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December 31, 2006

At My Kitchen Table: What did we eat?

The other night, after dinner, Kathleen and I were recalling the foodstuffs of childhood. Kathleen could remember hers a lot better than I could mine. I remember Chung King chicken chow mein, Chef Boy-ar-di Spanish Rice, and TV dinners (the last superseded, eventually, by varieties of Stauffer's). I remember learning that I preferred spaghetti al burro - spaghetti with butter and parmesan - to anything with tomato sauce. I remember fish sticks on Friday. But I have no idea how often we had any of these "dishes," and I'm sure that there must have been others. Meat loaf? Macaroni and cheese? (Before Stauffer's, that is.) Surely - but I don't remember them. Salisbury steaks - I think I remember Salisbury steaks.

What I remember more surely is wishing that I could cook. This was not permitted, because cooking was something that girls and women did. My mother was of the opinion that I might as well be allowed to wear ball gowns as permitted to cook. And she can't have been crazy about my objectives, which were to conduct chemistry-set experiments in the kitchen and to have good-tasting dinners. My mother was devoted to taking good care of us, but that was not enough to make her like cooking - and you have to like cooking to turn out good food. I'm convinced of it. It is simply too much work, otherwise.

In time, we all grew up and became more sensible. A few weeks before she died, of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, my mother asked me to do the cooking for what we all knew, but didn't say, would be her last dinner party. I don't remember the menu, but I do remember that it came off nicely. When I wasn't serving, I stayed in the kitchen. My mother was very, very grateful afterward - almost effusive.

Her last words, hoarsely whispered on the night she died, were directed at me. "Did you freeze the leftover ravioli?"

The things I remember.

December 30, 2006

Eve of the Eve

How typical: Dubya slept through Saddam's hanging. The want of respect is staggering, but we've had plenty of opportunity to get used to staggering arrogance in the White House. It's not that the Iraqi tyrant himself deserved respect so much as the moment of his execution that did. It was incumbent upon the President to witness and event of such symbolic importance (not so symbolic for the hanged man). But this president sleeps on autopilot.

Once I got past that headline this morning, I jumped to the Book Review and clapped my hands with delight: a collection of short stories by Colm Tóibín. I snatched a Crawford Doyle Booksellers bookmark from the jug and carried it with me to breakfast across the street. At the stroke of ten, I called the bookshop and secured a copy of Mothers and Sons, as the collection is titled.

Walking over to Madison Avenue, I was oppressed by the utterly leaden sky. The side streets were deserted. Ordinarily, it's a pleasure to be in the emptied city, but this morning it felt sinister. Shadows were nowhere; shadow was everywhere. (In the afternoon, the sun eventually peeped out.)

Then I went to Eli's, where I bought a few provisions for the coming days. I could have kicked myself when the cashier rang up the loaf of stollen that I most imprudently tossed into my basket even though it didn't carry a price tag. Twenty-five dollars! Half that would have been ample. I can't say I didn't see it coming. Well, call it a Christmas treat.

Kathleen is at the office, cleaning up. Not just organizing piles of paper, but dusting. With Pledge. The state of Kathleen's office is a scandal at the best of times, but "she knows where everything is." Except that, lately, she doesn't.

While Kathleen was out, and I, too, was dusting (as is my Saturday wont), I listened to Mozart's Messiah, K 572, and then to Bach's Christmas Oratorio. Do I have any energy left for writing a few Christmas cards?

The Holiday

The Holiday may be a feel-good movie, but as a Nancy Meyers feel-good movie it's sufficiently dry and verbal to render the fantasy settings and outcomes interesting. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslett are so unalike that they give us two movies, and their stories are told in different tonalities as well. Amanda (Ms Diaz) is a neurotic producer of movie trailers who starves her boyfriends of attention and then throws them out when they're unfaithful. It takes her about ten nanoseconds after her arrival in an English cottage to meet cute with Graham (Jude Law), the brother of the woman, Iris (Ms Winslett), with whom she has swapped homes for the holiday. Amanda and Graham fall immediately into each other's arms and then spend the rest of their half of the movie trying to have a good time without getting too serious, because Amanda will be returning to Los Angeles in a week or so. When Amanda cries for the first time since her parents' divorce (she was fifteen), she knows that she has met Mr Right, and she asks the driver to turn the car round.

