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October 31, 2006


As to why we went to see Butley, refresh your memory.

Simon Gray's Butley is a Greek tragedy in every way but the most important one: there is no catharsis. The hero comes to no blinding insight. He does not reach the sudden understanding that he himself is the cause of everything that has gone wrong. And, given Ben Butley's situation, it would wholly bogus if he did.

Butley is no longer a contemporary play. The world has slipped since the early Seventies (the show opened on Broadway for the first time in 1972). It no longer accommodates people like Butley; it institutionalizes them. Today, Butley would be shuffled off to rehab, which, from what I can tell, is a mild form of what the Cultural Revolutionaries in China used to call "re-education." You are taught the new, the correct values. You are assured that, in order to make any headway with your life, you must not only subscribe to but enact these values in your daily life. For better or worse, the expression of existential anomie is no longer tolerated in Western society.

Largely, perhaps, because everyone got tired of the Butleys of the world. Brilliant, bitter, committed to drunken malingering, Butley has nothing to do, really, save wait for death. He fills his hours with repartee, seduction, and evasion. If he can avoid teaching - he has taught at Cambridge, but has slid somewhat to London University - he will. Students are as disagreeable to him as mosquitoes. His love life is a shambles, and soon in ruins; if Butley has learned anything in the course of the play, it's that he doesn't have the energy to try to kindle something new. He is terminally disaffected.

He is also, however, extremely entertaining. Butley is an aggressive troublemaker, gifted with a fluent tongue that's capable of many modes of speech. His head is stuffed with poetry that he can rattle off by the yard. (If you ask me, his misery owes to the fact that, for some reason or other, there came a time when Butley stopped learning new lines.) He is a one-man George-and-Martha, conducting a war of attrition against himself while only appearing to take on the other people in the room. He is dishonest, disloyal, insincere and cruel, but these are not so much character flaws as battle wounds. Butley's downfall, such as it is, comes across as sad as it is inevitable.

Continue reading about Butley at Portico.

October 30, 2006

Blaikie on Manners

Because I read it, for the most part, in transit, I took a while to get through Thomas Blaikie's slim but heartening book about behavior, To the Manner Born: A Most Proper Guide to Modern Civility (Villard, 2005). Title notwithstanding, Mr Blaikie is not really very interested in being proper. He lays out his credo, appropriately enough, in his Introduction:

This book is a guide to modern manners. I say: Let's have manner based on common sense and reason; manners that bring people together rather than drive them apart; manners that make people feel comfortable and confident.

And then he proceeds to apply this thought to areas of modern life in which trouble arises. He couldn't, for example, care less about how to write a thank-you note, as long as you're agreeable about it, and everything except acceptances of wedding invitations and condolence letters can be sent by e-mail. In fact, he thinks that we just ought to forget about writing thank-you notes on most occasions: not imprudently, he saves this bombshell for a later chapter, which is subtitled "A Major Rethink." Mr Blaikie is also not interested in which piece of silver you use at dinner, as long as you use it to move food unobtrusively from the plate to your mouth. He does not care, in short, for any prescriptions that do not directly conduce to the general pleasure and comfort.

If there's one thing that Mr Blaikie insist upon, it's paying attention. Most of the lapses that he bullet-points occur not because someone doesn't know what to do but because someone simply isn't thinking.

Continue reading about To the Manner Born at Portico.

October 29, 2006

At the Kitchen Table

Here's hoping that you've been having a good weekend, and that you've been able to stand back a bit from everyday affairs. Kathleen and I have been reconstituting ourselves. We were going to watch The Morning After last night, after reading a bit after an ordered-in Chinese dinner, but Kathleen drifted off during the reading part, which I extended for several hours, eventually falling asleep in my chair over Running With Scissors, which is a grand read. I finished the book this afternoon, right before tackling The Economist. Every week, I try to extract one hard nugget of interest from The formidable Economist, and here is this week's: a French university known as Toulouse I offers the fifth-ranked business program in the world, after Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago and Stanford. Who'd 'a' thunk it.

During the week, the lineup just fell into place, and I now know what sort of piece I'll present on any given day of the week. Sunday's feature (which is what you're reading) has a rather weasely title, one that permits me to talk about what I've been doing in the kitchen lately, or to pretend that I'm sharing a cup of tea with you at the kitchen table, shooting the breeze. The table is very virtual. My kitchen is not big enough to hold a table. It doesn't really hold two people, not if they're trying to get anything done.

Portico - the Web site that I've been running since 2000 - has had a cooking branch, Culinarion, for most of that time, but for a spell I took it down. Cooking just wasn't a specialty of mine, and my interest in food has taken a nosedive since the turn of the century. Still, one has to eat, and, having been ambitious in the kitchen from my twenties to my late forties, I can make a variety of dishes without looking at a recipe or, for the matter of that, thinking. And the mail that I get from readers of Portico - as distinct from comments at the Daily Blague - exceeds all other mail in quantity, if not in length. The purpose of "Kitchen Table" is to get me to contribute to Culinarion more regularly.

We are sometimes four for dinner on Monday, when M le Neveu and Mlle NOLA join us. (Often, thanks to her hours, Kathleen can't make it.) M le Neveu is always happy to see steak of some kind or another, and when my mind has been elsewhere, that's a blessing, because steak requires minimal preparation. But for tomorrow night's dinner, I think that I am going to try a boeuf bourgignon. Or perhaps a coq au vin. Either dish is best when made a day ahead of time, but I don't have a proper wine in the house at the moment, so whichever it is that I make, it will have to wait for tomorrow. I may try something different, from Classic Home Cooking, of which I've just obtained the new edition. Whatever I do, you'll read about it here next Sunday.

October 28, 2006

Running With Scissors

Yesterday, I had a choice to make - at the last minute. Both movies were starting at the same theatre (the Kips Bay 15) and at the same time (eleven in the morning). Across Second Avenue from the theatre, I called my old friend for advice. Marie Antoinette or Running With Scissors? He confirmed my predilection. Running With Scissors. Let's face it: one of the two films starred Annette Bening. What's to decide? I'm a huge fan of Kirsten Dunst in The Cat's Meow, but, in the end, Ms Bening trumps Versailles.

I'll cut to the chase: I liked Running With Scissors so much that I went straight to Barnes & Noble to buy the book. I noted all of the shortcomings that the critics have pointed out, but I still loved the movie. Like The Royal Tenenbaums, it is obviously a film that will many viewers will loathe. When you play with (a) narrative conventions and (b) familial psychopathology at the same time, you are inevitably going to trample a few toes. And Ryan Murphy, with only one prior feature under his belt, still has a few things to learn. But the power of Augusten Burroughs's story guarantees a funny movie. When you have a sweet gay kid who yearns for a totally normal life but who is thrust into a situation in which being gay is probably the most normal thing going on at the moment, it's going to be funny no matter how much heartbreak there is. At the end of an early chapter in the book, Mr Burroughs expresses the hopes that he had when his parents got through their awful divorce and his mother took an apartment in Amherst, Massachusetts: "Life would be fabric-softener, tuna-salad-on-white, PTA-meeting normal."


The movie gets away with murder because it partakes of the story's chaos. Little Augusten (James Cross) is always being told that he must go to school more often, but there is never any disciplinary follow-up. This is because there are no genuine adults in his life. His father (Alec Baldwin) is a high-functioning alcoholic, his mother (Ms Bening) is a demented narcissist, and his therapist, Dr Finch (Brian Cox), is an opportunistic con man. When Finch adopts Augusten (for the child support, really), it is not long before the boy loses his virginity to/is raped by a thirty-something "half-brother" (Joseph Fiennes) who is not only gay but schizophrenic as well. Other inmates of the Finch household include Agnes (Jill Clayburgh, in one of the most wonderful performances that she has given), the sort-of mom, and her daughters, prim Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and lubricious Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood). The house itself is something of a character: I've never seen a more intractable mess that the one in the Finch's kitchen. Even so, Augusten would rather hang out at the Finches' pink junkyard than go to school. At the end, about to leave for New York, with no money and no education and not even a cosmetology license, he says, "It could be worse. I could be going to a prom."

The miracle of Annette Bening's extraordinarily generous performance is that she makes you come to share Augusten Burroughs's horror of his mother's astronomical self-absorption. You not identify with this woman. One other note: if nine year-old Jack Kaeding, who plays the young Augusten, keeps those huge blue eyes of his through puberty, he's going to be a big star himself in about ten years.


For your weekend entertainment.

October 27, 2006

Soft Shoe Gentle Sway

The other day, I made fun of Kathleen for trying to get dressed while dancing to "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," the Scissors Sisters hit that, now that I've read the fine print, appears to be an Elton John anthem. Yes, that's Sir E at the piano. I don't mean to take anything away from the Scissors Sisters. On the contrary, I think that Elton John has finally found a band.

Anyway, "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" may be a difficult song for getting dressed, but it's almost ideal for making the bed. Making the bed, with its constant crossings from side to side, always reminds me of the altar boy that I never was. And, lke so much British pop, "Dancin'" is haunted by the memory of rousing hymns. My music theory is totally kaputt, but I'm reckless enough to venture that musicians from the Moody Blues to Sting to the Alan Parsons Project have infiltrated pop music with the holy subdominant. You can hear it in "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," especially if you're making the bed.


Connie Bruck has written an awfully interesting piece, "Millions for Millions," in the current New Yorker about the difference between microcredit and microfinance, both of which lend money to the poor. As you know, Muhammad Yunus, the Bagladeshi founder of the Grameen Bank, a microcredit institution, will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December, after several years on the speculative shortlist. Mr Yunus, and other advocates of microcredit, would like to eliminate poverty. Pierre Omidyar, the inventor of eBay, is a major force behind microfinance, which seeks to make banking available to hundreds of millions of unaffluent strivers. "Microcredit" signifies not-for-profit operation. Microfinance is frankly capitalist. According to Ms Bruck, the divide between the camps is becoming acrimonious. Microcreditors deplore the insertion of a profit motive, which rules out lending to the extremely poor. Microfinanciers complain that philanthropy distorts the market, keeping unsuccessful programs alive. Just to make things interesting, there's no evidence that microlending of any kind has altered the world's aggregate poverty - even though microlending is known to work in individual cases, and quite well at that. It follows that there is no evidence that one kind of microlending is more effective than the other. Enter the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (might it not have been better to title the piece, "Billions for Millions"?), and you've got some real excitement going. All that virtuous moolah!

Making an objective choice between microcredit and microfinance seems to me to be almost an impossibility, because the two varieties of microlending have been generated by  very different mindsets. Mr Yunus believes in highly constructive charity; Mr Omidyar believes in the free market, "creative destruction" and all. Be sure to read the piece; at a minimum, it'll be good exercise for your brain.

Ms Bruck does not mention any microlending operations within the United States. You'd think there wasn't a need.

October 26, 2006


It suddenly occurred to me this morning that if a disaster of some kind were to destroy Bronxville, the Westchester suburb in which I grew up, I'd feel not a shred of extra regret beyond what such an event would trigger elsewhere. I'd be more interested, perhaps, but I wouldn't take it personally at all.

That's partly because Bronxville is so far in my past. I left it for school in 1963, when I was fifteen, thereafter coming home only for vacations. When I got out of college, "home" was in Tanglewood, a subdivision on the West Side of Houston. In 1977, I left Houston for good, and met Kathleen; ever since, memories life prior to '77 have paled, having no connection to the central fact of my daily life, my dear wife.

But Bronxville probably wouldn't feel like home even if I were younger. About ten years ago, Kathleen and I had dinner at the Field Club with several of her partners and their wives. Everyone was perfectly nice, but it was clear that they were up to their eyeballs in active sports, their own or their kids'. Given the venue, this was no surprise, but the talk was extremely wearying for Kathleen and me, and I made a note not to come back soon. (We haven't, in fact, been asked - not that I know of.) I remembered what an intellectual wasteland the place had been, and how lucky I'd been to go to Blair Academy, where the thinking was, for the first time in my life, generally rigorous. I wished I'd started sooner. 

In the end, I grew up missing, along with any interest in sports, any sense of home. This isn't to say that I didn't long for a home; I know that I taught myself how to cook just so that, wherever I lived, there would be a simulacrum of home. There would the fragrant warmth that was part of my idea of what home must be like. Lacking a nuclear family, I would fill my house with guests. I wasted years in attempts to create this home, and I'm afraid that I only abandoned them definitively two or three years ago. You can play house all you like, but somebody else has to create your home.

Which I have discovered, not by the negative implication of my life until 2000, but positively, right here, at this Web log. This is where, surprise-surprise, I not only live but feel the smell of home. Although I write what you read here, I did not create the Internet. Mina and Ben Trot, although much younger than I am, are my distant but endowing aunt and uncle.

Watch for a budding interest in Major League Baseball? Let's not ask for the stars when we have the moon. 

October 25, 2006

In the Book Review

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

In this space not quite a year ago, when I was still new to the project of reviewing the Book Review, I wrote the following rather cavalier capsule:

¶ Local son Robert Long has written a book about the artists who made the Hamptons interesting as well as glamorous, De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons. I would read this book, but only if asked to do so. Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart covered this territory well enough for me.

Mr Long subsequently contacted me and took me up on my offer to read the book if asked to do so. I duly read the book - and liked it very much. Mr Long invited me to a book party at Lenox Hill Books, where I was the only guest who wasn't an old friend. He could not have been nicer to me. We exchanged a few emails, and I hoped to have lunch with him some time when he might come into town from East Hampton. I don't think that we had any contact at all in 2006, but I thought of him, and of his book, quite often, not least because they opened my eyes to Abstract Expressionism.

