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September 30, 2006

The Guardian

Let's have no groaning: I went to see Andrew Davis's latest picture, The Guardian, yesterday, and I was surprised by how much I liked it. The beginning and the end are terrifying, with frantic scenes of mayday ("m'aidez!") that involve ships foundering in gigantic swells while helicopters hover overhead. Quite stomach-turning. In between the turbulent moments lies a very fine mentoring story, in which a bruised old champion tames and befriends a cocky young winner.

The Guardian is about a Coast Guard "swimmer" - someone who gets dropped from a helicopter to play lifeguard in rough seas. In this case, the Bering Sea. Stationed on Kodiak Island, Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) hits a very rough patch, and is transferred, temporarily, to a sunnier venue where he is assigned to train an incoming class of swimmers. of which the star is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher - who still doesn't look old enough to have been married to Demi Moore for longer than a minute, maybe). Because Jake is full of himself and not a team player, it takes no time at all for him and Randall to get some really irritated alpha-male static buzzing. The strange thing is that this is not irritating. And the reason for that, I think, is that this is, after all, the Coast Guard, where the idea is to save lives, not to extinguish them. (The Guardian demonstrates that the Coast Guard ought to be a haven for jocky pacifists - but I guess that they're never in great supply.) The opening scenes of the movie have made it clear that Jake has really got to learn what Randall has to teach him in order to be an effective swimmer, and the much of the interest lies in Kevin Costner's nuanced portrayal of a teacher struggling to find a way to make contact with the boy.

Although long, The Guardian didn't strike me as having any longueurs. Sela Ward, Melissa Sagemiller, Bonnie Bramlet, Clancy Brown, Neal McDonough, and John Heard provide an intelligent and engaged supporting cast. Kevin Geraghty is particularly fine as a member of the class who has to overcome his tendency to panic when attacked by a panicking victim.

Thanks to Mr Davis's eloquent framing scenes, the sparkling swimming pools used in the training course never overwrite our recollection of the vast and violent opacity of the sea. 

September 29, 2006

Sick Day

It took a while. I woke at five-thirty, my throat a torrent of gunk. It wasn't until eleven that, wondering why I was feeling so poorly, I remembered Monday's flu shot. They don't ordinarily affect me, but this one seems to have kicked up some reactions.

On the bright side, it was a sick day! I could stay in bed and read. I felt well enough for that. What I read was Tom Perrrotta's Little Children. I missed the recent film*, somehow, which is just as well, because I enjoyed Mr Perrotta's deft narrative. The only problem was that I instinctively cast the movie quite differently. I saw Cynthia Nixon and Aaron Eckhart as the guilty lovers. Mr Eckhart is perhaps a bit too old for the role of Todd/Brad, but I'll be surprised if Patrick Wilson, who actually plays the role in Todd Field's movie, clouds his face with the character's confusion as well as Aaron Eckhart would.

Then I watched a movie - it was by now after dark. I watched La femme de Gilles, by Frédéric Fonteyne. It stars Emmanuelle Devos, an actor whom I've been following ever since seeing her in De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté. She plays Elisa, the wife of a factory worker in the north of France in the Thirties. Her husband (Clovis Corvillac) conceives a passion for her sister, Victorine (Laura Smet), and when he confirms his wife's suspicions, she resolves to wait out the passion. She assures him that it will end, and it does. But whether she foresees what will follow - what Gilles will feel after he loses interest in Victorine - is the question that haunts the movie. All I'll say is that if the movie ended a minute or two earlier, I could show it to Kathleen. But I recommend it highly to anyone who can take a strong French film, beautifully made.

I'm feeling better this morning, which is good, because I'm going to conduct Ms NOLA's parents on a Met tour at noon. 

PS: I've been listening to old music interesting enough to get me to refresh the "Tune de la semaine" feature. Don't forget to click on the "(about)" link if you want to know what the new tdj.ra is.

* The 'recent film' opens this weekend. Good timing!

Idomeneo Fallout

The news from the Deutsche Oper Berlin will make everybody crazy for a while, but I hope that something can be learned from the episode. Two things, actually.

First: it's time for opera directors to stop fooling around with operas, to refrain from changing the period of their settings and adding gratuitous (silent) bits just to make some sort of "point." The only point that opera has is beautiful singing that is also psychologically true, and the visual aspects of the experience are distinctly subordinate to the auditory. Every now and then, there's a true spectacle, but for the most part operas speak vividly to the blind - as thousands of opera lovers who have never actually seen an opera can attest. Larding a production of Mozart's Idomeneo - which tells a story related to the Homeric epics - with the severed heads of major religious figures (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and the opera's own deus, Poseidon) is simply flabbifying.

Second, and much more important: it's time for a time-out on Western-Muslim critiques. Notice that I do not say "Christian-Muslim," for this is very definitely a post-religious argument on one side. Or, better, an argument about whether there can be a post-religious discussion at all. There is indeed a clash of cultures going on, even if it's not quite the one that Samuel Huntington writes about.

What's at issue is the right of an individual to determine his or her own sexual life. The sooner we all come to see this, the quicker we'll get to where we need to be next. Muslims deny the right, as human beings have done for most of their existence. The Western recognition of the right remains provisional: many in the West - many in the United States - do not recognize it. We need to consolidate our side of the argument, coming to terms with Westerners who persist in patriarchy. Until the West works out a deal with patriarchalists, whether by granting them a geographical territory in which to practice their beliefs, or, as sometimes seems likely, by simply reverting to patriarchy itself, we have no business spreading "democracy," which, currently in the West, necessarily means equal rights in most secular matters for women.

A good place to start would be convincing Europe's Muslim leaders that members of their flocks have the right to reject Islam, while at the same time allowing behaviors, such as the wearing of head scarves, that are obviously more cultural than religious in nature. The hard but more essential place to start is finding jobs for all those North African kids.

September 28, 2006

Current Reading

At the moment, I'm reading, mostly, two very different books - although perhaps they're not as different as I might think. Both involve headstrong charmers, people who can't keep their feelings to themselves. They walked the earth together for a few years, and they both had international careers.

Firstly, I am reading Jane Eyre, for the first time. Aside from Shirley, I haven't read Charlotte Brontë. I read her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights when I was a teenager, and I didn't like it very much. I regarded Jane Eyre as a novel for girls, by which I mean: not a novel for adults. And indeed I have yet to encounter a passage that a mature person might construe differently from an adolescent. (And reconstruction is what Jane Austen is all about in the end - her novels are always age-appropriate because they have the knack of growing up with you, taking on shades of meaning that would be utterly lost on a high-school student, or even on a thirty-something.) But Jane Eyre is so basic a novel in the experience of literate women that I thought I really must have it for myself. It is not bad, and it is not boring. The injustices to which Jane is subjected at the start, and at the Lowood Institution until it is reformed after the typhus outbreak, seem cartoonish, not because they're absolutely implausible but because they seem designed to rouse the indignation of good-hearted girls. But the narrative voice, as in Shirley, is anything but predictable. Brontë does nothing to hide her cosmopolitan character. That's enough to hold my interest. At the moment, I've just reached Thornfield and Miss Fairfax and Jane's nice little room. I'd have to have lived under a rock all my life not to know what is going to happen, but for once I'm letting Jane herself tell me.

The other book that I am reading is Rodney Bolt's The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America. And it is a remarkable life. Even without the Mozart connection (Da Ponte's principal claim to fame), Da Ponte's story would be incontournable. As Mr Bolt quite rightly points out, Da Ponte was born in the twilight of a medieval empire (Venice) and died in the dawn of the hyperpower (the United States). He is buried in Queens probably not five miles from where I write. Who'd a thunk it?

The most amazing little fact that I've swallowed in The Librettist of Venice is that Pietro Metastasio (né Trapassi; the pseudonym is a hellenicization), the doyen of eighteenth-century opera librettists, composed music for each of the arias that he penned. He never showed the music to anyone, though; the exercise was only for making sure that the text was singable. Imagine!

And there's one other really remarkable thing about Mr Bolt's book. He includes a color reproduction of a portrait of Mozart, by Johann Georg Edlinger, that was discovered in "late 2004." How this picture has stayed out of the papers during the bisesquicentennial of Mozart's birth (250 years) is amazing to me. It shows what Mr Bolt describes as "the effects of high living," and as an image its power to smash the Meissen idea of Mozart is unsurpassed. The wonder of Mozart is that he was a male human being just like me - and yet! He was not some angel-made-flesh. He liked to party. He was much worse at cash flow than I am. And when the picture was painted, in 1790, he was probably clinically depressed.

Are you ready?


September 27, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Of the full-dress reviews, only those by Terrence Rafferty and Michael Gorra are good ones; perhaps not incidentally, they're also favorable.

Nonfiction fares much better, with good reviews by Ron Rosenbaum, Christopher Buckley, Geoff Dyer, and Jennifer Senior. Actually, they're all good - although I didn't quite understand Ron Powers or his subject, E L Doctorow.

Fiction & Poetry

Martha Collins's Blue Front is a collection of poems written around a central theme. Dana Goodyear is too busy explaining why the lynching and dismemberment of a black man in 1909 is of such interest to Ms Collins to convey much of a sense of the verse. The review is tantalizing but irritating.

Terrence Rafferty might have improved his very enthusiastic review of David Long's The Inhabited World by quoting an entire paragraph. That's always a good idea in any review, but here, where Mr Rafferty claims that it's the quality of the writing that buoys up the narrative of suicide ghost, it's essential.

The novel wouldn't work if Long weren't able to convey the keenness of the joys his hero has left behind, and he is able, emphatically. It's the restrained sensuality of the writing itself that quickens this sad story for him, the tingle of the sentences as they flow.

Don't ask me to take your word for it! Michael Gorra's somewhat longer review of Forgetfulness, the new novel by Ward Just, is similarly favorable, but more illuminating.

In formal terms, Just stays firmly within the canons of contemporary American realism, but he differs from his peers in the ease with which he glides between affairs of state and close-grained portraits of domestic life. In this, he resembles the James Gould Cozzens of Guard of Honor, that matchless account of America at the work of war, and Just's fiction offers some of the same shrewd worldliness.

That might not be helpful to someone who has not read Cozzens - and who has these days, below the age of fifty? - but the comparison at least raises a shout for the older writer. If there's one novel in this week's Review that I might read, it's this one.

Mark Kamine gives Will Beall's L A Rex an indifferent review. "His novel is a kind of crime fighter's bildungsroman," Mr Kamine writes, later faulting the slapdash finale thus: "It's as if Beall has convinced himself we'll go along with anything just to get to the novel's apocalyptic ending." But spends most of his time storytelling. To be genuinely instructive about L A Rex, the review would probably have to be reconceived. I found Uzodinma Iweala's review of Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna, just as unhelpful. It is torn between supporting a novel with an African setting (Sierra Leone) and questioning the skill with which it is handled. The result is a muddle.

Andrew Ervin's Fiction Chronicle is unusual in covering three works that have been translated into English.

It's Getting Later All the Time: A Novel in the Form of Letters, by Antonio Tabucchi (translated by Alistair McEwan). "Flouting the conventions of the traditional epistolary novel even as it pays tribute to the vanished art of letter-writing, this new book from one of Italy's best writers ... seems meant to be read aloud."

The Prisoner of Guantánamno, by Dan Fesperman. "... the novel gets blown off course near the end when Fesperman bails out on most of the characters and goes looking for drama in all the wrong places..."

The Woman in the Row Behind, by Françoise Dorner (translated by Adriana Hunger). "... a precise and thought-provoking novel of ideas wrapped in the garish trappings of chick lit."

The City is a Rising Tide, by Rebecca Lee. The novel's heroine's "terrible, cringe-inducing judgment astounds at every turn, as does Lee's ability to amp up the tension, comic and otherwise, until the book begins to seem like it could spontaneously combust."

Blue Light in the Sky: And Other Stories, by Can Xue (translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping). "Not all of [these stories] are pleasant, but they're clearly the products of a wholly original mind."


This week's cover book is The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelssohn, and Ron Rosenbaum gives it a strong, favorable review. It's a big book with a wealth of detail, following the author's attempt to resurrect as much information as he can about the family of his great-uncle Shmiel, who perished either in the camps or in Bolechow, now in Ukraine.

But in the end, his investigation narrows dramatically to seek the truth of a single act, a single decision involving hiding and betrayal. "The saviors," Mendelssohn says, "were, in their way, as inexplicable and mysterious to me as the betrayers." Why did some help and some betray? The disclosure of the solution to this mystery takes on a powerfully suspenseful momentum as all of the evidence and eyewitnesses of the virtual and real Bolechow are focused upon bringing the truth to the surface.

Gus Russo has just published Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers. I first encountered Korshak in Connie Bruck's book about Lew Wasserman. Once was enough. According to Rich Cohen, Mr Russo may be in for a call from the Anti-Defamation League, because he "retells the story of our time as a conspiracy of Jews."

The fact is, every immigrant community in this country has spawned an underworld and every underworld has needed guys like Korshak. This does not make him a typically Jewish figure. I makes him a typically American figure. Or as Bellow's Augie March proclaims, "I am an American, Chicago born."

