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November 30, 2006

Never Let Me Go, now on schedule

Moving at a pace that would make a snail look like a Z Car (does anybody remember that joke?), the group re-reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go over at Good For You has languished recently, largely because, in devising what I think of as the Daily Blague's daily specials, I quite neglected other undertakings. Now I hope to advance the project with at least one entry toward the end of each week.

Never Let Me Go is an amazing re-read. Knowing exactly where the story is going, I can see how Mr Ishiguro manages to get us there while systematically withholding information. Because the novel is told by a sensible but apparently artless young woman, and is largely devoid of impressive literary effect, it is easy to underestimate. The tone of Never Let Me Go is more straightforward than that of any other of Mr Ishiguro's book, but the narrative is certainly no simpler. Following it closely shows it to be laid out with the greatest care.



Anyone curious to see Daniel Craig in action, without supporting the military-indoBroccoli complex, ought to run out and rent Archangel, Jon Jones's film of Robert Harris's 1998 novel of the same name. (I read it.) The BBC production only rarely betrays its origins in television, and the length - just under two hours - also suggests a feature film's crispness. The production is, overall, dandy.

Archangel is about (did I say that?) the possibility that Stalin fathered a carefully-bred child child, a son who was quietly nurtured in the rough countryside outside the eponymous Arctic port that, contrary to the film's say-so, was not built by Peter the Great (Elizabethan merchants did business there). Daniel Craig plays Kelso, an American historian who finds himself drawn into a carefully woven plot that will rely on his credibility as a Westerner to burnish the Stalin legend. Perhaps because he has the sense to figure this out pretty quickly, he keeps his life; a suave Russian intelligence chief (Alexei Diakov) and a bruyant American cable reporter (Gabriel Macht) are not so lucky. Yekaterina Rednikova plays the smart girl who helps Kelso out, and she's terrific, one part Rachel McAdams, one part Sally Field, and one part gifted Russian actress whose English it is a pleasure to hear. Archangel is the best English-language Russian noir since Gorky Park, and it's almost as good, which is saying a lot.


If I hate to wait, it's not mere impatience to have what I want when I want it. It's a long experience of things going awry during the waiting period, or turning out to be all wrong when the waiting is over. The longer the wait, the greater the chance someone will change his mind, or run out of funding, or move to California. The refrigerator will fit in the kitchen, but you won't be able to get it in there without taking the door down. Or somebody may simply find out that what you're up to is adverse to his interest, or at least come to think so. Your supporters may have a change of heart. The plane might crash. All you can do is sit there and wait

I spent hours of my childhood standing on sidewalks in front of schools, libraries, drugstores and other rendezvous, waiting for my mother to pick me up. She tended toward unapologetic lateness. As I got older, I would walk home myself from wherever it was, but I wasn't the least lazy child in history, and it took me a long time to expect that my mother would be late. That's because I erase the particulars of such passively dull unpleasantness the minute it's over. I'll be frantic, for example, while I wait to hear that Kathleen's plane has landed, but as soon as I hear her voice announcing the fact, the misery evaporates without a trace. Instead of expecting my mother to be late, I expected to find out that she had abandoned me. I don't want turn up the pathos or sound like Jane Eyre, but I knew that my mother was unhappy with the person I was turning out to be. (She told me so, without realizing it. She insisted that I could be "good" - someone else, really - if I only tried.) As the quarter hours ticked by, I would grapple with the fact that my mother had Had It. I could go back where I came from. Where I came from was very dim in my mind, a vaguely forbidding institution along the lines of the orphanage in Mighty Joe Young. But I knew that I did not come from her.  

Unhappily, I think, I grew up to be a thin-skinned man who tries to pretend otherwise but whose thought patterns, when kept waiting by someone, have the look of It's-All-About-Me grandiosity. It's never that someone is running late, but rather that someone is not coming at all. A tumbler has fallen in that someone's mind, and now he or she sees me as the domineering, asphyxiating, high-strung and entitled chatterbox that accords with my own private picture of Dorian Gray. Of course I'm going to be stood up! I'd stand me up!

And then, amazingly, the friendly face approaches, the kind email appears in my inbox, and I forget concocting an imaginary aversion so fierce that it put me at the dead center of someone else's life.  

November 28, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

This week, David Kirby writes one of the best poetry reviews that I've ever read, covering Galway Kinnell's Strong Is Your Hold. The review gives a vivid sense of the poet's aesthetic, and, in passing, offers a fantastically useful taxonomy:

Whitman’s exactly the right patron for a poet like Kinnell. While contemporaries as different as John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Gary Snyder and Mark Strand all write a tighter, more gnomic line of the kind Emily Dickinson is famous for, Kinnell, like Allen Ginsberg, Donald Hall, Philip Levine and Gerald Stern, prefers to lasso poetry’s errant dogies with the long, floppy line that Whitman used, a line that sometimes misses its target, but what the hell — that loose charm is part of the appeal of Whitman and his followers to boot.

Mr Kirby notes that the book comes with a CD, on which Mr Kinnell reads "in a steady, pleasant voice." Sold!

Reading Liesl Schillinger's enthusiastic review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, I had to bang my head a bit to dispel the dissonance of Michiko Kakutani's thorough panning in Books of the Times, the newspaper's daily feature.

Thomas Pynchon's new novel, ''Against the Day,'' reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author's might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex.

Quaaludes! Have mercy, Michiko! Ms Schillinger's excellent review, however, makes it clear to me why I would have no patience for a book that she clearly likes. 

Lovers of the detective genre might find echoes of Conan Doyle’s peculiar American coal-mine-country intrigue, “The Valley of Fear”; fans of Horatio Alger will spot nods to by-your-own-bootstraps nostalgia; P. G. Wodehouse fanatics will be amazed to discover abundant Woosterish scenes peopled by wacky Brits (they belong to an esoteric society called True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys, or T.W.I.T.); sci-fi and fantasy devotees will find homages to Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein and H. G. Wells (“Walloping Wellsianism!” a character cries); comics junkies will think of Neil Gaiman; admirers of “adult” fiction will savor salacious tangles redolent of Tom Robbins; and western aficionados can revel in tales of vigilantism, vendetta and heartbreak in rugged Western mining towns and old Mexico.

Conan Doyle and Wodehouse aside, this is a roster of writers - of kinds of writing - in which I have no interest. And I would not care to read a novel that reminded me of the two authors whom I do like; I should rather just read them. Ms Schillinger quotes enough from the novel to put me off my lunch. So much for this week's cover story.

Jean-Claude Carrière's Please, Mr Einstein (translated by John Brownjohn) gets a good review from Dennis Overbye, whose most recent book is Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance. Mr Overbye lays out the novel's concept -

In a room somewhere in a building outside of time, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Albert Einstein sits and works on his universal plan, plays his violin, puffs a pipe and fends off an outraged Isaac Newton, among other visitors. Into this scene comes an unnamed young woman with a tape recorder, which might or might not work under these circumstances — her watch apparently doesn’t — intent on getting an interview.

- and then, having assured us that the book "far exceeded my meager expectations," he samples some of its pleasures.

Robert F Worth makes The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, edited by Denys Johnson-Davies ("perhaps the most distinguished Arabic-to-English translator now living"), sound like an absolutely indispensable book for any serious humanist. He notes that the tradition of Arabic fiction is not particularly old, and also points out that big differences between written and spoken Arabic pose a preliminary literary challenge that every writer must meet in the most suitable way.  

Inevitably, politics play a role in some of the stories, often for the worse; self-righteousness and melodrama seem to come with this turf. This is true not just of fiction touching on Palestine and the Lebanese civil war but on women’s rights. Two stories by Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian who moved to the United States in the 1990s, are angry rants against Muslim treatment of women, and they are among the few stories in the book where an author appears to be playing to a Western audience. (It is worth noting, in this context, that the readership for serious fiction in the Arab world remains tiny by comparison with the West.)

Finally, Elsa Dixler rounds up five novels for a Fiction Chronicle.

From A Crooked Rib, by Nuruddin Farah. "...a young writer's novel, with an intermittently shaky point of view and language that can be awkward, but it demonstrates Farah's extraordinary ability to enter the consciousness of an unsophisticated woman."

Exiles in America, by Christopher Bram. "Bram's novel grapples with big issues - passion versus reason, the nature of marriage, the intersection of private and public lives - but its well-made plot is slowed by lots of talking and by Zack's many ruminations."

Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman. "Although the novel's plot is somewhat creaky and its climax seems contrived, the strength of this insular congregation is clearly conveyed." For my very different take, click here.

Piece of Work, by Laura Zigman. "In this novel, apparently, it is possible for a mother to have it all."

Famous Writers School, by Stephen Carter. "A clever satire, Famous Writers School consists of the correspondence between Wendell and his pupils. Oblivious Wendell is a truly terrible writer - his stories are laugh-out-loud awful - and his advice is deliciously wrong-headed, tone-deaf and pretentious."


This week's nonfiction is either biographical or, in the case of three books denouncing Ann Coulter, rantographical. Frank Lloyd Wright, Colin Powell, Gore Vidal and Jane Goodall are the subjects of four new biographies, or, in Gore Vidal's case, memoir.

Nicolai Ourousoff is not impressed by The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman.

The authors’ biggest insight, if you want to call it that, is that creative geniuses can also be abusive and self-absorbed. Their second biggest insight is that, isolated for years on end in the countryside, healthy, hard-bodied young men end up having a lot of sex, sometimes with one another.

Beyond the gossip, “The Fellowship” is packed with the tired clichés that have dogged architects for centuries: the leaky roofs, unchecked narcissism and total disregard for clients. The implication is that since Wright was a bad man, his work must contain, somewhere deep in its core, a corrupting antisocial gene. Taking an absurdly simplistic view of both the inner workings of the creative mind and of early-20th-century American cultural life, “The Fellowship” would be more fun if it weren’t also so predictable.

The final kiss-off is even deadlier: "Unfortunately, the notion that contradictory qualities can coexist in the same man seems beyond the authors' grasp.

Christopher Hitchens is tetchy about Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964-2006, the sequel to Gore Vidal's Palimpsest, owing more, I suspect, to the botheration of meeting a word count than to the smallish flaws that he ticks off. Point to Point Navigation, Mr Hitchens writes,

is almost chaste in its recollections, is concerned mainly with the doings of other people and bears an imposing portrait of a silvery old lion in winter . A flippant working title for it, we learn, was "Between Obituaries," and indeed, a roll call of deaths and funerals among contemporaries is set down with a blend of melancholy and relish: "Just as I decided that I was done with obituaries the pope and Saul Bellow die." The confusion of tenses there is revealing in itself.

Michael Lewis is quietly derisive about Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell, by Karen DeYoung. Taking up a passage in which Ms DeYoung describes the young Powell's attraction to military uniforms, Mr Lewis suggests,

A less sympathetic biographer might have seized on this point in Powell’s character — a perhaps excessive interest in the surface of things — turned it into a weapon and run him through with it. DeYoung, an associate editor at The Washington Post, offers it up more mercifully as just another of Powell’s personality traits, to be set incongruously beside his courage, ambition, humor, evasiveness, charm, calculation and decency. It’s not that she is entirely uncritical; it’s just that she is blessed with the ability to see through her subject and forgive him for the view. She’s written a portrait of Powell that is as revealing as it can be and remain flattering, and as flattering as it can be and remain revealing. And she’s written it very well.

What Mr Lewis derides is the image of Colin Powell as a noble soldier trapped by loyalty. In the Mr Lewis's eyes, Mr Powell "wasn't a soldier. He was a wily old political hand." Although the word "opportunist" does not appear in the review, it always seems to lurk around the corner.

Deborah Blum is mostly pleased about Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, by Dale Peterson.

Fortunately, the biography transcends its rather awestruck beginning and grows, detail by detail, into an absorbing portrait. At its best, it provides a remarkable account of what a person can accomplish through courage and self-sacrifice — and a reminder of how few of us are willing to commit our lives to such an extent. Whether Goodall really “redefined man,” as the book’s subtitle asserts, may be open to debate, but there’s no doubt that she powerfully redefined the way we see our fellow primates.

Ms Blum, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her writing about primate research, complains that the biography is short on "introspection and personal analysis," but she clearly forgives this shortcoming.

Jacob Heilbrunn is dismissive of the three Ann Coulter books: Soulless: Ann Coulter and the Right-Wing Church of Hate, by Susan Estrich; Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter, by Joe Maguire; and I Hate Ann Coulter!, by "Unanimous." You've got to love this:

While Coulter has skillfully disseminated such nonsense, her detractors supply no evidence that she has ever had an original thought. And they can’t. Instead of exposing Coulter as a mortal threat to the Republic, the only thing they expose is their own credulity. In the end, these witless little books don’t puncture the Coulter myth. They inflate it.

Henry Alford's Essay, "Name That Book," is really a multiple-choice test, about titles and subtitles that might have been, that you will probably not do very well on. So don't waste your time trying to guess the correct answer; just head for the answers, which, conveniently, are not printed upside-down.

What Do You Think?

Before settling down to work this morning, I followed an interesting link from Joe.My.God, and the result is a new group of photoblogs on my roster. Have a look! But by all means don't miss this incredible shot from Travis Ruse's site. I just can't get over the two cops, leaning against the upright beam with a symmetry befitting Castor and Pollux.

Late last night and early this morning, I read the December issue of Vanity Fair, which of course went to bed before Election Day. Surprisingly, the wonder-who-will-win note struck in many of the articles doesn't seem benighted. We can only hope that Michael Wolff is right when, having written off Rummy, he predicts that Henry Kissinger will "urge" the President to get rid of his Extravagantly Unattractive Vice President and replace him with John McCain. Intéressant.

Anyway, now that the elections are over, we can take up more benign controversies, such as Jason Kottke's new glasses. Follow the link to Flick'r and see which camp you're in: are the frames edgy or girly? And would you say that Mr Kottke has a round face? I sure wouldn't. Don't miss the comment that advises him to grow a Mohawk and "pierce everything."

The American Pilot, at MTC's Stage II

The American Pilot, David Greig's new play, is a remarkable piece of work, and MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow has done a bang-up job of directing it. I don't think I'd seen any of the cast members before, and most of them had not appeared on Broadway, but they were all super, and I expect to see more of them. As I say perhaps too often, one of the pleasures of frequenting the New York theatre is the chance to see actors routinely tackle wildly different roles, something not quite a handful of Hollywood actors are allowed to do.

The story is simple. An American Pilot (Aaron Staton) crashes his plane in a remote Eurasian village that is under the control of a guerilla opposition. The government...

Continue reading about The American Pilot aux Champignons at Portico.

November 27, 2006

Not Up to Speed

Crawling out from under a heap of Timeses, I rub my eyes and vacantly survey the scene. That's what I do every Monday, but not in public; as a rule, I'll have written up a book for Monday publication. The cupboard is bare today, however. There are several books in my to-write-up pile, but they all seem to be somewhat challenging. Take Measuring the World, for example - the book by Daniel Kehlmann that I read in St Croix. Perhaps because I haven't read much Pynchon, I haven't read anything quite like Measuring the World. When it wasn't making me laugh, it was at least making me smile. But a good deal of sleight-of-hand is involved, and I haven't figured how its tricks work. How does a brisk narrative whose surface is characterized by a childlike intensity of gaze upon the manifest present, as well as by a brusque, deadpan humor that I take to be peculiarly German - how does such a narrative convey the illusion of cosmic scope? When I can answer that question, I'll write up Mr Kehlmann's novel.  