I was very sorry to hear, the other day, from a friend of Mr Long's who found my Portico page via Google, that the writer died last week of pancreatic cancer. I should have liked to know him better. Then again, I should never have known him at all if I hadn't undertaken this review. You never know which door will open to your knock, but the Internet opens thousands of corridors. I feel very lucky to be one of the people who will remember Robert Long. 


An odd issue: only three novels, and an extremely long review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. The novels are a very odd batch: Thomas Bernhard (who died in 1989 but whose novel has just been translated, for masochistic readers), Richard Powers (reviewed by Colson Whitehead, no less - in-crowd treatment), and a historical legal thriller about Cicero by Robert Harris. Marcel Theroux's review of Imperium does a fine job of assessing Mr Harris's timely novel.

His Cicero is a Clinton or a Blair: an ambitious provincial, a lawyer with political aspirations and aided by a strong and opinionated wife, starting out with neither wealth nor powerful friends; a man of shifting ideological conviction but confident of his own benevolence, assiduous, driven and in love with the very process of politics.

We know what happened to Cicero (and to politics). Christopher Benfey gamely tries to adduce reasons why anyone would want to read Bernhard's Frost (1963), hitherto unavailable in English, but the writer's misanthropic perversity shines through. 

With such a minimal plot and cursory descriptions, there's plenty of room for Strauch's musings, as reported by the impressed and increasingly unhinged narrator. Strauch has little to say about art. He hates the art world and hasn't painted in years; when he still did, he painted in darkness. "When he thought his picture was done, he drew back the curtains, so abruptly that the light blinded him and he couldn't see."

Mr Whitehead's cheerleading review of The Echo Maker is so plush with storytelling that I can only appraise it as a service to people who want to know what the latest Powers book is about because they're not going to get round to reading it. Although he means to be favorable, his condensation of the novel is anything but interesting; it gave me a headache to try to follow it.

The Echo Makers joins my Powers favorites through the admirable harmony he achieves between his rhetorical strategies - on the life of the sandhill cranes, on the furrowed dynamism of the brain - and the travails of Mark, Karin and Weber as they try to navigate their altered territories.

Between the cranes and the navigation, I'm not roused.


Now, what's going on with Jim Holt's review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion? The length - two full pages (with illustrations) and the cover - is most unusual, trumpeting the Review's belief that it is necessary to have a carefully developed opinion about this book. Mr Holt engages many of Mr Dawkins's Darwinian claims and takes issue with several, but his judgment is not unfavorable. Rather, it is somewhat weary.

Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins's failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience. As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.

Far more valuable, really, is something that Mr Holt said in a telephone interview (to someone at the Review), quoted in the issue's "Up Front" section:

I agree with Dawkins's conclusions, but his reasoning is so unlovely. The beauty of the reasoning - that's my religion.

Two books that grumble about religiosity in politics receive very similar treatment at the hands of conservvative commentators. George Will is patient but ultimately patronising in his review of Brooke Allen's Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers. he calls it a "wonderfully high-spirited polemic," follows that with a good deal of storytelling, but ultimately concludes that it all makes no never-mind.

In 1953, the year before "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, President Dwight D Eisenhower declared July 4 as a day of "penance and prayer." That day he fished in the morning, golfed in the afternoon and played bridge in the evening. Allen and others who fret about a possibly theocratic future can take comfort from the fact that America's public piety is more frequently avowed than constraining.

David Brooks claims to be a friend of Michael Sullivan, and he also claims that he and Mr Sullivan are the "only two self-confessed" followers of the late philosopher Michael Oakeshott, but he's just as patronising as Mr Will. Like Ms Allen, Mr Sullivan is ticked off by the encroachment of "religious fundamentalism" within the conservative movement, and has written The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back as a way of signaling his alarm. Not to worry, says Mr Brooks.

As any number of historians, sociologists and pollsters can tell you, the evangelical Protestants who now exercise a major influence on the Republican Party are an infinitely diverse and contradictory group, and their relationship to these hyperpartisans is extremely ambivalent.

Next thing you know, Mr Brooks - whose glibness is so viscous that I don't believe him even when i agree with him - gets off this zinger: "His book would have benefited from more reporting - or any."

Better to read, perhaps, Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57, by Michael Weisskopf. Nathaniel Tripp's very favorable reviews this heartbreaking book about Iraqi veteran amputees, written by an embedded journalist who lost his right hand to an IED in 2003. According to Mr Tripp, the middle-aged author's plight is firmly downplayed in contrast to that of the soldiers, all young men denied the full lives that they might have had.

In this war where the public is prevented even from seeing photographs of returning coffins, the grim reality of these men's sacrifice becomes clear. Blood Brothers is a fine and heartfelt work honoring them.

Paul Tough's sympathetic review of Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-wage Labor Market, Katherine S Newman's report on a handful of Harlem kids who have done relatively well in the teeth of disadvantage, makes it look like an important rethink.

The traditional approach of sociologists, Newman writes, is to see the inhabitants of urban ghettoes as outsider "separated from the rest of American society," in the grip of an "oppositional culture." But the crowd she followed isn't like that at all. They have a strong commitment to middle-class values, she reports, especially around work and welfare. They are, in fact, "closer to a conservative, 'red state' perspective than the liberal 'blue state' view that most sociologists, myself included, subscribe to."

On facing pages in the center of the Review, we have a book about cosmetic surgery facing a book about the future of food. The net effect is to call the idea of progress into question. Retired dancer and elegant writer Toni Bentley is not happy with Alex Kuczynski's Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery. She doesn't come out and say so directly, but the implication that Ms Kuczynski is not thinking with maximal critical faculties.

Kuczynski finishes her book having sworn off surgery herself - after her Restyleane "large yam" lip debacle. "By the time this book comes out," she writes proudly, "I won't have had a Botox shot or a collagen shot for a year>' You go, girl! However, her simplistic admonishment to "stop and think. And think and stop," will deter no one intent on surgical self-improvement. It doesn't even begin to confront the hunger being assauged by external alteration.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee, brothers who collaborate on Hollywood for the Times, and who have just come out with The Lee Bros Southern Cookbook, behave like two nice boys in the sandbox in the course of their brisk coverage of Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, by Warren Belasco. They shovel neat piles of storytelling into different buckets labeled "Catastrophe?" "No Problemo?" and "Stewardship?" in apparent imitation of the author, who

is a mostly impartial guide, revealing himself only in the beginning ...  and in the postscript, where he dabbles in relativism ... before giving up for a plea against a pragmatic, incrementalist approach to dealing with the earth's environmental challenges and in favor of "quantum leaps" and "impassioned wake-up calls."

Did I read excerpts in Vanity Fair? Valerie Lawson has written a life of P L Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote. An odd woman, the woman born Helen Lyndon Goff adopted an Irish infant, a twin - the one that she preferred - whom she raised to believe that "Daddy had had some kind of an accident and died in the tropics." At the age of seventeen, however, he ran into his brother in a Dublin bar. I couldn't resist passing that story along. Review Chelsea Cain thinks that the book is almost as odd as its subject.

Lawson, a feature writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, reports where Travers went, whom she met and what she said in letters and essays, but she keeps Travers at arm's length. Biographers don't have to love their subjects, but Lawson doesn't even seem to like hers.

How anybody could review Cancer Vixen: A True Story, by cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto, without alluding to Brian Fries's Mom's Cancer is beyond me, but Ariel Levy pulls it off. "In its giddy fixation on lip gloss and sling-backs, Cancer Vixen is less a contribution to the established genre of cancer literature than it is the inauguration of something marginally novel: Sick-Chick Lit."

Michael Steinberger gives Jay McInerney's A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine a very favorable review, and quotes enough to back himself up. "One of McInerney's many virtues as a wine writer is that he seems to have no agenda apart from maximizing his pleasure."

Devoting a full page to Neil Genzlinger's reviews of Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive World of Trivia Buffs, by Ken Jennings, and Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in "Jeapardy!", by Bob Harris, is something of a low for the Review. We know that smart people can be trivial, but we needn't encourage it.

In his Essay, "Cabin Fever," Henry Louis Gates Jr wonders why James Baldwin thought so ill of Uncle Tom's Cabin. "Surely," he eventually answers, "it was because he was, however unconsciously, speaking to his own deepest fears: that as a novelist, he was guilty of the very thing he disdained in Stowe." By that time, Mr Gates has made his case.


In the past few days, I've shoved almost everything aside in order to read the manuscript of an unpublished novel, written by an unpublished novelist. It took a while for me to get going, but by the fourth chapter (of twenty-four) I was hooked. I read about half of the novel yesterday alone.

I'm not going to say a word about the novel itself - not a peep. Not yet, anyway. What I do want to talk about is the raw thrill of reading something about which I knew absolutely nothing in advance. It was quite unprecedented. Ordinarily, I know quite a lot about any book that I pick up. The very fact that it has been published (and by whom) predicates a great deal. I will almost certainly have picked up some buzz about it, or at least about its author. (In the case of Jane Eyre, which I'm reading for the first time, I even know about poor Bertha Rochester.) Ordinarily, nothing reaches me without having passed through a formidable number of gates.

In this case, there was only one gate, and the author controlled it, deciding whom among his acquaintance he would permit to read the novel. Those of us who did so paid for our own copies in paper and ink cartridges. I was never confronted with a redoubtably thick manuscript, because I printed the chapters when I was ready to read them. When I made notes, I flagged the page with yellow stickers; interestingly, the stickers are clustered at the center of the manuscript, where I really began to understand the novel. Not its story - that was perfectly lucid from the beginning. But I had no idea what kind of a book I had in my hand until I was well into it. That may sound like a criticism of the novel, but it isn't. It's testimony to the power of context and preconceived ideas to channel the mind in advance of actual experience. Every once in a while, it's true, those preconceived ideas turn out to have been ill-conceived, and the context shifts while I'm in the middle of a book ("so that's what it's about!"), but even in such rare cases, my reading is guided from the start. Here, there was nothing. Just me and the book.

It was exciting, scary, and very rash. After all, I like the author. I'd have hated to have to say, in one way or another, that the novel hadn't captured my interest. I only stopped worrying about that, pseudoparadoxically, when the stickers began to proliferate. By then, you see, I was sure that I was reading the real deal.

Bravo, my friend! Thanks for the honor and privilege.

October 24, 2006

Brain Gym


Did anyone get one of these? Titled: Joy of Giving Something, Inc - Brain Gym #1 - the small booklet has the air of a small-museum exhibition program with a nice budget. Inside are (a) many photographs, almost all of them illustrating the carnage of war and (b) two very brief essays, one urging Americans to seek the advice of Europe when intervening in the Middle East (written by an American), the other denouncing Europe as appeasement-prone (written by a German). Both the American piece and the translation of the German piece date from last November. The German text itself dates from 2004. Along the bottom of the booklet's pages runs a list of history's major wars, from the Algerian War to the War of the Spanish Succession. Aside from a brief mission statement and a quote from Senator Clinton about Iran, that's it.

The mission statement invites one to visit the Brain Gym, a branch of the Joy of Giving Something.Inc Web site. I'm not going to characterize the Brain Gym, not, at least, until more people have had a chance to look it over. The site has a rudimentary feel, which only means that its creators are making things up as they go along. (I'm familiar with that!) The "Monthly Views" appear to be written by the pen of Bill Jay, a professor of photography. 

Joy of Giving Something.Inc is a charitable foundation that supports photography exhibits around the country. It operates out of an Upper East Side brownstone. Thanks to a link from an entry at Wikipedia, I gather that the foundation was endowed by Howard Stein, the financier who made $1.8 billion when he sold the Dreyfus Corporations (mutual funds) to Mellon Bank in 1994.

I have no idea how I wound up on the mailing list.

Did anybody else get one?

October 23, 2006


A quick riffle through entries that I have uploaded but not published (there's a difference) informs me that I haven't mentioned Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan here except in passing. The video of his New Yorker Festival reading reminded me how much funnier the circumcision passage was when he read it aloud. This is unusual: writers, in my experience, rarely bring much interpretive force to readings from their own work. Perhaps they've been coached: a good reading might deprecate the value of merely printed text in saleable books. Something like that happened here. If the key to a deeper appreciation of a novel is hearing the book read interpretively, then, in my view, there's something that the author forgot to write down.

This observation genuinely pains me. Mr Shteyngart's imaginative generosity is extraordinary. At Portico, I wrap by judging Absurdistan to be "too cynical to be genuinely literary." Perhaps that's too strong. Perhaps, instead of "literary," I ought to have said "novelistic."

Read about Absurdistan at Portico.

October 22, 2006

Clear Soup


Can't say why I came across my maternal grandmother's old cookbook - or one of them - the other day. It's falling apart now. I have never explored the recipes, because the first one that I read was such a hoot that I never got any further. Entitled Cook Book: Compiled and Published by the Epworth League of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Duluth, Minnesota, and published in 1913, it's a collection of worshipers' "Tried and True" recipes. Above, a drawing of the second building erected by the congregation, in 1895; it seems to have burned down in 1924.

One Clinton Oblinger was either the perpetrator or the victim of a joke; his contribution may be found below the jump. It calls for techniques that Julia never taught us.


October 21, 2006

The Departed

The Departed is not a film about which one can say very much in advance without risking spoilers. You might say that it lacks an expository opening; the wheels of inexorable clash are grinding from the very beginning. In no time at all, a gang leader has a mole working for him in the State Police, while the State Police have planted a mole in his operation. Both moles are very smart young men, and one of them is also ruthlessly determined to survive.