This appears to be a justifiably negative review.

I'm not entirely sure that I understand Ron Powers's praise for E L Doctorow's collection, Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006. There's a lot of talk about Mr Doctorow's concern for "the voice of the book," and much of it waxed too poetic for me. "Creationists," Mr Powers writes, "sustains a pitch of fascination, borne on a cascade of glittering aphorism, rarely encountered in the unforgiving genre of literary criticism." The passages that Mr Powers quotes, while fascinated, lack the glittering aphorism but have a quasi-visionary abstractness that I can live without.

This week's funny review is by - no surprise - Christopher Buckley, who takes aim at The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Allan and Barbara Pease.

If the approximately one zillion studies adduced here by the authors are any indication, it seems that 90 percent of the population has been gainfully employed studying the body language patterns of the other 10 percent. While you and I have been hunter-gathering at the office, protecting our necks and other vulnerable areas, the Peases, along with legions of academics and students of evolutionary behavior, have been monitoring how often French people touch each other in outdoor cafes (142 touches per hour versus zero touches for Londoners); or who opts for the end toilet stall (that must have been a fun project); the smiling patterns among middle-class residents of Atlanta and Memphis (more fun than watching public toilets, anyway); the hip-to-waist ratio in 50 years of Playboy centerfolds (significantly more fun than the toilet survey); how many among 400 cigar exhalations at a festive event were directed upward, as opposed to downward (a toss-up between that and observing toilets); and whether larger-breasted women hitchhikers get more rides than smaller-breasted ones. This last was undertaken by "researchers at Purdue University." Care to hazard a guess as to the finding? I smell an earmark in some omnibus transporation bill.

Geoff Dyer's review of Robert Hughes's Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir takes second place in the funny department.

Here's the rub. It's fine being an elitist, but the credentials for occupying such a privileged seat have constantly to be justified and renewed. And this can't be done if you write flabby prose. Back in the early 1960's, Hughes concedes, he was "not a fully functioning writer." And now that he's in his late 60's? The answer, I fear, is found in the same paragraph. "Living for beauty was all very well, but it wasn't going to put and spinach on the plate, let alone butter on the spinach. In two years I had laid up a lot of honey in my comb.

For those of you how have plowed through the books about how we die and what happens to our corpses, &c, there is now Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born, by Tina Cassidy. Alexandra Jacobs writes,

Cassidy's natal narrative hews closely to real-life events... Still, there's a collective, willful amnesia about birth - as if it's an alien visitation, rather than the normal order of things - that has been begging for her clear-headed dissipation. We want it to be meaningful and we want it to be mercifully brief. This book is both.

At the center of this week's Review, there are facing critiques of conservative phenomena. Jennifer Senior reviews two books aimed at the Bush Administration and finds them shrill and humorless. Of Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration, by Lewis H Lapham, Ms Lapham writes - having recited a number of the book's starker charges:

Well, at least his point of view is unambiguous. But unless you agree with it 100 percent - and are content to see almost no original reporting or analysis to support any of these claims - you may feel less inclined to throttle Lapham's targets than to throttle Lapham himself. For this book is all about Lewis Lapham....

And of How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime, by Sidney Blumenthal, she sighs,

After a while, it's hard to deny that these columns have a certain cumulative power. But their content has also been curated with one aim in mind, and that's to cast the Bush administration in the grimmest possible light, rather like Philip Roth telling the story of his protagonist in Everyman from the point of view of his illnesses. ...

It's hard to trust a narrator who only and always assumes the worst.

Ms Senior makes it clear that she is no Bushie; she's impatient with these writers' overstated rantings. To be sure, we used to laugh at the indignation of books such as these - when they were written from the right. And on the facing page, Adrian Wooldridge throws cold water on The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, by Damon Linker, arguing that Mr Linker's small band of conservative Roman Catholics constitute a "rather eccentric intellectual clique," not a revolutionary threat. Nevertheless, this is only cold water, not dismissal.

Linker is a disillusioned theocon who cut his journalistic teeth working for Neuhaus's magazine, First Things. But his tone is admirably restrained, dispassionate and scholarly when it could so easily have been rank and recriminatory, and he uses his insider's knowledge to build up a detailed account of the movement. The result, for anybody who wants to understand the growing public role of American religion, is a book to reckon with.

Finally, there is the rather sad review of What It Used To Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver, by Maryann Burk Carter. According to Joyce Johnson, Ms Carter's book "reads like yet another document of dysfunctionality that sheds little light on the experience it portrays." It would seem that the celebrated short-story writer's first wife cannot shake off the pride of having been an enabling doormat: the famous man chose her. (And then asked her to leave.)

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Dumbing Up," is all about the X for Dummies series. "Dummy" is such a dumb word, don't you think? One that only a dummy would use. Whereas in France, the series' correlative title of one volume is L'Histoire de France Pour Les Nuls. Quite a different cup of tea.


Changing my mind on the adoption issue has unleashed a lot of strong sentiment. Giving up one one lie - refusing to regard the American way of adoption, between World War II and Roe v Wade, as anything but monstrous - seems to have set off at least one other sudden switch. It's about the acceptability of American football.

I can understand wanting to play a game, dimly. Whether my poor hand/eye coordination is innate or inane doesn't much matter. I used to like to play Monopoly, but now I'm afraid that it would bore me to death, and the "original edition" set that I bought a few years ago remains shrink-wrapped. I don't relate well to games. And exertion for its own sake puzzles me. My fondness for conversational ballroom dancing might be a pointer to the kind of physical activity that appeals to me. I like to dance, but not with someone I'm not talking to.

I can't understand sitting and watching other people play a game. I can fake it. I can talk about crowds projecting themselves upon the teams that they're rooting for. But what's the point? I still don't get it.

So: I don't have a favorite sport. I'm absolutely indifferent to sports. I'm neutral.

Except, I'm not. I'm not indifferent to football. All the grace of a completed forward pass cannot redeem what is essentially a brutal game that domesticates violence. It doesn't transcend violence, as, say, basketball does. Football simply harnesses it to the line of scrimmage, and sauve qui peut.

Having received two degrees from the University of Notre Dame, I know a thing or two about the sociology of football. In my undergraduate career, I went to no games after my freshman year. As a law student, however, I went to most of the home games, because it was a hoot to sit with classmates and carry on. I'd have been perfectly happy if the teams had been playing soccer.

Why weren't they? What does that say? How can we be complacent about what's going on in the field?

Discretion forbids my discussing the background of this unforeseen enlightenment, but I can say that it has upset the foundations of an important friendship. That's why I am writing this. This entry is not an argument against football. It is simply a form of notice. Your elation about a football victory is only going to excite my disgust.  


September 26, 2006

Reorientation II

Little did I know that yesterday's Times would prolong the quandary that I spoke of in the previous entry. The front-page story was entitled "In Tiny Courts of New York, Abuses of Law and Power: Judges Without Legal Degrees or Oversight Rule in Arcane System Across State."

Does that sound, maybe, a little Iraqi to you? Let's not go into why it does. (If it doesn't, you're reading the wrong blog.) Let's just take a breath and sing "O Canada." Things are so much simpler there. There are so many fewer people, for one thing!

Why has no one written of the melodrama that yokes New York City, an international entrepôt that draws thousands of disaffected Americans-from-elsewhere to its bosom every year, to New York State, a red-meat outfit that, except for all of Ithaca and just the University of Syracuse, ought to be offloaded to Tasmania? Where are the witnesses to this atrocity? The non-New-York-City parts of New York State are just big enough to arm-wrestle the city to the ground. There ought to have been a "civil war" in New York, just to free the enslaved intellectuals.

The whole story about the baboon judges is great, but here is my favorite excerpt:

In an interview, Justice Pennington said the commission had treated him unfairly. But he may not have helped his case when he told the commission that "colored" was an acceptable description.

"I mean, to me," he testified, "colored doesn't preferably mean black. It could be an Indian, who's red. It could be Chinese, who's considered yellow."

There are probably lots of provincial Americans who think that "colored" is still a useful term. That's how we are. But we don't have to make them justices of the peace, capable of incarcerating strangers who don't gratify their expectations. And here is my question: if this is the state of things in New York State, why would we expect anything better in Guantánamo or Iraq? When on earth, people, are we going to clean up our own little mess? We're certainly not going to do any good abroad while "simple men, and their simple wisdom" are running the show in American localities.

September 25, 2006


On the one hand, I'm with Édouard, of Sale Bête, when he tells his readers in France that we aren't all nuts: Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings writes (yet another) passionate denunciation of the failure of the rule of law in the United States.

On the other hand, I'm with Tony Judt, writing in the London Review of Books, where, in his manly way, he spits on and kicks around the remnants of American liberalism.

To Mr Judt I say: What took you so long? And why do you lump The New Yorker together with other Bush-appeasing organs, given its publication, just weeks after the "war" began, of Seymour Hersh's TPFDL exposé?

And to Hilzoy (and Édouard) I say: when are you going to suggest the kind of intimate things that I need to be able to say to galvanize the people around me into doing everything imaginable to avoid a civil war in this country? We've already had one civil war, and it was an almost total flop. (When will Black Americans finally come out and say so? - It was that dismal a failure!)

We need a post-Civil Rights party, one that understands that many Black Americans - perhaps a majority - are objectionably conservative about sexual matters. Such is our conundrum at the moment. 

Francine Prose on Reading Aright

What is the opposite of "disappointing"? "Satisfactory" won't do - it has a sigh of disappointment built into it. We need a word that means "every bit as good as it ought to be." That would be the word for Francine Prose's indispensable Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Like Them. I don't have much to say, beyond BUY IT NOW. Look, I'll even throw in a link, and I never link to points of sale when I'm writing about books.

If you love reading (not necessarily the same things loving books, but I'll let it pass), then you probably don't have any use for theories about the hidden construction of what you're reading. You're perfectly happy to be a dupe. Reading is a pleasure, and theory is for people who are not particularly fond of reading. But just because you're not deconstructing texts, there's no reason not to pay attention. The term for attention paid is "close reading." Ms Prose describes her first close reading as an adult.

When I was a high school junior, our English teacher assigned us to write a term paper on the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision, then draw some conclusions on which we would base our final essay.

It all seemed so dull, so mechanical. We felt we were way beyond it. Without this tedious, time-consuming exercise, all of us knew that blindness played a starring role in both dramas.

Still, we liked our English teacher, we wanted to please him. And searching for every relevant word turned out to have an enjoyable treasure hunt aspect, a Where's Waldo detective thrill. Once we started looking for eyes, we found them everywhere, glinting at us, winking from every page.

Long before the blinding of Oedipus and Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to be clear-sighted or obtuse, shortsighted or prescient, to heed the signs and warnings, to see or deny what was right in front of one's eyes. Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent - all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness.

Reading Like a Writer is a very simple proposition: a collection of close readings of passages that Ms Prose admires, organized by a descending scale of focus, from "Words" and "Sentences" to "Details" and "Gesture," with two summing-up chapters that are delightfully at odds, and a list of "Books to Be Read Immediately." A list, in short, of all the books that Ms Prose has been talking about in the course of Reading Like a Writer.

I can only hope that this book will become a textbook at better schools (well, at every school, if I can dream).

Continue reading about Reading Like a Writer at Portico.

September 24, 2006


It's late Sunday afternoon, and I'm about to sit down with an oppressive stack of magazines. I won't be looking at The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books, nor probably the London Review of Books, either. Or Harper's. Those are the periodicals that I look forward to reading. It's the homework mags that I've got to look at: The Nation, The Economist, the Wilson Quarterly, and Foreign Affairs. France-Amérique doesn't get the attention that it deserves, and I can't make up my mind about The Atlantic. Bookforum shows up from time to time, its continued existence always a faint surprise.

In a fantasy that I find increasingly beguiling, an efficient intellectual expert shows up one fine day and tells me how to do my job. Sometimes, the expert even tells me what my job is. I know what some of my duties are. I have to publish a fresh entry every day. I'm expected (by whom?) to review The New York Times Book Review - a weekly task. Ditto my trip to the movies every Friday. I used to read the blogs on my list every weekday, but I've lost that habit and must fight to regain it: this is a two-way street, buster. But a list of duties doesn't add up to a job. The one thing that the expert does every time that I indulge my fantasy is to persuade me that I don't really need to read The Nation, The Economist, or even The New York Times. Yippity yay!

Yes, that's the problem with fantasies.

It does occur to me quite regularly, however, that although I may want to run a daily Web log, writing about books, ideas, and the bits of New York's cultural life that I make time for - although this may be my desire, and although I may actually get it done, somehow, it does not follow that I know how to do it. But perhaps the very idea that I'm not doing the job very well is the first step to enlightenment. 

