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April 30, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The poetry reviewed in this week's review is by writers established for their work in other genres, but reviewer David Kirby notes that both Mary Karr and Jim Harrison have published several books of poetry before - in Harrison's case, nine of them. Curiously, both of these tough-guy writers have imbued their new collections with an aura of the sacred. The very title of Ms Karr's Sinners Welcome: Poems underscores her discovery of the power of prayer; Mr Kirby claims Hopkins as "her unacknowledged master ... who also used prayer as a booster rocket for poetry rather than a replacement for it." Mr Harrison is a poet of the majestically open American West, and something of a pantheist. The extract from Saving Daylight quoted suggests that he is also attentive to the little failings of his aging body. Mr Kirby leads me to expect that both books will make a hit with readers in search of unsentimental inspiration.

This week's cover story goes to Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan, very enthusiastically reviewed by Walter Kirn. Very:

Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself.

Having read a portion of the novel that appeared in The New Yorker recently, I must say that Mr Kirn has got it right - although I myself do not find anything exalting in the posture of perspiring victors. Mr Kirn is also right to place Absurdistan in the tradition of big Russian novels. One line of the review deserves to be highlighted simply for its perspicacity about the United States:

During his collegiate heyday [in the US], he gorged at the American buffet, slurping up rap music, psychotherapy and the sky's-the-limit complacent optimism that we take for granted as a birthright but that Misha sees for what it is: a glorious geo-historical accident.

The Review is graced by no fewer than three photographs of the very unkempt Mr Shteyngart.

Benjamin Markovits gives Canadian Michael Winter a near-miss, almost-favorable review for The Big Why, a novel about Rockwell Kent. Kent has become the poster boy for idealistic artists who aren't as good as they think they are or need to be. His work tips uneasily on the line between art and illustration, and its longing for cold purity is both endearing and exasperating. Mr Markovits believes that "the sum of the book falls just short of the virtue of its parts," and that perhaps Mr Winter's most serious miscalculation was to tell his story in Rockwell's first-person voice. This is the sort of review that would make me go back and rework my novel. But nobody goes back and reworks anything nowadays.

David Handler, the writer behind Lemony Snicket, has published Adverbs, something for the grownups, and James Poniewozik calls it "neither a novel nor, really a story collection: it is a concept album."

What saves Adverbs from Handler's unconvincing dystopian themes is his exuberantly funny voice and his ability to lard his stories with details that return, pages later, with multiplied resonance.

Not for me they wouldn't. I'd like to linger for a moment on an image that Mr Poniewozik quotes:

A Manhattan traffic artery [?] is "cabs and cabs and cabs and the occasional car that wasn't a cab so the whole thing looked like a scarcely-been-touched ear of corn."

I hate such strained and gratuitous metaphors, and I refuse to applaud them as "good writing."

Gregory Cowles reviews new fiction by five women in his Fiction Chronicle. Or at least that's what I thought until I googled Starling Lawrence, senior editor at WW Norton and not the recipient of a favorable review. In thumbnails:

Family and Other Accidents, by Shari Goldhagen. "[H]er book reminds you that simply paying attention is one of the things literature can do best.

The Lightning Keeper, by Starling Lawrence. "There are loving descriptions of machinery ... But novels aren't turbines, and spinning your wheels isn't always the best way to generate energy. For a novel about electricity, The Lightning Keeper is disappointingly static."

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Denn. "The story is a little too schematic, and Dean's writing a little uneven, but The Madonnas of Leningrad is admirably humane in its determination to restore the dignity Alzheimer's strips away."

We Are All Welcome Here, by Elizabeth Berg. After implicitly chastising Ms Berg for being an Oprah-winner, Mr Cowles writes, "Berg writes too superficially to escape the familiar confines of the coming-of-age novel, yet her strong descriptive skills add a veneer of authenticity to this slight, charming tale..."

Once Upon A Day, by Lisa Tucker. Even worse: "This is fiction as self-help manual, its life-affirming message about as subtle as a kiss from a sledgehammer."

On the whole, Mr Cowles appears to be an unsympathetic critic - unsympathetic, that is, to all but one of these writers' aims. I do wish that the editors of the Book Review would take more care to avoid such assignments. I, for example, would be the wrong person to ask for a review of Joyce Carol Oates's fiction, which I simply can't read. Cathleen Schine's initially favorable review of High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories 1966-2006 enumerates the reasons why I can't stand this writer's work. "[T]here is, first of all, no room for humor in Oates's intense, fevered world."

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Oates's intense and violent world of struggle is the absence of suspense. Her language lunges forward at a tense, breathless pace, as if she were writing a thriller, but Oates is actually kind of a fatalist. Characters often question whether they have free will, and with good reason: they don't.

What I don't understand is how, having said that, Ms Schine can proceed to laud High Lonesome. But she doesn't, so I don't have to.


This week's woo-hoo must-read review is by Kurt Andersen. Mr Andersen tosses Gay Talese's second volume of memoirs, A Writer's Life, into the food processor and pulses it to shreds. Here is the merest nugget.

Even more surprising, given that Talese was the New Journalist celebrated for deep reporting rather than virtuosic writing, is the paucity of well-observed moments. At the Upper East side restaurant Elio's, for instance, he sees fit to note that one night he sat "near a large table where the talk is all about book publishing and real estate prices in the Hamptons." Really? In Beijing, he decides his interpreter is lousy, but keeps the examples of poor translations to himself. Talese spent five months in China, but there's scant evidence here of what he saw or heard or smelled or felt.

In short, an epic of nombrilismeRead the review.

Jennifer Senior is far kinder to Joe Klein's Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid. But she remarks that the earlier portions of the book are freighted with insider arcana that Mr Klein fails to make interesting in a larger context. Altogether, she conveys the impression that, simply by taking such good snapshots of the political process today - how consultants shape campaigns - Politics Lost may be indispensable reading.

Jacob Heilbrunn gives Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, by Michael R Gordon and Bernard E Trainor, a very favorable review, but at the last minute makes a comment that insures that I won't read the book.

Indeed, Gordon and Trainor's book suggests a conclusion they don't draw: the initial impulse for war may have had little to do with Iraq itself. Like the Western votaries of Communism in the 30's, who projected their various fantasies about utopia onto Spain or the Soviet Union, Administration officials seem to have viewed Iraq as a kind of abstract proving ground for their pet theories about warfare, terrorist or democratization. They saw the Iraq they wanted to see. Their delusions bring to mind the British historian AJP Tay'or's observation that the dangerous thing isn't when statesmen cannot live up to their principles. It's when they can.

It would be to explore that conclusion that I would read Cobra II, which otherwise, and aside from a few damning personal details (At one meeting, General Tommy Franks yawned in contempt of the prospect of casualties), seems to make a case with which I'm already familiar, thanks to the work of Seymour Hersh.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present, by Peter Hessler, gets a glowing review from China-specialist Jonathan Spence, who suggests that you need only glance at two particular chapters to be "hooked."

Serenely confident, he has a marvelous sense of the intonations and gestures that give life to the moment; he knows when to join in the action and when simply to wait for things to happen.

Mr Spence helpfully notes the two-dimensional structure of Oracle Bones, with sequential chapters about current affairs interrupted from time to time by reflections on aspects of China's long history. I can't think why I missed Mr Hessler's work in The New Yorker.

There are two musical biographies this week. Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, by Peter Richmond, gets a largely favorable review from Times film and "cabaret" critic Stephen Holden.

Despite the hyperbole and the numerous writer's tics ... a real person still emerges in this book. That woman (the forerunner of contemporary singers as different as Diana Krall, KD Lang and Sade) is a wounded, maddening, magnetic artistic force who, four years after her death, still remains undervalued.

Greg Sandow is more ambivalent about Stephen Walsh's Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971. He calls it a "superb" account of the vital relationship between Stravinsky and Robert Craft that began in 1948 and infused Stravinsky's output ever thereafter, but he remarks that "Walsh could have done more with the music," and he proposes an "alternate biography" that would explain Mr Walsh's conclusion, unsupported in his view, that Stravinsky's music was "the most exact echo and the best response of those terrifying years that brought it into being" even while sounding "studiously, impenetrably deaf to the world around it."

Speaking of ambivalence, that would be the word to characterize John Wilson's review of Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Tradition. Ostensibly a work in comparative religion studies, The Great Transformation traces the development, during what Karl Jaspers called "The Axial Age" (900-200 BCE) of all the world's principal religions (save, of course, Islam).

What exactly Armstrong sees as unfolding is never stated very clearly, but The Great Transformation can be read as a story of collective human enlightenment much like the familiar idealized accounts of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment proper, though on a much grander scale.

Mr Wilson charges Ms Armstrong with oversimplification and with projecting "her own modern sensibility" onto ancient texts. One concludes that Ms Armstrong, though she deserves praise for starting a discussion, is in a little over her head here.

I've seen Stuart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read in a bookshop, and decided against it, largely because, as the title suggests, I don't need a list of nonexistent books that I'll never have to feel guilty about passing on. The lost books range from the incinerated (think Library of Alexandria) to the abandoned (Gibbon's history of the Swiss). Joe Queenan, however, is the right guy to give The Book of Lost Books a favorable review. He cherrypicks a few juicy tantalizing anecdotes (Jane Austen's projected Magnificent Adventures and Intriguing Romances of the House of Saxe Coburg), but he shares Mr Kelly's regrets about the ability of fantastics to blot our past by erasing some of the records.

The sometime biographer of Lord Curzon, David Gilmour, has moved on to examine the apparatus that Curzon and other viceroys oversaw in India, and A J Sherman gives his The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj a quite favorable review, noting that it is a useful corrective to the somewhat self-loathing views of EM Forster and other critics of the Raj. Of those who survived their terms in India, many Englishmen returned to find themselves at least as out of place at "home" when they retired.

I don't know what to make of George De Stefano's An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America, because I've only watched "The Sopranos" once or twice, and never felt the slightest tug of affection for the way of life portrayed therein. "The Sopranos" is well-executed entertainment, but its attempt to humanize organized crime is insidious pop culture. Crime reviewer Marilyn Stasio thinks that Mr De Stefano gets a bit carried away, confusing living mob figures with their fictional counterparts. If "The Sopranos" signifies anything, it's our wish to take one last look at expiring patriarchy before sealing the casket shut. We might shudder with a half-pleasant frisson, but we ought not to wish to join the doomed.

In case you haven't had enough of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sara Wheeler writes about the subject of Kelly Tyler-Lewis's The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party. Ms Wheeler says that Ms Tyler-Lewis tells the story "well," but the vast bulk of her "review" consists simply of her poaching it.

Reza Aslan's Essay, "The Epic of Iran," touches on something that I didn't know: the Iranian national epic, Shahnameh, is shot through with royalist resentment of the Arab imposition of Islam.

Today, as a new generation of Iranians struggles to define itself in opposition to a widely reviled religious regime, the Shahnameh is re-emerging as the supreme expression of a cultural identity transcending all notions of politics or piety.

Jolly good news. I presume that Mr Aslan does not want to help the "opposition" along with nuclear devices.

April 29, 2006

Friends With Money

This space is usually occupied by my feelings about the movie that I saw yesterday. Unhappily, my mind is so limited that I can no longer recall the important matter that I was going to raise, forgotten while I talked about (or so I thought) the movies.

I go to the first showing of something every Friday, and then I come home to clean the apartment. Why these occupations should fit so well together is beyond me. Seeing a movie a week is such a break with my past that my past no longer recognizes me. It's as though I were the son of a Lubavitcher rabbi who has taken up charcuterie.

I went to see Friends With Money, an existential film about four women in Los Angeles. The lack of plot is not annoying, and the thwarting of expectations is almost amusing. One example will suffice: Aaron (Simon McBurney) is thought to be gay by his wife's friend Christine, and indeed he has a lovely lunch with another man, also named Aaron, whose name I can't seem to drag out of IMDb. Aaron's wife, Jane (Frances McDormand) stomps through the movie in a more or less unbroken hissy fit - could she be "upset" that her husband is gay? (And why would that make her refuse to wash her hair?) The question is never answered. At least Aaron and Jane are still married at the end of the movie. Oops, sorry. 

To the best of my knowledge, I was the only man who showed up to see Friends With Money. Ladies, save the husband, at least until video. Unless he's a cosmopolitan like me who finds deft social comment truly piquant.

It's ungallant of me not to say that Jennifer Aniston is a great comédienne. Really not, when you look closely, another pretty face. Another intelligent face.

April 28, 2006

He's a fairy

Paul Krugman's column in today's Times calls George W Bush "The Crony Fairy." The Crony Fairy does strips federal agencies of qualified personnel and replace them with idiots who belong in country clubs. It's a good piece,  and Times Select readers will find it without help from me.

I continued reading the newspaper, but, for some reason, the moniker lingered and intensified. "The Crony Fairy" - hmm. How about, just, "The Fairy"? You don't hear that much anymore, at least, not here in New York. "Fairy" used to be a standard insult meaning "homosexual." What it brought to the table was the idea that a man who was a fairy wasn't really a man but an incorporeal being lacking you-know-what. The accent wasn't on sexual preferences, but rather on the lack of sexuality. Perhaps what "fairy" really expressed was wishful thinking on the part of straight men.

Transpose all this to "leadership." Replace testicles with integrity. It becomes obvious in an instant: George W Bush is a fairy. The beauty part is that for once we have a nickname that would really piss him off!

What We Really Need Is A Gas Bag Holiday

As Ridley asks in Aliens, "Did IQs suddenly drop while I was lost in space?" A propos of a "gas tax holiday" proposed in the Senate yesterday, David Stout reports,

The $100 rebate seemed to be the centerpiece of the plan laid out today. "It will show people that Washington gets it," said Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, "and that it's time to provide some relief to Americans, to Missourians who are trying to support their families and are paying these very high gasoline prices."

Wow, a hundred dollars. I'm impressed. I'm sure that low-income drivers will be thrilled. That's - what? - two tanksfull at best for the average small car. What a real fix!

The current regime (all three branches) is so utterly incapable of thinking about our fuel problem that I can only count on their making it so much worse that Americans begin thinking about it for themselves. Personally, I vote for a windfall profits tax.

April 27, 2006

I'm not complaining

Ich grolle nicht that I haven't known Robert Schumann's famous song of the same name until now. I'm sure I've heard it. I know that I've looked up grollen in the dictionary - having seen the title of the song dozens of times. (Our "growl" and "grumble" may be relatives.) But for one reason or another the music was never at hand. Until yesterday. Yesterday, I found myself playing it over and over again, alarmingly glued to Matthias Goerne's way with the music. (And to pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy's.) 

I am an instant convert to the church of this beautifully urgent song, "Ich grolle nicht."

Update: wondering if I just might have another recording of this song, I quickly found an EMI issue with tenor Ian Bostridge covering the same material as Mr Goerne (plus a few more songs). I admire Mr Bostridge, or I shouldn't have bought the CD. And I know that I listened to it. But the song just didn't register. This may be a song that I have to hear from a bass-baritone.


Yesterday, I had a lovely walk, tracing a fattened square down to 67th Street, across the Park to Broadway, and home from Broadway and 86th. It was a lovely spring day, the air on the crisp side but not too chilly, the verdure in full first flush of green, and everyone more or less elated by the end of the nameless fifth season that stretches between genuine winter and now. You could call it "Lent," I suppose. In any case, it's over. Color has returned to life.

I had two errands, the first a long-standing but twice-postponed appointment at the allergist's. I don't have any allergies, it seems, but we're trying to figure out what I do have. I came away with some prescriptions, walked half a block south on Second Avenue, and turned around: the bus stop is right at the doctor's door. But I've never taken the M66 crosstown bus before. I will say that the ride through the Park is much nicer than it is on the the M86. The southern transverse road is much higher relative to the park, and there is no stoplight for the Park Precinct station house.