There is a lot of blood and gunfire, with double-crossing picking up whenever guns are holstered. There are some anxiously beautiful scenes with a character played by Vera Farmiga, whose career ought to get a nice boost - although she's not called upon for anything like the extremity of Running Scared. Jack Nicholson is blatantly unattractive and convincingly deadly. As he did in Syriana, Matt Damon packs his physical intensity into a series of sharp suits; when he's dressed for the weekend, his coiled menace vanishes. Leonardo di Caprio has certainly grown up! He delivers his lines with total authority. Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Ray Winstone enrich the proceedings. Martin Scorsese knows exactly what he is doing and how to do it. His is the cinema of knowing what to shoot - where the personal drama that will pre-empt your nervous system lies - and it wastes no time on incidentals. As a result, The Departed feels taut even though it last for nearly two and a half hours.

Prepare to stagger out of the theatre. Remember what it was like, after Goodfellas?

October 20, 2006

Science in The New Yorker

Michael Specter's report on water, "The Last Drop," in this week's New Yorker, is full of gee-whiz numbers. It is estimated that a person needs fifty litres of water a day, but Americans, on average, use more than any other people: between four and six hundred litres a day (but the figures have been dropping since the Seventies). It takes thirteen hundred gallons of water to produce a hamburger. The Hetch Hetchy Dam - which may be demolished - provides the Bay Area with 260 million gallons of water a day.

Then there's this: 

Water is precious, but not like oil, which, once burned, is gone forever. While there is almost no human activity that doesn't depend on water in some way, it never actually disappears: when water leaves one place, it simply goes somewhere else.

Water that dinosaurs drank is still consumed by humans, and the amount of freshwater on earth has not changed significantly for millions of years.

Mr Specter focuses on water problems in India, specifically in Chennai (Madras), where aquifers are challenged, insufficient, or no longer reliable for drinking water. On a bright note, he talks with hydrologist Peter Gleick, who takes heart from the rehabilitation of the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland, so polluted that it caught fire in 1969 - it was covered with a layer of flammable fluids. The piece introduced me to the concept of virtual water: if it takes a thousand drops of water to make a drop of coffee, almost all of that water comes from the place in which the coffee beans are grown, and it is "virtually" exported to Starbucks and French cafés.

Rather less mind-bending, but actually quite fiendishly subtle, is Adam Gopnik's piece about Darwin. Mr Gopnik isn't interested so much in Darwin's great ideas as he is in Darwin's sly presentation of them.

Turning the pages, we realize that Darwin, the greatest Victorian sage, does not write like a Victorian sage. He writes like a Victorian novelist. Absent from his work is the pseudo-Biblical rhetoric, the misty imprecations favored by geniuses of a more or less reactionary temper, like Ruskin and Carlyle, or the parliamentary ponderousness of the writers of a more or less progressive sensibility, like Macaulay and Arnold. Darwin's prose is calm and exact and, in its way, witty - not aphoristic, but ready to seize on a small point to make a large one, closer to George Eliot and Anthony Trollope than to his contemporary defenders, like T H Huxley and John Tyndall.

Mr Gopnik notes that Darwin's explosive conclusion - "We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World" - might have been expressed in any number of less provocative and disturbing ways, and his unpacking of the sentence is fascinating.

Neither of these articles appears to have been uploaded to the magazine's site. In checking that out, I came across a video of one of the New Yorker Festival events, one in which, after a protracted silence, I asked the first post-reading question. Amazingly, they didn't just capture my voice. But keep listening, for George Saunders on pop culture.

October 19, 2006

Death à la Gorey

Maybe it was the green hat. A fun, very short quiz that predicts which of the awful outcomes in Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies will be yours. (Thanks, Patricia!)

What horrible Edward Gorey Death will you die?

You will be sucked dry by a leech. I'd stay away from swimming holes, and stick to good old cement. Even if it does hurt like hell when your toe scrapes the bottom.
Take this quiz!


Kathleen left for the office a few minutes ago, and silence descended upon the apartment. We had listened to the Scissors Sisters sing "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" at least seven times. Kathleen certainly felt like dancing. She could hardly get dressed, she was so busy shooting her arms into the air.

The CD, Ta-Dah, has arrived, so now we can sing along, because we know what the words are. But what do they mean? Who is "old Joanna"? After living with me for far too long for her own good, Kathleen actually proposed Johann Sebastian Bach. What I want to know - salacious beast that I am - is whether, rather than dancin', the singer would prefer to engage in a three-way:

I'd rather be home with the one in the bed till dawn with you.

(Not the most tripping of lines, except when sung.) But, as Kathleen said, this is a dancin' song, not a thinking song.

Old Broadway


A few weeks ago, I bought some cheap tickets online, to see Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House at the Roundabout Theatre. Great cast. Philip Bosco, Swoozie Kurtz, Byron Jennings, et alia. Not the best reviews, but, hey, it's Shaw; it's good for you - and the tickets are discounted. We get such offers in the mail all the time, and I've recently decided that we need to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, I am really not on as a theatre ticket buyer. For one reason or another, I'm just not as careful buying theatre tickets as I am with serious music. They're not really the same sort of event: plays run for weeks, while concerts just may occur twice or three times. The bottom line is that I have a pair of tickets to Your Dreams Here that I can't use because we'll be seeing Così fan tutte at City Opera that night.

As for tonight's debacle, I neglected to note that Heartbreak House, being a long-ish show, begins at seven, not eight. I'd have caught this if I'd had the tickets in hand, but the tickets were will-call, and I didn't read the offer very carefully. So I didn't know until....

Minutes before Kathleen showed up at the AA Roundabout Theatre, I took a critical approach to the lack of people going into the theatre. It was then that I looked at the tickets - which I had just picked up.

Long story short: we walked up into the real theatre district and got two very good seats to Butley, the Simon Gray play, premiered thirty-four years ago and written for the late Alan Bates. The new production stars Nathan Lane and Julian Ovenden. It ought to be the hit that I remember Butley having been back then. But it's still in previews, so I shan't say more.

Except that, when I count my blessings, I'll count tonight.

October 18, 2006

In the Book Review

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

There's a lot of fiction this week, but the strong reviews are on the other side of the divide, with no less an eminence than Henry Kissinger reviewing the new book about Dean Acheson. Daniel Mendelsohn's review of The Discomfort Zone is, in contrast, a disgrace to the Book Review.

I'll bet that Sena Jeter Naslund and her people didn't expect her Marie Antoinette book to be covered in the Review.


One of the small payoffs of reviewing the Book Review is learning what to expect of certain reviewers. Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times of London, is either nasty or unsympathetic in three of the four reviews that she has contributed to the Review since I started paying attention; either way, she is never entirely intelligible. Make that four out of five. Her review of Edna O'Brien's The Light of Evening is unsympathetic. The review is a mix of storytelling and slapdown. It is also useless.

Elissa Schappell does a little better by Joyce Carol Oates. She storytells Black Girl/White Girl for a few paragraphs before settling into what one feels is the inevitable judgment.

By now, it's a cliché to comment on the rate at which Oates turns out books, making Trollope look as if he was writing in handcuffs. Still, this one feels rushed to a conclusion.

Meg Wolitzer's review of "''old fashioned' novelist" Edward Bausch's Thanksgiving Night is itself somewhat old-fashioned.

... Richard Bausch displays a bracing, unapologetically old-fashioned sensibility. Using the time-honored tradition of putting a holiday in a strategic narrative position, he shows us the insular, byzantine world of a family and its assorted friends and neighbors in the fictional town of Port Royal, Va, on the way to "the last Thanksgiving of the century."

That, together with a nice chunk of writing from the novel itself - which Ms Wolitzer does not include - would really be all the review anyone needed. Myla Goldberg gives Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital a glowing, if qualified, review. The novel takes place in the future and conjoins science fiction with magic realism.

A literary work that employs the supernatural must allow magic to further its ends without permitting it to hijack the boat. The Children's Hospital manages this at the outside, but stumbles further on. .... In Adrian's attempt to paint the big picture, depth of character is too often sacrificed.

But Ms Goldberg hails "the exciting process of watching a talented and original writer gain mastery of his powerful gifts."

Moral Disorder: Stories is the latest book from Margaret Atwood, and reviewers have generally detected an autobiographical element in the collection, as if Ms Atwood were summing up a lifetime for a change, instead of imagining apocalypses. Alice Truax writes, instead,

Atwood is coy about the stories' relationship to one another in a way that proves slightly tricky for the reviewer but stimulating for the reader. They aren't explicitly about the same woman at different stages of her life, but - as one gradually, tantalizingly realizes - they could be, and the fact that the collection is studded with references to doors and tunnels is hardly accidental. The first time through, then, its heroines lean in toward one another, reaching out to clasp hands as the reader stumbles over bits of their shared history. ... Upon rereading, however, one is struck by the stories' integrity - and how different these girls and women are from who they wee or who they might later become ... Atwood's reticence gestures toward the fractured nature of identity, and how swiftly that identity can change.

Ms Truax gets top marks for conveying a sense of what reading Moral Disorder might be like.

I suspect that Steven Heighton could have used more space for his review of Sebastian Faulks's Human Traces, an historical novel in which a Frenchman and an Englishman tie up to approximate, so to speak, the career of Sigmund Freud. The telltale sentence comes at the end of the review.

Although Human Traces is beset with problems, the novel is no failure. A generosity of vision, an integrity of intelligence and feeling lift it above the level of its own elements.

We oughtn't to have to take Mr Heighton's word for it. Instead of storytelling Mr Faulks's three-decker plot (and making it sound somewhat ridiculous in the process), Mr Heighton ought to have focused on that "integrity of intelligence and feeling," taking care to provide us with corroborative passages from the novel.

Geoff Nicholson's bemused review of Giraffe, by J M Ledgard, is one of the more entertaining pieces in this week's Review.

Nobody is going to accuse J M Ledgard of lack of ambition, and in an age of timid and modest novels this is a virtue. The book is often overwritten and sometimes pretentious, but Ledgard is an interesting and serious writer, and his book remains in the mind, even if you don't entirely want it to. I was continually reminded of Harold Bloom's remark about all great books being strange: Ledgard has certainly got half the equation right. I can safely say I've never read anything like Giraffe, and, on balance, and it's a fine balance, I think I mean that as a compliment.

Mr Nicholson notes that Mr Ledgard's improbable tale is in fact based on actual events.

Finally, there's Bedlam, by Craig Hollingshead, another historical novel. Andrew Sean Greer's judgment is clear:

Hollingshead's elegant, heartfelt writing and smart research almost make up for the novel's oddly static feeling. The author seems too in love with the past to be willing to take liberties with it.

A new novel about Marie Antoinette, reviewed together with a new book about the queen's wardrobe, will be mentioned below.


This week cover goes to former Secretary of State Henry A Kissinger's review of Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War, by Robert L Beisner. Mr Beisner has every reason to be happy with the review, as might the shade of Acheson himself.

Acheson emerges from the Beisner book as the greatest secretary of state of the postwar period in the sweep of his design, his ability to implement it, the extraordinary associates with whom he surrounded himself and the nobility of his personal conduct.

Mr Kissinger ends the review with a discreet finger-wave at his current successor and her boss. John Leland gives a grudgingly admiring review to Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York, Adam Gopnik's latest collection of essays. "He is at times too good a writer, but never less than an acute reader," writes Mr Leland. Too good a writer?*

Bill Bryson has added The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir to his shelf, and Jay Jennings gives it a very favorable review that is not short on judgment.

As a humorist, Bryson falls somewhere between the one-liner genius of Dave Barry and the narrative brilliance of David Sedaris. He's not above sublime low fat and feces jokes, but at his best he spools out operatically funny vignettes of sustained absurdity that nevertheless remain grounded in universal experience. These accounts, like the description of the bumper-car ride at a run-down amusement park or the tale of a friend's father's descent from the high dive at a local lake, defy excerpting; when taken whole, they will leave many readers de-couched.

Elizabeth Royte, whose last book was about garbage disposal, praises Colin Tudge, author of The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter, for taking a "sudden and uncompromising political turn" toward the end of his interesting book. "Tudge is courageous to take this stand and risk alienating readers who've stuck with him throughout solely for the love of trees and his enchanting way of writing about them."

Jacob Heilbrunn reviews Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn with judicious storytelling - one of the few instances that hasn't made me complain.

They show that in many ways the administration became the dupe of its own propaganda. Though their narrative spins out of control by the end, much of the book makes for fascinating reading.

Although "fascinating" wouldn't be my word. A few pages later, The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power, by James Moore and Wayne Slater, gets rather less sympathetic treatment by Nicholas Confessore, who asks, not unreasonably, why we go on thinking of Karl Rove as a big success when the administration and even the Republican Party are so beleaguered. "The authors depict the decline in Rove's fortunes toward the end of their account, but they never really square it with their belief in his near infallibility."

On facing pages, we have Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. Antonia Fraser's Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King gets a pass from Megan Marshall, who somewhat ungraciously fails to mention Nancy Mitford's evidently better book. "While Love and Louis XIV doesn't quite measure up to the high standards of synthesis and narrative propulsion of her best work, the book is still entertaining and instructive." Liesl Schillinger takes on Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, by Caroline Weber, and a novel, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund. Ms Schillinger really likes the former:

In Queen of Fashion, her suspenseful, remarkably well-documented and surprisingly humanizing account of the role style played in Marie Antoinette's fate and legacy, Caroline Weber, who teaches at Barnard College and is an expert on the Terror, adds texture, shimmer and dept4h to an icon most of us thought we knew already.