September 23, 2006

Friday Ramble: Keeping Mum and the Met

Arriving at the Beekman with time to spare, I discovered that I didn't have my wallet. I was fairly certain that I'd left it at home. I'd been very upset about something on my way out, and I'd evaded the usual protocols that assure that I go out into the big city well equipped. If I didn't carry my Metrocard separately, I lamented, then this wouldn't have happened. As usual, I had no small change or money of any kind in my pockets. So I walked across 67th Street to First Avenue, caught a bus, got off at 86th Street, returned to the apartment, found my wallet right where it ought to be (when I'm at home, that is), went back downstairs and caught a taxi at the bottom of the driveway. There were a few bottlenecks on Second Avenue, but I got into the Beekman thirty-five minutes after I'd made my unpleasant discovery. I did not disabuse the guy in the booth who sold me a seniors ticket.

So it will be a little while before I find out how much of Niall Johnson's Keeping Mum I missed.

Continue reading about my Friday ramble at Portico.

September 22, 2006

Thanks, Ms D -

Hearty thanks to Joan Didion, who has sat down with the record and concluded that Vice President Cheney's ideology, if he has one, could be summarized as effecting "the transfer of public wealth to the private sector." Those are my words, not Ms Didion's, and I published them last May. Once I'd reached that conclusion, I found that it made so much sense that I couldn't imagine any other. It is the only explanation that makes sense of White House policies.

Here are Ms Didion's words:

"Other priorities" suggests what the Vice President might have meant when he and the President talked about the "different kind of war," the war in which "our goal will not be achieved overnight." As a member of the House during the cold war and then as secretary of defense during the Gulf War and then as CEO of Halliburton, the Vice President had seen up close the way in which a war in which "our goal will not be achieved overnight" could facilitate the flow of assets from the government to the private sector and back to whoever in Washington greases the valves.

As Ms Didion notes, we won't need to send more troops to Iraq if we just contract out more of the war to private contractors. Ms Didion's essay, "Cheney: The Fatal Touch," covering sixteen books, appears in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. (5 October 2006)

September 21, 2006


Kathleen had fallen asleep, but I bent over to kiss her goodnight, and in her sleepiness she cried, "You smell so good. I think it's your beard!" "You don't think it's my cologne?" I asked. But she had fallen back to sleep by then.

I had actually said, "...it's my kalogney?" That's what clever kids do well into their fifties: they deliberately mispronounce foreign words. Or worse: I have a friend who used to be incapable of calling a car a Lincoln: it had to be a Lincogne. In Spanish: Lincoña. Don't ask me where this came from. I can sort of guess, though.

Walking from the bedside to the deskside, I thought: the humor of saying "kalogney" rests on everyone's knowing not only how the word is pronounced but also how it is spelled. And what could be a better test of this than Googling the non-word "calone"? That's how you'd spell it if you'd never read it, right? And what is the Blogosphere but a haven for writers who don't read? The following passages are first-page returns for "calone smell. " (You will want to use the Find on this Page feature in Edit.)

ll make you weak from just the smell of my calone. Your be following me home!

what is your favorite calone?

[What you currently smell like] calone...long night hehe

That's EXACTLY what I was thinking. The article promised--promised!--that we were nearing the end of the cycle of all-alike fresh-outdoorsy scents and moving into some warmer men's scents, and all I see and smell is calone everywhere. I'm so sick of it! I tried three new scents this evening--Instinct by David Beckham, Guess Man, and Nautica Blue--and they're ALL THE SAME.


First, I hate when people smell fake... I'm a hippy that way. :D Ok, if there's really bad BO, roll on the deoderant... but for just body smell, ick! I can see why some perfume might be attractive, it actually smells pretty, but I ALWAYS hate guy's calone. However, both are perfumes, calogne is called that to make the man feel "Manly" (he couldn't groom himself, no!) But I digress..

And I think that I could on and on go - but for the sweetness of the last entry's orthographic polymorphousness, so characteristic of Earlier English.

It's possible, however, that not one of the passages that I've held up for - well, certainly not ridicule contains a misspelling of the word "cologne." Consider:

ectocarpene, Calone 1951 ®, and a new experimental marine odorant

Perhaps everyone's been talking about the marine fragrance known as "Calone." It would be a good joke.

The awful truth is that people who wear cologne as a matter of course, or don't, also as a matter of course, say "scent."

September 20, 2006

In the Book Review

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

May I just take a second to complain about subtitles in which X is the making of Y? Such statements usually stretch plausibility beyond the snapping point. Also: one does not forge pathways.

There are more than a few poor reviews to wade through, this week, but there are some good ones, too. Just this once, I've made it a snap for you compare the Book Review's reviews with Janet Maslin's reviews in the Times proper. In both cases, Ms Maslin does the better job.

Fiction & Poetry??

Joel Brouwer's review of Scar Tissue, Charles Wright's latest volume of poetry, is almost unintelligibly insidery. "Wright's paradoxical sentiments come wrapped in gently meandering lines and sentences that seem not to want to end lest they appear to conclude." I think I know what that means, but "conclude" seems deliberately arch. I am not sure that Mr Brouwer recommends the book.

So much for poetry. Eleven novels are reviewed (ouf!). The first, The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier (translated by Lorin Stein), is billed as a memoir by Erica Wagner, who finds it "endearing." The book is apparently the novelization of an episode in the writer's life. Noting that the novel has been "fluently and colloquially translated, Ms Wagner writes, "This is the theme of this work, the will to find connections, to believe in something other than random suffering."

A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon's new novel, gets a favorable review from David Kamp.

But Haddon is too gifted and too ambitious to write a hacky second novel. In fact, he's so wondrously articulate, so rigorous in thinking through his characters' mind-sets, that A Spot of Bother serves as a fine example of why novels exist.

Anyone who liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time but who "isn't sure" about how well Mr Haddon might follow that hard act will probably come down for the new book on the basis of Mr Kamp's enthusiasm. Lizzie Skurkick's baffling review of Pagan Kennedy's Confession of a Memory Eater, in contrast, kicks up a cloud of dust. Because her sentences make sense internally but don't really connect with their neighbors, I'd have to type quite a bit of blather to convey the full opacity of the review. You'll have to take my word for it.

Terrence Rafferty's review of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: Twenty-Four Stories, by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin) is everything that it ought to be, lucidly setting forth the nub of Mr Murakami's fictional impulse. The stories in this collection, he writes,

seem to speak with one, very seductive, voice. That voice, in each of these wildly varied excursions into the strange, dim territory of the self, says that someone named Haruki Murakami is still looking, quixotically, for something less fragile, less provisional than the usual accommodations we make do with on the road. These are just 24 of the places where, one time or another, he thought he might find it.

I only wish that Mr Rafferty had explained away the wry disingenuous that I taste in every paragraph of Mr Murakami's work. Am I just being paranoid?

Ada Calhoun's ruthlessly dismissive review of Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder is so devastating - although the book is "a page turner," it is "both smutty and pretentious" - that I wondered if Janet Maslin mightn't have been a more sympathetic reviewer of this popular book in the Da Vinci Code mold. Ms Maslin, however, reviews books for The New York Times, not for The New York Times Book Review. In fact, she has reviewed the book for the newspaper, and, not surprisingly, she's a great deal more sympathetic, while at the same time just as clear about the book's breezy qualities - which simply reduce Ms Calhoun to dyspepsia. (Because I think that it would be instructive to read both reviews, I include a link to the Book Review.) I am no more tempted to read The Interpretation of Murder by Ms Maslin's sunny reception, but it leaves a much nicer taste in my mouth.

You can play the same game with The Meaning of Night: A Confession, by Michael Cox, only in this case, the Review's piece, by Susann Cokal, is the favorable one. Her summary of the novel's plot does not incline one to agree with her praise of it; rather the reverse. For once, I must quote Ms Maslin:

Instead he is eager to use words like vouchsafe as liberally as possible, so that “The Meaning of Night” has the ornate, curlicued linguistic niceties of a Dickensian period piece. Such affectations have the potential to be either voluptuously pleasing (as they were in Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal and the White” and Sarah Dunant’s “In the Company of the Courtesan”) or arduously contrived (Elizabeth Kostova’s “Historian”). But in Mr. Cox’s version they are oddly colorless. Images like that of “the usual metropolitan bustle, the familiar panorama of unremarkable people doing unremarkable things,” are captured all too well.

You decide.

Neil Gordon's surprisingly important review of The Mission Song, by John le Carré, sets out to debunk the idea that Mr le Carré lost his footing when the Wall came down.

Read closely, le Carré's brilliant George Smiley novels are much less about spies than about the fundamental evil of cold-war-era politics. That these dense, often demanding, unexpectedly radical books have been the recipients of phenomenal  commercial success makes le Carré's career not only admirable but enviable.

Mr Gordon goes on to present The Mission Song as a worthy addition to Mr le Carré's shelf.

Jenny Diski's reviews appear in the London Review of Books, and I make a point of reading them. It may be that her review of Kensington Gardens, by Rodrigo Fresán (translated by Natasha Wimmer), is difficult to follow because she has been shoehorned into a much smaller space and has too much to say. "This is one of those novels (think of Lolita, Moby-Dick, the stories of Borges and Calvino) that really do remind you of the profound sensual pleasure you had as a child when you discovered reading and began to swim in that vast ocean of books." Oops. I didn't discover the pleasure of reading until puberty hit, and while passion was as aspect of my reading from the start, I was unfamiliar with anything like "profound sensual pleasure" until the third or fourth time that I read Emma. I was not reassured by this quote from Mr Freslán's book:

the 60's are a fairy story for adults - for adults who were young during the 60's and as a result have become the best, most reckless liars in all of history.

Charles Taylor is quite as negative about Dennis Lehane's Coronado: Stories as Ada Calhoun is about Jed Rubenfeld. After citing a passage that he finds trite, Mr Taylor writes,

That's second-rate pulp philosophy, and not redeemed by the narrative drive that can make you overlook similar guff in a good thriller. And while Lehane's thrillers ... were sometimes unbelievably violent, they didn't seem ridiculous.

Tibor Fischer's review of Touchy Subjects: Stories, by Emma Donoghue, is interesting for selling Ms Donoghue's collection without making sense of it. And his frame of reference is almost arcane.

Not as purely gag-led as, say, the stories of Shalom Auslander, nor matching the oddity of, say, John Dufresne's, Donoghue's stories achieve an entertaining middle ground.

"Middle" as between what and what, exactly?

Finally, there's Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone. David Bowman reviews it quite favorably. I was mystified by one small discrepancy, but on the whole I got a feel for Mr Woodrell's taut lyricism.

His Old Testament prose and blunt vision have a chilly timelessness that suggests that this novel will speak to readers as long as there are readers, and as long as violence is practiced more often than hope or language.


On the cover this week, Ian Buruma reviews Frank Rich's excoriation of the mainstream press in the Age of Shrub, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. Mr Buruma is able to bring a European perspective to the problem of our pusillanimous press.

There may be one other reason for the fumbling: the conventional methods of American journalism, market by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story. Someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added "balance" by quoted Joseph Goebbels. And besides, as Judith Miller found out, what is the good of quotes if they are based on false information?

This is a review to clip and tuck into one's copy of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Of Helen MacDonald, author of Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories, Mary Roach writes that she "is that rare and precious commodity: a crack historian with a taste for the bizarre."

The topic of women and the iniquities they have borne is a perennial - though not typically entertaining - topic for historians. But combine it with MacDonald's sensibilities and a parallel topic of cadavers, and this is some of the most fascinating scholarly reading since Foucault tackled sex. 

There you have it. Tom Siegfried aptly reviews two new books that argue against the likelihood that string theory will ever lead to substantial advances in the science of physics, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law, by Peter Woit and The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, by Lee Smolin.

Smolin's book is worth taking seriously as a plea for minority viewpoints. But neither he nor Woit really confront the reason ideas in physics become majority viewpoints. When John Schwarz of Caltech and his few collaborators worked alone on string theory throughout the 1970's, they wrote no books complaining about lack of resources. They worked until they found a striking result that mainstream physicists found worth pursuing. Physicists vote with their feet, which suggests that there is, after all, a way to prove string theory wrong - by finding a different theory and proving it right.

Even I could understand that. Michael Wolff's review of Daniel Golden's The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges - and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates is perhaps this week's most interesting piece.

While Golden mounts a fire-breathing, righteous attack on the culture of super-privilege, this is also a rather conventionally-minded view of education. He subscribes to the central assumptions about the Ivy League in America. The Ivies, he says, pave your way "into leadership positions in business and government" and "serve as the gateway to affluence and influence in America." If this is true, it explains why the Ivy League would turn into a marketplace. How could it not, being of such value and limited supply? But the obvious solution, to make more colleges more equal, is not the case he's arguing. Golden wants some people - people like himself - to have access to elite universities.

In short, the reviewer might have written the better book.

The premise of Kim Powers's The History of Swimming: A Memoir, is unlikely enough: a gay man searches for his lost fraternal twin, also gay. In the background: their mother committed suicide when they were seven. Reviewer Eve Conant faults Mr Powers's writing ("Powers's writing background is in television and film, and his fragmented, conversational sentences often fall flat from overuse.") but becomes too distracted by Mr Powers's story to express an overall opinion about the book. Maybe if she'd been given more space... but, no, storytelling is bad at any length.

