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August 31, 2006


The month of August, which was so productive in ways that I wasn't anticipating, and so unproductive in the ones that I was, comes to an end with a picture of me. I'm standing on Horseshoe Beach in Bermuda, five or six years ago. I still have the hat, and I wore the shirt the other day (it's time to put away the Madras - wouldn't want to run into Serial Mom). As for the smile, it's clear that I'm not upset about a refrigerator in the foyer.

Yorkville High Street>Portrait de l'auteur sur la plage

Vivement la rentrée!

August 30, 2006



Guess who forgot all about his must-have but seldom used swinging kitchen door (just like home!) when replacing a dodgy refrigerator? I'm in luck: the man who built the door can come tomorrow to take it down. For the time being, however, I have a new refrigerator in the foyer and a (still) working refrigerator in the kitchen. I'm covered.

You know what? I don't care. The refrigerator in the foyer will eventually drive me crazy, but it's not driving me crazy yet. I get a little more time to think about how it's going to be stocked once it's plugged in in the kitchen. I envision something very bachelor: Champagne and Corona, some condiments, eggs and cheeses. Yoghurt for Kathleen. A chunk of salami for sandwiches, and don't forget the wieners. Maybe that's not sounding "bachelor" anymore, but the point is that the refrigerator in a Yorkville kitchen should not be stocked for remote contingencies. If something comes up - an out-of-town friend pops up at the last minute - then either I throw together something entirely fresh or we go out.

Got it?


Bob Staake's adorable cover for the current New Yorker, "Back to Cool," got me thinking about phrenology, the "science" of determining character from bumps on the skull. Given what was known about neuroscience in 1800, when Franz Josef Gall's protoscientific work took off - next to nothing was known about neuroscience in 1800 - I wondered about just how given protuberances (or the lack thereof) were associated with particular traits and skills. I haven't been able to find an answer, but I do know that actual brains were never examined. One of Gall's theories was that the skull takes it shape from the brain that it houses (an idea that strikes me for some reason as perfectly backwards). His empirical findings were necessarily limited to taking certain measurements and assessing the characters of his first subjects. The rest was extrapolation and generalization, not research.

And yet Gall and his followers were so convincing that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, some employers demanded phrenological examinations in the way that they might demand background checks today. How perfectly ridiculous - given what we know now. And that's my point. What we know now, besides knowing that phrenology is not useful for assessing character and fitness, and besides knowing about axons and ganglia and SSRIs, is that we have a lot still to learn about brains. We have a lot to learn, and it's going to be painstaking work, not least because of the ethical issues involved in studying living brains - which of course belong to living human beings.

Within the space of two centuries, homo sapiens has gone from being a vulnerable creature to becoming a potential destroyer of life on Earth. That's not nearly enough time for the species' brain to evolve adaptive neurological structures. We're still wired to take what we can get while we can get it and hope for the best. We're learning that this is no longer a viable way to plan for our children's future, but you don't stop multi-millennial thought patterns in two hundred years. Thinking about the folly of phrenology this morning, I wonder if something exactly inverse is happening to the claims that we're willing to make about the extent of our knowledge. While acknowledging our mushrooming capacity to do harm, we admit that there is much to be learned about doing good. And we'll learn it: we won't make it up, as Dr Gall made up phrenology. We won't respond to the unknown with fine-sounding speculative plausibilities and then applaud our cleverness.

If nothing else, phrenology has served cartoonists well since its heyday. Its division of the head into "organs," each of which is associated with a mental propensity, can be readily hijacked for lampooning the private preoccupations that animate current fads. Mr Staake's bluff but confident middle-schooler is as up-to-the-minute as he could be.

Child of My Heart

Two days to go, and then it's back to original-entry blogging. I hope that you've enjoyed spending time at Portico, and that the layout of the site is more familiar. This blog is transient (not its comments, though), but Portico is permanent. Perhaps it would better to say that it's a permanent upgrade. Or so I like to think.

Showcased today is Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart one of the loveliest novels that I've ever read, a delicate but never cloying exploration of the liminal consciousness of a beautiful teenager whose childhood is about to end. There is sadness in the novel's East Hampton sunshine, but it is still radiant sunshine, too beautiful, too evocative of summer's freedom to be at all unpleasant.

Reading Matter>Books on the Side>Child of My Heart


In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

It was unusually difficult, this week, to find sentences that conveyed the gist of the reviews in which they appeared while also casting come light on the books themselves. Emily Barton's review of Reading Like a Writer propelled me to the nearest bookstore for a copy of Francine Prose's new book, and, having finished it, I can only wish that fiction reviewers would look to it for guidance. Ms Prose can talk about writing in great detail without giving too much story away. Too many reviews regurgitate contents without providing much of a sense of what spending book-length time with them might be like.


The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud. "Among its many pleasures, this novel indisputably reminds us of one truth that cannot be declared fungible: the obdurate reality of the human imagination. The Emperor's Children is a penetrating testament to its power." - Meghan O'Rourke.

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany (translated by Humphrey Davies. "For the last quarter-century, Egypt has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak, a president who has won elections by imprisoning his opponents and has presided over a ramshackle economy riddled with corruption. From this depressing landscape, Alaa Al Aswany has conjured a bewitching political novel of contemporary Cairo that is also an engagé novel about power and a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart." - Lorraine Adams.

All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P Jones. "But there are no roughly sketched characters in Jones's stories. All are given the benefit of the doubt, and there is evidence that a better path is not out of reach for anyone. Even the most sympathetic characters, though, make decisions that are far too human to be doubted." - Dave Eggers.

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain. "Each of these eight stories is as rich as a novel - high praise when you consider how many of today's novels could be distilled into a short story." - Liesl Schillinger.

Voyage Along the Horizon and Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Two: Dance and Dream, by Javier Marías (translated by Kristina Cordero and Margaret Jull Costa, respectively). "If Voyage Along the Horizon could have been written by almost anyone (at times, it seems to have been written by everyone)..." "The slow, indefinite revelation of his universe is the most affecting narrative feat in Marías's work to date. It has a musical lightness that recalls Charles Ives's Unanswered Question, a composition that rises but does not resolve." - Wyatt Mason.

The Banquet Bug, by Geling Yan. About a dish called "Dragon in the Flame of Desire": "This prurient item might easily have been featured in The Banquet Bug, Genling Yan's sly comic novel about the excesses - culinary and otherwise - of modern life in the Chinese capital. Although it may seem fantastical, her fiction is rooted in fact." - Ligaya Mishan. 

The Driftless Area, by Tom Drury. "This fine, ambling novel ends with a tug of war between the spiritual we don't altogether trust and the grind we're somehow unable to resist." - Robert Draper.


Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose. "I became a writer because books gave me such joy. Her insistence on that pleasure informs her method: reading carefully to see what au author does on the page and between the lines. This casts learning in a positive light, unlike the typical workshops E R approach of trying to diagnose and cure the ailments of a story." - Emily Barton.

The Reluctant Mr Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution, by David Quammen. "Darwin's creativity in explaining how species vary forms the crux of the story here. Quammen's book is almost as creative, giving a very free translation of his secondary sources. ... Invitations were answered with [Darwin's] courteous refusals, and no cultural refraction can render these, as Quammen does, as 'Leave me the hell alone!'" - Adrian Desmond.

When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex - and Sex Education - Since the Sixties, by Kristin Luker. "One way to get these conflicting world-views out into the open is to fight about marriage, which Luker thinks is the true subject of the sex-ed wars." - Judith Shulevitz.

Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by Caroline Moorhead. "Beyond the illustriousness of her correspondents ... what makes this book a literary landmark is that Gellhorn's prose, splendid enough in her 13 published books of fiction, travel writing and reportage, is at its finest in the letter form." - Francine du Plessix Gray.

The President's Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales, by Bill Minutaglio. ""Minutaglio's fascinating book will surely not be the last word on this sorry tale, but it goes a long way toward removing the veil Gonalez has tried to drape over his career." - Jacob Heilbrun.

Natural Selection: Gary Giddens on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books, by Gary Giddens. "He makes the case that popular culture, in all its minutiae, ultimately engages us with the world; immersing oneself in a book, song or film is the very opposite of escapist." - Ada Calhoun.

¶ Nonfiction Chronicle. - Tara McKelvey

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S Collins. "In a country where a large percentage of the population believes that the world is less than 10,000 years old and that humans once frolicked with dinosaurs, his argument that science and faith are compatible deserves a wide hearing."

In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, by George Hutchinson. "IN Hutchinson's telling, Larsen doesn't seem at home in any society, black or white, even as a adult. That subtitle makes it sound as if this were a dry analysis of race and society. In fact, the book is about Larsen. The brings the issues to life." 

Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein. "Somehow, the books lacks drama and texture. Although Schleifstein was on the scene, you'd never know it from the detached prose."

A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York, by Timothy J Gilfoyle. "Despite a Dickensian childhood, institutional sadism and bad luck, [George Appo] remains honest, in his own way, and is rightly transformed into an American hero."

Grayson, by Lynne Cox. "But given the platitudes ('Sometimes you just have to believe') and bland observations, this hardly seems worth a 5 AM swim in 55-degree water."

Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, by Marc D Hause. "The vast bulk of Moral Minds consists of reports of experimental results,, but Hauser does very little to make clear how these results bear on his claim that there is a 'moral voice of our species'." - Richard Rorty.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "The Mystery of the Missing Novel," is a disturbing look into WW Norton's refusal to publish John Robert Lennon's Happyland, presumably for fear of offending American Girl creator Pleasant Rowland.

This review was written on 3 September 2006 and backdated; see below for scanty details about the refrigerator crisis that distracted me.

August 29, 2006

Star Wars

Good grief! Our refrigerator died in the night. We awoke to a groaning motor and a thawed freezer. It appears that my much-postponed icebox cleanup has been taken care of! The official repair people told me that they can't come until next week, prompting me to ask if I now live in a third-world country.

Something even more depressing: Ronald Reagan. Not so much Ronald Reagan himself - a charming opportunist with no particular agenda beyond preferring owners to workers - as the fact that a majority of Americans thought that he ought to be their country's president. This is still the most stupefying thing that has happened to me in my lifetime. His victory was the moment in which I asked myself, "But where can I go to, to be free? Where's my new world?"

The mirror that Ronald Reagan's election holds up to the nation that chose him, of all people, to lead it discloses a terrible disgrace.

Big Ideas>Books>Reagan in Space

The disadvantages of being a one-man band don't need to be spelled out. I can simply offer the following extract, which I have removed from today's page without even trying to fix it.

Reagan's actual cabinet and staff acted its part as well,  that would ordain seemed to believe that authority was not vested in himself. But to his aides he was the President, scrupulously respecting him as the leader of the free world.

"Would ordain seemed to believe" is the most appalling pile-up of verbs that I've ever let stand (I hope).

August 28, 2006

Lord Chesterfield

Kathleen went to bed, but didn't go to sleep. I asked if I could help by reading her something. Reading Kathleen something always puts her to sleep. This would seem to be a comment on how boring I am if we did not remember how deeply we wish that our parents would put us to sleep with the stories that we ask them to read. Their assurance that everything is okay lets us drop into the semiconsciousness of slumber. Reading "fundamentally" - opening the book to whatever and going from there - from the Letters of Lord Chesterfield, a book that I keep on a certain pile of books, turned out to be almost perfect.