I pointed out Amanda's profession because Ms Meyers plays with it amusingly, interrupting Amanda's reveries with imagined trailers about her own romantic ineptitude. I might add that the one "actual" trailer that we see - Amanda's latest production - "stars" Lindsay Lohan and James Franco. Mr Franco fires big guns with both hands without looking totally ridiculous - and that's the laugh. You realize that the action is ridiculous. This is how Ms Meyers works. She makes us register our derisive reactions to cinematic clichés without actually prompting them.

Iris, meanwhile, experiences a more layered holiday, and love sneaks up on her. Her meeting cute is with her neighbor,  Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach). Arthur is a retired screenwriter on a walker, and once he befriends Iris, he prescribes a list of movies for her to watch that all feature women with "gumption." Iris's problem, you see, is that she is the "best friend" in her romances, never the "leading lady." This has enabled her to suffer the on-again, off-again attentions of Jasper, a bedroom-eyed Lothario that it can't have been a stretch for Rufus Sewell to play. Arthur, in turn, benefits from Iris's warmth and enthusiasm; it's not an overstatement to say that she brings him back to life. This is where the film could have been unendurably bathetic, but Mr Wallach's wary good humor acidulates the water. Meanwhile, Miles (Jack Black - he cleans up fairly well here), a composer of movie scores, circles in gently but intently. Like Iris, he puts up with too much abuse in his love-life. When Iris and Miles discuss this similarity, they seem to make a pact; and when, not much later, they manage, simultaneously but in different locations, to break the cycle, it's because each of them has drawn strength from the other. Their union at the end might be rather too much the legion of the decent (we are spared any of this couple's lovemaking, although we see the other one in bed), but that's what feel-good movies do: they make unlikely matchings seem plausible, if only until the credits roll.

The difference between the two love stories is well exemplified by each woman's experience of the other's home. Amanda's sprawling Beverly Hills mansion, loaded with comfort, allows Iris to open up and delight in her life. Iris's exiguous Surrey cottage, with its stingy mod cons, forces Amanda to face her devils - although she would have left after her first night if Graham hadn't shown up. Iris's story is a comedy of healing; Amanda's is a screwball comedy.

Repeated viewings of Nancy Meyers's Something's Gotta Give have given me some idea of what it must have been like to sit in Depression-era movie palaces and float away on Hollywood dreams. It isn't just the opulent housing and the great wardrobes. Ms Meyers is fantastically creative with the passage of time and the covering of distances. If she introduced a genii-loaded lamp into the action, her stories would not be any less improbable. But she knows that we're on to her, and she keeps us distracted us with treats. No filmmaker is as dead serious about light entertainment, and none makes it so seriously satisfying.

December 29, 2006

In The Nation

Here's what I did during my Christmas vacation: I read all the reviews in nearly twenty back issues of The Nation. Including the "Spring Books" issue from May. When I get behind, I don't fool around! The Nation's criticism is so much more substantial than the trash that too often appears in the New York Times Book Review that I feel somewhat foolish for taking the latter to task every week. At the same time, I have a terrible headache. All that brainy thoughtfulness!

I clipped five essays. David Thompson's warm appreciation (May 29, 2006) of Alan Bennett's Untold Stories will be tucked into the book. I don't know where to tuck William Deresiewicz's brisk dismissal (October 9, 2006) of Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, but I had to hold on to it because it sums up succinctly my dissatisfaction with the one Powers novel that I have read, Galatea 2.2.

The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers's other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for.

Mr Deresiewicz is particularly struck by the fact that Richard Powers wows his readers with unstinting displays of science. He's given a pass on affect because his material is "difficult." The review traces this back to a wistful yearning for science and literature to engage in fruitful conversation.

From Matthew Arnold to C P Snow to today, there's been a vague feeling afloat that if only somehow those two modes of knowledge could be made to talk to each other, science would be humanized (whatever that means) and art made relevant to the scientific age (as if it weren't already).

I doubt this demand will ever be satisfied, for the simple reason that no one really knows what it means, least of all the people who make it. But certainly one way it won't be satisfied is by treating the novel as a container for scientific ideas.