Perhaps because of the coincidence of Sophia Coppola's film's release, Ms Schillinger is permitted some almost egregious storytelling about Marie Antoinette, going on for three lengthy final paragraphs, la nuit de Varennes included, while making just one small reference to Ms Weber's book. As to Ms Naslund's offering, it merits two sentences overall, with a reference to Barbara Cartland in the first and another to Forever Amber in the second.

It's no surprise that Douglas Brinkley indulges in a lot of storytelling in his review of Johnny Cash: The Biography, by Michael Stressguth, but his sins are partially redeemed by clear judgment.

What makes this so valuable a biography is that Streissguth, an associate professor of English at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, debunks the myths that have enveloped Cash. ... Although Streissguth is not the literary equal of Peter Guralnick (Elvis Presley) or Elijah Wald (Robert Johnson), he avoids the gush-and-awe of Rolling Stone and Spin. ... The amount of new archival material he unearths, however, is truly impressive.

Virginia Heffernan is vastly less taken with A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, by Josh Karp. Ms Heffernan all but dismisses the book with a sigh of "You had to be there." She does suggest that Kenney was one of those whose people, to understand whose "allure," "Maybe you had to know them." Equally telling, however, is her praise of a writer who she feels is somewhat shortchanged by Mr Karp's book, P J O'Rourke. She writes that he is "more reliably funny" than his old colleagues. Yes, but only if you like really sour humor.

I have saved for last Daniel Mendelsohn's totally inexcusable hatchet job on Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Anybody who follows this blog knows that I'm an admirer of Mr Franzen and his work, and I would take issue with Mr Mendelsohn's judgments wherever they appeared. But they do not belong in the form of a book review in the Book Review. Mr Mendelsohn is attacking not so much a book here as a line of thinking about personal writing. The Discomfort Zone is a pretext for Mr Mendelsohn's distaste for something else altogether, and his piece is strewn with hints at what this might be. For one thing, he has not one entirely positive statement to make about the book. The sheer implausibility of such a dismissal suggests that ideology of some kind is at work. And he is also pretty mean, not about the book but about the author.

"Almost every young person experiences sorrows," he rightly points out at the beginning of his exegesis of Peanuts - a sentence that gives you hope that the geeky child still hiding in the adult Franzen is going to admit that, like everyone else, he loved Peanuts because he, too, identified with the perpetual awkward, perpetually failed, and yet just as perpetually optimistic Charlie Brown. But no..."

This is bullying, not criticism.

Franzen, like most of us, is very likely an awkward combination of Charlie and Snoopy; the difference being that whereas most of us [emphasis added] think of ourselves as Charlie with a bit of Snoopy, Franzen clearly doesn't mind coming off as a whole lotta Snoopy with the barest soupçon of Charlie: a person, as this lazy and perverse book demonstrates, whose very admissions of weakness, of insufficiency, smack of showboating, of grandiose self-congratulation. For my part, I'll stick with Charlie. Who, after all, wants the company of a character so self-involved he doesn't even realize he's not human?

Mr Mendelsohn is too old for this sort of gleeful savagery. He ought to know that, when you really can't stand somebody, the best thing is to keep a distance. He is entitled to be rubbed the wrong way by Jonathan Franzen. He is not entitled to parade his evaluation of Mr Franzen's personal defects in the pages of a national book review. This was a commission that he ought firmly and immediately to have declined.

Henry Alford's "Essay" is yet another bit of pastiche: two obituaries cut and pasted from those of famous writers, a (male) "Impossible Author" and a (female) "Difficult Writer." Mr Alford has done better.

* Not that I don't know what Mr Leland is "complaining about." I know of no writer who approaches Mr Gopnik when it comes to making me despair of ever attaining mastery of this craft.

This just in!

An "old friend" ("Must EVERYONE know how you treat me") has been good enough to forward the following exciting release.

A major research institution has just announced the discovery of the densest element yet known to science.

The new element has been named "Bushcronium."

Bushcronium has one neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons, and 224 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it anatomic mass of 311.

These particles are held together by dark forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons.

The symbol for Bushcronium is "W". Bushcronium's mass actually increases over time, as morons randomly interact with various elements in the atmosphere and become assistant deputy neutrons in a Bushcronium molecule, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron-promotion leads some scientists to believe that Bushcronium is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as "Critical Morass".

When catalyzed with money, Bushcronium activates Foxnewsium, an element that radiates orders of magnitude more energy, albeit as incoherent noise, since it has 1/2 as many peons but twice as many morons.

The Queen

The other day, I went to see The Queen. This is a movie that everyone expected me to rush to see, but, perhaps for that very reason, I was dragging my feet. I'd concocted a perfectly good excuse - prophetic, really. "I'm going to like it so much that I'll want to watch it again and again, right away." True. I can't wait for the "window" - the gap between the release of films in theatres and their release on DVD - to close. But really, if I didn't rush to see The Queen the minute it came out, that was only because there were good movies opening in my neighborhood, where The Queen isn't showing.

I went the other day because an old friend wanted to see it a second time, and I owed him big-time for having brought a copy of Les Bienveillantes back from Paris, sparing me oodles of shipping charges and Amazon.fr's somewhat elevated price. We went to the first showing, at 11:20, and had lunch afterward. That was my treat, too.

Reviews of The Queen seem to me to have taken a strongly anti-monarchical edge, seeing the film as an argument in favor of abolition. Helen Mirren's Elizabeth II, never much of a fan of Diana Spencer to begin with, wants to regard the princess's death as a private matter. In her view - correctly, but only in the worst sense - Diana was no longer a member of the royal family at the time of her death; ergo, no fuss. Elizabeth is convinced that seclusion at Balmoral is best for her grandsons, and in this she is backed up by her dimwitted husband and her reactionary mother. It takes all of newly-elected Tony Blair's tact (Michael Sheen) to order her to come to London and make contact with Diana's mourners. For the first half of the film, Blair rolls his eyes and asks, rhetorically, how he can save "these people" from themselves.

He winds up a staunch admirer and a defender of the Queen. He talks to his entourage about her stoicism, and about the diligence with which she has done her job for nearly fifty years. What he does not express is any regret that the Queen's model - respectable dependability - has been junked in favor of Diana's - charming hedonism. I do not suppose that the princess was a tireless visitor of hospitals only because she knew that grim settings would transform her into a radiant, healing angel. Whatever one's motivation, it is always good to visit the sick. As a woman, however, Diana appears to have been little more than a classier Paris Hilton, living her life on remote beaches and private jets when she wasn't at Kensington Palace. Whatever gave anyone the idea that she was a "people's princess"? She was a celebrity who proved that she was not up to the job of princess, which, in England at least, is a matter of grinning and bearing.

What the outpouring of "grief" that flooded London during that week in 1997 speaks to me about is resentment. People whom Diana wouldn't have looked at in private, much less spoken to, could seize her extinguished life as an icon for the ordinary, and then project their own self-pity as a simulacrum of sorrow. Looking at the televised throngs that are clipped into The Queen, I was seized by a horror of the mob, stupid as a cow and dangerous as a bull. But I was not surprised when Her Majesty shows up at last and turns the tears into smiles.

The Queen is a smart, sophisticated movie that is stuffed with great performances and food for thought alike. It is greatly enlivened by Alexandre Desplat's formidable sound track.

October 17, 2006

At the Dining Table

Under the weather today. La grippe, peut-être. Yesterday, I got my copy of Les Bienveillantes - the text runs to 894 pages; there are also appendices - and I will try to spend as much time with it today as I can. Laid out like a baroque dance suite, the novel begins with Toccata that, while arresting, doesn't seem very zippy. That's just an observation, not a complaint. I haven't had to use the dictionary very much, but I'll need to have one nearby. This may be a book to read at the dining table. The author, Jonathan Littell, is an American who spent time in France as a child. I wonder if that will make him slightly easier to understand. Reading Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La Télévision, I'm sometimes unsure of the ironies.

Reporter Jeff Stein has been peppering his subjects - Congressmen and their aides, CIA muckety-mucks - with a simple question: "Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?" Some people know and can answer the question intelligently, but most can't and don't. A few appear to regard such information as beneath contempt. Read Mr Stein's appalling report and weep.

October 16, 2006

No dance-ing today

It was only a matter of time. My first YouTube link. The Scissors Sisters sing "I Don't Feel Like Dancing," while doing nothing but.

Having run into this fantastic video at two sites (Meanwhile, Marginalia), and having discovered that Kathleen is a fan, and having ordered both SS albums from Amazon, I found that I still had to do more. Chalkenteros rightly points to the BeeGees and to Roxy Music as influences, but Kathleen and I hear a lot of George Michael as well.

And you thought I was an old fart.

(Thanks, Aaron!)

Murder in Amsterdam

Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (Penguin, 2006), by Ian Buruma, is, if nothing else, a top-notch work of journalism. Mr Buruma, who was born and raised in the Netherlands but whose English mother assured that that he would be Anglophone, has put together a comprehensive dossier on the van Gogh case. As you may recall, filmmaker, talk-show host and social hatpin Theo van Gogh was horrifically murdered on the morning of 2 November, 2004 by a fellow Nederlander of Moroccan descent, Mohammed Bouyeri. Bouyeri fully expected to be killed in the aftermath, but he was taken captive, duly tried, and given a sentence of life imprisonment. The crime appeared to polarize the nation, but Mr Buruma's book makes it very clear that tensions and alliances alike run along multidimensional lines toward a pandemonium of inconsistency and contradiction. That is the great value of his book. Having read Murder in Amsterdam for the case study that it is, and chased the largely conflicted men and women who are its subjects toward some kind of resolution in your own mind, you will be in fine shape to deal with the Theo van Gogh show when it comes to a venue near you, as it very well may.

Continue reading about Murder in Amsterdam at Portico.

October 15, 2006

Obama and Ethanol

A friend recently asked me if I have any documentary evidence to support my theory that the principal goal of the Bush Administration is to transfer public wealth into private pockets. My answer was that I didn't; my theory is an inference from the facts. And I don't expect to find much documentary evidence, because I believe that the goal is less than conscious. It is the consequence of certain espoused philosophical views about free markets and invisible hands - views of which there is no end of documentary evidence. At the same time, I've gone on the lookout for statements that support my theory - which I'm sure is not just mine.

In a disheartening but unsurprising article about Senator Barack Obama in the current issue of Harper's, by Ken Silverstein ("Barack Obama Inc.: The birth of a Washington Machine"), Ted Patzek, of the University of California at Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is quoted as saying that ethanol production - something that Senator Obama supports - is based on "the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the US taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel."

In his attempt to become a viable progressive - that is, a legislator who can count on the contributions that will get him re-elected - Senator Obama has done a fair amount of trimming. I gave up on him a year ago, when he was nowhere in the public discussion of ethnic cleansing in New Orleans. I'm afraid that he's just another Kennedy.

October 14, 2006


Scandal and uproar: No Saturday piece! Of course, I've backdated this a bit so that it will fit, but the truth is that I didn't write a thing on 14 October. Truth be known, I usually write everything the day before, painstakingly writing in the past tense. I don't know what happened today. I was just busy.

Happily, the movie that I saw yesterday was Infamous, the new Douglas McGrath movie about Truman Capote. The movie that Waited A Year to run in theatres, so as not to compete with Capote. All I'm going to say is that the two movies are brilliantly complementary, each magnificently better than the other in one way and totally lacking in another. The skinny, at least according to me, is that Capote is about writing, while Infamous is about love. Ordinarily, that would make Capote out to be the loser, but, watching it tonight, I had to hold on to it. Infamous is easy where Capote is analytical. And Capote has the best lines. The one about growing up in the same house and walking out different doors, for one. The line - the last line in the movie - about how "you didn't want to." Infamous has nothing to compare with these.

But Infamous is far better sourced, resting on a good book instead of a bad one, and Toby Jones, I must say, made me feel terribly sorry for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Because, jeeze, after I'd seen Infamous, I thought that PsH was me! So broad and strong. Toby Jones made me think that, if I had tried to impersonate Truman Capote, he'd have made me look like a a bear training at somebody's table. 


October 13, 2006

I Musici

Afterward, I couldn't believe that I'd done it. We were at Carnegie Hall last night, at the first concert of the new Orpheus season. 

At intermission, two thirtysomethings who had been sitting four rows ahead of us were joined by a friend. He stood leaning on the back of the seat behind him, facing the rear of the hall, as he chatted. I was standing in the aisle, beside my seat, waiting for the other people in the row take their seats before sitting down myself. From snippets overheard, I hypothesized that the visitor might be pianist Jeremy Denk, who will be performing at Orpheus's next concert, and who also keeps a very intriguing Web log, Think Denk. Mr Denk has posted a snapshot of himself at the blog, something that hastened the identification process.

Qua pianist, he was safe from my attentions. Qua blogger, however - quite another matter. Still, I had to work up the nerve. When he left his friends, appearing to my mistaken ears to decline their offer to join them in an adjacent, empty seat, I let him pass right by. When I turned to see where he'd gone, I'd lost him. But, lo, suddenly there he was again, returning to his friends. I caught his eye, tried to look as harmless as possible, and asked him if he might be who I thought he was. He very affably said that he was, and he shook my outstretched hand as I told him that I was "R J Keefe, Daily Blague," effectively taking it for granted that he would know what that meant. He registered recognition, although it may have been simple politeness. I made a remark to show that I'd read his latest entry (indeed, I'd been thinking about it while hypothesizing), said that I was looking forward to hearing him in December, and then let him go. He couldn't have been nicer.