It was almost perfect because it almost put Kathleen to sleep. Unfortunately, it woke me up. Having been "fundamental," I came across the most amazing bit of worldly wisdom. Mind you, Philip Stanhope was writing to his bastard son a century after the events under discussion:

Richelieu (by the way) is so strong a proof of the inconsistency of human nature, that I cannot help observing to you, that while he absolutely governed both his King and his country, and was, in a great degree, the arbiter of the fate of the fate of all Europe, he was more jealous of the great reputation of Corneille than of the power of Spain; and more flattered with being thought (what he was not) the best poet, than with being thought (what he certainly was) the greatest statesman in Europe; and affairs stood still while he was concerting the criticism upon the Cid.

It's difficult, reading this, to disagree with Mrs Lintott (Dorothy, I'd swear her prénom was, the Frances de la Tour character in The History Boys), when she denounces history itself as the record of male incompetence. It is also difficult not to feel really stupid about not reading Lord Chesterfield morning. noon, and night.

Unfaithfully Yours

It's incredibly conceited of me to say so, but rereading today's page made me laugh out loud. I don't know that it will tickle the funnybone of anyone who hasn't seen Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Yours, but I hope that it will persuade a few film buffs to see the film if they haven't, and to watch it again if they have.

Audience>Home Theatre>Unfaithfully Yours

I saw Rex Harrison twice onstage. The first time, he was still playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, a part that I've always felt that his performance in Unfaithfully Yours gave him a lock on. The second time was in 1985, in a Broadway revival of Frederick Lonsdale's 1923 comedy, Aren't We All? I don't remember anything about the play, except that nobody said "Tennis, anyone?", but the cast was glittering, with Claudette Colbert, Lynn Redgrave, and Jeremy Brett. It was pointed out that Claudette Colbert, who lived to be ninety-two, had launched her career by the time the play was introduced! And I have never seen a better demonstration of "The show must go on." Jeremy Brett's wife, the Mystery series producer Joan Wilson, had died the night before, or the night before that.

August 27, 2006

A World of Menus and Recipes

What sounds more old-fashioned than "aspic"? I'll bet that lots of people have never tasted one. But I assure you that there is nothing more refreshing than the julienned beet aspic toward which this entry is pointed. Like all cold dishes, it's made well in advance, so that preparation of the dish is completely uncoupled from the inevitable fuss of entertaining.

We have a good friend who won't eat beets. To her, they taste like dirt. I was astounded when I heard this, but over time I've come to see what she means - and I also see why certain remote and disadvantaged people eat dirt. (Or so they say.) Beets are undeniably earthy. But what this means is not that they taste vague and indistinct, but rather sharp and even a bit metallic. That's what makes them so refreshing. Like lemons, they announce themselves with vigor and a total lack of ambiguity.

Culinarion>Savories>A World of Menus and Recipes

¶ Last night, to get to Lincoln Center, I boarded a crosstown bus that, when I walked out of the building, was standing in front of our driveway, waiting for the light to change. Walking vigorously, I caught up with it on the other side of Second Avenue - sometimes it's a blessing that buses take forever to board. I don't know when the girl in the green top got on the bus, but she got off just ahead of me at Broadway.

She wasn't a girl really. In her mid-thirties. An independent person, I should say, if only because she was out by herself on a Saturday night. Neither tall nor short, large nor small, plain nor beautiful, she was just a girl in a bright green top, a grey skirt, and - I think - deep red pumps. I took in this information when I followed her out of the 66th Street station. So, we're both going to Mostly Mozart, I thought. Not that I saw her go into Avery Fisher Hall. I was too busy promenading the Josie Robertson Plaza - isn't that what it's improbably called? - making phone calls. It was, after all, only 7:30. I forgot all about the girl in the green top.

Until she was the first person in the seats behind the Mostly Mozart Orchestra to stand up and applaud when the performance of the Jupiter Symphony was over. When two Manhattanites who know each other run into each other, they're quick to say that New York is a small town. This was different: this was something that proved how very much New York is not a small town. This was holding on, for more than two seconds, to one of the hundreds - sometimes thousands - of total strangers that one encounters in the course of doing almost anything exterior in Manhattan.

August 26, 2006

You said it, honey, not I (Claptrap Update)

From the protracted preamble to the chapter entitled "Deliverance," on page 311 of Special Topics in Calamity Physics:

Without the disturbing incident of this chapter, I'd never have taken on the task of writing this story. I'd have nothing to write. Life in Stockton would have continued exactly as it was, as placid and primly self-contained as Switzerland, and any strange incidents - [catalogue deleted] - might be regarded as unusual, certainly, but in the end, nothing that couldn't be dully reviewed and accounted for by Hindsight, forever unsurprised and shortsighted. [Emphasis added]

So self-indulgent is this young author that she doesn't even recognize the very bad review that she has just given to the bloated nothing that she has scribbled on three hundred bound pages.

The success of Marisha Pessl's debut can only be ascribed to a triumph of publicity. Negative commentary has been muted; the gatekeepers, while not entirely comfortable with the book, have plumped for encouraging it. I haven't spoken with any ordinary mortals who've actually read it, so I don't know just how exceptional my dislike might have been. But I know that I am poised at the much-talked-of moment when, as Janet Maslin put it, the author dumps her "booster rockets" and the story takes off. We'll see. Even if it turns into the best yarn ever, that would not excuse the Stage IV cancer of what I've already had to put up with.


Well, I still haven't been to Italy, haven't seen any of Palladio's villas. Nor have I written to Witold Rybczynsk, probably because I never quite finished his book about Palladio. It has been a while, indeed, since I've picked up The Four Books on Architecture, although it's very handily situated in our living room. Indeed, re-reading this page, I felt the anxiety that I've been suffering for weeks focus into a stab of pain. The month hasn't gone at all as planned. Never have I been more "social," and in few months have I ever been to so many plays and concerts. Long lunches, lengthy rambles and evenings out have left me feeling rather dissipated, and more than a little dizzy. I have christened this strange mood "Hellomoto," after the antic ringtone of that name that comes with my Razr phone. Perhaps an hour or two with Palladio would act, as I wrote, as a "tonic" to "restore jaded senses."

But of course I can't, not right now. I'm determined to finish another task. See the following entry, above.

Audience>Beaux Arts>Palladio

August 25, 2006

I'm the Internet, We're the Internet

(Thanks to Joe.My.God.)


It occurs to me that I haven't been reading at my usual rate. It's true that I've been busy, but it's also true that I'm mired in the middle - or not quite the middle - of Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics. As of page 180, from which I am going to quote, Special Topics is a wildly overwritten but deadeningly mediocre imitation of Donna Tartt's superb The Secret History.

He cleared his throat, stuck his hands in his pocket with ox-in-sun slowness. I suspected Jade had recently tipped him off to my feelings - "Gag's gaga over you," I could hear her saying, "like so gone, like fixated," - because lately, when he looked at me, a shabby smile drifted across his face. His eyes circled over me like old flies. I suffered no hope, no daydream that he felt  anything similar to the way I did, which wasn't lust or love ("Juliet and Romeo be damned, you can't be in love until you've flossed your teeth next to the person at least three hundred times," Dad said) but acute electricity. I'd spot him lumbering across the Commons; I'd feel struck by lightning. I'd see him in the Scratch at he'd say, "Howdy, Retch"; instantly I was a light bulb in a series circuit. I wouldn't have been surprised if, in Elton, when he trudged by my AP Art History class on his way to the infirmary (he was always on the verge of measles or mumps), my hair rose off my neck and stood on end.

Lets hope it's not, ahem, the mumps! The last sentence is particularly unfortunate, couched as it is in the conditional mode. Serious metaphoric overreach! It should read: "Whenever he passed by me my hair stood on end," or something similarly simple. We don't need AP Art History (please!) or trips to the infirmary for childhood diseases (excuse me?) to get the picture. But I'm not sure that Blue van Meer, the precious narrator of Special Topics, gets the picture. She's lost in Lingoland, where on every desk there stand at least three "Power Vocabulary" calendars.

Or, as Darren Reidy says in the Village Voice - how I wish I'd said it - "Her métier is claptrap..."

John Lanchester's Proverbs

A few years ago (all right, six), British novelist John Lanchester came out with a book called Mr Phillips. Long before I'd reached the halfway point of this story about a man who has lost his job but can't 'fess up to his wife, I noticed that the title character was chock-full of aphorisms that, alas, had hardly been of any use to him. It' still an interesting collection, these insights of a failure. And how cheeky of me to substitute this list for a decent review!

Reading Matter>Extras>Mr Phillips's Home Truths.


August 24, 2006

Getting Going

All right: here's why I had a big day on Tuesday. (Did I spend a minute on the Book Review? I don't think so.) Last Thursday, a parental figure by the name of Z - she is only a few years older than I am (two? three?), but she rocks - asked her daughter about my adoption search. That would be my plan to make contact with my birth mother, should she be interested, just to let her know that I'm okay. Until reading The Girls Who Went Away a few months ago, I had no intention whatever of learning more about my birth parents, but Ann Kessler's book changed my mind about that within the space of three chapters.

Here's what happened: Z wrote to her daughter, "How RJ's search for his mother going?" This was passed on to me in a very neutral way, but I understood, as if at the wrong end of a stun gun, that Impatience was being Registered.

I'll spare you the part about how I had to have birth certificates or whatever before I could proceed. It was all nonsense, but I didn't know how much it was nonsense until I finally had what I thought I "needed to have" before beginning the search. I didn't. On Tuesday I got the documents from the safe-deposit box. On Wednesday, there was a Joan-of-Arc moment in the blue room, where I write. I didn't see any angels, but I certainly heard the voice of Z. "Well, honey, it's nice that you've got your papers now. What's next?" It was a voice that, without being insistent, laid down an ultimatum. What it really said was, "If you think that you can give yourself the kind of credit for getting those papers yesterday that will allow you to do nothing for a few days until the middle of next week, you, mister, are full of shit!" Not that Z would ever put it that way. But it was the message.

I dropped what I was doing (writing to Z's daughter about my day) and Googled the Foundling Hospital, the organization that placed me with my adoptive parents way back in 1948. It took a bit of determination - they can't be actually happy about answering the requests of people like me - but I did find, finally, a contact whom I could call about my records. Ms Josephine Wintz was pleasantly straightforward about the form that she was going to send me, which I would fill out and have notarized - pretty much what I expected to be the next step, and a sensible step it is, too. She asked for the name of my adoptive parents, and a few other details. Conceivably, there could be a "no records" screw-up, but I don't expect that.

Everyone in my circle says, Bravo, RJ! You're so courageous! But bravery has nothing to do with it. I want my mom* to know that I'm okay - that's all. I'm not planning to find meaning in a new family. That may well be what happens, but my objective is simply to assure a woman who took from 6 January until 15 March 1948 to sign surrender papers that, wow, I'm still here. A middle-aged creakopotamus, but still good for a few lines. She will, if the anecdotal information is correct, be 77. Not so old these days. At 58 I feel a lot older. But as Christine Lavin sings, I was once somebody's baby, and if she is worried about me, this mother of mine, then I must do what I can to still her anxieties.

(And then, sound Irishwoman that she probably is, she'll find out that I'm resolute about the need for gay marriage, and have a fatal heart attack.)

My good friend Susan was here for lunch. "But of course it's got to be disturbing. You were part of a project, short on experience but long on agenda, that hardly knew what it was doing, something like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study." Oh, not nearly that bad. But perhaps that irresponsible.

* And this is far from the least interesting detail. I called my adoptive mother "Mother" from about the age of eleven on. I couldn't call her "Mom." In this I was partially echoing my adoptive father, who called his mother "Mother" until the day she died. But the woman who gave me birth seems like Mom to me. 

Joshua Bell and Friends

The burnish deepens with time. A year from now, this will be the souvenir of a beautifully polished chamber concert that I attended last Sunday, something that will perhaps make readers feel a stab of regret for having unaccountably seen fit to do something else.