In today's Times, there's an Op-Ed piece by Richard A Shweder that I found provocative. Entitled "Atheists Agonistes," the piece considers the recent spate of aggressively atheistical books, by such writers as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Mr Shweder notes that the famously tolerant John Locke warned against tolerating atheists. Here's Locke, as quoted in the essay:

Promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.

Locke's interest in "promises, covenants and oaths" marks him as a man who has not entirely moved out of the feudal atmosphere that, while thin, had not altogether evaporated by the end of the seventeenth century. He doesn't believe that an individual can make a calculated, self-interested decision to honor his commitments, reasoning that this is not only the most prudent but the simplest policy to adopt. I am always surprised to find that there are very bright people who behave well because they fancy that God is looking over their shoulder, because I would loathe such a God with Satan's rage, and probably take up a life of evil. This is not to say that I am an atheist. I don't happen to believe in a God, but I also don't profess to know the first thing about the possibility that God exists. The matter is actually of no earthly interest to me - and I have no unearthly interests. This makes it easier to agree with Mr Shweder's conclusion:

Instead of waging intellectual battles over the existence of god(s), those of us who live in secular society might profit by being slower to judge others and by trying very hard to understand how it is possible for John Locke and our many atheist friends to continue to gaze at each other in such a state of mutual misunderstanding.


November 26, 2006

At My Kitchen Table: The Club Sandwich

Of the club sandwich on white toast with mayonnaise I sing, O muse - and why can't the general public get a good one in New York City? Is it the "club"? Do you have to work at one in order to understand what's wanted?

It would seem so. For six days in a row last week, I had a delicious club sandwich for lunch. The Buccaneer Beach Hotel, across the harbor from Christiansted, USVI, may be neither snooty nor stuffy, but it is very much the same sort of resort to which my parents liked to repair fifty years ago, and notwithstanding myriad advances on the modcons front - not to mention seismic shifts in the dress code - the ancient secrets of the club sandwich have been preserved. It was only on the day of departure that I didn't consume every last morsel - we had but ten minutes in which to eat before hopping into a taxi to the airport. Confronting, day after day, the concrete realization of a Platonic ideal inevitably provoked reflections upon the theory and practice of the club sandwich. In the hope that you, dear reader, will migrate to Manhattan and pursue a culinary career in one of the coffee shops across the street, I will share my thoughts.

The club sandwich is a tricky confection of bacon, turkey, lettuce and tomato. lubricated by mayonnaise, mounted on three, not two, slices of toasted bread, and cut into diagonal quarters secured by toothpicks. If we begin by contemplating its raucous backstairs sibling, the BLT, we see at once how important it is that the turkey in a club sandwich be moist and sliced very thin. For the turkey is not just "more meat." As a counterfoil to the bacon's crunchiness, it must be rosily tender. The first bite of a good club sandwich makes it clear that turkey is taking the place of ham, theoretically mouthwatering but factually, in view of the bacon, de trop. In other words, the turkey in a club sandwich is ham that comes from a different animal. The slices are paper-thin so as not to detract from the crunch of the bacon and the toast.

Most living things are largely water, but tomatoes are so watery that they make the rest of us look like clay. To participate in any kind of sandwich, tomato slices must dry out a bit, lest they subvert the construction like liquid icebergs. Spending a few salted minutes on paper towels is essential. And, speaking of icebergs, let's be clear about the lettuce: only iceberg will do. Romaine, which is equally crunchy, may be ideal for Caesar salads, but it's far too bitter for what is essentially the sweetest of savory concoctions.

Even the bacon is not a no-brainer. If it is undercooked, teeth won't cut it; overcooked and brittle, it is almost as destructive as soggy tomato. The bacon must be moist (okay, greasy) enough to adhere to its neighbor, which is neither the lettuce nor the turkey, both of which lie on the other side of the middle piece of toast.

The mayonnaise must be Hellmann's. I made a club sandwich once with some leftover mayonnaise that I'd whipped up the day before for something else, and the problem was that the mayonnaise tasted really good. The mayonnaise in a club sandwich shouldn't taste at all. Its strictly supporting role is to provide a creamy solvent to an ensemble of ingredients that are either very dry (bacon, turkey, toast) or very not (lettuce, tomato).

Finally, everything must be thin. The bite of a club sandwich ought to be melting, not a tug of war. It ought to be very easy to eat, not a production that requires you to open wide and say "AHHH."

At the Buccaneer, as at a few other seaside resorts that I've been to, the club sandwich is a compound, not a mixture. It does not taste like bacon-turkey-lettuce-tomato-mayonnaise-toast. It tastes like a club sandwich, miraculously smooth and chewy at the same time. It is well worth the hell of two plane flights.

November 25, 2006

No Surprise

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Northeast

Judging by how you talk you are probably from north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island. Chances are, if you are from New York City (and not those other places) people would probably be able to tell if they actually heard you speak.

The Inland North
The Midland
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

But I am puzzled by the last sentence. What does it mean? Is it trying to be funny?

Role Playing

This wonderfully raunchy satire would be amusing even if it weren't for the drunkenly libinous "Oh, yeah..." right in the middle, but that one line lifts the whole piece to a higher level. Now turn over.



And now we are home, safe, sound, and not too cold. For the first time ever, we passed through Customs with nothing to declare. A couple of CDs, a T-shirt for M le Neveu, two brass bangles for Kathleen. The fifth of Cutty Sark and the tin of Planters Cocktail Nuts never left the room. Neither was empty when abandoned, either.

If there's something wrong with the laptop, I don't know what it is. I plugged it in and got a dial-up connection straight away. But I won't be taking that machine anywhere again.

November 23, 2006



As it turns out, we did not escape Thanksgiving. It's a holiday in the US Virgin Islands as well. At the Mermaid, there was a "football menu" of finger food, and chairs were arranged in front of a big screen over in a corner. There was turkey at dinner, and Kathleen actually ordered it, even though she always says that she hates turkey, and especially on Thanksgiving.

After lunch, which we had on the early side in order to avoid the football, Kathleen melted into sleep. She had entered what we call Stage II of fatigue relief. In Stage I, which occurs every weekend, Kathleen naps but is otherwise alert as usual. Stage II is reached only after several days away from home, and it never lasts long enough to wind up naturally because Kathleen can't away from the office for more than a week. While Stage II lasts, though, Kathleen is so tired that she hasn't got the energy to be anxious about how tired she is. This is very different from, and infinitely preferable to, the dark exhaustion that can overwhelm her when everyday stress becomes chronically acute. It's too bad that our time in St Croix ends tomorrow.

I'm ready to go home, though; I've had my little reboot. At dinner (at which I was one of the few gents in jacket and tie), I tried to take the measure of how much I had changed in the past two years, not because I'd set out to change but because keeping the Daily Blague (and adding to Portico) has proven to be - what? The image that comes to me now, heaven knows why, is that of the pump and filter system in a fishtank. For the first time in my life, I can get up in the morning and expect that my mind will be aerated and fresh. I will work harder than I have ever worked in my life, day after day after day, but the effect will be the opposite of draining or exhausting. While I'm mostly grateful for having stumbled upon the knack of life at last, it is more than a little sobering to look back on decades of occupational confusion. So! No more looking back.

November 22, 2006

On Vacation


It didn't occur to me until lunch today that Meredith Willson set forth my ideal vacation regime in The Music Man. Of course, I had to change a few words.

Eat a little,

Read a little,

Eat a little,

Read a little,

Eat, Eat, Eat!

Read a lot.

Eat a little more...

It's really that simple. We did take a walk along the beach that's long enough to take a walk on. It was a slog, because the beach is not only narrow but raked. The strip of packed-down sand that accommodates normal walking is exiguous at best, and because there is no discernible tide, it is always in the last wash of the surf. While not exactly penitential, it is a far cry from the sandy highway of Coronado Beach, the best that I've ever walked. In any case, we took our exercise, and Kathleen took lots of great photos.

After lunch, there was Measuring the World to finish, and the Review review to complete. While the rest of the world frolicked, I hunched virtuously over my laptop. Well, for a little while, anyway.

In the Book Review

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

This week's Book Review is so entertaining that it may have undermined my critical fortitude. The issue has a non-seasonal theme, and a title to go with it: "Bad Boys, Mean Girls, Revolutionaries, Outlaws, and Beautiful Losers." It's an irresistible rubric.

Bad Boys

Not being plugged in to the deeper layers of New York's media culture, I don't know just why the Review invited filmmaker John Waters to write an appreciation of Tennessee Williams, à propos of nothing in particular, for the "Bad Boy" issue. (Ha! There's undoubtedly a career-serving à propos underneath it somewhere - and I don't necessarily mean John Waters's.) It's a sweet piece, but because it's so strong about the very things that I long ago decided that I could live without out in Williams, it doesn't inspire me to reconsider my decision that the playwright is not on my list. Perhaps the following will make my case:

Of course, I knew who Tennessee Williams was. he was a bad man because the nuns in Catholic Sunday School had told us we'd go to hell if we saw that movie he wrote, Baby Doll - the one with the great ad campaign, with Carroll Baker in the crib sucking her thumb, that made Cardinal Spellman have a nation-wide hissy fit. The same ad I clipped out of The Baltimore Sun countless times and pasted in my secret scrapbook. The movie I planned to show over and overin the fantasy dirty-movie theatre in my mind that I was going to open later in life, causing a scandal in my parents' neighborhood.

The sad truth is that John Waters is far more my type of bad boy than Tennessee Williams could ever be. Williams is quoted in the piece as having said "I've had a wonderful and terrible life and I wouldn't cry for myself. Would you?" I don't buy this bit of braggadocio - not from the author of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I admire Mr Waters for believing it, though.

Stephen Heller's review of I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life, by Al Goldstein and Josh Alan Friedman, is electric for one reason only: Mr Heller drops the fact, by way of disclosure, that he was the first art editor of Screw - at the age of seventeen. There is really nothing that Al Goldstein can have done, in his long and picaresque exploitation of the First Amendment, that equals Mr Heller's professional precocity. But something about the review suggests that Mr Heller may have learned a thing or two about generosity from his former boss.

Goldstein, in addition to being a porn king, made an art of self-loathing. It pervades I, Goldstein, and was his most driving and destructive force. Despite his aggressively funny writing style, Goldstein doubted he was truly intelligent.

There is currently no more emphatic praise than to say of someone that he or she doubted his or her intelligence. Mr Heller may be forgiven, under the circumstances, for having much more to say about Al Goldstein than he has to say about Mr Goldstein's memoir, which is almost definitely review-proof.

Ron Powers nails Barry Miles's biography, Charles Bukowski, in one line - to which I'll add the one that follows.

Since Miles curiously offers hardly any examples of Bukowski's poetry, he is in a competition that only his subject can win. Why bother to read the biographer's endless prosaic variations on "He drowned himself in alcohol" when we have access to the master's own testimony.

Mr Powers also thinks that Howard Sounes's 1999's Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life is a better study. He does suggest, however, that Mr Miles writes better than he thinks he does.

Ralph Steadman, the excoriating illustrator who among other things was Hunter S Thompson's sidekick on several gonzo journalistic exploits, has given us The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S Thompson, and Me. Will Blythe notes that "For a few years in the 1970s, it did appear that insanity was a great career move," and/but concludes that "His illustrator tries to put the best possible light on the matter, but betrayed and appalled, he can't." I myself have had all photographs taken of me during the early Seventies destroyed, and I advise you to do likewise. Only the women came out of that time looking good.

Given the company, it seems almost cruel to hold up Tom Sykes against the deranged examples set by his elder betters, but the former "nightlife columnist and occasional [New York Post] Page Six [gossip] reporter at large" leaves us no choice - or at least the editors of the Review don't. What Did I Do Last Night?: A Drunkard's Tale is a title that I fell in love with on sight, because it was so nice to know that someone was asking that question, but Campbell Robertson's review is not promising - and if anybody could have sold this book, it's the blazingly clever Mr Robertson, whose own far superior gossip column in the Times was put to a stop by the Spanish Inquisition. Coming from an ordinary Times reviewer, the following sentence would be discouraging: "Sykes's book is not ambitious: there are few attempts at insight or sparking observations." But coming from Campbell Robertson, it's utterly flattening. One would spend the whole time wishing that Mr Robertson had written the book.

Mean Girls

Naturally, there aren't nearly as many girls as there are boys - only two - and while both are enthusiastically "bad," it seems unjust to label either as "mean." Courtney Love is certainly ambitious, but, far from sounding heartless, she reminds me of Jay Gatsby. It may be ridiculous to claim that the "man I most want to sleep with: W B Yeats," but it's plucky. Emily Nussbaum regards Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love, edited by Ava Stander, as premature and messy, but it's possible that those two adjectives describe the singing star's appeal, and Ms Nussbaum seems aware of this. Her review teeters on condescension but is certainly never withering. One wonders if Ms Love will suffer the fate of Alice Denham, i e oblivion, just as one wonder if Ms Denham's Sleeping With Bad Boys, A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the Fifties and Sixties will resuscitate her claim to fame. Stacey D'Erasmo's review is wide-eyed but sympathetic.

A feminist critique of her position in those years weaves through the book - what happened to women who liked sex, the incredible arrogance of the male lit stars, the hypocrisy of the age - but the younger Denham, the eager black-clad artiste and adventurer, seems heartbreakingly credulous. When James Jones went to her apartment with a bottle of liquor and a bouquet of compliments on her first published short story (about a woman who accepts money for sex), did she truly believe they were outlaw writers together? Did she believe it a few hours later? When Playboy reprinted that same short story in the issue for which she was the centerfold, did she honestly think the magazine was interested in her literary skills?


Allen Ginsberg and Edward Abbey may have misbehaved from time to time, but it was always for a good cause, not in pursuit of irresistible impulses. Calling them "revolutionaries" may seem to be a stretch, but both were untiring critics of American complacency who, unlike the bad boys, expected better of the United States.

Walter Kirn writes generously of Ginsberg's life and work. The poetry has recently been collected (Collected Poems, 1947-1997), and Mr Kirn's take on it is revitalizing.

Even Whitman, Ginsberg's spiritual mentor, had never dreamed of such democracy. The egalitarianism of looming extinction. No wonder so many of Ginsberg's poems, especially those he wrote in his full potency, took the form of roll calls, lists and litanies, dispensing with time-consuming syntax and substituting ampersands for "ands." Cold war America, in Ginsberg's view, was Now or Never Land. Either speak up immediately and fully or, perhaps, miss the chance to speak at all.

As for I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, by Bill Morgan, Mr Kirn's judgment is extremely brisk: it's "exhaustive yet not exhausting, swiftly readable new biography." Mr Morgan might be forgiven for wishing that the review had a little more to say about his book in the very great space afforded to Mr Kirn, who, in context, seems impatient to be done with it.

If the English produce eccentrics, then we Americans produce cranks, and Edward Abbey is a prime specimen. The novelist was an inveterate writer of letters to editors, and they form a substantial portion of Postcards From Ed: Dispatches and Salvos From an American Iconoclast, edited by David Petersen. Jonathan Miles's review is amused, and he provides scads of provocative quotes. In the end, though, he prefers Abbey's novels and journals, noting that the letters show the writer "from the neck up." Sprinkled throughout his piece are hints of a formidable misogyny, disguised as an enthusiasm for beautiful women. (Abbey married five times.)


The outlaws are all fictional, except for one of the authors, Subcomandante Marcos, of Chiapas guerilla fame. The subcommandant has teamed up with a seasoned Mexican detective novelist, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, to write alternating chapters in a book entitled The Uncomfortable Dead (What's Missing Is Missing), translated by Carlos Lopez. Andrey Slivka dismisses the result as a "gimmick."

