" /> Daily Blague: May 2006 Archives

« April 2006 | Main | June 2006 »

May 31, 2006


As a born worrier, I work hard not to get carried away by problems that lie in wait around the corner, and reading about the recent rally in gold prices this morning triggered a Chicken-Little alert. It seems that there is something called the "Grimdex" that tracks divergences between the movement in gold prices and those of other "raw industrial materials." When the divergence is small, that's good. When gold shoots ahead - something that seems about to happen - it means that investors are backing out of currency-denominated securities, which in today's worlds means, simply, dollars.

Hurricane season begins tomorrow, and the experts predict a rough season. Am I worried? Well, I'm stocking up on water and batteries and canned goods. (It's no fun to stock up on things in a Manhattan apartment, believe me.) But what does worry me is the same thing that bothers me about the dollar crisis: a sort of national inattentiveness, scarily reflected in this front page story from the Times: "As Hurricane Season Looms, States Aim To Scare." I wonder how helpful it will be to confuse wits already dimmed by television with disaster-film trailer lookalikes.

Unfortunately, we're up to our necks in the problem that worries me now.

May 30, 2006

In the sickroom

At four in the morning on Monday, I awoke from an awful nightmare with a fever and the dry heaves. I don't remember it very well, thanks to the fever, which reached 104.5. Our internist happened to be on call for the holiday weekend, and he counseled Tylenol and hydration. And patience, of course. After three uneventful retchings in the bathroom, my system quieted down, and I got back to sleep. Poor Kathleen. Working round the clock since November, she had just enjoyed the first two consecutive days off in over six months. A good night's sleep was just what she needed but didn't get.

When I woke up at about nine-thirty, I felt all right, sort of. That's to say that I didn't feel seasick. I did feel as though I'd been in some sort of train wreck. And the queasiness did not take long to return. It was mild and intermittent, but it boded ill for the coming night. I spent most of the day in bed, but I got up for won ton soup at lunchtime. I kept it down, but thereafter I could only manage dry rye toast. A big, rich-tasting banana sent me back to the bathroom, but, again, nothing came up. At about ten, I realized that continuing to drink ice-water would just try my bladder, so I switched to Scotch.  A bit later, I took a shower; not succumbing to chills while I dried off was very reassuring. Shortly after midnight, I ate one scrambled egg. Just one. I felt good. Two hours later, still reading, I toasted an English muffin and slavered it with butter. It felt heavy, like too big a meal, but, aside from that ghostly discomfort, my stomach was sound. Some time before three, I stretched out, leaving my bedside lamp on but without a book in my hands. I fell asleep almost at once.

Meanwhile, I finished two books that coincidentally fell into my pile at the same time. I say, "coincidentally," because the differences between them underline the fact that they both exemplify Domestic Adventure. This genre - adventure, but with indoor plumbing - is not my cup of tea, really. I picked up one of them after a long resistance, and I am quite sure that I should never have bought the other, which was a gift. They were very welcome yesterday, however.

And that is where the burgeoning literary discussion will have to stop for today. I'm convalescing.

Based on a Totally True Story, at MTC's Stage II

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Based on a Totally True Story is a delightful comedy that skips along like a stone on the surface of a lake, only without sinking. The material, introduced in a rush, seems very unpromising in summary: two boys meet cute and move in together, but trouble starts when an unproduced play written by one of the duo is optioned by Hollywood. The playwright all but locks himself in his room, rewriting his script according to the producer's endless (and belittling) changes. The other boy quite naturally comes to feel uncared for. Even if I haven't actually seen a play with this plot, I've seen plenty like it. But the rushed introduction is a key to the play's success. By speeding up the action with standup comedy and playing it for laughs, Mr Aguirre-Sacasa makes his story new and interesting.

Continue reading about Based on a Totally True Story at Portico.

May 29, 2006

Julia Lambert in and out of the Theatre


Few if any movies have besotted me quite so thoroughly as Being Julia. I didn't see the film when it was in the theatres, but came across it on HBO during a very idle moment. I watched it again and then bought it. And then the DVD spent a week in the kitchen TV. When the movie ended, I would often as not start it over again. I couldn't get enough of Annette Bening's scenery-chewing performance. Never has anyone seemed more alive on film than she does in the role of leading London actress Julia Lambert.

It was inevitable, therefore, that I would read the novel from which it's adapted, provided that I could ...

Continue reading about Theatre and Being Julia at Portico.

May 28, 2006

Book Review

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

Food Issue

What a nice gift from the editors of the Book Review - a Food Issue! A sprinkling of memoirs, a biography, and books both thoughtful and thoughtless about how we humans have complicated a basic necessity. Throw in a cookbook roundup by Amanda Hesser and a bit of mischievous pastiche by Henry Alford,

Talking about the issue at breakfast with Kathleen, I remarked that food will never be as interesting and consuming to me as it seems to be to most of the people covered in the books at hand. I have absolutely no desire, for example, to work in a professional kitchen: it doesn't seem much different from being a pillaging pirate. And I'm not interested in novelty. I don't want my thoughts and my conversation to be upstaged by what I'm eating. Well, not very often. And what I love most about food is the memories that it can trigger.

Kathleen responded by saying that for me cooking was primarily a matter of control. That put me off at first but I soon saw that she was right. I had taught myself to cook because I wanted to eat what I wanted to eat made the way I wanted it to taste. In other words, I did not want to eat my mother's cooking. My mother did not belong in the kitchen. Given her narrow outlook, it went without saying that men did not belong in her kitchen. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I conceived the possibility that one might eat as well at home as one did at the country-club and grill-room restaurants that we went to every Sunday night. And that remains my culinary program. It's a terrible thing to say, but I cook primarily for myself. And I already know what I like.

The number of cookery books in my library, therefore, is set to decline. I don't peruse the Food Section of the Times anymore, and I find that I'm simply not reading Saveur or Cook's Illustrated. The new (and very much improved) Joy of Cooking, Julia Child's The Way to Cook and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and a very handy Dorling-Kindersley book by Mary Berry and Marlena Spieler, Classic Home Cooking - these books will probably remain mainstays for the rest of my cooking life. 

In any case, there is only one book this week that I may just buy. (And I quite as easily may not.) I can say that because I've already read My Life in France, Julia Child's posthumous memoir. Alan Riding's review completely fails to capture the key to Julia McWilliams Child's transformation, during her first years in France, into the French Chef: the discovery of something to take seriously. The complexity of French cooking and the diligence required to prepare it simply turned her on, and this is what she and her grandnephew Alex Prud'homme make clear on every page. Instead, Mr Riding writes a cheater. There's enough here to get anyone through a cocktail party discussion of the book - though not enough, I venture, for a dinner.

As everyone knows, there are great books that one ought to read even though one doesn't want to. Bill Buford's Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany may not be a great book - it's far too soon to tell - but it seems to have a certain heft, and I don't want to read it. If it was the seriousness of French cuisine that entice Julia Child into the kitchen, then it is the paramilitary chaos and agony of a top-rated New York restaurant kitchen, with an Italian accent, that draws Mr Buford. Having edited Granta (gleefully consorting with skinheads during his English sojourn) and served as fiction editor at The New Yorker, Mr Buford appears to have suffered some sort of manliness crisis. He talked his way into Mario Batali's kitchen and then did the same with Mr Bitali's teachers in Italy. (Mario Batali, reviewer Julia Reed reminds us, hails from Seattle, not Siena.) At a certain point, he appears to have considering opening a Tuscan butchery shop in Manhattan; instead of which, he wrote his book. Mr Buford is an extremely literate, edgy writer, and it's possible that he'll prove capable to taking me into the heart of darkness that prompts so many men to seek out painful ordeals. He may just disgust me, as he did with an embarrassing piece about spying on his neighbors with binoculars. "The plot clips along, but I found myself reading slowly because there is so much information," writes Ms Reed invitingly.

Three other big culinary memoirs are also grouped toward the front pages of the Review. Jane and Michael Stern have written yet another book, Two for the Road: Our Love Affair With American Food, and Nora Ephron gives it a rousing review.

I love Jane and Michael Stern. [There.] They write about ordinary food so simply and exuberantly that I couldn't help thinking as I read this latest book of theirs (their 31st), that they deserved a room of their own in the Smithsonian Institution, right next to Julia Child's Cambridge kitchen. The Stern's exhibit would consist primarily of an automobile...

That's beautifully observed, and also the clincher for me. Every now and then, I turn to Square Meals for a laugh. (Twelve-Can Casserole, anyone?) But there are times when the Sterns strike me as juvenile. Their innocent, somewhat prepubescent eagerness to consume ever more local lore along with their plates of vernacular food is unsettling, and it's painful to think of them home alone in Connecticut, in the beautiful but apparently childless house that their success has brought them to, for they really do belong on the road, a couple of joyriding kids.

Adam Platt gives a favorable review to A Life Uncorked, Hugh Johnson's memoir of a life spent relishing claret but, as Mr Platt points out, relishing claret in company, with plenty of friendly chit-chat. Mr Johnson is an old-school wine authority who refuses to reduce the complexities of great wines to digital scores. He writes for people who want to have the best possible time drinking wine, while Robert Parker provides "college examiner" scores for people who simply want to have the best wine in their cellars. Having inherited Mr Johnson's 1966 Wine, I can report that he writes engagingly; he admits in the new book that "A diligent dilettante is how I see myself, a dabbler who dabbles deep, but not so deep that the waters of his subject close over his head."

Gael Greene, longtime restaurant critic at New York Magazine, slept with Elvis in 1956. Reviewer Liesl Schillinger is smart enough to gives us exactly the right quote:

I think it was good. I don't remember the essential details. It was certainly good enough.

It would appear that Ms Greene has given her new memoir an equally apt title: Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess. Blending accounts of really great food with at accounts of  at least good-enough sex with the men who made it, Insatiable is a book full of tender gusto. Of Clint Eastwood (an extra-culinary conquest), she writes,

I remember the sweet smell of soap and the sun smells of his skin, the feel of his beard, how lean he was, how tall, the long muscles wrapping his bones.

If she has anything nasty to say about anyone she slept with, Ms Schillinger doesn't repeat it. The author has spent the past twenty years in a single relationship, founding Citymeals-on-Wheels along the way, but the moral of the story seems to be that youth was not wasted on this young person. I remember two of her New York reviews with vivid clarity. In one, she was shocked by the $50 prix-fixe dinner at The Palace; in the other, she wallowed in haute cuisine on the high seas in the days when the France was a semi-official gustatory ambassador to the world. But I always had the feeling that sharing a dinner with her would be hard work. I wondered what Pete Wells would have made of Insatiable. Mr Wells reviews Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball, by Molly O'Neill, and he writes,

This is not a book for aspiring M F K Fishers seeking tips on how to get ahead in publishing. Nor does O'Neill go in for the kind of blurring of sexual and gustatory appetites that has turned a few recent food memoirs into unsightly stripteases. [Ahem!]

It so happens that while Ms O'Neill was writing about food for the Times, her youngest brother Paul was a "frequently heroic" right fielder for the Yankees. Her book, warmly reviewed by Mr Wells, focuses on growing up in Columbus in a family that was playful about almost everything except sports.

Writing of The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usuable Trim, Scraps and Bones, by Anthony Bourdain, Bruce Handy identifies the missing ingredient in Mr Bourdain's writing.

The one subject on which he disappoints is actual eating. Visiting a restaurant in Singapore, he writes, "I was honored with a whole cooked turtle, then urged by the owner to try the gelatinous fat ('the best part - very good for you'), alligator soup, sea cucumber and a plate of fried scorpions cooked into shrimp toast. The scorpions sat proudly atop golden brown squares, fried into aggressive attack position, tails raised threateningly." Yum! So what did it all taste like? Chicken? Alas, we learn only that Bourdain "ate as much as I could," and that he later noticed a scorpion tale stuck between his teeth.

Mr Bourdain is one of several chefs today who are almost too famous to be stuck in kitchens, and Michael Ruhlman, who has helped to write at least two of their cookbooks, has now published The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen. John T Edge finds the book breathless and even a tad immodest, but concludes,

No matter his faults, Ruhlman serves his readers. The "cooking-struck, chef-adoring restaurant-crazy consumers" get a behind-the-curtain pass to what may prove to be American's theatrum mundi. And culinary professionals get a portrait of life on and off the line at a time when the "frontier for the modern Americxan chef was largely uncharted territory. And the chef was out of balance."

These reviews, on facing pages, clinched my feeling that Heat would be the book in this class to read.

Kathryn Harrison has taken time out from writing steamy novels to compose a biography of Isabella Beeton - sort of. Isabella Beeton died at twenty-eight (the usual suspect: puerperal fever; but how ironic that unsterile conditions should kill a household goddess), but she rose again as "Mrs Beeton," an institution that is still publishing books. "Mrs Beeton" is British for "The Joy of Cooking," or it would be if Mmes Becker had thought to cover the gamut of household management along with "rules" for rhubarb and radishes. Laura Shapiro largely evades her responsibilities as a reviewer and simply tells the Mrs Beeton story. Of Ms Harrison's book, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton she notes - neutrally or sarcastically? -

Lavish amounts of well-informed speculation, applied like plaster, hold together the bits she can actually document, but the result is a narrative that could have come straight from Trollope.  Vicars and curates, tradesman's families edging up the social ladder, tangled marriage plots - for lovers of Barsetshire, it's all here.

Maybe Ms Harrison hasn't taken time out from writing steamy novels. I recommend getting a copy of the facsimile of Beeton's Book of Household Management. It is quite suffocating.

No Food Issue would be complete without touching the Sublime and the Ridiculous. The sublime aspect of food, of course, concerns our queasiness about killing what we eat as well as our fear of eating things that are not pure. Dorothy Kalins reviews two new books that examine these questions, respectively, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, and What to Eat, by Marian Nestle. The Way We Eat seems to cover much of the territory documented by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma (reviewed here on 23 April), but raising questions about the industry of food production is important work. It is no surprise to me that current practices have their roots in the desire to feed as many people as well and as cheaply as possible (while still making a buck, of course). What I wonder about is how fast we'll adapt, as human beings, to the consequences of our new-found capacities for damaging the world that supports us. Ms Nestle's book seems to be a sensible introduction to the study of additives, an overview of the unnecessary evils of highly processed foods.