The encounter firmed up my resolve to make some additions to the main-page list of links to other sites. A recent exchange with Steve Smith, author of Night After Night, inspired me to make an exception to my general rule, which is that I don't link to monothematic blogs. Blogs exclusively devoted to music and concertgoing would seem to fall under the ban, but in fact it's impossible to write at any length about music without being very person, however inadvertently. If you're at all interested in serious music, I'm sure that you'll find the sites that I've listed under the rubric "I Musici" interesting.

As for the concert....

Christopher Hitchens

The current, 16 October, issue of The New Yorker, devoted  to media matters, is full of good stuff, but even more compelling than Malcolm Gladwell's report on computerized movie plots is Ian Parker's profile of Christopher Hitchens. Mr Hitchens belongs to the elite squadron of preposterously gifted English writers that also includes Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. I remember rather liking him when I first saw his byline, but I was brought up short by the piece in which he discussed the discovery that his mother, long dead, was Jewish. There was something not quite right about it; in Mr Parker's profile, Mr Hitchens is quoted as "being pleased to find that I was pleased" by the "tidings." That's the sort of thing that I might say to a friend, or even write in a letter; putting it in front of the public is reckless. Then I was startled by his campaigns against Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa. Again, I agreed with him - particularly about Mother Teresa - but I didn't share his passionate engagement. Most recently, of course, Mr Hitchens has tilted toward the neoconservatives, resigning as a columnist at The Nation and becoming a regular on Fox News. I have no use for the man now, at least as a commentator, although I shall probably have a look at his forthcoming God Is Not Great.

Although I am about the same age, Mr Hitchens's bluster gives me an insight into the revulsion that "baby boomers," taken collectively, inspire in younger people. There is the imperious idealism that can't be bothered with practical matters, such as driving carefully and giving up smoking. Mr Parker works in a few mild zingers, and the best of them is on point:

At times, Hitchens can look like a brain trying to pass as a muscle. He reads the world intellectually, but emphasizes his physical responses to it. Talking of jihadism, he said, "You know, recognizing an enemy - it's not just your mental cortex. Everything in you physically conditions you to realize that this means no good, like when you see a copperhead coming toward you. It's basic: it lives or I do."

Mr Hitchens is an ardent advocate of human rights; one might say that dedication to that cause is his leading edge. But his determination to force recognition of them upon various sovereign states is unlikely to foster something more important than human rights: human happiness. Idealists never seem to care about happiness other than their own.

October 12, 2006


In case you were wondering, yesterday, why a plane flying north collided with the north façade of a tall building, this Times report, by Patrick McGeehan and Matthew L Wald, has an answer. It seems that you can fly your little plane all the way up to 86th Street without bothering to let anybody know what you're up to. Above 86th Street, however, you enter La Guardia's air space (why is this less than reassuring?), and must obtain permission from the airport to continue. Pilots reckless enough to fly the somewhat congested East River flight lane in the first place often make a U-turn instead. Yesterday's winds required a wider turn than whoever was flying the plane (it's not clear) knew to make.

It was a joyride, in other words. Nobody was actually going anywhere. I can't tell you how unconscionable I find this. Using fuel for no reason - hey, the age of consumption-because-it-feels-good is over! That probably goes for foie gras as well, even though I'm resisting. "Out for a spin," one of the reports said. Tragedy/farce, anyone?

Thanks to the accident, this site had a lot of visitors yesterday, relatively speaking. (There's nothing like a link from Joe.My.God!). I am still taking stock of the journalistic impulse that made me stop off at our floor to pick up my camera. I was in the elevator with the doorman who was headed up to the roof, but I didn't think that a picture taken by my cell phone would be usable, because of the fourteen-block distance. It's a puzzlement - as the King of Siam says in that movie. Was I "lucky"? How could I say such a thing? 

Frances Bergen, 1922-2006

Catching up with the weekend's newspapers, I discover that Frances Bergen died. The first time that I saw Bergen was in The Morning After, the low-key thriller starring Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges, but I didn't know it at the time. No, that's wrong! It was in American Gigolo. However, in neither of these films was I paying serious attention to her character. What lit Bergen up for me was her performance in Henry Jaglom's Eating: A Very Serious Comedy About Women And Food. Near the end of the picture, Bergen's character sits down at the piano and accompanies herself singing "Just The Way You Look Tonight." It's one of the most enchanting moments in film, even if you do have to wade through a sea of neurotic women to get to it.

Frances Bergen was a great beauty, more handsome even than her daughter Candice. But her most riveting feature was her gloriously clear and deep voice. It's a pity that she wasn't more interested in films. I see that she was in a Douglas Sirk film with June Allyson, Interlude (1957), that's not even out on tape. Her role in Eating may be her biggest part.

October 11, 2006



Not the best photo - sorry! For much more dramatic shots, visit Cynically Optimistic.

Returning from an errand, I overheard a doorman say that he was going to go up to the roof to see what could be seen of an accident that had just happened. A small plane, it seems, crashed into an apartment building near the East River. By the time I got up to the roof with my camera, the fires were still raging, although they died down quickly.

I had been reading David Denby's review of Little Children.

After a while, one realizes that Perrotta and Field may be creating a metaphor of life under terrorism. It's not that Ronnie isn't a genuine threat, but he causes people to lose all sense.

It seemed, walking along 86th Street, that every fire truck and ambulance was roaring its alarm. Later, I would hear the beating helicopters.

A very unsettling experience. 

On the phone

I was just talking to my old friend George, whose vehicle broke down in Gulfport, Mississippi. While we talked, he hopped on a bus and went to the waterfront, where he regaled me with descriptions of the persisting ruination. (Even the Coast Guard station has not been rebuilt.) It was like having my own private Ira Glass/NPR. George got quite into it: I was worried that he might be apprehended by the authorities. But whenever he bumped into anyone, his voice shifted over into Good Ole Boy. At one point, he said to someone, "It don't matter tuh me" with an authenticity that completely veiled the fact that he'd just been talking, in model English, about C S Lewis's Screwtape Letters.

At one point, George muttered something about my having other things to do, and I replied that, no, I didn't. That's right, he said, I don't pick up the phone if I have something better to do. In fact, I called him, in response to a text message that he sent to my Gmail address. That's right, George said again: you don't have to worry if my mind is elsewhere when you're talking to me, because I don't stay on the phone just to be nice.

And I thought, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'd stay on the phone to be nice to someone in a crisis, or suffering a loss. But otherwise, I stay off the phone unless I really want to hear someone's voice.

In the Book Review

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

This week's better reviews are by Pankaj Mishra (Bruce Wagner's Memorial) and Tom Reiss (Fritz Stern's Five Germanys I Have Known). Thomas Mallon's coverage of books about Katharine and Audrey Hepburn is one big piece of storytelling, and it belongs in Vanity Fair, but, not surprisingly, given the reviewer, it's compellingly interesting. If you'd like to hear Mr Fallon discuss his book about plagiarism, Stolen Words, in a radio interview from 1989, click here.

Fiction & Poetry

The cover story, which sprawls over a great deal of interior space, is William Kennedy's review of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic new novel, The Road. The premise of this book is so obscene that I could not bring myself to soak up what Mr Kennedy has to say about it. Although he means to recommend the book, he makes a formidable case against it. Having read Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, I know that Mr McCarthy is a formidable misanthrope, and I have no time for misanthropy. Mr Kennedy writes,

McCarthy has said that death is the major issue in the world and that writers who don't address it are not serious. Death reaches very near totality in this novel. Billions of people have died, all animal and plant life, the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea are dead: "At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as the eye could see like an isocline of death."

But death is obviously not the subject here. Destruction is. Killing is. Mr Kennedy's review is, perhaps rightly, dazed as by trauma. It does not inquire into the meaning of Mr McCarthy's vision, or the significance of such a book's publication. The editors of the Review have pre-empted such considerations in the very placement (and length) of the piece.

Ben MacIntyre's review of Restless, by William Boyd, is nothing but storytelling. The book is not mentioned until the second quarter of the piece, where it degenerates into plot summary. Mr MacIntyre's judgment is confined to the following paragraph, which is three parts hot air and one part inadvertent detraction.

Boyd's first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was a glinting satire, while An Ice-Cream War combined history, comedy and tragedy to wonderful effect. Here, he has used a more muted palette, with no humor, no literary embroidery, and little emotion. The pared-down style, clipped and understated, perfectly fits the sepia setting.

In sharp contrast, Pankaj Mishra writes a fine as well as favorable review of Bruce Wagner's Memorial. Because India is something of a motif in the novel, it is good to infer from the reviewer's approval that the motif is not meretricious. Mr Mishra believes that Mr Wagner has reached a crucial moment in his career. 

But now that the fierce energy of his rejection of what he calls "fast food slow death nation" looks to be burning itself out, he'll have to find higher ground than the Hollywood Hills from which to asses the inadequacies of the way we live now. This may consist of no more than exploring a fantasy of a better way of doing things, like the ones that Christianity and theosophy offered to Dostoevsky and Saul Bellow, to name two writers obsessed with the moral and spiritual health of their societies. Refocusing his concerns in this way could help Wagner make a long overdue move - from interesting cult fictionist to major writer.

With Lucy Ellmann's review of Lynne Tillman's American Genius: A Comedy, we slip back into mediocrity. Ms Ellmann tries much too hard to be cute, and she winds up making the novel look extremely silly.

These [episodes] she slathers with encyclopedic facts, an insanity of facts. She dispels her own mounting hysteria with facts. They entrap you the way Melville's obsessions do, though Tillman's universe lacks the scale of a whale. She's more likely to pelt you with a disquisition on denim.

The quoted material sounds more impatient than anything else. I was similarly mystified by Roy Hoffman's review of Lee Smith's On Agate Hill. If this is not a novel written for teenagers, then Mr Hoffman has failed to make that clear. "Gradually, though, with lyric intensity, Smith's inventive storytelling overcomes these misjudgments and, as Molly enters the fussy but rigorous Gatewood Academy, her age catches up with her literary style." Volumes.

Rick Marin gives Michael Tolkin's The Return of the Player a moderately favorable review. Like The Player, this novel is a satire of Hollywood soullessness, and Mr Marin made me ask a question that I wish had occurred to him: can very bad people produce very good movies? Here is a passage from the novel itself:

The parents in the yoga studio admitted to themselves that the urge to have children had the same force as the urge to buy something expensive, that their children were mostly awful because they came from parents who could not distinguish between narcissism and the force of life that demanded reproduction.


Natalie Angier's review doesn't make clear just how much of The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, by D T Max, is about the Italian family that has been "plagued by an extremely rare hereditary disorder that destroys the brain's capacity to fall asleep." She suggests, perhaps inadvertently, that the book is really about prions, the subcellular molecules of protein that have been identified as the pathogen behind mad cow disease.

Charles McGrath likes Isaiah Wilner's book about Briton Hadden, obliviated co-founder, with Henry Luce, of Time, The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine.

Wilner got the idea for The Man Time Forgot in 1999, when he was a junior at Yale and himself the editor of The Daily News, and his book is very much a young man's production, with a sometimes ungainly prose style and an occasionally shaky grasp of history. ... But in other ways, the book's "gee whiz" quality seems not at all unsuited to its topic, not least in reminding how young these fledgling editors were when they got started...

This judgment makes up for some of the storytelling in which Mr McGrath indulges.

There are two full-page reviews of baseball books, and I have to confess to reading them with interest. The first, The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World, by Joshua Frager gets a favorable review by John Thorn that can't resist storytelling the book's topic, the illicitly stolen signals that enabled Bobby Thomson to hit a three-run home run in 1951, but he does take a moment to call the book "a revelation and a page turner, a group character study unequaled in baseball writing since Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. On the facing page, David Margolick gives us some more storytelling, about Curt Flood, a Cardinals center-fielder who "risked his career to help beat baseball's reserve clause." The book in question, which Mr Margolick seems to like, is Brad Snyder's A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports. The author is faulted for being too partisan, soft of Flood and merciless with Bowie Kuhn (whom Mr Margolick calls "a stuffed shirt and an empty suit"), and thanked for honoring Curt Flood - not much of a review.

Peter Keepnews reviews I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America's Top Comics, compiled by Ritch Shnyder and Mark Schiff. He loves the book, but hates the title, pointing out that it would be more accurate if it were I Died, and if it dropped the reference to "top" comics.

If you open the book at random - and you may as well, since unlike a really tight stand-up set it has no structure to speak of - you could find Jerry Seinfeld or Joan Rivers, but you are at least as likely to find George Westerholm, Don Barnhart Jr or Mishna Wolf. Not that there's anything wrong with that: these are the people in the comedy trenches, and I Killed is mostly about the bizarre, unpredictable, sometimes dangerous nature of life down there.

At the center of the Review, Thomas Mallon reviews the new Hepburn books, one about Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, by William J Mann; and the other about Audrey, Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, by Donald Spoto. Storytelling about the stars is always irresistible, however inappropriate in a book review. Thomas Mallon makes no attempt to judge either book by others devoted to the respective Hepburns; aside from remarking that "Spoto does a far less successful job of inhabiting his Hepburn that Mann does his...", he doesn't much deal with the books at all. As everyone interesting in such matters already knows. Mr Mann's book is something of a revelation, confirming his subject's androgyny and her homosexual relationships. I cannot resist this interesting, not entirely clear to me sentence from the review:

Her physical appetites seem to have been decidedly low; in terms of emotion, she was homosexually a taker but heterosexually a giver.

