's furniture, Heather has married an ambitious lawyer who will allow her to live in a world of good taste. Like all strivers, Heather thinks more about status markers than is healthy, and she has, at the beginning of the novel, allowed status anxiety to run her life. Ms Galant, a journalist, tosses Heather into a media maelstrom from which she emerges chastened but with a restored sense of proportion. I laughed as Heather kept getting herself into hotter water, but I didn't want her to be burned.

Rattled is put together with nothing less than the magnificent engineering of an entertainment by Carl Hiaasen. The story sails along far too briskly to creak, relayed by a team of interesting if not always savory folks. At the heart of the enterprise is a housing development that upsets the ecology and exposes residents to grievous bodily harm - in this case, from crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. Compounding the exurban absurdity is the social absurdity of conferring "endangered" status upon a deadly reptile with few friends in creation. If Ms Galant doesn't tell us anything new about environmentalists or builders, natives or arrivistes, that's because these are destinies that actual people inhabit more or less well. Agnes Sebastian, for example, is not first and foremost a naturalist, even though she runs the local nature center and prefers the company of dumb beasts to that of human beings. She is a smart widow who, while not particularly organized, knows her way around the Internet. She emerges from the pages of Rattled as a real woman, at least as well realized as the characters in Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences. Agnes, first and foremost, is Agnes; not a thumbnail, but someone you get to know over time.

In my case, to be sure, that wasn't much time. I swallowed the book more or less whole. It's a delight to read, studded with barely perceptible barbs such as the following crack, made about Heather: "All she asked was a fair advantage." Skim the book and you'll miss jewels like that. Ms Galant knows how to set up more extended fun as well.

The office of Pine Hills Elementary was like Hong Kong at lunch hour. Phones rang, children waited for mothers to bring forgotten sandwiches, teachers lined up to use the photocopier, secretaries put mailo in slots, deliverymen arrived with packages, sick kids waited for the nurse. But when Connor Peters walked in, a hush descended. The two secretaries exchanged glances. Mothers bringing in book reports or coming to pick up children with earaches stopped in their tracks. The silence was finally broken when a little girl with skinned knees pointed a pudgy index finger and said loudly to her mother, "That's the one!"

"Ssshh," her mother said.

The little girl meant, that's the one who runs around after girls on the playground and hugs them, who looks up their dresses when they go on the swings, who barges in front of people in the cafeteria line.

But the mothers and the secretaries recognized something different. Word had spread fast through the halls of Pine Hills Elementary, and by now everybody knew. This was the boy whose mother had been led away from Back-to-School Night in handcuffs.

So permit me to thank Ms Galant for taking the trouble to post a comment to my review of the Review. I enjoyed her witty and polished book, and I look forward to her next adventure.

March 06, 2006

Cabaret at Café Sabarsky

Last Thursday night, at the Neue Galerie - just down the street, at 86th and Fifth - Kathleen and I were among the rapt listeners as baritone Thomas Meglioranza (hereinafter "Tom"), accompanied by Thomas Sauer, performed a program of songs that I didn't expect to like. Arnold Schoenberg - charming? John Cage - even bearable?

This was the second time in three weeks that Tom surprised me. His recital at Symphony Space featured a great deal of genuinely lyrical music. The beauty of Tom's voice, the strength of his commitment to the music, and the fact that I'd never heard any of it before combined to produce the illusion that the music was being born right before me - an illusion only strengthened the other night at Café Sabarsky by the absence of sheet music. Tom stood in the corner of Mrs Astor's dining room, the piano tucked behind him, and filled the space with truly glorious sound. For an evening of variations on a Weimar theme, it was an unbeatable setting.

The Schoenberg songs turned out to be saucy numbers that may have been written to help the composer secure a position in Berlin - at a cabaret. Unearthed in 1975, they were all totally tonal and, in comparison with Kurt Weill's music of the period, genuinely sweet. This sweetness was also on display in a few of the short Hans Eisler songs that Tom sang in a suite - souvenirs of an unhappy exile in Los Angeles. Marc Blitzstein, like Eisler a pupil of Schoenberg, was represented by songs both tender and rousing - including "The Cradle Will Rock." As for John Cage, the third Schoenberg student on the bill, Tom delighted us with a section of his very satirical Arioso. We got to see the score afterward: it looks like a children's book, with figures and colored lines here and there on each page, and no printed music. It is more of a suggestion than a score, and Tom had a lot of fun with it, screeching in a whispery falsetto and stamping his foot. It sounds ridiculous, but nothing that Tom does is ridiculous. He delivers his interpretation of Arioso with the deftness of a juggler.