The problem is mostly with Marcos, whose chapters ramble on at almost twice the length of Taibo's. The subcomandante, who isn't a first time author ... is simply not a talented fiction writer; it's sometimes hard even to know what his sentences mean.

... It's like watching Thelonious Monk being shoved off the stool by a thumping fellow in a mask.

Concerned readers will be relieved to know that Mr Slivka is "based in Kiev" - or will they? Natalie Moore's review of Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin, is not quite so negative, but Ms Moore stresses that this book, originally published under a pseudonym in 1994, shows just how much the notable creator of John Rebus had to learn as recently as twelve years ago. A scene set in Seattle prompts her to write, "A reader's credulity stretches only so far." As for Mark Winegardner's The Godfather's Revenge, Michael Agger says of its central character, Nick Geraci, that he is "somewhat unbelievable. He's a wiseguy in search of a Renaissance weekend." In the end, Mr Agger feels that the book adds nothing to the Corleone literary tradition, leaving one with the question, However did this book get into the Review?

Beautiful Losers

More false promise (see "Outlaws"). The only beautiful loser that I can find in the Review is Neal Cassady, who was beautiful and who, because, as James Campbell puts is in his review of Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero, by David Sandison and Graham Vickers,

In the early days, Cassady had ambitions to write, but a rudimentary education compounded by an inability to concentrate on tasks requiring sustained effort mean his attempts (mostly fragments of autobiography, collected in 1971 as The First Third) lack refinement - even the refinement required to make them read "raw" - and structure. Cassady understood this, while others did not.

Mr Campbell treats the authors' claim that Cassady was "a uniquely creative mind that somehow managed to change the course of American literature by proxy" as "not exaggerated," but he has almost nothing to say by way of evaluating the biography. As well as beautiful, Cassady is still somewhat dazzling.

The only other losers are trends. There's the Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications, 1965-1975, explored in a book by Jean-François Bizot, reviewed by Gary Kamiya. The book "reminds us that the alternative press could be juvenile, didactic, and impossibly heavy-handed - but also hilarious, Swiftian and brilliantly creative," but

There will never be publications quite like these agian, because the culture form which they sprang is gone forever. And these journals were not the highest achievement of that culture - that honor goes to music.

The other loser, sort of, is the downtown culture of Old New York, as in Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, a collection edited by Brandon Stosuy. The book is necessarily elegiac: it's a retrospective of those aspects of New York's hip edginess that are no longer current. Meghan O'Rourke puts her finger on what has changed:

Up Is Up drives home the argument that it wasn't just rising rents but AIDS that brought this period to a definitive end. The age of outrageous play was replaced by an age of sex ed and condo conversions. The media may proclaim Red Hook or Bushwick the new Bohemia, but these neighborhoods simply don't have the seedy charge of the East Village in the 1970s and '80s - a contemporary hipster style, intellectual and sartorial, hardly has the same anti-authoritarian bristle.

Sadly, Ms O'Rourke declines to offer a judgment of the book as a collection. Perhaps because, as she notes, she and her brother were riveted as kids by the first Mohawks, she's in no position to tell us whether Mr Stosuy's selection is as judicious as it might have been.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Art of the Feud," is remarkable for emphasizing, as it goes along, its own complete lack of necessity. Does the exchange of insults between and among writers and critics somehow revitalize literature? Does it amount to more than squalid entertainment? If you have to ask, then you may go to your room and live without everyone but Amis and Mailer until you see the error of your ways.

Steven Katz

Like any good resort, the Buccaneer Beach Hotel retains a rota of musicians to provide nightly entertainment. During our short visit, the music has never been too loud, and the performances have always been good of their kind - very good, really. But nothing prepared us for Steven Katz, the guitarist who took the stage (such as it is) on Tuesday evening. We could hear him from our front door before we walked up hill to dinner, but we didn't really pay attention until we'd been seated and served. Then we noticed that he was extremely gifted. In the middle of the second set that we heard, he tossed out a feeler to see if anyone would mind some "classical" music. I didn't hear anybody's else's response because I was too loudly shouting that I wouldn't mind. Whereupon Mr Katz launched a sequence that began with Dowland and ended with Villa Lobos. I can't claim to be an aficionado of the guitar, but I know a virtuoso when I hear one, and Steven Katz could play anything, anywhere, and thrill his audience. What he is doing in St Croix, or the Virgin Islands, or the Antilles Greater and Lesser, is, from a personal standpoint, none of my business, but the question is not musically impertinent.

Mr Katz has produced a CD on which he plays his own compositions, and if you have any interest in great guitar, visit this site and get yourself a copy.

November 21, 2006

Kehlmann and Cabaret

My reading vacation continues apace. Having done with Nature Girl yesterday - if you can imagine a Feydeau farce set on a hummock called Dismal Key, then you must already have read this hilarious book - I was not quite ready to start in on Thomas Kehlmann's much more serious Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway; Pantheon, 2006). Little did I know that Mr Kehlmann's book is not a very great deal more serious than Mr Hiaasen's; its drollery is just very dry. I would find this out in the afternoon, when I read nearly all of the novel, which is about two contemporaries, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss, who devoted their careers to the eponymous project but who otherwise had nothing in common. When we got back to the room after breakfast, I picked up the irresistibly packaged Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, by James Gavin (2nd edition; Back Stage, 2006). Opening the book way past the halfway point, I read about the birth of Reno Sweeney (the cabaret, not the Cole Porter character) and the death of the piano bar Backstage. Mr Gavin seems generously disposed toward most of his numerous subjects, but the atmosphere of dish is Venusian.

Today's lunch at the Mermaid (the Buccaneer's beachfront terrace) was not quite as amusing as yesterday's. There was an unbelievable "bar backup" that obliged me to eat my lunch without a glass of wine (the outrage!), and the background music was looped on the same inane steel-band piece for nearly an hour. More significantly, there were fewer guests to watch, as families headed home for Turkey Day. We saw this happen at Dorado Beach two years ago. Shades of "Death in Venice." Very sunny shades, bien sûr.

On Tuesdays, there is a Manager's Reception in the ruin of a sugar mill that stands next to the main building. I wanted to go, but after a long walk down Grotto Beach and back, Kathleen was pooped. She stretched out on the wide window seat and napped instead. That's why I almost finished Measuring the World.

Kathleen's decision not to go into Christiansted occasioned much inner and some outward rejoicing. Not only would I not have to worry about her when, inevitably, she checked in with a phone call ninety minutes after the appointed time, but she'd really keep things restful and simple. While I was measuring the world, she was laughing over a piece about a "swag party" in Vogue. That's the ticket.

Losing Louie, at MTC

Losing Louie, the comedy by Simon Mendes da Costa that's about to close at the Manhattan Theatre Club, was a strange show, in that I laughed all the way through it and then felt like an idiot. The moment the curtain came down, I felt that I'd been made to sit through a something dredged from the Seventies. There were plenty of good lines, but in the context of the completed performance they withered with age. Why the play's problems didn't obtrude until it was over remains a mystery to me.

As long as Matthew Arkin and Mark Linn-Baker were emoting on stage, I could buy their angry half-brother routine. It was almost cute. When it was over, though, it was suddenly just acting. The actual brothers whom they'd been impersonating didn't seem very real to me, because they were too much the product of Plotting.

The action takes place in a Pound Ridge bedroom, in both the Early Sixties and the present, in a scenes that alternate between the periods. This an interesting device, because not only does it double the narrative and, with that, the climax, but it offers the opportunity to wash the later action in irony. By revealing, in the denouement of the earlier story, that the relationships between the characters in the later story are not what we or they think it is, the playwright can give his show a neat double take. Mr Mendes da Costa, does not sneak up to us with any surprises, however. Long before Bobbie Ellis (Rebecca Creskoff) leans over the bassinette and coos, "Reggie, Reggie, Reggie," we know that the relationship between the middle aged Tony (Mr Linn- Baker) and Reggie (Mr Arkin) are closer than most adoptive brothers, because they share a father, the late lamented Louie (Scott Cohen). Memo to Mr M de C: Tell us something we didn't see coming before it sailed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!

Continue reading about Losing Louie aux Champignons at Portico.

November 20, 2006

High and Dry


Not having Internet access is a bummer, and knowing that it might be just my fault - that it might be the old laptop, something I ought to have tested for before we left New York, and not some local problem (although the dial tone does sound odd) - hardly makes it easier for me to quash the desire to get back home right away in order to get to the bottom of the problem. Perhaps it will prove easier than I think to get beyond my childish disappointment. I'll be home in a few days, and I can live without my email just as well as the world can live without my entries. Actually, I can check my mail on the public computer in the lobby, and even write posts. What I can't do is upload Kathleen's photographs. And of course I can't write at length, because one is asked to keep one's computer time to fifteen minutes. If I'd brought my Iomegamini stick, I just might try to take advantage of a USB port, but I didn't, so it seems best to adopt the course that I've arrived at, which is to write as if I could post, and then backdate everything. As long as the backdating is discreetly noted, I can't see that it makes much difference in the long run.

The Prof warned me that St Croix was no Bermuda. I knew that as well as one can know something in advance of experience, but what I've found out is that I have desire to leave "the property," as the staff refer to the Buccaneer campus. Kathleen plans to go into Christiansted to do a little shopping (there's apparently an important bead shop), but she won't mind, she says, if I stay here. What we saw on the drive from the airport was almost depressing. This island needs a Board of Trade! There is the additional discomfort of getting into a van and bouncing around on roads through neighborhoods that I can hardly see because I can no longer crane my neck to raise the window line. My lack of curiosity about the island is almost surprising, but clearly I've bracketed St Croix with Yonkers and White Plains, the nightmare towns of my childhood, places to which I thought I might be deported for bad behavior. It is all - the Buccaneer aside - extremely drab. You have to be in love with the climate to bear it, and I am not in love with the climate.

Which is not to say that it's unpleasant to sit on the beachside terrace, enjoying a martini - but only one, and Chardonnay after that (my new regime) - and a club sandwich as only places like this know how to make. The people-watching is engaging, because there are lots of families and one can play the Darwinian game of seeing who takes after whom and wondering if the relation between the man and the boy at the next table doesn't have "step" in it somewhere. I devoted a lot of attention to  a family consisting (as I saw it) of a forty-something couple with four children, three girls (one of whom may grow up to be a supermodel) and then a boy, by the name of Cooper, and the mother's parents. The dad, I surmised, was a guy from an ordinary middle-class background who'd done well both at sports and academically and gone on to succeed at a serious corporation, managing a division perhaps, and taking his family out of its background forever. The father-in-law, I guessed, might own a car dealership or a major insurance agency, but his son-in-law was working on a larger scale. When I was hrough, Kathleen asked what other people must conjecture about us. Something as wildly wrong as what I'd just outlined, I replied.

November 19, 2006

At the Buccaneer


We're here in Christiansted, St Croix - and it looks as though I'm just going to have to take a break from blogging. For some reason, my laptop doesn't recognize the local dial tone, which could really be just another failure of the ageing machine. I wish that I could share the lovely pictures that Kathleen has been taking, but they'll have to wait until the weekend. Not that you don't have plenty to keep you busy until then.

Because I'd been assured that I'd have dial-up access in the room (which is lovely, with a beautiful view - and I was wrong about the surf), I was a bitter as well as frustrated at first. Kathleen's response was to go into town and buy a proper wireless machine. I wouldn't have it. Configuring a new machine far from home? Now there's something that I wouldn't want to do on vacation.

Be like me, and get yourself a copy of Nature Girl Carl Hiaasen's latest frolic. It's terrific fun so far.

Marital Bliss

So, how were we going to get up in the middle of the night to get off on our Thanksgiving vacation? We would have to leave the apartment at four in the morning in order to make the flight at six, Kathleen reasoned. I thought that I would take my new sleeping pill and sleep for a few hours. That didn't happen. We had a big fight instead. The usual one about holiday destinations. Kathleen went so far as to ask why I don't think that Bermuda is a "rock in the middle of the sea." Of course it is - but then it's also Bermuda, and not in the Caribbean. Amazingly, this discussion went on until shortly before three in the morning, and I was perfectly awake through all of it, which is even more amazing. So now I'm the one who's dressed, while Kathleen is snoozing. I'm wondering when I ought to tell her that it's time to get up. I think I'll wait until the car is buzzed up.

At My Kitchen Table

Experienced readers will know that I am not worrying about turkeys or large groups of guests today. I am, rather, on out of town, this year to St Croix, in the US Virgin Islands. It will be my first proper Caribbean experience. Everyone says, "Oh, how great! Sun and sand!" It is very pretty, I expect, but there won't be any audible surf, which is for me the only reason for spending time near a body of water (other than the bodies of water that we have right here at home). I have been told that there is a very nice outdoor bar where I'll be staying, on a terrace, from which one gazes across the harbor at the town of Christianstad. Well, that I can manage.

I just found a video singing the charms of St Croix tourism. I'd have liked to see my face when the presenter said, "A good way to explore St Croix is to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle..." I love the history of all those little islands. Even being a US possession hasn't restored the driving to the right side of the road.

Kathleen will be taking pictures with the EOS Digital Rebel that she bought, pre-owned but unopened, at eBay last week. Because the CD drive on my ancient Vaio laptop, which I never use anymore except when we travel, is kaput, I had to copy the Canon software on to an Iomega Thumb and go from there. Then I had to figure out how to work the camera, because there was no point to taking it if we couldn't see the pictures on the spot, was there? As it turns out, the CF or memory cards are "optional" with the purchase of new EOS cameras, and Kathleen's did not come with one. So I had to cannibalize a Power Shot camera that I bought two years ago for our Istanbul trip - for Kathleen to use. In order to get the CF card out of the old camera, I had to read the Spanish-language manual, because the English-language manual was nowhere to be found. (Eventually I got the PCMCIA hang of it.) Having installed the Power Shot's software on both computers some time ago, I was disconcerted when the EOS installation was interrupted, as it was quite often, by a message telling me that there was a newer version of the software on my machine! This setup ate up no more than two hours of the day, but I was obsessed, and I triumphed. That was good. Kathleen picked up a big CF card on her afternoon rounds, so we're set.

The old laptop will be replaced early next year. Kathleen will choose it, for it will be her personal computer at home. She needs one. She has just about doubled her wardrobe for less than $500 at eBay in recent months. That's cool, but you don't pull it off without attending to dozens of auctions at a time. Which may make your significant other unhappy, because he's got entries to write and Gmail to check. The new machine will bring us up to date on connectivity. It will be interesting to find out how well wi-fi works in the apartment. M le Neveu always gets great reception when he's here, and we haven't even turned on our wi-fi router yet!

I'm getting to love this virtual kitchen table of mine, where I seem to spend most of my time not talking about cooking. The first thing that I'm going to do when I get home is log on to FreshDirect and order three pounds of plum tomatoes, two large Vidalia onions, three Granny Smith apples, and a big can of College Inn beef broth. These are the principal ingredients in a soup that I got through all of last winter without making - a first in fourteen or fifteen years. (possible autobiography title: How I Found Myself At My Blog And Stopped Cooking.) I'm also going to try that simple but extraordinary bread that was written up in the Times and then hailed by the far more trustworthy Thomas Meglioranza!

Whatever they tell you, don't fall for the "macerated cranberry sauce."