As for the ridiculous, there's Jay Jennings's review of Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit, by Ryan Nerz, and Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, by Jason Fagone. Having provided a few disgusting examples of gluttonous competition, and noted that while Mr Fagone is a tub thumper while Mr Nerz is more of a poet, Mr Jennings writes,

Still, 600 pages on the topic didn't whet my appetite for more. Unlike the gurgitators, I found that reading all I could read about all I could eat was more than enough.

Amanda Hesser rounds up six new cookbooks.

Saucepans and the Single Girl, by Jinx Morgan and Judy Perry. "Rather than updating the book within the original [1965] text, Morgan and Perry have smartly added footnotes that sustain the flair of the original. Beneath a recipe for heating up canned wild rice, they write: "Someone should have held our heads underwater in a distant rice paddy when we even gave voice to this idea."

Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. "I've cooked countless recipes from this [1980] and other books by Heatter and - with the possible exception of an oddly mushy orange chocolate loaf cake - she's no slouch."

Town/Country: 150 Recipes for Life Around the Table, by Geoffrey Zakarian. "Zakarian explores his 65 favorite ingredients by making both "town" and "country" recipes with each. Grapefruit gratin with a grapefruit-ginger sorbet is a town recipe; grapefruit ambrosia is country."

Casa Moro, by Sam and Sam Clark. "There's nothing precise in the Clarks' cooking and certainly not in their recipes, which may send some readers into cardiac arrest." (But Ms Hesser likes the book and plans to mine it.)

Vegetable Soups From Deborah Madison's Kitchen. "Madison's pragmatism lures you into the kitchen. Fluidly blending Asian and European ingredients, like soy sauce in a roasted vegetable broth, she has a knack for small but original ideas and a palate that hews to the classic."

A Passion for Ice Cream, by Emily Lucchetti. "Stick to the recipes and skip Lucchetti's headnotes, which can be painfully wistful and saccharine."

As is only reasonable in this era of culinary celebrity, the Review asked a number of foodies to name their favorite out-of-print books. Here's the list.

Mario Batali: Umbria in Bocca (anonymous) (c 1970-1980)
Anthony Bourdain: Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, by Howard Mitcham (1986)
Jason Epstein: All of Maida Heatter's dessert books; Michael Field's Cooking School; and Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point (1974)
Betty Fussell: Mrs Rasmussen's Book of One-Arm Cookery, by Mary Lasswell, illustrated by George Price (1946)
Jessica Harris: Ghana Nutrition and Cookery (anonymous) (1953)
Jim Harrison: A Taste of Memories from the Old 'Bush,' by Catherine Tripalin Murray (c. 1960)
Maya Kaimal: A Taste of India: Adventures in Indian Cooking Prepared for the American Kitchen, by Mary S Atwood (1969)
Thomas Keller: Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point
Nigella Lawson: Entertaining all'Italiana, by Anna Del Conte (1993)
Harold McGee: Madeleine Kamman's Savoie: The Land, People, and Food of the French Alps (1989)
Jonathan Miles: Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Herter (1960)
Chris Schlesinger: James Beard New Barbecue Cookbook (1953, 1958)
Liz Smith: Lee Bailey's Soup Meals: Main Event Soups in Year-Round Menus
Jane and Michael Stern: Treasury of Great American Recipes, by Mary and Vincent Price (1965)
John Thorne: America Cooks, by Cora Rose (1940)
Nach Waxman: The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, by Roy Andries de Groot (1973).

Henry Alford's Essay, "Dinner My Way," gives the recipes for a dinner menu, every line of which is extracted from somebody's cookery book. The juxtapositions are often amusing, but the print is almost too fine for bothering.

May 27, 2006


Dominik Moll's Lemming feels like a complete throwback to the Nouvelle Vague. With the rich imagery of a Godard and the austere camera work of an Antonioni, Mr Doll presents a cogent thriller with supernatural overtones with a minimalist's avoidance of fuss. The film could be in black and white; its colors are muted and indistinct. The houses seem futuristic in a Sixties sense. The performances are understated. Only the score, by David Whitaker, is pointed to set a mood, and it consists of very unsettling music.

I was drawn, of course, by the presence in the cast of Charlotte Rampling, whose behavior in The Swimming Pool has lodged permanently in my spirit. Here, she plays Alice, the deeply hostile wife of the Richard Pollock (André Dussollier - where had I seen him before? Ah, of course - in Un coeur en hiver), the head of a high-tech firm. Alice reluctantly accompanies her husband to dinner at the home of the firm's star engineer, Alain (Laurent Lucas), and his wife of three years, Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and is incredibly rude. Rude the way that only Charlotte Rampling could be: with quiet, controlled malice. The young couple have no idea of how to respond, even when Alice tells them what they must be thinking. Their tension and uncertainty, which they try to shrug off, mark the beginning of a nightmare that will end only after Alain takes some spectacular risks. Risks made even more terrifying by well-founded doubt that Alain is in full control of his conscious mind.

Ms Gainsbourg plays Bénédicte as an uncertain, almost unformed woman, which opens up the possibilities tested by the story (which is attributed both to Mr Moll and to Gilles Marchand. As for Mr Lucas, I'm already looking forward to seeing him in something else. His long neck and expressive throat are key components of his facial ensemble. Alain has, so far, enjoyed a life of somewhat playful intellectual success. As the movie unwinds, Mr Lucas intensifies his character's shocked recognition that the world can be a very mysterious place. At one point, Alain is forced to walk home from a mountain cabin. This ordeal is represented in two or three scenes, all of them speechless and all of them underscoring the awful isolation that, by mischance, can befall anyone.

PS: Lemming is the title of the movie in French. The eponymous Scandinavian rodents don't seem to have inspired a word of their own.

May 26, 2006



Well, I give up. How tall is the Carlyle Hotel? How many floors? You'd think that the usually informative Web site NYC-Architecture would answer my questions, but it doesn't. No matter. I'm not planning to write about the Carlyle. I was just looking at my luncheon companion's site and noting that we took several of the same photographs. I then remembered cropping my shot of the gleaming Carlyle tower - it gleamed a good deal more fiercely in person - and, completely out of ideas for something to say today, thought that I might conjure something out of thin air and the inspiration of this picture. Which I tried to adjust for perfect perpendicularity. I gave up on that, too.

I'm reminded of my favorite metaphor in The Leopard. I'll give it first in Italian and then in Archibald Colquhoun's English.

La pioggia era venuta, la pioggia era andata via; ed il sole era risalito sul trono come un re assoluto che, allontanato per una settimana dalle barricate dei sudditi, ritorna a regnare iracondo ma raffrenato da carte costituzionali.

The rains had come, the rains had gone, and the sun was back on its throne like an absolute monarch kept off it for a week by his subjects' barricades, and now reigning once again, choleric but under constitutional restraint.

I daresay that a translator today would substitute "irascible" or "testy" for "choleric."

May 25, 2006

Good News

Way past opposing the death penalty, I'm not too keen on prisons, either. Surely there's a more constructive alternative.

But given the world we live in, the incarceration of two delusional executives has got to be a good thing.

Mr Moonlight

There's a song called "Mr Moonlight"? A Beatles song?

It's more of a wail, really. From the deepest depths of the Beatles' R & B period. And it's not actually a Beatles song, either, but the cover of a composition by one "Johnson."

Mr. Moonlight, come again please,
here I am on my knees,

The song reminds me of something from the other end of the career: "I've Got A Feeling," from Let It Be. One of the biggest differences between Kathleen and me is that Kathleen loves the early Beatles, while I prefer the late, but we manage.

When "Mr Moonlight" ended, Kathleen played "Anna," which I can never recall because I think of it as "Go To Him." I looked out the window at the greenery on the balcony: the daylilies, the pot of herbs, the spider plant whose "babies" I am rooting, and I thought how grand it is to be alive, and to have been alive. "Mr Moonlight," which never had much American airplay, was recorded about a year after the Punic Wars, it seems now. I was alive then? When many of the people near and dear to me now had not been conceived? Can it be true that I was once fourteen years old? Did they have computers? (Not really.)

Only two of the Beatles are still alive, the two that weren't fragile. John and George were the edgy ones, Paul and Ringo the stabilizers. This is not to deny Sir Paul's colossal melodic gift, but perhaps to suggest why he has not produced much of interest since battling with John Lennon on an everyday basis. But look at it this way: two of the Beatles are still alive!

Listening to "Mr Moonlight" this morning didn't make me feel old. I don't feel old, ever, even when my knees are killing me. I am old, or oldish, but I feel keener and frankly younger than I did when "She Loves You" was blasting from every radio. What I do feel is a mystery: is it possible to be someone who, a few years after "Mr Moonlight" was recorded (five at the most), would pompously argue that Rubber Soul marked the Beatles' transition from an archaic to a Hellenic period? (No, I can't believe it, either.) To have been that person and to be me right now, listening to Beethoven's last sonata? (It came up in a conversation.)

Apparently, it is.

Train Wreck?

The other night, a law school friend who followed the link from "Kathleen in the News," below, gave us a call. She lives with her daughter in the middle of nowhere, and has a daily round-trip commute of sixty miles. With gasoline approaching four dollars a gallon, she is beginning to feel a pinch.

In case you just tuned in, Kathleen and I live in New York City. We haven't owned a car in seven or eight years. ever since we decided that the country-house thing was not working for us. Every once in a while, Kathleen has a car service take her to work, as she does when she leaves the office after ten-thirty at night; but for the most part, she gets to work via public transportation. That's how I get around, too. The automobile, at least in its owned form, is not part of our life. Kathleen hates to drive, moreover, and I really oughtn't to, given the immobility of my neck. We're delighted, in other words, not to have a car.

Our friend's plight, while it reminded me of how lucky Kathleen and I are, because the majority of Americans share it to some degree or another. Assuming that the price of gas continues to rise, at what point will our friend have to find herself a place to live that's closer to her law firm's offices? And who will buy her house? I wonder who would be rash enough to buy her house even now?

The United States imports more than half of the oil that is consumed here, and the percentage will surely rise. The economies of China and India, meanwhile, are swelling their demand for oil. Our present course would appear to be set for a train wreck, even without the bad news previewed in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, which opened yesterday in New York City and Los Angeles. The consequences of ignoring Mr Gore's slide show, of course, will be much worse than a train wreck, and I hope that its power inspires some creative discussion in our rather sclerotic public discourse.

May 24, 2006

At the Museum/In the NYRB


At the Metropolitan Museum yesterday, I had lunch with, to quote him, "un autre carnetier new-yorkais." That shouldn't be too hard to figure out, but it's all that you'll get out of me on the identification front. We caught up over salads in the Petrie Court Café, and then we went up to the roof for the glorious views.

I took the photo above a few weeks ago to note a design change at the Museum: big, billowing banners announcing the special exhibitions have been replaced by neat canvases that nicely fit the architectural frames built into Richard Holman Hunt's façade. I also call your attention to the rude blocks of stone atop the cornice. They were supposed to be carved down into statuary, but the Met has no current plans to realize this design. The important thing, I suppose, is that it has spruced up the entire Fifth Avenue front by giving it a good wash.

Having had a martini and a glass of chardonnay at lunch, I was pretty useless for the rest of the day, and spent it reading The New York Review of Books. Michael Massing takes up the "Israel Lobby" furore, faults scholars John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt for making a few mistakes and misleading statements in their tumult-causing paper, and then sets out to make their case even more strongly than they do. His most important finding is that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) does not represent any widely held views of American Jews; it is, rather, the captive of some rich tradesmen who lean to the right. Garry Wills appears to be too dumbfounded by the witless ludicrosity of Harvey Mansfield's anti-feminist sentimentality in Manliness to produce the clean and crisp dismissal that one expects from him. Jeff Madrick thinks that Kevin Phillips's focus in American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century is too limited and pessimistic: we're facing a lot of dangers, but Americans have righted their boat before and may do so again.

The test of an industrialized nation is whether it can maintain a balance between community and private interests. To what extent is America doomed to decline as a result of the policies imposed by the Bush administration and its allies that favor the rich and powerful? This is the unspoken issue that hovers over Phillips's book. For all its dramatic and useful emphasis on oil, evangelism, and debt, it remains too narrow in its approach to fully engage the large threats we face.

Because I was too busy chatting and snapping pictures, I didn't bother to learn the name of the artist, as it were, responsible for the two reptiles - alligators, I suppose, but I'm no authority - stuck with dozens of cheap household knives, one of which can be seen below.


May 23, 2006


In a recent entry, Mig at Metamorphosism used a word that was new to me: apocaplectic. I commented enthusiastically about this combination of "apoplectic" (which has rather gone out of fashion, unfortunately) and "apocalyptic" (which, even more unfortunately, hasn't). Mig wrote back to direct me to a jolly entry dating from 2003, and I'll do the same to you. Mig's coinage works so well because we've all forgotten that "apocalypse" means "revelation," not "the end of the world."

Shining City

Ben Brantley's rapturous review in the Times led me to expect a somewhat more interesting play than Shining City turned out to be. Then again, I didn't much care for The Weir, Conor McPherson's last play on Broadway. It wasn't bad by any means, but it wasn't sufficiently gripping, and - and - it addressed a peculiarly Irish pathology: the isolation into which so many intelligent people seem to tumble. Sometimes I think that this comes of trying to speak English with a Celtic soul. A little of it goes a long way with me.

Of course, there was great acting to hold my attention. Brían F O'Byrne knocked me dead for the third time in a row. (See Frozen, Doubt.) This time, he played Ian, a former priest who has studied to be a psychotherapist and has just set up shop. Mr O'Byrne has a remarkable gift for portraying men under attack, from within or without. His Ian displayed the full range of responses, from empty bonhomie to vacant sulking. The high point of the performance came when he struggled with Ian's wallet and paid a prostitute: Mr O'Byrne's hands shook with shame, lust, and dread all at once. He was equally, if less dramatically, impressive when Ian refused to engage with Neasa, the mother of his baby. A compleat guy, Ian has worked out his own solution to a problem and therefore regards Neasa's demand that he reconsider it a waste of time. The difference in temperatures between Neasa's harangue and Ian's sullen staring at the floor was chilling.