Woven among the Schoenberg & Co were several delicious songs by William Bolcom, among them a wry piece entitled "At the Last Lousy Moments of Love." At the end, Tom delivered a wonderful number by Cole Porter that I'd never heard, about an oyster's foray into High Society. A propos of this amusing song, it seems fitting to mention that when he sings a high, sustained impassioned note, Tom sounds almost exactly like the late Bobby Short, which is marvelous.

It was clear throughout the performance, which lasted a little over an hour, that every detail had been carefully considered. Tom contrived to balance moods and tones in a way that kept our ears fresh for each rich offering. Actually, he did the contriving when he planned the program, not when he sang it.

Tom will repeat the program this Thursday night (9 March), and you'll thank me if you manage to go. The details can't be directly linked, but they'll be found under "Programs" at the Neue Galerie's site. Our dinner, preceding the cabaret, was prepared under the direction of Kurt Gutenbrunner, of Wallsé, and it was superb. The bottle of Zweigelt made a nice change, and the service was perfect. In short, an extraordinary night out.

Oscar Note

It was a good show. Brokeback Mountain won the almost-most-important award along with a few others, but even more important, Reese Witherspoon finally won an Oscar and so did Philip Seymour Hoffman. You might say that the character actors triumphed. George Clooney's win at the beginning was elegantly hailed by Jon Stewart with a reference to the title of his film, Good Night and Good Luck - as the gossips have already made perfectly clear to anyone not living under a rock, this just might be what Mr Clooney says at the end of each date. (He has come out for the sexual preference of Not Marrying Again.) There was a lot of studio-era discipline in evidence.

My interest in the Academy Awards would have been much greater if either Romain Duris or De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté had been nominated - that, for me, was the Best Picture of 2005. Aside from Crash, which I still haven't seen, I loved the movies that did win, but the thorn stung anyway: no French film was going to walk away with an award. Unless of course it starred penguins, who have been stand-ins for proper French diplomats in generations of cartoons.

Larry McMurtry, I'm happy to discover, is a real writer. He's almost unpresentable, jeans notwithstanding, and he has no knack for public appearance. What I'm waiting for, of course, is the day that Jane Smiley accepts an Academy Award, preferably for Horse Heaven, a movie that ought to have been greenlighted the moment that Seabiscuits's opening receipts were tallied.

Today's conversations, I suppose will be dominated by none of the above but by the simple question: How bad was Lauren Bacall? To which I say: How ridiculous was Dolly Parton?

March 05, 2006

Book Review

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

Before tackling this week's Review, I'd like to direct your attention to a comment at the bottom of last week's piece. Debra Galant, author of Rattled, suggested that I give her book another chance, and I yielded at once. I have already begun Rattled, which I bought yesterday. So far, it's very entertaining. Of the status-obsessed "heroine," Heather Peters, Ms Galant wickedly writes, "All she wanted was a fair advantage." If you were reading in a hurry, you'd miss it.

All right; fun's over.


We'll begin with Elsa Dixler's Fiction Chronicle. There are, as usual, five novels in the roundup.

¶ Have you discovered Adrian Mole? I read the first of Sue Townsend's Mole Diaries, and found its account of desperate adolescence pretty funny, but the sequels did not amuse. I could never make up my mind how I felt about the grown-up Adrian - except that I certainly didn't like him. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction may nonetheless amuse readers looking for a "story that gently tweaks many aspects of life in contemporary Britain."

¶ Of Christine Conrad's Mademoiselle Benoir, Ms Dixler writes, "A Year in Provence" meets Le Mariage in this epistolary first novel." Sounds like fun, provided it's well-written. Ms Dixler doesn't say, but she casts Aston Kutcher and Catherine Deneuve in the romantic leads.

¶ For anyone interested in Maoist-bedeviled Nepal, Samrat Upadhyay's The Royal Ghosts: Stories is a must. Mr Upadhyay's two previous books have garnered comparisons to Chekhov. Ms Dixler makes this book sound strong enough to merit better treatment than a roundup.