"Joshua Bell and Friends" - that's what the Mostly Mozart mailer said. And it was correct, as long as you understand that Mozart and Mendelssohn are posthumously numbered among the friends. Along with composer/bassist Edgar Meyer, who unlike the other names in the program was able to stand up for a bit of applause.

Performers are always saying that X - the work that they're about to play - is one of their favorite compositions. They mean it, at least at the time. But when Joshua Bell sang atop seven colleagues in Mendelssohn's Octet, I knew that he has loved this music for a long time. He would play it more often if it were easier to conjoin two string quartets.*

The program was very simple. A Mozart piano quartet (there are two; tonight's was the first, in g, K 478), then a work commissioned for Joshua Bell and written by his choice of composer, Edgar Meyer. After an intermission, the Octet. The Mozart, which I thought I knew very well until this evening's performance, was played by Mr Bell with violist John Largess and cellist Edward Arron, forming a piano trio that played as such against Frederick Chiu's piano. I've been listening to this work for more than forty years, but until this evening it was a chamber piece for four players. Tonight, I heard it as a piece for two groups.

I'm not going to say anything about Concert Piece for Violin until I've heard it again - except that the second of the four movements made me think of hummingbirds. That's how fast Mr Bell was playing, and how softly and easily. Mr Meyer seems to have digested Debussy, Ravel, and other French masters.

Mendelssohn's Octet is the most astonishing example of precociousness that the West has to offer. Nobody, but nobody, has ever produced its aesthetic equal at the age of sixteen - certainly not Mozart, by the way. The opening Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco begins in hushed syncopation that almost at once leaps with irrepressible glee. There is a gravely sweet second subject - as grave as a teenager could be, that is - but the opening theme keeps pushing it aside, like boys on their way to a playground. The exposition closes in a glorious cadence, and if the players are worth their salt, you get to hear the entire thing over again. The development, similarly, concludes with a pile-up of syncopations that jumps into a thrilling unison. As for the movement's finish, there is nothing to compare with its youthful exaltation. This is the uncomplicated joy of being young and (musically speaking) hot.

Mr Bell and his colleagues played the three remaining movements with undiminished élan. The Andante was a coffer of burnished sonorities, its pausing chords impossibly melted into the sense of a single note. The Scherzo, whose only semblable is the Midsummer Night's Dream arabesque that Mendelssohn wrote a year or so later, and it skittered to its finish before it seemed to have introduced itself. The Presto went out with a great roar. And then the best thing happened: the audience, especially the kids in the cheap seats, burst into applause with something like the satisfying violence of an enormous exploding water balloon. Avery Fisher Hall was flooded with delight.

* As it happens, I have actually copied out the entire first movement of the Octet. I had access to the parts (who knows how) and I spent hours copying them into a spiral notebook that, oops, was open to the last page when I began my work, not the first. I ought to run a poll. Since I now have a lovely Eulenberg miniature of the score, I really don't need my laborious backward copy. D'you think I ought to throw it out? Or ought I to keep it, as a precious labor of love - even if I never look at it again. Too bad I don't have an adoring relation to do this for me. 


In October 2001, I thought about "9/11" as a date in history books of the future, as a mark on a timeline. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the catastrophe, the date itself is as weighty and imposing as the towers that fell. It is still much too soon to assess its significance, but I think that we note a certain change in how we live. "9/11" blasted a hole in the bubble that Americans like to pull over themselves, blocking out consciousness of the rest of the world except - and this only for a minority - as a tourist destination. I am sure that most of my countrymen would like very much to seal themselves up again, only now they know that it's impossible.

For most of the people who have come to this country, the United States was not only a land of opportunity but an escape from conditions of greater or lesser oppression. Along with the other Western democracies, the United States has (until recently) inspired the growth of democracy everywhere. We need to stop looking at the rest of the world as the place from which our ancestors escaped.



August 23, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

A fizzy issue this week, higher on buzz than lit-ra-ture. John Wranovics's review of Short Dog spends far too much time talking about the author's father's career. The book about Tiptree/Sheldon (on the cover, of course!) seems to be of interest because a woman posed as a male writer. Maybe there are too many books in my pile at the moment, but the idea of reading almost anything covered in this week's Review is insupportable wearying.

Fiction & Poetry

Perennial Fall, by Maggie Dietz. "Dietz's lippy candor is invigorating in a wish-I'd-thought-of-that way, and it's a pleasure to be led through her world as she looks at familiar objects with fresh eyes." - David Kirby.

The Brambles, by Eliza Minot. "If Minot had less command over her prose, this might have been fatal. As it is, however, she delivers such consistently perceptive, even stunning sentences that it's easy to overlook the less than cohesive story and just recline inside the characters' minds and listen to them think. This novel is imperfect in a way that leaves you marveling at the many things it does right and looking forward to the artist's next move." - Meghan Daum.

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas (translated by Richard Pevear). "No novelist since Dumas has been more irreverent of the conventions of well-made fiction or any more determined to tell stories without identifiable centers. There is, finally, something moving about his helpless, logorheic outpourings of narrative." - Terrence Rafferty.

  Soul Kitchen, by Poppy Z Brite. "But Brite's gritty affection for her kitchen hands - the feeders of New Orleans's lavish belly - shines through. In the acknowledgments, Brite says she completed Soul Kitchen the night before Hurricane Katrina hit. The book is most eloquent as a postcard of New Orleans before the flood - of everyday life as it was before that didn't exist anymore." - Field Maloney.

The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, by Irvine Welsh. "Although it fails at every imaginable level - metaphysical, ethical, technical, thematic - it is at the stylistic level, the level of the sentence, that Welsh's novel is most wanting. ... Nor is this what George Orwell fondly called good bad writing. This is bad bad writing." - Robert MacFarlane.

Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the LA Streets, by Dan Fante. "Dan Fante's world is unremittingly ugly, but like Ishmael he has lived to tell the tale. In his father's novel The Road to Los Angeles, Bandini's Filipino co-workers command him to 'go home and write book about puke.' Dan Fante has. Luckily, this writer has the telemarketer's skill for keeping the mooch on the line: readers who don't hang up right away very likely won't be able to stop listening." - John Wranovics,

¶ Fiction Chronicle. - Andrew Santella.

A Tale of Two Sisters, by Anne Maxted. "But Maxted succeeds in capturing the ways people can talk past each other and miss connections with even those they need most in the world."

The Seducer, by Jan Kjaerstad (Translated by Barbara J Haveland). "Veering from the broadly comic to the beautifully sad, with detours for deadpan meditations on the "Norwegian national character," this book is not just big (606 pages) but big-hearted."

Nightwatch, by Sergei Lukyanenko (Translated by Andrew Bromfield. "The pervasive atmosphere of gloom ends up choking the life out of this novel. You know you're in trouble when even the talking owl has nothing of interest to say."

Three Days to Never, by Tim Powers. "If none of that makes complete sense, be warned that matters might not be much clearer after you've finished this novel. It's not that Powers's endlessly inventive tale doesn't hold together, it's just that you might enjoy it more if you don't sweat all the details."

You're Not You, by Michelle Wildgen. "This closely observed novel illuminates some of the ways debilitating illness transforms not only those stricken but also the people who care for them."


James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon, by Julie Phillips. "But in Julie Phillips' engrossing and endlessly revelatory biography, the woman behind the alias is at last allowed to step into the spotlight, emerging as neither a malicious prankster nor a defiant contrarian, but simply as a writer for whom science fiction proved to be the ideal genre to tell her own story [in?]." - Dave Itzkoff.

Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon, by James Sullivan. "This archetypal American garmet owes its fortunes to a heady combination of celebrity and big business. And it is commerce that Sullivan devotes most of his attention, focusing in exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, detail on the history of the denim industry, beginning with the grandaddy of all jeans moguls, Levi Strauss." - Caroline Weber.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, by Nora Ephron. "But lately Ephron has learned that there is one betrayer upon whom no woman (with the possible exception of Cher) can exact vengeance or impose a fairy-tale finish: the body, with its dazzling flurry of early gifts, and its misleading air of permanence." - Liesl Schillinger.

LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, by Randall B Woods. "But in writing [this book], Woods has produced an excellent biography that fully deserves a place alongside the best of the Johnson studies yet to appear. He is more sympathetic and nuanced than Caro, more fluid and (despite the significant length of his book) more concise than Dallek - and equally scrupulous in his use of archives and existing scholarship." - Alan Brinkley.

Malory: The knight Who Became King Arthur's Chronicler, by Christina Hardyment. "Faced with the regular invisibility of her central character, Hardyment fills the vacuum with blizzards of diversionary details  the serpentine genealogies of nearly every English family she mentions, a description of how ink was made from lampblack or the caustic gall of an oak tree, an overview of several centuries' worth of English law on the subject of rape." - Paul Gray.

Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission, by Thomas H Kean and Lee H Hamilton with Benjamin Rhodes. "Told in a dry, colorless style, like the report itself, the book offers little new information on the actual attacks, but provides a keyhole view of the commission's bureaucratic war with a White House obsessed with secrecy and control." - James Bamford.

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by Deborah Blum. "Blum tells her literally wondrous tale very well. But apart from the vague suggestion that it answered a need created by the encroachment of science on religious belief, she offers very little reflection on the question of why spiritualism suddenly became so popular." - Anthony Gottlieb.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "What I did at Summer Writers' Camp" is a yummy compare-and-contrast of the nation's two most celebrated writers' colonies, Yaddo and MacDowell. Read it and dream.

New chapeau


In case you can't read it - and of course you can't - the hat says, "FASOLT & FAFNER: general contractors: fees negotiable." You can get this hat by purchasing it at Seattle Opera's Ring Cycle performances, and I expect that they'll give you one if you make a hefty contribution. But the hat is not available on-line. Therefore I had to have one, even though I don't wear baseball caps.

Thank you, DEAREST! (Who is not to be confused with my dear Kathleen.)

Ça ne change pas


Here's another helping of old prose. Perhaps it's a sign of mental inertia, but what I wrote in January 2003 about the American response to 9/11 still seems to hold very well. While it's true that more Americans are against our Iraqi misadventure than ever, I don't think that much ground has been gained in the understanding of foreign mindsets. Like the Italians, we appear to believe that the full measure of what's "foreign" can be found within the various regions of our own country, and that anything more foreign than a Yankee to a Texan is somehow no longer quite terrestrial.

Rereading my comments on an essay by Joan Didion, I'm reminded how quickly death makes one remote: John Gregory Dunne was still alive then - he had almost a year left to live. Surely my piece must be more than three and a half years old!

Big Ideas>

¶ I had something of a quiet big day today, never you mind why. But I did have an unusual stroll, from a financial printer near Grand Central to Lincoln Center. The Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza, above, was just a bit past the half-way mark. That's Bergdorf Goodman beyond the trees. 

August 22, 2006

Yorkville High Street

Today, I point you to some of the very oldest writing at Portico - it seems to date all the way back to 1999! It's a collection of three pieces. The first is about the unusual street on which I live - a subject that I'll be revisiting in a year or so when two new buildings continue the transformation of the neighborhood, from a German enclave to a destination shopping street. The second piece is about James de la Vega, an artist from Spanish Harlem who has been gracing the city's sidewalks with gracefully irreverent chalk drawings for years. It was written upon just having seen Mr de la Vega at work right outside my building. The third piece, I think, needs to be opened up and expanded; it's about what Howard Dietz, in the lyrics for the song "Paree," called "New York with its rush-rush-rush."