Continue reading about Shining City at Portico.

May 22, 2006

Kathleen in the news

My dear Kathleen is the subject of an article at MarketWatch. She's going to appear on CNBC, too, for a five-minute segment that will tape on Thursday and air on Sunday. Why the flurry of publicity? She's been too busy to tell me.

John Spence's story gives a good account of the past, present, and future of Exchange Traded Funds, Kathleen's specialty. ETFs are rather like computers: if you don't have one, you can't see how you would use one.


What's the difference between trying to impress and trying to seduce? The first is Anglophone, the second French, but what, really, is the difference? The result is the same: success means that you have made yourself attractive, appealing, and interesting to the object of your behavior.

I am still trying to convince Kathleen that I am a very bright man with lots of interesting things to say, even if they're about frankly stodgy topics. Why? Do I want to impress her with my brilliance? Or do I want to seduce her into paying attention? Am I getting warmer?

At lunch the other day, I held forth about the Council of Nicaea and the heterodoxiy of the early Church, as reflected in the Nag Hammadi library, a trove of alternative gospels that the Vatinicanists thought they'd got rid of - until 1945. The effects of the gospels' rediscovery, only hinted at in The Da Vinci Code, will take a few generations to percolate. This is what I was talking about after lunch, as my old friend perched his head on one arm and gave me a big, open, Labrador grin. I couldn't believe that he was remotely interested in my hobbyhorse. But I'd seduced him. I know that because he long ago discarded the idea that I would ever impress him.

Reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations II

In the third and fourth chapters of Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs distinguishes between two kinds of non-urban regions. The first, which she calls the "city region," is the inevitable byproduct of economically vibrant cities. The second, "supply regions," do not replace imports and tend to export one or more staple commodities. Neither type of region can be economically self-sufficient.

To recapitulate Jacobs's second premise, vibrant city economies excel at import replacement and export creation. They replace imports with locally produced goods, and through innovation they develop new types of goods which they then export to other regions. Transactions between cities and their city regions, however, do not constitute imports or exports. Indeed, one of the ways in which cities replace imports is by drawing on city-region production.

City regions are areas of activity that is intimately dependent upon their center cities. They lie beyond the cities' suburbs. (Jacobs also refers to such regions as hinterlands.) Not all cities sprout city regions. Jacobs's list of cities that don't is interesting. It includes many capitals and administrative centers. "Rome," she writes, "has an amazingly small and feeble city region, considering the city's own size." This makes sense, however, because symbolic cities, such as capitals (and certainly Rome) don't require active economies at all. The inhabits work in the city's symbolic industry, which either grows slowly over time or doesn't grow at all. Churches and legislatures don't produce more and more of something; they just go on reproducing and exporting the same sorts of things in the same quantities. Their populations are stable. Not that a capital need be stable. London, Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are just four examples of capitals that double as active economic centers, and they all have vast city regions.

Continue reading about Cities and the Wealth of Nations at Portico.

May 21, 2006

Book Review

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

All-Fiction Issue

And here I was wondering how I'd missed A O Scott's explication of Book Review project that established Toni Morrison's Beloved as "the best American novel of the last 25 years" - on the strength of fifteen votes, total. Missed it in print, that is, But I didn't miss it: it has been published in today's Review. I've already said what I have to say about that, so we won't be talking about it today, or ever again.

We'll begin, reversing the usual order of things, with the Essay by Rachel Donadio, "Promotional Intelligence." Basically, the essay demonstrates that the publication of literary fiction is very far from the long-tail business that it ought to be. Don't read the essay if you're in the middle of sending out a manuscript. Getting your novel not so much into print as into stores requires pleasing a few gatekeepers, and "Promotional Intelligence" makes it clear that there aren't very many of these. Ms Donadio deserves a modest tut-tut for failing to allude to the machinery of getting fiction reviewed in the Book Review, where typically only one in every three or four (and sometimes more) titles is a work of non-fiction.

So: nothing but novels and short stories! Fifteen titles! Nine of the writers are women; as are ten of the reviewers. What is that about, d'you suppose? A few of the authors are photographed, but most are subjected to caricatures that approach, in André Carrilho's images of Anne Tyler, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Peter Carey, the insulting. Overall, it's the worst issues of the Book Review that I can recall.

Let's begin with the writer's whom I've never heard of (or forgotten that I've heard of). Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop's Fireworks sounds, in Heidi Julavits's review, like a first novel that got fudged by marketing advice. The central character, a fortyish blocked writer and "man-boy" who drinks too much, appears to be fully realized, but it takes Ms Winthrop too long to get to him. Ms Julavits spends too much time retailing Ms Winthrop's plot. According to Meghan O'Rourke, Charles D'Ambrosio's The Dead Fish Museum is a collection of stories in the tradition of Raymond Carver. Of the unappealingly-titled title story, Ms O'Rourke writes,

The story packs a punch, and fluctuates interestingly between pulpish bravado and thoughtful melancholy. But its artifacts have become slightly orthodox by now.

The Attack, by "Yasmina Khadra," is actually the work of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a retired Algerian officer. Lorraine Adams feels that the writer has erred in deciding not to illuminate a story about Middle-East complexities with a more ample military dimension. She's not crazy about John Cullen's translation, either. Maud Casey's Genealogy sounds good, not least because of Meghan Daum's unqualified enthusiasm. Of the bohemian parents in this family romance, Ms Daum writes,

For all they know about what they don't want, they have never quite figured out what they do want. They're also the kind of benevolent narcissists who have a way of damaging their kids beyond repair.

I find that arresting, somehow. Ana Marie Cox, in contrast, begins her review of Lucy Kellaway's Who Moved My BlackBerry? on a favorable note but concludes as follows:

Who Moved My BlackBerry? is not art. Those in search of a book that gets to the human cost and comedy of modern technology as White Noise or The Corrections did will not find it in the small-screen antics of Martin Lukes. Kellaway's book is a snapshot, a lot of clever messages that ultimately point at their own absurdity. Her frenetic yet motionless characters reflect the irony of BlackBerryed life: It only looks as if you're busy.

Mark Kamine gives Rebecca Johns's Icebergs a distinctly mixed review, calling it an "inviting, occasionally moving, often exasperating first novel." For the most part, he reheats the plot, but he does not that Ms Johns's prose "does not soar." Indeed, the following quotation sunk the book for me as fast as a pair of cement shoes:

the eyes of everyone in the room connected to her like gravity.

As we say in our house, Himmel! How did that image get through? Finally, there's Gatsby's Girl, by Caroline Preston. We get still more plot rehashing from Evan Hughes, but also a stringent caution that this novel, which re-imagines the life of Ginevra King, a Lake Forest girl on whom Scott Fitzgerald had a crush, "begins as retro chick lit and becomes, as Ginevra ages, more like a Merchant-Ivory period piece about a well-born woman's long fall from carefree grace."

On balance, the reviews present only one of these seven novels as worthy of surviving the triage outlined in Ms Donadio's Essay. The authors of the remaining eight have all established themselves, more or less, and stand only to gain new readers from the coverage afforded them in the pages of the Review. DBC Pierre rocked the world a few years ago when his chaotic Vernon God Little won the Man Booker Prize, but Granta contributing editor Sophie Harrison cuts him no slack for Ludmila's Broken English, which, she says, "takes the hallmarks of Loserstani literature and flogs them to pieces." That's not clear enough? Try this:

All in all, none of it, to use Pierre's own Sufi formulation, really invites "reality's pea to its cup." God knows what would invite reality's pea to its cup, if we could even find the cup, or indeed knew what the chuffing blimey the pea was meant to be. It is a very sad thing to report, but this novel, unlike its predecessor, does not work.

Terrence Rafferty greatly admires The Eagle's Throne, Carlos Fuentes's new novel (translated by Kristina Cordera), and his enthusiasm is catching:

The near-absolute absence of self-knowledge exhibited by the otherwise exceptionally smart people in The Eagle's Throne is what makes it both terrifically sad and oddly festive, in a desperate, end-of-the-party way, with everyone drunk (on power or merely the illusion of it) and dancing crazily and saying things that aren't quite as witty as they were meant to be and laughing their heads off anyway - and with all of them looking for partners so they don't have to go home alone.

Liesl Schillinger almost convinces me to read Anne Tyler's Digging to America (it doesn't hurt that I've heard one very favorable response from a friend). I used to read Anne Tyler as a matter of course, and then, one day, I just couldn't read her anymore. Ms Schillinger catalogues the very things that I got tired of:

her unflashy mastery of the national idiom, her dour whimsy, her tapestries of suffocating families ... and the rogue siblings who try, and usually fail, to become unknitted from their tight weave.

Breaking with the pattern in Digging To America, Ms Tyler is "no longer in search of buried treasure; she's in search of the road ahead. I don't know whether or not I've read any of Amy Hempel's stories, but I do know her name. Erica Wagner's favorable review spends a lot of time trying to capture the essence of Ms Hempel's oeuvre, but in the end it's Rick Moody, author of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel's Introduction, who nails it, by placing Ms Hempel

alongside Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Ann Beattie and others - women writers who rise above what he sees as the "rage" and posturing of their male counterparts.

Claire Dederer attempts with some success to demonstrate that The Man of My Dreams is right book for Curtis Sittenfeld to have written, while cautioning fans of Prep not to expect another "volatile, hilarious, rage-fueled overhead smash." Ms Dederer gets in a great (if gratuitous) dig, while ostensibly writing about Ms Sittenfeld's protagonist:

Hannah is a social paralytic, a state only worsened by her own relentless self-awareness. Months into her freshman year at college, she gets ready for her first night out. She hasn't got any makeup for dolling herself up, but she does clip her nails - "that's not festive, but it's something." This is something Tom Wolfe's Charlotte Simmons might have said, had she been written with any verisimilitude.

On the facing page, Paul Gray wonders if Peter Carey, the eminent Australian novelist of whom I've never read a word, too off-put by the scent of magic realism, hasn't wandered too far into the suspense-fiction genre for his own good. What begins as a subplot in Theft: A Love Story apparently becomes the main plot by degrees, and it's one that Mr Gray can see Michael Crichton handling very well. Not to put too fine a point on it, the review makes the novel sound like a mess. Dave Itzkoff notes that Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, has returned to settings that he visited in Microserfs, but that in the new book, JPod, Mr Coupland "employs those same strategies... he actually has a reason for doing so." It's pretty clear nonetheless that JPod is the work of a self-loathing member of the elite (as opposed to a responsible member of the elite), one who levels all cultural artifacts and wallows in pop. Eventually, I hope, someone will persuade Gen X'ers that such behavior is deeply stupid.

Finally, Susann Cokal gives Valerie Martin's new collection of stories, The Unfinished Novel, an unqualified rave. She also makes the collection sound very interesting:

Martin may be undermining our notions of genius, but her belief in the forcefulness of artistic ego is demonstrated in every story. And yet the self-identified mediocrities are often the people who come out best as Martin's plots unfold, achieving a satisfying combination of professional status and private happiness - provided they're willing to make the compromises.

The cover of the Book Review features the original dust-jacket art of twenty-two of the books involved in Sam Tanenhaus's silly project. I wonder if I will ever get round to White Noise, a remaindered copy of which I have on my shelves.

May 20, 2006

Les poupées russes

No, I did not fight my way into an early show of The Da Vinci Code, although I hear that it's not bad. Next Friday, maybe.

The movie that I saw yesterday was Les poupées russes (Russian Dolls), which might be billed as the sequel to L'auberge espagnole, Cédric Klapisch's comedy of 2002, but which is in fact the second half of a two-part work of art. Five years later, Xavier has still got a bit of the Peter Pan bug, but the events of Poupées russes make him get over it. I will write about the movie when it is released on DVD. For the moment, three things: 1. See it! 2. Don't see it unless and until you've seen the earlier film. 3. The huge difference between the two episodes is either natural or supernatural, I can't tell which: Kelly Reilly's Wendy has morphed from the gawky, whiny, somewhat clueless girl of L'auberge into an extraordinarily glamorous woman of great emotional resonance. Even if you've seen her platinum performance in Mrs Henderson Presents, you may not be ready for the alteration, which is the opposite of a shock: the uncanniness intensifies as the movie reaches its climax on the Neva. We can expect a lot of great work from this actress.

Oh, and 4. Visually, Poupées is even more fun to watch than L'auberge.

Les poupées russes was just part of a very nice midday. I took the train down to Hunter College, at 68th Street, and fetched the copy of The Leopard that Shakespeare & Co was holding for me. Then I caught the crosstown bus at 67th Street, boarding just as the first drops of rain were falling. The Park looked dreamy, deep green against soft grey, but we crossed it all too quickly and presently I was out in the wet. I had only a block of Central Park West to walk in the rain, thanks to a scaffolding at the Ethical Culture Society, but that was enough. I presented The Leopard to my friend, told him that I'd be back at around two for lunch, and went to the Lincoln Square Theatre. What a labyrinth that place is! It seems to be two floors below street level, carved out of nooks and crannies not needed by the building's plumbing and ventilation. The path to the men's room alone!

It had been my thought to walk over to Burberry's, on East 57th Street, after lunch, to buy some socks, but the weather inspired a change of plan - as did my friend's having an errand to run on my side of the Park. It was after our very nice lunch that the real downpour began. The trees in Lincoln Square were tossing in the wind while the waiters hurriedly stripped the sidewalk tables of their linen. We went back up to my friend's place to wait out the worst - and, lucky for him too, as he'd left two windows open. Even after the rain let up, we had a monstrous wait for a taxi. Each of us stood at one end of the drive-through driveway at my friend's building; we eventually snagged one that was ferrying two old ladies home from somewhere. We talked our way to 89th and Madison, where my friend got out. For a few blocks, I continued to enjoy the ride, but I found the crosstown travel tiresome, and was just about to get out and walk when the rain started up again.