¶ Ms Dixler is disappointed by Edeet Ravel's A Wall of Light, comparing it unfavorably to Ms Ravel's previous novel. She particularly dislikes one of the principal characters, Sonya Vronsky. I suspect from experience that what Ms Dixler really objects to - and this is my surmise - is that the author wants the reader to sympathize with a difficult character but doesn't pull it off.

Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War, by Assia Djebar (Translated by Majolijn de Jager), has a deadly subtitle, but it is in fact a relic of the war, having been published in France in 1962. Set on a day in May, 1956 in an Algerian town, Children is about a diverse group of inhabitants, each of whom acts as a prism through which the war passes. Ms Dixler pronounces the translation "lovely."

As for full-dress reviews, we have Allegra Goodman's Intuition, a novel about a scientific breakthrough that may or may not have been fudged. Novelist Sue Halpern goes to enormous lengths in the attempt to avoid giving it a good review while not appearing to give it a bad one. In vain.

It has been Goodman's particular talent to create quirky, poignant characters and put them in deeply affecting relationships, and these relationships carry her novels. Intuition, by contrast, is full of querulous people whose emotional tics stand in for personality.

Nor is NYRB staffer Lauren Collins crazy about Kaye Gibbons's The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster. No matter how hard I try, I can't remember a thing about Ellen Foster; I'm not even sure that I read it. Well, it has been nearly twenty years. Ms Collins feels that the author has not aged her character, from 11 to 15, in a credible way. Patrick McGrath is perfectly lethal about Kevin Brockheimer's The Brief History of the Dead, outlining the "perfectly good idea" at the heart of the novel - there is a city populated by dead people who are still remembered by living ones; as the population swells with newcomers and dwindles at the other end, the inhabitants surmise that something is very wrong on Planet Earth. There is also a story about a scientist named Laura who's out on a sledge on Antarctica.

By this point, suspense should be mountain as Laura battles across the polar ice. But this presupposes that we have been made to care about anybody in the book, particularly Laura and those who live in her memory. We have not. ...

Nobody in the novel is remotely interesting, even in their responses to their extraordinary predicaments.

Ouch. Finally, there is Liesl Schillinger's page about Gail Godwin. Ms Godwin has just published her umpteenth novel, alongside three years' worth of youthful journals that cover the same period in this highly autobiographical novelist's life. Ms Schillinger thinks that The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963, is a better read than Queen of the Underworld, simply because

they don't try to impose a false structure on the harum-scarum adventures of a restless young woman embarking on an uncharted life. Instead, as cities and continents and men change, the entries are borne along by a two-stroke engine that chugs like a train: the young Godwin's fierce conviction that she is meant to write fiction and her desire to distract herself from this mission with any man who catches her eye.

I read A Southern Family when it came out (1987), and only sort-of liked it. But then, this isn't about me.


On the cover this week, Elizabeth Royte's review of Mark Kurlansky's The Big Oyster. Ms Royte's most recent book is Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, and what she does like about The Big Oyster is its "real subject ... the history of the trashing of New York." It seems ungallant of the Review to have assigned Mr Kurlansky's book to a specialist in the problems that rendered his subject locally extinct. She is certainly no "die-hard Kurlansky fan"; she remains unpersuaded by his claim to have told the story of New York in terms of a delicious bivalve, and quite ungenerously lists the things that she doesn't like about The Big Oyster.

Richard Lingeman, a senior editor at The Nation, thinks highly of Michael Kazin's A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. In keeping with the middle-brow nature of the Review's reviews of books such as this one, Mr Lingeman spends most of his time talking about Bryan's career in largely approving terms. He tells us that Mr Kazin's book

presents a compelling case that Bryan, at his zenith, was not only a powerful and effective leader of a political-moral crusade but also a pioneering advocate of progressive ideas still with us today.

But he does not tell us a thing about the "compelling case" itself. The message (to "small-p progressives) is: buy the book; it's for a good cause.

Globalism dominates the facing reviews at the center of this week's issue. To the left, there's The Case for Goliath, by Michael Mandelbaum. Martin Walker appears to accept Mr Mandelbaum's assumption that the United States is operating a largely benign and virtual empire. Mr Mandelbaum, according to Mr Walker,

explains coolly and clearly the various ways in which the united States now functions as a global government, offering the planet the services of physical security, commercial regulation, and legal recourse that are normally provided by national governments to their citizens.