When these pieces were written, I had absolutely no idea of what I was doing on the Internet. Blogging was not even on my radar.

Yorkville High Street>Travels>Yorkville High Street

¶ In yesterday's Times, Terence J Daly, a "retired military intelligence officer and counterinsurgency specialist who served in Vietnam as a province-level adviser," expresses an idea that I've been chewing on for a while. If I've kept it to myself, it's because I haven't a shred of military experience. But it has come to seem to me that conventional armies are not the way to fight the war on terror. The Iraqi "insurgency" is not an army at all, but rather an uprising that rends the civil fabric. Military force, which is equally heedless of civil fabric, cannot possibly undertake its repair. Mr Daly is right, I believe, to propose a police model for our activities in Iraq. Mr Daly concludes,

Forcing the round peg of our military, which has no equal in speed, firepower, maneuver and shock action, into the square hole of international law enforcement and population control isn’t working. We need a peacekeeping force to complement our war-fighters, and we need to start building it now.

Step One would be the massive deployment of Arabic-speaking American agents. Now, I don't think it's very likely, either. Not in this misadventure; not with this Commander-in-Chief (who seems almost as innocent of military experience as I am). But next time. There's certain to be a next time.

August 21, 2006

The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone is an extraordinarily vibrant solution to the problem of what to do with Broadway's troupes of highly talented musical comedians in an unstylish age. Resuscitating the old chestnuts, as both Girl Crazy and Crazy For You showed, doesn't really work: the old shows - every musical by Cole Porter written before 1948's Kiss Me, Kate, for example - are dramatically lame. Truth to tell, the audiences of the Twenties and Thirties demanded much less of musical comedy than we do. So where are today's vehicles for divas as endowed as, say, Sutton Foster?

Thoroughly Modern Millie - the last show that we saw at the Marquis, and the last time that we saw Ms Foster - was a merely adequate solution. The songs were thoroughly forgettable, and it was hardly more possible to care about the cardboard characters, exhumed as they were from shows that David Merrick wouldn't have considered backing. The show got by on youthful cheek and charm. It ran much longer than I thought it would. Harriet Harris was great in the Bea Lillie role, especially when she wore that outfit in a huge red dragon print (she did, didn't she?). Otherwise...

I expected The Drowsy Chaperone to be much the same. But people talked about it with a different kind of enthusiasm. They hadn't just enjoyed the show, they'd liked it. Eventually, I decided that we had to see it, and I'm glad that we did, because it is a very special, and deeply moving, musical. Perhaps the most moving musical ever.

Once upon a time, gay men had to behave just like straight men. This was tough, needless to say, and it naturally created an underground world, one in which ...

Continue reading about The Drowsy Chaperone at Portico.

Ruth Draper

Ruth Draper. I shall probably always point to this page in August; over the years, Draper's monologues have taken on the weight of Hamlet's. They're "so full of quotations!", to quote Mrs Clancy in The Italian Lesson (she's speaking of Dante, beyond the first terzet of whose "Divine!" Comedy she seems fated never to get. And if "Oh, waiter, would you kindly add to that order three chocolate eclairs" no longer puts me in danger of crise cardiaque, I remember my first response to that line as if it were a page of my medical history. (The request is made by Mrs Grimmer, in Doctors and Diets.) It's easy to take Ruth Draper's monologues as early American camp, and perhaps they are. But they're something else, something that has nothing to do with camp. They're mature American satires. Ruth Draper may have been the first intelligent person to focus on American silliness.

(What did Edith Wharton make of her? Did they ever connect?)

Gay fans kept Ruth Draper alive from the time that she died, shortly after recording a bunch of her routines at Yale in the mid-Fifties, until fairly recently, when, like so many gay crazes, she was de-cryogenized and released into the general culture, to quietly mounting acclaim. Any real fan ought to try to obtain her correspondence. It is very Yankee and sound. When her lover, an Americo-Itlalian poet almost half her age, crashed into the Mediterranean in a plane that he was flying in order to distribute anti-Fascist leaflets, she was broken-hearted but determined to carry on. The three years that they had together remained her golden age. It is immensely touching to read the letters in which she talks about it - which she does not do, you may be sure, at length. She may have been a comedienne, and a rich one, too (she earned a fortune), but her heart beat not too differently from Pagliaccio's.

"So often that's how trouble starts." Just say that to Kathleen, and her eyes will glisten at you as she decides on the right smile. And the right riposte.

Audience>This & That>Ruth Draper



August 20, 2006


This page is rather grandly entitled "The Novels of Ian McEwan," but only one of this great writer's novels is discussed, and that his most recent, Saturday. Even worse, the "discussion" turns out to be an assortment of "random notes." I have tidied up a few blots and, in two instances, altered the wording. But I've let the pretension of comprehensiveness stand. Aside from a collection of  stories, I've read all of Mr McEwan's work, and I have dreams of rereading it and adding more pages to Portico. These dreams seem, I must say, incredibly fantastical these days, as I struggle to tread new books. That's right - tread books. Treading water is hard enough to keep up for a long time; treading new books is the Stairmaster of the mind: very wearing. Will I ever re-read anything? (NB: the Never Let Me Go re-reading is on hold at the moment, while new participants get their copies, making the project a reading/re-reading.)

Reading Matter>Reading Matter>Ian McEwan


August 19, 2006

Half Nelson

Of Half Nelson, I can't think of much to say. The film was frightening to watch because its central figure, Dan Dunn, a bright and engaging middle school teacher who also happens to be a drug addict, looked like a big mess about to go into terminal mode. It was surprising that Ryan Gosling made his character more appealing as the film went on, not less. Instead of just looking at him, reprovingly, I began to see the waste land that confronted him. The film left Dan's dependency problems unresolved, although the next step would appear to be a return to rehab.

Dan seemed, at the end, to be accepting the help of one of his students, Drey, played magnetically by Shareeka Epps. But what this help might amount to was anything but clear. Drey has a gritty resolve that one expects will keep her out of trouble, and yet she serves Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer for whom her brother took a rap, as a mule. Dan vehemently opposes Drey's "association" with Frank, but calling-the-kettle-black problems cloud his message.

(Where was this film shot? That bothered me a lot. Parts of it looked as urban as Brooklyn, but many locations were far more exurban. Maybe it's just that I don't know Queens very well.)

Director Ryan Fleck wrote the screenplay with Anna Boden. Andrij Parekh's jittery cinematography suits the film well, but hardly makes it pleasurable to watch.



Every time I bake a soufflé, I wonder if this will be the first - the first to fail, that is. But I seem to have had an excellent instructor in Julia Child. When I went back to Mastering the Art of French Cooking to improve my technique, I discovered that there was nothing to improve: I had simply made a habit of following the rules laid down therein. As long as you're careful about separating the egg yolks and whites, and don't run a conga line through your kitchen (and don't open the oven door to check on the dish!), everything will be fine.

The monster above was made when our friend Jim brought over a bushel of fantastic, exotic mushrooms from his brother's farm in Ohio. A little over three years ago.



August 18, 2006


David Auburn's Proof is one of the strongest plays that the American theatre has produced in the past twenty-five years. It has proved to be an engaging drama with a wide popularity. Although its protagonist, Catherine, is a mathematician, and much of the drama concerns a proof that may or may not have been worked out by her mathematician father, the play's appeal lies in a gifted person's struggle to be taken seriously. Neither the graduate student who may or may not want to steal the proof in question nor her bland and conventional sister seem capable of regarding Catherine as anything but a wreck. Which is of course what Catherine looks like. What she has to teach them is that their attitude toward her is what's keeping her down.

Although Gwyneth Paltrow is surprisingly good in John Madden's film adaptation, and Jennifer Jason Leigh was super, too, in the role on Broadway, Catherine will always be Mary-Louise Parker to me. Ms Parker fully projected the drift, something between distraction and disorientation, of someone attending to far more important matters of the mind. She also demonstrated the natural scariness of a pretty woman who doesn't "take care of herself" - who doesn't seem to care about appearances at all.

The text of the play is available from Faber and Faber, and it makes a very good read.

Audience>MTC Diary>Proof


August 17, 2006


The maddening thing about The Age of Conversation is that I've learned that there's a better book on the same subject, by a man whose name begins with the letter A. It is an Italian name, not French. This is maddening because, on the basis of what I've read as references to it, I have to read the other book before I can trumpet any of the insights that Benedetta Craveri's The Age of Conversation inspired.

I was talking with a well-brought-up friend this evening, about Martin Scorsese's adaptation of The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's third-most-famous novel. We agreed that he had completely missed - I feel that I must invoke the stronger French verb, rater - the lifestyle of the American upper crust.  Most people don't understand society, small s or capital - they just take it for granted. But "society" doesn't just happen. Agendas are involved, and some of them are more successful than others. And society's rules are never as silly as they seem to be. How nice it would be if they were! But they're not.

There are two crazy-different things about Western civilization. One, our music is only rarely in unison, instead of always. Which is a clue about the second thing. Second, our women are often complete citizens in their own right. It still hasn't finished even here, that drive for feminine equality. But it is no more advanced anywhere else - the paradox of the United States and the skeleton key to its grotesque conservative twitching.

Dates>History Books>The Origins of Conversation


August 16, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

There are three strong works of fiction, this week, and I wonder how many readers will read all of them. (I've already got a signed copy of Special Topics in Calamity Physics.) Three is also the number of important works of nonfiction are reviewed this week, The Wonga Coup, The Shia Revival, and, of course, Fiasco. I hope that RumChen & Co lose no time brand author Thomas E Ricks as a giver of aid and comfort to the enemy.


Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. It's on the cover and it gets a lot of space. "The joys of this shrewdly playful narrative lie not only in the high-low dives of Pessl's tricky plotting, but in her prose, which floats and runs as if by instinct, unpremeditated and unerring." - Liesl Schillinger.

A Woman in Jerusalem, by A B Yehoshua. "This novel has about it the force and deceptive simplicity of a masterpiece: terse (or relatively so, given than Yehoshua's novels are often long), eminently readable but resolutely dense." - Claire Messud.

The Girls, by Lori Lansens; Half Life, by Shelley Jackson. "Just like certain sets of more ordinary twins, however, these two books are alike only on the surface. Their aims are as different as the styles in which they are written. The Girls, by Lori Lansens, is a ballad, a melancholy song of two very strange, enchanted girls who live out their peculiar, ordinary lives in a rural corner of Canada. Shelley Jackson's Half Life is the textual equivalent of an installation, a multivocal, polymorphous, dialogic, dystopian satire wrapped around a murder mystery wrapped around a bildungsroman." - Stacey D'Erasmo.

Nancy Culpepper: Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason. "Even in its lighter moments, Mason's fiction can inspire a yearning for something lost - whether it's a person, a place of a moment." Hillary Frey.

The Scent of Your Breath, by Melissa P (translated by Shaun Whiteside. "There are moments when a little self-awareness would be welcome. One wonders, for example, how "Mum" would react to her daughter's adventures. But perhaps that is for another book. 'And because I have never had anything to lose,' Melissa confesses, as if anticipating a question from the reader, 'in pretending to have a diary I wrote a novel'." - Sheelah Kolhatkar.


Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, by Psyche A Williams-Forson. "Williams-Forson shuttles easily between the language of the feminist academy and that of the personal confession, according the latter a value that, in the context of a scholarly work, may make some readers cringe. 'By my own witness, too much acknowledgment and praise of one "sista's" fried chicken over another's can suggest that the pastor is enjoying something at that sista's house other than just "the gospel bird'.'" - Matt Lee and Ted Lee.