When we reached Columbus Avenue, I got off, as did almost everybody. I crossed over to the other side of Broadway with mounting enthusiasm. I had forgotten about Tower Records until just then. I rarely go to bookshops and record stores for a very good reason, and yesterday's haul was proof of why. I had to see what was out there. And what was out there? Two new-to-me CDs of Rossini songs (the funniest music ever written, and also some of the prettiest). Right next to the Rossini, the Rorem section. I ought to know the music of Ned Rorem better, and there was an ancient (1973-4) recording of chamber music for violin and piano. Buying a CD that I may not like was exactly the sort of thing I oughtn't to do. What I ought to have done long ago and finally did was fill the hole in my collection where Schumann lieder ought to be. Two disks of major stuff, interpreted by Anne Sofie von Otter and Matthias Goerne, went into my basket.

The second floor at Tower used to be given over to the classical section, boxed into one corner for quiet, and then, occupying the rest of the space, everything that isn't rock, from From Barbra Streisand to Broadway to Thelonious Monk. This space is now occupied by DVDs. I swear, I'd never have sought the DVDs out; they were just there, a Forest Perilous through which I had to pass in order to escape (not strictly true). Somehow Brokeback Mountain, Match Point, and Vargtimmen wound up in my sac.

I was on the West Side to drop off a CD that I'd burned for a friend. Hating the Post Office and packaging in equal measure, I found it much easier simply to slip the CD into a small Met gift bag and pay the four dollars for crosstown transport. That's the beauty of doormen! It never even occurred to me to take the subway from Lincoln Center to 86th Street, not on a day like this. I looked longingly up the graceful boulevard, which is always a little spiffier than it was the last time I walked it. From across the street, I took in the building that houses the Beacon Theatre, and realized that it wasn't just the theatre that has been spruced up. New windows, snappy blue awnings at the mezzanine, and a cleaned-up façade all made the old dump look better than new.

My friend's building is new. It's twenty years old, actually; I remember when it was put up, in the mid-Eighties. But it still looks new. (Richard Meier has yet to design anything quite so large as a full-block frontage uptown.) Unloading the small Met bag containing a sole CD did not significantly lighten my sac, but I noted that this is one of the cardinal conveniences of New York life: without getting into a car, you can drop off a bag across town at somebody's place whether he's home or not. Bus drivers and doorman are there for you.

I used to avoid the bus, but with age has come a certain patience. It is better, I find, to sit on a crosstown bus than never to cross town at all. But I'm still amazed by folks who get onto the eastbound bus at Lexington Avenue. Even more amazed by the folks who get on at Third. Seeing a clump preparing to board, I remembered another errand and jumped off a block ahead of time.

I don't know that I'd have taken pictures if I'd remembered to bring my camera. They'd have been of the people on the sidewalks and the songbirds in the trees. They'd have been unsatisfactorily still. My trip around (a small part of) town had a lilt to it that no camera could capture.

April 26, 2006

Blanquette de Veau

Blanquette de Veau is a surefire springtime hit that's good whenever the weather isn't too oppressively hot. It's an easy stew to cook, and it benefits from sitting overnight between the two phases of preparation. In the first, the meat is braised to tenderness; in the second, the braising liquid is converted into a béchamel sauce.

The classic French blanquette is a very basic dish, based on veal and onions alone. Whether Sheila Lukins thought it up herself or picked up the idea from, say, a clever German chef, she published a souped up version in the first Silver Palate collection (page 134), adding carrots and dill. I don't think that I could ever do without these enhancements. They shout "Frühling!"

Begin by reading the entirety of this recipe and transcribing the basics onto a sheet of paper that you can tack onto the kitchen wall. Measure out a half-cup...

Continue reading about Blanquette de Veau at Portico.

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs died yesterday, aged eighty-nine. The first of her titles that I read was Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), when it came out. I've just pulled it down from the shelf for another look. Jacobs was famous, of course, for her perceptions of urban fabric; in Cities, she shows herself to be a city-stater. Were it not for problems of defense, I'd be one, too; the city-state seems to me to be the natural polity. Hinterlands exist to serve the cities they surround; it is foolish to accede to local interests that are contrary to the city's.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's new book, it appears (from David Kamp's review) that the author stumbled upon a wonderfully autarchic alternative farmer in Virginia, Joel Salatin. Something of a crank, Mr Salatin asks Mr Pollan, "Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?" Well, Mr Salatin, New York City, like all the great cities, is a chaotic laboratory in which millions of experiments in humanity are conducted every day. Most of these are ephemeral, and many of them fail. But out of the dense exchange come our higher ideas about what we're up to. Without us, Mr Salatin, and without the cities that have flourished before ours, you, Mr Salatin, you would be living in a cave, living on nuts. It is in cities that human beings learn about themselves, and it is from human beings that misanthropes such as yourself flee. Godspeed, Mr Salatin. Keep up your admirable work. Happily, since you sell your produce to local customers only, we can manage without you. But give some thought to how much of the money that your customers pay you has recently been in a city. Has been generated there, just as you produce manure to put to good use.  

April 25, 2006



Alida Valli died the other day, in Rome, at the age of eighty-four. She was one of the most spectacularly beautiful women of the last century. She was also a gifted actress. Hitchcock fans know her as the haunting siren who almost stole Gregory Peck away from his pretty blonde wife, in The Paradine Case. The sometime baroness is probably best known for her role in The Third Man. Her greatest picture, however, may be Luchino Visconti's Senso, in which she plays a aristocratic Venetian in the 1860s who falls in love with a worthless Austrian soldier. Rarely has female desire been so painfully realised in film.

Faith Healer at the Booth Theatre

Twenty-seven springs ago, in April 1979, Brian Friel's Faith Healer was given twenty performances before closing. The formidable José Quintero directed, and James Mason starred, with Clarissa Kaye and Donal Donnelly. But the play bombed. Writing in the April 16 issue of The New Yorker, Brendan Gill praised the production but complained that it was miked. His review gives little hint, however, as to the unpopularity of the play. Perhaps it is suggested in his first sentence:

People who complain of the scarcity in contemporary theatre of plays that are well written and well made had reason to be grateful last week for the arrival, at the Longacre, of Brian Friel's Faith Healer.

We have come a long way since 1979, to a livable truce between two Broadway camps, and serious theatre is no longer the preserve of Off-Broadway. Top-billed stars can apparently revive anything. Julia Roberts is the strange cause of a revival of Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, which I remember finding not particularly interesting at MTC almost ten years ago - notwithstanding the presence of Patricia Clarkson and the convincingly wet rainfall. Ralph Fiennes has done the same for Faith Healer, with Star Wars veteran Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine) to help out; for those impervious to Hollywood marquees, Cherry Jones will be an appetizing lure. It's hard to believe that, this time, Faith Healer won't be a success.

Continue reading about Faith Healer at Portico.

April 24, 2006

Turn It Off

Contrary to first impressions, this entry is not about Israel. Not really.

In The New York Times on 19 April, Tony Judt published an Op-Ed piece, "A Lobby, Not a Conspiracy," urging Americans - insiders and regular folk alike - to debate this country's policies regarding Israel, which, as a recent report in the London Review of Books by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt makes painfully clear, have been protected from discussion by an extremely powerful "Israel Lobby." Mr Judt writes,

But above all, self-censorship is bad for the United States itself. Americans are denying themselves participation in a fast-moving international conversation. Daniel Levy (a former Israeli peace negotiator) wrote in Ha'aretz that the Mearsheimer-Walt essay should be a wake-up call, a reminder of the damage the Israel lobby is doing to both nations. But I would go further. I think this essay, by two "realist" political scientists with no interest whatsoever in the Palestinians, is a straw in the wind.

Having fallen behind in my reading, I hadn't got to the report, and it's very likely that I wouldn't have read it without Mr Judt's prodding. It's not that I'm not interested, it's that I'm long since convinced that our Near East foreign policy has been hijacked by a group of Americans whose loyalty to the United States is clearly not undivided. Messrs Mearsheimer and Walt (at Chicago and the Kennedy School respectively) back up their argument with a lot of facts and figures, but this only makes the blatancy of the operation more depressing. They conclude with the argument that it is the Israel Lobby, and nobody much else, that's behind the push to take some sort of pre-emptive action against Iran.

Well, I'm not going to belabor this point. Whether or not there's a powerful Israel Lobby is not a matter of argument to me, and, as a New Yorker, I'm used to ritual kowtowing to Jewish sensibilities on the part of all civic leaders. What I do fear is that the excesses of Israel Lobby policies is going to breed some genuine anti-Semitism in this country. The LRB report - what a scandal that, whatever its merits, it hasn't been published here! - brings one to the point of wondering if certain Jews and their evangelical sympathizers aren't out to fulfill the libels of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This isn't what's really on my mind, though. What's on my mind is the fact, never quite stated by the report, that the Israel Lobby, like all lobbies, commands what power it exercises largely by means of campaign contributions. And where do these campaign moneys go? Dash me if more than half the money doesn't wind up on television spots (often produced by lobbyists who take a commission of the production costs, thus recouping part of their outlay). And television spots are only as important as the intelligence with which they are received by the public. In the course of my lifetime, I've watched television hone its powers of dumbing down even as it flatters. Flattery is arguably the most effective dumbing-down tool in existence.

So, don't flatter yourself. Don't suppose that you're clear-headed enough to resist the spuriosities of campaign ads. They're not aimed at your head. They're aimed much lower than that, especially at the insecurities that you don't like to acknowledge. They are wholly corrupt, and you can no more consume them without consequence than you can drink a shaker of martinis without getting drunk. To those who say, "But what can I do?" I reply, "Don't watch television." Yes - making campaign contributions, even writing letters and volunteering to canvass the wards sounds easier. But as a young man who was here the other night agreed with me, the longer you go without watching television, the harder it is to go back to. It becomes less tempting every day that you don't watch it, and inevitably you find other, more satisfying occupations. Television may be good for invalids, and for people of unusually low intelligence. Now you can flatter yourself.

(Tip: watching movies is a great substitute. Just stay away from anything pretending to be factual.) 

April 23, 2006

Sunday Morning

Wah! I'm crying in my coffee this morning, undone by the inevitable regrets that come with age. Knowing, that is, that I'm too old to be either a "raconteur" or an "evader."

Ahimè! For consolation, there's Tatiana Nikolayeva, playing the Goldberg Variations.

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Before getting down to work today, I have to share a blurb that appears in an ad for Chuck Palahniuk's collection of stories, Haunted, now in paper with a "Glow in the Dark Cover"! The Miami Herald's critic says,

Reading a Palahniuk novel is like getting zipped inside a boxer's heavy bag while the author goes to work on you, pounding you until there is nothing left but a big bag of bones and blood and pain.

I don't think that anything from Ancient Rome equals this debasement of intellect.

We'll begin, as usual, with poetry.

In today's Review, we find a Poetry Chronicle in which two men cover ten books. Eric McHenry:

Black Lab, by David Young. "Young is, in many respects, a conventional poet, but conventions are easier to disparage than the work a serious artist does within them." So true. It's a nice point, and it tells us something about Mr Young.

Hapax: Poems, by A E Stallings. "'Hapax,' according to the book's epigraph, is a Greek word meaning 'once, once only, once for all.' What's most appealing in Stallings's poems, then, is a sense of hapaxity - an imaginative empathy with those whose lone moment is long gone..."

Capacity, by James McMichael. "Everything, from immigration patterns to heartsickness, is described in the same objective, almost clinical tone - a strange and wonderful choice, lending disproportionate power to the subtlest gestures." The verses quoted are intriguing, to me, anyway. The point is that they're there. 

Hometown For An Hour: Poems, by Jennifer Rose. "Rose's ingenious comparisons don't add up to much more than stacks of themselves. But over the course of the collection, her restlessness - both her physical divagations and her mind's associative flitting - becomes increasingly affecting." That's good to know, because I don't read books of poetry through. Even if I ought to do so.

Living Things: Collected Poems, by Anne Porter. The widow of artist and critic Fairfield Porter "was born in 1911, when

Large patches of the former century

Still lay about

Like snow in April."


Joel Brouwer:

Look There: New and Selected Poems, by Agi Mishol (translated by Lisa Katz). "Lisa Katz's translations from the Hebrew are occasionally jarring. ... On the whole, though, Katz captures Mishol's subtle combination of tenacity and mischief..."

Astoria: Poems, by Malena Mörling. After complaining about repetitions and derivative writing, Mr Brouwer writes, "So why did I enjoy this book so much? It must be its utter sincerity. Mörling's dreamy amazement at the world's weird plenty never feels affected or calculated." Again, good to know, because sincerity isn't something that I'm looking for in verse.

Strike/Slip, by Don McKay. "These exuberantly musical and shrewd poems are ecological in the fullest sense of the word: they seek to elucidate our relationships with our fragile dwelling places both on the earth and in our own skins."

Poem For The End Of Time: And Other Poems, by Noelle Kocot. "Kocot has two bad habits. She harries her nouns with flocks of modifiers, and she sometimes tries to pass of a congeries of portentous nonsense as inscrutable profundity, to bathetic effect." Ouch!

The First Inhabitants of Arcadia: Poems, by Christopher Bursk. "If you're looking for skeptical post-structuralist experiments with language's unstable elements, though, look elsewhere. Bursk has bottomless faith in language and its capacities to enlighten and delight." So I do. "His poems celebrating the alphabet bring to mind not free jazz or 12-tone compositions but, at their witty best, Cole Porter. (

What if

there were nothing loopy

in the language, no

va-va voom? No magic

broom. No swooping wings?

No dark lagoon?

No fingernail


On the whole, I have to confess to sensing a desire on the reviewers' part to like all the books.

Readers of The Sixteen Pleasures (1994) will be happy to know that Robert Hellenga is back, with Philosophy Made Simple. Rebecca Newburger Goldstein notes that the central figure of the new book is the father of the heroine of the last one. "[T]he bood news is that this decent man has got enough waywardness to make for another fine, if quieter, novel." I'm somewhat troubled by the presence of an elephant named Norma Jean, however, and wish that Ms Newberger had said a bit more than that. I want to be absolutelysure, for example, that Norma Jean, though she's "soulful" and a painter who puts her trunk to new uses, does not speak English.

That's the sort of assurance that Jason Goodwin provides in his review of James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder. He assures me, that is, that this is totally not a book for me. "For all its philosophical high jinks, literary pyrotechnics, expositions and asides, the wrapper of a story, which up to here has been so lively and amusing, suddenly sound crinkly and thin." The review also notes that Newton's great work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica is a character in this book. Nor does Joe Ashby Porter's The Near Future sound like my kind of novel. David Kirby writes, "Porter's narrative style is vaguely cubist, with words often turned at slight angles to one another." Perhaps the book belongs in the Poetry Chronicle! Nor does The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, a novel set in remote Namibia, by Peter Orner, sound like my cup of tea. "He has written a starvation diary about desire, with as much sexual tension as a bodice-buster. The deprivation gets so extreme that Orner plays it for laughs." Good grief - but thanks, Mark Schone, for letting me know. Julia Alvarez's Saving the World tells the stories of two women in two eras, and Hillary Frey suggests that it might have been better had one of those stories been dumped. "It's difficult to write interesting fiction about someone struggling with the writing process, and it's practically impossible when the author herself has created such derivative characters." Ms likes the other half of Saving the World, though.

Sharing the page with the last review is Chelsea Cain's report of Philippa Stockley's The Edge of Pleasure. Ms Cain has a lot of trouble with this novel, because the man over whom two interesting women fight is "not sexy at all." There is certainly something in the British water that makes unprepossessing lugs romantically appealing to certain women; in this country, they would be pursued icily for their money. Ms Cain is wrong, I think, to fault Ms Stockley. It's a cultural thing. 

Finally, there Caryn James's review of Wendy Wasserstein's posthumous Elements of Style. The late playwright's first and last novel, Elements will undoubtedly be read by her many admirers.