The afternoon, as always on Friday, was given over to housecleaning, and this took a long time, because I was watching Luchino Visconti's 1963 adaptation of The Leopard while I dusted and vacuumed. I didn't get through the entire picture until after dinner with Kathleen. (We had another movie to watch, but Kathleen was tired and didn't think she'd stay awake.) There are many beauties in Il gattopardo, and the performances of Bert Lancaster and Alain Delon are exactly as good as I thought they'd be; it's as if Lampedusa wrote the book with them in mind - which, though I'm sure that he didn't, is just possible, given that M Delon's first film came out in 1957, the year of Lampedusa's death. But perhaps it's time for a remake. Visconti's textures are bright and superficial, while Nino Rota's score is almost intolerably trivial. Made at a time when voice-overs were taboo, the adaptation forces the Prince - a proud man of few words if ever there was one - to make observations that he would never utter in public. For all its sumptuousness, Il gattopardo shortchanges us of the lush beauties, so vivid in the novel, of the Prince's palace at Donnafugata. What we get instead are a lot of period rooms. And the movie suffers from inadequate production values. Even on the Criterion Collection repackaging, the dialogue is out of synch, and every sound appears to have been dubbed in a bright studio.

I wish I'd dreamt of Kelly Reilly while I was asleep, and got her out of my system. Instead, I'm dreaming about her now, which makes writing very difficult!

May 19, 2006

By the rich, for the rich

Chris Rose is fast becoming my favorite American columnist. What he has to say about the blessings of "government by the rich for the rich" affects you, too, wherever you live. Unless you're lucky enough not to live in the United States, the world's greatest attention-deficit democracy.



Yes, it's a tiny picture, and yes, I stole it from Joe. But I just have to have this picture on my Web log! The do-or-die competitiveness of it! Don't let the other guy through the toll booth even if you have to wreck your car to stop him! That's the spirit.

My country, t'is of thee...


Clyde Haberman's column this morning, about road rage in New York (we're Number Three nationally for the worst!), inspires a modest suggestion. Why don't we just shoot everyone driving a private automobile in Manhattan? Everyone. And then we'll get rid of the parking meters and restore the sidewalks to their intended width. No Parking! Bridges and tunnels will be so heavily tolled that hardly anybody will drive onto the island (except for trucks delivering our necessities), while cabs and dial cars will have the narrowed avenues to themselves.

But why resort to firearms? We could just haul drivers from their cars and tear them limb from limb! Did I say how much I hate the automobile in New York?

The Hanging Gardens


We had a beautiful day yesterday in New York. There was a thunderstorm between five and six, but a beautiful evening followed. My calendar clear, I had no excuse not to get this season's geraniums into pots. I bought them nearly two weeks ago, and they've been running dry in their small pots. They needed to be taken care of.

I changed my shoes, put on an apron, and got to work. An inadequate gardener, I don't clean up in the fall, but just let the annuals die of natural causes. This means that the pots are stiff with root balls and littered with dead vegetation. I spread newspapers over the wood-slat table. I worked the soil in the first part with a dibble and then scooped out soil with a fancy stainless steel cup measure. What happened to my Smith & Hawken trowel? Lord knows; the cup measure works fine. In no time at all, the four pots dedicated to geraniums were full of blooming plants. That's how they always are when you buy them; they'll never look that good this summer unless I deadhead like a fanatic.

I found that I had bought exactly twice as many geraniums as I needed. What to do? I had four more pots on the step above the geraniums, but those are meant for impatiens. I'm a bit tired of impatiens, but they do last the summer and they crown nicely. So I decided to let Kathleen find some pretty ones along Lexington or Madison on her weekend walk. And I attacked the stump of a boxwood that never took to balcony life. I had meant to plant some nice big hostas in the planter, but on the spot I resolved to buy the hostas from White Flower Farm in the fall. That way, I'll be obliged to do garden cleanup for a change.

With a manly tug, I pulled the boxwood stump from the planter. Heavy! The dense root ball held a lot of soil, and it took a while to pry this loose. Once I had retrieved enough earth to satisfy my far from zealous frugality, the remaining gardenias were soon soaking in their summer home. Once they get comfortable, they'll be a nice shot of color for anyone walking into the apartment, at least when the balcony door is open.

So! Even with the impatiens question provisionally decided, I still had plenty of decorative pots looking very undecorative with their blasted husks of last summer's greenery. But before heading to the corner florist for more plants, I wanted to sit down and finish The Leopard, by Giuseppi di Lampedusa. And when I did finish it, about an hour later, I realized that it was just the book for a friend who is in mourning. It will resonate with him for many reasons, and as by chance I'm having lunch with him this afternoon, I thought I'd get him a copy. Having washed my hands, taken off the apron, and changed my shoes, I went to the Barnes & Noble across the street to look for a copy. I wasn't surprised that they didn't have one; once you take away the Starbucks and the big cookbook section and the usual piles of new books, it's more of a magazine shop. I headed up 86th Street to the other Yorkville branch, on Lexington between 86th and 87th. The literature section there is much larger, or so it seems anyway. But there were no Leopards on offer there. I was only slightly disappointed: I was having a wonderful walk up and down Yorkville High Street.

At the florist, I picked up a few pots of ivy, two pots of basil, three pots of portulaca, a spider plant and a bag of potting soil. Also two spath lilies, for the dining area. The ones that have been there for five or six years have needed to replaced for some time. The point of the things is to look nice, not to prove that I'm good at life support. The other plants were potted up within half an hour. Cleanup wasn't arduous.

Within just a few hours, the balcony went from looking sad and neglected to colorful and inviting. There is still a great deal of mess here and there, but it's not what strikes the eye at the balcony door. My reward for the few hours of agreeable work was spotting the very first Stella de oro daylily scape, just emerging from the foliage.

May 18, 2006


Since I'm an old fart who lives in Manhattan and knows no teenagers at present - not a single one - I want to ask for a little help on this "Christian rock" thing. How big is it? How serious is it? My question is occasioned by a story on today's front page: the 70th most popular name for girls last year was "Neveah," or "heaven" spelled backwards. This particular vogue seems to have been inspired by Sonny Sandoval, a "Christian rock star."

I can't tell you how creepy the very idea of "Christian rock" is. Nothing more likely to herald a new dark age could be imagined.

Insouciant Depravity Update: Black toilet paper, trunk-length anxiety (hmm), and David Pogue on Treos ("Cool.").

Charles Rosen on Mozart

Charles Rosen takes the opportunity, in the current New York Review of Books, to make his review of several new books about Mozart into a blithely magisterial assessment of Mozart's achievement for our times. He makes many interesting points - for example, that Mozart was writing music at a time when the the very idea of the history of music was born - but the heart of the piece seems to me to be this:

In spite of his radical experiments, Mozart could be one of the most conventional composers of his time—except that no one ever handled the basic conventions with such skill and such ease, and he must have gloried not only in his ability to shock, but also in his facility at producing the conventional with such purity and grace.

Long phrases of absolutely conventional figuration and banal motifs articulate his works at the end of short sections, and give the structure its clarity. (Beethoven imitated Mozart closely in this respect, but he had the knack—already to be found in Mozart, but with less panache—of making one think that he had invented the most conventional motif expressly for each piece.) Writing about Mozart, we are always tempted to dwell on the extraordinary purple passages without noticing that in every case they are followed or preceded by the most conventional devices. They complement and support each other.

Mozart may not have been the first composer to make the sublime out of the familiar, but I doubt that any composer has approached his ability to work such magic as a matter of course, over and over again in almost every mature composition. Because the material is familiar - and also because it lacks the dramatic significance of motifs, such as "doom" and "destiny," that would shape music from Beethoven to Mahler and beyond - the sublimity is easily missed by inexperienced listeners, as well as by people whose primary interest in music is "emotional."

I thought about this while listening to the Linz Symphony the other day. It is interesting music only if you are an active listener, capable of bearing what you have heard in mind even as the music is being performed. This means paying attention to the little conventional bits that, as Mr Rosen writes, "give the structure its clarity," and hearing them for what they are. And wondering at the magic. But not too intently, because Mozart will be working another transformation presently. 

May 17, 2006



Isn't this a hoot? There's something so 1950's about it, not least because of the model's pose. You can read James Barron's story, "Holy Carmen Miranda! Finding Fashion Among the Radishes," but I think time is better spent meditating upon the sublime nonsense of this photograph. Suffice it to say that designer Chris March is not entirely demented: the frock was commissioned by the makers of Wishbone. (Note the tossing fork and spoon.)

A necklace of cherry tomatoes - now that's something to wear to a fraternity beer bust.

Droll Mixup

My correspondent in Pittsburgh sent me the link to a BBC story that her husband stumbled upon. In a case of mistaken identity at Reception, an African bloke with the first name of Guy was mixed up with an English expert on music downloads, also with the first name of Guy. The African Guy was led to a studio, where a television correspondent introduced him as English Guy and then asked him how he felt about a High Court decision in favor of Apple (iPod) against Apple (Beatles).

"Were you surprised by this verdict today?" Bowerman asked.

"I'm very surprised to see the verdict come on me because I was not expecting that," he said in a heavy French accent, blinking in the studio lights. "When I came, they told me something else."

Nonplussed, he pressed on, growing more confident in his punditry as the interview progressed. He gamely delivered his opinion on the future of music downloads and cyber cafes following the landmark verdict.

Meanwhile, the real [Guy] Kewney, who was waiting to be taken to the studio, looked up on a monitor and found another man in the interviewee's chair.

Ha-ha. This is a little story, to be sure. It suggests a certain disregard for the wonderful world of music downloads on the part of television journalists. It depends upon a farcical coincidence at Reception. (Guy Coma was there to try to get a job. He must have thought he was auditioning.) But here's the most delicious line in the story.

Producers apparently realized by the end of the interview that something had gone wrong - and, after they had gone off the air, asked their "expert" if there was a problem.

Watch the video, and see how long it takes you to see that "something had gone wrong." Things like this don't happen very often, it's true, and I don't mean to suggest that the Coma/Kewney mixup is a good reason to distrust all television news (although you shouldn't be watching it anyway). It does illustrate, however, how plausible a medium television is. Everything is flattened to look normal. The wild improbability of the BBC's fielding an expert whose English is sometimes unintelligible, which is making me laugh as I write about it, evaporates under the diminishing glare of studio lights. Mr Coma's double-take - which unfortunately looks like a face that Buckwheat might have made in a Spanky and Our Gang short - is the biggest "Ooops!" that I've ever seen on television, but when it's over, it never happened. Amnesiac and banal, television naturally short-circuits judgment and common-sense. It always does. This little episode simply provides the opportunity to watch it happen.

May 16, 2006

The MET Orchestra sans Levine

A good time was had by all at the last of this season's MET Orchestra concerts. The afternoon's program consisted of a mini opera gala bracketed by two pleasing orchestral works. The singers were soprano Erika Sunnegårdh, tenor Ben Heppner, and bass René Pape. Ms Sunnegårdh stepped in for an ailing Karita Mattila last month in performances of Fidelio at the Met, but it took another illness to bring her to Carnegie Hall on Sunday: James Levine's. When James Conlon took over the direction of the concert, he scrapped Mr Levine's program, which was to have followed Charles Wuorinen's Theologoumenon with Brahms's First. Mr Conlon kept Mozart's Linz Symphony as an opener, ended the program with Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, and filled the middle with an unusual but thoroughly satisfying assortment of vocal showstoppers.

Continue reading about the MET Orchestra at Portico.

May 15, 2006

No NOLA Fatigue!

Ms NOLA writes:

Please read and share this important article. It hits the nail on the head. While New Orleans, like many major global cities, has severe racial and class issues and a not so hot track record with local government, those things didn't destroy the city. The Army Corps of Engineers is largely to blame and this cannot be stressed enough. Who funds them? Congress. Not Ray Nagin, not Kathleen Blanco. It's all too easy to think that what happened during Hurricane Katrina was an act of God or a local failure, indicative of national perspectives on the South.

I would add that, insofar as prosperous New Orleanians may have seen the Corps's failure to protect their city as a good thing (that is, as a racial cleanser), it was the Federal Government's responsibility to counter and defeat such views.

Waking Up

So the Religious Right (formerly confused with "Christian") is beginning to get the picture. Just beginning. Team Dubya has exploited them as stooges for votes, promising to roll back social change while delivering only to the corporate interests that are the administration's actual masters. Businessmen have a good sense of how unwilling most Americans are to pretend that we're living in 1950, and they know that any real attempt to promote a reactionary social program will inevitably put a spotlight on what's really going on: the transfer of public wealth to private interests. The ruse - mobilizing the Religious Right's support without satisfying their demands - couldn't work indefinitely, but I'm very sorry that it's still working, however badly.

Let's hope that the disappointed Religious Right does what it usually does after defeat: retire to its tents in the desert.

For a different, if not contradictory, take on this story, visit Joe.My.God.

The Housekeeper, by Melanie Wallace

If you liked Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and cannot wait for his next novel to appear, allow me to I recommend The Housekeeper, by Melanie Wallace. Both books demonstrate the power of pitch-perfect prose to make bleak stories gripping. The sense of doom that hangs over Cold Mountain comes, of course, from the Civil War; in The Housekeeper, it is a byproduct, as it were, of poverty and isolation. The surest way to repel you would be to outline Ms Wallace's story, or even to sketch its point of departure. That is something that only she can do, and she has done it with extraordinary skill. Here's something from the dust jacket:

With an unforgettable case of characters and gorgeous, piercing prose, The Housekeeper is at once a poetic meditation on landscape and a page-turning thriller.

True statements, I can attest.

Continue reading about The Housekeeper at Portico.

May 14, 2006

"The Best American Novel..."

So, on the strength of fifteen votes, from a pool of 124, Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, is "officially" the best American novel of the past quarter century.

If the voters had been choosing the best writer of the past quarter century, Philip Roth would have won easily.