This is a pipe dream of America, an idealization of the United States that takes its loftiest aspirations for fact. It is also a vision that, for its part, the Bush Administration has done everything to blot. There is not only "no credible alternative to the American role as linchpin and guarantor of the global system," but the system itself is anything but a system. Instead, it is a ramshackle coincidence of protection racket, commercial convention, and illegal manipulations. What planet are these men standing on? I wish I were there.

To the right, Michael Hirsh reviews Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century, by Jeffry A Frieden and The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future - and What It Will Take to Win It Back, by Jeff Faux. I don't know what these two books are doing in the same review. Mr Frieden's work is a "magisterial history," while Mr Faux "unfortunately tends to see everything - even the Iraq war - through the prism of a global class war." Is that such a surprise, given the title of his book? Mr Hirsh complains that Mr Faux's "criticisms are frequently shrill and overdrawn." But while Mr Frieden makes sense of the past, Mr Faux issues a call to arms for future action. The dual review blunts the impact that each book might have had. I will come back to Mr Faux in a forthcoming entry; it is germane to an extremely, if unwittingly, disturbing essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Alan S Blinder's "Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution."

Judith Rich Harris is a "lay scientist," housebound due to illness, who has shaken up the professionals with her "amateur" theories about development. No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality consolidates, according the William Saletan's review, the findings in Ms Rich's earlier work, The Nurture Assumption, a book that

set academic psychology on fire by attacking the notion that parenting styles shape children. Scholars, irked by this upstart former textbook writer and grad-school reject, scorned her arguments. In her new book, Harris tries to embarrass her critics while synthesizing her work into a theory of personality. No Two Alike is two books: a display of human weakness, and a display of scientific courage and imagination.

Mr Saletan never gets round to doing his job; we come to the end of the review not knowing what to think of Ms Harris's theories. But then he is not a psychologist, but a Slate correspondent and the author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. Perhaps the Review couldn't find an actual psychologist dispassionate enough to assess Ms Harris's provocative book.

Denis Donoghue reviews Peter Hart's Mick: The Real Michael Collins, calling it "a fine biography." He notes that it focuses on Collins's industriousness (once he heard the call) while leaving his salty private life to one side.

Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America is Eyal Press's "balanced" and "evenhanded" account of his father's career as a gynecologist in Buffalo, steadfastly staring down the malice of Operation Rescue. According to reviewer Kevin Doyle, Mr Press "manages the extraordinary feat of bringing light to a political issue that for far too long has generated nothing but blistering heat.

I read Jim Windolf's review of Simon Reynolds's Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 almost without comprehension. I couldn't grasp what this book was doing in the Review. Mr Windolf, a writer at Vanity Fair, is largely unenthusiastic.

The windy phrasings bring to mind the fatal flaw of many pop music critics: because they write about things not considered high art, they panic and break out the 99-cent locutions.

Mr Windolf also believes that Mr Reynolds left out a few important bands that he ought to have covered.

Finally, there is Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection, by Geno Auriemma with Jackie MacMullen. Mr Auriemma is the coach who put the University of Connecticut on the women's basketball map, making it something of a capital in the process and, although it's not mentioned in Barry Gewen's review, opening floodgates of funding for what had been a very undernourished school.

Most people would take pride in such accomplishments, but not Auriemma. He remains fearful, haunted. His only certainty is that it will all come crashing down around him. It's little wonder his players feel so protective toward him. Clearly his outsider's insecurities - as an immigrant, a poor kid, a man in a woman's game - go a long way toward explaining his success. They also explain much of the charm of this book.

Mike Meyer, a writer residing in Beijing, writes an Essay about Pearl Buck, "Pearl of the Orient." Buck's novels were almost as popular in Chinese translation as they were in this country, and now they're rebounding in both countries, after the proscription of the Mao era and the American mandarins' disapproval of high-minded stories. Buck is often cited as proof that the Swedish Academy isn't very astute about literature, but maybe, if Mr Meyer is right, they weren't wrong to award her the Nobel Prize after all.

Note: With this issue, the Review inaugurates a science fiction page, "Across the Universe," by Dave Itzkoff. I long ago made it policy not to assess the ghettoes in which the Review covers crime and science fiction. There is nothing wrong with these genres except the packaging that goes with them. I recognize only one literary standard, and if I think that Ruth Rendell belongs in the feature pages of the Book Review, that doesn't mean that I'm going to see how the crime specialists write about her. I'll read Mr Itzkoff's column a few times before deciding whether it's legitimate. For the time being, you can read it for yourself here. If you have any thoughts about how I ought to treat "Across the Universe," I hope that you'll share them.