The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations, by Paul Kennedy. "It takes a brave man, or a blithe one, to write about the United Nations as if it had some purpose other than either to obstruct or to accommodate American policy goals. I'm not sure which category the Yale historian Paul Kennedy belongs to, but it's safe to say The Parliament of Man will earn him no credit from the America-first crowd." - James Traub.

A Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage Along the Yukon River, by Don O'Neill. "Writers are human conservationists perforce, and O'Neill is a fierce protector. 'As people are eliminated from Alaska's parks, new stories cease to be created and the tradition dies,' he writes. O'Neill casts a mold of the Yukon landscape before nature takes back the last human footprint. He reintroduces us to our more resourceful selves, and reminds us that some people - nutty as they may seem - actually want to live those bumper sticker slogans on beat-up Volvos. To O'Neill, it's only fair to leave the scrappy individualists their hidey-huts and fish wheels, their trapping lines and birch canoes, not only for their sake but for ours: to leave a little something for the American imagination, an elemental way of life that is lonely and lovely and very nearly gone." - Louise Jarvis Flynn.

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top, by Seth Mnookin. "The publisher presumably hopes that Feeding the Monster will catch on with the same audience that made Moneyball such a hit, but the real news here - the triumph of analysis and statistical study over instinct and sentimentality in the running of a baseball team - may be a bit old now, and Mnookin, though an excellent reporter, is not as stylish a writer as Michael Lewis." - Charles McGrath.

The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma, by Annie G Rogers. "For Freud, Lacan and Rogers, the unconscious is as complex and sophisticated in its organization as is the conscious, and as individual: each psyche requires its own lexicon. ... Rogers's ability to listen and perceive has an equally rare authority. It isn't everyone who can hear what we don't allow ourselves to say." - Kathryn Harrison.

The Sound of No Hands Clapping, by Toby Young. "Who knows, maybe this is the correct view of the world. Maybe our lives are nothing but a series of cold, social calculations and then we die. Maybe I didn't like this book because, years ago at a party, Young spilled a drink on me and hit on the girl I was with. In which case, I'd have just one word for him: Gotcha." - Hugo Lindgren.

The Wonga Coup: How Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa, by Adam Roberts. "At times Roberts overplays the gruesome nature of Equatorial Guinea's dictatorial rulers, Macias Nguema and his nephew Obiang, particularly when it comes to accusations of cannibalism, but nonetheless he draws a convincing picture of wholesale corruption and brutality on the part of the country's ruling class." - Caroline Elkins.

The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism, by Aaron Sachs. "The Humboldt Current is not lacking in resonant voices. Sachs's subjects are strong, and he describes them in extensive detail. The difficulty is that there are perhaps too many subjects and too much detail - digressing at length from Humboldt. As interesting as his followers were, their stories beg for a fuller portrait of the extraordinary figure who inspired them." - Candice Millard.

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr. "Amid such an ancient rivalry, how can American Mideast policy effectively advocate rule of law, transparency and human rights - the cornerstone of any democracy? That's a question that Vali Nasr doesn't address, a revealing omission in an otherwise riveting analysis. One suspects that far from being a superpower, the United States is about to become a superpawn. Whatever the final chapter of this drama, Washington won't write it. Muslims will." - Irshad Manji.

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E Ricks. " For all his depictions of the Americans' shortcomings, however, Ricks never explains why so many mistakes occurred. Why, for instance, was the military leadership, after vowing not to replicate the experience of Vietnam, so easily rolled by Rumsfeld and company? And how could an administration that started what was, at bottom, a war of the intellectuals, be so bereft of insights and ideas about Iraq? Part of the answer is surely to be found in hubris as in the incompetence portrayed by Ricks. In this regard, it's worth recalling that the scholar Fouad Ajami, who helped influence Vice President Dick Cheney in pushing for a makeover of Arab regimes, published a book in 1998 called The Dream Palace of the Arabs. The longer the war drags on, the clearer it becomes that Bush and his paladins have been living in their own dream palace." - Jacob Heilbrunn.

In her Essay, "Writers on Trial," Maureen Freely discusses the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code, under which the novelist whose work she is currently translating into English, Orhan Pamuk, was preliminarily tried last winter before charges of "denigrating Turkishness" were dropped. Other writers, such as Elif Shafak (who sounds very appealing), might not be so lucky.

A Modest Proposal

Now that I take another look at this bright idea of mine - taking everything not strictly academic about public education and combining it with parks and recreation - wouldn't open a crack for federalizing superior academic programs.

What would happen if prestigious colleges and universities began preferring the pupils of federally chartered teachers?

Big Ideas>Parks and Recreation>Parks and Recreation>Parks and Recreation (and schools)

¶ When I was a college student, the most affordable recording of The Marriage of Figaro that I came across was an East German production (with lots of West German talent) sung in German: Die Hochzeit des Figaro. Otmar Suitner conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle, with Walter Berry in the title role, Hermann Prey as the Count, Hilde Gueden as the Countess, Anneliese Rothenberger as Susanna, and Edith Mathis as Cherubino. I never thought that I'd see the recording on CD, but there it was the other day when I was checking out Ms Rothenberger's listings. This is a first-quality recording, and I strongly recommend acquiring it. I myself am back in heaven.

August 15, 2006


When I accompanied Kathleen to an ETF conference in Amsterdam in 2002, I experienced a profound surprise. At the age of fifty-four, I discovered what it is like to be at home.

I knew, of course, what it is like not to be at home. Oh, that - very well. First, the half-timbered fakery of the Holy Square Mile, and then, Houston. I know what it's like to feel like an alien. Even in Manhattan, I'm a renter, not an owner.

I thought that feeling like an alien was simply my lot in life - until Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, I was taken by almost everybody to be a local. I had to excuse myself a hundred times and explain that, no, I was not a Nederlander but a New Yorker. It wasn't so much that I loved Amsterdam (although I did!) as that Amsterdam seemed to be loving me.

If only I could transform Kathleen into an international lawyer, I'd move to Amsterdam in a heartbeat. 

Yorkville High Street>Travels>A Week in Amsterdam


August 14, 2006

The Solid Gold Cadillac

In a few weeks, I'll be writing about a book that talks of "the corporatocracy" in a manner so chilling that one doubts that one ought to be seen with it in public, lest "the jackals" pounce. It is very easy to see large corporations as agents of evil. In fact, however, as the movie under discussion makes clear, the corporation is simply a device capable of conferring inordinate power on incompetent people. As I read about the born John Bulls who converted to Islam and plotted to blow up planes with bombs assembled in flight, I ask myself if the "war" is simply a struggle between global corporatism and its discontents, taking Islam as a stooge. We could certainly use a Judy Holliday now.

Audience>Home Theatre>The Solid Gold Cadillac


August 13, 2006

At the Allen Room


This weekend has been something of a comble. I do not really understand this French noun, outside of the Racinian lament - "comble de misères" ("heap of troubles"). But we have had a heap of fun. I wish I could tell you that we had a fascinating dinner at some new restaurant - perhaps one of the "TimeWarner Collection" restaurants - before our Allen Room venture. In fact we had a pizza at home, at 8:30 - plenty of time to dress for a crosstown trip to a hitherto unknown venue. When we got there, we overheard a lot of other people saying that they'd never been to the Allen Room before, either. We were a Mostly Mozart crowd in temporary occupation of Jazz at Lincoln Center facilities. 

Once upon a time, I programmed music for all of Harris County, but now I concentrate on surprising my wife. Did I know what the interaction between Concerto Köln and Sarband - a group of Turkish musicians determined to bridge gaps between east and west and Muslim and Jew - would be like? Not at all. The evening could have been awful. Even if the music hadn't been worth hearing, I reasoned when ordering what turned out to be second-row seats, I'd find out what the Allen Room was like. On the eve of its third season, I still don't know anyone who has been to it. It turns out to be the dream-come-true of a thousand black-and-white Thirties and Forties movies about New York: a modest amphitheatre, its levels generous enough for nightclub tables, sloping toward a performance area backed by an enormous window beyond which stretches Columbus Circle, West 57th Street, and, well, New York, New York. There are no famous skyscrapers in the view, but if the good people at the Pierre and the Sherry-Netherlands would light up their tops, the Allen Room would be an exciting place to sit still in.   

The music was not awful, as, indeed, I'd had enough faith in Mostly Mozart's programmers to expect, and when it was over I got my favorite confession: Kathleen's saying that she really hadn't been looking forward to the concert at all but that she'd really, really, really loved it. The program, which was designed to show the impact of Viennese music on at least one early nineteenth-century effendi, might have seemed daring to some, but in fact it's all captured on a CD, of which this cut, which was reprised as an encore, had everybody whistling on the way out. (It could have been wild-West music, don't you think?) It was the opposite of difficult and demanding music. Everyone loved it.

I think I'll wait until the CD arrives to talk about Sarband. For the moment it's enough to note that, by a breathtaking coincidence, the Turkish bankers who summoned Kathleen to Istanbul at the beginning of 2005 are in town, and we're taking them to our favorite brunch spot at noon. Happily, there's one phrase of Turkish that I haven't forgotten: hoş geldiniz!

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

There was life before Dave Eggers? No! A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a great big American mess of a story, written and read in simpler times. Although bristling with all the latest attitudes, it was as straightforwardly pious as The Pilgrim's Progress.

Six years have passed since the book came out. Christopher Eggers, the treasure whom the narrator guards with his life, must be approaching the end of his high school career, if he's not already in college. But he will always be eight years old in literature. His brother's impassioned guardianship has pinned him like a captured butterfly.

I didn't know how good things were. We none of us did.

Reading Matter>Books on the Side>A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.


August 12, 2006

Broadway Off


My tale today of adventure and caprice in Times Square may have one or two boring parts. I seem always to be more interested in the boring parts.

However! Kathleen and I -

No, now I remember. I was going to begin this piece with "When has a prediction about my immediate future ever played through?" I'm always wrong, or proved wrong. If I say that I'm going to do X, you may be sure that Y and Z are more like it. If only we knew.

We were going to meet at the Marquis Theatre for a performance of The Drowsy Chaperone. And we did, only not inside the theatre. By the time we met -

The ticket taker looked askance at me. "Have you already been in?" she asked. I didn't find the question important, although it was. You see, they don't tear off theatre tickets any more. They scan them. I walked into the Marquis and, oh dear, noticed that a woman was sitting in Kathleen's seat.

Ushers were summoned - very nicely. Ticket stubs were examined - with Japanese politeness. Good thing, too: for our tickets are for next Friday.

I was covered in embarrassment. The woman whom I'd asked for proof (that she wasn't sitting in Kathleen's seat) couldn't have been nicer. My new worry was that Kathleen and I had somehow mixed up the dates. That we ought to be in our seats for History Boys instead. Plus, I had to find Kathleen before she, too...

We found one another. I explained the situation. Kathleen was certain that we weren't supposed to be seeing History Boys this evening, and I believed her. We could just go home.

But I said no - we were in the theatre district, it was still ten to eight, and we might find something that would be good to see. Let's just go out into the street, I said. You can do this in New York, I said. Kathleen, who knows only too well that you can do this in New York, was too bewildered by my new spontaneity to object.

I peered down 45th Street. A Chorus Line  - no thanks, even if that's the show that gave me the name that I pasted on Kathleen in the first week of law school - Morales - because she grew up on the north side of 96th Street, a joke that absolutely nobody else in our class got. But "Morales" is a lot easier even for Anglos to say than "Moriarty."

I peered further, and found true gold. "Let's go see Avenue Q!" I cried. "What's Avenue Q?" shouted Kathleen back. She still insists that she knew nothing about the show prior to seeing it.