Boy, do I live in another country. The Corrections got one vote. Jane Smiley, so far as I know, didn't get any votes. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping got a vote - is Gilead, a better book, too new to be chosen? It would seem so. Most of the books that led the runners-up list have been around for a while, gathering the dust of immortality. Quite a few were actually published over a quarter century ago, but thanks to repackaging were eligible.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, sent a simple request to "a couple of hundred prominent writers," of whom 124 replied. Take my word for it: the class windbags. And don't miss A O Scott's pious explication of the poll and its results. I frankly don't know how they had the cheek to crown a fifteen-vote favorite "the best."

I myself have not read Beloved. Kathleen has, however - and she says she can't remember a thing about it except that "somebody's dead."

Did I mention that Underworld, Don de Lillo's opus pompossimus, was the first runner-up, followed by Cormac McCarthy's grisly (must-read) Blood Meridian and the four Rabbit Angstrom novels by John Updike. Gawd, Underworld was a bore.

I'm not complaining. To ask for "the best American novel" is to invoke a fog of aspirational sentimentality. The results would probably be just as bogus in any culture. Asking for a desert island favorite (the standard British approach) would undoubtedly have yielded a more illustrative list. Who'd want to spend time in solitary with Blood Meridian? I, of course, would spend it committing The Corrections to memory. Or maybe Horse Heaven.

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The lone book of verse reviewed this week is Franz Wright's God's Silence. Langdon Hammer makes Mr Wright out to be someone very unhappy with life on earth, at least in the absence of God.

God keeps silent, but his silence is resonant. Wright hears in it an anticipation of the end of things, an apocalyptic release (desired, not dreaded) from the tragicomic suffering and injustice that is his vision of life in American today.

And there are only two full reviews of novels. Anna Shapiro's Living on Air gets half a page from Kaiama L Glover, who summarizes the book's plot before closing in on its prose.

Unlikability may be the province of all adolescent girls, but Maude's spills over into the narration itself. The result is a novel that in many ways preens and poses as much as its off-puttingly precocious heroine. Like Maude, Shapiro has a bit too much to say about everything...

Adam Begley is a lot more enthusiastic about George Saunders's collection of "stories," In Persuasion Nation. I put scare quotes around "stories" because Mr Saunders seems to me to be creating something new, something that is neither fact nor fiction. His work is more artistic than literary: he compels you to see and to feel very strange things, while inner realities are banal at best, and moral responses are quite rare. I think that Mr Saunders is a genius at doing whatever it is that he does, and I don't share Mr Begley's fear that he "is in danger of becoming a dependable brand name." I'm not sure that Mr Begley is "worried" about anything, either. His essay is good, if brief, literary criticism.

Michael J Agovino's Fiction Chronicle rounds up five novels.

The Suitors, by Ben Ehrenreich. This spin on The Odyssey, from Penelope's point of view, is "a fantastic hodgepodge. At times it's smart and postmodern in a puckish, Calvino-like sense. At other times, it's just pretentious and smarter-than-thou, and entitled and smug in a McSweeney's sense... One thing's certain: Ehrenreich writes with an ease and pure line-by-line skill that's rare. This ultimately bails him out." (But what is "line-by-line skill"?)

The Ministry of Pain, by Dubravka Ugresic (translated by Michael Henry Heim). Having sketched the shortcomings of this story of a Croatian woman in exile in Amsterdam, Mr Agovino writes, "This is all countered, however, by paragraph after startling paragraph of heightened, philosophical musings. ... Lucic [the narrator] knows her people, and hates them - but loves them more. Which is why the narrator and, one senses, the author, is heartbroken. This is a work that comes from the gut, one that deserves to be read."

Visigoth: Stories, by Gary Amdahl. "Amdahl considers, often in high style, the sometimes diabolical nature of men, a big theme and done to death, sure, but rarely in such off-kilter tones." An illustrative quotation would have been helpful here, but instead Mr Agovino gives a list of Mr Amdahl's apparent influences.

The Mercy Room, by Gilles Rozier (translated by Anthea Bell). Mr Agovino finds that the suppression of the narrator of this novel's gender hurts more than it helps. "What's best is contemplating the narrator's motives, her (or his) ambivalence about - or, scarier, indifference to - the whirling horrors. The obfuscation only undermines it."

The Memory Artists, by Jeffrey Moore. "This is a rich book, erudite and funny, as much about brain chemistry, the wellness industry and poetry as it is about memory. Rich, but some parts feel too much like a situation comedy, and there are too many gimmicks - different fonts, illustrations, news clipping, footnotes. Yet The Memory Artists is a pleasure to read; it's strangely uplifting to spend time with these flawed but humane characters."


The best nonfiction review is Pete Hamill's piece about David Remnick's Reporting. Summoning Ezra Pound's dictum that "Literature is news that stays news," Mr Hamill praises Mr Remnick's unusual decision to continue the practice of reporting even while he edits The New Yorker. Writing about people, not late-breaking stories, Mr Remnick doesn't face the deadlines that dogged his early years at the Washington Post, but he retains the journalist's skepticism.

He has no interest in being a court painter to the powerful and makes certain to note the political warts of even those people he most admires (Natan Sharansky, Vaclav Havel, Oz). He goes places, talks to many people (including the wives of his subjects) and comes back to tell his readers what he has learned. And like any reporter who learned from what he experiences, he knows that the world contains very few saints.

On the facing page, Barry Gewen tries to come to terms, not so much with the subject of his review, David Cesarini's Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a "Desk Murderer" as with the thought of Hannah Arendt. Getting to the bottom of Mr Cesarini's felt need to replace Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, Mr Gewen isolates a single but important difference: Arendt considered the Holocaust "a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people."

Her thought tended to move from individuality to universality without passing through the communal, lived world that provides most people with their sense of identity. Such radicalism is what gives her writing its power, but also what makes it so troubling. "I have never in my life 'loved' any people or collective - neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love 'only' my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons." This is a statement that manages to be both warm and chilling at the same time.

Doubtless because, in this regard, I'm wired just like Hannah Arendt, I don't know what Mr Gewen is complaining about. In any case Mr Cesarini's book get lost in the dust-up; Mr Gewen never delivers a judgment of his attempt to displace Arendt.

Like Hannah Arendt, Amartya Sen is a true cosmopolitan: he sees through cultural identity to the individual. In Identity And Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, he urges us to recognize that everybody participates in several group identities, and to put the narcissism of small differences behind us. Reviewer Kenji Yoshino faults Mr Sen for failing to explain the power of that narcissism and the difficulty of getting beyond it.

The strength of Sen's argument lies in its intuitive nature: "In our normal lives we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups." Its weakness lies in its failure to explain why, at critical junctures, we disown that knowledge. Is it because human cognition tends to trade in binaries? Is it because violence creates identity as much as identity creates violence? Is it because human beings fear the choices or solitude a more cosmopolitan outlook would force them to face? These and other possibilities go unexamined.

Which is a shame. For my part, I go for the "fear of choices" option. Sometimes I think that the cosmopolitan outlook simply requires a rather high IQ.

Robert Wright reviews two new books about anti-Americanism around the world, Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century, by Julia E Sweig, and America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes. Aside from faulting Mr Kohut and Mr Stokes for attributing the reserve of most Americans to broadmindedness instead of apathy, Mr Wright likes both books, and for the most part his review recapitulates their theses. I would call this, therefore, an "occasional" review, one in which the writer makes use of books as a pretext to exhort the reading public.

So history has put America in a position where its national security depends on its further moral growth. This is scary but also kind of inspiring. Maybe the term "American greatness" needn't have the militaristic connotations lately attached to it. Here, perhaps, is an exceptionalism worth aspiring to. But if we succeed, let's try not to brag about it.

In his review of Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam, by Mark Bowden, James Traub magisterially wishes that the book were written by an older writer, preferably one of the American hostages who were knew the territory much better.

The captors volunteered much less to Bowden than did the hostages, and because he is not deeply versed in Iran's history and culture, he cannot guide us through the country as a John Limbert or Michael Metrinko could have done.

As for anything that the events of 1979 might teach us, Mr Traub cautions:

The students [who occupied the American embassy] wanted to say something to America and the West; that's why they argued with the hostages rather than beheading them. The terrorists who plant bombs on the London subway have nothing to say. They cannot be negotiated with.

There are four history books in this week's Review, and two of them have slavery at the center. Strangely, these reviews, by Ira Berlin and David S Reynolds respectively, seem unaware of each other. One, it's true, is a very generalized book, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, by David Brion Davis, while the other is confined to the eighteenth-century Brown brothers of Providence, Rhode Island. Reviewing Sons of Providence: the Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, by Charles Rappleye, David S Reynolds takes a few words to praise Mr Rappleye's scholarship and writing, but for the most part summarizes the story of John and Moses Brown, who came to differ quite sharply about slavery. John, who upheld it, "predicted that it would lead the nation to civil war." According to Ira Berlin, Inhuman Bondage sheds a good deal of light on the process by which New World slavery, to which Europeans and Native Americans were initially subjected, became synonymous with the bondage of Africans.

Davis follows the large story of slavery into all corners of the Atlantic world, demonstrating that hardly anyone or anything was untouched by it. He is particularly interested in the way ideas shaped slavery's development. But Inhuman Bondage is not a history without people. Princes, merchants and reformers of all sorts play their role, though, sensibly, Davis gives pride of place to the men and women who suffered bondage.

May the ongoing tragedy of African slavery someday yield a peaceable catharsis. The tragedy of Native American extinction has produced an only slightly less complex problem, one that South and Central American republics are beginning to grapple with in an open way. Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America, by Paul Schneider, retails the colossal failure of one venture to reduce Native Americans to slavery. Candice Millard is moderately enthusiastic about the book (she believes that many of the details ought to have been presented in footnote form, so as not to obstruct the gripping narrative), but for the most part she's eager to tell the story, first officially told by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1537: "a nearly 500 year-old tale of disaster, misery, and the wages of greed and arrogance." It is almost funny to read that Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved himself, by the native Floridians. Four out of 400 adventurers survived, and Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain via Mexico.

Even more difficult to compute is the story apparently told by Terri Jentz in Strange Piece of Paradise. In 1977, she and another Yale undergraduate were run over by a high-clearance pickup truck as they slept in a tent, after which the driver of the truck mauled them with an axe.

Imagine that it had been Truman Capote himself who'd been savaged in Holcomb, Kan., and that he had survived to describe his ordeal. That is the level of command and sinew at work in the writing.

That's Mary Roche, waxing enthusiastic about this week's cover story. I expect that we'll here more about this book.

Back to history, though, and A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, by Catherine Allgor. Mary Beth Norton feels that Ms Allgor overstates her case for Dolley Madison, at least at times, but concludes,

In this evocative study a remarkable woman, creator of the "first lady" role, comes vividly to life.

Indeed Dolley Madison was the first to show how necessary women have been to the proper functioning of Washington as a political complex. Without them, the men would simply slaughter one another.

I've read a lot about On The Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, by Marshall Berman, and almost all of it has sighed with disappointment. I suppose that New Yorkers are very possessive about this protean space, which the Times deserted decades ago and which is wholly and utterly lacking anything that could be called a "square" (unlike, say, Madison Square). David W Dunlap, in any case, damps his sense of Mr Berman's book's shortcomings until the end, where he makes a crack that doesn't really need to be explained:

It's one of the few times in the book you wish he had said more.

Ron Powers shakes his head ruefully over Bill Carter's Desperate Networks.

Now, here is material begging for a topical satire on a grand scale: glittering self-importance, inflated reputations, swagger and ruthless aggression, all masking a collective, underlying fear of failure and aversion to the new. Paddy Chayevsky, Tom Wolfe - heck, Michael Moore - would have braided these jumbled threads, selected a few main characters, polished the story line and created a parable of American entertainment emperors, impeccably tailored but without clothes.

Not Carter.

It seems that Mr Carter is awestruck by the would-be ninjas who run the networks - he doesn't get the "would-be" part. Boxing trainer Teddy Atlas, according to Dave Anderson, has a lot more on the ball in Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring: A Son's Struggle to Become a Man. Mr Anderson is particularly happy about what I think must be the book's principal virtue:

It's all here - the good, the bad and the ugly of Teddy Atlas, often rendered in a crude but convincing street language, captured so faithfully and so forcefully by his collaborator, Peter Alson.

Roy Blount Jr reviews Double Lives: American Writers' Friendships, by Richard Lingeman, with moderate enthusiasm. Aside from noting Mr Lingeman's "detached judiciousness, Mr Blount doesn't say much about the book, but simply poaches amusing anecdotes about literary insecurities and indignations. I remain unpersuaded that Double Lives is not just another one of those books-about-books that flatter the reader for his interest in reading. Since nobody out of school reads for duty, this is an unworthy subject.

Alvin and Heidi Toffler are back, with Revolutionary Wealth, a book that in Nick Gillespie's description comes across as blithely optimistic. Potential catastrophes - depression, war with China - are noted, but the Tofflers are out to celebrate "knowledge-based wealth."

Just as important, the Third Wave wealth system "demassifies production, markets and society," creating space for unending experimentation, innovation, and individuation.

Not if the corporations can help it. They seem to figure not at all in the pages of Revolutionary Wealth. What is the point of such a book?

Finally, John H Summers Essay, "The Deciders," is about C Wright Mills, author of 1950's bombshell, The Power Elite, and the subject of a book that Mr Summers is writing. Mills believed that American power is wielded by a small coterie of generals, CEOs and politicians. That may not be the case, but I'm inclined to agree, nevertheless, that the idea that public opinion shapes political action is "a set of images out of a fairy tale." That's because so many Americans seem to terribly apathetic about public affairs - except for the most provincial questions. I would say that the Power Elite and our various military uniforms are the only agencies of national cohesion. I don't see anything paranoid in that. Thomas Jefferson was right: big republics don't work. Ours certainly hasn't.

May 13, 2006

Keeping Up With the Steins

Keeping Up With the Steins is the only movie that I can think of that presents being Jewish in a plainly attractive light. Sentimentality, self-loathing, and victimhood play no part the proceedings. What's more, the movie illuminates the implications of the statement, "Today, I am a man."