March 04, 2006

16 Blocks

We're here to talk about 16 Blocks, the new Bruce Willis vehicle that also stars - maybe it's his vehicle - Mos Def and (not his vehicle) David Morse. We're here to say that this movie is deeply satisfying and also violent. We thought we'd put the "deeply satisfying" part first, because doncha wish you could avoid the violence?

Bruce Willis plays a bad cop whose drinking is meant to distract you from what's really going on. You think: He drinks too much because he's incompetent. Then you find out otherwise. While Mos Def never shuts up! Mos Def has a platinum future in chatterbox standup. The folks in the audience were laughing during this one, and there wasn't much to laugh at.

The only thing wrong with 16 Blocks is that, despite a wealth of "corroborative detail" that nails the lower-Manhattan setting, the movie doesn't really say anything about New York City. Rather it feeds on the clichés. A small point. Perhaps pictures of this kind really have to be set in Actionland, USA.

Anyone still want to be a cop?


March 03, 2006

In the Matter of the Cartoons

In the current New York Review of Books (LIII, 5), constitutional scholar Richard Dworkin delivers a brief and wise judgment on the Danish Cartoons, while cautioning against the spread of laws that prohibit insult and ridicule. It was wise of British and American editors to refrain from republishing the cartoons, because of the peculiar history of the conflict (which was beautifully laid out in The New Yorker last week). Noting that the European Convention on Human Rights is moving toward a ban on the criminalization of Holocaust-denying and religious insult, Mr Dworkin writes,

If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to accept.

And, by the same token,

No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be drawn any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one's religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.

(NYRB LIII, 5 appears not yet to have been made available at the Review's site.Sorry!)

In Which I Watch (French) Television

Chasing inspiration for the last of this week's contributions to the "L'Hexagoniste" archive, I spent yesterday afternoon watching TV5MONDE - as the channel has been rechristened in a recent spruce-up. TV5 is not a French television network but a confection, a "best-of" collection of programs drawn from Switzerland, Belgium and Canada as well as from France. It was from a Swiss news broadcast that I learned of the latest non-scandal, involving what the President knew about Hurricane Katrina and when he knew it - and about how he lied about all of that. "Mensonge" was a word that came up several times in the story. Needless to say, nobody at the Times is saying any such thing. That's why it's so vital to have a foreign source of news. And no, I don't hate America - although I do think that too many Americans have a very different idea of how a republic ought to be conducted than I do.

The show that was on when I tuned in was all about the gardens at Versailles. Someone from the Podalydès family of actors impersonated a guide leading a group through the parterres and among the fountains. The show had an unbelievably impromptu air, and did not appear to be photographed by a professional. Now that I think of it, the shots of the statues and jetting water were great, but the tour shots were incompetent. Never mind. The point was to explain the significance of the gardens. Why up until now I have thought that the decoration was merely decorative I have no idea. Because not only does the layout reflect the monarchy, symbolically, but it really reflects it, by making constant allusions that reverse the cardinal topography. East is west, south is north - because inversion is what you get in a mirror. I'm amazed that I understood as much of it as I did. Of course I hauled out my big French coffee-table book about the château - no inconvenience, because I've been referring to it while reading Kathryn Davis's Versailles, a novel about Marie-Antoinette that I am grappling with at the moment.

I had to switch over to something else for a while during a show called Village en vue. This is a Canadian show, and the village in question was Inverness, Québec, not a particularly French corner of Canada. The accents were - well, I've heard about French-Canadian accents, but I didn't think they got much worse than those on display in Les Invasions Barbares. They do, however. The name of the village alone is enough to wear down a French accent.

When I came back, it was time for Les coups du coeur de Bruno. Only Stephen Fry, I think, could play Bruno Clément in the BBC version. Massive in a somewhat compact way (he's French, after all!), Bruno is even more massively sure of himself. He loves to eat delicious food. He seems to have no interest whatsoever in making it, however, and when he's listening to a cook outline the steps of a recipe, you feel that Bruno is not taking internal notes. (The recipes are available from the show's Web site, but I didn't catch it. Maybe next Thursday.) This is not to deny that Bruno is a celebrated restaurateur. Alain Ducasse is a "buddy." On his show, Bruno goes here and there to sample great food, usually (on the evidence of one show) in a professional chef's home kitchen. The chefs' home kitchens in the show that I saw were all in Malta, and indeed the photography of Valletta would have been interesting enough to keep me watching even if I didn't know from All-Clad. Bruno's guide to Malta was a former knockout in her fifties who still looked great. She seemed to be a maltaise who spoke excellent French and could tell you how deep the port is. The very idea of Les coups du coeur de Bruno on American television was hilarious.