November 18, 2006

The Vertical Hour

Last night, at City Opera, I had one of the most delightful evenings of my life. I had gotten tickets to see Così fan tutte, an opera about which I couldn't possibly be pickier, just to see what City Opera would make of it. It's a sign of how far City Opera has come from the old days that it mounts a production of this opera at all. Once upon a time, mediocrity at the demotic house would be tolerated, but no longer. And the only thing mediocre about Così at City Opera is the visible flimsiness of the sets. Who cares about that? It makes me feel that I'm in Palermo or somewhere. The singing was fantastic, but more than that, I was sitting in a happy house. Thanks to surtitles, the audience was able to follow the characters' witty exchanges. The translations were absolutely barbaric, but if they'd been accurate, there would have been less laughter. (Guglielmo exclaims near the end, for example, that he'd rather wed the barca di Caronte than Fiordiligi. How many people know what "Charon's barque" is anymore?) I really loved the laughter. Everything onstage and in the pit harmonized beautifully. and Così was sublime and ridiculous at the same time. I promise to name names later. If I single out the captivating Kyle Pfortmiller, it's because he spent most of the opera barefoot. That's not why he was captivating, though.

I can't say more about it now, because I'm packing for our annual Thanksgiving escape. I've only mentioned Così because it's the reason why I couldn't use the tickets to The Vertical Hour that I mistakenly ordered for the same evening. The Vertical Hour is still in previews, so ordinarily I would hold off writing about it until it opened, but my old friend (and he is old) took the tickets off my hands, and I have asked him to give us an idea of the show. If I made him wait, he'd get very cranky. So keep your eyes on the Comments.

Little Children

Little Children, Todd Field's adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel (with help from the novelist), steeps its tale of suburbia in a dream-like calm. What might at first appear to be straightforward, naturalistic moviemaking is actually extremely artful. The vernacular settings conceal this somewhat, but the exquisite timing gives it away. Everything about this movie has been worked on until it is just right, and its faintly self-conscious assurance makes it almost frightening.

Like Alexander Payne's Election (another Perrotta title), Little Children is about a nice-looking town where things are not so nice - because they're human. Mr Perrotta is an artist of the small moral weakness, and he is seismically attuned to the stress of ennui that's unavoidable in any environment primarily designed to accommodate children. The little children of the title are not the central characters but the forces of gravity that bind the adults in place. Sexuality is scrubbed until it's almost something to which a child might be exposed, however fleetingly. Sexual deviance is the number-one horror.

There are two deviants in Little Children. One is a convicted felon, Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), whose presence in the town alarms parents. In one electrically tense scene, Ronnie shows up at the town pool, and paddles about underwater with flippers and a scuba mask, checking out the kiddies' bottoms until the mother's recognize him and the police are summoned. Mr Field communicates first the man's prurience and then his disorientation, as if he has been unjustly accused of something. The film (which treats Ronnie somewhat more sympathetically than the novel) suggests that, indeed, this might be so, as we come to sympathize with him and his "mommie" (Phyllis Somerville) when their house is besieged by Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a troubled former cop. In his obsessive hounding of Ronnie, Larry is a bit of a deviant, too, although not in a sexual way.

The other sexual deviant is Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet). A former graduate student who can't quite believe that she has sunk to suburban life as the wife of a successful branding executive (Gregg Edelmann) and mother of three year-old Lucy (Sadie Goldstein). Sarah lives in a distracted haze until her senses focus on Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home Dad - he's supposed to be studying for his third bar exam - whom the other moms in the playground call "The Prom King." One of them puts Sarah up to trying to extract a phone number from Brad, but once she and Brad are talking, Sarah has a better idea: she invites him to kiss her. This he very graciously does, sending the moms scurrying off with the children and marking Sarah as a pariah.

You might argue that, as it takes two to tango, Brad is just as deviant, but of course society does not regard men as deviants simply because they tumble into bed with attractive, willing women. (Sarah is not supposed to be very attractive, but Ms Winslet does what she can to comply.) Brad's infidelity to his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), is dwarfed by his infidelity to the career that she has marked out for him. His nickname is all too apt: a former football star, he has somehow passed the stage of life when the joys of youth are claimable. His affair with Sarah is not a mature liaison but an attempt to reconnect with carefree adolescence, where all the consequences are distant. In the course of the story, Brad takes up football again, and, more recklessly, tries a few skateboard moves.

Sarah's passion for Brad, however, is very mature. Hers is a very fully awakened sensuality. This comes out in every sort of scene. At one point she accompanies a friend to a reading discussion group. The book of the week is Madame Bovary. Mary Ann (Mary B McCann), the leader of the playground moms and the only other young woman in the group, dismisses Flaubert's novel as the tale of a stupid slut. The other women try to introduce more nuanced views, but Mary Ann's morality of control works only in black and white. Finally, Sarah's sponsor turns to her. As Sarah defends the novel, her face begins to glow, and you know that talking about Emma's adulterous relationship with Rodolphe is making her feel the heat of her own with Brad. By the end, she is serenity itself - just as stupidly sure of a future with her lover as Emma - and Mary Ann's philistine comments no longer reach her. It is a love scene manqué.

(The book club scene would be a great place to begin the study of Mr Field's thoughtful filmmaking. He is very generous to the elderly ladies, and sensitive to the gradations of their empowerment as women. They coo appreciatively at Sarah, and you sense that she, and not the strident Mary Ann, would be welcome in the future. Behind all of this is a sharper, subtler point: these women are no longer charged with rearing little children. They get to be fully adult.)

Ronnie's story, such as it is, does really not intersect with Sarah's story until the end of the movie, but it suffices to charge hers with dread and isolation. There is an earlier, indirect contact, when the Pierces and the Adamsons get together for dinner, Sarah is deeply surprised to discover that Brad has met Ronnie - and not told her. As she exclaims, "You never told me!', Kathy's face, although quite out of focus in the background, visibly darks - and then the focus shifts, and you know that Kathy knows.

My advice, therefore, is to save Little Children for a time when you are both quiet and alert. It's too intelligent to be dozed through.

November 17, 2006

In The New York Review of Books

In his whimsical U and I, Nicholson Baker rejoiced in sharing the same "carnal circuitry" with his hero, John Updike. Mr Updike's commentary on "After the Flood," the exhibition of Robert Polidori's chromogenic prints ("photographs" doesn't do these three-by-five knockouts justice) that is currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes it clear to me that I do not share the celebrated author's moral circuitry. Writing of the ruined interior, 1401 Pressburg Street, Mr Updike laments,

... it is the wrecked, mildewed interiors that take our eye and quicken our anxiety. Would our own dwelling quarters look so pathetic, so obscenely reflective of intimate needs inadequately met, if they were similarly violated and exposed?

This is very offensive. Who is Mr Updike to say that the needs of this room's occupants were inadequately met? The unspoken but palpable allusion to the Last Judgment only makes the implication of guilt-by-inadequacy (and poor taste) all the more shocking. How does Mr Updike know what this room looked like before the flood? And where does he get the idea that the house is in one of New Orleans's "humble neighborhoods accustomed to being ignored"? A glance at Google Maps locates the house in Gentilly, a solidly middle class part of town. I don't know what's worse, Mr Updike's condescension or the laziness with which he extrapolates poverty from desolation.

A few lines later, Mr Updike writes of "our fascinated, sociologically prurient gaze." This is followed by references to Susan Sontag's On Photography. I believe in the possibility that reading On Photography might help thoughtful people recognize that gaze and replace it with an empathic regard. The power of Mr Polidori's photographs is their firm and still grasp of fact, whether the view be of the Queen's Bedroom at Versailles or the living room at 1401 Pressburg. Both photographs are of rooms first and only implicitly of lifestyles. The latter also captures the fact of devastation, a state that, in me at least, arouses sorrow and pity, not prurient fascination. There is nothing prurient in recognizing that this could happen to me.

Mr Updike's mistitled piece ("After Katrina") also seems insufficiently aware of the cause of the damage on exhibit. Katrina the storm is held responsible. But of course New Orleans was not destroyed by a storm. It was, as the title of the Met's show has it, flooded. And it flooded because the responsible authorities - principal among them the Army Corps of Engineers - had neglected the proper maintenance of the levees. It's a pity that, for all the images that we have of the disaster, we don't have a stationary video of the water's steady but probably not turbulent rise. It's an image that would bring home to more people the avoidability of it all.

In The New Yorker

Peter J Boyer's "Downfall: How Donald Rumsfeld reformed the Army and lost Iraq" is the indispensable read in this week's New Yorker. For one thing, it explains that much of what now looks like incompetent leadership was in fact the sad consequence of crossed wires and contrary agendas. The Defense Department, flogged on by neoconservative officials and advisors, planned to crown the capture of Baghdad with the imposition of a provisional Iraqi government (remember Ahmad Chalabi?). Then American forces would leave. The State Department would have nothing to do with this scheme, and argued persuasively for the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which would be administered by an American proconsul until some sort of legitimate Iraqi constitution had been adopted by Iraqis. So American forces did not leave Iraq. On the contrary, they stood by while the one outcome for which they had not been trained engulfed the country: insurgency.

If there is a single worst decision in all this mess, it is probably Paul Bremer's decision to discharge all Baathist soldiers and officials. As Mr Boyer writes, "In effect, half a million men, many with guns, were sent into the streets." But the arrival of a "huge instant bureaucracy" within the Green Zone signaled to Iraqis that the Americans were in Baghdad for the long haul. Because this had never been part of the Defense plan, and because our military had never been trained to do what amounted to police work, the American presence was as ineffective as it was disliked. 

Mr Boyer also traces the career of Andrew Marshall, a military thinker who has spearheaded what is called the "Revolution in Military Affairs. One gathers that Secretary Rumsfeld spent more time implementing aspects of the RMA overhaul - shifting troops, reducing costs - than worrying about Iraq. Without actually saying so, the piece suggests that Mr Rumsfeld might well have thought it reasonable to regard Iraq as someone else's problem: his problem was to bring the armed forces up to speed. And this he is credited with having accomplished, largely by exploiting the war to railroad through a host of micromanaging changes. (How this meshes with unarmored troops in Iraq escapes me.)

The lesson for leaders to draw from this sad chapter of American history is that a leadership's insistence on a united front and foreclosure of dissent is the royal road to disaster. Had the argument between State and Defense been conducted in the open, more conservative Americans might have been reluctant to support the war.

Donald Rumsfeld's protracted attempt to convince anyone who would listen that Iraq had not succumbed to insurgency is frighteningly remarkable, worthy of a tragic hero.

November 16, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Mark Forster's Stranger Than Fiction is an oddly delightful movie. What I mean by that is that I'm not going to recommend the movie to anybody who doesn't already intend to see it. Zack Helm's screenplay leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and any attempt at a synopsis is bound to make it seem inane. Stranger Than Fiction has to be seen to be felt. Its parts are much greater than its sum; for some viewers, this will make for disappointment. For anyone who can go along for the ride, willing to take whatever Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and, especially, Emma Thompson are giving out - that would be me - Stranger Than Fiction is going to be "oddly delightful."

The spirit of play is realized from the start in a stream of digital screens and figures that unfold and pivot with the live action. One, for example, enumerates the toothbrush strokes that Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is obsessively counting. As we follow Harold through his ordinary day as an IRS auditor, these mercurial screens, totting up the number of steps Harold takes to cross the street and the average number of files that he gets through in a day, mock the regimentation of a life that could equally well seem soul-crushed. Harold's soul, however, is not crushed. It's just sleeping, and the movie is going to wake it up with a belt of Hollywood Existentialism: the meaning of life explored in preposterous situations. 

The fun is advanced a step further when we see that Harold can hear the voice-over that Emma Thompson has been delivering since the start, in a film so far largely without dialogue. I am almost certain that this joke is not entirely new, but it is taken very far here, and worked so deftly that we're willing to sidestep certain operational questions. If author Kay Eiffel (Ms Thompson) is, in effect, capturing the lives of living people and then, through the power of her fictions, sending them to untimely death in novels, then why is Harold the first to overhear her? At what point in her writing creative process does transcription become command? Geeks in the audience will zero in on her Selectric typewriter, because nothing is official, nothing "happens" until it has been typed onto the page by that machine. We could get very lost here in speculation, and forget that it's only a movie. In any case, when the voice-over starts talking about Harold's imminent demise, his irritation explodes into frantic self-preservation.

I did find myself wondering how on earth Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor of literature, was going to help Harold track down the author of his impending doom. Hilbert tackles Harold's predicament as an engaging literary puzzle, blithely unconcerned by its life-and-death consequences. In the end, all of his detached fussing turns out to be unnecessary, because a clip of Kay Eiffel appears on the television in his office when Harold is there; he immediately identifies her voice, and tracking her down becomes a matter of unauthorized IRS file-searching. Presently Harold is in possession of the sketched-out manuscript.

The only unsatisfying aspect of Stranger Than Fiction - and this is going to sound more important than it is - is its love story, which neither Mr Ferrell nor Maggie Gyllenhaal can rescue from a somewhat stale predictability. Ms Gyllenhaall plays Ana Pascal, a bohemian baker who has deliberately withhold a portion of her taxes in protest. Ana is simply too sane and constructive to believe that such a ploy would accomplish anything, thereby exposing it as a plot device to bring Harold into her bakery for an audit. Kay Eiffel appears to have taken control of the story at this point, because Harold somewhat uncharacteristically - or not? - falls in love with Ana, in the teeth of her abusive contempt. (So much for screwball options.) It is all very unlikely, and not in the way that the voice-overs are unlikely. It was difficult to believe that the gorgeous Ana would be free to fall in love, much less that she would fall in love with the unprepossessing Harold. (The director misses no chance to show off the less-than-ideal arrangement of Mr Ferrell's features.) The actors throw themselves into romance with a gusto that, sadly, attests more to their professionalism than to anything else.

Actually, there was one thing about Stranger Than Fiction that's less satisfying than the love story, and that is Queen Latifah's evident boredom. I've only recently discovered Queen Latifah, and I think that she's a warm and lovely actor. But she's given nothing to work with here beyond a few straight lines. She plays Penny Escher, an "assistant" sent out by Eiffel's publisher to help her finish her blocked book (the one about Harold). She ends up being no more instrumental in solving Eiffel's problem than Hilbert is in solving Harold's, but Mr Hoffman has a lot to play with, and that keeps him lively. Poor Queen Latifah has nothing to do but look serious in a vaguely pained way. It's a waste.

These are afterthoughts. While the film was rolling, I was entertained and, from time to time, elated. Miss Thompson is fantastic as a writer whose block is crazing her. She's a beehive of irritable but not irritating tics, and she inhabits her very odd writing space with stunning authority. In two brilliantly contrasted scenes, Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce play very different mental health workers. Tony Hale is wonderfully nerdy as Dave, Harold's IRS colleague and eventual roommate. Will Ferrell plays his role straight, for the most part, and one of the best things about his performance is Harold's initial expression of mild outrage when he hears Kay Eiffel's voice. It's an Everyman look that signals a major violation of the Mind Your Own Business rule. Only later does this give way to frantic bewilderment. 

At First Sight

The other day, I came across the lyrics to a Cole Porter song that I'd never heard of, and still haven't heard.* The song is called "The Physician," and it was written for Nymph Errant, a show of 1933. Here's the final refrain.

He said my vertebrae were "sehr schöne,"

And called my coccyx "plus que gentil,"

He murmured "molto bella"

When I sat on his patella,

But he never said he loved me.

He took a fleeting look at my thorax,

And started singing slightly off key.

He cried "May Heaven strike us,"

When I played my umbilicus,

But he never said he loved me.


As it was dark,

I suggested we walk about

Before he returned to his post.