Although the nvoel doesn't quite pull of that drastic shift from satire to tragedy, it's generally a sleek, entertaining read that shares much of the wit and astuteness of Wasserstein's plays... But it's less polished that her plays and essays, written with the clumsiness of an author who hasn't mastered the novel's form.


The family paper that can't print the word "bullshit," even when it's in the title of a thoughtful, best-selling essay by a Princeton philosopher, must be autistic when it comes to images. Blasting a sexpot photo of Ava Gardner - wearing (from top to bottom) white beads, a leopard-print bathing suit, and fishnet stockings, provocatively and curvaceously coiled on a leopard-print banquette, her bust arched and one hand thrown behind her head - seems, somehow, a really and truly inappropriate gesture on the part of such a prudish organization. It has nothing to do with Peter Bogdanovich's review of Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing," by Lee Server. Mr Bogdanovich likes the book and writes a bit about its merits, but mostly he sells the book by selling the subject, whom he met once in London. He speaks of Gardner's great frankness, of her "intelligence, easy charm, kindness and steadfast individuality." In this context, the pinup is demeaning. Even if Gardner made only two good pictures, The Killers and Mogambo. Adding to the insult is another come-hither bit of cheesecake inside.

Erica Jong is a different kind of sexpot, the kind who writes about it. Ron Powers comes down very hard on Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, not least because the memoir purports to be a writer's guide for beginners.

And here is Erica Jong's central writerly self-delusion: "what we all live for ... is what Henry Miller calls 'the dictation.' That's when the words take off on a frolic of their own, when you don't seem to be writing or thinking but rather taking down some divine dictation."

How true!!!

No, how false.

Writers don't "all" live for "the dictation." As advice for "fledgling" writers, the assertion hovers between irresponsible and absurd. Writers, good ones, build their work on a foundation of curiosity and active, patient investigation of their subject. And they build that work word by laborious word. And then they revise it.

Thomas Brothers has written a book about Louis Armstrong's New Orleans. Jason Berry spends most of his review encapsulating Mr Brothers's story, but he does conclude helpfully,

Certain passages on musical technique will make some readers skim. Still, this is a superb history and a rocking good read.

Another cultural history in this week's review is News of Paris: American Journalists in the City of Light Between the Wars, by Ronald Weber. Reviewer Marc Weingarten picks out a few of Mr Weber's more amusing subjects, not the Hemingways but the "B-list reporters, who make for better copy anyway," and builds his review on them. Only at the end does he fault Mr Weber for being too sparing with "critical analysis." Another newspaper book is The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L Matthews, by Anthony DePalma. Jonathan Alter's review leaves little doubt that Matthews was far too invested in his material to produce sound reporting; a friendship with Arthur Hays Sulzberger clouded matters firmly. Mr DePalma's objective is to scrub away decades of invective-based assessments by conservatives and Cuban exiles, among whom you would think widespread the belief that, without Matthews, Mr Castro would never have amounted to anything. Mr Alter agrees that this is simply not the case.

Elizabeth Royte gives Marq de Villiers's Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather, a good, if not quite enthusiastic review. "If you can get through the tough parts," she writes, "- which, let's face it, are mandatory in this sort of book - there's ample reward." She appears to agree with the author's endorsement of wind power; so do I.

Jacob Heilbrunn calls Philip Jenkins's Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America a "humdinger."

Dismissing the notion that conservative elites are duping the unwashed in the hinterlands into supporting Republican Party, he argues for something of a return to the paranoid thesis [of Richard Hofstadter]. but with a twist. Jenkins's United States is, at bottom, a country of scared ninnies, masking its fears with an outward show of bravado. Instead of manipulating the public, conservative leaders from Ronald Reagan to George W Bush have simply responded to its anxieties.

"Pandered" would be my word for what conservative leaders have "simply" done. In any case, as I am already persuaded of the correctness of Mr Jenkins's analysis, I don't have to read his book, which draws heavily on the evidence of popular culture.

It has been interesting to watch Michael Pollan's interests move from ornamental land-use (Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991?) to agribusiness, but whereas I read the early books with zest, not least because I had a garden, it's precisely because I'm an omnivore that I don't want to know more about the conditions under which steers are turned into beef. In the diet department, I've written myself off as a hopeless dinosaur, glad that I don't have the responsibility of bringing up a child to greet the coming new world order in food. David Kamp gives The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals a good review, faulting Mr Pollan (whose writing, I can attest, is always interesting) only for being "too nice." The real problem with American food is that it's overpriced, in a way that forces all but the affluent to eat poorly. As such, it neatly parallels the inequities of our health care.

Nigerian playwright and political activist Wole Soyinka has written a second book of memoirs, covering most his adult life, entitled You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir. Norman Rush finds the book "a little strange" in its lacunae, and concludes, "For all the determined hopefulness of Soyinka's title, it's still dark in Nigeria." Alan Taylor's The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution touches on the grim solution to a similar sort of strife as that covered by Mr Soyinka. Richard Brookhiser tells Mr Taylor's story and then faults the author for not having rendered his material more "digestible." He ends with a plea that historians try to recapture something of the literary panache of Francis Parkman. I did not find either of these reviews particularly helpful.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "The Party's Over," is about the decline of the book party. I have always thought that the mixture of books and alcohol can't possibly work (or be interesting); the publication of a book seems to be the thinnest of pretexts for gathering the literati. I cannot imagine that this essay is of interest to anybody outside New York's publishing world who isn't also a literary gossip.

April 22, 2006

Moment of Calm

After a patch of radiant weather, things have turned cold and wet. I talk to Kathleen, who is visiting her parents in Durham, North Carolina, and she tells me of a thunderstorm. Then my voice lulls her back to sleep; I worry that she's going to drop the phone without hanging up. It feels like Sunday, but, no, we're not halfway through the weekend. There's some ironing to do, a movie to finish (I fell asleep before it ended), and of course the Book Review to review. There is James Wood's The Broken Estate to find; I know it's in here somewhere.

Yesterday, while vacuuming the living room, I accidentally turned on the carousel that holds copies of jazz CDs (very loosely defined) and was surprised to hear Abbie Lincoln singing "Stampede of Love." I turned the sound down a bit, but just a bit, to slightly above "live" level, and continued cleaning. Later, I let the music continue, very much not in the background, as I dined on a dish of pasta. I sat at the table for a while when I was through, listening to the songs in random order. I was not reading. Must do this more often: it was almost meditative. The secret seems to lie in playing the music loud enough to hold my attention.

American Dreamz

Never having seen American Idol, I can't judge the parody value of Paul Weitz's American Dreamz, the show within the movie of the same name. ("That's 'dreams' with a 'z'.") The idea behind the show, however, brings out my inner elitist. To the extent that American Idol represents this country, I am not at all patriotic.

So I loved American Dreamz, for its tart and edgy contempt. Mandy Moore has too-pretty looks that make one wish for Reese Witherspoon - but she can do Reese Witherspoon while reminding you of Lana Turner. Her Sally Kendoo is sincere about only one thing, her ambition. You expect her to be vapid, but she's dynamite. It's no wonder that she and Hugh Grant's Martin Tweed, the show's host, come to a deep understanding, even if no one would characterize it as love. Martin is detestable without ever actually doing anything bad - and you wouldn't want him any different. Chris Klein takes the role that he had in Election and jerks it up a bit to give us a very sappy William Williams, Sally's boyfriend. And what could be more fun than Jennifer Coolidge in the role of Mom?

Dennis Quaid's send-up of President Bush is actually rather kind, because you would never call his President Staton, as David Remnick called Mr Bush, "a schoolyard bully."* Staton may be clueless, but he's a nice guy who genuinely means well. Willem Defoe plays his chief of staff as a sort of Cheney-Rumsfeld meld; don't be surprised if it takes a while to recognize the actor. Marcia Gay Harden seems to have been hand-picked to pass for Laura Bush; in the film, at any rate, the First Lady gets some real responsibility. 

It was hard to see from the trailers how a movie with an explosive devicer could be funny. Omer (winningly played by Sam Golzari) is a confused young man who only becomes interesting to his terrorist trainers by a set of curious chances, by which time Omer has had serious second thoughts. I wondered just who would perish if and when the bomb went off. the writers didn't go for my first choice, but there was a good deal of justice in their picks. Tony Yalda, as Omer's diva-queen cousin, gets high marks for audacity.

Everybody's great in this very funny slap in the face. When we run out of oil and air, those who come after us can see from American Dreamz just how wrong everything got to be.

*"Ozone Man"; The New Yorker, 24 April, p 47

April 21, 2006


It's a beautiful Friday morning, and there's nothing - nothing - in the Times about the doormen's strike. The strike has evidently been averted: the Times itself lay at our door this morning, and Kathleen called from her car to tell me that, on her way out of the building - she's spending the weekend with her parents, in North Carolina - she said good morning to Dominic and Eddie (or maybe it was Eddie and José), doormen very much on duty. The embedded journalists at the Grey Lady must have decided that the doorman story was too parochial for coverage. (I suppose I'm going to have to take the Observer again.) In any case, apologies to those of you who felt called upon to comfort me in my impending inconvenience. Meanwhile, in Big Love Country....

At noon, I'll be across the street in a dark theatre waiting to see American Dreamz. Although I didn't read her review in today's paper, I did see that Manohla Dargis calls the movie "unfunny." I always picture Ms Dargis as a downtown hipster, a little scruffy but wearing great shoes. I myself am an Upper East Side bourgeois, forever in loafers. There you have it.


Let's see how long it takes this bit of news to reform economics:

If one truth shines through, it is that people are not consistent or fully rational decision makers. Peter L Bossaerts, an economics professor at the California Institute of Technology, has found that brains assess risk and return separately, rather than making a single calculation of what economists call expected utility.

So reports Tyler Cowen in "Enter the Neuro-Economists: Why Do Investors Do What They Do?"* Predicating a world in which decision making is informed by rational self-interest is perhaps the greatest folly of academic economics. It may not differ much from the faith of pre-modern doctors in bleeding. As researchers are finding out, bleeding has its uses, but they're limited to a small class of wounds, more as healing accelerators than as actual fixes. "Rational self-interest" probably has just as limited a role in economic life. Perhaps in Adam Smith's day - The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 - the pace of life was slow enough and sufficiently free of abrupt change to allow genuine deliberation. In those patriarchal days, men wealthy enough to make economic decisions lived in a world that was fairly tailored to their way of thinking. That world has vanished into relative chaos.

*The New York Times, 20 April 2006, p C3.

April 20, 2006


This is just to announce that I am trying, in my apprehension about the impending doormen's strike, to achieve a sense of proportion by remembering the pluck of Ms NOLA's homeless parents. Sometimes it works.

I don't expect any sympathy. Most people have no idea what it's like to ride an elevator home, much less of what it's like to rely on doormen. I expect that most Americans hardly ever hear the word spoken live, and that some might wonder just what a "doorman" is. If the guys go on strike this time, then I'll try to use the massive inconvenience as a occasion for explaining the dependency that I've built up over twenty-six years as someone who is "getting older."

I was pretty ticked at the Times for not covering the negotiations better; the paper is following its detestable party line: New Yorkers take inconvenience in stride, even creatively. Anybody not smiling for the camera, proposing ingenious solutions, or telling heart-warming stories about new friendships made in crisis is ignored by the press as a spoilsport.

In mitigation, I noted the ample coverage today of the tram breakdown. How was the bathroom problem handled in the eleven-hour wait for rescue? Well, it was dealt with more or less effectively. Creatively, even.

"After the Deluge" at the Met

The latest thing in museum exhibitions is the show assembled by a living artist, either from his or her own work, from the museum's collection, or both. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has launched its first such show, giving Kara Walker carte blanche to fill one of the rooms on the out-of-the-way mezzanine at the rear of the building. Although she began devising the show about a year ago, her focus was galvanized by the ruin of New Orleans in August. "After the Deluge" is a haunting exhibition of formidable documentary power. Everything in the show is supercharged by its context.

Kara Walker's art is based on the cut-paper silhouette, and I have long wanted to see it in person. The silhouette was a precursor of the snapshot, but there was nothing candid about it. Subjects sat or stood in profile. They held themselves erect and still. Ms Walker keeps the profile but loses the stillness. Some of her figures are grotesques, such as the creature with alligator's body and the black child's head. Bizarre sexual contacts that seem far beyond pornography are not uncommon, and dismemberment (particularly of woman's legs) figures in not a few of Ms Walker's cut-outs. What makes all of this both palatable and even more surprising is the sweetness of Ms Walker's line. (Many of her shapes are quite large, and her outlines are so firmly fluid that I wonder how she cuts them.) The black figures are usually caricatures, "pickaninnies," and the overall impact of her work highlights the erasure of personal identity and distinction that racism effects.

This is art that teeters on the edge of oratory. It is too complex, too visually absorbing to fall into sheer reference. It is not about the evils of slavery, but about the terrible mess that slavery (and racism) creates - a mess that, as the aftermath of Katrina makes quite clear, hasn't been cleaned up. If I am still shocked at the nakedness of the racist contempt at work in New Orleans, I am completely unpersuaded that it is "really" an economic discrimination. The whites of Louisiana are letting us all know that they look down on black skin and black folkways; that they want to put the minus back in minority. Kara Walker's work expresses the "murk," as she puts it, that receding floodwaters, whether of Katrina or of segregation, have exposed.

Ms Walker has chosen works that either intensify the murk by broadening the referents - to encompass Noah's Flood, for example - or make it stink by denying it. Among the latter are small oils by William P Chappell, scenes of New York life in 1810 painted in the 1870s, as if recalling a bucolic ante-bellum fantasy. The more powerful statements underline Ms Walker's cut-outs. There are two very strong Homers, The Gulf Stream (1899), which is very well-known, and Dancing for the Carnival (1877), which is not. Both portray blacks as "other" in ways other than dark skin. Christ's Descent into Hell, a mid-sixteenth century painting in the school of Hieronymus Bosch, takes on a fresh shade of nightmare from the surrounding work.

Just beyond "After the Deluge," the museum has mounted a fifteen-panel Walker from its own collection, Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Here, Ms Walker has enlarged lithographs from Civil-War issues of the famous magazine that show various battle scenes in the leaden, almost ceremonious style characteristic of popular illustration of the time. Atop these, she has superimposed various cut-outs, several with further cut-outs within them. These latter are negatives of a sort, allowing the lithographs to show through. The strange child cut out from the center of a larger cut-out itself appears in a separate panel. In my favorite, "Buzzard's Roost Pass," cannons boom and shells explode over a lake. Atop this scene, Ms Walker has superimposed the gigantic (in scale) head of a laughing black face, its neck ripped away from a body that is unseen but for two tossed breasts, and, outside the frame of the original lithograph, an extended arm. Two further cut-outs taken from the face mirror the starbursts of the exploding shells. The contrast of starch and snazz takes irony to an almost mystical level. 

A word of caution: the Kara Walker book on sale at the museums various points of sale is not a catalogue of "After the Deluge," but the catalogue of an earlier Walker show elsewhere.

April 19, 2006

Next Question?

You had to admit that Secretary Rumsfeld can take the heat.*

Asked whether he saw any validity in the criticisms of his critics, who have said he has been dismissive and contemptuous of advice, and said that he committed strategic failures in connection with the Iraq war, Mr. Rumsfeld said he would prefer to "let a little time walk over it."

"I would like to reflect on them a bit," he said.

In other words, "Next question?" This isn't a story of how blindly incompetent Mr Rumsfeld is. It's a story about how conditioned the press corps has become to the Bush Administration's bland stonewalling. It's as though Karl Rove had advised senior personnel that American brains now rely exclusively on Google searches, so that their attention can be diverted by bold evasion and non-sequitur.

* Christine Hauser in The New York Times, 18 April 2006.