Reviewers of Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France, by Carmen Callil, can't seem to resist storytelling, because the figure at the center of the book, Louis Darquier, is such an implausible bounder. No, I'm not going to tell you who he was, but you can find out at Wikipedia. Reviewer Christopher Caldwell makes a few motions toward refuting Ms Callil's revisionist argument (Darquier was not an aberration of Vichy France but its exemplar), but for the most part he retails more or less shocking details from Ms Callil's book.

Tim Weiner gives Sharon Weinberger's Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld a qualified good review: he thinks that Ms Weinberger ought to have written a bigger book. "By focusing on one tiny target, Weinberger has missed the big picture." This seems obtuse. Focusing on a small target may capture the picture, but in miniature, and persuade other writers to undertake more comprehensive studies of the Pentagon's penchant for fantasy physics. I haven't thought up a word yet for "not wanting the book at hand, no matter how good it is, because you can imagine another book," but, when I do, you'll be the first to know.

Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions That Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, by Bruce Clark, covers an important issue, the folly of equating ethnos with nation in the modern world. According to Belinda Cooper, Mr Clark has covered it well.

Clark refrains from casting either side as the villain in the population transfer. He cautiously points out that the exchange achieved its goals by creating clear boundaries and thus making it possible for the two countries to live side by side in relative peace. But this quietly nuanced study, whose lessons transcend the borders of Greece and Turkey, primarily illustrates the human cost extracted by the bloody project of wrenching communities apart and forming homogenous nations based on abstract concepts of belonging.

Do you remember Sarah Chayes from NPR? After the latest invasion of Afghanistan, she decided to switch jobs, and took a leadership job with Afghans for Civil Society, a promoter of civic virtue in Kandahar. Her new book, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, reviewed by David Rohde, she denounces the current US-Pakistani alliance. "If in the end, the American effort in southern Afghanistan fails, this important and insightful book will explain why.

Joshua Hammer has written a book about the deadly earthquake that leveled Tokyo and its port, Yokohama, in 1923. An entrepôt along Shanghai lines, Yokohama depended on foreign relief after the quake - enough to ruffle the pride of Japanese nationalists, who did not want to be perceived as dependent upon handouts from abroad. One thing led to another, and you have Pearl Harbor. In Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire That Helped Forge the Path to World War II, Mr Hammer makes, according to reviewer Jacob Heilbrunn, "a provocative and largely persuasive case that [the disaster and its aftermath] marked a turning point in Japan's embrace of militant nationalism.

This week's silly books are The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, by Alicia Drake and reviewed by Caroline Weber; and Nicole Kidman, by David Thomson and reviewed by Lawrence Levi. Neither review begins to propose a raison d'être.

I've saved for last the funniest review in this week's Review. Joe Queenan writes up The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!, by Joe Eszterhas. I am no cinema insider, but I read the paper, and I know that to speak of Mr Eszterhas as "mild-mannered" and "diffident, Apollonian" is to be pulling legs. Enough of the truth seeps through, however, to convey an idea of the book.

True, since the author, now 62, regularly refers to such once-mythical but now obscure figures as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Yvonne de Carlo, Elizabeth Berkley and William Faulkner, it is not certain that the intended reader will understand all the references. Still, the overall message - everyone in Hollywood is an untrustworthy moron except me and a couple of directors I might one day work with again - comes through fairly clearly.

Marilyn Stasio, who reviews crime fiction on a generic basis for the Book Review, takes stock, in her Essay, "There's a New Bad Guy in Town," of the impact of 9/11 on "hometown mysteries."

Two Recent Novels

This afternoon, I finished Claire Messud's very beautiful novel, The Emperor's Children, which I want to think about for a while, and possibly reserve for a re-reading. Ms Messud's writing has a somewhat disturbing quality, for me at least, in that it seems engagingly complex while I'm reading it, but almost unadorned as it precipitates to memory. Something was going on that I didn't fully grasp, and I expect that I'll have to read one of its sixty-seven lapidary chapters very closely to get a grip on the nature of the mastery. All I mean by this twaddle is that the novel made me vibrate - I positively trembled as 9/11 approached - but left me with no way of explaining its unquestioned power.

Looking back at some of the novels that I've read recently, I find that the only book that compares with Ms Messud's for quality is the utterly different Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman. Full disclosure: a member of Simon & Schuster's publicity staff sent me (and who knows how many other bloggers) an e-spiel about the book, offering to send me a free copy if I was interested. I was intrigued by the offer as much as anything (it was a first for me), but I was genuinely delighted by the book. It's not going to get anything like the reception that has been bestowed upon The Emperor's Chilldren, but I recommend it just as highly. You can read about it here

September 19, 2006

Or, Why I Will Never Give Up My Land Line

Où est le portable? Où? Où? Où? Où? Où!

Why don't we dial the number and see what rings.

Je ne marche pas


A photo from Le Monde, 8 September. Our supine media gods would never let it run here. This man is a jerk.

At Sale Bête, I read that there's a march against Bush this morning, outside the UN. Édouard's going to be one of the marchers. "You can't just do nothing" is how I would translate his French - idiosyncratically, to be sure, because I can't imagine doing anything except sitting right here and writing. I'm still working out the personal consequences of Bush's second presidential victory. It forced me to recognize that there simply is no question about it: I'm living in a closet. I'm pretending to be as patriotic an American as anybody else. Well, I may like the idea of the United States, and think highly of the Constitution and so forth. But as for Americans - Gawd. Too many of them voted for the man.

September 18, 2006

Ann Fessler's Adoption Bombshell: The Girls Who Went Away


Return receipt requested - my papers, seeking reunion with my mother, have been received by the right people. I expect that nothing much will happen for a while. Any suggestions?

"Adoption" is now a subcategory of the Daily Blague's archives - you'll find it under "Yorkville High Street," which is where I shunt everything of a remotely personal nature. If this development had been foretold to me a year ago, in some miraculous vision, I'd have been bewildered. Searching into my origins was something that I'd long ago decided not to do. And nothing has happened to change the feelings on which that decision was based. I still have no real desire to know the people whose conjunction produced me.

But since Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v Wade (Penguin, 2006) came into my life, my desires have taken a distinct back seat to a mounting sense of obligation. Now I must do everything in my power to put an end to the anxieties of the woman who bore me and who was, almost certainly, not allowed to keep me. It is possible that she has put me out of her mind as an unhappy chapter. That's what the social workers in the adoption racket would like us all to believe. If she managed to do that, then I'm honestly happy for her - worrying about me has not been a part of her life for nearly sixty years. But if she's like any of the moms whom Ann Fessler interviewed for The Girls Who Went Away, she may have tried to put me out of her mind, but she has never been able to pull it off.

Three Daily Blague entries mention this remarkable book already. It first came up in June, in the course of business, when it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and I completely declined to assess Kathryn Harrison's review in favor of making my own remarks, rehashing my old, "not interested" position on adoption clear. And yet I began the paragraph by stating that I'd already ordered the book. On Independence Day, I wrote about the change that it had wrought in my thinking. And then, two days later, I mumbled an apology for not having started sooner, laying out the reasons why I'd thought it would be a bad idea to seek reunion. Then, nothing happened for over a month. It was a glitch involving the safe deposit box, where the papers that I'd been given after my father died were parked. The glitch was resolved  in the middle of August, and a week later I received a form to fill out. I fiddled with it last week, writing my answers in pencil on a copy so that Kathleen's kind secretary could type them onto the actual form. (I have an electric typewriter in a box somewhere, but I never use it, and the form was way too hot an item for me to type competently.) My first move was completed yesterday, with the mailing of the form and the attachments.

Continue reading about my The Girls Who Went Away at Portico.

September 17, 2006

Spontaneous Ring

What a loser I am. It's Saturday night, and I'm home - finishing up a Ring cycle. As though it were some sort of casserole, I suppose. I had no intention of listening to important music two weeks ago when I put on Das Rheingold. I love the sound of Das Rheingold, and one thing leads to another. So I did listen to the Ring, all of it, on the impromptu, pretty much as if it were pulp fiction, which is really the only way to hear this incredible drama. "Greatness" needs to scraped away from it - but then who will listen?

Kathleen came home at the end of Act II of Götterdämmerung- the moment when Verdi and Wagner, what's the phrase, get close, as planets - and she said to me, as though I were having my teeth extracted, "What are you listening to!?"  Only the greatest act of opera that there is.

Is there anybody else out there for whom the "Immolation Scene" - as the last bit of the Ring used to be known - is a cleansing bar of soap? Something that makes you feel really pure afterward - the opposite of what Tristan und Isolde does.

September 16, 2006

The Black Dahlia

Lots of critics don't like The Black Dahlia, but I was hooked. I liked the movie for many of the reasons that the critics didn't. I knew that it was going to be somewhat hieratic: The Untouchables, a De Palma film that I've come to treasure (even if I do save it for special occasions), taught me that there would always be something, I don't know, South American about these movies. Hilary Swank's magnificent performance is characteristic: she's not only acting her part, but acting in it. The same is true of Scarlett Johansson, who channels Gloria Grahame in In A Lonely Place and makes something new out of it. Aaron Eckhart is perfect - how can anybody think otherwise - and as for Josh Hartnett, I see what the complaints are about; I just don't happen to share them. He's sweet and seems always about to weep, which is just what this study in disillusionment needs. But he's not very, I don't know, South American.

I can't wait to own the DVD of The Black Dahlia. I am going to watch it over and over until ieither it makes sense (Chinatown, LA Confidential) or making sense doesn't matter (The Big Sleep, Murder, My Sweet). One way or the other, I am going to get to know and love it. That I had a hard time following the dialogue at the beginning, that the loose ends tied up at the end seemed to make more knots than there was room for - I don't go to pictures like The Black Dahlia expecting to figure them out at the first go. I don't want to figure them out the first time! I want to be scared.

And Dahlia provided plenty of scares. The Hollywoodland scene (no relation to Hollywoodland) had me at the edge of my seat, hands at the ready to cover my eyes. And lets not overlook Fiona Shaw, who is very, I don't know, South American. Wow, does she ever chew up the scenery! Mark Isham's score is also creepily effective, an a nice tribute to Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote the scores of both of the "makes sense" movies that I bracketed.

Complaining about The Black Dahlia, New Yorker critic David Denby writes,

A documentary on this subject, from 2004, was called "Los Angeles Plays Itself." Yes, and plays itself with decreasing vitality. Imitation and pastiche come easily to a photographic medium, and films set in Los Angeles are often garlanded with stylistic flourishes from earlier LA movies. Brian De Palma's period re-creation, The Black Dahlia, suffers from the rampant allusiveness. The picture is a kind of fattened goose that's been stuffed with goose-live pâté. It's overrich and fundamentally unsatisfying.

I couldn't agree with this paragraph less - it will be a touchstone of Mr Denby's somewhat dyspeptic criticism for me from now on. I begin to wonder if the critic knows what the movies' power is all about. I, for one, would celebrate the "rampant allusiveness," not regret it. And as for the culinary metaphor (a true boo-boo), the minute we have to start counting our cholesterol at the movies is the minute I give up.

September 15, 2006

Esthète naturiste

Sale Bête's Édouard has a friend who runs an art gallery in Chelsea. A "nudist aethete" paid a visit the other day, disrobing in the hallway before spending ten minutes examining the artwork. Then he thanked everyone, put his clothes back on, and left. I love Édouard's opening crack, that a gallerist's life is nothing but "luxe, calme, et volupté." What would Baudelaire have done?

Scrolls, Photographs, and Lots of Post-Impressionism

Having spent the week so far reading and writing, and having absolutely nothing to write about but books and more books, I felt restless this morning. Despite the light but persistent rain, I decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum. I'm crazy about the cafeteria in the basement; the cheeseburgers are awful in just the right way, and the fries and onions aren't bad, either. It is high school, but without adolescents. I went and returned in taxis. 

The museum was fairly busy. I hadn't been alone in it lately, and wandering about among old favorites without having to think was a pleasure, albeit one that I wouldn't want to repeat very often. Alone, I can stand in front of the vitrines just to the north of the grand staircase, upstairs, and gaze to my heart's content. The pieces of porcelain there arrayed are very pretty, but what makes them interesting is their globalism. The painting on a Japanese plate mimics a Chinese bowl, as does, in another instance, a Meissen saucer. Then there's the Chinese stuff that's made to look Western. Plates were the T-shirts of the eighteenth century, with everyone vying to have the right one from right source, thus encouraging knock-offs. No automation, no phones, no Internet, no container shipping - just human nature doing its thing.

Continue reading about my Met ramble at Portico.

September 14, 2006

United Professionals

As of right now, I am a member of United Professionals, an organization founded by Barbara Ehrenreich and others "to help white-collar workers, be they unemployed, uninsured, downsized, stressed out or merely anxious," according to Steven Greenhouse in the Times. I qualify as "merely anxious." The current dues are doable - ten cents a day, or $36.50 per year.

If and when the group achieves critical mass, Ms Ehrenreich sees it lobbying Congress just as AARP does, probably for universal health insurance and for requiring companies to provide severance when they lay off workers.

I don't think I know anybody who oughtn't to belong to this organization.

Laura Won! (sob)

Well, Laura Bennett won. And Kayne Gillaspie got auf'd. Oh, the depths, the depths - that I know such things, because I just watched them with my very own eyes! Where's my Rolodex of excuses?