It feels churlish to rap Mr Mallon's knuckles, but this is the New York Times Book Review, not Vanity Fair (where chunks of Mr Mann's book appeared recently.)

The writer Ron Rosenbaum has, or used to have, a column in the New York Observer entitled "The Edgy Enthusiast." Now he has applied his edgyism to Shakespeare, in The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups. Woo-hoo! Walter Kirn writes as if caught up in the excitement himself.

As it is, though, [Rosenbaum] acts as our romantic surrogate. His compulsive quest for intimacy with every clause and comma Shakespeare touched - or some printer's apprentice retouched - is not the result of some eccentric turn-on but an enduring, collective arousal. His sighs are the sighs of all Shakespeare lovers, concentrated.

The most serious review this week is Tom Reiss's piece on Fritz Stern's Five Germanys I Have Known, the burden of which seems to be a caution to complacent Americans: what happened in Germany between the wars could happen here; many of the same elements and factors are in place. Mr Stern is a Columbia professor whose family left Breslau in 1938. Taught by Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, he is a committed mid-century liberal, horrified by the retreat from liberal values urged by religious radicals. Mr Reiss sums up:

By probing history for answers to how Germany progressed from radical illiberalism to Nazism, Stern has created a cumulative canon of warning signs for the degeneration of any great nation's politics. The more personal history in this book adds power to an argument that has been a lifetime in the making.

"Work Hard, Study and Keep Out of Politics!": Adventures and Lessons From an Unexpected Public Life is the new memoir by James A Baker III, with Steve Fiffer. Jacob Heilbrunn's review would be fairly guilty of storytelling if storytelling weren't unavoidable when reviewing memoirs, but there's still not enough judgment (by Heilbrunn of Baker and of Baker's semi-ghosted writing) to give the piece ballast. If this is not Vanity Fair, it is not The Nation, either.

Mao's Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals is praised by Judith Shapiro as "an important first effort to establish the facts" of the Cultural Revolution - no mean accomplishment in the wake of a book burning, anti-intellectual fiesta.

Mao comes across as surprisingly reasonable, if often deliberately opaque. In contrast to other recent portrayals that stress his megalomania and cruelty. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals describe him as starting the revolution out of genuine concern that China might follow Khrushchev's revisionist road (rather than out of political weakness, as many have argued). Mao appears in control of all key decisions concerning the movements targets and direction until he is weakened in the revolution's latter years by Lou Gehrig's disease and other ailments.

O, the horror! Finally, there is Eavesdropping: A Life by Ear, by Stephan Kuusisto. Rachel Cohen's review never locates a better foundation for the book's validity than the author's blindness, and the aural compensations that he has found in listening.

In the end, the many epiphanies are too alike, the fragmentary essays never grow into a cohesive whole. And yet each chapter has its fine moments... Eavesdropping has a similar generosity.

Francis Fukuyama's Essay, "The American Way of Secrecy," sharply criticizes the Bush Administration for demanding inordinate deference, and it urges Americans to refuse to comply.

October 10, 2006

The End of Civilization As We Know It, Part CXVIII


From today's Times, alas.

October 09, 2006

And then what have I?

A few years ago, I couldn't stand being the only kid in the crowd who didn't have a Filofax. Kathleen and my old roommate carried the leather-bound calendars, stuffed to bursting with all sorts of ad hoc addenda, the very height of organizational efficiency, c 1850. So I begged and whined, and eventually got one for my birthday. It wasn't long, though, before my Filofax was buried in a drawer. Filofaxes don't ding you with an alarm the day before you have to do something. No, you have to look at them first. If it were up to my Filofax, I'd miss half the plays and concerts that I had tickets for. Don't laugh - there was a bad season in which we missed far more than half! Outlook keeps me straight these days.

But a Filofax is still an objet de luxe - if you have one, you ought to use it. In a recent burst of fevered optimism, I made up a to-do list that included the following: "Filofax - other uses?" The answer to that question came to me this evening, and I'm still choking. Because what I propose to do with my Filofax is to run the Daily Blague with it. I am going to schedule entries and pages, instead of waiting until the spirit has moved me to write them. Every day, there will be certain things to do. The era of "What do I feel like doing now?" is over. It's killing me, frankly, because what I "feel like" is not having to make such decisions all the time.

So the management part of the blog will henceforth be conducted in pencil. That's the other crazy thing: I'm incapable of using the computer to "automate" my editorial duties. Outlook has a more or less useful task manager feature, but I've never been able to bring myself to look at it. The computer is for writing and looking things up, not for brainstorming. Planning is something that I do on paper. Typically, I then ignore the paper. But if it's folded into a Filofax, along with all my Daily Blague deadlines and Internet contacts, then maybe the small leather-bound bundle will insist upon being the start of my day.

You think that working for yourself is easy, until you have to do it.


Marisha Pessl thanks Susan Golomb, her (uncredited) agent, in the Acknowledgments that appear at the end of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I don't see why. I myself should like to bring a lawsuit against Ms Golomb. Thanks to this lazy agent, I had to wade through three hundred pages of exuberant foam (if I may rearrange slightly Jonathan Franzen's blurb) to find out what all the excitement was about. The second one hundred fifty pages were excruciatingly boring. They were also very annoying. The little tics that had been funny for a little well before degenerating into facetiousness had by now become positively irksome.

Marisha Pessl is a young, first-time writer. She is not yet thirty. That she should be unaware of the limits to a mature reader's patience is not surprising. That her agent should fail to enlighten her, with a bit of gentle but determined insistence, is grounds for non-payment of percentages.

As you can see, Special Topics in Calamity Physics has put me in curmudgeon mode. I'd never have read it if it hadn't gotten such glowing reviews, reviews that I don't believe that it deserved. The overwriting, as I've noted elsewhere (here and here) is prodigious. Here's another example:

Deb [a grief counselor], a short, yellow-complexioned woman, slow in movement and fatty in word (a walking wedge of Camembert) had made herself right at home in Hanover Room 109, erecting a variety of posters and cardboard displays. On my way to AP Calculus, as I darted past her room, I noticed, unless Mirtha Grazely had wandered in (probably by accident, they said she often confused other rooms in Hanover with her office, including the Men's Room), Deb was always sitting in there alone, keeping herself occupied by paging through her own Depression pamphlets.

I hasten to note that this passage comes from the chapter entitled "Justine." As I have never read Sade, I would not catch any references to Justine that may be curled up in the passage that I have quoted. But nothing could justify the incredibly awkward clause about Mirtha Grazeley, which doubles the sentence's length to no purpose whatsoever. The "walking wedge of Camembert" quip made me think of consulting Pope's Peri Bathos: there's a wrongheadedness about this metaphor, not least because Camembert is one of those stinky cheeses that tastes much milder; a triple crème might have been more apt if, again, rich cheeses were categorically disagreeable. There is no need to mention the narrator's destination (always these AP classes!). There is no real need to assert the narrator's presence at all. Talk about "fatty in word"! The two sentences could easily be wrapped into one:

Deb, a short, yellow-complexioned woman, slow in movement and fatty in word (a walking wedge of Camembert) had made herself right at home in Hanover Room 109, erecting a variety of posters and cardboard displays[, where she]. On my way to AP Calculus, as I darted past her room, I noticed, unless Mirtha Grazely had wandered in (probably by accident, they said she often confused other rooms in Hanover with her office, including the Men's Room), Deb was always sitting in there alone, keeping herself occupied by paging through her own Depression pamphlets.

And I think that I've been generous to leave in "her own." It's not that I'm against panache, but I do insist on the discipline of deleting all words that do not add to the sense of a passage. (We don't need the information about Mirtha Grazely here.) Life is too short for gratuitous embroidery, and, once I got to the "good" part of the book, I saw that the embroidery was far more extensive than I'd imagined. As the logorrheic immensity of the book laboriously came about, at about the four hundredth page, it became clear that the cool kids whose antics preoccupy the novel's first three hundred pages are not very important to the suspenseful tale that really does have one turning pages toward the end.

As published, this novel is still very much a work in progress. It is perhaps two books, one of them a coming-of-age story that might interest Ms Pessl's age cohort but would be almost certain to tire older readers, the other a rather thin and unfulfilled tale of Oedipal discovery. That's the damnedest thing about Calamity Physics: having been stuffed to revulsion with clever but pointless bon-bons for what seems like phone-book length, one ends up wanting much more of the substantial fare that the ending promises but does not quite deliver.

A good editor might have helped Marisha Pessl wrest a truly Nabokovian novel out of her hulk, but I'm told that agents don't deal with editors who want to make substantial changes, that agents today simply shop a book around on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. If that's the case, then Ms Pessl was done a terrible disservice by the publishing industry. She does not strike me as the sort of person who doesn't care if people read her book as long as they buy it; quite the contrary. But many readers will weary of Calamity Physics long before the wind freshens and set it aside. Many more will learn the story by word-of-mouth and never crack it open. And readers who like to stay au courant (see I Confess, Hitchcock, 1953) should not be flogged for hundreds (hundreds!) of pages with lines of arch ostentation.

Mr Franzen, by the way, is another client of Susan Golomb. Perhaps that how the Calamity Physics came to bear the following blurb: "Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut novel is a dark, strong drink." Most astute: what Mr Franzen neglects to mention is that the espresso portion of dark, strong drink is served beneath a swimming pool of foam.

October 08, 2006


The seventh New Yorker Festival has come and gone, and I'm pooped! Ms NOLA and I attended five events this year - none of them the ones that she really wanted to see, but all available several minutes after the tickets went on sale on 7 September. I lost precious minutes to updating my credit card information at Ticketmaster. We live and learn.

To get an idea of the fun we didn't have, check out Emily Gordon's delirium at Emdashes. We were much more sober - there was no dry ice, and all the drinking was done in advance. Malcolm Gladwell gave an electric presentation about computerized assessment of movie plots capable of suggesting changes that will add millions to the box office. I didn't bother to remember the details, because the story is going to appear in The New Yorker tomorrow - or it would if tomorrow weren't a federal holiday (= no mail). It was good to hear John Ashbery read some of his poems, and Ann Lauterbach joined him for the reading of a portion of Litany. In that work, two readers speak at the same time, and the result probably sounds strange to people who don't try to eavesdrop at cocktail parties.

Otherwise, it was stand-up comedy all the way. Gary Shteyngart, George Saunders, Calvin Trillin, Anthony Lane, Mark Singer even - all of these men can take to the stage whenever they please. Mr Shteyngart won't even have to work out a routine. The chunk of Absurdistan that he read was a great deal funnier than it had been on the page. Mr Lane could not have talked faster, but his paean to Ava Gardner forced him speak overtime. (It was almost embarrassing: we were confronted with a man who seemed prepared to throw his life away for an actress's smile.) Mr Saunders read some forthcoming stuff that I can't wait to have entire.

The demographic shifts were interesting: heavily under-thirty five for the novelists, Mr Gladwell, and Mr Ashbery; heavily retired for Mr Trillin (in conversation with Mr Singer). Without making a point of doing so, Mr Trillin's conversation ranged over the history of The New Yorker, the staff of which he joined the year after I started reading it. He had keen things to say about journalism, and how very protected from its rush New Yorker writers used to be. Afterward, at lunch, I chewed over what he'd said, and came to see that this relatively new feature, the New Yorker Festival, has taken the venerable magazine one step closer to an institute of higher learning. Students of The New Yorker University scuttled across the campus of Manhattan in pursuit not so much of edification as of the kind of solidarity that the best universities' students feel.

Last year's Festival was something of a bouleversement for me, mostly because of Malcolm Gladwell's talk about preciousness and late blooming. This year's Festival bore traces of sophomore slump: nobody said anything that got to me where I live. That's not a complaint by any means! I hope that I get to go to at least six events next October! Three cheers for TNYU!

October 07, 2006

The Science of Sleep

The Science of Sleep poses a conundrum before the reels begin turning. Is La Science des Rêves the correct title? The French more accurately describes a film that is swallowed up by the surrealism of dreams. The entire story takes place in Paris (Paris, France). The bulk of the dialogue, however, is conducted in English, with lots of French on the side and a bit of Spanish. Writing in The Onion, Tasha Robinson calls it an "indie version of Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, albeit with none of the star power, a quarter of the budget, half the angst, and twice the charm."

What it's called, this is not a picture for people who want a strong story, or who are uncomfortable with the failure or the refusal to resolve problems. Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) loves his neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but Stéphanie, although she likes Stéphane, doesn't love him. Period. Stéphane copes with rejection by dreaming richly. Some of his dreams are dream-like, set forth with gross implausibility (My favorite just might be the little car, fashioned of corrugated cardboard, with which Stéphane tries to flee the police). Others are entirely naturalistic, belied only by the presence of Stéphane's father, whose death before the beginning of the story seems to have triggered some sort of upset in the young man's mind. By the movie's end, Stéphane has passed into a narcoleptic state that makes it impossible to mark the crossing from wakeful reality into dreamland. This will irritate viewers who need to know what's "really" going on, as well as people who don't believe that dreams are real.

Surrealism is essentially a comic mode: you can be horrified that things are not what they appear to be, but it's much easier just to laugh. Mr Gondry is a genius when it comes to laughter-inducing imagery. His good-natured manner encouraged me to sit back and let him do whatever he was going to do, without complaining. In this way, the film itself became a dream. Not somebody else's dream but my dream. When water poured from a faucet in tiny sheets of cellophane, I had the strangest feeling of needing to wake up, and when an upright piano lurched down several flights of a spiral staircase with an aplomb that signaled Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box, I bolted upright in my seat as though I'd dozed off.