Once in the park,

I induced him to talk about

The thing I wanted the most.

He lingered with me until morning,

Yet when I tried to pay him his fee,

He said, "Why, don't be funny,

It is I who owe you money,"

But he never said he loved me.

I've been stewing over this cleverness for a couple of days, and I've concluded that, once again, Cole Porter has nailed a truth about romantic love. It is always sparked by aspects of the beloved - usually aspects a lot more superficial than patellae and umbilici. A physician, of course, is trained to size up all the evident aspects of a patient without allowing them to form the image of a desirable person, but the rest of us, when we encounter an attractive detail, are more likely than not to see what other attractive details might be on offer. Given enough attractive details - unlike Porter's doctor - we eventually fall in love

Even love at first sight is not as immediate as it seems. I like to say that I fell in love with Kathleen before the first sight. The sound of her laughter, coming from the row of desks behind me, made me turn around pronto. "Wow," I felt when I saw her. "I've got to get to know her better!"

Does anyone know the song? Can anyone hum a few bars?

*In Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics, edited by Robert Kimball (Library of America, 2006).

November 15, 2006

Kids Today

Surely the most impossible story in the SundayStyles section of The New York Times the other day was Ralph Gardner Jr's report about the letter that the heads of seven of Manhattan's finest private schools recently sent to parents. The letter urged parents to veto their children's plans for an unsupervised spring break in the Bahamas or Mexico. Euh, how long has this been going on? For about ten years, it seems, well-heeled parents have been booking their children into balmy resorts, perhaps unaware of the false IDs with which the darlings have furnished themselves.


The tradition of high schoolers congregating en masse without teacher or parent supervision at Caribbean resorts is hardly universal. “It is not a phenomenon in other parts of the country,” said Dorothy A. Hutcheson, the head of Nightingale-Bamford. She added that when she asks other educators about it, “they look at me as if I’m crazy that this is a regular occurrence in New York City.”

For Kathleen and me, this was yet another occasion to gape at the very idea of asking our parents not only to approve but also to pay for such a junket. Who knows. Here's how they do things in the place where I grew up:

At Bronxville High School in Bronxville, N.Y., traveling with your child to spring break in the Bahamas has actually become something of a tradition, with the parents staying at a nearby resort. Marty Murrer, who took the trip two years ago with his son, said that supervised spring break started several years ago after the youngsters proved inadequate at supervising themselves.

“They had had experiences where the kids went down and things got out of hand,” he said. “Excessive drinking and behavior that was way beyond what was acceptable.”

He and his wife socialized with about 20 of their own friends who traveled to the Caribbean with them. “In a community like Bronxville there’s a lot of close relations among the parents,” he said. “There’s a lot of common values. It was a great time.”

I still can't imagine it. Apparently, the ritual has a Darwinian function, weeding out the weaklings who haven't, as one young woman put it, "learned early on how to carry themselves."

The whole incredible story can be found here.

In the Book Review

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


This week's cover story is Lisey's Story, the new Stephen King novel for which literary claims are being made, not least by the author himself. Jim Windolf's review is favorable, but it does not venture an answer to the literary question - which, for the matter of that, it does not even ask. The literary question about Stephen King is not whether horror stories can be literary. We know from Poe that they most certainly can. The question is whether the quality of Mr King's writing is literary. I myself do not think that it is: there is not likely to be anything significant within the covers of his books that will fail to appear in a competent film adaptation. Mr King is, at his best, a compelling scenarist; as a writer, he is flatly, artlessly vernacular. That would be why, when he was in grade school, his classmates would pay to read his stories, while his teacher would complain that he was writing junk. In any case, whether Lisey's Story marks a break with Mr King's pulp-toned past cannot be a matter of plotting. As Mr Windolf's extracts are not very substantial, the quality of the book is impossible to judge on the basis of this lengthy review. 

Brooke Allen's fine review of The Stories of Mary Gordon, by, of course, Mary Gordon, is largely favorable, but its concluding sentences point to an interesting failing in the collection.

It's a shame, though, that the stories haven't been provided with dates or arranged in a clear chronology. Tracking the progression of a writer's career is always instructive - and in a career like Mary Gordon's, particularly so.

Paul Gray is rather harder on the late Frederick Busch, whose posthumous collection, Rescue Missions: Stories has just appeared.

Although the individual stories display Busch's usual craftsmanship, they begin to feel manipulative when read in sequence. Seeking out the cheek with acne is the way most of these characters look at the world. When the setting is upstate New York, where Busch spent much of his adult life, descriptions point out "snow pitted by car exhausts" and "several feet of dirty snow and twisted slush" and "mud-colored ruts of ice," but ignore the momentary enchantment of a snowfall.

Kaiama L Glover may have wanted more space in which to explain her response to The Translator, by Leila Aboulela: her review is pinched and stressed almost to the point of incoherence. Happily, however, there are a few helpful sentences.

Of course, conflict is inevitable in a novel set in Scotland and Sudan that explores desire in the context of profound religious devotion. And in some ways Aboulela passes too lightly over the obstacles posed by this tension. But while her forays into politics and Western media manipulation of Muslim extremism can seem facile, she more than compensates with beautiful passages on Islam's essential purity and poetry. Aboulela has a talent for expressing the simple wonders of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of how such faith can be challenged - suddenly, subtly.

Even as I complain that such-and-such a reviewer was clearly the wrong choice for a given book (see Daniel Mendelsohn on Jonathan Franzen, for example), so I must lament that, from time to time, I am unqualified to attempt lucidity when confronted by certain books. Will Self's The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future is so unappealing a proposition (set in a bleak, postapocalyptic future) that I clutched at the final paragraph of Nathaniel Rich's unfavorable review with something like a drowning man's desperation.

What the author himself means to say is not much clearer. Self's model of Dàvinanity [don't ask] seems constructed to show religion's tyranny over its devoted followers, the arbitrariness of its symbols and tenets, and its brutal effectiveness at stifling critical thinking. But these criticism of organized religion are hardly unconventional, and are here conveyed with all the nuance of Dave's misanthropic tirades. If anything, the message seems to be that Dave's grumpy views of society are myopic and wrongheaded (though amusing) - a conclusion most readers will reach the first time they meet the blustering cabbie. And so we're ultimately left with a pair of grotesque worlds, facing each other like two mirrors, but reflecting nothing.

Finally, there's Barry Unsworth's The Ruby In Her Navel: A Novel and Love and Intrigue in the Twelfth Century. Jason Goodwin gives this book, set in the Norman kingdom of Sicily, a generally favorable review, but notes that the use of a first-person narrator "creates tonal difficulties:

creates tonal difficulties: Thurstan's language is a kind of cod-medieval English, something you might call haulberk. "Secretly I thought he made the better appearance, because he was also slender and graceful in movement, whereas I have more weight to me and more thickness in the shoulder." Some people may like this kind of thing, and I can be lulled along by it, but it's a sort of novelistic limbo.


Franklin Foer's review of Bob Woodward's State of Denial is a curious affair. Mr Foer, currently editor of The New Republic, seems almost gleeful about the book's unflattering portrait (finally!) of the Bush regime, but he does not actually praise the book itself.

With State of Denial, you sense this (somewhat overwrought critique has rattled Woodward. It has forced him to change his style. There's less of his signature omniscience here - a style that not only reflected his proximity to power, but captured the self-confidence of the Washington Establishment. In its place, he has grown self-referential, nervously mentioning his past books, as well as inserting himself as a character into his own tale. That Bob Woodward has strayed from the Bob Woodward method tells you a lot about the state of American journalism.

Mr Foer adds that "Rumsfeld takes so much pummeling that he eventually becomes a strangely sympathetic character. If Schadenfreude is your thing, maybe this is the book for you.

Much later in the Review, James Traub hands Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, an intelligently favorable review. Noting that Mr Lieven is "a fiery pamphleteer of the left" and that Mr Hulsman is a former conservative think-tanker who applauded Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's partition of Europe into "old" and "new," Mr Traub writes,

The fact that these two thinkers have found enough common ground to write a book together is an astonishingly perverse achievement of neoconservative theory and practice. It has also become something of an inside-the-think-tanks cause célèbre, since Hulsman has said that Heritage [Foundation] fired him soon after the book project was announced.

George Will is given lots of space to sing the praises of Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, a book that he insists will interest even those who really dislike football. I'd say, "Try me," but that would involve my reading the book. There is a remarkable, if vaguely distasteful, story here about a gifted player's rescue by a bountiful family, but the review itself made my skin crawl. Sharing the page with the tail of Mr Will's piece is Alison McCulloch's brief review of On Truth, by Harry G Frankfurt. This is the companion to the Princeton professor's On Bullshit - a title that the Times makes itself ridiculous by refusing to print. Ms McCulloch deems the new book "superfluous," but her explanation in support of this judgment is, to me at any rate, incoherent. As the reviewer is an editor at the Book Review, I can't say that I'm surprised by the dismal quality of her piece.

Niall Ferguson's The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West gets a review from Simon Sebag Montefiore that is as good as it is favorable. Here's how it ends:

But his real conclusion is a warning to the West. We must study the 20th century, he insists, because, in different ways, it could all happen again: "We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one - the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so negate our common humanity. They are forces that stir within us still."

In other words, it ends with a nice juicy quote from the book. David Sirota is generally favorable about Lou Dobbs's War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back. He describes Mr Dobbs's style as "seething yet remarkably matter-of-fact" and his prose as "refreshing."

It is undeniable that aside from Dobbs and a few politicians, America's political debate is almost entirely devoid of economic populists. War on the Middle Class confronts this problem head-on - and thanks to Dobbs's passion and charisma, it succeeds in sounding an alarm that cannot be ignored.

I recently wrote about a review of Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World that appeared in The New Yorker, unaware that the author is the Everything Bad Is Good Steven Johnson. David Quammen hastily points this out in the Review before going on to do some admittedly irresistible storytelling. If he gets tired of Mr Johnson's stylistic quirks, he's clear about the book's narrative strength and thorough research. Even so, he never draws Steven Shapin's powerful point that good civics are more important than good science when it comes to public health.

Art Buchwald thought he was a goner in February of this year, but he's apparently still going more or less strong. James Kaplan admires the way in which he writes of his life at a hospice, visited by so many of the great and the good, in Too Soon to Say Goodbye.

Amid an old man's pardonably digressive reminiscences (some of which will nevertheless feel familiar to readers of Buchwald's other books), he speaks feelingly about the realities of death: living wills, the grief of other, less fortunate hospice residents and their families, and the strange American habit of trying to ignore life's end. Art Buchwald has looked straight at his own "dirt nap," with liberating results. "People told me," he writes, "they loved talking to someone who wasn't afraid to discuss death."

Sala's Gift: My Mother's Holocaust Story, by Ann Kirschner, is a book that will helplessly be regarded as "remarkable." Based on a packet of letters and diaries that a young internee at a labor camp managed to preserve throughout World War II, it tells the stories of some Polish Jews who were lucky enough to survive the Holocaust. Because such material is too radioactive to criticize in the everyday sense, Blake Eskin would have done better to assess Ms Kirschner's skill as an editor and interviewer, a matter about which the review says nothing.

Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide is Jeffrey Goldberg's account of a friendship of sorts between an Long-Island-bred journalist and a Muslim whose ethnic background and profession Elena Lappin's review neglects to mention. But her overall judgment is astute.

Goldberg ends the book on a hopeful, almost elated note. His optimism is based on something like gratitude when Rafiq finally says that he would want him to live if he were present during a suicide bombing. But he is missing the point. Prisoners tells us, eloquently, the complete and complex story of Jeffrey Goldberg's love for Israel, but very little else. We really don't know what's on Rafiq's mind, and in his heart, because his Jewish friend doesn't either. The Middle East will remain one big prison as long as there are no books about friendship between Jews and Arabs written by Arabs. Strangely, Herzl seems to have know this when he wrote The Jewish State in 1896: "Long-term prisoners do not willingly quit their cells."

Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11 is an attempt by Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins to tarnish the luster of the former mayor's image. According to Jonathan Mahler, "...the book's relentlessly hostile tone undermines the authors' case." But Sophie Harrison's review of The Woman of Substance: The Secret Life That Inspired the Renowned Storyteller Barbara Taylor Bradford, by Piers Dudgeon, finds the author's admiration for his subject just as limiting, and she recommends the novelist's Web site as a better source of information. (Ouch!) "But here and elsewhere, in all her groomed and ultimately guarded manifestations, the original woman of substance feels as oddly made-up as one of her own characters."

John Wilson's Essay, "God Fearing," explores the divergence between the evangelical juggernaut imagined by liberal paranoia and the bumbling, fractious character that evangelicals usually have in current fiction. The writer himself appears to be a thoughtful evangelical, and his piece is not without humor.

November 14, 2006

Musica Antiqua Köln at Zankel Hall

Owing to the poor health of its founder and leader, Reinhard Goebel, Musica Antiqua Köln is on its farewell tour. The band, which specializes in the German Baroque, made a number of fine discs for Deutsche Gramophon Archiv, and I've enjoyed a few of them for years. Better late than never, however, I caught the band at Zankel Hall earlier this month. Ilia Korol was the dashing guest leader, and contralto Marijana Mijanovic sang three of the items on the program.

Continue reading about Musica Antiqua Kön at Portico.

November 13, 2006

James Salter's Last Night

James Salter's recent collection of stories, Last Night, portrays a world that I'm glad I don't live in. In a nutshell, a world populated by ageing or ailing morally-unmoored sensualists. Nobody's exactly nasty, but few are faithful if presented with a better offer. Moody men longing for pretty girls - or longing for the pretty girls that now older girls used to be - don't question themselves or their sense of entitlement. If you act like a man by, say, piling up a fortune on Wall Street, then you deserve a babe. I'm not saying that there aren't plenty of men with this outlook. I'm just glad that I don't know any of them very well. The commoditization of other people, even of one's own children, is rampant in this collection.

The stories are very well put together, though, and, once you've started, you keep going. Each story has its own little train wreck, and it's fascinating to watch, even if it leaves you feeling a bit compromised. Mr Salter is a master of heightening narrative impact by telling bits of his stories out of linear order and by withholding unsuspected revelations that make a dent, changing a story's contours completely.

I can't say a thing about the stories individually without risking spoilage, but I can say a few things about their interesting background. They occupy an affluent world, one that curiously combines a vague Jewish background with access to life at the top. One might argue that Mr Salter is a more refined and controlled Philip Roth, but with his West Point education and his very distinguished combat-flight record from the Korean War he is incomparably further from immigrant roots. And yet his men remain painfully self-conscious. If not in the sense of feeling awkward, they still need to have it known that they've been regulars at this restaurant and lived at that address. The following passage, from "My Lord You," one of the longer stories in the collection, captures the fatalistic atmosphere of Last Night.

Her husband's business was essentially one of giving advice. He had a life that served other lives, helped them come to agreements, end marriages, defend themselves against former friends. He was accomplished at it. Its language and techniques were part of him. He lived amid disturbance and self-interest but always protected from it. In his files were letters, memorandums, secrets of careers. One thing he had seen: how near men could be to disaster no matter how secure they seemed. He had seen events turn, one ruinous thing following another. It could happen without warning. Sometimes they were able to save themselves, but there was a point at which they could not. He sometimes wondered about himself - when the blow came and the beams began to give and come apart, what would happen?

"Ruinous things" usually involve some sort of uncontrolled carnal impropriety.