Jon Wiener's review of Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, by David S Brown (October 23, 2006), is valuable for cutting Hofstadter down to size, or at least for stressing the distorting effect that a dread of American fascism had upon the writer's work. Another reassessment of received truths, Eyal Press's "In God's Country (November 20, 2006), reviews nine recent books under a "church and state" rubric. Mr Press reminds us that strong religious convictions have done far more good than harm to American life, as the single issue of civil rights for Afro-Americans makes perfectly clear, and he thinks that secular liberals are too easily scared by extreme fundamentalists. In any case, religious conviction must be respected; it was to ensure that respect, for any and all creeds, that the Founders proscribed an established religion. Mr Press quotes Madison, who wrote that religion

"flourishes in greater purity without [rather] than with the aid of government." He was right. The level of religious observance in America has long dwarfed that in various European countries where official churches still exist.

One cannot hope to change the religious conviction that, say, homosexuality is wrongful without first taking it very seriously indeed.

Finally, Lynn Hunt's review (May 29, 2006) of two books about the Terror seemed worth keeping, because it makes a very important point that I hope that it's not paranoid of me to regard as extremely important these days. Writing of Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, Mr Hunt observes,

Scurr sets out to answer the same wrong question that has bedeviled so many accounts of the Terror. She asks how Robespierre could have come to incarnate the Terror and with it the entire French Revolution. The question rests on a double fallacy - that Robespierre is the Terror, that the Terror is the French Revolution - whose lure is easily understood.

In fact, Mr Hunt argues, Robespierre became a tyrant not by main force but by the consent of the Convention.

Robespierre undoubtedly turned many a memorable phrase because he believed that he spoke for the Revolution's most profound principles. But the other deputies only tolerated this pretension as long as the situation demanded what he offered: an ability to keep popular violence in check while indefatigably pursuing victory on the Revolution's multiple fronts and obscuring the fact that the "regime" lacked all the basic elements of rule. Once the French gained the upper hand in both the foreign and civil wars, Robespierre's days were numbered.

Mr Hunt concludes with chilling relevance.

Rumor, conspiracy, constant harping on imminent dangers, accusing political opponents of being unpatriotic, internment camps, even lists of suspects vaguely defined have all made a shocking reappearance in the US "war on terror," along with torture, a practice repudiated by the French even though they had grown up under a monarchy that routinely administered it under court supervision. If the leaders of the most powerful nation in the world can react in this fashion to the threats, albeit real, of small cells of terrorists financed by foreign powers, is it really so hard to imagine that the French responded as they did?

 

December 28, 2006

Eavesdropping

Kathleen and I had lunch a neighborhood bistro yesterday, and I learned something about eavesdropping: I'm not tempted by people who are having what you would call a private conversation. If I can't hear without straining, I won't listen. Two women sat at a table right next to ours, and because the banquette turned a corner, they were very much in my view. But they spoke in low voices and I paid them no attention. Several tables away, however, there was a rather garrulous quartet of people just a bit older than I am. Even so, they seemed to belong to my parents' generation, because they weren't baby boomers. Born before the end of World War II, they started out in a decidedly less rapacious atmosphere than the one that PPOQ (born 1946) and I knew. We were consumers from the start. Anyway, it was fun to figure out who went with whom. The out-of-town couple planned to see A Chorus Line later on, in the evening; the husband had "never seen a Broadway show." On the evidence of what we overheard, there was no reason to believe that he had ever done anything but play golf.

Eavesdropping while dining alone is risky. You can lose yourself in somebody's story, only to react inappropriately - by reacting at all. Once upon a time, I overheard a fellow regale his companions with a tale about a night at a Club Med in the Caribbean during which there was a lot of drinking. At one point, the guy left the bar to get some cigarettes. When he came back, everybody was dancing. That was cool, so he got right into it. It took a round of applause for him to realize that he had entered by bar by the wrong door, and wandered into the floor show.

I burst out laughing. (He told the story very well.) I killed the laugh immediately, but of course it was too late. Hot blood flooded my cheeks, and I searched the tablecloth in vain for the "Evaporate" button. 

After lunch, Kathleen and I went to Gracious Empire, the constellation of three Gracious Home stores within spitting distance of the corner of Third Avenue and 70th Street. We hit all three. Trying to choose a picture frame, I called out to Kathleen, who was standing some distance away. I asked her if she could give me some advice. Two women standing in between us turned to me eagerly, ready to help a guy out.  

December 27, 2006

Down With Authenticity!