The Science of Sleep is a very melancholy movie, but I was never three minutes away from a good laugh. Mr García Bernal commands an immense dramatic ranger, and throws his character into reckless situations with what looks like but surely can't be total abandon. He is boyish here in a way that he was not in La mala educacíon. (In the earlier movie, there is something fraudulent about his ingenuousness, and for a very good reason.) He also seems destined to play the roles of troubled men - men who want to curl up beneath a comforter in a fetal position. I hope that he'll be given lots of room in which to stretch. Ms Gainsbourg's real-life Stéphanie - if we can used that term at all - is calm and gentle, but when Stéphanie appears in one of Stéphane's dreams, she's ready to do anything. It would be possible to see her part here as that of a sorceress. I had read that she sounds just like her mother (Jane Birkin) when she speaks English, but I was surprised to discover that this is true. Alain Chabat, Aurélia Petit, Sacha Bourdo and Emma de Caunes do fine work in the supporting cast, but, perhaps because Mr Gondry is so successful at creating a dream world, their characters never build up any heft. Miou-Miou is great, too, but, born in 1950, she has definitely outgrown her stage name.

While aware that there are many things in The Science of Sleep that might set viewers against it - particularly if they're being forced to sit through it by the fan-cy of a near and dear person - I believe that this movie is a reliable test of a moviegoer's ability to surrender to the dreamlike in any film.

October 06, 2006

The Soft Gleam of the Comical

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Milan Kundera has compiled some notes in answer to the question, which is also the title of his piece, "What Is A Novelist?" He begins by determining what the novelist is not, id est a lyric poet. The following passage rings true as a bell (never mind what it is that we can make deductions from - Hegel, actually):

From this we can deduce that the notion of lyricism is not limited to a branch of literature (lyric poetry) but, rather, designates a certain way of being, and that, from this standpoint, a lyric poet is only the most exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard.

I have long seen youth as the lyrical age - that is, the age when the individual, focused almost exclusively on himself, is unable to see, to comprehend, to judge clearly the world around him. If we start with that hypothesis (necessarily schematic, but which, as a schema, I find accurate), then to pass from immaturity to maturity is to move beyond the lyrical attitude.

If I imagine the genesis of a novelist in the form of an exemplary tale, a "myth," that genesis looks to me like a conversion story: Saul becoming Paul; the novelist being born from the ruins of his lyrical world.*

It must be observed, first of all, that the world is awash in lyrical novels. I dislike them as a rule; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is one of the few exceptions that I can think of, and even then the extent to which that book is a novel is uncertain. Young writers, like young people, are self-absorbed because they're busy absorbing the world, or enough of it to convey a sense of their own place, their own limits, their own follies. The world is new, fresh, and exciting. And it's a struggle. Lyrical people usually have a somewhat difficult time building a career. (Better to outgrow lyricism in the natural way. Mid-life crisis, which is nothing but the eruption of stifled lyrical impulses in creaky middle age, can cause real damage, and it is usually fairly ridiculous.) Only irresponsible types find the conditions of youth amusing. But, as Mr Kundera goes on to say, it is only when we can make out the "soft gleam of the comical" on the surface of every human ego (especially our own) that we can call ourselves mature. 

Sadly, the piece is not available online, so hunt down the October 9, 2006 issue in any way you can.

* Translated from the French by Linda Asher.

October 05, 2006

Mode sombre

It's clear to me, novice though I may be, that the time constraints imposed by Project Runway are truly deforming. They're getting in the way of the information that the show's creative designers have to tell us.

I say this because it was very very clear to me, novice though I may be, that Michael Knight would have recut his dress several times, if need be, to get the open part of his bodice just right. The judges were correct when they said that it was too much - and they were correct not to kick anybody off the show this week. What was wrong with Michael Knight's dress was time. He hadn't had the time to do the sort of fitting and recutting that his concept really required, and that is part of most bold designing. Michael was concentrating, as one might expect, on the weaving at the waist of his dress. He didn't realize that his dress had a hole instead of a cutout until it was too late.

So I hope that Project Runway will become more intelligent about stopwatches. In the real world. couture is very much not about deadlines, much as the show might wish to convey that idea. There are deadlines, to be sure, but they're not the deadlines that Project Runway imposes.

A real designer is not somebody who has to use a certain amount of cloth in twelve hours of cutting and sewing. I understand the commercial/marketing underpinnings of the show, but Project Runway will lose its audience the moment that it's perceived to be a marketing how-to. Sure, the big buyers want clothes fast and cheap. But audiences don't.

As Tim Gunn said this evening, fashion is essentially subjective. Of course it is - and that's one of the hurdles that Project Runway manages to jump from week to week. So let me just say that I really liked Jeffrey Sebelia's dress this week. I didn't understand why the judges disliked it, not at all. I thought he'd done a magnificent little Marie-Antoinette gown (the judges said "milkmaid," not realizing - why? - what a striking move this dress was for Jeffrey), and then photographed his model as Kirsten Dunst. What were the judges thinking? Or not.

And what am I thinking, writing about this show. 

Two Different Criminals

Did anyone else come away from Mark Singer's article about Richard McNair, in the current New Yorker, less than convinced that Mr McNair, an escaped prisoner, will elude capture indefinitely? There's no question that Mr McNair is a clever fellow. But his cleverness, like that of so many criminals, seems to be toggled by the situation in which he finds himself. Being at liberty toggles his cleverness to "Off." What was he doing in a car dealership on the Fourth of July? Nobody was supposed to be in the dealership. It's not very clever to count on not being noticed. It was when he was sure that he would be noticed that Mr McNair executed his successful evasions.

The New Yorker doesn't run Mr Singer's piece at its Web site, but it does provide a link to the YouTube clip of Mr McNair talking his way out of capture shortly after his last escape, from a prison in Pollock, Louisiana. Here's a link to www.newyorker.com.

What is your thinking about the Mark Foley scandal? I've long since come to expect this sort of thing from people on the right, whether here or in Britain (or even in France - remember Alain Juppé's subsidized apartments? I don't mean sex things; I mean inappropriate things. You'd think that people on the right would be hyperconscious of their actions, but that's only what they expect of everybody else. Consider the ancien régime. Reactionary avant la lettre and similarly morally clueless.

In democratic terms, the conservative obsession with appearances goes back to Disraeli's "villa Toryism." Recognizing that the values of England's landed elites were never going to make a prima facie appeal to commoners, Disraeli invented a political style that made freeholders in the Vale of Health dream that they had something in common with the Duke of Devonshire. The Duke(s) of Devonshire obliged by behaving more or less civilly. The problem with concentrating upon appearances, however, is that it's distracting from thinking about substance. Worrying too much about getting caught makes one good at not getting caught, and not getting caught is an addictive game that ceaselessly ups the ante. 

So I regard Mark Foley's sins as occupational hazards of thinking conservatively. I don't expect conservatives to behave well; I really admire them when, like John McCain, they do.

October 04, 2006

In the Book Review

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

The stand-alone novel reviews this week are barely mediocre at best. If I needed a silver lining, I could find relief in this week's edition's failure to add any titles to my tottering wish list - but then, this isn't about me. The nonfiction reviews are far better. Max Frankel's review of Michael Lind's American Way of Strategy, however, suggested a coinage: the "cuckoo essay." There's nothing crazy about such a piece; it's merely an underdeveloped essay posing as a book review. The underlying motif of every cuckoo essay is this: "Now, if I were writing this book..."

Fiction & Poetry

David Orr devotes the entirety of his "On Poetry" piece to the difficulties of teaching poetry - and to Stephen Fry's valiant determination to overcome them with an amusing handbook, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. Mr Orr thinks that the comedian has got it right.

In the end, what comes through most vividly in The Ode Less Travelled, and what makes it work so well for the amateur, is Fry's belief that poetry, like cooking, "begins with love, an absolute love of eating and of the grain and particularity of food." ... Poetry, then, isn't a symbol for a type of behavior, it's an experience on its own..."

We have four novels this week, and, in addition, a roundup up five more. Rob Nixon's review of Half of a Yellow Sun, by the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Nghozi Adichie, might have been improved by a healthy extract from the book. Mr Nixon appears to assume that fiction about enduring the horrors of civil war in the Third World is ipso facto worthy of attention. Tugging at our heartstrings with partial summaries of Ms Adichie's story is wrongheaded. The importance of a work of fiction springs from the quality of its prose, not from the pathos of its tale - although I despair of getting Dickens fans to understand this.

Ligaya Mishan hails Brian Morton's Breakable You as "remarkable" in the first sentence of her review; nothing in what follows justifies this claim. The story is teasingly summarized, but in the end it's made to sound muddled. She does suggest, however, that readers who liked the "swift, satirical strokes" of Mr Morton's earlier novels ought to be prepared for something rather more earnest. Bryan Curtis's review of Schrödinger's Ball, by Adam Felber, isn't any more useful than Ms Mishan's. Talk about muddle! Is this novel a joke, a humorous riff on quantum physics or something more "experimental" (and hard to read)? Mr Curtis refuses to provide a clear answer to the question that his own commentary raises.

David Lipsky writes this week's lone reliable stand-alone review, giving Elsa Ferrante's first novel, Troubling Love (translated by Ann Goldstein), an enthusiastic reception. But the things that he praises about the novel aren't appealing to me. 

Visiting your hometown can often be a bummer, and Ferrante relentlessly compounds the bad luck. Delia puts on nice clothes and gets a menstrual stain (twice).

Things go downhill from there. 

Here are five excerpts from Max Winter's Fiction Chronicle:

The Futurist, by James P Othmer. "Yates realizes he must regain the sensitivity he abandoned in his youth or face a life of nihilism. But the book's high-rolling, whip-smart rhetoric doesn't stop pounding long enough for Yates to meet his goal."

Born Again, by Kelly Kerney. "The tale of a young Pentecostal's test of faith, Kerney's debut novel has guts and strength, even as it pivots on its narrator's uncertainty."

The Unyielding Clamor of the Night, by Neil Bissoondath. "On an island in Southeast Asia, Arun, ambitious and idealistic, leaves a life of privilege to teach in a poverty-stricken coastal town, Omeara. He faces hardships from the start..."

The Devil's Backbone, by Kim Wozencraft. "Wozencraft's story of murder and family dynamics in southern Texas is suspenseful, though much diminished by an implausible plot and forced attempts at depth."

In The Wake, by Per Petterson (translated by Ann Born). "Petterson writes with a grim, morbid hand, allowing hope in only at the very last minute. His words have a music reminiscent of W G Sebald, though with fewer grace notes.


This week's cover story is The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, by David Camp. Only in the last paragraph of his lengthy review does A O Scott wake up from Mr Kamp's detailed celebration of our culinary sophistication.

Which is to say that the dinner-table revolution involves some acute contradictions. The United States of Arugula pointedly tells only half the story. The other half has been told by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, which functions as a kind of dialectical companion to Kamp's book. The history of food in postwar America is as much a story of feedlot-raised hamburgers and strip mall franchises as it is of grass-fed steaks and cozy bistros. Kamp's last chapter, "Toward a McSustainable Future" ... tries to grapple with the paradoxes implicit in the attempt to promote gastronomic ethics on a mass scale, but readers of Michael Pollan's Omnivore may find it glib and lacking in rigor. 

It was only at this point that I found Mr Scott engaging with Mr Kamp's account in anything like a critical manner.

Alison McCulloch hands in a largely storytelling review of A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia, by Thomas Keneally. Tellingly, her piece becomes enlightening when she compares the new book to "the feistier and heftier rendering in The Fatal Shore (1987), by Robert Hughes, a fellow Australian.

Where Keneally delicately tiptoes down the middle, avoiding loaded language, Hughes wades in, unafraid to condemn the "white invasion" or to assail his homeland for its historical amnesia and "cultural cringe."

Jack Schafer is disappointed by the lack of excitement in Edward Kosner's memoir, It's News To Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor.

Did Kosner-the-editor inhibit Kosner-the-writer from being more honest about his profession? That's my guess. If only more of It's News to Me had been guided by the tabloid sensibility that allows him to describe how he and an uncle tried to kill his terminally ill mother, Annalee, with sleeping pills in 1962.

This good review tells only as much of Mr Kosner's story as is absolutely necessary. Paul Berman takes advantage of the recent publication of a new biography of I F Stone and a new collection of Stone's work to fill two pages of the Book Review with an assessment of this once-controversial writer, who did some mild spying for the Soviets - such as finding out what a senator's views on a certain subject might be, and passing on the information. Mr Berman is not very impressed by "All Governments Lie": The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I F Stone, by Myra MacPherson.

But a literature that adequately accounts for the people who never did become fanatics, a literature about the non-maniacs, about the people who remained liberal at heart yet, even so, kept applauding one left-wing tyranny after another - a convincing a thorough literature about these people is harder to find. MacPherson's biography, for all its landscape-painting of the left-wing past, seems to me not up to the task (and, in any case, the book contains to many small errors of fact: ....).

Mr Berman does recommend The Best of I F Stone, edited by Karl Weber.

From Jennifer Schuessler's review of College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Coeds, Then and Now, by Lynn Peril, I gather that the book is no more serious than its subtitle suggests. "But it's the goofy antics and traditions at various bastions of privilege that really get her heart racing." Given the topic, Ms Schuessler can be forgiven a bit of amusing storytellings.

Two books about pop music, sort of (and, coming up, a "Music Chronicle," or roundup of five new books about pop). Stephen Metcalf wrestles with Greil Marcus's The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice and comes away trailing snark.