April 18, 2006


Last night, Ms NOLA and M le Neveu brought over a few of their Dartmouth pals to celebrate the return of one of their number from two years' service with the Peace Corps in Georgia. I cooked, but Ms NOLA hosted (an arrangement that suited me down to the ground). My fried chicken came through once again, with the spring and summer standard accompaniments of coleslaw and roast sweet potatoes. For dessert, I baked a very straightforward fudge cake from The Joy of Cooking, which also supplied me with an extremely easy "satin" frosting. As is always the case when I'm cooking, fundamentally, for a picnic, I made far more food than was needed. But I did not have the energy to make dinner rolls. They'd have been excessive, but I regretted the chance to spread first quality butter on fresh-baked bread.

So much for the food. For five hours, I bobbed in the company of really, really bright late twentysomethings. All of them are doing well in one line or another, and I expect that they'll continue to prosper. If Ms NOLA has her way, they will remain friends forever, always in touch. As a group, they're the result of coincidentally being in New York now, not of having been fast friends in Hanover. I experienced something of the same thing myself in Houston, after graduating from college lo these many decades ago. But I didn't want to be in Houston. Everyone here tonight wants to be in New York, even the Peace Corps veteran, although she - I boggle a bit at the choice she's got to make - hasn't yet decided between Columbia's and Harvard's law schools. When she gets out of whichever one she chooses, she intends to work here.

Having told it yesterday to a different crowd, Ms NOLA and I got to tell our "How were the Altenbergs?" story again. I'm not going to repeat it here, but if I get to know you at all you'll hear it eventually, because it always tickles me to death. (M le Neveu was not enthusiastic about the retelling.) For the most part, however, I listened and laughed along. When the conversation focused very sharply on Dartmouth personalities that I'd never heard of - a student body president who inappropriately professed a personal relationship with Jesus - I slipped away to do a few dishes. I was very tired from the labor of executing a hassle-free Easter dinner while following regular routines, such as tidying the apartment and reviewing the Book Review. I'm very glad that I don't have to do anything before curtain time tonight. (We're seeing Faith Healer, with Cherry Jones and Ralph Fiennes.)

The company of intelligent younger people can be oppressive, reminding one of one's age and lost desires (I will never crave an iPod). Or, as it was for me tonight, it can be a great tonic, reassuring me that there will be bright lights and strong hands after I'm gone.

April 17, 2006

Metropolitan Boldface

Six year-old on a bus complains, in today's Metropolitan Diary, that he'd rather be in a taxi. His aunt consoles him thus:

"Henry, there's someone on this bus listening carefully to what you're saying and on one of these coming Monday mornings, we will be reading about this scene in the Metropolitan Diary."

The story continues: "Smiles crept across both boys' faces."

So many Metropolitan Diary stories recount bad behavior on buses that I'm wondering if the contributor of this anecdote, knowing that it would fit right in, didn't simply make it up.

And what about the "slim" seventy year-old who was jogging alongside the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir while toting Mad Ave shopping bags at shoulder height, "to avoid dirtying them as she ran"?

Has Campbell Robertson simply found a new column?

John Patrick Shanley's Defiance, at MTC

Not having seen Defiance twice, I am very unsure of the contribution of sheer surprise to its huge power. Is it merely enormous, this contribution, or essential, something that will keep the play from having a similar magical punch the second time that one sees it. Surprise is in any case so surprising an element of Defiance that I find that I am unable to write about the play without referring to it. Having done that much, I might as well put up spoiler alerts and go ahead with writing about what I saw, instead of coyly contriving to sing the praises of something I don't identify.

I have therefore decided to write for readers who have already seen Defiance. I may have already said too much! If you haven't seen the play but plan to do so soon, try to forget this short paragraph, and come back afterward.


With Defiance, John Patrick Shanley has made his last play, the celebrated Doubt, into the first work in a cycle of highly dramatic meditations on authority. Like Doubt, Defiance is short, consisting of one long act broken into several scenes. It is equally successful at leaving the audience with a powerful conundrum about right and wrong, and about the balance, if any, that can be struck between them. Its construction, however, is not at all the same. In Doubt, the problem dawns not long after the show begins, and one marvels at Mr Shanley's ability to move his cloud of uncertainty at a steady but cumulative pace. That same skill, one can see after the fact, is put to use in Defiance to a very different end - the misdirection of the audience's expectations - so that, when the bombshell comes, well after the half-way point as the stopwatch flies, it is a real bombshell. Even the crusty New York audience at Stage I last night was audibly shocked. After which there was just enough moral argument to infect us with the urgency of matters that we were witnessing. Then we were out in the street, talking about it.

Until PFC Evan Davis steps into Captain Lee King's office, we don't know quite where Defiance is going, but that's all right, because the show holds our interest with very strong characters, and in fact we would rather postpone the moment when the play hunkers down to a confrontation about Black Power, Viet Nam, or some other issue of national concern. Set at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune in 1971, Defiance promises, or threatens, to tread some very familiar territory. We have Lt Col Littlefield, a propulsive Commanding Officer; Captain King, a tightly-sealed administrative officer with two tours of Viet Nam behind him; and Chaplain White, the newly-arrived chaplain, on his first post. Littlefield's wife, Margaret, is a very lively character, wonderfully enacted by Margaret Colin, but in terms of the action, her function is closer to that of a Greek chorus, which suits the period and moral climate of Defiance.

Continue reading about Defiance at Portico.

April 16, 2006



Kathleen won't let me have a cat (and her opinion of dogs is close to that of the Vatican's position on female ordination), so I can't post any cute cat pictures. But Miss G just sent me a shot of her big boy, Astor. Astor is one of those troublemaking cats who win continuous forgiveness by striking adorable poses and wallowing, as shown, in bliss.

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

This week's must-read unfavorable review is William Logan's dump on The Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman. Mr Logan finds that "Lehman's catholic taste and appreciation of minor voices make him ill at ease with major ones." One comes away resolved to search Alibris for used copies of this very large volume's trim predecessors, The Oxford Book of American Verse and The New Oxford Book of American Verse.

The dirty secret of American poetry is that until Whitman and Dickinson it was no damn good, and until the modernists it was not good again.

Nell Freudenberger gives David Mitchell's Black Swan Green a very favorable review. It's difficult for me to assess, because I've already read at least two other favorable reviews of this remarkable writer's latest and made up my mind to read it. I don't think, somehow, that Ms Freudenberger would have convinced me. She emphasizes the novel's poetic writing and ghostly preoccupations. Ligaya Mishan makes Duchess of Nothing, a novel by Heather McGowan, sound very tempting, largely by means of quotations that convey the strange music of the narrator's voice: "a giddy version of English unlike any other." Taylor Antrim's review of Katharine Noel's Halfway House, on the other hand, quotes only one sentence, and otherwise rather lazily summarizes the plot. He calls this debut novel "sure-footed." Wyatt Mason's review of Whiteman, also a first novel, by Tony D'Souza, makes me eager to read it, despite its African setting and idealistic protagonist.

One significant virtue of D'Souza's storytelling rests in his ability to present Jack's experiences of African life with a vividness that reveals the continent's allure without sentimentalizing its exoticism.

He also points out that each of the novel's chapters is "a story that could stand on its own." Novels consisting of short stories are a tricky genre; in most cases the form of the story trumps that of the novel. I'm intrigued by Mr Mason's review to see if Whiteman might do better.

This week's cover story is Frederick Brown's Flaubert: A Biography. I don't recall a longer review than James Wood's. Actually, the review portion of the essay is very brief, a few sentences long.
Because Flaubert, like his details, is so visible and invisible, he needs to be cleaned of the glaze of his renown every so often and shown afresh; and he needs to be treated by someone who has himself a good eye for detail. Frederick Brown is the right candidate. As his 1995 biography of Zola demonstrated, he is an impeccable scholar with a talent for historical narrative, and the owner of a rich, flexible prose style. His magnificent new book is at once a history of 19th-century France and a brilliant exercise in character animation. A huge amount of research is the private income that gives this book its well-dressed assurance...
For the most part, Mr Wood sells the book by selling the subject.
Much of the time Flaubert's influence is too familiar to be visible. We so expect it that we hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert. And after Flaubert, it sometimes seems, this is all you get.
Mr Wood is so lucid in his praise of Flaubert that I began to see why I was bored and vexed by Sentimental Education, and why I can't manage to re-read Madame Bovary. Along with all the virtues catalogued by Mr Wood, Flaubert introduced the vice (in my view) of disaffection, of refusing his inheritance as a bourgeois. I'm not speaking of money here. Flaubert's rather sour struggle against the grain of his native worldview may have made him great, but it doesn't make him pleasant or encouraging. But Mr Wood makes it clear that Mr Brown's book is of the first importance for anyone interested in French literature of the nineteenth century.
Gail Saitz, a psychologist who appears on the Today show, has written Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie, and reviewer Lynn Harris is crazy about it. Her well-thought-out favorable review makes even the prospect of reading it a guilty pleasure, and if I were to read it, I'd feel crushing guilt about the things that I ought to be reading. Noting that Ms Saitz is occasionally "bogged down" by explanations, Ms Harris cleverly concludes: "Should you find yourself skipping ahead to the next juicy anecdote, that'll be your little secret. In the end, Pamela Paul comes down favorably for To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, by Caitlin Flanagan. Daughter of the late historical novelist, Thomas Flanagan, the author has been publishing essays on the tension between self-realization and family service for a while now, and she has made a lot of enemies. Ms Paul writes,
As it stands, sensitivities are so attuned to the slightest insult of any one of women's myriad work-life choices that Flanagan's simplest observations - for example, when a woman works something is lost - are taken as an indictment of working women. Yet any working mother can see the truth in such a statement: time spent working = less time with children = something lost. What's appalling is that pointing this out raises such ire.
Ms Paul observes that "the previously published material has been substantially reworked," but what I've taken away from Ms Flanagan's essays probably remains in the book as well: namely, a sense of the toxicity of the nuclear family that Ms Flanagan herself does not recognize. She seems unaware that, historically, most mothers worked and left the care of their children to their own mothers, or to unmarried sisters. The stay-at-home mom is a Victorian pipe dream, originally an attempt by the middle classes to imitate the aristocracy. Rises in wages and the development of domestic appliances gradually put the stay-at-home mom to work, and very unrewarding work it is. I think that it's time to abandon the dream. It's also clear to me that the worst thing about "housekeeping" is taking care of children, something that modern parents do far too much of. Nonetheless, I'll vouch for Ms Flanagan's provocative writing.
David Oshinsky's review of Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P Long, by Richard D White, Jr, is quietly unfavorable. Its topic sentence: "Unfortunately, like so much else in Kingfish, it's been said before." Most of the piece, naturally, is a resume of the career of the model for Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, but Mr Oshinsky does note that the author offers "no clear explanation as to why Huey, a child of relative privilege, would choose to lead class war against the wealthy."
There's a glamorous photograph of Clara Bow to illustrate Liesl Schillinger's favorable review of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made American Modern, by Jonathan Zeitz. Once again, however, I fail to understand just what it was that made Box the "It" girl - aside, that is, from starring in a film of the same name in 1927. What did Bow have? I think it's rather what she didn't have - a full figure and a modest demeanor. In the photo, she thrusts one lamé-clad leg forward in a way that highlights the adjacent anatomy. She is a doll-faced temptress, a sign of vanished times, or proof, that is, that times had vanished. Clara Bow doesn't need any sex appeal herself to advertise the fact that sex appeal is on offer. Ms Schillinger does a fair amount of summarizing, but she does give us the chance to taste Mr Zeitz's style, as the following bit about New Yorker writer Lois Long demonstrates:
Under her pseudonym, Lipstick, she took in racy revues at speakeasies and dance halls, uptown and downtown. She married a fellow libertine, the New Yorker artist Peter Arno. "Once, they passed out after a long night of drinking at the New Yorker's staff club," Zeitz reports. (Harold Ross the magazine's editor, had created the club in hopes of keeping his bibulous scribes nearer their typewriters.) The next morning, Long recalled, they were found "stretched out nude on the sofa and Ross closed the place down." She explained, "Maybe we began drinking and forgot that we were married and had an apartment to go to."
Equally spicy material abounds, it appears, in Sweet and Low: A Family Story, by Rich Cohen. Reviews of this memoir of the family that made a fortune from packets of artificial sweetener, written by a disinherited and gleefully remorseless scion, are almost helplessly entertaining. Kate Zernike's review is almost awe-struck:
Still, it takes nerve to play investigative reporter with your own family, and Cohen writes about the addictive thrill: "When you uncover the crucial piece of hidden information, the charge pops in your brain like a whippit [sic] and you cannot wipe the stupid smile off your face... The more you find, the more you want to find."
He conveys that rush to those of us only rubbernecking. Reading him savage his relatives, you sometimes wonder, is he allowed to do this? It's a guilty pleasure - sort of like sugar without the calories.
Writing on a somewhat more tangential course from memoir, Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, has put forward his thesis that Albert DeSalvo, the man who confessed to being the Boston Strangler, but incidentally a handyman for the Junger family, murdered Bessie Goldberg, an old woman who lived a few blocks away. Her murder was pinned on a black man who happened to be working as a handyman at her house on the day she was killed. Alan M Dershowitz is something of a scourge in his review of A Death in Belmont, throwing up warning signals that the line between fact and fiction may have been crossed, and his envoi is almost lethal.
A Death in Belmont must be read with the appropriate caution that should surround any work of nonfiction in which the author is seeking a literary or dramatic payoff. Read in this manner, it is a worthy sequel to The Perfect Storm.
Patrick Allitt's review of Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, by Richard John Neuhaus, attempts the impossible: to reconcile intellectual freedom with Catholic dogma. Well, he wants to suggest that Fr Niehaus has done a pretty good job of reconciling them. The secret? "Thinking with the church." Okay. Let me check my intellectual freedom first. There is much value in Catholic dogma; some of it is truly inspired from a humanist standpoint. But it is poisoned by an unreflectively patriarchal authority that, like all patriarchies at all times, is morbidly preoccupied by sexuality and obedience. The review interestingly traces the author's passage from liberal Lutheran pastor to conservative Roman Catholic priest. Mr Allitt helpfully points out just how unfree - certainly unoriginal - Fr Niehaus's thinking is: "People," he writes in summarizing the book,
who have same-sex relations, he says, should be thought of not as homosexuals but as sinners; a Christian's duty is to hate the sin and love the sinner.
Pardon me, but that's just bullshit.
Two books this week take view of the United States that are dark and darker. In The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner, we're exposed to the "secretive group of independent government science advisers" that started up in the Fifties. (The group and the Jasons who belong to it take their name from a calendrical coincidence - consider July through November.) Reviewer John Horgan, who admits to have done Jason-like work himself, thinks that Ms Finkbeiner does a good job of asking the Jasons whom she's been able to meet, "What were you thinking?" This question ought to have been asked in the present tense throughout the Viet Nam War, when scientists recommended some nasty (and ultimately unsuccessful) solutions to the problem of infiltration by the Viet Cong. Mr Horgan closes with a somber observation:
Finkbeiner's book also carries a message for those who fear we are entering an anti-science age, in which right-wing politicians, religious fundamentalists, Luddites and post-modernists challenge science's authority. Some scientists are circling the wagons, depicting science as the embodiment of enlightenment and all its critics as knaves or buffoons. But science is and always has been as morally fallible as any other human activity. Indeed, because of its immense potential for altering our lives for good or ill, science needs critics like Finkbeiner now more than ever.
The darker book is Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq, by Stephen Kinzer. Anatol Lieven's highly favorable review is nevertheless not what I'd call enthusiastic.
I must confess that I put down this fine book with a feeling of deep disheartenment. For what, after all, is the point of such meticulously reported studies if the American public is repeatedly going to wipe such episodes from its collective consciousness, and the American establishment is going to make similar mistakes over and over again, first in the cold war and now in the "war on terror" - each time covering its actions with the same rhetoric of spreading "freedom" and combating "evil"?
Indeed. Nevertheless, Mr Lieven leaves no doubt that this is an indispensable book for adult Americans, however few of us there are.
How old is Jennifer Homans, the dance critic at The New Republic? Her review of Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance, by Marcia B Siegel, is so fraught with agenda that it brings the Cultural Revolution unpleasantly to mind.
To some degree, Tharp's story is that of the 1960s generation to which she belongs. Her often bewildering lapses in confidence and judgment are part of a debilitating cultural uncertainty that has hit musical theater and dance especially hard. Movin' Out tried to be the West Side Story of our time. But it isn't: Billy Joel is no Leonard Bernstein. If we are to understand Tharp's life and career, we will need more than a description of her dances. Tharp is a complicated and formidable woman. She is also one of the most important artists of our time. Her story still awaits a writer who isn't afraid to take her on and ask some hard questions.
Guess she didn't like the book.
James Wolcott's Essay, "Dwight Macdonald at 100," commemorates a once-famous critic. Macdonald's code seems to have been this: "When I say no I'm always right, and when I say yes I'm almost always wrong." Mr Wolcott adds,
Right or wrong, his verdicts would mean nothing to us now if he hadn't invested them with a humming force of personality and humor that opened up daylight wherever his mind gusted. Every intellectual era needs its dedicated pirates, and Dwight Macdonald was one of postwar's finest. He wrote and spoke as if fear and conformity were foreign to his nature and affronts to the spirit of liberty. If he were alive, he'd scoff at what wimps we've become under the threat of terrorism. He'd scold us for letting ourselves down. Happy birthday, Dwight, and give our best to Jim Agee.
NB: I had every intention of giving myself a pass to write this review, if ever, some time next week, in view of the fact that I've got Easter dinner to prepare. For one reason or another, however, my pace has been steady enough to give me the time to write what struck me, this morning, as one of the most interesting issues of the Book Review in recent memory.