Directed by Scott Marshall, Keeping Up adopts the strategy of burning away the ridiculous with satire and then replacing it with the meaningful. The difficulty is that some viewers - such as Stephen Holden at the Times - are going to expect the satire to last all the way through the movie, when in the event it is replaced by a quieter kind of fun. The movie opens with the bar mitzvah party of Zachary Stein, a Titantic-themed extravaganza aboard a cruise ship. The decadence of this affair is best exemplified by the horde of kiddies stuffing themselves with ice cream at a DIY soda fountain: talk about pig-out!

Our hero is Benjamin Fiedler (Darryl Sabara), a boy a few months younger than Zachary and the son of Zachary's father's former partner, Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven). Mr Piven has a role that recreates his Entourage agent with greatly increased humanity: when Adam tells Benjamin how proud he is of his son, it's clear that Adam is a good dad and not full of shit. Adam's life looks sunny enough; he's a success, and he's married to the very nice Joanne (Jamie Gertz). Joanne, as is only suitable, is the film's safety valve: she keeps it funny for the right reasons. She even gets along with her mother-in-law (Doris Roberts), who lives in the same house. Adam has only two problems: how to compete with Arnie on the bar mitzvah front, and how to deal with his estranged father, Irwin (Garry Marshall, the director's father), after Benjamin surreptitiously sends Irwin an invitation to the bar mitzvah, doctoring it by stipulating a date two weeks in advance of the event. When Irwin drives his beaten-up camper to Adam's lovely Brentwood home, with his new-age companion, Sacred Feather (Darryl Hannah), the deeper humor of the movie begins.

There are many reasons to see Keeping Up With the Steins, but perhaps the biggest is Garry Marshall's performance. This is shtick delivered by a pro, a verbal ballet of Jewish wisdom. That this wisdom is delivered by a guy who walked out on his family decades ago - something that Adam has never been able to forgive - only intensifies the humanity. The message may not be rabbinical, but it seems right: it's more important to forgive and forget than it is to worry about atonement. 

No Talking

Kathleen attended a breakfast at the Brearley School the other day for a symposium of alumnae on Wall Street. They discussed ways of introducing high school girls to high finance. It was decided to set up a listserv on which to continue the discussion. Then something funny happened.

The Brearley School is a twelve-storey building that looks like a cross between the best office building in a small town and a women's prison overseen by Ida Lupino. There is one elevator, built for freight. There is an elevator operator. Doubtless out of consideration for this person, the school imposes a stiff ban - one of a relatively small number of rules - on talking in the elevator. You don't even think of opening your mouth.

Kathleen's breakfast took place at the top of the building. The ladies were still chatting when the elevator door opened; they fell silent immediately and boarded. A few floors below, they took on a group of students. A few floors below that, a teacher got on. The teacher recognized one of the alumnae and greeted her. "How are you?"

"Shshsh!" intoned the elevator operator. The teacher "came to her senses" at once, stage-whispering "I'm sorry!" Kathleen was amused by the students' palpable shock at seeing a teacher rebuked by the elevator operator. Just how long do you think it took this little anecdote to spread throughout the school?

May 12, 2006

On Optimistic Rugs

Here's the transcript of an interview with the President, at the White House Web site. Apparently. At first, it seems too ridiculous to be genuine: Dubya conducts a German correspondent on a rather ludicrous tour of the Oval Office. Some people will think that he comes across as a nice guy. Others will ask, as did the party who sent the link to Ms NOLA's boss, "where were his handlers?" To me, it's evidence that he has just enough intelligence to recognize the need for plausible excuses. I wouldn't say that he seems determined to go down with the ship, but I expect that he'll stand by while the ship goes down if that's the price of executing his policies.  


It was an awfully pleasant surprise to read through MS Smith's response to the following meme, which I would call Sum, because it's a lovely pun in this context, and find my own name at the bottom!

  • I am writing every day. When I am not writing, I am thinking how whatever it is that I am doing would look in prose. Curiously, this doesn't make me self-conscious: the focus is on what I'm doing or what it's doing to me. I, as such, hardly exist.
  • I want a couple of weeks in Saltaire.  
  • I wish that you would think twice before turning on the TV. 
  • I hate multitasking. It's a mirage, snake-oil, nonsense. 
  • I love Paris. Also a few people whom I won't embarrass. 
  • I miss going to debutante parties. Mine was a shallow, carefree youth. Actually, it was as wretched as anybody's, but at deb parties, I perked up. I only went to two.
  • I fear the malignities of the Internet and other networks. I live in dread of viruses, glitches, outages, blackouts.
  • I hear Keith Jarrett at the Cellar Door Sessions, which I know about thanks to the gent who tagged me.
  • I wonder where we come from, but it stops at wonder. If you think you know, don't tell me.
  • I regret not taking better care of myself when I was young.
  • I am not good with numbers. If you remember BASIC, then my saying that I read figures as strings rather than as numbers may shed some light on the problem.
  • I dance in the foyer with Kathleen whenever Dave Brubeck's cover of "Stardust" starts to play.
  • I sing much less than I whistle. Strangely, my whistling does not drive Kathleen crazy; she rather likes it.
  • I cry all the time, particularly at happy endings.
  • I am not always as civil as I ought to be.
  • I make with my hands breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I also do a hell of a lot of typing.
  • I write exclusively at my desktop, at my desk. I have a laptop, but I find the larger keyboard far more convenient, and, perhaps because I'm getting older, writing is something that I do in one place. On a very nice day, it's nice to write at the table on the balcony, but it's even nicer to read, or just to sit and listen to the city.
  • I confuse "right" and "left" all the time. See? I just put "left" to the right of "right."
  • I need a part-time librarian to help me with my books. I can't find anything.
  • I should keep it down to two martinis at bedtime and work harder on my French. 
  • I start conversations whenever possible.
  • I finish every book that I read, eventually. 
  • I tag Ms NOLA, Tom, Max (on his own or for Amy), and George. But feel free to steal the list.

May 11, 2006

Beyond Schadenfreude

Am I the only one tingling with Schadenfreude at the unhappy lot of John W Worley? Are mine the only eyes that gleam at the punishment meted out to a "Christian psychotherapist" who capped a fifteen-year stint in the Army by driving the getaway car when some pals held up a liquor store (he was honorably discharged, however), and who declared bankruptcy in the Nineties? Do I feel that the government has overreached by seeking to imprison him for fiscal felonies, or that the jury was wrong to convict him? Well, actually, yes, I do.

What I learned from Matthew Zuckoff's article about Mr Worley in the current New Yorker, "The Perfect Mark," is that the particular long con that involves email - I receive two or three every week - from ostensible officials in Africa who need help moving money from corrupt government coffers to their own accounts is called a "419," after the section of Nigerian law that criminalizes such frauds. What I didn't learn is quite how it works. On several occasions, Mr Worley deposited checks payable by American businesses to other American businesses. The checks were forgeries or fakes, but how they or their originals were extracted from the American banking system for modification was not made clear. Mr Zuckoff does say that no Nigerian has ever been prosecuted under Section 419.

When I worked at E F Hutton, we in the Law Department used to have a high old time dealing with what we called "Arab Money Letters." The manager of a remote branch would come all the way to New York to try to persuade us in person to authorize the sending of a letter that would welcome a new client and assure him that Hutton would be a safe place for his deposit of X hundred thousand dollars. The managers could never see the harm in such statements, which was no surprise given their provincial background. It would never occur to them that the recipient, from whom they'd probably never hear again, would use the letters, written on Hutton letterhead, to swindle other investors by persuading them that there was a genuine deal afoot. One of the wire houses had had to pay fairly massive damages because of such a letter, a settlement that translated quickly into strongly-worded edicts.

But the managers were innocent souls, I am sure. Mr Worley clearly isn't. His email trail suggests that his sniff tester was working perfectly well but that his yen for easy money trumped it. Now he sits disgraced at Allenwood - for five years.

I am persuaded that prison is overdoing it as regards Mr Worley. He did wrong, but he was amply chastised by the complete failure of the scheme to put any money in his pocket. On the contrary, he was obliged to restore the funds that he helped to shuffle. The personal financial disaster and the shame, even if only his family knew, are punishment enough. The masters of this particular long con have made a lot of money and they remain at large. They tempted Mr Worley with great sophistication, deluding him at one point into believing that he was rescuing a lady in distress. They made him, in short, the perfect mark.

But appetite for risk is only part of it. A mark must be willing to pursue a fortune of questionable origin. The mind-set was best explained by the linguist David W. Maurer in his classic 1940 book, “The Big Con”: “As the lust for large and easy profits is fanned into a hot flame, the mark puts all his scruples behind him. He closes out his bank account, liquidates his property, borrows from his friends, embezzles from his employer or his clients. In the mad frenzy of cheating someone else, he is unaware of the fact that he is the real victim, carefully selected and fatted for the kill. Thus arises the trite but none the less sage maxim: ‘You can’t cheat an honest man’.”

The harsh punishment of weakness strikes me as deeply inhumane. But there will always be a majority of Americans who believe that it was right to throw Adam and Eve out of Paradise and let Satan run Hell.

Day Shot


At least it all happened in one day.

About a month ago, I got a notice warning me that my subscription to Norton AntiVirus was going to expire in thirty days. I renewed right away, and bought and downloaded Norton AntiVirus 2006. But I couldn't install it. Nor could I really think about it. Mañana thinking took over until the expiration dropped into the single digits. Over the weekend, I promised myself that I would take care of it on Tuesday, but Kathleen stayed home on Tuesday, and I knew that she'd need the fast connection at some point. She also needed to be protected from the installation procedure, which something told me was not going to be fun. So I wrote a few things instead, to relieve myself of publishing pressure yesterday. I would dedicate the afternoon to wretchedness.

I couldn't even tell the first young Indian gent what the problem was.

Continue reading about my day out at Portico.

May 10, 2006

Insouciant Depravity

Shame on everyone who paid any mind to David Blaine. I wouldn't mention the stuntmeister myself but for Dan Barry's eloquent lamentation in the Times.

Day Out

My daily life is so quiet and local that it doesn't take much to give me an out-on-the-town feeling. I was definitely out-on-the-town all day Saturday. Saturday is ordinarily the day on which I hunker down with the Book Review, reading it and then reviewing it, a job that takes me about five hours of unsteady application. But last Saturday was different, because...

Continue reading about my day out at Portico.

May 09, 2006


Friday night saw the last of this season's New York Collegium Concerts, at the Church of St Vincent Ferrer. We had the first two Brandenburg Concertos and two of Bach's "Lutheran" Masses. In other words, music familiar and obscure. The prevailing note all evening long was good humor, or perhaps jollity.

Continue reading about the New York Collegium at Portico.

On Saturday, Orpheus followed with the last of its Carnegie Hall concerts for the season. The big noise on the program was Leon Fleisher, whose recordings of the Schumann and Grieg piano concertos, made with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, were the ones I grew up to. By the time I was listening, however, Mr Fleisher had developed dystonia in his right hand, and was down to playing the left-hand repertoire. According to an entry at Wikipedia, Botox came to Mr Fleisher's rescue. I remember his initial comeback; he played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 at Tanglewood. That's hardly a work of comparable difficulty to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73, the "Emperor."

Continue reading about Orpheus at Portico.

May 08, 2006

Jane Jacobs: Cities and the Wealth of Nations

The death of Jane Jacobs prompted me to do something that I ought to have done at least upon the inauguration of the Bush Administration: to re-read Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. Reading this book when it came out in 1984 was a moment of startling political clarification, for its challenge to traditional economics was instantly persuasive, and for the first time in my life I could conceive of a truly desirable civil arrangement. There is no doubt that I already shared Jacobs's preference for the small and open-ended to the large and controlled, as well as a dislike of large corporations. The latter is only implicit in Cities, but there is no way that its principles can be reconciled with the furtherance of business organizations that hire more than, say, 150 people. What Jacobs could only guess was the role that computers might play in making her dream of a world of city-states come true.

This will be the first of several pages on Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Some of them will discuss things that Jacobs actually writes, while other will tease out implications and obstacles. The book's last three chapters read like a springboard into...

Continue reading about Cities and the Wealth of Nations at Portico.

May 07, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

There are two books of poetry this week, covered one review largely, it seems, because the poets in question hail from the Atlantic Isles. Neither is English but both live in London now, and Stephen Burt's review is so enthusiastic that I have already ordered one of the books online, Nick Laird's To A Fault. I was not tempted to read the first novel of this former lawyer and current Mr Zadie Smith, but the lines of verse that Mr Burt quotes are irresistible. Why? Because they're in English.

As any Frenchman will tell you, we don't speak English here. We speak American. As a demotic dialect, it is a midden of low-class English, sparked only by the King James Bible, and the flotsam of countless immigrant expressions. It is a patois that always tends to the vague and noncommittal - except where results really matter, in which case it falls back on sports talk. No one wrote readable American until Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and their approach was to succeed by saying as little as possible. Jonathan Franzen is one of the first writers, I believe, to speak in a naturally eloquent American. Our poetry, in contrast, is still too affected, too unlike our ordinary carelessness, to lean on. Beyond Wallace Stevens's serious playfulness and John Ashbery's commitment to inconsequence there is little to recommend American verse.

In the Atlantic Isles, English is inflected only by some Celtic remnants that were assimilated long ago. British xenophobia may be lamentable, but it has kept the language strong. Am I pleading for racial purity here? Hardly. The reverse, if anything. A strong sense of language allows wildly diverse human beings to make sense to one another. American, as a language, is a device for the upkeep of ghettos.

There, I feel better now. The other book, Robin Robertson's Swithering, also sounds good, but not for me, at least if Mr Burt is right:

Their requirements - brevity, clarity, story - permit approaches as different as Robin Robertson's and Nick Laird's: the first stoic, generalizing and compellingly terse; the second loquacious, voluble, able to revel in details.

Mr Burt feels at one point obliged to provide a definition of the word "counterpane." It's quite true that this word is not an item of standard English. But I have always known what it means, because I grew up on Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. So should your little ones.