We paid a lot for our last-minute seats. They were on the aisle, and in the same row as our Drowsy Chaperone tickets.

Which must mean something. We loved Avenue Q. I wept through the whole thing.

"You're not like this," said Kathleen, referring to my having insisted on seeing the show (any show) and then buying the tickets

"Now I am," I replied.

Beef Stroganoff

Fall is approaching, and I plan to celebrate it with Beef Stroganoff - the real thing. Thin slices of tenderloin are pan-roasted in a hot skillet and then bathed with sautéed onions in a velouté that has been amplified with mustard and sour cream. This dish is garnished with a mound of shoestring potatoes. It's immensely satisfying, partly because it fills the house with "serious cooking!" smells that I recall from childhood.

As usual, I begin by saying "there's nothing to it" and then proceed to rely on expensive appliances. (Given today's excesses, they're not that expensive.) You can always have the butcher slice the meet, and nobody really needs a deep-fat fryer (except anyone stuck with an unventilated kitchen - that would be me).

More than half of the email that I get from far-flung readers is written in response to a Culinarion page. Considering the plethora of culinary sites out there, I'm a bit non-plussed. I took the branch down for a while, some time ago, thinking that it had nothing to do with the rest of Portico. But of course it belongs, because if I'm not reading or writing, going to concerts or museums, or paying attention to New York City, then I'm in the kitchen!

Culinarion>Savories>Beef Stroganoff


August 11, 2006

Mental Health Day

This morning, I decided against going to the movies. Nothing called to me. Nothing that was in the neighborhood, that is, and showing early. I might have hopped down to the Angelika for a 12:30 show of Vers le sud, but, no, I didn't want to cut that far into the afternoon. The Night Listener and Zoom were neighborhood possibilities, as was Half Nelson at Lincoln Center. But I was in no mood to budge. It was easier just to do the next thing on my housekeeping list - change the sheets - and to see what happened next.

What happened next was a little writing, followed by a treat, lunch at a local café where the croques are superb and the martinis just the way I like them. I used to do that sort of thing all the time, but now I never do - largely because it takes too much time, and time is finally something that is precious to me. Today, though, I needed the break. A handful of positive trends and projects have left me, momentarily, mentally exhausted - which is no doubt why I couldn't get to the movies. And I was quite shocked to realize, late last night, that I hadn't even noticed that I hadn't written a Book Review review for Wednesday. (And yet the world did not come to an end.) I must be in second-week-of-vacation mode (even though I'm hardly relaxing) - basket-case time.

At lunch, I read about a book that I must obtain, the only question's being how. Michel Warschawski's On the Border (translated by Levi Laub; orginally Sur la frontière) can be had from Amazon - for forty dollars! It can be had, in the original French, for about nine euros, but the shipping tacks on a further eleven. The calculus of evaluating the gap of fifteen dollars (or so - I haven't paid attention to exchange rates lately) couldn't be more delicate. I save money and get the original text if I order from Amazon.fr; I get a book I'll more quickly finish from Amazon.com. Meanwhile, I'm asking myself why a book that was published in France and the United States at the end of 2004, and in Britain a year ago May, is being reviewed in the 3 August 2006 issue of the London Review of Books. I don't think that it's simple dilatoriness. Michel Warschawski is a lonely thinker; most of his fellow Israelis hate and condemn him. A true cosmopolitan, M Warschawski envisions an Israel of citizens, not Jews, while, at the same time, he is no secularist. He has demonstrated on behalf of ultrareligious neighborhoods for the banning of automobiles on the Sabbath, even though he himself is an atheist. I think that M Warschawski understands something about human nature that political leaders especially have been determined not to learn: extreme differences of opinion can coexist where there is true respect. Instead, the leadership on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict have turned their followers into identical groups whose only difference is over the symbol that will signify complete triumph: the Star of David or the Crescent.

I got so involved with Adam Shatz's review that I completely forget to feel European and sophisticated, sipping martinis in a café while reading about important books in an international publication. I know what it is: I gave up smoking.

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

"Because it has always been like that." I've no better explanation for why sharing the page is something that only happens to light reading - or to books that I didn't much care for - while practically the only way for a play to get its own page is to be a production of  the Manhattan Theatre Club. If Portico is a work in progress, then some parts have progressed far beyond others.

Sheer perversity inspired me to pick the least-known play on the page to feature today. Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom is a sweet play that was given a good Off-Off-Broadway production a few years ago. It was produced with fewer resources than an affluent surburban high school could command, but the production was nonetheless entirely professional. At no time was the audience asked to make allowances for limitations. Such limitations as there were were both material and immaterial.

Audience>Here & There>Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

I'm looking foward to seeing The Drowsy Chaperone tonight. We saw Sarah Jones's fantastic Bridge & Tunnel just in time, two weeks ago, and we've got The History Boys next week. Plus a trio of Mostly Mozart dates. So much for a dead August!

August 10, 2006

Concocting Feudalism

Among the books that I really have to read again is Susan Reynolds's Fiefs and Vassals (Oxford, 1994). Professor Reynolds deals with received wisdom and armchair conclusions as if she were a rigorous dominatrix, but what makes this book exciting is its approach to the conclusion that there never was, at any time between Rome and the Renaissance, a truly "feudal" moment. Far from an understanding of human relations rising autochthonously from Northern European society in the ferment of the Dark Ages, Professor Reynolds's feudalism is one quarter nostalgia and three quarters charters drawn up by sophisticated lawyers. The ceremonials of knighthood were no doubt very engaging to the parties involved, but the real world worked much like ours - with written deeds. The big difference was the creative leeway that medieval attorneys had with the facts.

Americans are said to be a dynamic people, and I'm sure that we are. Our problem is that we regard the past as a sort of still life of "this is how things have always been." Things have never always been. The pace of change in the early eleventh century was undoubtedly slower than it is now, but the people who were alive and walking around in those days (and drawing up charters) may be forgiven for not thinking of themselves as rooted vegetation. In 1037, Europeans were beginning to believe that the marauding attacks that had plagued it for centuries were a thing of the past. Indeed, the century would end with Europeans doing the marauding, in the Crusades.

Meanwhile, the merest glance at medieval arrangements obliges any thinking American to wonder at how quickly our bicentennial-plus country has achieved the institutional sclerosis that it took Europe centuries to generate before the modern nation state (in Europe) cleared things up. With our states, our counties and our school boards all in jurisdictional conflict, we have grown a machine that can't work - and this certainly suits the conservative temper of the moment. But it can't go on indefinitely, and I hope that some young Americans are thinking about how we're ever going to get out of our medieval mess.




August 09, 2006

Talladega Nights, Scoop

There were times when I wondered just what I was doing, watching Adam McKay's Will Ferrell picture Talladega Nights. Cars would be whizzing by on the track, and banks of spectators would rise from their seats as one. Not my sort of thing at all. It is not possible to watch this film with an entirely ironic detachment; it's far too well-made. So if you, like me, look down your long nose at NASCAR - and, oh, boy, do I ever - then prepare for a few discomfiting moments of involuntary involvement in all the excitement.

Talladega Nights lampoons the suburban American life cycle, one in which hollow ostentation supplies a chronic hum that's interrupted from time to time by the excitement of Big Games. Certainly it would be difficult to imagine a nation more decadent, more empty-headed and aimless, than the American South portrayed here. Mediocrity is the highest level of intellectual acuity on offer, and it is a long reach from most of the principal characters. The two principals, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) and Cal Naughton, Jr (John C Reilly) don't look bright enough to operate a can opener, and both seem destined to demonstrate that a little knowledge can be very dangerous indeed. Playing clueless guys comes easily to both actors, and neither winks once. Into their adversary-less Eden slithers a French snake, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). A gay French snake, who reads L'Étranger while racing. Mr Baron Cohen's French accent is wonderfully off, something worthy of the Indianapolis Academy of the French Accent.* Jane Lynch and Leslie Bibb, as Ricky Bobby's mother and (first) wife respectively, do a fine job of making the men look even dumber than they are.

But at a certain point - for me, it was when the tumbling, burning car crashes near the end were interrupted for an Applebee's commercial - one must throw up one's hands and declare that a people that spends its free time watching auto races ought not to be trusted with nuclear weapons.

With Scoop, Woody Allen continues the intriguing trend that he began in his last picture, Match Point. Match Point is a distillation of Crimes and Misdemeanors. The story is radically streamlined and sexed-up. But you're convinced that, like Judah Rosenthal in the earlier picture, Chris Wilton is going to get away with murder, and indeed he does. In Scoop, the antecedent is Manhattan Murder Mystery, and this time you know that the improbable suspect will turn out to be the bad guy. It's all rather reminiscent of the way in which Ariosto's tales were continually tweaked to provide opera libretti in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Only in this case the remakes are the work of the originator. I don't think that there's ever been anything like it, with the possible exception of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. The result is a delight, and quite a bit funnier than Manhattan Murder Mystery. Mr Allen has given himself some marvelous business to do as a vaudevillian magician who has to hobnob with the English country-house set. Scarlett Johansson makes herself look slightly silly every so often, with girl-sleuth frowns that show a comic potential that I should like to see tapped more widely. Hugh Jackman is suave and gorgeous as the English patrician who shrugs off his privileges with winning charm - but who, all the same, never lets you forget that he's got them. And Ian McShane plays a somewhat Peter Falk-like deceased journalist with great panache. (Mr McShane's character's plotlines are right out of Oedipus Wrecks.) Showing great wisdom and restraint, Mr Allen presents his character as Miss Johansson's father, not her boyfriend. At the film's end, all Sondra Pransky has is the likelihood of a journalism award.

* It's a little disheartening to find that, at least as of this writing, the Daily Blague is the first IAFA link at Google. Doesn't anybody care anymore about the National Lampoon Radio Hour? It was ten times funnier than SNL ever was - well, most of the time.

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

Planting his extraordinarily long discussion (four pages) of Richard Hofstadter at a time when active readership probably bottoms out, Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus perhaps meant to minimize the disproportionateness of his piece. He has very little to say about David S Brown's new intellectual biography of the Columbia professor, who died, relatively young, in 1970, but he has a lot of good things to say about the nature of Hofstadter's work - more inclined toward the essay than to the research monograph - and about the understandable "flip-flops" that history pushed Hofstadter into.

At this moment, when so many seek to recover that lost world or to invent an updated version of it - a post 9/11 cold-war liberalism or a reconstituted "vital center" - Hofstadter's case deserves a fresh look, for he knew very well just how fragile liberalism is, even if he sometimes mistook its prejudices for principles and its illusions for ideals.

The essay does a lot to impart a New York Review of Books gravitas to the Review. More to come?

Note to Dexter Filkins (reviewer of this week's cover story, The Looming Tower): The notion of finding dignity in death may be one of the things that Islam picked up from Christianity.


All Things, All At Once: New and Selected Stories, by Lee K Abbott. "Despite all the loquacious banter in this impressive collection, the most important moments turn out to be the ones in which, even briefly, words weren't enough." - Meg Wolitzer.

An Iliad, Alessandro Baricco (translated by An Goldstein). "Bringing new light, new readers to a thing such as the Iliad is noble. Using it as a premise for self-indulgence is not." - Nick Tosches.

The Abortionist's Daughter, by Elisabeth Hyde. "What begins as a riveting exploration of the abortion debate and its effects on a community becomes instead a more conventional account of a young woman's sexual confusion." - Danielle Trussoni.

The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien. "Winsomeness can work wonders in person. Every audience waiting for the curtain to rise or the movie to begin (after all those annoying ads and previews) is a huddled mass yearning to be astonished or entertained or amused or, at the very least, diverted, given some consolation for having gone to the trouble of showing up in the first place. Solitary readers can be tougher customers, prone, for example, to grow irritable when the words on the page, unaccompanied by the physical presence and inflections of a speaker, seem flat or insipid." - Paul Gray.