April 15, 2006

Compass Rose

Miss NOLA and I engaged to meet up for our trip to Queens at the Grand Central IRT station. That's the subway station, not the famous railroad terminal, alongside which it runs. Actually, the subway runs up under Park Avenue until it hits the south edge of the Terminal, where it turns towards the east for a few blocks before resuming its northeasterly course under Lexington Avenue. Because of this deviation from its normal path, the IRT station is one of the most disorienting in the world. You mount the stairs from the platform and have absolutely no idea where you're going.

Unless, of course, you do this every day, as most of the people who pass through the station seem to do. I drew this conclusion after standing by a pillar for twenty minutes waiting for my friend, who was not late. I wasn't standing by any old pillar, but by the one at the center of the gigantic compass rose laid into the center of the concourse level. I has been a while since I've stopped at Grand Central, but I was pretty sure of this feature's existence. It took some back-and-forth to persuade Ms NOLA that she would be able to find it; quite naturally, she thought I was talking about meeting near the big clock in the Terminal. Which would mean leaving the subway and possibly paying another fare just to get back in to catch the Nº 7 train. Waiting at the center of the compass rose in the concourse was therefore something of an act of faith.

It was like standing in the middle of the Bay of Fundy in a storm. The concourse was never remotely empty, but there were strong tides in which huge throngs of people made their way through the turnstiles and across the concourse. Very few people seemed to have any doubt about where to go, or even seemed conscious of where they were. They were, for the most part, on their way home, so, for them, the concourse was a halfway-unreal zone of oblivion through which they passed from one stairway to another (or, in the case of the shuttle to Times Square, a long passageway). Although reasonably clean, the concourse does not invite lingering, or even attention. It is so not an in-the-moment sort of place.

The good thing about the compass rose was that it didn't appear to be in anybody's flight path. The only person who came near me wanted to know if he was, in effect, in the Terminal. "Big clock," he said. I directed him toward a flight of stairs on the other side of the turnstiles, and I hope that he found his way. The crowds themselves are very disorienting. People swell along like schools of fish, parting to get round an obstacle and then rejoining.

The phenomenon is even more intriguing because, this being New York, these schools are certainly not homogenous. Every sort of ambulatory human being passed before me, from every part of the earth and from every socio-economic zone. The division between people dressed for the office and those who weren't was fairly even. But almost everyone belonged, temporarily, to the species commutator urbis.

Then Ms NOLA appeared, and we made up our own little school. After all, we had to think where we were going.

April 14, 2006



Photo by Ms NOLA

Last night, Ms NOLA and I had an adventure: we became tourists. We went to Woodside, in Queens, on the No 7 train. Our voyage passed without event, but we were complete tourists, looking out the train windows at the Manhattan skyline (yes, it is always about us) and wondering whether the train that we were on would stop where we wanted it to (it didn't, but no biggie). Not to mention pulling Hopstop routers out of our bags.

Our destination was SriPraPhai. Behind this neat unprepossessing storefront lies some of the best Thai food in the Metropolitan Area. We got there at about 6:30, when there were still many families at the tables. Seventy-five minutes later, the Manhattanites were arriving and there was a wait for tables.

My experience was mixed. I loved the mee krob that I went out there to enjoy; it wasn't as ketchupy as the local restaurant's. I could have eaten both little cakes myself. The sautéed catfish with eggplant in a chili curry sauce, however, was not my kind of dish. That it was too hot wasn't really the problem; the catfish bones were. What a nuisance. I hate working at food.

On the theory that I might get hungry later, I ordered, for take-out, the dish that had first caught my eye, sautéed pork in a curry sauce.

It's my goal to get large groups of friends to go out to SriPraThai, so that everybody can have a little bit of everything. And of course there's plenty of Singha beer - really the best in the world, to my mind - to wash everything down with.

The main thing was: we actually went. We did not talk inconclusively and end up doing nothing. No, we decided to do this yesterday, and stuck with our plan even though everyone who was asked to come along backed out. Having braved the borough border (Park Slope doesn't count any more than going out to Fire Island does), we were blessed with what I hope was not beginner's luck.

I know I sound like a fatuous Gothamite. But this fun trip was so beyond what I was capable of thinking about, much less doing, before Remicade.

April 13, 2006

Book List

Here's a list of book titles that I found at Patricia Storms's Booklust. And here's the code: books that I've read, books on my shelves, books that I might read, and books that I won't read. Finally, (books that I don't know anything about).

The DaVinci Code. It was awful, and I got rid of it.

The Catcher in the Rye. But I haven't read this as an adult.

To Kill A Mockingbird. But not as an adult.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Never.

The Great Gatsby. The perfect novella.

(The Time Traveler's Wife).

His Dark Materials. I'm much too old.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Ditto. 

The Life of Pi. Kathleen loved it.

Animal Farm. I doubt that I'll read this, but not enough to strike it out.

Catch 22. Ditto. There was something about the way guys in high school talked about this book that put me off it.

The Hobbit. I did read the trilogy, at much the same time that I discovered Wagner. I kept the Wagner and lost the Tolkien.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A lovely book, with a desperately exciting adventure at the end.

Lord of the Flies. I don't think I've read this, but I may be wrong.

Pride and Prejudice. This will never be my favorite Austen, but I do love it.

1984. The consensus seems to be that Huxley was right, not Orwell. But I don't think I'd read Brave New World either.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Who organized this list?

One Hundred Years of Solitude. I hate magic realism.

Memoirs of a Geisha. A good read. But for the real experience, try to catch Kenji Mizoguchi's Gion Bayashi (A Geisha).

The Kite Runner. I liked this more than I thought I would.

The Lovely Bones. The negative reviews that this bit of bogusness received in respectable periodicals got to be quite funny.

Slaughterhouse 5. See Catch 22.

The Secret History. I've read this twice. It's super.

Wuthering Heights. I had to read this for school. I found it rather dull.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I'm probably too old for this, too.

Middlesex. I read the early part of this book in a magazine.

Cloud Atlas. My radar says, "Don't," but it's not shrieking.

Jane Eyre. Unlikely but possible.

Atonement. And everything else by Ian McEwan.

(The Shadow of the Wind).

The Old Man and the Sea. This is bad Hemingway. Or so I'm told.

The Handmaid's Tale. I am committed to doing everything that I can to keep what I understand the scenario of this book to be from being realized. I don't need its details clunking around in my head.

The Bell Jar. Probably not, but maybe.

Dune. I love David Lynch's film, though. Herbert's prose style makes me giggle. For about thirty seconds.


Cold Mountain. This was a good, old-fashioned gripper.

(The Alchemist).

White Teeth. The first, and probably the last, thing that I read by Zadie Smith was On Beauty. It was full of powerful scenes and affecting passages, but it completely failed to hang together as a novel.

The House of Mirth. Of course! Where's Henry James?

And, just for the hell of it, I'm going to add a fortieth title: The Corrections.

That enables me to claim a quarter of the titles. Which sounds just about right for a non-professional reader. My being me, there are more books that I won't read than books that I have read, and only a few tempters. (I don't believe that the Tolkien and Rowling books belong on a list like this, by the way.) I suppose I ought to print this up and nail it to the wall. 

April 12, 2006

Kathleen Brady's Indian Melon Salad

Kathleen Brady is a lovely Irishwoman who lives in Winnetka. My dear Kathleen has known her since college, and I've had the pleasure of meeting her a few times myself. Learning that I was a cook, Kathleen Brady gave me a few recipes, and this one has been a staple of our summertimes ever since. It is the most refreshing savory dish that I know.

First, you roast a chicken. You don't overcook it, as I'm afraid I did the other night. You and your partner dine on the dark meat, reserving the breast. The breast is for this dish. Depending on the size of the bird, this recipe will provide too much for two or plenty for three. To serve four, poach half of a chicken breast (or more, if you think you need it), and chop it up with the roast meat.

In case you're not the sort of person who reads recipes through before starting in on them, I'll repeat the last line here: "Chill for three hours." It's essential that the ingredients sit together for a while in a cold place. For some reason, I've taken to balling the melon just before serving. If you're reading this months after publication date (April 2006), you can be sure that I've reverted to following the recipe. (Otherwise, I'll change it, won't I?)

Continue reading about this recipe at Portico.

April 11, 2006

Markos Explains His Book

You probably watch Comedy Central and The Colbert Report and know this anyway, but if you don't, here's a nice chance to hear Markos Moulitsas Zúniga explain Crashing the Gate to his delightfully clewless host. Put a face - and a voice - on that daily blog. 


If I'm not doing quite as well as yesterday, it's because I gave up waiting for my New Yorker to arrive and read Seymour Hersh's article, "The Iran Plans," on line. Mr Hersh, you will recall, was dead-on right about the consequences of Secretary Rumsfeld's dismissal of the Pentagon's carefully constructed invasion plans, the TPFDL. Once again, Mr Hersh has made me feel like a doomed member of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, impotently commenting on the hubris enacted by deluded and incompetent leaders. And, as always, the problem of Israel, which may indeed be the "tragic flaw" that brings down Western civilization. In any case, impeaching George W Bush is suddenly something that I am no longer undecided about.

Thanks to a link at Joe.My.God, I've heard what the Dixie Chicks sound like. Their new song, "Not Ready to Make Nice," may prove to be something of a rallying call.

14 July will fall on a Friday this year. Anne Lamott has called for a peaceful manifestation on that day, and it occurred to me the other day that a great Manhattan site for the show-up would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I can't help chuckling at the idea of masses of anti-Bush souls thronging the usually deserted Old Master galleries simply because there's nowhere else to stand, while museum officials rake in the admission fees and wonder what the hell is going on. I am going to make a point of being there, and I urge you to do the same. In the alternative, choose something closer to home. Just be sure to wear green and bring some bananas! 

Thomas Meglioranza at the Italian Academy

Ever since I heard him sing for the first time, a little over a year ago, I've been a big fan of baritone Thomas Meglioranza. If you're a regular reader of the Daily Blague, you already know that. By nature a stay-at-home slug, I will do my best to show up where- and whenever Tom sings.

Last Wednesday night, Tom gave a recital, accompanied by the wizardry of Reiko Uchida's fingers, at the Italian Institute at Columbia University. The theme was Italian song, and Tom, who is very good with themes, took this one in daring directions. Of the eight composers, only Busoni (three songs) and Rossini (one) were Italian, and of the lyrics, only only three songs, all by Schubert, were in Italian. Three songs by Gabriel Fauré, listed as "Mélodies de Venise," were setting of poems by Paul Verlaine, two of them, "En sourdine" and "Mandoline" from Fêtes Galantes, one of the most musically fertile collections in the history of literature. Also anchored to La Serenissima were Schumann's Zwei Venetianische Lieder. These six songs constituted the beauty part of the recital; the only word for Tom's interpretation of "En sourdine" is "dreamy." Earlier, Tom sang three songs from Charles Ives's From Early Italian Poets, which Tom rendered painless and almost interesting (as distinct from crazy). "Look, ma, I got my yearly shot of Ives and it didn't even hurt!" The only Italian thing about Busoni's Goethe-Lieder was the composer's last name. Toward the end of the program, Tom almost crumpled up the theme and threw it away, with excerpts from Cathy Berberian's Stripsody and Derek Bermel's Nature Calls. As with John Cage's Arioso, part of which Tom sang at his Café Sabarsky gig last month, Stripsody's score is a matter of pictures, not notes, and it involves very little singing. As for the lovely Bermel songs, Tom sang them in February at his Symphony Space recital, the theme of which was songs by living American composers. What's Italian about them? It seems that Mr Bermel spends a lot of time in Italy, and that this set of three songs has been performed there: Tom sang the last one, "Dog," in an Italian translation. The program began and ended, however, on a genuinely Italian note. Schubert's Drei Gesänge für Bass-Stimme mit Klavier are settings of Italian lyrics, two of them by opera-meister Metastasio, and they are first-class Rossini counterfeits. (Schubert tried very hard to emulate Rossini's enormous success in Vienna.) Rossini's "Le chanson du bébé" finished things off in a truly delightful way, with a little boy cavatining "pipi, maman, papa, ca-CAAAAA!" I've loved this song for decades, but I never thought I'd hear it in person.

One shudders to imagine what a singer less gifted than Thomas Meglioranza would have made of this program. But if Tom is doing what the critics are always clamoring for - bringing forward new and unfamiliar music - he is doing it properly, by making it as beautiful and interesting as it can be. Aside from the twinkling of the "Lied des Mephistopheles," for example, nothing about the Busoni songs found a place in my memory, but while I was listening to them I was not impatient for them to end, and if I ever do come to understand this music it will because Tom laid the groundwork. The unearthly fact about Tom's performances is that he has mastered the art of singing in a past life, and can concentrate now upon presentation. He doesn't sing; he sings to you. And he does this not by sexing up the emotions or resorting to other manipulative devices, but by believing totally that the music that he's singing ought to be sung. He may not convince you of its worth, but you will never want him to stop making the case. You will instead want to know the date of the next event. The next event here in New York is, I believe, on 10 May, at Weill Recital Hall, with the MET Chamber Orchestra directed by James Levine. The program, as intimidating as a roller-coaster, will consist exclusively of music by Milton Babbitt. I've got my ticket, and I can't wait to tell you what it was like.

Update: Actually, Tom will be singing at the next New York Collegium concert on 5 May, at St Vincent Ferrer. (I'll be there.) He sang in Escondido the other day and will perform in Indianapolis at the end of the month. Consult www.meglioranza.com for complete listings.

April 10, 2006


For some crazy reason, it's Monday and yet I'm feeling pretty good! We watched a hugely funny movie last night, one that seems to have been lost in the post 9/11 commotion, Barry Sonnenfeld's Big Trouble. Is Zooey Deschanel the Eve Arden of our times or what?