Then followed two game shows, and on this point the difference between Here and There is blinding. French game shows are hard, much harder than, say, Jeopardy. In Des Chiffres & des Lettres, contestants either unscramble strings of letters to form words (not necessarily using all the letters), or they figure out how to reach a numerical figure by manipulating given integers. Imagine: You're to arrive at 785 by adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing five or six other numbers. The host is cute in a Richard-Thomas way, the set is a quiet riot of pastels, and it's all done with lighting, but beneath the surface glitz nothing American will be found. The audience members all seemed to have their own pens and pads, for working things out.

I began to bear in mind Raymonde Carroll's thoughts about seduction, and, sure enough, everyone was séduisant. Not necessarily great-looking, and certainly not alluring in any obvious way. But everyone was presentable, with trim hair and stylish eyeglasses, and, what's more, an eagerness to engage. The French don't appear to feel that their privacy is invaded by one's interest, because they've got a whole forecourt of privacy that's designed expressly to be invaded, while the castle itself remains unassaulted.

The second show was called Télélettre, I think. This was a words-only game, but it was plenty complicated, and where Des Chiffres & des Lettres had a library-like calm while heads were scratched (as they never were), the atmosphere at Télélettre was tense, and I had the delight of answering a couple of questions ahead of time. The game was complicated, too, with many things going on at the same time (strings of letters were to be unscrambled, with the sole misfit taking its place in a question-and-answer combo. ("Ou de Vinci a-t-il peint sa 'Cène'?" "Milan.") The questions were tough, although quite a few involved American pop culture.

American game shows are all about quick responses under pressure. French game shows add genuine difficulty to the mix. The people who appear on them, obviously, were good students once upon a time, and their minds are highly disciplined. I don't suggest for a minute that the French are smarter than we are. But their smarts are more public, more prized. The French don't appear to believe that you're giving up an advantage if you let someone know how intelligent you are. Au contraire.

A children's show came on. I can't remember the title, but it had craque and cérise in it. The End of French Television For Yesterday! There was a time in my life when I was convinced that the French are capable of extraordinarily bad taste; when I would point out that even the most sublime works of Rameau and Ravel can't resist the occasional, and very discreet, fart. I now believe that if I'm right about the farts, then French taste is the best in the world. But the kiddie show that came on after the games was - diabetic. It made Mr Rogers's Neighborhood look like Sunrise Semester. It's nice to think that French children grow up warm and secure in their extended families, but if TV like this is part of the equation, I'll take the edgier American version. 

March 02, 2006

In the News

Janet Maslin, former film critic at The New York Times and now a book reviewer who specializes in popular numbers that I probably wouldn't be able to get through (why is bad fiction so hard to read?), writes a saucy piece about Sarah Dunant's new tale of the Venetian Renaissance, In the Company of the Courtesan, in today's paper.

We know from many examples, among them Memoirs of a Geisha, that readers can be entranced by the erotica of female subjugation if it appears to be culturally uplifting. Ms Dunant knows how to play this idea like a lute.

In other news of female subjugation, Eduardo Porter's front-page headline tosses a spanner in the works: "Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work." Cathie Watson-Short, photographed not once but twice for this article, is a former technology executive who has put aside her career to raise her three daughters, tells Mr Porter,

Most of us thought we would work and have kids, at least that was what we were brought up thinking we would do - no problem. But really we were kind of duped. None of us realized how hard it is.

So much for the land of ambition, hard work, and the rolling-up of sleeves. As for subjugation in the past, don't miss Bob Herbert's excoriation of Senator Conrad Burns (R, MT).

It has always been this way with Conrad Burns. Back in 1991, immediately after a civil rights bill had been passed, he invited a group of lobbyists, some of them white and some of them black, to accompany him to an auction.

When asked what was being auctioned, he replied, "Slaves."

The Washington Post quoted one of the lobbyists as saying: "We were floored. We couldn't believe it." Senator Burns later said he was talking about a charitable auction in which the services of individuals are sold.