What? I threw it away? In the interest of better blogging?

I know that I'm a goner for the rest of this season, and I accept that. The question is, what happens when the next season starts? With luck, I will tune in dutifully (grrr!) - and realize that I just can't go through this again.

Project Runway is a brutal reality show, but the brutality is strictly professional. The designers have personalities, just like anybody, and they vent and carry on - or don't, like Michael Knight and Uli Herzner. But it doesn't matter: the grading is strictly on the fashion and its construction. Best line from last week's show: "Vincent, are you glueing?" Vincent Libretti got auf'd last week because of his really rather mistaken creation.

And what I mean by "brutal" is that the remaining five contestants thought they'd seen the end of him. Surprise! Vincent and Angela Keslar, the previous loser, were given second chances - with a twist. If they didn't win, they'd be out. Comebacks are always possible, but they're never probable, and I wasn't surprised when both designers fell into familiar traps - Angela was too strange, and Vincent just didn't plan very well. As Laura said, he's a genius in his own mind. You might think that he has Jeffrey's confidence, but what he really has is a bluster to compensate for it.

So - how demoralizing can it be: I got auf'd twice. That's something to tell the kiddies. The nephews and nieces.

But the experiment was far more demoralizing for the five who had survived the last round. The deflation was reflected on every face. Competitors love small fields. Anything can go wrong - so why have two ringers brought back from the dead who just might get something right? I couldn't have gone on. When Laura broke down, in her sharp, sort-of, way, I was totally with her. Why bother? Bringing Vincent and Angela back on the show was the most Sisyphean thing that has ever happened on television.

I am hoping that Laura will win. She's a tough broad, but I think that she combines a great design sense (that might work quite well outside of Project Runway's freakish time constraints) with an obvious command of the nuts and bolts, dollars and cents of fashion - as she showed last night, with the fewest fabric extras. I'm really wondering about the wisdom of this (now showing!) pregnancy, but, again, that's personal: it has nothing to do with her abilities as a designer. The failure of her Paris dress was striking, because what worked well on the bâteau mouche got sat on in cargo and looked tired in New York. (It was definitely a dress for an outdoor venue, not for the cave of Project Runway's studio.) But Laura's confidence has had a battering. Her dress for Jeffrey's mother ought to have fit a lot better. Tonight's dress couldn't have been a better fit. Good for her.

Given a good backer and a sane life/work environment, Michael will almost certainly be a successful designer, even if he's never a brand. As the judges said tonight, falling all over themselves, he knows how to dress a woman. That will never fail him. Uli knows how to dress a woman, too, but I worry that she's stuck on things she might have seen her mother wear twenty or thirty years ago. And Jeffrey doesn't like women. His winning dress for the last show was all about gift-wrap. It was a fun dress and I liked it. But it was a disguise, something that Edith Head might have dreamed up for someone with a poorly-proportioned body.

Although I never watch television - but never! (sob) - I do believe that the idea of fashion is central to the functioning of civilization. It gives the libido an opportunity to show up in polite society. A dress is not supposed to advertise what its wearer actually looks like without any clothes on; a dress is supposed to suggest how great she looks without any clothes on. Or, rather, how great she is. Plus (I can say "plus" in a piece about fashion, can't I?), human beings crave novelty, and the genius of fashion is to provide it inconsequentially, just for pleasure.

Next week: Heidi Klum in The Night Porter!

September 13, 2006

"May This Country Forgive You"

What a fine way in which to discover Keith Olbermann! Thanks to Édouard at Sale Bête for the link to some fine oratory - it has been a long time since I heard any. (Via Crooks and Liars.)


J'allais lire un chapitre de La télé - euh, I was going to read a chapter of La télévision when I discovered that JR has undertaken a new blogue, Mnémoglyphes. I like the playfulness of the name itself, and I refuse to translate it other than as Mnemoglyphes, dropping only the accent aigu. "Nemogliffs" - Greek for "marks of memory," or somesuch. Oh, crikey, there I've gone and translated the new blog's name into something that sounds out of a cemetery. Alors, that's why there's Greek!

Near the start, JR talks of the sentimental journey that he's taking, back to his first Blogger blog.

Mais c'est solide, autant que ça l'était quand j'ai débuté avec eux en 2001 et j'ai la nostalgie de ces premiers temps (un peu).

[But it's sturdy, just as it was when I began using it in 2001 - and I'm feeling nostalgic for those early days (a bit).]

It's yet another reminder that the world in which I spend my days did not exist ten years ago. There were rudimentary precursors of blogs, but even HTML was still in flux.

Although it is not taught anymore, "Reading French" - or "German" or "Chinese" - used to be a respectable academic course. It was designed to equip scholars to read literature written in a language that they would never speak. This was particularly useful to Americans, so many of whom never leave the country. It still would be. Learning to read a language fluently is infinitely easier than learning how to speak it - just as it's much easier to learn to read than it is to learn to write (how soon we forget). Let this entry be a small encouragement to anyone who regrets having let her high-school French fade away. With the help of a nice, fat dico - one that lays out a lot of idioms and prepositional phrases - immense and satisfying progress can be made.

Does anyone know of any good Italian blogs? Mnemoglifi, per esempio?

Twilight of the Superheroes

As Portico, the Web site at which everything of value at the Daily Blague will, in theory, end up, gets bigger and bigger, and older and older as well, I find that I'm depending on it as a sort of external memory. All writing serves that purpose, but it's much easier to retrieve information in hypertext.

That's my only justification for publishing an unfavorable response to Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg. I seem to recall reading a story somewhere in which a man and a woman were up on a Manhattan rooftop. Did somebody jump? Or just think about it. I decided that I didn't like Ms Eisenberg's outlook. But I let myself be swayed by the flood of positive comment about the new collection. If I'd written something down at the time, then I'd have known why not to buy the book. My brief remarks will also suggest to you the limits of my aesthetic competence, my ability to enjoy.

In the Book Review

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

I'm considering setting up a "terms of art" page for this feature. "Storytelling" means something very specific in this space. It is not a good thing, to begin with. Storytelling is a substitute for critical appraisal. What the storyteller does is tell the story, basically, of the book under review, without much concrete reference to the manner in which the reviewed author tells it. The worst kind of storytelling leaves you confused as to how much the reviewer knew about a subject before he opened the book and how much he learned from it. The book itself is occluded by the storytelling. Storytellers are abusing their privileges as reviewers, and their names ought to be removed from editors' lists.

Fiction & Poetry??

This week's poet is Hayden Carruth, whose Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems is not particularly well-served by Brian Henry's review. Mr Henry talks a lot about Mr Carruth's career but hardly quotes any poetry. As an appreciation of the poet's art - meant for readers already familiar with Mr Carruth - the piece may have some virtue, but it is an almost completely useless review.

On balance, this week's fiction reviews are good: they get across what kind of reading each will involve. The excpetion is Paul Gray's review of Alice McDermott's After This. I can't quite decipher it. After a bit of storytelling, he writes, "Once this hectic episode concludes, McDermott's narrative turns episodic and digressive, and After This begins to resemble a photo album with many missing snapshots and pages. Ms McDermott happens to write very beautifully; an album of her snapshots might be all the more beguiling for missing a few pictures. But Mr Gray doesn't talk about the writing at all; it's clear that the book bored him.  Allegra Goodman tries to give Jennifer Gilmore's Golden Country a good review, but in the course of doing her job - discussing Ms Gilmore's writing - she fails.

The effect is a kind of footnoting that distances the reader from the characters. It is one thing to write a novel set in the past, another to burden its characters with such an intense consciousness of American history. They swing dangerously close to emblematic significance when they need to breath.

Thank you, Ms Goodman. Claire Dederer, similarly, is very clear about the drawbacks of Anna Quindlen's new novel, Rise and Shine:

Anna Quindlen has built a brilliant career out of exploring dichotomies. ... Two-sided arguments live and breathe - and breed - in columns.

Fiction, with its deeper characterizations and shades of gray, is a less promising habitat for such polarization, but here Quindlen is still much given to this tactic.

Not the most elegant sentence, there at the end, but it's informative. A O Scott is equally informative about Nell Freudenberger's much-anticipated first novel, The Dissident.

Like the stories in ... Lucky Girls, the set pieces in The Dissident ... have the hard, polished sparkle of tiny gems. The problem is that they feel haphazardly strung, and on a rather flimsy wire. Quite a bit happens in the book: at times subplots seem to shoot out in all directions. But somehow neither full comic momentum nor dramatic density is achieved, and the delicate thematic counterpoint that would have linked Yuan's story with Cece's is missing.

Jeff Turrentine's review of Wizard of the Crow, by Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o, is generous; here, storytelling is appropriate. Mr Ngugi has written a fable about the corruption of African governments, and although Mr Turrentine believes that it lacks "the distilled smoothness of a story passed down over many generations," he praises the writer's acuity.

... Ngugi has flown over the entire African continent and sniffed out all of the foul stenches rising high into the air: complacency toward despotism, repression of women and ethnic minorities, widespread corruption and - undergirding all of these - a neocolonial system in which today's lending banks and multinationals have supplanted yesterday's overlords. But from that altitude he can also see a more hopeful sign: large masses of people coming together, sharing triumphant stories and casting spells.

Although I can't let Mr Turrentine's "undergirding" stench pass without a small rap on the knuckles.

Two Italian novels are reviewed on facing pages. Christopher Bray raves about I'll Steal you Away, by Niccolò Ammaniti: "Anyone who thought The Bicycle Thief told them all they needed to know about injustice has another think coming." (The novel's translator is Jonathan Hunt.) "I'll Steal You Away will do just that." Vendela Vida is almost as enthusiastic about Andrea Canobbio's The Natural Disorder of Things (translated by Abigail Asher), but she points to the following passage from the novel as perhaps indicative of the author's ambivalence:

The only monument I'm interested in is the monument to my own obsessions; the only celebration that of my own fixations, the only eulogy, for my own visions. The only things that fascinate me are the ideas running through my head.

That ought to be enough to go on.

Sylvia Brownrigg admires A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, a 9/11 novel by Ken Kalfus, but lets us know that it's strong stuff:

Kalfus's daring, intelligent exploration of animosity in its various forms (spousal and familial, political and religious) is a novelistic evocation of global despair: "This was a world of heedless materialism, impiety, baseness and divorce. Sense was not made, this was jihad."

Julia Scheeres is not so enthusiastic about The Widower, by Liesel Lutzenberger.  

The abbreviated chapters, although beautiful vignettes, don't always cohere. We meet the characteers as they're reeling form personal tragedies ... but the impact of these blows is weakened by herky-jerky chronology and suspiciously convenient plot twists.

Finally, Sarah Bird's The Flamenco Academy gets a dandy review from Maggie Galehouse. "Only an agile writer can sketch four complete characters while filtering most of the action through the perceptions of one," she writes, going on to say that Ms Bird is such a writer.


The most important nonfiction title in this week's Review is undoubtedly the book on the cover, Nicholas Lemann's Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. Historian Sean Wilentz finds it "an arresting piece of popular history," and adds, "We are still living with the consequences of what Lemann presents as the 'last battle of the Civil War'." The long review tells enough of the book's story - "Redemption," in case you didn't know, was the Southern term for the end of Reconstruction - to to persuade anyone remotely interested in national affairs that Redemption is a must-read.

By a curious chance, Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 is also reviewed this week. The book covers the "last battle" in a more recent phase. Reviewer James Goodman presses the importance of the subject but regrets the poor quality of this book's organization. "Worst of all, the book is wholly lacking in design: a messy subject is no excuse for a messy book."

Christopher Caldwell writes favorably of Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, but his review is not as good as it might be. Mr Buruma's story sells itself in summary form, so no harm is done, but Mr Caldwell ought to have indulged in less storytelling and more engagement with Mr Buruma's book. We oughtn't to have to wait until the last sentences of the piece to read Mr Caldwell's sharpest insight.

Being thus torn between idealization of the West's openness and contempt for its naiveté is "not necessarily a paradox," Buruma says. If he is right, it's a non-paradox that should make us uncomfortable. It would mean that many of the freedoms we take for granted are not a triumph over decadence but another name for it.

Matthew Scully makes The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, by Edward O Wilson, sound like a very important book indeed.

More out of habit that considered judgment, Wilson believes, many religious people and especially conservative Christians tend to brush off environmental causes as liberal alarmism, vaguely subversive, and in any case no concern of their. Wilson's book is a polite but firm challenge to this mind-set, seeking to ally religion and science - "the two most powerful forces in the world today" - in an ethic of "honorable" self restraint toward the natural world.

(How I wish that Mr Wilson's identification of the world's two most powerful forces were true.) Robin Marantz Henig is appropriately brisk about Louann Brisendine's The Female Brain:

If Brizendine had chosen to describe more of these experiments, preferably in the text itself, she might have made a real contribution to our understanding of how scientists know that make and female brains are different, and how these differences manifest themselves in everyday life. As it is, we're unable to judge the evidence for ourselves.