I don't often read fiction with a sense of profound recognition, as though the writer had peered into my very soul. I'm much too peculiar for that to happen. But I read Last Night as if it were set in a country that I'd never heard of before, where expectations were very different. Despite the craftsmanship and the beautifully sustained tone, the fact that I didn't encounter a single object of genuine curiosity in these pages obliges me to conclude that Last Night is limited work.

November 12, 2006

At the Kitchen Table

A few weeks ago, the wall oven developed an ignition problem, so I took to leaving it on all the time, set at low. This was far from satisfactory, of course, but the problem went unfixed for so long because I just didn't think about it during the daytime, and at night there was no one to call.

After a wearying round of calls, on Thursday, to Gracious Home - I'd bought the oven there, and expected them to be able to supply me with the name and number of a repair outfit, only to find that they weren't - I got out the Yellow Pages for the first time this century and came across a service on 125th Street. "I hope that you can help me," I told the gentleman who answered the phone. "That is what we are here for," was his reassuring reply. And, indeed, two repairmen were at the apartment within a few hours.

But guess who'd remembered to turn the oven off only an hour before they got here.

The oven was still far too hot to touch, much less to work with. Even so, I'm not entirely sure that the men wouldn't have had to come back anyway. Why should they have been carrying around a new igniter? Which is what they installed yesterday, when they came back in the late afternoon. I was able to use the oven Thursday night, too. I jiggled the dial a bit and eventually the oven came on, allowing me to make Suprêmes de Volaille aux Champignons, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child's recipe for four is very easily halved. Rather than parrot her, I'll tell you how I make this classic variation on a theme in my own way.

Continue reading about Suprêmes de Volaille aux Champignons at Portico.

November 11, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Well, I did go to the movies yesterday. I saw fifteen minutes' worth of ads and trailers. Then, just as Stranger Than Fiction was about to start, the projector jammed, and the film melted in that horrible way, and nasty sounds filled the auditorium. After another fifteen minutes, we were all given passes. We could come back some other time.

Had the projector done its job without incident, I'd have booked the most active day of my New York life. At half-past twelve, or just before, I presented myself at Crawford Doyle books, where I had no trouble meeting up with Mr Waterhot, a fellow-blogger from Geneva, in town to see some operas. After a nice lunch at Demarchelier, we spent the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taking in the special exhibitions ("Ambroise Vollard," "Americans in Paris," "New Orleans After the Flood") before sipping Chardonnay in the American Court. Shortly before six, I bundled us into a taxi, ran to the apartment for a pit stop, found another taxi, and got my delightful friend to his hotel in time - just, I should think; I am in some anxiety about possibly having held him up - to dress for an evening at the other Metropolitan, where he was to see Il barbiere di Siviglia. I myself raced over to Le Rivage, the French restaurant in Restaurant Row, to swallow a sole meunière and have some pork pâté wrapped up for Kathleen to gobble after Losing Louie, the comedy at MTC's Biltmore Theatre. This she did at the Starbucks next door to the theatre after the show. We had plenty of time to mosey down to 44th Street, where we turned right and found ourselves at Birdland, for the Nth Annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival's 11 PM set.

It was a great day. I had that "I'm alive!" feeling every minute.

November 10, 2006

In The New Yorker

For me, this week's standout articles are Rachel Cohen's essay on Leonard Woolf and the latest installment of Janet Malcolm's assessment of Gertrude Stein/Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. Sometimes Ms Malcolm writes about the famous writer, and sometimes she writes about the famous couple. This week, she writes about the women as Jews. Stein was quietly but firmly committed to her identity as a Jew; Toklas went so far in the other direction as to be received into the Catholic Church. She did not share her partner's acceptance of the old maxim, "When a Jew dies, he's dead," but fervently believed in a paradisiacal afterlife, in which she and Stein would be reunited - if she prayed hard enough to get the unbaptized Stein out of limbo.

The essay also touches on the inevitable incompleteness of knowledge. Stein and Toklas were both unusual women, and it is difficult if not impossible to extrapolate what we don't know about them from what we do. Stein was womanly, in a strong sort of way; Toklas was ladylike in a guarded sort of way. And yet in their indifference to what people thought about them they were almost feral, and it is this quality, I expect, that will keep them alive for many years to come. Notwithstanding a startling want of appealing looks, they seemed never to doubt that they would attract admirers - even if everybody preferred Stein.

Leonard Woolf toiled dutifully in the shade of a grove of geniuses; it was only when the grove was cut down by death that he showed his stuff, in a serial autobiography that he began in his eighties. Rachel Cohen gracefully sketches the reception of his earlier works, novels and political histories, in "Village Scribe," noting that his wife and friends always got better, longer reviews. Praising Victoria Glendinning's new biography, Leonard Woolf, Ms Cohen writes,

through the ages of Woolf's life - the childhood among impoverished middle-class Jews (the family fortunes diminished when Woolf was eleven and his barrister father died); an adolescence reading classics at St Paul's on scholarship; intellectual emergence at Cambridge; seven difficult and transformative years in Ceylon as a colonial administrator; and nearly six decades of editing, marriage, war, and labor politics - one sees the flickering aspirations of Leonard Woolf the writer, which, though often invisible to others, remained, to him, a central fact of his existence.

November 09, 2006

Hot Pink

One thing that Kathleen and I independently remembered on Tuesday was our first Election Day in New York, on 4 November 1980. I still didn't have a job, and Kathleen decided to take the day off. (Surely it was not deemed a holiday at her firm?) We were going to paint the foyer of Kathleen's studio apartment, and we were going to paint it a hot pink, a color that Pratt & Lambert labeled "Parisienne." When we were through, we were exhilarated by the intensity of the small room's pinkness. It might have been blinding, but, not surprisingly given the manufacturer, it came off as a hot pink with subtlety. We would use the same color a year later to paint the foyer of our first apartment as a married couple, in the same building as the studio and in the same building that we still inhabit. Two years after that, we found that we were more or less done with hot pink. The foyer of our current apartment is painted a very dark green.

I remember reading, in an old House & Garden decorating book, that "color is a magic wand of excitement." Perhaps for that reason, it is a magic wand that most people seem reluctant to pick up. Colors are awfully easy to get wrong. I remember trying to give our bedroom walls the freshness of limeade, only to wind up with a room that was haunted by hospital green. Beyond the mundane risk of choosing unwisely, though, lies a deep-rooted prejudice against color in Western culture, absorbingly traced by David Batchelor in Chromophobia (Reaktion, 2000).

Since Aristotle's time, the discrimination against colour has taken a number of forms, some technical, some moral, some racial, some sexual, some social. As John Gage notes in his vast historical survey of colour theory, colour has regularly been linked with other better-documented sexual and racial phobias. As far back as Pliny, it was placed on the "wrong" end of the opposition between the occidental and the oriental, the Attic and the Asian, in a belief that "the rational traditions of western culture were under threat from insidious non-western sensuality." In later times, the Academies of the West continued and consolidated this opposition. For Kant, colour could never participate in the grand schemes of the Beautiful or the Sublime. It was at best "agreeable" and could add "charm" to a work of art, but it could not have any real bearing on aesthetic judgment.

The association of color with femininity and its bastard sibling, effeminacy, remains widespread, and I am sure that by talking up a hot pink foyer I raised a few eyebrows. I'll be the first to admit that my response to color is deeply sensual: the right color can startle both mind and body into a harmony that fairly throbs. Whether most men are actually incapable of such a reaction or are, rather, brought up to resist it I cannot say, but I suspect, perhaps optimistically, that it is a rare case of nurture trumping nature. Growing males are so eager to shun anything associated with girls that a non-essential regard for color will be suppressed without a moment's thought. Mr Batchelor finds the same anxiety at the heart of the Western disdain for color. I find it underlying the privileging of rationality, a distinctly Western choice that was first proposed by philosophers at a time when the Parthenon was blazingly polychromed. The men of the West appear to have talked themselves into a collective dread of the untidy and the complicated. It's the kind of dread that motivates people to ignore what they're afraid of, not to deal with it.

Hot pink did a lot to cheer us up after the shock of that long-ago Election Day.

November 08, 2006

For the Record

Just for the record: this is a happy moment. A sort of negative-happy moment. It has been announced that Donald Rumsfeld intends to resign as Secretary of Defense. It's possible that the President won't accept the resignation right away. But there's a good chance that ideology is out at the Pentagon.

In the Book Review

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


Although he feels that Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway) might have been a little longer, so as to allow somewhat fuller treatment of the lives of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss, Tom LeClair gives the author's first book to be translated into English a very favorable review.

What distinguishes Kehlmann are quickness of pace and lightness of touch. He has said he admires The Simpsons. If Humboldt and Gauss are occasionally cartoonish, they are the creations of a very smart, deft artist.

The Uses of Enchantment, by Heidi Julavits, is the novel that everyone's currently talking about, and Emily Nussbaum's review communicates a sense of the book's edginess.

But the book is most successful at exploring the psychology of a particular type of teenage girl, an apparently colorless figure who reveals under pressure a perverse bravado. Oscillating between vampish provocateur and blank slate, Mary may not be precisely realistic - her dialogue is so arch it practically bends backward - but there is something recognizable about this mess of a teenage girl, so enraged at the lies of adults that she's willing to take on any mask to expose them.

Troy Patterson's review of Only Revolutions, by Mark Z Danielewski, succeeded only in baffling me. An "epic tone poem"? The quotes suggest that the novel - if it is a novel - is written in blank verse. There is also the hint that the book can be turned 180 degrees and still be readable. "But it's clear that Danielewski has an entrancing way with overrich wordplay..." Yikes!

If we are to call Only Revolutions a novel, then we must, at the very least, call it a road novel in which the road, one of those numbered routes from an old, weird folk song, is a Möbius strip.


Here are the ten books about the state of American politics that Michael Kinsley "reviews" this week, complete with very substantial extracts, relatively speaking, from Mr Kinsley's remarks. If I were one of the writers, I'd be pretty steamed about the short shrift. 

Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America, by Byron L Dorgan. "an exercise in assertion rather than persuasion..."

State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, by Patrick J Buchanan. "at his usual fever pitch..."

Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate, by Ronald Dworkin. "Of this season’s books deploring the quality of our political discourse, the classiest..."

Does American Democracy Still Work? by Alan Wolfe. "faces manfully up to “the new politics of democracy” in which sentimental populism seems to be owned by the right. Although Wolfe clearly regards this as terribly unfair (as do I) and a result of voters’ failure to know their own self-interest, he manages to make his argument for more “quality control” in American democracy in ideologically neutral terms."

The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, by Thomas E Mann and Norman J Ornstein. "Urging reform at every opportunity, they seem like the loyal spouse of an alcoholic or drug addict, desperately pushing their beloved into rehab."

Activism, Inc: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, by Dana R Fisher. "a charmingly recherché complaint..."

Losing Our Democracy: How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business Are Betraying Americans for Power and Profit, by Mark Green. "If you want every current beef about American democracy — or at least every current left-wing beef — in one handy volume..."

Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It), by Sanford Levinson. "admirably gutsy and unfashionable..."

Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, by Spencer Overton. No comment!

Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count, by Steven F Freeman and Joel Bleifuss. "the authors offer no particular reason to believe the random exit polls and disbelieve the actual vote."

Scott Stossel's favorable review of Size Matters: How Height Affects the Health, Happiness and Success of Boys - and the Men They Become, by Stephen S Hall, is very entertaining, but it fails to register the book's seriousness. Is this an after-dinner, who'd 'a' thunk it treat? A digest of psychological studies indicating X and Y? "Other"? And what is to be done about height, anyway?

Mixing traditional science reporting with personal anecdote, Hall ranges widely across popular culture and the scientific literature to explore such issues as what the average height of a population can reveal about culture and society (Why are the Dutch so tall? And why are Americans becoming relatively shorter?), and how the Food and Drug Administration's approval of human growth hormone as a "treatment" for undersize children in 2003 changed the politics and science of height.

Too bad there won't be a way to track the height of people who buy this book. Richard Parker reports on two new books about dead tycoons, Andrew Carnegie, by David Nasaw, and Mellon: An American Life, by David Cannadine. The review is lopsided, storytelling the Carnegie while finding fault with Mr Cannadine's somewhat forgiving handling of Mellon (and noting that the late Paul Mellon, son of Andrew, asked Mr Cannadine to write the book). No reason to buy Mr Nasaw's book is advanced.

David Margolick wrestles with David Mamet's The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, and in the process shows the playwright to be breathtakingly conservative.

As a cure for all this dissonance, Mamet offers, to use a notion out of Glengarry Glen Ross, a surprising "lead," one beyond the kin of Shelley "The Machine" Levene and the other real estate hustlers in the play: faith. Jews should stop trying to answer the unanswerable and yield to Jewish ritual and wisdom. After all, he asks, how could all those sages have had it so wrong all these years. Jews should force themselves to go to shul, and sit there until the spirit penetrates and soothes them.

The gist of Kevin Baker's review of Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson, is that the book is not up to the author's standard. After a lot of storytelling, Mr Baker complains that the two stories that Mr Larson has intertwined in Thunderstruck seem to have "been linked mostly for the chance to throw in a lurid murder - a dollop of the old ultraviolence to help the history go down."

Readers deserve better than this, and Larson can deliver it, as he showed in Isaac's Storm, his outstanding account of the Galveston hurricane of 1900. It would be gratifying to see him turn his considerable skills once again to a compelling historical narrative - straight up, no blood chaser.

Mr Baker nonetheless makes Thunderstruck sound like a very good read. Mary Roach does much the same for The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that [oh, must I?] Shaped Our History, by Molly Caldwell Crosby, an account of the uphill battle that Walter Reed fought to convince his Army superiors that yellow fever spread not by dirt but by mosquitoes. Ms Roach is adept at storytelling, but one perceives that the underlying book cannot be without merit.

Verlyn Klinkenborg begins his review of Aldo Leopold's Odyssey, by Julianne Lutz Newton, with a jaw-dropping assertion.

For most readers, Aldo Leopold is A Sand County Almanac. We have a hard time remembering the life that led up to that book, a hard time thinking of it as a posthumous work or imagining what point it represented - except the endpoint - in the arc of Leopold's thought.

Sand County what? Eventually, it emerges that Aldo Leopold was an important environmentalist in the first half of the last century. All he has to say about the book is that it has "few flaws"; the value of the book lies in its subject-matter, of whom Mr Klinkenborg writes with piety.

This week's silly books are Bass Madness: Bigmouths, Big Money, and Big Dreams at the Bassmaster Classic, by Ken Schultz, reviewed by Field Maloney, and The Real Animal House: The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie, by Chris Miller. Christopher Buckley's review of the latter is very entertaining. The book, he writes,

is sophomoric, disgusting, tasteless, vile, misogynist, chauvinist, debased and at times so unspeakably revolting that any person of decent sensibility would hurl it into the nearest Dumpster. I couldn't put it down. I make this self-indicting admission with all due trepidation, but there is. For better or worse, this an utterly hilarious book. [sic]

Trying to follow Mr Maloney's apparently favorable review was as difficult as laughing with Mr Buckley's was easy. People watch bass fishing on television? May I please leave the room?

Peter Dizikes's Essay, "Twilight of the Idols," argues that changes in the way that science is done foretell a change in the way that it is written about, especially as regards scientific biography.

November 07, 2006


It was the simplest election ever. I just ran right down the Working Families Party slate, and everyone whom I wanted to vote for was there. What's more, these were all people whom I've supported in the past and have actually thought about.

I'm very, very excited about our next governor (knock wood).

Say, don't miss this extraordinary little Op-Ed from the Times.