NoIdiot.JPG

Well, one thing we know: you're no fake. You're a genuine idiot! (North By Northwest)

One of the most refreshing Op-Ed pieces in ages appeared in yesterday's Times. In "Our Overrated Inner Self," sociologist Orlando Patterson came out and dismissed the concern for "authenticity" as an impediment to the working of civil society. It's about time. 

I couldn’t care less whether my neighbors and co-workers are authentically sexist, racist or ageist. What matters is that they behave with civility and tolerance, obey the rules of social interaction and are sincere about it. The criteria of sincerity are unambiguous: Will they keep their promises? Will they honor the meanings and understandings we tacitly negotiate? Are their gestures of cordiality offered in conscious good faith?

As Professor Patterson says, the American warp on authenticity has led the electorate to support George W Bush as somehow "real," while it has prodded the pundits and the press to suspect that Hillary Clinton is a "fake." Beyond foolish consistency, I can't see what distinguishes "real" from "fake" in these cases. Mr Bush is a genuine bully whose mind has been genuinely sealed shut as an alternative treatment for alcoholism. Ms Clinton is a politician, that is, someone whose compromises are informed by core values. (Otherwise, she would just be an opportunist.) Mr Bush is utterly insincere - you might even say, authentically insincere. Ms Clinton is obviously trying.

Trying is good. Setting out to be a better person means accepting that one is not yet a better person. "Authenticity" would prohibit self-improvement. "Authenticity" has enabled hundreds of thousands of loutish males to complain to their better halves, "You're trying to change me!" Well, yes, that is the idea: you can't become a better person without changing. And you can't change without trying to change.

Eventually, at least with persistence, the attempt produces a real transformation. Why get lost in the semantics of authenticity? Genuine transformation is good; it's more than good: it is enough. Who you were when you started out is simply not important. And there is no better example of the beauty of deliberate personal metamorphosis than the late Cary Grant.

In later life, the actor would say, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." A balder admission of inauthenticity cannot be conceived, and yet the record of Grant's life - not just his films, but his personal dealings as well - could hardly have been more admirable, short of helping out Mother Teresa. He worked on himself constantly, grooming his character as scrupulously as his hair, and eventually - as Aristotle assures us will happen - his good habits made him a good man.

So take your pick. Are you happier with an inauthentic, self-made gentleman whose word is his bond and whose eagerness to make you comfortable is automatic? Or would you prefer an authentic lunk, incapable of pushing beyond the least resistance?

Historically, the concern for authenticity followed an era of widespread hypocrisy. But authenticity is not the antidote. Sincerity is. Sincerity brings hypocrisy to an immediate halt. Sincerity rules out opportunistic self-improvement. It legitimates change.

Although I'm not a religious person, I agree with the Christian proposition that we are all authentic sinners. And that, I would hope, is a point of departure.

In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Don Chiasson's review of C K Williams's Collected Poems is generally enthusiastic, but it complains that the poet's "outraged new poems about Iraq end this volume on a note of bluster and treacle." There are, however, plenty of quotes to allow a reader to judge for himself.

This year's final cover story goes to What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, by Dave Eggers. Francine Prose's review explains this peculiar title and the joint nature of the project that the book embodies. Achak Deng is a real-life Sudanese refugee whose harrowing tale was Mr Eggers's raw material.

Eggers's generous spirit and seemingly inexhaustible energy - some of the qualities that made his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, so popular - transform Valentino and the people he met on his journey into characters in a book with all the imaginative sweep, the scope, and, above all, the emotional power of an epic.

Ms Prose also writes, "The considerable appeal of Valentino's personality and the force of Eggers's talent turn this eyewitness account of a terrible tragedy into a paradoxically pleasurable experience."

Benjamin Anastas's review of Last Seen Leaving, a "thriller" by Kelly Braffet, appears to be baffled by Ms Braffet's blending of high writing and low trope.

If only Braffet weren't so addicted to the cheaper forms of literary thrill-seeking, Last Seen Leaving might take the reader on a more satisfying ride. As it is, a novel that could have moved us as it races through unfamiliar country is content to circle the multiplex parking lot flashing a bumper sticker that reads unsafe at any speed.

I couldn't tell whether Last Seen Leaving is a genuine novel with pulp garnishes or a piece of pulp with no claim to be reviewed by the Review.

Nonfiction

First, the "big" books, or books on big topics. Christopher Caldwell takes pains to make it clear that The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, by Walter Benn Michaels, is, notwithstanding its title, a book of the left, not the right.