Alan Wolfe, who always keeps a steady eye on the stitching that keeps society civil, reviews Michael Bérubé's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education. While he does not agree with Mr Bérubé's claim that there is no liberal bias in American higher education, he likes Mr Bérubé a lot, and compares him very favorable to former Marxist conservative critic David Horowitz:

Since right-wing critics like Horowitz focus so much on left-wing English departments, it is appropriate that Michael Bérubé, who teaches literature at Penn State, has become Horowitz's most engaged critic. In What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Bérubé comes off as spunky, likable and anything but a left-wing extremist ... and he convinces me that Horowitz is as unpleasant as he is ungracious.

This is perhaps the best review in the current issue. In Will You Die With Me? My Life and the Black Panther Party, Flores A Forbes anatomizes the thuggery in which he participated as a young man. Stanley Crouch writes,

Part of the power of the book is seeing this man slowly shocked free of the iceberg of ideology to which he had submitted and for which he was willing to achieve goals "by any means necessary." Much of its value is that it helps to make up for a decided shortcoming of our national literature, which has never sufficiently examined the radical politics of the 60's.

Brendan Vaughan's review of I'm Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers is so favorable that I'm tempted to read Tim Madigan's book, even though Mister Rogers's Neighborhood, which was a bit after my time, always made me feel that I was on the verge of running amok.

But the rare face-to-face scenes contain the book's most delightful moments, offsetting the author's schmaltzier instincts and letting the otherworldly goodness of Mister Rogers shine through.

Mr Vaughan also passes on the unsurprising news that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

"Sad to say," writes Jennifer Homans, of Irina Baronova's Irina: Ballet, Life and Love,

Baronova does not seem to have acquired great perspective with
her years. Like a child, she tells us everything: sprawling to over 500
pages, her book gives as much weight to adolescent crushes and invidious
gossip as to her experiences working with choreographers and dancers like
Léonide Massine, Michel Fokine, and Bronislava Nijinska. Rarely reflective,
she offers surprisingly little insight into her own life and often resorts
to cliché...

Ms Homans fills out her review
with a lot of storytelling. Perhaps this book ought to have been reserved for a
Nonfiction Chronicle.

Aside from calling the book "unstintingly admiring if
overlong," reviewer Stephen Burt has nothing much to say about John Haffenden's
William Empson: Among the Mandarins, the first of three projected volumes
of biography. Instead, Mr Burt indulges in the worst sort of storytelling,
filling us in on the outlines of the poet and wanderer's life without the
slightest attribution. Is this an Empson that Mr Burt already knew about? Or is
it a portrait at least partly distilled from Mr Haffenden's effort? Because it
completely fails to convey an idea of the quality of Among the Mandarins,
it is a totally useless review. It's what I call a "cheater": a very readable
resume that provides a dash of instant education to the attentive reader. Don't
know about Empson? Now you do. It's like trying to learn the history of
classical music from liner notes. Worse, really.

Emily Bazelon's review of Not a Suicide Pact: The
Constitution in a Time of National Emergency
, Richard A Posner's provocative
call for civil disobedience on the part of the government is lucid enough to
make Judge Posner's manly views on civil rights intelligible.

Take the power to torture a suspect or to suspend the right to
challenge a detention through a habeas corpus challenge. Posner thinks these
powers are sometimes necessary, and childes civil libertarians for asserting
otherwise. But that doesn't mean he wants the legislature or the courts to
give them to the executive ahead of time. Instead, government officials
should make do without legal cover.

On the
very next page of the Review, Martin Walker reviews Louise Richardson's
What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.

Richardson goes on to argue that the policies of the Bush
administration have provided Al Qaeda with great renown and monstrous
overreaction - precisely the stimulants it needs to prosper. By declaring
"war" on terrorism, the White House has defined the struggle against Al
Qaeda essentially as a military problem, best managed by the Pentagon. This
flies in the face of all available evidence from successful antiterror

Mr Walker notes that Ms
Richardson, briefly an IRA operative, teaches at Harvard and organizes "war
games." A very good review. Michael G Santos, currently serving a 45-year
sentence for cocaine trafficking, has used his spare time to write Inside:
Life Behind Bars in America
. According to Tara McKelvey, it "lays out a
powerful case for prison reform." However,

His writing is stilted (he's no Jean Genet), and the narrative
jumps, jarringly, from prison to prison (he's been held in at least six).
With all the blood and gore, it's hard to know where we are.

Last and least (well, aside from Irina), there's The Immortal Game: A
History of Chess, of How 32 Curved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our
Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain
, by David Shenk. At
least the subtitle doesn't end with "...Changed the World!" Katie Hafner writes,

Critics may point out that Shenk himself isn't much of a chess
player, as he readily admits. But a popular survey like this one doesn't
need a grandmaster, and Shenk, a spry writer who has also written books on
Alzheimer's disease, technology and other subjects, has a good sense of what
might interest a general reader. Although the book's subtitle promises a
history of chess, it's more interesting pages offer something closer to
meditation, personal revelation and the exploration of what he calls "the
deep history of chess's entanglement with the human mind."

Will Self's Essay, "Céline's Dark Journey," end with the revealing disclosure
that Journey to the End of the Night "is the novel, perhaps more than any
other, that inspired me to write fiction. ... Specifically, he showed me how to
yoke the equine demands of the to the golden cart of fantasy, to create a form
of dirty magic realism." And then the lament: "Now, everything is permitted and
nothing is heard."

September 12, 2006

What I'm Reading/Listening To

The main book at the moment is Blood and Roses, by Helen Castor. It's an incredible account of the Paston family's determination to hold on to its properties. Ms Castor has done an amazing job of fleshing out real people from the formulaic letters that this family exchanged during the heat of the Wars of the Roses, which I used to think of as rather grand when I was a kid but which I now see as the worst sort of civil breakdown into thuggery. Ms Castor is so dogged about properties that I want to ask if she herself is the child of traumatically dispossessed parents.

And then there's Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma's book about "the limits of tolerance" after the assassination of Theo van Gogh. The book is yet a mystery; I have no idea how I'm going to regard it. Part of me wonders if I'm still going to admire the author when I'm through. These are difficult times.

As for listening, it's two CDs 24/7. Either the original cast album of The Drowsy Chaperone or the collaboration of the groups Sarband and Concerto Köln that Archiv produced as "The Waltz." The first CD is a surprise, because one had given up on the possibility of good Broadway tunes. The Chaperone's tunes are good, not great, but - my Lord - they're GOOD, and you can listen to them over and over. I'm an accident waiting to plumble! (That's a quote?) .

You may think that Blood and Roses is some pretty history book about an old family, but it's as engaging as a novel can be about Topic A: holding on to property. Unsettling as hell.

September 11, 2006

Tune In

You probably already knew this, but BBC's Mark Savage recently interviewed La petite anglaise and Zoe in Brussels. Complete with Quarsan! Don't miss the chance to hear the Blogosphere's two most celebrated Anglophone expats talk!


Whatever I might have written about the fifth anniversary of 9/11, what I'm going to write recognizes another anniversary, the first, of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. A year after the flooding, New Orleans remains a provisional town, and critics who attribute foot-dragging at all levels of government to a surreptitious program of ethnic cleansing seem to have the only explanation for the Unites States Government's shocking inaction. This inaction is also reflected, in ways that may be more symbolic, if less important, in the sequel to 9/11. Almost everything that has been done (foreign wars) and not done (Ground Zero remains a hole in the ground) reflects a both a pervasive ineptitude and a glossy indifference characteristic of the bullying frat boy that our president has never outgrown.

Perhaps at some not-too-distant date, the two weeks between the anniversaries will be recognized as a Time of Atonement, when Americans reflect on the delinquencies of their TV- and celebrity-addled ancestors who voted for a patently unqualified candidate in 2000 and again in 2004. Although Mr Bush has many sincere supporters, it is my perhaps optimistic belief that relatively few Americans would vote for the record that he will have left behind when at last he quits the scene.

The actual agenda of the Bush Administrations appears to be the transfer of public assets to the private sector. But even I am surprised by Mr Bush's failure to extend a helping hand to his fellow Americans during some very dark hours.

Alternatives to Sex

Stephen McCauley completely cracked me up on page 5 of his new novel, Alternatives to Sex.

As I was going over my shirt for the second time, I figured it would be easier to stick to my sex resolution and break a bad habit if I kept myself busy. I'd recently turned forty - and more recently than that had turned forty-four.

Mr McCauley is a master of comic timing. It isn't that what happens in his novels is so funny; it's his narration that's side-splitting. He doesn't go in for the outrageous behavior that one finds in Patrick Dennis's novels, but then he doesn't have to: he has taken Dennis's comic voice and made it his own. Consider this masterful introduction:

Marty was Edward's friend, someone I'd always disliked and felt in competition with. Marty exerted an unhealthy degree of influence over Edward. Edward was susceptible to the influence, not wholly benign, because Marty was his idea of rugged, strutting masculinity: a retired marine who'd served in the first Iraq debacle in the early 1990s and then started a business that Marty (and Edward, Marty's mouthpiece) claimed was raking in several hundred grand a year. In terms of domineering personality, unapologetic machismo, and bulky muscularity, Marty would have been a perfect lover for Edward. Unfortunately, for the sake of Edward's romantic prospects, Marty was a woman. Martine, in fact. A stocky African-American woman from Arkansas with the captivating voice and precise articulation of a Shakespearean actress.

Behind the surprise of Marty's gender lies a world of information and attitude. William, the narrator, doesn't like competing with Marty for Edward's attention. Is there a message here that perhaps the narrator himself isn't picking up? As a put-down, "mouthpiece" is tinged with an affection that amplifies William's labile ambivalence about his friend. And William is just a bit too sure of what Edward is looking for in a lover when he insists that Marty, who is everything that William is not, would be perfect if only she were a man.

Continue reading about Alternatives to Sex at Portico.

September 10, 2006

Sontag's Diaries

The Times Magazine this Sunday comes in two parts: a gruesome report of what Katrina has done to the children of the Gulf Coast, and a "New York Issue." The latter features excerpts from diaries that Susan Sontag kept between 1958 and 1967. The following comes from the last cited entry.

My image of myself since age 3 or 4 - the genius schmuck. I allow one to pay off the other. Develop relationships to satisfy principally one side or the other.

Sartre (cf. "Les Mots") the only other person I know of who had this "certainty" of genius. Living already a posthumous life, even as a childhood. (The childhood of a famous man.) A kind of suicide - with the "work of genius you know you'll do when adult your tombstone. The most glorious tombstone possible.

Sartre was very ugly - and knew it. So he didn't have to develop "the schmuck" to pay off the others for being "the genius." Nature had taken care of the problem for him. He didn't have to invent a cause of failure or rejection by others. As I did, by making myself 'stupid' in personal relations. (For 'stupid,' also read 'blind.')

Although one might just as well say that Sartre, as a European, did not feel the demotic pull to ordinary-ness that always seems to have needled Sontag, the line about the posthumous life, about the most glorious tombstone, is brilliant, if also slightly mistaken. I should think that the "certainty" is more widespread than Sontag thought. It might not be a certainty of genius, exactly, and perhaps "certainty" is not the word that I need. But to live as though what one wrote were certain to survive - even though one can't be certain of any such thing - the resolution to live "as if" is the key to all intellectual life. And by "intellectual life" I simply mean participation in some of the strands of thought that have come down to us from the past and that will continue to worked wherever life is stable.

In an earlier entry, Sontag confesses to a "morbid" appreciation of beauty. This may have been the cause, or it may have been a side effect, of a brilliant sense of surface. Surface is all that we get to see, but what we think about when we look at something is often something that we can't see, such as the thing's function. This obliquity prevents us from seeing other possibilities - a good thing most of the time, because who needs the distraction? But in order to invent or to understand, we have to strip away our half-conscious associations and deal directly with the elements at hand. And to begin, we have to see them. Sontag had very gifted eyes, and she saw things with a poet's rigor. Her writing is accordingly astringent. It forces us to squint and frown until we see what she sees - or until we give up, in which case she makes us feel the chill of her contempt.

Sontag had the good luck to be an aggressively self-centered beauty at a certain moment in time, one in which it was not intellectually acceptable to be "pleasant." She quotes Simone de Beauvoir: "To smile at opponents and friends alike is to abase one's commitments to the status of mere opinions, and all intellectuals, whether of the Right or Left, to their common bourgeois condition." Ah, the contempt of the bourgeois for the bourgeois! It runs through Sontag's prose like a strong electrical current - to question it is to make fatal contact with it.

The entries show what one might have guessed, that Sontag was a great bluffer.

I write to define myself - an act of self-creation - part of process of becoming - in a dialogue with myself, with writes I admire living and dead, with ideal readers.

But of course! Why else go to the trouble of writing? But how insincere and dishonest it can seem to more workmanlike minds. In the intellectual life - as in no other walk - the only way to grasp something new is to pretend that you can grasp it.