The Metropolitan Diary is very good today. I especially liked the story about little Ella and the lady in the "garbage room." Kids say the darnedest things. And it was about two sentences before the actual announcement that I realized that columnist Joyce Purnick was bidding adieu to Metro Matters, her somewhat jaundiced but appealingly blog-like review of matters great and small.

But what is with the coverage of Renzo Piano's utterly banal addition to the Morgan Library? I can't believe my eyes! It looks like a bank in Podunk - a discount bank, too cheap to buy a sign. The interior shots suggest something with promise, but the exterior, at least in the Times photograph, is totally not "dazzling." And what's with the street furniture in front, while we're talking?

If I hear any more about the invasion of Iran, I'm coming out for impeachment. These people in the White House are crazy, and I for one don't want to be blown up because of their lunacy. I completely agree with Paul Krugman: don't expect W to act rationally. (I never have, not for a minute.)

And thanks to Ms NOLA for directing my attention to Ben and Alice, which in turn alerted me to the dustup about last Monday's Times crossword puzzle. Writing out "scumbag," it seems, in answer to a clue, bothered a lot of readers who remember what the word was supposed to mean when it entered the language in the Sixties. Younger readers, however - and I hope that would be you - just think it means "despicable person." Jesse Sheidlower's story is at Slate.

Have I outlined my own policy about vulgarity? Unlike the Times, I will quote anything. But I try to avoid the musky words myself. In my speech, they are signs of impatience or contempt (same difference?), and I often wish I didn't know them.

My Life in France

Like most people, I became acquainted with Julia Child on WGBH's groundbreaking program, The French Chef. I was already interested in cooking, an activity that, because I was not a girl, was forbidden to me. But for me cooking meant baking, the branch of culinary art that most requires the attentiveness to quantity and texture that I had already developed by playing with my chemistry set in the basement. I was fascinated by white bread. Where did the holes come from? How did pasty dough become airy crumb? In any case, I wasn't about to be entertaining friends at a dinner party any time soon, so what struck me most about Julia Child was what most impressed all non-cooks who found themselves riveted by The French Chef: the bizarre harmony of Child's robust modulation, a plummy accent not much heard in the Sixties,* and the fact that she resembled no one's idea of a television housewife. Without appearing to be clumsy, exactly, she did not perform with the poised, balletic grace of other broadcast cooks, who knew how punctuate their maneuvers with fetching smiles directed at the camera. She didn't perform at all. Her unselfconsciousness on television was, and remains, startling.

Maybe that was how she became a media star in the first place. She did not even own a television set when she was asked to appear on a books program...

Continue reading about the My Life in France at Portico.

April 09, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Poet Robert Creeley, who died last year, left behind a a "folder of poems" and an essay on Walt Whitman. According to D H Tracy, On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay shows how far Creeley had come from his obstreperous youth (and no farther). Mr Tracy makes the essay on Whitman sound worth reading. "I'm not convinced that Whitman's mind, or any writer's, ever disappears in this fashion, but the essay is not so much an act of persuasion as a way of remaining agonized."

Sharing the page with Mr Tracy's review is Christopher Corbett's enthusiastic review of Emily Barton's Brookland. This novel, which posits the construction of a Brooklyn Bridge long before Roebling's - an outrageous offense upon any decent sense of history and grown-up fact - is definitely not on my list, but Mr Corbett, not as troubled as I am by confusion about the line separating fiction from fantasy, lays out reasons why like-minded readers might enjoy Brookland. That makes for a good review.

Solidly within the fictional fold is the subject of this week's cover story, Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française (translated by Sandra Smith). Némirovsky, a Russian who thrived on the French literary scene between the wars, managed to write two of a projected five novellas about the German occupation of France before she was shipped off to Auschwitz and death. A surviving daughter lugged around a leatherbound notebook without looking at it for fifty years, which is why this remarkable book is appearing only now. Paul Grey's lengthy review makes the remarkable nature of Suite Française very clear:

The date of Némirovsky's death induces disbelief. It means, it can only mean, that she wrote the exquisitely shaped and balanced fiction of Suite Française almost contemporaneously with the events that inspired them, and everyone knows such a thing cannot be done. In his astute cultural history, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell describes the invariable progression - from the hastily reactive to the serenely reflective - of writings about catastrophes: "The significances belonging to fiction are attainable only as "diary" or annals move toward the mode of memoir, for it is only the ex post facto view of an action that generates coherence or makes irony possible.

We can now see that Némirovsky achieved just such coherence and irony with an ex post factor view of, at most, a few months. 

Nobelist José Saramago does not fare quite so well at the hands of Terrence Rafferty, who writes of Seeing, the sequel to Blindness (translated by Magaret Jull Costa), that "[a] wise man would have left most of the pages of the novel's first half blank." Also dismissed for lack of substance is Tony Hendra's The Messiah of Morris Avenue. Reviewer James Campbell comes away thinking, "It's hard to think of a reason not to read the Good Book instead."

There is no irony and no surprise, and the stages of the plot are as well worn as the path trodden in any village Passion play.

Parents and children are the subjects of two books under review. my latest grievance. Reviewer Eve Conant likes the story but not the novel that Marti Leimbach gives us in Daniel Isn't Talking. A toddler turns feral after a vaccination, thereby destroying his parents' marriage. "[T]he characters seem to be itching to get off the page and onto the set; layers of personality are sacrificed for plot expediency and straight-to-the-screen dialogue." (It reminds me of Dan Brown's ultimately ineffectual casting in The DaVinci Code - something about "Harrison Ford in tweeds.) Liesl Schillinger, who usually does her job, writes a book report instead of a book review about My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman. The plot is summarized (at length), with nary a comment about the book itself. She does call it "lovable, psychologically intricate," but doesn't back up her judgment.

Memoirs of a Muse, by Lara Vapnyar, gets a tepid review from Ken Kalfus. Of the author, a Russian emigrée, Mr Kalfus writes,

She's clearly a talented writer, possessed of ample humor and insight and a humane sensibility, but her own epic literary achievement lies somewhere in the future. ... she awaits her own strong draft of writerly inspiration.

Finally, there is Stephen Harrigan's Challenger Park, enthusiastically reviewed by Thomas Mallon. What I couldn't tell from the review was whether someone with no interest in the details of our space program would get anything out of this novel.

On balance, a collection of good reviews, whether favorable or not.


Sherwin B Nuland exploits his review of Eric R Kandel's In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind to rattle on about how the elimination of its Jewish population diminished Vienna. This is gratuitous at best. Perhaps Dr Nuland doubts that the Book Review's readership is up to the details of this "magnificently panoramic autobiography': in fact, he says as much. Nevertheless he recommends the book.

If there is another book that does a better job of demonstrating how biological research is done, or of telling the story of a brilliant scientist's career, I don't know it.

More solidly grounded in World War II is Sheila Fitzpatrick's review of Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, by Catherine Merridale. Ms Fitzpatrick notes that the author expected to find that the glowing patina on the national myth of the Great Patriotic War would be bruised and dented by the end of the Soviet Union, but that, while Ms Merridale found signs of revisionism at official levels, the soldiers whom she interviewed were as gung-ho as ever. "[I]t is to Merridale's great credit that she lets us listen to what her veterans had to say, even when it wasn't what she herself wanted to hear.

At the other end of hardship, Bill Barich has written A Fine Place to Daydream: Racehorses, Romance, and the Irish, reviewed by Max Watman. That this might be a book for me (in the right frame of mind) is indicated by the following observation:

Barich took the daydream as a model for this expansive chronicle. He casually travels the sod, writing discursively, as if the book itself were a jump race and it, too, would unfold leisurely.

Decidedly less appealing is Michael Grunwald's The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. The review is so stuffed with eyepopping aspects of "the raucous saga of South Florida" that I checked twice to see if Carl Hiaasen were the reviewer. In fact, Guy Martin is. Mr Martin is careful to note the importance of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the cause of protecting the "River of Glades."

The most discomfiting review is Ross Douthat's piece on The Man On Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen. Mr Douthat believes that Mr Hill, who used to write speeches for Henry Kissinger, is an executive assistant, not a grand strategizer, whose secret is silence.

Charlie doesn't talk too much," a friend tells her, and "that's part of why great men like him."

Unlike Mr Douthat's penetrating review, Sophie Harrison's piece on Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood, by Martin Booth, is a book report with a paragraph of bottom-line-favorable review at the end. Laura Miller is arch about Edmund White's My Lives, permitting her loathing of the book to peep out through the tiniest cracks, before wrapping up with this:

This kind of cleverness is compatible with sentimentality  but not with depth, and, alas, one of the signal traits of a charmer is a reluctance to talk about himself. Wit and charm this memoir has in abundance, but that, I'm afraid, is not to its credit.

People who respond to something with the explanation that it's bad precisely because of its good qualities rarely have anything important to say.

On the facing page is Charles McGrath's favorable review of another gay writer, Alan Bennett. Mr McGrath is deft here:

At times, Untold Stories takes on an almost Larkinesque note of loss and diminishment and of everything just going to hell. But where Larkin's gloom is deep and persistent, almost pornographic at times, Bennett's is more like the weather, apt to break at any moment.

I have never read Alan Ginsberg's Howl - I'm far too bourgeois - so it's surprising to encounter The Poem That Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Later, a "tribute album" edited by Jason Shinder. Greil Marcus's review is mixed at best.

Rather than "critical texts," Shinder wanted "personal narratives" from well-known writers on "how the poem changed their lives": thus the word "I" appears in the first or second line of more than half the pieces here. The famous first lines of Howl are quoted from at least 11 times.

Mr Marcus singles out Luc Sante's contribution for particular praise.

Alexandra Jacobs accords a grudgingly favorable review to Bonnie Fuller's The Joys of Much Too Much: Go for the Big Life - the Great Career, the Perfect Guy, and Everything Else You've Ever Wanted (Even if You're Afraid You Don't Have What It Takes). It's unclear from the review how much of Much Too Much is "pep-talking" and how much is memoir. Ms Jacobs notes that Ms Fuller is a "widely reviled Manhattan media figure."

Tara McKelvey's Nonfiction Chronicle rounds up the usual number of books with nothing in common.

Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, by Janice Erlbaum. "Eventually, she did what many adults never manage: she grew up."

The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England, 1327-1330. Ms McKelvey sums up the story - one of the most sordid in English history, and therefore the most truly compelling that I came across when I took English History at Blair - without really capturing Mr Mortimer's book. She does praise his "terrific detective work," though.

Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition, by Jeff Byles. According to Ms McKelvey, Mr Byles "makes fun of a CNN anchor who says, 'Every time there's an implosion of a building, we'll bring it to you, yes, we will, because it's neat.' Unfortunately, though, that about sums up Rubble."

Rome, Inc: The Rise and Fall of the First Multinational Corporation, by Stanley Bing. Asked by the author, "What Have We Learned?", Ms McKelvey tartly replies, "Well, I learned that some corporate executives think whatever they write is interesting or, even more of a stretch, amusing to others.

Never Drank the Kool-Aid: Essays, by Touré. This review is more quote than comment, but somewhere in the fog I gathered that pop culture is the underlying theme here.

In this week's essay, "Where Have All the Strivers Gone?" Joseph Finder, self-described "commercial" writer, deplores the disappearance of ambition from modern literary fiction. Reviewing the titles on my "Books on the Side" menu at Portico, I see so many books that involve the quest for material self-improvement that I wonder about Mr Finder's acquaintance with recent serious novels. Brick Lane, Pattern Recognition, The Line of Beauty, The Impressionist, Truth and Consequences, Good Faith - I'll stop there - all involve pots of elbow grease. And let's not forget The Corrections, which rarely strays far from assessing the costs of ambition.

April 08, 2006

News Flash

Did anybody know about this? Judi to play Enid!

Take the Lead

Liz Friedlander's Take the Lead is a very well-acted inspirational movie. There are dozens of points where, in less capable hands, the movie would fall flat on its puss, and if the film does have a defect, it's that you recognize these points as they occur. The trajectory is entirely predictable. A nice guy gives the kids of hard knocks a chance, and the kids succeed. He teaches them ballroom dancing, and they learn trust and respect. Hollywood loves a makeover, and Take the Lead is full of them, all more than skin-deep. It's a movie to love.

Antonio Banderas, at forty-six just beginning to look like a serious grown-up, plays the part of Pierre Dulaine, a real-life ballroom dance teacher who decided to do some good for underprivileged children. Because Mr Dulaine is very much alive, the film focuses not on his personal life but on his success with a bunch of high-school students. We learn that he was married and that his wife is dead, and that is that. Mr Banderas is so authoritative that we don't ask questions until the movie is over, when it really doesn't matter.

Like all good inspirational movies, Take the Lead is about behavior, not motivation. The behavior that Pierre wants to see begins with a courtly politeness that, even though it is not available in all sizes, looks very good on Mr Banderas, and you really believe that good manners can cut the grease of gritty New York life. Alfre Woodard is perfect as an initially skeptical, eventually supportive principal, while Rob Brown, Yaya DaCosta and Lauren Collins are affectingly troubled adolescents.

IMDb to the contrary notwithstanding, Ray Liotta is not, to the best of my knowledge, in the movie.

I mean it. You'll have to work hard not to love this picture.


It's raining. The weather is cold and grey. It's not really that cold, but we're all ready for spring and sunshine, so the gloom is more oppressive than an outright blizzard would be. I ought to have worn other shoes to breakfast at the coffee shop across the street. Having worn my nice loafers, I ought to do something about the wet, but I don't think there's any neat's foot oil in the house. What on earth is "neat's foot oil"?

The sidewalk in front of our building, between the driveway and the corner, is covered by a sidewalk shed. (Who knows why.) What slays me is the people who hold up their umbrellas beneath it, their attention so elsewhere that they don't register the superfluity.

The reason I wear my nice loafers is to hear them click in a grown-up way on the lobby's terrazzo floor. In this age of soft sneakers, my loafers are almost as percussive as the shoes of teenaged coolios who, forty years ago, nailed taps onto their soles. Crossing the hardwood floors of the Met's Old Master galleries the other day, my shoes gave a voluble account of the pictures that interested me, and for how long.

April 07, 2006

Movies Out and About

Three movies in two days: no wonder I'm behind. Oh, I have movies going all the time. But I'm talking about sit-down-and-pay-attention movies - if only to read the subtitles.

First there was Ugetsu, one of two great Kenji Mizoguchi pictures from 1953. I had rented it after reading M S Smith's writeup, and then I forgot about it. I had to watch it yesterday afternoon or incur penalties. Ugetsu is a very famous picture, but it's one of those Japanese films that slip by me because I cannot really believe that anybody would make a movie about "greed" or "lust." Mizoguchi did make a movie about peasants, though - about the limited knowledge and imagination that accompany a life of subsisting on hard labor. I ended up finding Michael's write-up somewhat more interesting than the film itself.

After Ugetsu, I wrote for a while and dithered about heading uptown to see L'Eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1962 masterpiece. On Wednesday night, I had gone up to Columbia University's Italian Academy, where Tom Meglioranza gave another lovely recital, about which I'll write elsewhere. Running late, I hopped in cab when I got off the crosstown bus at 86th and Broadway. The cab dropped me almost right in front of the Academy, a handsome Palladian building with a grand ballroom/auditorium on what Europeans would call the first floor. After the recital, I couldn't decide whether to have dinner in the neighborhood or head straight home, but in either case I wanted to be sure that I could cross the main campus to get to the 116th Street station. So much has changed since my college days that I no longer assume that just anybody can walk across a campus.

But anybody can, at least before ten o'clock. (I don't know what happens later.) As I walked the brick-chevron pavement, I thought about an announcement that the Italian Academy's "theatre manager" made before Tom's recital. The Academy was in the middle of an Antonioni festival, he said, and L'Eclisse would be shown the next night. I hadn't seen L'Eclisse since college. It seemed very fitting to see it again in roughly similar circumstances.