What interests Michael is the ideology of diversity, particularly as it is enunciated in universities. For him, this ideology has a basic "trick" to it: "It treats economic difference along the lines of racial and sexual difference, thus identifying the problem not as the difference but as the prejudice (racism, sexism) against the difference." As long as no wishes ill to the poor, and as long as the poor are not made to feel inferior, there are no grounds for complaint, and no basis for attacked capitalism.

A complex but rewarding review.

Gary Hart is kind but firm about Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

Truly great leaders possess a strategic sense, an inherent understanding of how the framework of their thinking and the tides of the times fit together and how their nation's powers should be applied to achieve its large purposes. The Audacity of Hope is missing that strategic sense. Perhaps the senator should address this in his next book. By doing so, he would most certainly propel himself into the country's small pantheon of leaders in a way that personal narrative and sudden fame cannot.

Jeffry A Frieden is similarly disappointed by Joseph E Stiglitz's Making Globalization Work, noting that, while it is "a well-written and informative primer on the major global economic problems," it offers a slate of unrealistic fixes.

However, his proposals are almost utopian in their reliance upon good will, enlightened public opinion and moral imperatives to overcome selfish but deeply entrenched private or national interests that do not share his goal of making globalization work for as many countries and as many people as possible.

Two titles might be bundled together as history. Peter D Kramer gives Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, by George Prochnik, a very useful review. Putnam, the author's great-grandfather, was America's leading neurologist at the time of Freud's visit in 1909, and Putnam's Camp focuses on the impact of Viennese psychotherapy upon the development of a distinctly American psychology, and concludes that it was ultimately superficial.

[Prochnik] sees Putnam as an influence on Freud through negation, arguing that Freud's assertion of a death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle was a rebuke to Putnam's optimism. As for America, the variants of psychoanalysis that flourished emphasized the sublimation that so appealed to Putnam even after Freud had lost faith in it.

Ingrid Rowland's review of Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art From the Cults of Catholic Europe, by Thomas Cahill, is favorable but not without its barbs.

Cahill loves to spin out a yarn as palpably as an old Irish bard by the peat fire, or the old Greek, Hesiod, at his blacksmith's forge, and his personal asides seem to add to this intimate, old-time atmosphere.

Ms Rowland also notes that the book is "handsomely produced, with footnotes marked in medieval uncial letters and margins filled with fanciful designs like those in the margins of medieval manuscripts." She makes it quite clear that Mysteries, while it very well might provide a magical and intoxicating introduction to medieval history for young readers, is not a serious book for adults.

There are two biographies, of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Madame du Châtelet. The latter, as you may recall, was Voltaire's brilliant lover, a translator of Newton and Mandeville into French and a formidable mathematician in her own right. Caroline Weber praises La Dame d'Esprit: A Biography of the Marquise du Châtelet, by Judith P Zinsser, for its contents, if not for its style.

Today's women will find much that is familiar in Du Châtelet's multitasking lifestyle, which Zinsser, who teaches history at Miami University in Ohio and is an expert in women's history, describes with understandable and infectious appreciation. The author's prose, though, is riddled with tiresome repetitions.

It would have behooved Ms Weber to make mention of amateur historian Nancy Mitford's eminently readable Voltaire in Love, if only to demonstrate how much more detailed and penetrating Ms Zinsser's professional book might or might not be.

In his review of Isaac B Singer: A Life, by Florence Noiville, D T Max storytells the writer's career before finally dismissing the biography. He quotes Ms Noiville and then scolds her for failing to answer her own question.

" ... Apparently he was repelled by something within himself. But what?"

... This short new book has plenty of pleasures - most of all a fluid recounting of the facts of Singer's life and an agreeable outsider's engagement with American Jewish culture - but we will have to wait for a harder-boiled effort to find out.

Philip Lopate writes generously about Outsider: John Rockwell on the Arts, 1967-2006, a collection of essays chosen by the critic himself. Although he faults Mr Rockwell's manner -

The author's prose is lively, lucid and direct. The downside, made more apparent over 500-plus pages, is that it can also be flippant, overcute (especially in endings), lazy and unresistant, with a preponderance of passive verbs and spritzing of vague positive adjectives.