Babylon: And Other Stories, by Alix Ohlin. "Readers will decide for themselves whether Ohlin's stories, upon close inspection, are made of finely woven truths or appealing fictions, but this distinction hardly matters when the book is open in your hands and Babylon is singing." - Benjamin Anastas.


The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9'11, by Lawrence Wright. "Wright shows, correctly, that at the root of Islamic militancy - its anger, its antimodernity, its justifications for murder - lies a feeling of intense humiliation. Islam plays a role in this, with its straitjacketed and all-encompassing worldview. But whether the militant hails from a middle-class family or an impoverished one, he springs almost invariably from an ossified society with an autocratic government that is unable to provide any reason to believe in the future. Islam offers dignity, even in - especially in - death." - Dexter Filkins.

The Shark God: Encounters With Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific, by Charles Montgomery. "Montgomery grapples with the Christian-pagan collision, which he sees by turns as a "train wreck of faiths," a "psychospiritual Disneyland" or "spiritual acrobatics." His gaze soon begins to shift from the differences between Christianity and the islands' religious beliefs to their similarities, most important, their shared belief in miracles." - Holly Morris.

Millennium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark, by Timothy J Gilfoyle. "What Gilfoyle does not say (and perhaps doesn't see) is that a park financed by donors given the power to select objects and artists will look very different from one in which aesthetic or social concerns predominate from the first. It will tend to be less a unified landscape that a series of detached vignettes - in effect, naming opportunities." - Michael J Lewis.

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, by John Pomfret. "The issue of whether China chooses to confront its past or continues 'hiding behind history' will almost certainly end up being as important to its future as all the foreign investment, technology transfers, IPOs and high-rise buildings that now so impress visitors and eclipse the past. As one former classmate, a Red Guard who beat and tortured supposed 'class enemies' during the Cultural Revolution, candidly asks Pomfret: 'How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no not condoned, mandated, can heal itself? Do you think it ever can?'" Orville Schell.

Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer, by Brooke A Masters. "The most significant chapters of Spitzer's life are probably yet to be written. This diligent midlife appraisal charts his direction, and suggests he will continue to defy conventions. But will he, as Teddy Roosevelt commanded, continue to 'dare mighty things'?" - Joe Conason.

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, by Alexandra Robbins. "Some readers will undoubtedly mine The Overachievers for hints on how the Teacher's Pet got into Middlebury early, or why a student with the ideal transcript was wait-listed at Yale. They will miss the point. These kids may have learned how to play the game, but as Robbins makes clear, it's time to change the rules." - Eugenie Allen. 

The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country With a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Sergio Berlusconi, by Alexander Stille. "Stille notes that the more television people watched, the more inclined they were to vote for Berlusconi, as if they were all but brainwashed into submission." - Rachel Donadio.

Hollywood Jock: 365 Days, Four Screenplays, Three TV Pitches, Two Kids, and One Wife Who's Ready to Pull the Plug, by Rob Ryder. "Ryder may struggle to keep his anecdotes on course, but he has no trouble keeping track of the people he's worried about offending. He spends a lot of time trashing Hollywood and then backtracking into blanket apologies." - Mark Kamine. 

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, by David S Brown. "Brown admirably balances respect for his subject with critical distance and persuasively makes the case that the ambiguousness of Hofstadter's writing is inseparable from his continuing interest." - Sam Tanenhaus.

Joe Queenan's Essay, "Why I Can't Stop Starting Books," gets right to the bottom of the modern reader's problem:

I used to think that I kept stopping and starting books because I could never find the right one. Untrue. All these books are the right one. It's the fact that all these books are generally so good that makes me stop reading them, as I am in no hurry to finish; the bad ones I whip through in a few hours."


The Metaphysical Club

Were I to write about Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club today, I suspect that it would be at somewhat greater length than that of this page of five paragraphs from 2001. I'd launched Portico at the beginning of 2000, but I still had no very clear idea of what I was doing. The Metaphysical Club is a weighty (albeit lucid) tome that explores the most upholstered period in American thought; I think that I might say that American thinkers had no very clear idea of what they were doing - at least as writers.

Big Ideas>Books>The Metaphysical Club

Times columnist Clyde Haberman wrote yesterday about reverberations both caused and likely to be caused by Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a film that opens tomorrow. Noting that "the business of who gets to turn a dollar, and by what method, can be tricky," Mr Haberman wonders,

Would former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani be earning his many millions and contemplating a presidential race were it not for 9/11? Would his onetime sidekick, Bernard B. Kerik, be in demand as a security expert? Would George E. Pataki, who to our knowledge has never been referred to as “America’s Governor,” be seriously entertaining White House dreams?

Even more ouch-making:

What if a future filmmaker wishes to explore aspects of 9/11 that are not soul-stirring? What if some people trapped inside the twin towers are portrayed as far-from-noble figures? Or if a movie dwells on the catastrophic failure of communications between the Police and Fire Departments that occurred on Mr. Giuliani’s watch, a breakdown that was perhaps responsible for hundreds of needless deaths?

Ah, the higher opportunism meets political correctness. For Times Select subscribers, here's "On Movies About 9/11 No Offense."

August 08, 2006

Rue Bonaparte

Sadly, I have no immediate plans to visit Paris, but when I do go next time, I'm going to walk up and down Rue Bonaparte just to have a look at Diane Johnson's house, which, as I recall, is Nº 8. Ms Johnson qua novelist has an assured and knowing voice, but in this book about her neighborhood, she sounds much more like the Californian expat that she is, knowledgeable enough to know how much she doesn't know.

I wish that Ms Johnson would write an update of Edith Wharton's French Ways and their Meaning. I even wrote to her to make the suggestion. If and when I get an answer, I'll let you know.

Yorkville High Street>Curriculum Vitae>Diane Johnson's Neighborhood


August 07, 2006

Nurse Betty

Is there a happier ending than this film's? I don't think so.

Audience>Home Theatre>Nurse Betty

August 06, 2006

"On Writing"

Whenever I actually stop to read this page, which has headed the Reading Matter branch ever since it was set up, I think how little has been written about writing, probably because it's not terribly attractive, but partly, too, because while writers are likely enough to catalogue the distractions that tempt them away from their work, they don't give much thought to what they must look like when they're at it.

I thought about exactly this only because, when I remembered my youthful image of the writer at work, it made me laugh.

Reading Matter>On Writing


August 05, 2006

Elisabeth Schwarkopf, requiescat in pace


Betty Blackhead, as opera queens used to call her, died the other day, at the age of ninety. I never heard her sing in person, but her recordings were, for quite a long time, sacred to me. They were sacred partly because hers were the only ones - most notably, of Der Rosenkavalier and The Four Last Songs (Vier Letzte Lieder), both by Richard Strauss (a composer whose brief complicities with the Nazi regime seemed to stem new recordings of all but his most popular tone poems when I was young). Inevitably, there came a time when I preferred to hear other voices sing this music, and I noticed that Schwarzkopf's voice wasn't always beautiful. But I always respected her very deeply, and I have a lot of her CDs.

Why I feel the need to recommend a must-have recording, I can't really say - except, of course, that the urge to give advice is always massaging my ego. Some would say that the recording that you must own is the Rosenkavalier recording - and then they'll argue about whether you ought to seek out the carefully restored monaural original, or whether it's all right to go with what was one of the first stereophonic opera sets to be offered. But I say, buy the album pictured here, which I've linked to Tower Records. Again, there will be argument. You can get an earlier recording of the Four Last Songs that a lot of listeners prefer. I see their point, but I prefer the warmth of the later recording's sound. Equally important as the late masterwork, however, is the suite of twelve Strauss songs with orchestral backup. Given Strauss's magical way with orchestration, I have a hard time preferring the original, piano-accompanied versions of these songs. My favorites of the ones offered here are "Die heiligen drei Könige" (my birthday is 6 January, which only makes this Epiphany song more special) and another baby song, "Wiegenlied." But everything is good, and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed listening to the album after hearing of Schwarzkopf's death.

It is true that nobody has ever sung the line that, for me, is the beating heart of Der Rosenkavalier with as much oomph as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: "Heut’ oder morgen oder den übernächsten Tag… " (Thanks to Édouard for typing it out!)

At the other end of the spectrum, high kitsch doesn't get any more delicious than it does on Schwarzkopf's operetta-aria album. The "Nun's Chorus," from Casanova, alone...! Oh, hell; lets hear it. (An operetta with an organ solo?)


While you're listening to that, I've got more entertainment to offer. The foregoing was written two days ago, in a spate of prolificness. I decided to save the piece for a dry patch. Which was most frustrating when the Times screwed up royally, running very much the wrong photograph in Schwarzkopf's obituary. (Anthony Tommasini, author of the obit, is currently in festival mode, bouncing between Salzburg and Bayreuth. If he'd been in town, the flub would probably not have occurred - or so I like to think.

Like everyone, I first thought that it wasn't a good picture of the late singer - it didn't really look like her (for good reason!). But I didn't really focus in until later, when, mysteriously, looking at the picture seemed more interesting than reading the obituary, which predictably belabored Schwarzkopf for her Nazi affiliations, as indeed any mention of her in the Times simply must. The first clue that something was wrong with the shot was the hussar in the background, holding a mace in ceremonial fashion. This would be unlikely to be a detail in either of the two acts of Der Rosenkavalier in which the Marschallin actually appears. Then I noticed that the lady in the big dress was holding the rose in a rapturous manner. And then the memory of a thousand  LP jackets kicked in (okay, twenty), and I recognized Anneliese Rothenberger, a Bavarian soubrette who is still with us. The photograph is of the "Presentation of the Rose," a wondrously magical moment musically, at the beginning of Act II. The figure on the right - Octavian (Sena Jurinac) - has just had his heart captured by Sophie, a girl right out of a convent. He is not thinking about Elisabeth Schwarkopf's character, even though he spent much of the preceding act in bed with her. Men are like that.


I popped off an email to the Times - not the sort of thing that I go in for, but this was really gross sloppiness. What I wanted desperately to do, however, was to be the first to tell my old roommate, who lives across the street from Lincoln Center just to make it easy to attend fifty performances a year (not that he does that anymore). Not knowing many other opera lovers, I had no one else with whom to share - hmm, that's not the word, is it? - this breathtaking example of the newspaper's stumbling. But my old roommate was in a meeting - all day long. I was practically wetting my pants when I finally got hold of him in the early evening. I woke him from a nap, and he did not sound particularly interested. How deflating! But he did call back, five minutes later, properly roused and rancid.

The Times published a correction notice in this morning's paper, and, on the obituary page, a photograph of Elisabeth Scharzkopf as the Marshallin - very definitely the right picture. I'd give anything to know how many emails the paper received from "helpful" readers such as myself.


Here is one of the most popular pages at Portico. It is my old roommate's recipe for - death by marsh gas? Despite the Homeric drift in contemporary male recreational cuisine - can grillside slaughter be far ahead? - laziness is still a staple in everyman's larder. My friend insists that there is nothing more reassuring on a lonely winter night than this explosion of fats and farts, but I haven't been lonely enough to give it a try.



August 04, 2006


To read the Daily Blague lately, you might think me unaware of the trouble in Lebanon. Aside from a conviction that it's foolish to have opinions about such a volatile situation, I see right and wrong on both sides, and I decline to play Solomon until formally invited to do so. I paused, nevertheless, over an Op-Ed piece in yesterday's Times by Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a student of terrorism. In his work on terrorism during the last Israeli occupation of Lebanon, he writes in "Ground to a Halt," he discovered that, of thirty-eight suicide bombers whose backgrounds he was able to examine, only eight were "Islamic fundamentalists." Three were Christian.