The entries published in the Magazine have been selected to compose an informal essay "On Self." What distinguishes the intellectual from the scholar and scientist, and from the artist as well, is that the intellectual's self, his or her person and character, is part of the equation. To a greater or lesser degree, the intellectual's way of life speaks of his work. How she lives, what kind of parent he is: these must accord with the published thought. Intellectuals don't, as a class, find it any easier to live up to their ideals than other people do, but they are never allowed to forget this. The pressure for intellectuals to live proper lives is bifocal. in one sense, they see themselves as social vanguards, understanding their society better than other types of professional. Very much against this smugness is the shame of knowing that their lives, like that of the people to whom they feel superior, are unspeakably privileged vis-à-vis the lives of the world's poor and disenfranchised. In her diaries, we find Sontag engaged in an unremitting attempt, sometimes breezy, sometimes miserable, to bring her life up to snuff. She may have been the smartest girl in the room, but success at this central task was elusive.

September 09, 2006


Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland is a beautiful movie. You may not think that George Reeves, the television Superman, is worth all the attention, but that's really neither here nor there. Since when was personal worthiness or importance a criterion for film subjects? It's best just to put Reeves out of your mind, to the extent that that's possible, because Ben Affleck's portrayal suggests a richer, more complex man than the one that I remember from the TV show. (Given his recent history, Mr Affleck's performance might be seen, touchingly, as somewhat autobiographical.) It is certainly the best work that this actor has ever done. He reminds us that the world is full of of strong, intelligent people who nonetheless don't have what it takes to be a star. And he goes about it with the star power of a dazzling smile. 

The ambiguity of Reeves's character - mirrored by questions about his death - is what makes Hollywoodland interesting. Diane Lane plays her first over-forty role with immense panache (and a marvelous old Hollywood accent that will have moviegoers remembering Sunset Boulevard), but hers is not only a supporting role but also that of an ultimately unsympathetic character. Adrian Brody's nervy, anti-bourgeois detective is nothing new for him. And Bob Hoskins has long since taken up residence in the zone of Can Do No Wrong. These star turns amplify the impact of a film about stardom. It's as if Diane Lane were playing the part of that immortal screen goddess (which she is), Diane Lane. But Hollywoodland would be nothing but star turns if it were not for the magic that Ben Affleck brings to his role. The last shot of him - a sidelong glance - would be right at home in the scariest Stephen King movie.

Diane Lane does look great. For an actor who started out as a beautiful child, in A Little Romance - she was thirteen or so - Ms Lane is ageing very well. I hope that she'll get lots of smart parts from now on; she's so much more than a pretty face.

Chinatown, Mommie Dearest, LA Confidential, and now Hollywoodland all make me glad that I don't live in Southern California. It is a landscape that seems to rot souls.

September 08, 2006

You Can Have Your New York, With Its Rush-Rush-Rush

It was a day unlike any other. First, there was the business of buying tickets for the New Yorker Festival. In the age of the Internet, a hot event of the Festival's size can sell out in thirty seconds. Forget the toll-free number! I had the presence of mind to log on to Ticketmaster.com ahead of time, but in the event I lost crucial moments to updating my credit card information. As it was, I emerged with tickets to five events - up from last year's three, and the previous year's one - but I failed to snag seats for two cool gigs that Ms NOLA had her eye on, as well as for the Roz Chast/Steve Martin event that Kathleen would have liked to attend.

While that was going on, a friend who's in town on potentially exciting business was coming to meet me for an impromptu lunch. Meanwhile, Kathleen, who was off to Maine this weekend for a much-needed reunion, found herself in a sudden pickle. The car service that she uses suffered a computer breakdown, putting it temporarily out of business and forcing Kathleen to take a taxi to LaGuardia. The pickle was that she wasn't carrying enough cash to pay a taxi to take her to LaGuardia. She'd planned to take care of cash at the airport. So I power-walked the two blocks up 86th Street to Citibank, staged a minor (legal) holdup, and power-walked back. The power walking was in vain, because Kathleen couldn't get a taxi in midtown.

Now my friend arrived from a long drive, wanting to go upstairs to freshen up. While I was unlocking the door to the apartment, Kathleen finally called from a taxi. Great! Now, like everyone in New York, I imagine that other people's taxis are magic carpets: they have only to step into them to arrive at your door while you're still setting the table or filling the ice chest. Kathleen's taxi turned out to be sorely lacking in magic-carpet qualities. For twenty minutes or more, I stood among the parked cars across the street from the building (to save time; Kathleen would be heading east). I was beyond wanting to give up when the cab finally pulled up and the rear window went down. For the second time I wished Kathleen a safe trip and managed, somewhat awkwardly given my neck, to kiss her goodbye.

Then there was lunch, which was necessarily brief: my friend had to be in the World Financial Center by three o'clock. I came back to the apartment, to find that the phones were dead. Razr to the rescue! The conversation that I had with Verizon's robot lady went smoothly enough; "she" told me that the problem was the phone company's and that it would be fixed by two in the afternoon today. Who needs landlines, anyway, thought I, as I called Crawford Doyle, the bookseller on Madison, to see if they had either Jonathan Franzen's new book or Deborah Eisenberg's recent one. They had both. This time, I didn't power-walk.

When I got back, it occurred to me that I'd better let Kathleen's parents and Miss G know that our land lines weren't working. Twenty minutes later, of course, they were.

It's hard to believe that the magazine that was so placid when I started reading it at the age of fourteen has become quite so edgy. The New Yorker Festival schedule was not announced until Monday - and only online. Although the schedule was also published in the 11 September issue of the magazine, which would ordinarily have come on Monday, the magazine couldn't be delivered until Tuesday, because of Labor Day - something that the planners must have foreseen. In effect, one had three days to make up one's mind. It was like some mad college course registration.

September 07, 2006

At the Morgan Library and Museum

On Friday, Ms NOLA and I visited the Morgan Library and Museum. As at the Metropolitan Museum, there's an important show of Rembrandt's etchings on display, but what I wanted to see was the architecture, which got rave reviews when Renzo Piano's envelope opened, a year ago last April. I had not been very impressed by what I saw in the Times, but I was curious enough to accede to Ms NOLA's suggestion that we make a visit on the last of her Summer Hours afternoons. (We'd had a scheme of going to Coney Island, but the approach of Ernesto scotched that idea.) I hadn't been to the Morgan in years, and not since reading Jean Strouse's superb life of the financier. 

The Morgan Library is an assemblage of three older buildings. The oldest, 239 Madison Avenue, was built in 1852 for the Stokes family; it was one of three, and Morgan eventually owned them all, tearing down the other two. (On the linked floor plan, this is the building that contains the Morgan Dining Room and the gift shot. The building was not hitherto part of the public Library.) The newest is the 1928 annex, built by Morgan's son, Jack, four years after he opened the Library to the public. The most arresting structure - at least until now - is what was called "Mr Morgan's Library." Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, it is a redoubtable pavilion of four very ornate rooms. These buildings have now been united by what feels like a vast glass sheath, although it's rather more substantial than that. One thus enters each of the older structures from the rear. The Library itself is entered from a new flight of steps on Madison Avenue. There are a few new galleries, but the principal additions are a new Reading Room and a sunken auditorium. And let's not overlook the glass-box elevators. These seemed designed to boast of the Library's spruce tidyness, and, at least for now, they do.

The original Morgan Library, completed in 1906, was something of a treasury, and more closely resembles a beaux-arts bank than a place in which to read. Here Morgan amassed his collections of the small and the rare. While accredited scholars, I presume, can gain access to the thousands of books in the old library, the Library's holdings are largely off-limits to the casual visitor. Only a few items are on display at any one time. This makes visiting the Library a somewhat precious experience, in both senses of the word. I find that other people's collections of things are almost always somewhat precious, but then I lack the collector's bug.

The combination of vaulting space and innumerable, unseen doodads is jarring. I could not suppress the sense of all hat and no cattle, where "cattle" stands not for objects but for impact. The "hat" - all that new Renzo Piano cubic footage - seems really to be the point of the newly-constituted Library, and I am sure that many, many parties will be given in it.

What did I like? I liked Sargent's portrait of Morgan's daughter-in-law. It graces a flight of stairs, so don't get stuck on the elevator. In a new exhibition space on the second floor, cases in which musical scores were displayed stood to the east of cases holding books and related materials. In one, devoted to Jean de Brunhoff's Babar, there was a sheet on which de Brunhoff brushed wonderful blobs of watercolor in grey, pale green and brown - as if showing his merry king through a fogged and rainstreaked window. I craved it instantly. As for the scores, they're of no small psychological interest. Bach seems to write with a burning impatience; there are no mistakes or erasures, but the swooping lines that bind his runs together suggest a mild panic that something might be forgotten before the composer wrote it down. Beethoven, in contrast, writes like a kid who's having problems with his sums and not having a very good time. I don't think that I've ever seen Schubert before: rather messy. Mozart's scoring looks great, until you try to read it.

And I spent a lot of time trying to read it. No matter where I looked in the manuscript, I could not make out the beginning of the Haffner Symphony. Perhaps the pages have been shuffled. The unbound sheets of Mozart's autograph score sit in an enamel presentation box in the fine, Louie-the-Phooey style so beloved by Ludwig II of Bavaria. A printed fabric lining on the open lid identifies the contents with heavy, Second Empire veneration. We're talking serious kitsch.

September 06, 2006

Cingular Story

Last Thursday night, I lost my Razr phone. It slipped out of a pocket at some point when I was carrying rather than wearing my jacket. I learned the hard way that Razr phones belong in pants pockets. I had to pay full price for the replacement, on Saturday. Let that be a lesson! I also signed up for insurance.

The moment the phone's disappearance was noted, everybody I ran into had a story about what a nightmare the Cingular store is, at least in terms of waiting to be served. You write your name on a sheet of paper, and when all the names above yours have been crossed off, it's your turn. Arriving right after the store opened on Saturday morning, I was, unfortunately, the third customer in a shop with two assistants. I had to listen to a New Yorker of a certain type, about my age, as he prolonged his sojourn at the counter with questions that almost seemed idle (such as "How does that call-waiting thing work? What button do I push?" I wish I'd overheard the answer, but still, there's a manual). The curious thing was that the guy didn't really listen to the polite-given answers; he was too obviously busy framing his next question. When the transactions was done and the receipt had been signed - and did I say that the transaction was over - he loudly observed that many of his friends swear by Verizon and insist that it's the better service/network: what did the clerk have to say to that? I almost threw up my hands.

Irritating as this was, it wasn't as bad as the monstrous tyke who on Friday afternoon had been doing a very good imitation of the kid in the Chas Addams cartoon who's alone with his chemistry set for a dozen panels. I'd dropped in on my way home, thinking that maybe I could take care of my phone problem quickly. There were only two people ahead of me on the list, but nothing happened at all for about fifteen minutes. Then I decided to be an early bird the next day. It wasn't so much the kid who got on my nerves; I was afraid that I might assault his mother, who seemed very proud of her little darling, only cooing ineffectual admonitions whenever he went into barking mode. She was the sort of dame who specifies that she dropped her phone "in France."

On Saturday, I was out of the store forty-five minutes after the clerk murmured an answer to the Cingular vs Verizon challenge. Everything was fine until this morning, when I noticed a message about an "invalid battery." I didn't like that at all. Walking down 86th Street just as it was beginning to sprinkle - never has the day after Labor Day made it quite so clear that summer has come to an end - I peered into the Cingular store, and there didn't seem to be any customers at all. I was taken care of immediately. The clerk took out the battery, put it back in, and restarted the phone. That did the trick. If I was in the shop for two minutes, I'd be surprised to know it.

In the Book Review

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

Regular reviewing of the Book Review resumes this week. It's a laborious business, but it makes me much more knowledgeable about what's going on in books than simply reading reviews of books that look interesting. It also sharpens some very basic ideas about literary criticism. The lesson that I've taken most to heart is that I dislike hostile reviews. Unless they're extremely clever (which they rarely are), they're just unnecessary. Rotten reviews are a kind of gossip, really, and have nothing to do with literature. I hesitate to point to an example, but as it happens someone sent me the link to this trashing of Jonathan Franzen's new collection of essays, The Discomfort Zone. If you don't have anything nice to say, keep it to one sentence.

Fiction & Poetry

Brad Leithauser's sympathetic review of Not For Specialists: New and Selected Poems, by W D Snodgrass, does a good job of outlining the poet's career while featuring his strengths.

Only a few [poems] are deeply affecting. And yet the ones that are are real glories.

It is a pity that the Times cannot more systematically cover the work of living poets, and I, for one, would like to more about the topography of the field. Where are the centers, and what are the important events. I've got a few inklings, but not an organized idea.

The cover, this week, goes to Thomas McGuane's Gallatin Canyon: Stories. Stephen Metcalf's favorable review goes beyond the book at hand to attempt to place McGuane, and to some degree to polish his reputation a bit.

And yet he's failed, for better and for worse, to become an Event Fiction brand name. His perceived regionalism and his attraction to masculine themes have certainly contributed to this, but Gallatin Canyon does everything in its power to break down a silly American dichotomy, between a supposedly feminine preoccupation with manners and a supposedly masculine preoccupation with, well, everything else: sex, nature, aboriginal selfhood, you get the drill. McGuane has driven so hard into the heart of received wisdom concerning American manhood, otherwise known as American loneliness, that he has broken through to the other side.