Very roughly. The Engineering Auditorium at Notre Dame (does it still exist?) was the site of the Film Society's offerings. I will always associate bad prints and subtitles with the folding wooden seats of the Engineering Auditorium. That's where I saw Hour of the Wolf for the first time, and Isn't It Romantic? - although, as I would later discover, the austere leaders of the Film Society had little taste for screwball comedy. The atmosphere in the auditorium was usually hostile, because that's what serious people were supposed to be - hostile to any attempt to pre-empt them with polite behavior. There was an awful lot of attitude, the attitude being, "I get this, you don't." Half the time, I didn't, so I felt lucky to be allowed in. I was almost certain that I would never grow up to be an intellectual; I only wish I'd known how relieved I'd be to become something else - a mind with no taste for theory.

I wanted to take a look at the Columbia campus, but I couldn't do this inadvertently, thanks to my rigid spine. I would have to stop and stare, and slowly turn a full circle to take it all in. I did stop, for quick glimpse of Butler Library, which, in the dark, all ablaze, seemed more like a glittering luxury liner than a library.

I was still dithering about dinner when I reached Broadway and headed south. Almost immediately deciding to head home directly, I was dismayed to find that the southern entrance to the 116th Street station was, at that hour anyway, an exit-only stairwell. I could have turned around, but I hate to turn around. I kept walking, and when I got to Deluxe, I got a table for two, right in the window, under a spotlight that allowed me to continue with the book I'm reading, Ian Dunlop's Louis XIV. After dinner - a steak sandwich that was minimally gristly - I continued down Broadway to the 110th Street station and home.

So, at 5:27 yesterday, at the last minute - or a few minutes after - I jumped in the shower and got freshened up, before tearing back up to Columbia. The crosstown bus encountered even more delays than usual, and I didn't reach Broadway until five past six. I could have taken another taxi, but as I knew where I was going this time I banked on the subway, and, indeed, I arrived at the Italian Academy at 6:20. To find that the screening wouldn't begin until 7:30. I'd checked the series poster but logged the wrong movie.

As I say, I hate to turn around. I paid the five-dollar donation and went upstairs with Louis XIV. I ought to have had dinner somewhere, because then I'd have (a) avoided an extra hour in the same chair and (b) been able to stay around for the Q & A after the movie. If I'd done that, of course, I wouldn't have had dinner with Kathleen at the Japanese pub across the street, but I'd have liked to hear more about Antonioni. In contrast to Ugetsu, which, event hough the Criterion Collection has reissued it on DVD, was available to me from the Video Room only as an ancient tape, the print of L'Eclisse, also on DVD, was super-sparkling.

The problem with Antonioni, I concluded, is that he makes the objects of his criticism far too attractive. Would I want to live the life of empty fame and boredom led by Thomas, the photographer in Blow-Up? You bet! I am a shallow bourgeois! I actually believe I could find happiness being creative with a camera. But then, I like woman a lot more than Thomas does. Alain Delon dances around L'Eclisse with a fervor that makes our own sharpshooter Aaron Eckhart look ponderous. Is he a boy, or is he a man? He's so alive that the difference is blurred. As for Monica Vitti, I used to thinkt that she was amazingly plain for a big-time actress, and there's something about her Italian accent that isn't appealing. But she grows on me, the poor neurotic wretch.

Walking across the campus for a third time afterward, I heard a young woman declaiming from the steps of Low Library (perhaps someone will explain the duelling-libraries thing). She was ranting in a voice not meant for unaided public speech in vast piazzas, but she made herself heard. I did not stop and turn to look, but I heard a few passers-by say things like "Oh, right" before turning away and getting back to going wherever they were going. Was the young lady giving a reading of My Name Is Rachel Corrie? I hope so.

As today is Friday, I had to go to the movies again. I'd have gone to see Tsotsi, but the first showing is in the middle of the afternoon, so I saw Take the Lead instead, right across the street. Back to normal! Conveniently, it rained and stopped raining while I sat in the theatre and wallowed in uplift. Take the Lead would never in a million years have been shown in the Engineering Auditorium, but I liked it.

Now for a sandwich (more Louis XIV) and then an afternoon of housework. Someone's gotta do it.

Home Computer, 1954 Preview


Kathleen just sent me this. Here's the caption:

Scientists from the RAND Corporation have created this model to illustrate how a "home computer" could look like in the year 2004. However the needed technology will not be economically feasible for the average home. Also the scientists readily admit that the computer will require not yet invented technology to actually work, but 50 years from now scientific progress is expected to solve those problems. With teletype interface and the Fortran language, the computer will be easy to use.

From Popular Mechanics in 1954. Love the steering wheel!

Update: Well, no wonder! This is a hoax! Thanks a lot, dearest. (And thanks to V X Sterne.)

April 06, 2006

What I See When I Blog


Hey guys, I don't know about you, but when I'm blogging, this is my view. You fellows must be daydreaming a lot, about what I just wonder.

Please welcome Perge Modo, which I've finally worked up the daring to add to my affinities list. T is a great writer, but please note: even though his visuals are decidedly chaste, the prose is totally Not Safe For Work. Wait until you get home.



Saboteur (1942) has never figured among Alfred Hitchcock's most beloved movies, and there are good reasons for that. If I have a weak spot for it, though, there are several explanations. There's Bob Cummings, who was a brilliant TV star in the Fifties. Here, he reminds me of my late Uncle John. There's Priscilla Lane, with whom John's parents were photographed on a studio tour not long after Saboteur was made. Mostly, though, there's the preview of North By Northwest. Anybody who loves that movie ought to know Saboteur just to see the seeds that would flower in greatness. Like North By Northwest, Saboteur is even more obsessed by monuments and great public buildings than the ordinary Hitchcock film. It also involves international espionage. And it hinges on an innocent man's cross-country attempt to clear his name. The most striking difference between the two movies is that it's the bad guy who's hanging by his fingernails at the end.

Actually, Saboteur is a party tape. Who can make the most connections between the two films? It's not as though North By Northwest has the more prestigious monuments, either. Saboteur boasts the Hoover Dam, Radio City, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the smashingly iconic Statue of Liberty - a gift, it is noted, from the French.

The Cold War - it was cold. Who could work up a lot of hatred for James Mason's Vandamm? He was just a bad guy. The bad guys in Saboteur are far more toxic. They hate America. They despise it even as they want to rule it. Sound familiar? Here's the exchange between the Wrong Man (Barry Kane) and the Bad Guy (Otto Kruger) in the last of the film's discursive scenes. Even James Stewart couldn't have made it more patriotic.

Barry Kane: Why is it that you sneer every time you refer to this country? You've done pretty well here. I don't get it.

Charles Tobin: No, you wouldn't. You're one of the ardent believers. The good American. There are millions like you. People who plod along without asking questions. I hate to use the word "stupid," but it seems to be the only one that applies. The "great masses." The "moron millions." Well, there are a few of us who are unwilling to just troop along. A few of us who are clever enough to see that there's much more to be done than just live small, complacent lives. A few of us in America who desire a more profitable type of government. When you think about it, Mr Kane, the competence of totalitarian nations is much higher than ours. They get things done.

Barry Kane: Yeah, they get things done. They bomb cities, sink ships, torture and murder so you and your friends can eat off of gold plate. It's a great philosophy.

Charles Tobin: I neither indent to be bombed nor sunk, Mr Kane. That's why I'm leaving now. And if things don't go right for you, if, uh, we should win, then I'll come back. Perhaps I can get what I want then. Power. Yes. I want that as much you want your comfort or your job or - that girl. We all have different tastes, as you can see. Only, I'm willing to back my tastes with the necessary force.

Barry Kane: You certainly make it sound smooth and easy. Well, that's a trick. I know the results of that power you believe in. It killed my friend and is killing thousands like him. That's what you're aiming at, but it doesn't bother you - I can see that. Because you really hate all people. Let me tell you something. The last four or five days, I've learned a lot. I've met guys like you, and I've met others. People that are helpful and eager to do the right thing. People that get a kick out of helping each other fight the bad guys. Love and hate. The world's choosing up sides. I know who I'm with. There are a lot of people on my side. Millions of us in every country. And we're not soft. We're plenty strong, And we'll fight standing up on our two feet and we'll win: remember that, Mr Tobin. We'll win no matter what you guys do. We'll win if takes from now until the cows come home.

Charles Tobin: Mr Kane, I think we've discussed the rights of man sufficiently.

There are days when I believe that William F Buckley should be dragged out à la lanterne while he's still alive, just to make clear the utter blackness of his sin against the republic of which he professes, quite without justice, to be so proud. He was never at any time very different from Charles Tobin, except in staying in situ, to oversee the plot that eventually made anybody who sounds like Barry Kane seem to be a radical leftist. Mr Buckley, father of modern conservatism, also hates the plodding millions. His message was always Charles Tobin's.

In any case, rent the movie. Put up with its starch. You will never forget the ending.

April 05, 2006

Corporate Stories

Be sure not to miss Malcolm Gladwell's summary of Charles Tilly's Why? in the current New Yorker. In "Here's Why," Mr Gladwell enumerates the four modes of explanation that Professor Tilly has distinguished. Each is as valuable in its own way as the others, and we make use of them according to the relationship that binds us (or not) to those to whom we're explaining something. First, there's convention, which is a form of dismissal. Second, there's story, which is just the opposite. Third, there's code; legal explanations are in code, which is why they're so frustrating to the parties involved in a lawsuit. Finally, there's expert analysis, which is pre-emptive and final, at least to the extent that the explainers are respected.

Corporations employ all four modes of explanation. Slogans quickly become conventions; warranties and "terms and conditions" are codes; instruction manuals appear to offer technical expertise. Corporate stories - ranging from advertisements to human resources - are not like normal stories, however, because everybody knows that they're not true. They can't be! How can an artificial person bind with a real one? How can an artificial person care about anything but itself? The only true story that corporations can tell is the one that they never do: "We're in this for the money."

Do the spokespersons who actually tell the stories on behalf of corporations expect to be believed? I don't think they really care. What a well-crafted corporate story does best is jamming the discourse. Creating an unanswerable position in the form of a story means that the time for explanations has passed, but without finality. When a corporation attributes an oil spill to a negligent ship's captain but insists that it is tightening its training and surveillance of ship's captains, that's that. Maybe it will follow through and maybe it won't. After enough oil spills, the time of explanation will be over in earnest, but meanwhile the corporation has bought time, time for the public's attention to drift on to something else.

It's the damage that corporate stories do to our language that bothers me.

April 04, 2006

Political Discussion

[On the elevator]

Well Dressed Gent Who Lives on the Top Floor: You're always carrying a book.

Me: I never go anywhere without something to read.

WDG: Maybe you could give one of your books to our president...

Me: I'm afraid he might try to read it upside-down.

WDG [laughs, bitterly]: You know, he calls the soldiers "kids." He says that they've lost their lives. They haven't lost their lives, their lives have been taken from them.

Me: It's terrible.

[My floor]

Saturday Night Out

We talk about it all the time, but we rarely actually go out on a Saturday night to the movies. One of us is too tired, or too mired in a project. But by the time I wrapped up the day's "Book Review" entry (no need for a link), I was ready to get out of the apartment. It was so mild that I didn't wear a jacket. We walked up 86th Street to Third Avenue, to where the AMC Orpheum is, in the middle of the block between 86th and 87th. There has been an Orpheum theatre in Yorkville since its deeply German days; when we got here in 1980, it had been divided into two theatres, one of them encompassing the former balcony. When did they tear it down? I can't remember. A new apartment building went up on the site, with seven theatres at or below ground level. Inside Man was showing in the big theatre, two flights down. We bought our tickets for the ten thirty show at a quarter past nine and then went next door to Burger Heaven for dinner. I remember thinking that the couple sitting by the window looked seriously mismatched, in posture as well as looks, but I didn't point them out to Kathleen (who had her back to them) because she would probably have pointed out that our difference in height might strike some people as odd.

We'd been told that the theatre would open at ten, and that's when we were ready to go. Kathleen got a good seat while I loaded up on junk. Yes, I'd just had dinner; yes, I knew I'd never finish the popcorn. But I can't sit in the movies without popcorn. Even though it's rarely very good anymore. We wondered if some cheap hybrid has taken over the popcorn market. Even the Orville Redenbacher that I make at home every once in a while doesn't taste the way it used to. Does anybody snack on popcorn outside the USA (and Canada, I suppose)? I did take a bottle of water instead of a diet soda, in case Kathleen got thirsty. (She didn't.)

As I noted a few entries ago, the trailers were hard to sit through, and I wondered if I was in the right frame of mind for a big-time heist movie with armies of police. But presently it became clear that this Spike Lee film was going to let the genre out at the seams to make room for plenty of New Yawk color. I don't know how Inside Man will play the rest of the country, but it was a comedy at the Orpheum. Not the lightest comedy ever, but - what if I were to say that nobody dies? Was that too much? The four stars - Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Christopher Plummer - are all in top form, Ms Foster especially. Did you know that Mr Washington grew up in Mount Vernon? That makes him a city kid. There's a fifth star: 20 Exchange Place. It's one of my favorite downtown buildings. It can't have been easy to shoot a film there: the streets are narrow and very much not at right angles.

The score is credited to trumpeter Terence Blanchard, but I think that A R Rahman wrote the more dramatic passages that even a genre-bending bank heist movie needs. The costumes, by Donna Berwick, caught my eye, especially her light-colored suits for Mr Washington (and those bow ties). Unlike 16 Blocks, Inside Man has the feel of the city.

I left the theatre elated - not a great state for one in the morning.


April 03, 2006

The Opposite of Happiness

Over the weekend, the Times published a report by Daniel Gross, "Invest Globally, Stagnate Locally." I urge everyone to read it. I wish I could propose something to do after reading it. A plan, perhaps, to bombard economists with demands that they think more creatively about avoiding the rendezvous with an iceberg of "democratic nationalism" that HSBC's chief economist in London, Stephen King, foresees. (And I suspect Mr King of seeing only the tip.)

Thanks to globalization and the opening of new markets, Mr. King said, "it's increasingly difficult to argue that companies themselves are attached to a country." He notes, for example, that Vodafone, the giant British telecommunications company, has more than 80 percent of its sales and employment outside of Britain. And as of 2002, Mr. King found, the 50 largest multinational companies had 55 percent of their employees and 59 percent of their sales outside of their home countries.

Let's say that Americans get fed up with being excluded from the benefits of capitalist prosperity at some point prior to the realization of Alan S Blinder's vision of a nation populated by investors and their servants. Let's say that "leaders" are forced to take protectionist measures against, oops, the countries that prop up the dollar. We cannot afford to take such protectionist measures, period, but that won't necessarily prevent their enaction. What if disgruntled French and German workers resolve to withdraw from the European Union? Nationalism is a deadly beast, fond of war. Human beings have not yet evolved to resist its appetite. Racial supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic keep the pilot light of hatred burning. Economic downturns threaten to take us right back to 1914, if not to something worse.

Has the air gone out of Western Civilization? Are we just coasting, comfortable for the moment but out of control? Every Monday morning, instead of a bleak office I confront this bleak prospect. I see a lot of good reporting - that's how I know that I've got something to worry about. Beyond that, however, I don't see much evidence of creative initiative. Much of the analysis that I see is spoiled by anger. Is this the inevitable consequence of a culture of "individualism"?

I myself am not angry. I've done the anger thing and gotten it out of my system. But I am unhappy. As Jeremy Denk noted a few weeks ago, the opposite of happiness is not sadness. The opposite of happiness is worry.

Mission To America

Last October, when it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, I declared that I'd read Walter Kirn's Mission to America "no matter what Paul Gray's review made of it."

Then I forgot all about it. What reminded me was Mr Kirn's priceless review of Harvey C Mansfield's Manliness.