What these suicide attackers — and their heirs today — shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation. Nearly two decades of Israeli military presence did not root out Hezbollah. The only thing that has proven to end suicide attacks, in Lebanon and elsewhere, is withdrawal by the occupying force.

Hatred of foreign occupation seems to be a universal human trait that in modern times has been given voice by communications and weapons technology. It was always there, but the strong could always overmaster the weak - until recently. It is taking the powers that be one hell of a long time to readjust their expectations, and, it may be, all of today's powerful men (and women) will have to die off in order to free us of a stubborn mindset. Occupation of foreign territory is always wrong. And you would think that Israelis know this best of all, having established their state with a healthy dose of terrorism (so to speak). Unfortunately, their determination to re-occupy their land two millennia after exile was contested. It does not seem to me that, in the past thirty years at least, Israel has done much in the way of coming to terms with its neighbors. I believe that Arabs and other Islamic people must accept the Israel of 1948, because I believe that a special case can be made for a Jewish state, reversing a wrong that ultimately sent millions of Jews to gas chambers. I also believe that Israel must end its occupation of the Occupied Territory - Palestine. I derive both positions from what I think we have all learned, if we would pay attention, about the grim determination of a certain kind of human dignity.

And perhaps I should make it clear here that I believe that there is only one race of human beings. 

And as for us, the US - but my views on our Iraqi misadventure and other ill-advised actions can easily be retrieved by means of the search engine in the sidebar.

Music Guides - Feh!

More scolding, and once again in connection with getting rid of books. Reference guides, however, aren't be judged as literature; they're either useful or they're not. The two books that I got rid of (once I'd had my sport) weren't even interesting.

Nothing is more difficult than writing about sense impressions. Words are absolutely powerless to convey such impressions themselves; all we can hope for is a web of connections stout enough to let a ghost of the writer's experience cross the abyss between any two minds. Music presents special problems, because it has a fully-developed theoretical language that can be clipped back and simplified for general consumption. The problem, of course, is that this conveys little to nothing about the experience of music. It is formal, and sometimes analytical, but not informative. To read that "Mozart's consummate use of string tone is unparalleled" is really to waste one's time. I can imagine writing sentences that might include "consummate use of string tone" and "unparalleled," but I hope I'd say more about that string tone. What does it sound like?

In any case, before I got rid of two classical music guidebooks, I did a bit of venting.

Music>Extras>Guides to Music


August 03, 2006

Not So Ancient History

Today's page shows me at play in the fields of history, holding two books of medieval history up to each other. Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror and Peter Spufford's Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe couldn't me more different (although both are great). Tuchman's book is all about how remote and unusual French aristocrats of the fourteenth century were. Mr Spufford's study of the mercantile mindset in the same period shows that businessmen of the same period were the real road warriors.

Dates>History Books>Getting Business Going

¶ I thought it would take longer, but turning the mess in the "Lobby" page at Portico into a simple site map took only an hour or so to do.

¶ Here's something amusing to listen to. Someone took a "helpful" message from a pastor's answering machine and remixed it, bringing out all of the lubriciousness latent in the caller's complaint.

August 02, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

We interrupt our vacation (ha!*) to bring you an express review of the Book Review. One or two sentences have been chosen from each review, not because it will give an idea of what the book's about but rather because it betrays the quality of the review. Will Blythe's review of Talk Talk, for example, is every bit as windy and pointless as is my extract. ("Longstanding virtuosities"? - chalk on a blackboard!) Caryn James was probably not the right choice for Grief. And surely Neil Genzlinger could have foreseen that Execution is, as he says, to be read in random swoops, not all at once, as he apparently read it.

On the whole, this week's reviews were diligent and sensible. There's nothing sensationally egregious to laugh at/rail against.


The Keep, by Jennifer Egan. "The opening of her new novel, The Keep, lays out a whole Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections and trompe l'oeil effects, but what's more immediately striking about this book is its unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction." - Madison Smartt Bell.

The Ruins, by Scott Smith. "The Ruins is superior horror literature, but it does not entirely overcome the pile-driving limitations of the genre; it might have been more effective as a short story." - Gary Kamiya.

The Cottagers, by Marshall N Klimasewiski. "One of the strength of Marshall N Klimasewiski's first novel lies in his willingness to create a cast of characters who are unlikable in very human ways - and who become less sympathetic as their story unfolds." - Steven Heighton.

Talk Talk, by T Coraghessan Boyle. "Talk Talk is a merely good novel, what Graham Greene, in categorizing his own literary endeavors, would have termed an "entertainment." But even a merely good Boyle novel should remind readers of the author's longstanding virtuosities." - Will Blythe.

Grief, by Andrew Holleran. "Holleran's earlier novels can seem so determined to speak for their disenfranchised gay characters that the works become inaccessible to anyone else, like looking through a window at someone else's world. Taken on its own, Grief is more generous in its reach. The narrator speaks for everyone when he says, "That's where the dead exist - in our hearts." Through this self-absorbed hero, Holleran has gained a perspective more expansive than ever before." - Caryn James.

Sleepwalking Land, by Mia Couto. "But Couto's novel stands apart: it shows the world that war creates, a dreamscape of uncertainty where characters and readers alike marvel not at the abnormal becoming normal but at the way we come to accept the impossible as reality." - Uzodinma Iweala.

Fiction Chronicle, by Etelka Lehocaky

Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! by Mark Binelli. "But its joyous nostalgia, pinpoint characterizations and postmodern brio more than make up for a weak second reel."

Mammals, by Pierre Mérot (translated by Frank Wynne). "But that's a testament to the author's talent: there may not be much of a plot in the uncle's story, but he tells it supremely well."

Everfree, by Nick Sagan. "Sagan's story eerily parallels the city's fate, crumbling as New Cambridge does."

The Lambs of London, by Peter Ackroyd. "Mary's struggle is the most dynamic element of a rather sparse story, but Ackroyd's short, brisk sentences and spare but well-chosen descriptions provide a compelling forward momentum."

Hello, I Must Be Going, by Christie Hodgen. "The result is less diverting than depressing."


Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code, by Matt Ridley. "Ridley convincingly shows Crick to be much more than the boisterous braggart behind the double helix." - Peter Dizikes.

Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, by Joseph Margulies. "In a sense, Margulies doesn't give himself enough credit. ... Thanks largely to the work of pro bono lawyers like him, Guantánamo has taken some meaningful strides toward legal accountability." - Jonathan Mahler.

The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq, by Fouad Ajami. "But one is left wondering how someone so cynical about the dysfunctionality of Arab political patterns could have been so optimistic about the "Baghdad spring" in the first place." The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, by Peter W Galbraith. "The Kurds have as strong a claim to self-determination as anyone, but for now it should be up to their leaders, not someone else, to call for something more than the de facto autonomy they currently enjoy." - Noah Feldman.

The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America, by Rodney Bolt. "The tale of the chance meeting of [da Ponte and Clement Moore] in a bookshop of Broadway is well told, one of many artfully shaped episodes that make The Librettist of Venice irresistible reading, even for those who prefer Italy's olives to its operas. - Megan Marshall.

Conservatives Without Conscience, by John W Dean. "With Ahab-like monomania, Dean discovers that every objectionable conservative Republican action - from "taking America to the war in Iraq on false pretenses" to Dick Cheney's obscene outburst at Senator Patrick Leahy to harsh right-wing criticism of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court - reflects triumphant authoritarianism." - Nick Gillespie.

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, by Deirdre N McClaskey. "But it is a little dispiriting to hear McCloskey announce that this book is merely the first of four (!) projected volumes by her on the subject of virtue and capitalism. Somewhere within this loose, baggy monster there has to be a slim, cogently argued treatise struggling to get out." - Jim Holt.

The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, by Debra Marquart. "Marquart concludes her memoir with an 11-page rendition of a classic farmer's-daughter joke. Only in her take, the daughter not only has her way with the salesman, she also steals his car and speeds out of town at morning light. It's a fitting end to an empowering story." - Julia Scheers.

Execution: The Guillotine, the Pendulum, the Thousand Cuts, the Spanish Donkey, and 66 Other Ways of Putting Someone to Death, by Geoffrey Abbott. "Anyway, this all gets numbing fairly quickly. But, of course, only a psychotic or a book reviewer would ever read this volume from cover to cover. It's mean tyo be taken in small bites, randomly; any more than that is just too disheartening." - Neil Genzlinger.

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, by Nano Parrado with Vince Rouse. Obviously, Parrado survives to tell his side of things, but the story of how he does it should humble even the most jaded adventure seeker." - Louise Jarvis Flynn.

Rachel Donado's Essay, Backlist to the Future, muses somewhat distractedly on the impact of Chris Anderson's "long tail" upon the publishing houses' backlists. So far, not much.

* I spent the morning rebuilding about a hundred old Daily Blague entries, disabling comments and trackbacks. We're talking tedious.

Hollywood Under the Hood

Let's go to Hollywood - and see just how very unglamorous it can be! Connie Bruck's When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence (Random House, 2003) gave its readers an education in the nuts and bolts of the world's most collaborative art form, but it seemed morally unconscious, as if the wonder of the movies could excuse some very bad behavior. I appear to have relished giving Ms Bruck a scolding. Now that I review book reviews, I'm not sure that I wouldn't write something different today. But I no longer own the book, and it's convenient, at least, for me to be able to see why.

Big Ideas>Books>Lew Wasserman's Hollywood

¶ Be sure not to miss Nicholas Lemann's report on blogging and journalism, "The Amateur Hour," in the current New Yorker. Bloggers who feel that Mr Lemann is just another condescending MSM gatekeeper looking askance at a form with which he's unfamiliar are certain to have fits, but in this case they'll just be whining. Mr Lemann is familiar with blogging, and his critique of citizen journalists betrays a genuine curiosity.

August 01, 2006

"Men At Work"

This year, I'm going to follow the French and take off the month of August. But just as I'll remain in Manhattan, so I won't really take the month off at all. Instead of writing at my customary voluble rate, I'm going to refer visitors to pages at Portico, all but one of them, I believe, written prior to 2006. A few are "very old" indeed, going all the way back to 2001.

Meanwhile, I'll be overhauling Portico again. I don't expect this round to alter the look and feel of the site very much, but you never know where you're going to end up (or at least I don't) when you start to think about the structure of your site, and not about text to stuff it with. I'm going to concentrate on navigation, starting with an overhaul of the "Lobby" page, which has grown very dusty and fairly useless. I expect that every page in the site will have to be edited, if only in minor ways.

It will be time to fish or cut bait with regard to one rather anemic branch of the site, the one ostensibly devoted to Words. There's a lot of undeveloped real estate there - rather like one of those Florida projects with streets but no houses.

I'll continue to move material from the Daily Blague to Portico, along with all substantive comments. Needless to say, I welcome suggestions. Write to me, if you like. What's missing? - that's what I'd really like to hear about.

Why not begin by taking a walk in London? D'you know, I can't recall the year in which my friend and I took this walk from Little Venice to Notting Hill, through Holland Park and South Kensington. 2000? 2001? (Internal evidence points to the latter.) I don't usually mislay such dates. A normal person would have a calendar to refer to, but I lost a lot of that sort of thing with a computer crash in 2003. As I will every day this month, I'll hand you the path from Portico's Vestibule - another page in serious need of overhaul - to today's destination: .

Yorkville High Street>Travels>A Walk in London