Where are my Virginia Slims?


The book that I mentioned yesterday, Cultural Misunderstandings, takes its place on a lengthening shelf of titles including The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, The Philosopher's Demise, Into a Paris Quartier, Our Paris, and Almost French. These are not books about Paris, but books about Anglophones stubbing their toes on alien expectations. They're about self-discovery, in short. Stay at home, and you will never get to know yourself.

You can travel to any foreign jurisdiction to encounter yourself in cultural misunderstandings, but there's no question that, from the standpoint of literary quality, France is the premier destination. Now, why would this be? Have generations of well-brought-up Americans been brainwashed into discerning the superiority of all things French? I am certain that many people think that that's exactly what it comes down to, and I know more than one American who hates France and the French, sight unseen, out of disgust for their schoolmates' going on and on about French culture. And there is good reason to regard French as "elitist"; for centuries, it was the lingua franca of cultivated people whether they spent any time in France or not. I remember, last year in Istanbul, overhearing two evidently Turkish matrons discussing clothes in smooth if strangely-accented French. It's probably easier to talk about the kind of clothes that affluent, Westernized ladies wear in French than it is to do so in Turkish.

But France and the United States have a truly special relationship. There would be no United States without the (misguided) assistance of the French monarchy - we can start with that. Somewhat weightier is the fact that, of all European peoples, France has contributed the least to the American melting pot. Many French people emigrated to Québec, it's true, in the seventeenth century, but Canada was French at the time; the French seem disinclined to leave Francophonia. Setting aside the Québecois contribution to American civilization, are there any French neighborhoods anywhere in the United States? Have there ever been? Perhaps, but they have vanished. The links between the two countries are strongest not at some immigrant base but at the top, where good educations instill mutual familiarity and regard.

There is only one other country in the world that is as full of itself as France and the United States are, and that is the former Middle Kingdom. By "full of itself" I mean that these countries simply can't contain themselves; they need to make an impression on everybody else. (The beginning of wisdom, when contemplating the British Empire, is to see how untrue this was of the soldiers and administrators who wielded authority abroad.) In France, the need is embodied in la mission civilisatrice - the civilizing mission. Needless to say, there are few Americans (and all of us live in Manhattan) who believe that what this country needs is the civilizing aid of primates capitulards toujours en quête de fromage. Similarly, the French have developed a marvelous ectoplasm of bogus cool that they use to inoculate themselves against contamination by the shrapnel of American popular culture. As Bernard-Henri Lévy suggested in his talk at the 92nd Street Y a while back, you can't have two countries that insist, as both France and the United States tend to do, that they're "Best Country."

Toward the end of Cultural Misunderstandings, Raymonde Carroll surmises that the French equivalent of money, as a cultural solvent or common term by which almost anything can be measured, is seduction.

Like money for Americans, amorous seduction is charged with a multiplicity of contradictory meanings for the French, depending on the person to whom one is speaking and the moment one raises the topic. Nonetheless, if a (French) newspaper article defines a particular person as séduisante, the term does not refer to indisputable characteristics but to a category recognizable by all, to a common pointing of reference, to a comprehensible description shortcut.

Bearing in mind that being seductive requires at least as much work as getting rich (you can be born rich), we see what a volatile couple France and the United States are going to make, attracted and repelled à la fois.

March 01, 2006

They Won't Be Happy Until They've Turned the USA Into A Hedge Fund

Today's scandal: federal aid and credit for virtual universities. According to Sam Dillon's story on the front page of today's Times, "Colleges will no longer be required to deliver at least half their courses on a campus instead of online to qualify for federal student aid."

The provision is just one sign of how an industry that once had a dubious reputation has gained new influence, with well-connected friends in the government and many Congressional Republicans sympathetic to their entrepreneurial ethic.

I sure don't want to board a plane designed by an engineer who never had to show up for class.

Bonjour America

Into the funk of not feeling very well yesterday came the light of Cyrille de Lasteyrie, a French advertising man who amuses himself by filming short monologues, under the rubric Bonjour America, about popular topics in an English that is far from perfect and delivered in an accent quite unlike any that I've heard before. His imitation of Robert de Niro broke me up, even if it was the only good imitation in his repertoire (he can do Meg Ryan's twisty fingers, though). His explanation of the American conviction that the French are arrogant shows how dependent a certain type of French humor depends on highly animated facial expressions. The whole production - there are eight shorts as of this writing - is preposterous and impudent, and just what I needed.