Thrilling as The Shape of Things to Come is, its greatest achievement may be finally exhausting its readers on American exceptionalism forever. This "city upon a hill" business, maybe it's time to give it a rest. Maybe we could complete our errand in the wilderness by assuming the mantle of democracy in humbler, if more tedious ways...

He also notes a passage that "I find ... to be utterly bewitching, but cannot for the life of me parse it for a stable, portable meaning." Troy Patterson has an easier time disposing of Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People, by Chuck Klosterman.

Elsewhere, the author composes paragraphs so sloppy and transitions so lazy as to convince you that he wasn't kidding when, in his third book, Killing Yourself to Live (2005), he said, "I write at roughly the same speed I read."

I gather that Mr Klosterman writes about pop-cultural matters (profiles, mostly) for magazines such as Esquire. Dave Itzkoff, the Book Review's science fiction columnist, covers a few new books in the [pop] Music Chronicle.

The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music, by Dunstan Prial. "Prial nimbly covers a half-century of musical history with flair (he describes Hammond at recording sessions as looking "like a well-dressed barber's pole), though his prose is noticeably more energetic when he's writing about rock than about jazz. But his chapter on how Hammond delivered Springsteen to the Columbia fold, containing a lively original interview with the Boss, is as captivating a piece of music journalism as you will read all year."

Notorious C O P: The Inside Story of the Tupac, Biggie, and Jam Master Jay Investigations From the NYPD's First "Hip-Hop Cop, by Derrick Parker with Matt Diehl. "Here's hoping his larger message, that law enforcement will not earn the trust of the hip-hop world until it stops treating all rappers as potential criminals, isn't drowned out by all the chest-thumping."

Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, A Backstage Journey Through Rock's Most Debauched Decade, by Lonn Friend. "His earnestness can be wearisome, but when Friend finds himself shilling for Jon Bon Jovi on QVC or struggling to sign the second-rate alt-rock band the Bogmen to Arista, the experiences are so comically, cosmically humbling that you can't help rooting for the guy."

Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood, by Michael Walker. "... Walker has produced a winding, inviting, occasionally aimless portrait of a bohemian quarter that played a prominent role in the foundation of rock music."

Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music, by Wendy Fonarow. "But look beyond the book's occasionally absurd academic language, and footnotes that cite Michel Foucault and Pamela Des Barres with equal facility, and you'll find a cogent and often perceptive look at the scene that yielded Radiohead, Portishead and the Futureheads."

I don't know quite what to make of Max Frankel's The American Way of Strategy, by Michael Lind. The review begins:

Whatever the worth of Michael Lind's prescriptions for American foreign policy, his glance back at our performance over the last 15 years is helpfully damning.

Mr Frankel agrees with the author about the impossibility of the United States' serving as the global police department, but not about much else. "And you can surely dismiss the first half of his book..." That's pretty sweeping! Mr Frankel ought to have declined this assignment, or worked out his disagreements with Mr Lind in a larger essay, one not intended to do double-duty as a book review. (Would anybody understand "the cuckoo essay" as a deprecatory term for this kind of review?)

iWOZ: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It - a book that could only be written by Steve Wozniak (with Gina Smith), garnishes a good review from J D Biersdorfer.

This book may not be the smoothest read in town, but it does seem to accurately reflect the restless, inventive mind of its author. Budding computer-science majors, Apple aficionados and electronics buffs will find plenty to ingest here, as Wozniak recounts the inspirations and thought processes for his designs. On thing is evident after wending your way through iWOZ: Steve Wozniak learned to "think differently" long before the company he helped found ever started using that phrase in a marketing campaign.

If any manufactured product straddles the Industrial Revolution, it is the grand piano. The best pianos are made slowly, by hand, but they're also the result of very advanced technology. James Barron's stupendous account of the construction of a single Steinway grand - the one that now sits in Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - was serialized in The New York Times a few years ago, in real time (from May to the following April). Now his pieces have been bound in a tome: Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand. Edmund Morris, who has written books about Ronald Reagan and Ludwig van Beethoven, faults Mr Barron for treating the Steinway who sold the company to CBS in 1972 with "excessive respect." He also warns,

Readers less interested in handicraft will find Piano slow going. This is partly because the process it describes is slow, and partly because the book betrays its serial composition.

But his review is clearly favorable.

Finally, Andrew Hacker tackles two new books for people who wonder, as the review's title has it, "What's the matter with Democrats?" Brian Mann, in Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Rural Heart of America's Conservative Revolution and Thomas F Schaller, in Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, obviously argue diametrically-opposed approaches. Without coming out and saying so, Mr Hacker suggests that Mr Mann assumed that his thesis was correct and did his research accordingly. (Democrats must abandon their "irony and superiority.") He is more sympathetic to Mr Schaller's book. In the end, however, he believes that the Democrats need to take "retail politics" more seriously, finding undecided or non-voting left center Americans, getting them registered to vote, and walking them to the polls where necessary.

Gary Shteyngart's amusing Essay, "Ten Days With Oblomov: A Journey in My Bed," is fraught with Oblomovshchina, or the state of being Oblomov. I don't think that he ever got through the novel. Either of them.

October 03, 2006

Bonjour Tristesse

The MoMA is presenting a series of Otto Preminger films this month, and Ms NOLA asked me if I'd like to accompany her and her parents to an eight-thirty showing of Bonjour Tristesse yesterday evening. As Kathleen would be working late, I thought I might at least spend a bit more time with M & Mme NOLA. I didn't know what to expect of the movie. I'd never seen it, and only fell into talking about it in conjunction with recent discussions, here and there, of Jean Seberg. I had never stopped to think about the oddity of a Hollywood adaptation of a sensational French novel. In 1958, I might have been old enough (just) to have seen Vertigo, but Bonjour Tristesse would have been quite beyond the pale for a ten year-old. Since then, Preminger's reputation has never amounted to the sum of his parts, largely, I think, because he's the very opposite of Hitchcock, a dabbler in every genre. People who like Anatomy of a Murder will probably loathe Forever Amber. I certainly don't remember any Preminger festivals from college days, for what that's worth, which isn't much. And then there's the ambiguity of Laura. It's clearly a top-fifty film, sometimes a top-ten, but there's no denying that it dabbles in glamorous trashiness. It's very highly distilled pulp. So I haven't made a point of seeing movies just because Otto Preminger produced and directed them.

What a revelation, to see Bonjour Tristesse at a time when I've been reviewing the films that were very serious when I was young. The Antonionis, the Godards. The movies that I didn't really understand - even though I certainly felt their anti-bourgeois sting. Movies such as L'Eclisse didn't prompt disgust with the affluent classes; they merely reminded me that I belonged to one and would always belong. In many ways, Bonjour Tristesse is the ancestor of such films, and how telling that it's an "American" picture produced by a Viennese!

As film writer Foster Hirsch, who introduced the movie last night, pointed out, Preminger was the first filmmaker to present the inanity of unanchored life. He put together a dazzling show that American critics didn't like at all and that French critics were mad about. If the argument that Preminger inspired the Nouvelle Vague hasn't been made, then it's time that someone made it. Rather than analyse the film - a rather premature undertaking, since I've only seen Bonjour Tristesse once - I'll just offer a list of details that interested me. If you don't know the picture, I hope that they'll pique your curiosity.

  • The car in the water at the end. I'd like Antonioni to deny that this is the source of a similarly-toned episode in L'Eclisse.
  • The housemaid who, while all the fashionable guests are helping themselves to coupes of champagne, drains, as surreptitiously as possible, a tumbler of booze, off to the left. It's sort of like one of Hitchcock's appearances in his own movies, but also quite different. The help have no respect for their masters. Which is another way of saying that they are characters, too, not "housemaids."
  • Martita Hunt, ferocious in green taffeta at the craps table. (Craps has just been introduced on the Côte d'Azur.) I first saw Hunt in The Brides of Dracula, something I wasn't supposed to see at the time, and I've never gotten over her performance as Dracula's mom.
  • Mylène Demongeot's preposterous ribbon-basket hat. Very Fellini. The women's clothes, by the way, are incredibly beautiful, Givenchy and Hermès. You could watch Bonjour Tristesse for the couture alone.
  • Deborah Kerr. Never has she looked quite so sleek and sophisticated - and yet she plays (as usual) the character who stands for "the good life," in the moral sense. (She actually labors, at fashion design.) It's almost impossible to cope with the fact that in her very next performance she would be the beaten-down daughter of Gladys Cooper, in Separate Tables. On my first trip to London, in 1977, I saw Ms Kerr, who was born in 1921, play Candida in the West End. It was a stretch, but it held.
  • The gist of the story of Bonjour Tristesse is that Cécile, a rich girl of seventeen who, in Henry James's view at least, has been exposed to adult misbehavior far too early in life. resents the steadying but restrictive influence that a prospective stepmother (her own late mother's best friend) is going to have on the companionate life that she and her father have been quite inappropriately enjoying. (She calls him by his first name and kisses him, if briskly, on the mouth.) She comes up with an opera buffa plan to break off the impending nuptials, and there is a great deal of youthful plotting and scampering about. The rub of the story is that the child has no idea how very unfunny the consequences of her ruse will be. That giggling can lead to tragedy is something that the Nouvelle Vague auteurs would treat more starkly, more absurdly. But - and, again, Antonioni comes to mind, as well as Fellini - their films are certainly marked by unconsciously inappropriate laughter. Monica Vitti certainly knew how to transpose teenaged naughtiness into adult registers.
  • The alternation between the black-and-white of the framing scenes, set in Paris, and the glorious color of the Côte d'Azur.
  • I'll come back to that, but let's note that this movie was shot entirely on location in France. The actors may have been Anglophone. But as a Viennese, Preminger demonstrably knew how to coax his cast into speaking English as if it were speaking French. There is an insistence on the word "brilliant" - fun experiences are always "brilliant" - that points to a lot of génial in Françoise Sagan's novel.
  • The Paris, black-and-white scenes are solemn and insouciant at the same time. That's to say that the buildings are solemn and the people are insouciant. While the Mediterranean scenes are backflashes in which the story unfolds, the black-and-white scenes constitute a period of less than twenty-four hours. They are increasingly conducted in voice-over, as the girl, now about a year older, looks back on the previous summer and refers to the "invisible wall of memories" that stands between her and all genuine feeling. Preminger dances on the cusp between the European idea that memories can be crippling and the American idea that you can do things that are so bad that you never feel right ever again. How strange that these are two different ideas!
  • David Niven is quietly amazing as Cécile's father. He does the usual "tennis, anyone?" thing with consummate leggerezza while reflecting the dark awareness that he is not leading his life correctly. He and Jean Seberg are very handsome people whose lives are very, well, fucked up.
  • There is a scene in which Cécile and the boy next door, Philippe, are about to succumb to passion-on-the-tiles. This is a pivotal scene in the plot, because Anne (Deborah Kerr, as the stepmother-to-be) walks in on the action and decides that the two kids can't see each other anymore. What you see when you hear Anne's admonition is a pair of a pair of legs, one white and smooth, the other lean and hairy. The sheer hairiness of Philippe's legs recalled, for me, Picasso's slightly pornographic Suite Vollard, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don't think that I have ever seen a more sudden telegraphing of "where this is going." Philippe is a young law student, but, from the thighs down he's a satyr.

And the satyr was there last night, too: Geoffrey Horne, the actor who plays Philippe. He sat in the row in front of us, along with Preminger's widow, Hope, who at the time that Bonjour Tristesse was made was only Hope Bryce, the costume coordinator. After the showing, they both spoke, and Mr Horne inspired a lot of thought about the passage of time. We'd seen him, at twenty-five, playing a virile but soulful (and somewhat naive) twenty-five year-old. Last night, he was seventy-three: hale and hearty, but definitely not "the boy in the Speedo" whom Mr Hirsch introduced. Mr Horne did say how grateful he was that Bonjour Tristesse was as old as it was, because "nowadays, we'd have been naked, and what an embarrassment that would be!" Everyone laughed. But of course it wouldn't be embarrassment. It would just be a more mercilessly chiseled loss.

October 02, 2006


Rattawut Lapcharoensap's Sightseeing would probably never have come to my attention if it hadn't been for McNally Forbes's idiosyncratic way of arranging fiction regionally. The compact, handsome Grove Press edition caught my eye on the South Asian shelf. Never having so much as thought of Thai fiction, much less read any, I was stricken with cosmopolitan remorse. I chose the book after the most cursory examination. Remorse turned out to be rewarding.

Sightseeing is a collection of eight short stories, written in English - okay, this is Thai-American fiction, not so exotic after all - by a man who, born in Chicago in 1979, was taken to Bangkok at the age of three. There would have been three more dislocations when, in 1995, Mr Lapcharoensap returned to the United States alone. All six of his stories are narrated in the first person, five of them by young people of Thai or Thai-American descent. The exception, "Don't Let Me Die In This Place," is told by the failing father of an American businessman who has married a Thai woman and settled in Bangkok. A typical American man who wants to take care of himself but no longer can, the father doesn't take to the "exotic" atmosphere of Thailand. You feel very sorry about this helpless plight, but at the same time you can just imagine what tales his daughter-in-law and grandchildren would tell about an impossible old man.

Continue reading about Sightseeing at Portico.

October 01, 2006

Jumping the gun a bit

In half an hour, I'll be at an agreeable brasserie two blocks from home, and so will Kathleen and a dozen of our near and dear. Kathleen and I can't really celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary until Tuesday, but next weekend was impossible for a few key guests, so we're jumping the gun.

I may even make a speech. I know that certain others will!