That sounds very good, but I'm not sure what it means to break through received wisdom. Jim Holt's review of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, by Janna Levin, left me completely in the dark about whether this novel about Gödel, Turing, and Wittgenstein, which Mr Holt says "fits squarely in the genre of the subgenre of the novel of ideas," is actually readable; a great deal of his commentary suggests that it isn't.

Jennifer Egan is as definite as can be, however, when she says this of Janel Davey's First Aid:

The result is a sharp, unsettling book that invokes a number of rich tales without exploring them directly. It has a curious power, like watching a play from a very hard chair, and finding yourself in a heightened state of observation and attention. Still, you may wish that the chair were more forgiving.

Indeed. I find discomfort of any kind maddeningly distracting, but I see what Ms Egan means.

The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen, gets a sympathetic review that just the same throws out cautions about cardboard villains and an unnecessary village chorus in Mr Mullen's book about a Western town's self-quarantine during the 1918 flu. Sharing the page is Tom Barbash's review of Robert Olen Butler's new collection of stories - or story-like pieces - Severance: Stories. Mr Barbash makes it very clear that Severance is a stunt: each story is limited to 240 words, or the estimated number that could be spoken in the time that it takes human consciousness to expire after decapitation. (So they say.) Facts and fictions mingle freely. The review ends with a jolly understood pun.

The final story is told by the decapitated cranium of the author himself - proof that, for all his literary hubris, Robert Olen Butler knows to quit while he's, well - you know.

Miriam Toews is a Canadian novelist whose first books are only now appearing in the United States, and according to Gregory Cowles, Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding "display the generous wit and effervescence that make her so companionable a storyteller."

Alison McCulloch's Fiction Chronicle rounds up five books.

Playing in the Light, by Zoe Wicomb. "A mixed-race South African who moved to Britain in her early 20's, Wicomb deftly explores the ghastly soup of racism in all its unglory - denial, tradition, habit, stupidity, fear - and manages to do so without moralizing or becoming formulaic."

How To Cope With Suburban Stress, by David Galet. "All of this makes for a quirky kind of morality tale as the repulsive clashes with the satirical, but in a way that ultimately underlines both."

Last Notes: And Other Stories, by Tamas Dobozy. "The unexpected can quickly become the expected in these strange and intense stories packed with fast-paced weirdness - characters and events that tumble over one another on their way to closure, which comes most often in the form of a character's 'realizing' something about life, loss, sentimentality of why his mother was so religiously devout."

In the Name of Friendship, by Marilyn French. "Meanwhile, the educational component of the novel covers basic feminist principles as well as issues like the Vietnam War, the Holocaust and the 2000 election campaign, and is capped with a bibliography and afterward by Stephanie Genty, who teaches at a French university."

Elegy for Sam Emerson, by Hilary Masters. "This is a tender story, easy on the sensibilities if occasionally maudlin, that moves efficiently between past and present. And it is not without its own quiet power."


Perhaps recognizing that it is far too soon to attempt substantive assessment of 9/11, the Review marks the catastrophe's fifth anniversary with reviews of books that would be very digestible were it not for their subject matter. matter. Garrison Keillor writes about Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11, by David Friend. True to form, Mr Garrison shows himself ill-suited to the job of reviewing books: he cannot resist the temptation to tell good stories, without making it clear that they come from the book under discussion. He does make at least one astute observation, however (also true to form):

Photography couldn't convey the failure of national defense and intelligence, or the failure of the city of New York, even after the 1993 bombing of the trade center, to coordinate police and fire communications, a failure that cost many lives that morning, or certain tragic choices in the design of the towers. You need prose reporting for that.

Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive, by Joel Meyerowitz, is, according to Jonathan Mahler's revew, "uplifting." Mr Meyerowitz, not the photograph one would have expected to take these pictures but a man with important connections, was allowed unfettered access to Ground Zero for the extent of the cleanup process.

Gary Giddins gives the second volume of Simon Callow's Orson Welles: Hello Americans a frosty review.

Callow claims he will finish his biography in one more volume. That hardly seems possible or desirable. ... A glance at the contents page of Hello Americans suggests that Callow has already been too long at the well.

But Mr Giddins does note that the new volume reflects a change of view on the author's part, no longer regarding "the arc of Welles's career as a downfall..." Alexandra Jacobs is similarly unsympathetic about Amy Wilentz's I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger.

Like most devoted New Yorkers who find themselves in La La Land, the author goes through at least half of the five stages of grief. After the initial shock - Palm trees! Hummingbirds! Valet parking! - comes denial, when one tries to pretend that this decidedly un-metropolitan city, teeming as it is with fellow expatriates, is really just a sixth borough.

In other words, the territory has been worked too often for Ms Jacobs's taste. That hardly seems a problem that Ms Wilentz ought to address.

William Christenberry: Essays by Walter Hopps, Andy Grundberg, and Howard N Fox; (Foreword by Elizabeth Brown) is an exhibition catalogue that accompanies a comprehensive show of Mr Christenberry's work in various media at the Smithsonian. Richard Woodward captures the spectral physicality of the photographs of neglected Hale County, Alabama, buildings over the years.

These places weren't constructed to last for the ages and aren't likely to be missed, except by those who filled them for a few years or decades. Still, he treats them with respect, charting their alterations and passings. Paying careful attention to surroundings that would otherwise be forgotten or unremarked upon can be its own political statement.

The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Deisregard for Human Life is a "bracing polemic, according to Jonathan Rauch. "Hard-line abortion-rights advocates will find in it an unsettling challenge, or should," Mr Rauch observes.

But to Jenny and Greg and millions of others (including me) who believe that a fetus, especially in early pregnancy, occupies a unique moral place of its own - a position somewhere between that of a 10-day-old and an appendix, but not analogous to their of those or to anything else - The Party of Death has little to say.

Finally, Hanna Rubin is less than impressed by Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life, by Donna McKechnie with Greg Lawrence.

... much of it sounds like material that the collaborators who create her cabaret show persuaded her to discard. The prose is workmanlike at best.

Richard Brookhiser's Essay, "John Adams Talks to His Books," is about a show at the Boston Public Library exhibiting many of the second president's profuse marginalia.

September 05, 2006


Kathleen's office is at Two Wall Street. In other words, it's on the corner of Broadway. Not the Broadway of Times Square and musicals, but the same street, just a lot father south. The Original Broadway, you might say.

She was walking out of the building the other night when two dogs yelped and yapped at her. Now, dogs are plentiful on Wall Street, but they're bipedal and primate. Spaniels are an aberration. Or at least they were until Wall Street became a residential boulevard. Nowadays, you can live (in the linen closet sense) in the former offices of US Trust or the Bank of New York.

The Bank of New York - I toiled there for quite a few summers in the late Sixties. Some other time, I'll tell you how. Tonight, all I can think of is two things. One's an acronym: BONY ("Bank of New York"). It is, apparently, a bad idea to say 'bony' these days. The bank, which has married up and taken over the stylish Irving Trust building at One Wall Street (right across the street from Kathleen's office!), clearly no longer knows how to be disliked.

(I certainly never heard 'bony' in my days. But then, nobody said "MoMA," either. "UNESCO" was our outer limit.)

All  this reminded me of an even better BONY story, one that you can count on, apparently, to drain all liveliness out of any BNY  bankers (the new acronym) whom you might be dealing with. All you have to say is this:

On his way to the duel with Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton told his team at the Bank of New York, "Don't do anything until I get back." And they haven't.

It still rankles, and with reason.

September 04, 2006

Old Filth

Jane Gardam's Old Filth is a book to love. The title perfectly demonstrates the impact that changed perspectives can have on our judgments of other people. To bear the name "Old Filth," as Sir Edward Feathers does, would seem to be shameful, but in the sometimes topsy-turvy manner of English exaltation, it is actually an honorific, or at any rate has become one by the time the book begins. It is, moreover, an invention of its bearer, a joke made by the protagonist in the prime of his life - the time of his life that we see very little of, perhaps because it's so easy to imagine and recreate. In his prime an important barrister who, for sound reasons, decided to relocate his practice to Hong Kong, Sir Edward slapped himself with an acronym: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. There's an irony in the fact that Sir Edward hasn't failed in London at all (although this doesn't emerge until the end of the novel, and is easy to miss). There's mystery, too, because of the occlusion of Sir Edward's maturity; in the novel, he is either an ingenuous, vulnerable, but stout-hearted youth or an octogenarian legend. We don't see him become rich and famous. It is suggested that he owes his success to a lucky shipboard encounter followed by well-honed diligence. Business as usual. Asked to consider writing his memoirs, he demurs: "I've grown my image, Veneering. Took some doing. I'm not going to upset it now."

Continue reading about Old Filth at Portico.

September 03, 2006

In the Infusion Therapy Unit

For me, the Infusion Therapy Unit at the Hospital for Special Surgery has always been rather like the nurse's office in grade school. You show up in a brightly-lighted room, take a seat, submit yourself to ministrations, and leave when you're told that you can go. And you show up for "shots," not because you feel bad. There's a good boy - this is only going to hurt for a second - now you'll be fine.

Even though I am now much older than the nurses than I was younger when I was in the fourth grade, my visits to the IFU have a Dick and Jane quality that on Friday, for the first time, struck me as truly bizarre. I was chatting with one of the nurses about the pregnancy of another (who is due on the seventh - when I started out, she hadn't even gotten married); then I was laughing at Francine Prose's dry wit in Reading Like A Writer. I was definitely not a sick person. Except, of course, that I am a sick person, and very dependent upon medication for my well-being. Since the medication is effective, however, it renders my auto-immune system's crazy zeal ineffective, and I look healthy enough. You can tell that there's something wrong with my neck (it never moves), but you can't tell how very differently I would carry myself (or not) without Remicade.

Many of the other patients in the Infusion Therapy Unit, however, are obviously seriously ill, and in considerable pain, even with their meds. I never ask the nurses to tell me what's wrong with anybody, so I can't offer any medical reporting, but victims of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are among those present at any given time. I did overhear a nurse discussing an infusion for osteoporosis with an elderly lady; I didn't know that there was such a treatment for that disease. The lady did not appear to be in any pain, but then she also struck me as a real stoic.

What has only dawned in me in the last couple of visits is that ours is just one kind of infusion therapy unit. Another is the kind that administers chemotherapy to cancer victims. The chairs that we sit in, and the pumps that propel the infusions into our bloodstreams, were developed for patients who are actually brushing up against death. Many of our infusions were in fact also developed as chemotherapies, and only then found to have other, better uses.

As recently as ten years ago, my complex of diseases would have gone untreated by anything less drastic than steroids, but now I'm an accidental beneficiary of the fight against cancer. Just as the Internet so recently transformed my life, so Remicade has just as recently kicked in to keep it going. How lucky I am not to have been ten years older!

September 02, 2006

End in Tears

If Hannah Goldsmith has appeared in earlier Inspector Wexford mysteries, I haven't registered it; nor can I recall an instance of such dry comedy as this fully-developed character affords. A sergeant with the Kingsmarkham police force in the latest intallment, End in Tears, Hannah is stridently politically correct. She is shocked when a nasty old man whom she is interrogating talks of an illegitimate baby.

She, who could hear of any perversion, incest, bestiality, extreme sadism, with equanimity, as deeply shocked by hearing the word "illegitimate" on anyone's lips. Even more, perhaps, on these wrinkled lips, surrounded by white stubble. Illegitimate! It was unbelievable.

In the course of investigating the murders of Amber Marshalson and Megan Bartlow, Hannah falls in love with her junior officer, DC Baljinder Bhattacharya. The course of true love does not run smooth. The pair are strongly attracted to one another, but perhaps for this very reason Bal holds back on the sex, wanting to get to know Hannah first. Which drives Hannah crazy. They have - a misunderstanding. But by the time Bal gets to come to Hannah's rescue, their romance has completely overshadowed the murder mystery. You never know when Ruth Rendell is going to try something a little different, even if it is in her twentieth Wexford!

September 01, 2006

Step One

Taking the first baby steps toward the possibility of a reunion with my birth mother, I fill out a New York State Department of Health Adoptee Registration Form (MCVAR). MCVAR stands for Mutual Consert Voluntary Adoption Registries, and the New York Foundling Hospital keeps one such registry. The form will be copied, presumably, and sent on to the State Registry, which coordinates all the others in New York State. I have all the information requested - except for the date of adoption. I've got a petition, and two investigator's reports, but no order of the court. Who knows how much that will screw things up.

Both of the reports were submitted by Marugerite Duffy, "known in religion as Sister Mary Madeline," then the treasurer of the hospital. One of them includes the following statements:

That on the 29th day of January, 1948, the mother of said child delivered said child to the New York Foundling Hospital.

That the mother of said infant who had sole custody of said infant signed a Surrender thereof at The New York Foundling Hospital on the 15th day of March, 1948, recorded in the New York County Clerk's office in Surrenders, page 467.

What does this mean? Did my mother keep me by her side for the three weeks between my birth, on 6 January, and the end of the month? If so, where? Surely not at a maternity home - could that have been permitted?

I'll have the form in the mail on Monday.