To See Such Sport

The Little Dog Laughed, the new play by Douglas Carter Beane, is one of the best-plotted pieces of theatre that I've enjoyed in a long time. It ends with a fantastic ka-chink that's a surprise only because the solution to the problem ought to have been obvious from the start. Of course, it would never have been obvious to a normal person. Only a barracuda-powered Hollywood agent could work it out.

For that reason, I can't say much about the play itself. It has two modes, questioning and answering. The questioning scenes are the ones in which Julie White, playing the role of Diane, is not on stage. Alex - to my mind the show's lead, magnificently played by Johnny Galecki - is the questioner. A hustler, he is tripped up by a botched encounter with movie star Mitch (Tom Everett Scott), and the question is, what if these two guys really like each other and just want to be together? Alex has a girl friend, Ellen (Ari Graynor), who's ready to upgrade her status to girlfriend when her lover dumps her. It's a case of bad timing, especially because Mitchell is slated to make a big movie about two gay men in love, and it won't help his career if he's actually gay in real life. As Diane, his agent, puts it, if he's straight, then playing a gay man is "noble." If he's gay, it's bragging!

Diane is the answerer. Julie White is almost terrifyingly dynamic onstage. Always alluringly outfitted, she's in motion even when she's sitting still. As quick and cynical as any "industry" personality ever to appear on stage, screen, or television, her Diane is a monster of calculation and bullshit (a lot of the bullshit, in fact, is abbreviated or pantomimed, as if it were a question of Diane's not being able to utter some falsehood or other for the trillionth time). Her handling of Mitchell, especially when he flounders in new-found love, is so deliberate that she's more animal trainer than agent. Let's hope that Ms White gets a Tony for her breathtaking performance - and that all the other playwrights rush to provide her with future vehicles. Not since Angela Lansbury rolled out Mame Dennis has there been an actress so loudly and blindingly that astronomical phenomenon that we call a Star. The woman is a one-man kick line.

Mr Beane allows himself everything, even Diane's announcement that it's time for intermission. Diane actually deconstructs the play's plot at one point, with a funky rule of thumb. In the first act, you put your characters up in a tree. In the second, you throw things at them. In the third act, you bring them down from the tree. And the difficulty with this play, she observes, is that what's being thrown at the characters in The Little Dog Laughed is happiness. Up in the tree, Mitchell and Alex, who have never been honest about their sexuality, discover that their desires might actually lead them to happiness. This is the romantic surprise of the play's "second act" (Little Dog has only two acts, of course.), and Mr Scott and Mr Galecki are very sweet about it.

And then, somebody throws in a baby.

I've read in the Times that The Little Dog Laughed has been tinkered with since its Off-Broadway days. Ms White and Mr Galecki are veterans of the earlier production; Mr Scott and Ms Graynor are new. The production team - Allen Moyer (sets), Jeff Mashie (costumes), Donald Holder (lights), and Lewis Flinn (music) - set the show off wonderfully well. Director Scott Ellis makes sure that his four highly talented actors are always on the same page. (October 2006)

November 06, 2006

Betty on Teddy

It's been a while since my last visit, but Betty Bowers is still going strong as "America's Best Christian" at What Would Betty Do? Her take on the Haggard scandal is priceless.

(Thanks, Joe.)

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford

San Francisco, March 27, 1944

Darling Muv,

..... The main reason I haven't written for so long is that you never answered my question about the Mosleys. I see in the papers that they are living in Shipton, so I suppose you do see them. I was so disgusted when they were released, & so much in sympathy with the demonstrators against their release that it actually makes me feel like a traitor to write to anyone who has anything to do with them. However I see that it is difficult for you, & not your fault....


Oakland, January 6, 1993

Dear Miss Manners,

.... I need your advice rather urgently. To explain: I've just got a FAX machine, and have been sending out lots of letters on it. One of my sisters in England also has FAX (much to my amazement) so naturally I sent her one straight away. I was surprised that she didn't answer by return - hers came the next day. However, she did say that she was in London when mine arrived, hence delay. Which brings me to the point: What is an answer "by return" in the case of FAX?  .....

Perhaps every new technology requires some re-thinking of the correct response. For example, telegrams (which are probably too young to remember) almost always had bad news; as they were jolly expensive, the answer was simply, such as "Desperately sorry. Mitford," only 3 words. Or if it was just a broken limb, not a death: "Rotten luck. Mitford." Again, only 3 words; ample, at a shilling a word.

Eagerly awaiting your response...

The writer of these letters could be extremely rigorous and unforgiving, but for the most part she was full of fun. She was always blunt. In a letter of 1990 to Katharine Graham, Decca Mitford tries to sugar-coat her advice about handling painful matters in memoirs, but the coating just drips right off. "But you can, & SHOULD, remember that it's YOUR book & deal with events according to your own taste."

Jessica Mitford Treuhaft, the fifth of the six Mitford sisters, American firebrand (and even a member of the Communist Party for a while) died a little over ten years ago, on 23 July 1996. Now we have her letters, in Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y Sussman (Knopf, 2006). Even if I weren't something of a Mitford-watcher, this would be a book that I'd have to have. It is in so many ways a companion to Decca's inimitable 1960 tell-all (that didn't begin to tell all), Hons & Rebels, one of the funniest books that I've ever read. Almost from the start, Decca rebelled against the class-bound ways of her semi-aristocratic family. She wanted to be free to make her own decisions, and she learned early that this would require her to be able to support herself. And of course she would have to run away, something that would require a Running Away Fund - which, amazingly, she funded before putting to its intended use. Decca didn't just run away, either; she ran off to the Spanish civil war with her cousin/husband, an episode that required major diplomatic intervention. Then it was off to America, where, among other things, the couple ran a cocktail lounge. And then, Esmond Romilly was lost in action in 1941.

Decca's next move, more or less, was to marry a Jewish labor lawyer, with whom she soon settled down in Oakland, California. With two of England's most notorious anti-Semites among her sisters, and a family that breathed low-grade anti-Semitism without thinking about it, Decca had done just about everything that she could to alienate her family. But that was never her intention ...

Continue reading about Decca at Portico.

November 05, 2006

"Enormous tolerance for intellectual dishonesty"

The cover of this week's New York Times Book Review bears the beginning of a serious essay by Michael Kinsley that pretends to review ten recent books about the state of American politics. The reviews are perfunctory in the extreme, however, sometimes consisting of no more than a sentence of comment. That's a disgrace on the part of the Book Review, perhaps, but the piece would be important wherever it appeared.

To cut to the chase, Mr Kinsley enumerates the things about American politics that need fixing. Voting machines. Electoral districts. Campaign finances. A more aggressive journalism. In the end, however, he concludes that there is only one thing that must be fixed. We need to put an end to our "enormous tolerance for intellectual dishonesty" - and for politicians who don't stand for anything but winning. The most brazen recent example that Mr Kinsley finds is the planning of the Bush campaign on the eve of the election of 2000. Fearing that Al Gore might win in the Electoral College, the campaign developed a plan for overcoming that outcome, arguing that it would be undemocratic. When in fact the election turned out just the other way, the Bushies because staunch advocates of the Electoral College.

Of all the things Bush did and said during the 2000 election crisis, this having-it-both-ways is the most corrupt. It was reported before the election and is uncontested, but no one seems to care, because so much of our politics is like that. And no electoral reform can fix this problem. Intellectual dishonesty can't be banned or regulated or "capped" like money. The only way it can be brought under control is if people start voting against it. If they did, the problem would go away. That's democracy.

When I read this, I understood something that had been bothering me. Why wasn't I paying attention to the campaigns this year? Surely they're as important as any mid-term elections could be. But I haven't had the slightest need for a campaign this time; my mind was made up before the season began. I will vote against Republican hegemony in any way that I can. And because I only have my one set of votes, it really doesn't matter to me what other people are planning to do. There is simply no news factor adhering to this election cycle. But the real reason for staying out of it is to avoid the appalling bullshit that, every once in a while, reaches up to the windows of my ivory tower. What is claiming that James Webb is unfit for the Senate because his novels have racy sex scenes in them but pure, unadulterated bullshit? Intellectual dishonesty isn't just a matter of bending the truth. It involves disregarding the concept of relevance. It short-circuits rationality. No matter how clever, it is fundamentally stupid. 

As Mr Kinsley urges, try to vote against it.

At the Kitchen Table

So, there's a new edition of The Joy of Cooking. I gather, from Kim Severson's piece/s in Thursday's Times, that the analytical rigor of former Simon & Schuster editor Maria Guarnaschelli, who oversaw the 1997 overhaul, has been roughed up with Rombauer-Beckerisms. In my opinion, Ms Guarnaschelli created reference work for the modern weekday cook of such excellence that it ought to have been given a name of its own, instead of trading on the Joy brand. I say, now, that I'm not going to buy the new book, but of course I'm going to look at it in the shops. With any luck, I won't be impressed - because I can't have two editions.

I never buy cookbooks anymore, because to make room for a new one means getting rid of an old one. I have more books about food and cooks than I have recipe collections. I have always shared Julia Child's belief that cooking is a matter of mastering certain basic techniques and classic combinations. Like most men, I don't seek novelty on my dinner plate as a matter of course. And I seem to be going through a change of life: food just isn't that interesting anymore. There are a few things that I'm crazy about (my fried chicken, for example), but I am very much someone who eats to live, not the other way round. So I probably all ready have too many cookbooks.


There was also, in the Times, an amusing piece, by Julia Moskin, about the craving for long out-of-print cookbooks. Nach Waxman, proprietor of Kitchen Arts and Letters, reports having over a hundred unfilled requests for Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie. I myself filled out a request, once, in search of a copy of The Eating-In-Bed Cookbook, by Barbara Ninde Byfield (Macmillan, 1962). Someone gave it to my mother as a joke - I don't think it was I who did - and I dreamed of growing up and feasting on Caesar's Goat and Swordfish Agamemnon. I did bake the Elizabeth Barrett's Brownies for many years. And on one strangely memorable occasion I cooked up an orgy of food to be consumed in bed. Six or seven dishes - just for me! But I'm not nearly decadent enough to lounge for hours over tepidating food. It was fun to prepare and boring to endure. Mr Waxman never came through on the cookbook, but I found it through Alibris.

I know that I promised to tell you what I prepared for last Monday's dinner, but in fact there was no Monday dinner. M le Neveu had to grade mid-terms, and Ms NOLA needed an early night. Stay tuned.

November 04, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is a difficult movie to write about, because its effects are spoiled by memory. Although it is a treat to watch, it is not satisfying to think back upon. That, at least, is my first impression. I'll give the film another chance when it comes out on DVD.

The more I know about the last notable queen of France - and there weren't very any, overall - the more convinced I am that her story is tragic, or would be if I could be sure that it ever dawned on her that she might have done things a little differently. No one could have expected a playful teenager to inhabit the burdensome role that her marriage obliged her to wear, and Marie Antoinette had the added burden of being Austrian. In the days of Louis XIV, that would not have done her any harm. But French alliances had shifted since then, and the populace was accustomed to reviling Austrians as a matter of course by 1770, the year of the young Hapsburg's arrival. If the people understood anything about the revival of cordial relations with the Empire, they chalked it up to the machinations of Mme de Pompadour (now dead). That association didn't help Marie Antoinette, either.

If Marie Antoinette had taken after the last queen, her husband's grandmother, Maria Leszczyńska - a pious but not stupid woman who held on to her dignity throughout the the infidelities of Louis XV - French history might have taken a very different turn. But Marie Antoinette's character was just the opposite. She wasn't stupid, but she was prone to boredom, and not inclined to take pains (except with games). She found the liturgical character of life at Versailles oppressive, instead of empowering, as a religious woman might have done. If she settled down a bit once her children arrived, she did not rise to the demands of being Queen of France until it was too late.

All of this is hinted at in Marie Antoinette, and I would expect viewers who are already familiar with the history of France at that time to indulge the movie's wild anachronisms. When Kirsten Dunst repeatedly says "wow" about a swatch of fabric, the film is sassing you, the informed member of the audience, in a way that nicely parallels the historic queen's sassing of her courtiers. Jason Schwartzman's impersonation of Louis XVI is an extremely quiet, because enormously compressed, joke; Mr Schwartzman hangs at the point of winking at the audience throughout every line, but never yields to the impulse, and this, of all things, gives his Louis an unlikely majesty - the majesty of resisted hilarity. In any case, stickling at the film because of its screenplay's many liberties with fact and manner will probably brand you as a killjoy.

And yet the film's complete unwillingness to convey a sense of the manners of the times even as it orgiastically revels in the period's decorative luxuriousness is problematic, at least for me. Michael Smith has argued, with great force, that Marie Antoinette is not really about Marie Antoinette. What gets in the way of my finding solution in this line of thinking is the fact that the film is so totally about Marie Antoinette's stuff. It is also not unaware that, for this particular woman, a preoccupation with stuff turned out to be life-threatening - even if she did go with the small trees. What's missing is not so much the historical reality of Marie Antoinette's life as the very physical ballet of courtly life that would animate the clothes as they were meant to be worn. The queen was notorious for her pursuit of carefree ways, but her starting point was considerably more restrained than Ms Dunst's somewhat abandoned American artlessness.

In the end, then, after the screen went dark and the opulence, both that of the château and that of Ms Coppola's filmmaking, vanished without a trace, it became hard for me to resist the impression that Marie Antoinette had been enacted by gloriously costumed but randomly chosen crash dummies. It is, as I say, a treat to watch, and sometimes very funny. Quite frequently, it exhibits the exuberance of high school on an unlimited budget. Its disregard for verisimilitude is archly transgressive. I agree with Michael Smith that Marie Antoinette wants us to think about things. In the end, I can praise it as a fantasia on historical themes. But I think that I'll always be somewhat impatient with its lack of life-giving self-discipline.

November 03, 2006

In The New Yorker

There's a lot of good stuff in this week's New Yorker. The two pieces that stood out for me were John Seabrook's Profile of Will Wright, the designer of Raid on Bungling Bay, Sim City, The Sims, and Spore. Although Mr Wright never earned a college degree, he has filled a large corner of the computer world with food for thought disguised as fun. Mr Seabrook's portrait is complex and intriguing, but Mr Wright's world will never been my world. I jumped with sympathy at a remark of Joell Jones, a painter and Mr Wright's wife (from whom he has separated, it seems).

I think it frustrates Will that I don't play his games. Clearly, his games matter, on a deep level, to many people - take these online diaries people keep about their Sims. Wow. I don't know if they're avoiding their lives or learning about them. Me, I don't want to play a game to learn about myself.

The other piece was Steven Shapin's review of Steven Johnson's "vivid history," The Ghost Map: The story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic, and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. At the heart of this book is a map drawn up John Snow, a Victorian physician, who was sure that the cause of cholera - which even he thought must be some sort of "miasma" - was waterborne. He was right, but people were slow to listen. The real engine of London's great sanitation schemes was, as Mr Shapin reports, the flush toilet, which vastly increased the amount of effluent produced by Londoners and eventually brought the Thames to a high reek. Mr Shapin's conclusion is trenchant.

Victorian London illustrates how much could be done with bad science; the continuing existence of cholera in the Third World shows that even good science is impotent without the resources, the institutions, and the will to act.

The most astonishing news emerges from a parenthesis in Hendrik Hertzberg's opening Comment in "The Talk of the Town" "(... the reported two-million-dollar salary conferred upon a Republican congressman who became the pharmaceutical industry's top lobbyist immediately after shepherding into law a bill forbidding the government to negotiate prices for prescription drugs.)" I'd like to know more about that; it's another item for the album that I've started to keep about the privatisation of public wealth. Although perfectly legal, it seems, the two-step strikes me as falling somewhere between letters of attainder and treason. It certainly keeps the government out of the free market! But then, Republicans aren't as ideological as they seem; bottom line, they're kleptocrats.