The cover story this week is Philip Roth's Everyman, enthusiastically reviewed (wow!) by Nadine Gordimer. Like every review of this book that I've come across, this one sings in praise of Mr Roth's themes, and in so doing confirms my real dislike of MEN who indulge their DESIRES for SEX until the moment of their DEATH. A few years ago, I read an extract from Sabbath's Funeral in The New Yorker. Quite aside from the genuinely disgusting climax - or perhaps not - was the eloquently adolescent prose. Mr Roth is simply a more-gifted-than-most embodiment of the failure to recognize that adolescence is to be grown out of.

On the page facing the bulk of Ms Gordimer's essay is Walter Kirn's two-timing review of A M Homes's latest offering, This Book Will Save Your Life. For acres of print, Mr Kirn appears to laud Ms Homes. It's only in the antepenultimate paragraph that he lowers the boom. Ms Homes, he writes,

seems flummoxed by the larger task of leveraging Richard's adventures in recovery into a panoramic Los Angeles black comedy. Her people are made of dough that just won't rise. Her miniature editorials on class and status belong in a 1960s Newsweek column. She scourges Hollywood in all the ways that make it tingle with guilty ecstasy.

If Walter Kirn keep this up, I'm going to open a separate section, just for his bracing reviews, of which this is the fifth this year.

Christopher Dickey reviews Neil McFarquhar's The Sand Café. Both men are journalists who have covered the Near-Asian beat, and Mr Dickey is largely sympathetic about what he nevertheless makes clear is a thin novelization of actual events - namely, the hurry-up-and-wait of Operation Desert Storm. Nor does he let us forget that Evelyn Waugh nailed this subgenre in 1938's Scoop. Jacob Heilbrunn is rather less forgiving about Alex Berenson's The Faithful Spy, an "exciting, if flawed, tale." He particularly faults Mr Berneson for "chest-thumping" in this novel about a rogue CIA agent who's single-handedly out to defeat al-Qaida, and, even worse, for appearing to believe that torture is effective.

Thomas Beller reviews two collections of shorter fiction from abroad. Cristina Henriquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart, may be an American, but she spent chunks of childhood in her father's native Panama. Mr Beller, although he confesses to reading the books under review in order to learn things about faraway places, nevertheless writes intelligently about the books themselves as texts. Of Ms Henriquez, he observes that

Her sentences have a muted calm that suggests, paradoxically, something quite remote from inner peace: it's the state you will yourself into so you can hold on to the many disparate threads of life.

Of The Nimrod Flipout, Etgar Keret's portfolio of thirty prose snapshots (translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Schlesinger and Sondra Silverston), Mr Beller writes,

By the end, he's accumulated a stock of reflections and insights that are breathtakingly banal.

But the review does quite interestingly point out that Mr Keret's Israelis have learned how to muck up their own lives with self-inflicted disasters as a means of liberation from the dread of terrorist attacks.

Verlyn Klinkenborg is an engaged New York Times writer with whom I almost always disagree about something, and I have to say that I'm scratching my head over his decision to narrate Timothy: Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile from the point of view of an eighteenth-century tortoise. Reviewer David Gessner tries to make sense of the gambit without success, but he does grasp that Mr Klinkenborg seems to believe that only a non-human can see human beings in perspective, as creatures in the natural order of things - something the very fact of his novel belies.


Lord, what a lot of books to deal with on such a beautiful day in May.

The first book reviewed within the pages of this week's Review is a must-have: Helen Castor's Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During England's Tumultuous Wars of the Roses. For a long stretch of my teens, I thought that the War of the Roses was the coolest thing that had ever happened; it took a while to realize that said wars were nothing more than a descent into gangland, but with great clothes. The wonderful thing about the middle of the fifteenth century is the profusion of characters and shifting allegiances; no matter how often I read about the period, I always have to reminded who liked whom. The Paston Letters - a trove of over a thousand missives discovered in the eighteenth century - are better than Shakespeare at communicating the flavor of the times, and reading at least a few of them in the original late Middle English - already much more open to us than Chaucer - is something that every educated person ought to attempt. Megan Marshall's enthusiastic review points out that Ms Castor, notwithstanding Virginia Woolf's complaint that the letters are "mounds of insignificant and often dismal dust," has discovered a very English story in the material: the rise of a family from peasantry to prominence in a few generations, under cover of civic unrest.

Paul Krugman's review of Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery, by David Warsh, makes it clear that this is a book that I'll have to read. I'm not sure that I understand what it's about, not because the review is unclear but because I am thinking so hard at the moment about Jane Jacobs's Cities and the Wealth of Nations, a very different sort of book. Mr Krugman, who quibbles with a few details, waives the nit-picking and hails Mr Warsh's command of "high intellectual drama." Another important book seems to be The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements: 1967-1977, by Gershom Gorenberg. According to Jonathan D Tepperman's favorable review, Mr Gorenberg attributes the mess in Israel to neither self-defense nor territorial theft, but rather to the policy of no policy. While the Israeli government did nothing, "young zealots dreaming of a biblical 'Greater Israel'" launched their settlements, which the government eventually gave up closing.  

The book works powerfully on two important levels: as a deeply informative counterhistory and as a mournful reminder of what happens when a democratic government acquiesces in the fact of its own militants. ... Still, by showing the root of the problem - incompetence, not ideology - Gorenberg points to the direction from which an answer may someday emerge.

Joseph Kahn's review of Gordon G Chang's Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World suggests, in contrast, that this is a piece of punditry pure and simple, in which "hyperbole and cliché overwhelm some astute revelations."

Five American history books are reviewed this week, and two French. David Gilmour, whose The Ruling Caste was nicely reviewed last week, has a characteristically English view of the French Revolution, observing that, as most of its objectives had been already been attained in England and America, and without bloodshed. He faults David Andress for sympathizing, bottom-line - with the revolutionaries, but calls his book, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, "vivid and powerful." And he strongly disagrees with Ruth Scurr, whose Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution.

In fact the Revolution was the fount and origin not of our world but of the totalitarian era, an inspiration to future dictators who could adopt Rousseau's theory of the General Will as an excuse to avoid democracy and who could label their opponents counterrevolutionaries as an excuse to murder them without trial.

[In the recent issue of The London Review of Books, on the other hand, Hilary Mantel is so wowed by Ms Scurr's biography of Robespierre that I senses a certain regret that The Incorruptible is unavailable for dating.]

Louise Knight points out that Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America, by James Green, is only the fourth book to have been written about a shameful episode in United States history - what a surprise. Ms Knight regrets Mr Green's book's lack of "strong narrative voice, backed up by a disciplined willingness to winnow out the intriguing but extraneous from the vitally relevant." Alan Wolfe reviews three books about the Founders' religious faith, two favorably: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, by David L Holmes, and Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, by Peter R Henriques; and one not: American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, by Jon Meacham. Mr Wolfe agrees with Mr Holmes and Mr Henriques that the Founders were not, on the whole, conventional Christians, but Deists at best. Considering Washington's silence, Jefferson's cut-and-paste bible, Adams's Unitarianism, and so on, this seems to be the right judgment. But of course it makes today's evangelicals unhappy; they want to use the Founders' piety as a means of hijacking the nation. Mr Wolfe does not linger over Mr Meacham's book and concludes his review on a pessimistic note.

We often want to believe that history moves forward. When we compare the role of religion in politics at our founding to its role today, we just might conclude otherwise.

Ted Widmer faults The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, by Jonathan Alter, for a few minor shortcomings, but notes that it "has a refreshing buoyancy, not unlike its protagonist." Mr Widmer echoes Mr Wolfe's gloom:

In fact, if there is an overarching frustration to the experience of reading this book, it is that the panorama of hope and ingenuity that Alter paints for us today seems a thing of the past.

Say what you will about the United States, thousands are still dying to get in - literally. Sonia Nazario's Enrique's Journey is the harrowing but magnificent account, according to review Sarah Wildman, of one Honduran family's unhappy journey from one kind of poverty to another. "It's adventure travel for masochists," writes Ms Wildman.

According to Scott Stossel, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness jocularly advances the view that happiness is a delusion.

For instance, healthy people can be deluded into greater happiness when granted the mere illusion of control over their environment; the clinically depressed recognize the illusion for what it is. All in all, it's yet more evidence that unhappy people have the more accurate view of reality - and that learning how to kid ourselves may be a key to mental health.

Mr Stossel notes Professor Gilbert's sense of humor but otherwise writes a cheater: read the review and you won't have to read the book.

James Campbell very nearly loses patience with Roger Angel, whose memoir, Let Me Finish, has just been published. Mr Angel, it seems, is insufficiently traumatized by a childhood in which he was abandoned to his father by his mother, Katharine White. He's simply too well-mannered.

It is hard for the reader of this likeable book to avoid seeing the insistence [upon trustworthiness] as an appeal by a writer whose trust in life's entitlements was broken early on, before he cared how privileged he was.

Mr Campbell also complains, sort of, that Mr Angell isn't as revealing about the "deeper recesses" of The New Yorker, where Mr Angell has served under all five of the magazine's editors, as he might be, because he "has to turn up for work on Monday morning."

Finally, there are seven books aimed at guys that will probably annoy or bore all other readers. They are: Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, Balco and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, and Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero, by Jeff Pearlman, both reviewed more or less favorably by Michael Sokolove; Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero, by David Maraniss, favorably reviewed by George F Will (a guy with a gift for writing if there ever was one, but still a guy); Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers, by Michael Connelly, given a moderate review by Charles Taylor; A G-Man's Life: The FBI, Being "Deep Throat," and the Struggle for Honor in Washington, by Mark Felt and John O'Connor, unfavorably reviewed by John W Dean; and Beautiful Madness: One Man's Journey Through Other People's Gardens, by James Dodson, and The $64 Tomato, by William Alexander, both reviewed by a much more seasoned gardener, Constance Casey.

In the Essay, "How to Sell Books by Really Trying," humorist Henry Alford recounts his efforts to sell nineteen unappealing books to passers-by in Greenwich Village.

In the end, my experience has afforded me a new vantage point on literature. What makes Iago evil? I have no idea. But what makes someone by Iago's guide to hot-waxing defunct sports cars? Preparation, Persistence. Psychological pimping. I think I'll call them the three P's.

Now can I go outside and play?

Sunday Joke

Where's the Book Review review? Yes, well, I've been having a great weekend out in the Manhattan springtime, overstimulating myself by chatting with friends, shopping for duds, listening to improbably fantastic music, and putting out fires. So: thanks to PPOQ for sending along a little something to post today. Something already written, that is. And so right for Sunday!

A mother superior calls all the nuns together and says to them, "I must tell you all something. We have a case of gonorrhea in the convent."

"Thank God," says an elderly nun at the back, "I'm so tired of chardonnay."

How interesting it must be to drink a wine older than this joke.

May 06, 2006

Art School Confidential

The only movie showing reasonably close to home that I (a) haven't seen or (b) could conceive of seeing was Art School Confidential, so that's what I went to, and - you're not going to be surprised, because when am I going to slam a film? I am such a lousy reviewer of movies that I don't even consider these Friday Movie entries "reviews." I'm old enough to know which films to avoid, and generous enough - having enjoyed so many movies for almost sixty years, it's the least I can be - to find things to enjoy in all the others. My inner movie critic works very preliminarily: before I go. And, what's more, my friends and relations are so well tuned to the things that I like about movies that they're an infallible phalanx - i promise not to use that word within the next six months - upon whom I can rely with complete assurance. I know this because, every time that I've been tempted to second-guess them, I've had a bad time.

I know something about Daniel Clowes. He writes graphic novels. He wrote David Boring, which was, indeed, so boring that I couldn't read it. It seems to me that graphic novels ought to be full-color, incendiary explosives, flaming arrows aimed at social injustice. Instead, they're about nice-guy anomie. Oddly enough, I thought that, while Art School Confidential is an almost pitch-perfect transcription of the Clowes style into film - I say "almost" because it isn't shot in blue and white - it was super just the same. And I know why I liked it. Max Minghella is irresistible. He plays Jerome, an art student whose longing for Audrey, a fellow student but also a shapely "life" model and the daughter of a famous artist, equals Tristan's for Isolde. Happily, he doesn't have as much trouble being up-front about this. Even more happily, he still has a lot of trouble letting Audrey know that - you know, I sort of, could we maybe, you probably wouldn't be interested. Whether Mr Minghella is a Big Star or a Flash in the Pan we shall have to wait to see, but I strongly suspect that he's going to do great things. He's memorable in a tiny part in Syriana, a huge-cast movie in which his one scene is played opposite George Clooney. I was so into his passion for Audrey that I thought his breakdown into tears was way overdue when it finally came.

That Audrey should like Jerome back is one of countless graphic-novel outcomes that will doubtless confuse established critics who have not read any. If I enumerated the "graphic novel" aspect of Art School Confidential - its very light hold on real-world contingency; its indifference to scrupulous plot-pointing; its reliance on types, not so much as cartoons as as suggestions of completely different story lines that might be taken up by other equally interesting movies - and here I am thinking of the character of Candace, memorably played by Katherine Moenning; and its just-so explanations - you would begin to think that the movie is terrible. But it is not terrible. It's really pretty good. It is certainly interesting, and it helped me to understand the burgeoning form of the graphic novel, of which, in its innocent way, it's a critique.

But just go see it because Max is somebody you're going to love. He is at least the new Bud Cort.

I forgot to say that the movie's best laughs were not in the trailers. The scene that keeps coming back to me takes place at Thanksgiving, at Jerome's home, when Jerome's parents... but I can't say any more than that, except that when the wonderful scene is over, Jerome has to listen to a confused aunt who can't even remember his name advise him to paint animals on sneakers for pubescent girls.

I've got it! Max Minghella is the movie version of Malcolm Gladwell!

May 05, 2006


My bad. I lost my temper in public the other day. It wasn't a big outburst, but it was a slip, and I was very disappointed in myself.

Here's what happened: I was in the elevator, going downstairs, with an elderly lady. When the door opened at the ground floor, we were confronted by a phalanx of baby strollers. If this didn't make me angry, it prepared me to be angry, because I would like all the baby strollers and their occupants and nannies to move to another building. Like so many ageing people, I find that I'm coming to dislike children per se, at least the ones that I don't know. The children who live here are generally smart but unruly, with little no sense of how to conduct themselves in public. Yes, I know that it's their parents' fault, but the way it works is that their parents by themselves don't irritate me - not per se.