I'm not entirely sure that I actually read Paul Gray's review of Mission To America. The reason for my enthusiasm was Up In The Air, Mr Kirn's previous novel. In that book, a road warrior flies about the American West, desperate to close a deal while clocking up the miles. Ryan M Bingham is a character whom I'd have called snarky if I'd been familiar with the word at the time; he wants me to like him without caring much about whether he's really likeable. That puts him at a huge distance from Mason Plato LaVerle, the hero of Mission to America. Mason is sweet. He's genuinely well-intentioned, and he subscribes to much of the wisdom of the remote cult in which he was brought up. He wants life to be real, and he doesn't want to get stuck doing soulless things.

Mason comes from Bluff, Montana, a secluded community run by women who encourage their men to undertake demanding physical labor while they, the women, do the thinking. (The library, a ramshackle collection of books, is for "dandies" - homosexuals.) The wisdom of this arrangement might very well be what the novel sets out to establish. Mr Kirn knows, however, how to start on a ...

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April 02, 2006

Spring Forward

It is time to change the clocks. I could write about insomnia, or I could write about The Inside Man. That is, I could write about how going to the 10:30 showing of a movie kept me up all night. It is, after all, just past four in the morning (EDT), and here I am, typing away - the very last thing that someone mindful of sleep ought to be doing. Thank heaven for martinis.

My idea for sleep was to read Elizabeth Bishop, a poet with whom I'm really rather unacquainted. Or was until this evening. I kept reading poem after poem, tucking in bookmarks, feeling dumb. No! Not dumb! I got the poems! All the while musing on Bishop's face: so "classic" in three-quarter, but so almost idiotic, imbecilic, touched, face on. Such a round face, with such small eyes. Face on, she convinces me that she was right to ask Robert Lowell to make sure that her headstone pronounced her to be the loneliest person in the world.

Does anybody remember how Ned Rorem's setting of "Visit to St Elizabeth's" goes? (It's about Ezra Pound.) Let's sing it!

The previews before The Inside Man were terrifying. First, Poseidon. I know the original as well as I know my own face, which is why I don't think I can cope with the remake, in which lappers get tossed into the sea (and don't they deserve it, the yuppies!) . And then the trailer for United 93. I had to make a trip to the men's room for that one - my heart was killing me. At least the last preview was a trailer for The Break Up, a comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn that just may turn them into our template for modern lovers. There's a wicked scene about bowling shirts that got cut from the first trailer that I saw. Gimme!

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

First, the poetry; this week, it's on the cover. Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments has prompted a stinging rebuke from Helen Vendler, at The New Republic. Ms Vendler is opposed to publishing "maimed and stunted siblings" of Bishop's best work. David Orr, in the Book Review is almost wildly enthusiastic. "You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop," he begins. Well! Mr Orr's piece is not a book review but an encomium, making arguably extravagant claims for Bishop's verse. It is noted in passing that Alice Quinn, poetry editor at The New Yorker, edited the collection.

Colson Whitehead's is a name that I've heard a lot without, however, hearing anything very tempting. David Gates's review of Apex Hides the Hurt doesn't alter the situation. The review is for the most part a summary of the apparently non-naturalistic novel, and one clogged by comment. It's not at all fun to read. "There happens to be a perfectly good word to characterize Whitehead's enterprise, but to tell you would ruin his ending," writes Mr Gates. If a book's ending could really be ruined by the premature ejaculation of le mot juste, then it's not the enterprise for me. I would say that only a fan of Mr Whitehead would get anything out of this review, but the only thing to get is warm fellow-feeling, not insight.

Liesl Schillinger DOESN'T LIKE Lucy Ellmann's Doctors & Nurses, expressing her annoyance with Ms Ellmann's reliance on capitalized words.

There's no reason an overweight, self-destructive female character can't beguile the reader. ... But Ellmann's readers will have difficulty deciding whether the reaction she wants Jen to provoke is laughter, commiseration, guilt or the gag reflex.

Top marks, Ms Schillinger!

Jacob Heilbrunn's review of The Last Supper, a Cold War novel by Charles McCarry, is somewhat less felicitous.

So where does McCarry's nearly faultless performance leave him in the cold war novelistic pantheon? He easily bests his American rivals, but whether he topples his British contemporaries from the perch is another matter.

It is a matter that ought to have been the topic of the review; instead of which, Mr Heilbrunn summarizes the plot.

There are two historical novels this week, both based on real people, Marie Curie and Bertolt Brecht respectively. Francine Prose pretty much blasts The Book About Blanche and Marie, by Per Olav Enquist (translated by Tina Nunnally).

The fact that one so often pauses in mid-sentence to think "How interesting if this were true!" signals a disquieting lack of engagement with the sentence one is actually reading.

A quick, effective thrust. Neil Gordon's review of Brecht's Mistress, by Jacques-Marie Amette (translated by Andrew Brown) is clouded by the novel's reception in Europe, where it has been praised by A N Wilson and awarded the Prix Goncourt. Mr Gordon does not share the enthusiasm. "The events of the novel, while historically exact, are undramatized." One finishes the review wondering if Mr Gordon is the right reader to review an understandably prickly French novel.


Two books in this week's Review criticize, directly or indirectly, the grip of globalizing free trade on the lives of millions. In similarly-structured pieces, both are praised but ultimately judged to be naive. Contents are admiringly summarized, and then hands are thrown into the air. I like to think that this sort of thing can't go on much longer: somebody has to start calling for restrictions on unfettered free markets, because it is palpably not the case that everyone benefits from unrestricted commerce. Indeed, Robert B Reich, reviewing Fair Trade For All: How Trade Can Promote Development, by Joseph E Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton, points out that the "wealthy are growing much wealthier while the middle class is being squeezed." But Mr Reich, a former labor secretary, has nothing more to say than his hope that wealth will be more equitably distributed. Surely he could do better. He writes,

Without these other institutions [roads, schools, &c] in place, the authors say, trade by itself can do more harm than good.

It is precisely the development of new institutions, designed to encourage and protect widespread productivity, that thinkers on this subject should be working on. Such institutions will counter the otherwise irresistible pull that drives capitalists to employ as few human beings as possible. That this pull is currently wreaking damage in the United States is the subject of Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. Economist Brad DeLong writes,

Uchitelle's diagnosis that mass layoffs are a serious national problem is convincing. But for this card-carrying economist, his desired prescription is not. I see no examples anywhere in the world of economies that have taken steps in the directions he desires without severe side-effects.

All right, so the European model has its flaws. Again, Mr DeLong ought to be formulating constructive questions. I repeat: neither of these reviewers is a layman. It's extremely demoralizing to see such a lack of creative spirit.

The role of religion in European life since 1789 is an all-too-lively subject. Jacobin radicals sought to destroy the Roman Catholic Church and replace it with secular festivals that, in the absence of episcopal scrutiny, slid inexorably toward demagoguery. Along the way, Joseph de Maistre invented reaction, the struggle to re-write history by erasing it that afflicts a lot of Americans who believe that this country went to hell in the 1960s. Mark Lilla is right to worry that history may be repeating itself. His two-page review of Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War, by Michael Burleigh, seems to have wandered in from The New York Review of Books. Mr Lilla is a capable and lucid writer, but what he writes is invariably suffused with a sense of hidden agenda. What are the strongly-held beliefs that seem to underpin his work without his ever disclosing them? Nowhere in this review does Mr Lilla make clear his own sentiments about the topic of Mr Burleigh's timely book. He does regret the possibility that here in the twenty-first century, as in Europe in the nineteenth, mutating religiosity will lead to fascistic intolerance, and he's firm about the futility of expecting Arab nations to flower into liberal democratic states anytime soon. But, like Messrs Reich and DeLong, he enjoys summarizing and diagnosing better than badly-needed prognostication. Of Mr Burleigh's book, he writes that "is also a surprisingly messy work with no clear thesis to advance, lazily written in patches and in dire need of editing." On the plus side of this review with no clear thesis, however,

Burleigh does a marvelous job profiling these colorful characters while still managing to convey the historical importance of their ideas.

Corey S Powell's review of Programming The Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos, by Seth Lloyd, engages itself in saying nice or at least interesting things about Mr Lloyd's book without actually recommending that anybody buy it. In short, it's deeply dissatisfying. As it is, I'm holding my head trying to digest the following summary of Mr Lloyd's claims:

The universe is a quantum computer whose computations are the movements of information that define the world we experience.

Mr Powell is an editor at Discover magazine; he seems to be concerned about being taken in.

Samuel Freedman generally admires Cynthia Carr's Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America. Ms Carr grew up in Marion, Indiana, where in 1930 two black men were lynched, not by a spontaneous mob but "a recruited, orchestrated gang of vigilantes." Mr Freeman praises Ms Carr's "relentless, remorseless scrutiny" but faults the author for failing to subject a beloved grandfather to it.

In his new book, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, Sidney D Kirkpatrick will have nothing to do with rumors that Thomas Eakins was a submerged homosexual, and, reviewer Deborah Solomon finds this daft. Writing of the photographs taken by Eakins as studies for Swimming, Ms Solomon remarks that "they have only extended the debate over whether Eakins approached the male figure as a lesson in anatomy or as an object of homoerotic desire." Nor does she think much of Mr Kirkpatrick's title.

Kirkpatrick has titled his book The Revenge of Thomas Eakins because he believes that the artist's posthumous fame represents a sweet and overdue vindication. But does a dead man's success constitute a feat of revenge? Hardly. Any artist with a reputation has obviously triumphed over his detractors. If the title restates the self-evident, the same must finally be said of this book, which fails to deepen our understanding of the artist or question Eakins's image of himself as the ultimate truth-teller. For all his claims about stripping away falsehoods and advancing the cause of realism, Eakins, it seems, could not bring himself to confront the reality of his own inner life. You might say that he mistook the nude body for the naked truth.

There are two memoirs this week. The first one sounds, at least in Danielle Trussoni's review, wildly embarrassing. Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine, mother and daughter, write tandem memoirs of "what seems like an extreme-sport version of juvenile delinquency and rehab," in Come Back: A Mother and Daughter's Journey Through Hell and Back.

At its best, Come Back is a testament to the power of love between a mother and daughter. At its worst, it is illustrative of Claire's tendency to manage her daughter's life by placing her into a story line that she, Claire, has created.

Ew. Then there's Gail Caldwell A Strong West Wind: A Memoir. Ms Caldwell, longtime Boston book critic, grew up in Amarillo, and she misses it. If it hadn't been for the Sixties, she might have stayed there, but her life has always been governed by tensions that pull her both to the great outdoors of Texas and the great indoors of libraries. Joyce Johnson can't quite bring herself to decide whether the "plain-spoken writing" that she likes is so overpowered by "eloquent," "overheightened" passages that it ruins the book for her. Making nice and having it both ways is Ms Johnson's game.

There isn't anything that Darrin M McMahon's review of Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment could have said to get me to read this book. As Mr McMahon points out, authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow have "perfected the genre of the cerebral celebrity death match." Mr McMahon is not too polite to find this sexing up of a feudetta between Rousseau and Hume "slightly strained." Such foolishness.

In  other sports news, Neil Genzlinger wryly assesses Thomas Hackett's "desperate, though not unconvincing, effort to discover meaning" in professional wrestling. At the end, however, he suggests that, for all Mr Hackett's efforts in Slaphappy: Pride, Prejudice, and Professional Wrestling, pro wrestling may indeed by "unredeemable garbage." Franklin Foer, editor at The New Republic no less, praises To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever, Will Blythe's new book about college basketball for going "far beyond the facile John Feinstein 'inside a season' formula." Now, until I began this feature, I had no idea of John Feinstein's existence, but already I've learned, through bad reviews of two of his books, that he had better have thick skin! Mr Blythe's subtitle is so long that it requires its own sentence. A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry. This is a Thinking Man's Sports Book: it makes a reference to Conrad. The good news is that nobody really hates anybody.

Instead of an Essay, we get a Poem, a cento. In case you've forgotten, a cento is a pastiche of lines drawn from other poems, strategically arrangement to create new meaning. The Greeks and the Romans wrote them, and ever since "The Waste Land" they've been as popular as ever. As editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman thought to commemorate its publication with a cento drawn from the book's contents. It's engaging, but there's nothing like John Ashbery's mash-up of Spenser and Stevens:

Calm was the day and through the trembling air,

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair.

April 01, 2006

Thank You For Smoking


In Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking, Aaron Eckhart takes a role that he was born to play and makes a film that I suspect will have to be seen twice for plain delight. That's because it takes a very long time to decide whether Nick Naylor, the crack tobacco lobbyist whose adventures in spin and media mismanagement bring him to the brink of catastrophe not once but twice, is a hero or a devil. Mr Eckhart is an extremely entertaining devil, but there can't be many people who, having just watched In The Company of Men, are seized by the desire to watch it again right away. When his character is scalped and killed in Nurse Betty, horror is trumped by relief: one less scumbag on earth. In Smoking, he is far too conscious of being appealing to be trusted. Will he turn out to be someone we love to hate? If so, the film's comic potential is greatly reduced. If, on the other hand, Nick is the roguish hero of a satire, then we can laugh more easily.

Nick Naylor is the roghish hero of a satire, and Mr Eckhart deserves an Academy Award not least for keeping us on edge about Nick until the film is nearly over. I could easily talk about nothing but one very sensational performance. There is not an iota of comic potential that does register in one way or another on Nick's face. And what a face! With its long, straight nose, its wide mouth, its cleft chin, its good-boy hair and its slightly out-of-synch eyes, Mr Eckhart's face at rest looks like a bland corporate, but the instant it moves it become plausible. It is a hall of mirrors, sometimes a funhouse, in which you're not sure that the wallet you're shielding is in your back pocket or somebody else's. Nick Naylor is radioactively suspect.

In all but one scene. After his second catastrophe, Nick falls, understandably, into a deep slump. From this he is rescued by a kitchen conversation with his son, Joey. Now, only in a satire could one go along with the notion that Mr Eckhart could produce a son resembling moon-faced Cameron Bright, but this mock-tender scene actually witnesses the actors' switching roles. Mr Bright is the wise daddy, Mr Eckhart, his pupils invisible, the open-mouthed kid. This is the moment when, agreeing with Joey, we decide that, even if he's a vulture, Nick Naylor is a very good vulture, in a world that for some reason requires vultures. We're moved not least because Mr Eckhart looks like the sort of fiend who would use Mr Cameron to play dwarf bowling.

Based on a novel by satirist Christopher Buckley, Thank You For Smoking begins with a devastating leer at the nation's lack of critical-thinking skills. On the Joan Lunden Show, Nick is the bad guy on a panel of anti-smoking campaigners, including "Cancer Boy," a rather robust-looking teenager with a shaved head. Within moments, Nick has the audience reconsidering the urge to boo him off the stage. We see the formerly skeptical faces begin to nod in agreement with his spin. Mr Reitman never lets the movie lose its satirical thrust, which perhaps explains why critics have found it "slight." Satire operates on the principle that laughter is the best first step toward reform. It is, quite literally, not meant to be taken "seriously." Satire often flops on the screen because, as Messrs Eckhart and Bright demonstrate by showing us what's required, it requires the ability to keep a straight face where winking might seem irresistible. Never have pans been deader to the urge.

Who but Mr Buckley would name a senator from Vermont "Ortolan Finistirre?" Who but William H Macy could have played such a tetchy prig? Who but Robert Duvall could have given us such a smooth but monstrous caricature of a tobacco baron? Katie Holmes, currently under a cloud because of suspicions about the nature of her marriage, is adorable right up to the moment when she's not - and beyond. Rob Lowe (an even more plausible actor than Mr Eckhart) impersonates an interplanetary Hollywood agent - or is he?  Maria Bello and David Koechner are perfect as Nick's "Merchants of Death" buddies.

Thank You For Not Smoking is pitch-perfect and, I expect, huge fun. I'll have to wait until I've seen it a second time.