Equally entertaining, if far more substantial, is Raymonde Carroll's Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience (Carol Volk's translation of Évidences invisibles). This slim book put me in mind of a really entertaining Vanity Fair article, only one that was also thoughtful and lasting. An anthropologist who taught for twenty years in the United States before she sat down to write her book in 1987, Mme Carroll undertook to apply professional rigor to the accumulation of exasperated stories that she had gathered up from friends and family on both sides of the Atlantic. There is an almost slapstick fun to her account of cultural pratfalls, but in the end the importance of her book for an American reader is not its explanation of the French, but rather its insight into unconscious American motivation.

I'm not sure if I'm using the word correctly, but Mme Carroll presents her findings on a series of topoi. She begins with the home: how differently Americans and the French build and occupy their habitats. It takes her no time to polish a revealing anecdote that I shall copy entire. 

An American student who spent a year living with a French family told me that an uncomfortable situation had developed toward the end of her stay, that there had been a kind of estrangement, for reasons which she did not understand. After she answered all kinds of questions from me, we reconstructed the misunderstanding as follows. At the beginning of her stay, as she did not yet know the family, she spent a good deal of time chatting with the mother and children on returning from school, before going to work in her room. Since she didn't feel quite comfortable yet, she kept the door to her room open. Much later, when she thought that she had become "a member of the family" and really felt at home, she (unconsciously) began acting exactly as she did at home. That is, on returning from school, she simply said hello and went directly to her room to work, automatically closing the door. It was at this point that the family, who must have felt she was rejecting them without understanding why, began to treat her with greater distance, "like a foreigner." Only after our discussion did she realize that what was for her a kind of compliment to the family (they made her feel at home) was on the contrary an insult (undeserved, and therefore all the more baffling) to the family, who had treated her as one of them.

The mutuality of misunderstanding is quite elegant, but more remarkable still is the amount of information that can be mined from the story. It teaches us a great deal about the greater obligation, in France, to participate actively in family life, and how quickly familiarity in America leads to autonomy. Later in the book, Mme Carroll counsels Americans with fantasies of "becoming French" that, time and time again, she has heard of expatriates who suddenly couldn't take the insistence of French personal contact anymore. The girl in this story wasn't headed down that pathway, which is usually peopled by adults, but we can infer the effort of "going native" from the unconscious ease with which she slipped the lead of her hosts' interest in her as soon as she felt comfortable in their home. And as for the family's interest - would you characterize it as generous or as nosy? They meant it generously, but it could only have been felt as an oppression.

The second topos is conversation. This was mortifying for me to read, because I know that I have a tendency to lecture at the dinner table, and this is something that the French can't abide. The other night at the dinner table I found myself conversing in both modes (at different times). In American conversation, people are allowed to present what, in their view, is the complete expression what they have to say about something. What they have to say will often take the narrative form and consist of a beginning, a middle and an end, without all of which the point of the story will be lost and the speaker might as well never have opened his mouth. The French conceive of conversation differently. If you looked at Monday's entry, "Le Sérieux," you'll have read an outsider's somewhat acid evaluation of French conversation. It is not that Mme Carroll is more indulgent, but simply that, as a Frenchwoman, she understands it from inside.

The interruption-punctuations [of French conversation], then, are proof of spontaneity, enthusiasm, and warmth, a source of unpredictability, interest and stimulation, a call for participation and pleasure. They are the ties that bind, that bring the conversants closer together. This explains why very animated conversations (at cafés for instance) are a source of pleasure and stimulation (just like a wild game of soccer at the beach). These conversations take place among people who have already established a relationship (that of being "old regulars" may be sufficient in order to "talk politics"), who meet at the café expecting such conversations. The rhythm of the exchange, the tone of the voices, and the frequency of the laughter are indications of the pleasure that the participants draw from the conversation. The faster the rhythm, the higher the voices go, and the more the exchange is punctuated with laughter, until the final explosion.

Has Mme Carroll just explained, in passing, why Americans can't seem to enjoy soccer?

Ensuing chapters discuss important human relationships - parents, children, lovers, and friends, and then turn to troublesome areas, such as the use of the telephone, the different ways of handling minor accidents (such as breaking a wine glass), seeking information. There is something very interesting on every page; Cultural Misunderstandings, despite its clunky title, is almost a guilty pleasure to read.