November 02, 2006

Let's Put On A Show!

I was lunching at Café d'Alsace. It came time to pay the bill. I motioned to the waiter, with that little handwriting-in-the-air thing that I learned about twenty years ago. And I wondered, as I did so, how dumb did I look? Here I am waving my arm in a gesture that perhaps I don't have down very well. Just this once, anyway, it seemed awkward, awkward enough to make me feel self-conscious.

The idea for the show burst open like a broken piñata.

Two shows, actually. In the first, a group of waiters, nominally getting together after their shifts, lampoon the great and the good of Manhattan upon whom they've been waiting all day. In terms that would be hilarious (comprehensible) to out-of-towners. This show, like A Chorus Line, would have its moving moments, and it would run for fifteen years.

The other show would the same, except that it would be written for the delectation of the great and the good themselves. A show that it would require some working knowledge of Manhattan to enjoy. (There really are two audiences in New York. Just wait for the tourist joke in the "Schadenfreude" number in Avenue Q.) This show would be presented at an annual festival, with fifteen or twenty performances, and it would change every year, like Forbidden Broadway. It would run in September, after the rentrée.

I'm putting this out in the teeth of a reasonable expectation that twenty people will tell me that Oh, Waiter! (a working title) has been attempted a million times and never even reached the Long Wharf. The only credit that I can take for the idea is in identifying myself as a potential member of the audience. Again like Chorus Line, the show would be "written" by real waiters. There would be auditions - oh, the irony of that. Auditioning actors who are waiting tables for the time being - qua waiters!

Well, waiters off duty. In other words: actors.


Looking for something fun to do that costs only $25? Buy a book. (Jason sent me.)

Up and Over


The building that I live in has a footprint shaped like the letter "H," but with a sizeable extra wing that juts out to the right of the top right-hand end of the letter. This means that there are twenty-percent more residents on the east side of the building than there are on the west. And yet both sides are served by the same complement of elevators: two for passengers and one for service. This works just fine on the west side. On the east side, the elevators are forever breaking down, or out of service for repair.

Every once in a while, my response to getting caught in a crowd of irritated neighbors blocking the corridor before the passenger elevators is to walk over to the west side of the building, take the elevator to the "penthouse" floor, and climb the flight of stairs to the roof, which I then traverse to get to the staircase on my side of the building. It's five flights down and my knees don't like it, but it's always better to be moving than to be waiting.

The other day, I paused for a moment, setting the mail on one of the mushroom-cap ventilators, to take this souvenir. This is the view that getting home occasionally involves.

It's rather like being on the crew that polishes the jewels in Topkapi or the Tower: the things that you get to see in an everyday way. I don't claim that there's anything terribly interesting about the particular scene on view in the snap. But I do know that there are residents of the building itself who would be brought up short by finding themselves so high up in the air in the middle of finding their way home.

November 01, 2006

In the Book Review

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


Accompanied by a nice photograph of the author and his dogs, A O Scott's extremely favorable review of Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land does what it can to push Mr Ford onto the Olympian summits of American letters. Toward the end, he writes of Frank Bascombe, the ordinary guy at the center of a trilogy of novels,

But the point is, you must take Frank as he is, and admit him into your circle of intimates according to affinities that go deeper than literary taste. And accepting him - extending your sympathy, laughing at his jokes, overlooking his crotchets and prejudices - amounts nearly to an ethical imperative, the acknowledgment of his personhood.

But I'm afraid that Mr Scott said nothing to persuade me that Frank Bascombe is worth Mr Ford's attentions, doubt about which crept in when I read excerpts from Independence Day in The New Yorker. Mr Ford is an extraordinarily gifted writer, but there's a weird narcissism about Frank, as if he's in love with the ordinary guy he's trying to be.

Christopher Dickey's review of Magic Time, by Doug Marlette, is a stammering affair, haunted, I suppose by echoes of the Civil Rights movement as it was experience by white Southerners and as it forms the foundation of this novel.

Alongside these historical events, and drawing from them, Marlette creates a narrative where nothing and no one is quite real; all is more or less subtle caricature. (One resists using that word, since the novelist is best known as a cartoonist, but, well, there it is.) ... But the storytelling is involving and the plot wondrously complicated, a tall tale about terrible times that were, in memory, magical and magnificent.

Poor Charles Frazier has not been getting the kind of review that welcomed Cold Mountain to the literary party in 1997. Everyone seems to be disappointed by Thirteen Moons, and Adam Goodheart is no exception.

The problem, I think is that Frazier writes almost exclusively to create effects. He seems to be in love with the supposed gorgeousness of his own prose, a backdrop against which his characters emerge merely as dim figures, without consistent motivations or even personalities. Tolstoy and Virgil - and, come to think of it, Margaret Mitchell - credibly describe human beings driven by ambition, greed, drunkenness and fickle lust. Frazier can't even get the drunkenness right.

Notwithstanding the above, Mr Goodheart finds much of the writing in Thirteen Moons "bad - really bad." One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson's second crime novel, One Good Turn, gets a good review from Liesl Schillinger, although I think that Ms Schillinger had more to say than space permitted. Of Ms Atkinson's approach, she writes, "she's less interested in bringing perpetrators to justice than in exposing the engines of complicity, weakness and ego that drive seemingly witnesses and victims." This is a review that would have benefited mightily from an extended quotation from the text; I came away from it rather confused. Not one of Ms Schillinger's best efforts. Confusing in a different way is Gregory Cowles's review of The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas.

Thomas understands that a spoonful of escapism helps the phenomenology go down, and she obliges with a breakneck thriller of a plot that includes collapsing buildings, renegade CIA agents and debauched sex. In a way, she's flipped the Matrix formula on its head: the movie leaned on philosophy to make its generic story more cerebral, while Thomas uses genre to jazz up what's essentially a novel of ideas.

Finally, there is The Curse of Caste: Or The Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel, by Julia C Collins and edited by William L Andrews and Mitch Kachun. Sven Birkerts is pretty sure that this unfinished piece of boilerplate is

not worthy of the canonically foundational 'first novel by an African-American woman slot.' The best that can be said for The Curse of Caste is that it offers more evidence, if evidence were needed, of the persistence of racism in the former slave-owning class as the Civil War was ending - as seen by a woman and portrayed through a miscegenetic relationship.


Christopher de Bellaigue is not enthusiastic about Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran, by Jason Elliot - Road to Oxiana it ain't - but his review is, on balance, favorable.

Around his account of many months of travel, and sustained by extensive reading in libraries, he aims to build nothing less than a cohesive idea of Iran's artistic development.

Kathryn Harrison is working her way onto the small but growing list of reviewers whose work I dread because I come away from it with the painfully simultaneous impressions that I didn't get her point and that her point wasn't worth making. I can make no real sense of her review of Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, by Patricia Hampl. Inspired by Matisse's Woman Before an Aquarium, Ms Hampl appears to have written a book about (in her words) "passionate and detachment, of intimacy and distance," but, according to the review,

Ultimately, Blue Aquarium isn't a memoir so much as it is a paean to the act of seeing, celebrating our capacity to be transformed by the truths art holds, recognizing them as ... holy.

The ellipsis there is not added. As usual, Ms Harrison is excited by the intersection of sacred and transgressive impulses. Blue Aquarium gets lost in the gush. Michael Wood's review of Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, by Lee Siegel, is nearly as incomprehensible. I can tell that, just as Kathryn Harrison likes Patricia Hampl, Mr Wood doesn't like Mr Siegel. That much is clear. But what seems to be a complete lack of sympathy makes him a very poor critic. Mr Siegel writes for The New Republic, but in Mr Wood's hands he comes off as a mush-prone nut who has a couple of worthwhile things to say.

In contrast, James Campbell's review of the next installment of John Fowles's diaries - The Journals: Volume Two: 1966-1990 - is astute. "There is intelligent observation in abundance, but disgust and dislike of humankind eventually conspire to exclude Fowles from the front rank of literary diarists." Front rank or not, Fowles's self-exposure gets a favorable nod from Mr Campbell. Caveat emptor, he implies, but don't not be an emptor.

David Leonhardt, who writes on economics for the Times, writes an excellent review of The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement, by Jacob S Hacker. Up to a point, it's the standard review of books like this, praising the author's shrewd analysis of an impending crisis, but then damning the author for failing to propose viable solutions. Mr Leonhardt has an idea where the solution might lie, however, and it is worth reading just for itself. The shortcut to which he refers is the one so often taken by public intellectuals: Mr Hacker relies on the American economy's facts and figures, but does not inquire into Americans' thoughts and aspirations.

This shortcut matters because it helps explain why Hacker's side has been losing for so long. It still has not persuaded Americans, who generally expect to succeed, that they might well be served by more insurance. The antagonist throughout The Great Risk Shift is a cult of individualism that Hacker calls "The Personal Responsibility Crusade," As Bill Clinton understood, however, Americans do not like to be on the opposite side of personal responsibility. This book doesn't move the newly muscular Democrats any closer to finding their happy warrior.

Charles Morris can't make up his mind about Dynasties: Fortunes and Misfortunes of the World's Great Family Businesses, by David S Landes. On the one hand, he calls it an "entertainment," in Graham Greene's sense, and concludes that the book "was clearly a pleasurable undertaking, not a scholarly one, and general readers may enjoy it for precisely that reason." Most of the piece, however, seems to pick at Mr Landes's failure to defend his belief that family members brought up within the peculiar environment of a given firm can outperform generic professional managers with more rigor. There is this little nugget of information that I'll pass on:

The purest cases for Landes's "stewardship" thesis may be the Peugeots and the Wendels [both French families]. Over a number of generations, both families have been gifted, committed and acutely aware of their multigenerational obligations.

Could it be that "stewardship" is the sword with which to cut down "personal responsibility"?

Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West gets a favorable review from N Scott Momaday, but its not a very good one. We're told that Kit Carson "is at the center of this book," and that Mr Sides originally "set out to write a book on the removal of the Navajos from Canyon de Chelly and their Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo," and, indeed, these are the topics that preoccupy Mr Momaday's review. If so, however, then Mr Sides has snuck a little book inside a mammoth title.

On the facing page, Jacob Heilbrunn takes on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, reviewing three books, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, by Victor Sebestyen, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, by Charles Gati, and Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, by Michael Korda. Mr Heilbrunn rises to the challenge of digesting so much material in so short a space.

Despite their very different approaches, these works have some important things in common: each of the authors has a personal connection to Hungarian history and culture; each refers to newly available documents from the Soviet and American archives; each casts a cold eye on American declarations of a crusade for democracy behind the Iron Curtain; and above all, each shows that - just as George F Kennan had predicted - Stalin's vast empire contained the seeds of its own demise.

What Mr Heilbrunn regrets is that "none of the authors note that the events in Hungary refuted the theory, advanced by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and widely believed in the West almost until the end of the cold war, that Communism had reduced entire populations to a permanent state of cringing subservience."

Actress and culinarian Madhur Jaffrey has written a memoir of her childhood, Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India, and the Review has assigned the book to food writers Jane and Michael Stern. The comfortable result will sell many copies.

A shimmering security pervades Jaffrey's youth, which she describes as "surrounded by love, concern, family tensions, cousinly competition and the general goings-on of a large joint family." Nowhere is the enveloping warmth more palpable than at dinnertime, either at the sprawling table of the compound in Delhi or at picnics in the city and the mountains. ...

Jaffrey's taste memories sparkle with enthusiasm, and her talent for conveying them makes the book relentlessly appetizing.

An equally satisfying assignment: Henry Alford on Amy Sedaris. Writing of the comedian's I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, Mr Alford quietly complains:

In addition to wanting specific party tips and recipes, many of us read books on entertaining because to do so is to lessen our anxiety about letting others get close to us, literally and metaphorically. As hilarious and as relentlessly inventive as Sedaris is, her prescriptions are often more likely to induce laughter or awe than intimacy. The sheer force of Sedaris's personality, both on the stage and on the page, could crush most other comic performers and writers like the tiny bugs we are, but a gracious host is as much an enabler as a doer.

In other words, he loved the book. Alexandra Jacobs did not even like The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, by Laura Kipnis. After sketching Ms Kipnis's career from academic feminist to attention-getting author - her Against Love came out in 2003 - Ms Jacobs writes,

The Female Thing feels like a rushed attempt to capitalize on this accomplishment, a loose collection of ideas knitted together after too many thimblefuls of sherry at the faculty lounge. Kipnis begins with a provocative if familiar premise: women's natural instincts make them complicit in their own historical subjugation. But the text that follows is filled with woolly equivocations: "of course .. obviously ... which is to say" - more padded than a Wonderbra, as Kipnis might put it (she grasps at cheeky just-us-gals metaphors, comparing the presumably painful state of current gender relations, for example, to "ingrown hairs after a bad bikini wax.")

It's a fun review, if you're feeling a little mean.

Steven Johnson's Essay, "Own Your Own Words," is about the importance of exploiting Google in order to "own" a topic.


Here is a portrait of the Democratic candidate for one of Virginia's two US Senate seats, James Webb.*

He saw himself as a creature of a pervasive but nearly invisible Scot-Irish subculture, descended from the warrior clans of Ulster who migrated to North America in large numbers in the eighteenth century. They came to live mostly in the Appalachian South - a stubborn, bellicose people, fiercely individualistic and egalitarian. They settled the frontiers, invented country music, and fostered a truly native form of American democracy. Most important, they bore the brunt of fighting the nation's wars. ,,,

In Webb's world, manhood was a standing, to be earned. When he was a small boy, his father, a bomber pilot in the Second World War, would clench his fist and dare his son to strike it, taunting him o keep punching until the tears flowed. But Webb accepted that a father's highest duty was to prepare his son for manhood by teaching to fight, to hunt, and to handle a weapon. He got his first gun when he was eight, and Jimmy [his son] did, too. In such a culture, going off to war is part of what Webb calls "the Redneck Bar Mitzvah." **

Reading this for the first time, I felt myself bristling, and not because I thought that it misrepresented Mr Webb. No; I stiffened because everything about Mr Webb's "subculture" repels me, right down to the country music. What I have to face, though, is that what Mr Webb sees in the Northeast elite subculture to which I belong is the very same thing that I see in his: a smug smirk that I want to smack. Anything that we can do to marginalize one another, we will do, because the dislike is bone-deep. I hate his people for breaking the elite American republic created in 1789 - a republic that offered a very limited franchise. And he hates mine because we tried to do everything to block the influence of his Founding Father, Andrew Jackson. I honestly don't believe that we were meant to cohabit the same sovereignty, not then and not now, and it's why I curse my Yankee forebears for not allowing the South to secede upon the election of Abraham Lincoln. (There would still, in all likelihood, have been a war over the West.)

To Webb, himself once a distinguished member of the Marine Corps, military service was not just a patriotic gesture but a test of honor and courage, an essential rite of passage.***

I cannot express how pathetically benighted I find the musky reflex that associates honor with warfare. And then to complain about bearing "the brunt"? Of wars that might not be undertaken were it not for Mr Webb's need for rites of passage? Sending rednecks to war while sparing Ivy Leaguers seems just about right to me.

But what if James Webb and his tribe were our only allies in the fight to subdue the corporate colonization of the United States?

(On a related note.)

* From "Southern Discomfort," by Peter J Boyer, in The New Yorker, 30 October 2006. ** page 43. *** page 42.