Anyway, there was this clot of strollers, and the elderly lady seemed a bit flustered. I stepped out of the way and backwards behind her, standing aside for the moment to let somebody move somewhere. I don't know what happened next. I know that the cookie man was taking up space near the elevator, oblivious, as usual, to the fact that the corridor is a thoroughfare. This was really neither the time nor the place to be handing out cookies. The whole scene - the cookie man, the strollers, the addled lady - was perfectly exasperating. Then for some reason I felt obliged to take a step backward, and in this I collided with an elderly gentleman. I did not knock him over, but recoiled from him as if I'd been given an electric shock. To his whispered "Oh" I replied by barking "Jesus Christ!" It was a helpless-sounding bark; I was panicking in the confusion. Suddenly finding my way clear, I strode down the hallway without another word. Angry as I was, I could not blame anybody else for my interjection. I'm ordinarily on top of these situations, which occur as a matter of course. I'll have to be on my guard in future for "too many strollers."

May 04, 2006

Why I Am Not An Intellectual

Just when I ought to be succumbing to senior moments, I'm feeling smarter than ever. That may be proof of stupidity, but I think the feeling reflects my growing interest in things. When I was young, I was not interested in very much. I wanted not to be young, and that was about it. Everything was boring. I was not moved to excel. The world that I grew up in had absolutely nothing to offer me except security - and I'm very lucky to have survived the contempt for security that it instilled. Just thinking about Westchester County in the 1950s is enervating.

In all probability, I'm no smarter than I used to be; I've just discovered interests, and connections between those interests. If you are interested, you pay attention, and you're more likely to describe what you're attending to correctly. A very considerable part of my new "smarts" is nothing more than an eagerness to discard the things that don't interest me. I'm somewhat surprised to find that one of these is philosophy.

Notwithstanding my love of wisdom, I have no use for philosophy. For the most part, philosophy seems to be an attempt to systematize the metaphysical, and I'm too much a materialist to care about unseen realities. Beyond that, philosophy looks like just another game that men like to play. Concerned with the meaning of life and the origins of existence, it is a very respectable game - but it is only a game. Shuffling concepts in search of an agreeable arrangement is what philosophers do. As in any game, there are rules that make philosophy difficult to play, but these rules, first sketched by the ancient Greeks, are entirely man-made. For a thousand years, Plato's demand that his students describe the movement of the planets in terms of uniform circular motion impeded the study of astronomy. Plato believed that planets, being "perfect" bodies, must move in a perfect way. It was a silly idea, really, and eventually science and philosophy parted company. I expect that neurobiology will vaporize what's left of "theory."

As for the moral dimension of philosophy, I don't need a system to support my conviction that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, each human life is sacred. I don't need a theory to explain that "sacred" here means that I don't have the right to do harm to anyone, except in my own defense. (My life is sacred, too.) Almost everything in my morality follows from this very simple precept. Either you know it in the bones of your character or you don't, and if you don't, no amount of argument will change that.

May 03, 2006

Unsurveilled Drafts

You probably already knew this, but officials in Madrid have discovered that terrorists there hit upon the ingenious scheme of sharing one email account and storing their communications as unsent drafts. Until now, nobody looked at those. (Thanks, Dr Emmerding.)

If Only

Making the rounds:

Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and George W. Bush face a firing squad in a small Central American country. Bill Clinton is first placed against the wall, and just before the order to shoot him is given, he yells, Earthquake!" The firing squad falls into a panic and Bill jumps over the wall and escapes in the confusion.

John Kerry is the second one placed against the wall. The squad is reassembled and John ponders what his old pal Bill has done. Before the order to shoot is given, John yells, "Tornado!" Again, the squad falls apart and Kerry slips over the wall.

The last person, George W. Bush, is placed against the wall. He is thinking, "I see the pattern here, just scream out a disaster and hop over the wall." As the firing squad is reassembled and the rifles raised in his direction, he grins his famous smirk and yells, "Fire!"

Speaking of rifles, did anybody see this?

Thank You Stephen Colbert

At the recent White House Correspondents Association Dinner, the inimitable (o were it so) Stephen Colbert roasted President Bush, who was sitting at the dais, in his trademark fashion. "Every night, on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut. I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument." With "friends" like Steve Colbert, the president doesn't need enemies.

Édouard, at Sale Bête, has posted a link to Thank You Stephen Colbert, a shrine to Mr Colbert's heroism. The site also offers links to video clips of the performance. It hasn't been much discussed in the MSM for obvious reasons: the target of Mr Colbert's sarcasm isn't the Bush Administration but the supine, compliant press.

Thanks to Turtletek, at Embracing Chaos, for being the first to tell me about the event.

The future revealed

I beg to call your attention to a bit of reorganization. At long last, I got round to transforming the Daily Blague entries that I posted from Istanbul in January 2005 into a single page at Portico. It has long been my plan to shift material that is not entirely ephemeral to a more permanent home. Regular readers will have noted that, aside from the weekly Book Review reviews, "continue reading" links take them straight to Portico, where complete pages are in place. In the case of a week of travel, the transfer has the additional virtue - really rather important - of placing the most recent events at the end, where they belong.

The original entries have all been re-edited down to one-sentence links. Transferring comments was a drag, I must say, because most comments don't make use of HTML. (I expect I'll get smoother at this over time.) Not every comment got transferred; I particularly left my own where they were. All comments still appear at the newly-vacated blog entries, which is sort of dumb. But I'm wary of throwing anything away.

The next project will be to do the same with the two breaks at Dorado Beach that Kathleen and I have enjoyed since the Daily Blague's inauguration. They will be ideal for printing out and reading in bed: they'll put you right to sleep. Then, with my limited travels out of the way, I'll attack the blog entries archived as "Reading Matter." Ideally, the DB itself won't contain any entries over a year old, but accomplishing the ideal is probably not going to happen anytime soon.

Until fairly recently, I've felt like a one-man newsroom, swinging from manic to meta-bored in seconds and spending very little time doing anything that might be called "work." Now that I've found a pace that agrees with me, however, I can step back and think about what I'm doing. And what I'm doing is building up Portico. That is the job at the top of my description. Portico is hypertext collection of prose works (and one piece of fiction) by one Robert John Keefe, self-publisher.

This is the place for modest disavowals, but I'm not making any. I do assure you, however, that the DB will offer at least one fresh entry every day. I thank you for reading.

May 02, 2006

Baby cyclones

Yesterday morning, I had to run across the street to Gristede's (a local grocery chain; accent on the second of three syllables) to make major paper purchases: Charmin, Brawny, and Kleenex in quantity. It was very bulky, so I had it delivered, and left the store with the three food items that I'd picked up. This relatively unburdened condition allowed me to linger in the driveway on my return to the apartment.

Our building, which is a large one by New York standards (although not particularly tall), has a driveway - a true blessing. It is, as you might expect, "U" shaped. For some aerodynamic reason, The space over the driveway, though perfectly open to the rest of the sky, has its own little weather system, one that is partial to cyclones. Baby cyclones, that is. I stood for a few minutes and watched a little ring of cherry petals whirl across the driveway, occasionally touching down but instantly picking up again. What made this delicacy so catching was the participation of a very long grocery-store receipt, which, cut up in small disks, would have quintupled the volume of the petals. It waved like the tail of a kite, snapping quite audibly, as if asking to be put down.

Later in the day, I made another return trip to the apartment, this time from the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled. That's what the Hospital for Special Surgery was called when it opened during the Civil War, as I discovered when I read the small print on one of the nurses' lab coats. I've never been able to remember this bizarre moniker (nor have I bothered to write it down), so, yesterday, while Sarah was prepping my hand for the needle, I asked her to remind me. "Ruptured and Crippled," she said with a laugh. "Isn't that awful? 'You there - you're ruptured and crippled!'" I repeated the phrase to myself several times during the next two-and-a-half hours.

When the infusion was over, I felt up to walking home along the river. It was like sailing on a fine day; the breeze was stiff and fresh, and the air, even alongside the flowing FDR Drive, couldn't have felt cleaner. I paused several times to look at the new buildings on Roosevelt Island. I went to a party over there once, and, let me tell you, they have the best views - in apartments facing west, anyway. Did you know that the principal thoroughfare on Roosevelt Island is Main Street? Yes, Virginia, there really is a Main Street, New York, New York  10044, even if, by any reasonable New Yorker's standard, it's in the middle of nowhere. It's an ideal neighborhood for people who would like to live in the bustle of downtown Juneau.

When I reached the driveway, this time encumbered by a fairly heavy bag from Agata & Valentina (an out-of-town friend is coming for dinner tonight), the petals were still whirling, but the receipt had disappeared. I didn't even slow down.

Two Magazines (to which I don't subscribe)

The other day, I received an email from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. It was nothing personal, just a suggestion that I subscribe to the magazine. I let my subscription go when I reached the conclusion that supporting the Iraqi misadventure, as TNR does, is simply not an arguably responsible position. But I was curious to see what (as the email announced) James Wood has to say about Harold Bloom's religious writing, so I walked across the street and bought the current issue.

"The Misreader," Mr Wood's review of Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, is great fun to read. It accuses Mr Bloom of repeating himself and refusing to admit that he regards the New Testament as inferior to the Hebrew Bible because he's, after all, Jewish. "A gnostic Jew" is what Mr Bloom calls himself, and Mr Wood has a lot of fun with that, too.

In general, Bloom has never shown much awareness that, philosophically speaking, Gnosticism solves nothing - that the positing of a false God or Demiurge is quite obviously not a "solution" to the problem of evil, but merely a dualism that does no more than move the problem, so to speak, somewhere else on the board.

Mr Wood suspects that Mr Bloom is really pissed that Yahweh has withdrawn from intervening in the lives of Jews, but can only confront this dissatisfaction as an aesthetic, literary problem. Mr Wood, who is probably our best thinker on the osmosis between theology and literature, could be said to dismantle Mr Bloom's arguments were it not manifestly the case that for "argument" Mr Bloom has substituted "vatic, repetitious, imprecisely reverential...campiness." (NB: I've bent Mr Wood's syntax quite a bit with that elision, but I don't think I've lost his meaning.) Mr Bloom's The American Religion (1992) was a great bore to read, but it taught me the lay of the land, as has only become clearer in these darkening times. Americans believe in a personal, stand-alone Jesus who will forgive them anything because, hey, they're Americans and, as such, lovable. Theology has almost no place in this cult of Jesus, whose principal scriptural texts are Daniel and Revelation. Which reminds me! Ian Dunlop, writing of the Camisard uprising that disturbed Languedoc in the first decade of the eighteenth century, in his Louis XIV,  remarks,

The 'scripture prophecies' gave ample space to the Book of Daniel. Daniel and Revelation are, to the ordinary mortal, the most obscure and difficult pieces of writing in the whole Bible, which can be a mystification if not a stumbling block. It is significant that the more extreme and emotional religious positions always seem to concentrate on these passages - the interpretation of which can be more than somewhat arbitrary. Notorious examples of this are the identification of the 'Scarlet Woman" with the Pope and of Babylon with the Church of Rome. It requires the resort to cryptograms which are at best unconvincing and at worst dishonest.

Harold Bloom is attracted to fundamentalism because of its "strength," although, as Mr Wood points out, this term of art is never defined. It usually has no more support than "I like this better than that."

At dinner last week, Miss G presented us with some holiday and birthday gifts that she had squirreled away and forgotten, and to these she added the current issue of Real Simple. I believe that this gift is motivated by First Aid, because my life, especially in Miss G's eyes, is real complicated. Actually, it used to be real complicated; now that I'm either reading or writing blog entries all day, it's just hectic. Real Simple does have a nice feel to it, although I was almost embarrassed to be holding it in public - it is a housewife's magazine at least to the extent that Woman's Day is a housewife's magazine. I'm pretty solid about gender identity, but even I would find it odd to see a big guy paging through ads for Lancôme and Eileen Fisher. (What would a househusband's magazine look like? Metrosexual Monthly?) The paper, anyway, seems environmentally-minded, although what would I know. Specifically, Miss G directed my attention to the cover story: "One room, one weekend: makeover ideas from $5." She wanted me to look at a way of concealing bookshelf clutter with a doodad from Ikea and some fabric panels. I confess that this idea is something that I would have found tempting a while back, when I seemed to know a lot of people who were intimidated and made genuinely uncomfortable by the presence of books. But that was in Houston. Even though I'm on the Upper East Side, books are no longer a problem.

Actually, the bookshelf treatment in Real Simple is not real simple. There are seven steps, and a second coat of paint is applied after the shelves have been wrapped in fabric. Elsewhere in the issue, however, there is a good article about packing emergency bags, which I promise to read and take seriously.

May 01, 2006

No Comment


People for whom New York City represents nothing but crowding, subways, and all-round deprivation ask, "How do you live without a car?" To my customary litany of happinesses, I can now add, "economically."

Ian Dunlop's Louis XIV

There are two great figures in modern French history, and Napoleon isn't one of them. I don't know where he figures - in the history of totalitarianism? - but for France at least he was Not Great. My nominees are Louis XIV and Charles de Gaulle. They taught their countrymen to be proud of being French, and I believe that they did so in ways that were benign as regards other countries. This theory has a real problem: Louis XIV was hardly benign to other countries.

But I want to talk about the Louis XIV who marketed France. Who branded it, as it were, even though no one knew about branding then, or knew about it as well as we do. Notwithstanding his disastrous wars, most of which served no known commonsense purpose, Louis made France into The Model, the place everybody else had to imitate. Do you really think that Schönnbrünn or Hampton Court, Peterhof or even the United States Capitol would have happened without him? No, of course you don't.

Louis XIV brings the Roman god Janus to mind. On the one hand, he was forward-looking about centralization and common-sense administration. On the other, however, his social thought was hardly more advanced than that of an ostentatious Burgundian duke. This makes him very hard to judge.

Continue reading about Louis XIV at Portico.