- he finds that the collection

also provides a valuable record of the cultural period through which we have just passed: an enthusiastic verbal snapshot album of everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Shostakovich and Mark Morris. Finally, it offers invaluable insights into the evolution and career of a working critic, one who has survived the many fashion shifts in pop and high culture by remaining optimistic and young at heart.

Food writer Julia Reed is scathing about A Stew Or A Story: An Assortment of Short Works, by M F K Fisher. The fault isn't Fisher's - "I don't know a journalist working today who wouldn't wince if every submission he or she had ever written ... were dredged up for all the world to see - but that of editor Joan Reardon.

In this collection, spanning five decades, Reardon has gone past the bottom of the barrel - she has gone beneath it. ... most of the subject matter really is plain old gastronomy. There is precious little of the other stuff of life, and what there is has been recycled.

Finally, there is Mark Sussman's Nonfiction Chronicle.

Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph: Murder, Myth, and the Pursuit of an American Outlaw, by Maryanne Vollers. "Vollers's account is minutely detailed and wide-ranging (bomb mechanics, paranoid politics, criminal psychology, Appalachian folklore), opening up the many dimension of her tale without disrupting its cinematic momentum."

Feather in the Storm: A Childhood Lost in Chaos, by Emily Wu and Larry Engelmann. "Feather in the Storm lacks the insight and artistry of a first-rate memoir, but it is an effective testament to what Mao's social experiment inflicted on one girl."

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography, by Piero Melograni (translated by Lydia G Cochrane). "The result is too limited to become essential reading on Mozart, but is absorbing as a filial psychodrama, depicting Mozart's slow emergence from the suffocating embracing of his father Leopold, the quintessential stage father."

Ninety Miles: Cuban Journeys in the Age of Castro, by Ian Michael Jones. "James, the Venezuelan bureau chief for The Associated Press, adds some cursory historical context to the raw anecdotes he strings together, but fails to construct a narrative worthy of these poignant memories."

Blind Into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq, by James Fallows. "By virtue of cautious, patient reporting, Fallows anticipated some of the Iraq war's missteps, and it the articles in Blind Into Baghdad seem to arrive at what is now the conventional wisdom, he go there before the journalistic pack."

Paul Collins's Essay, "Jefferson's Lump of Coal," discusses the haughtily anti-Jeffersonian pamphlet that Clement Clarke Moore wrote nearly twenty years before "A Visit From St Nicholas." Moore attacked the 1804 incumbent of the presidency for, among other things, a belief in (pre-Darwinian) evolution, racism, and Francophilia.

True, Moore created the sentimental family Christmas. But he also touched on what Americans would clobber one another over for the remaining 364 days of the year.

 

December 26, 2006

The Distracted Gastronome

It's the day after Christmas, which for almost everybody means "back to work," but not for us: Kathleen will be taking the whole week off. Hurrah! Not having had quite enough of PPOQ and LXIV at dinner last night, we are going to meet them this afternoon in the Petrie Court Café, at the museum, for a spot of lunch, after which we'll descend into the bowels of the Costume Institute to have a look at the clothes that kept Nan Kempner on the best-dressed list. (Ms NOLA and I have already been. It's quite a show.)

At about four-thirty yesterday, I summoned Kathleen from her bead-work to a small table in the living room, where I had set out champagne, crackers, and an ounce of sevruga caviar. I had bought the caviar on an impulse at Agata & Valentina on Sunday. It was scandalously expensive - $90! Of course, it's a miracle that there's caviar at all. Beluga isn't available anymore, having been outlawed in order to stop the overfishing, but sevruga, which is our favorite anyway, and ossetra are still on offer. But the prices have jumped. It seemed very much worth it, though, as we relaxed for little while in the late afternoon, before getting ready for dinner. The caviar tasted better than ever, and icy champagne was the perfect accompaniment.

When we arrived at Brasserie LCB - the former Côte Basque - the room wasn't half full, but when we left, the joint was packed. Everyone I bumped into seemed to be French, or at least francophone. It was as though chef Jean-Jacques Rachou had planned a home-away-from-home event for the expats. The warmth of the room was positively Dickensian. Kathleen and I have been to the bistro before, but this time I really missed the soft loveliness of the old place. I even missed the rustic harbor murals, which I was never keen on when they were hanging. Now it is all very Toulouse-Lautrec. And that's great; but I did feel a pang for le temps perdu.

Perhaps because I was having such a good time talking with our friends - and ribbing PPOQ mercilessly for wearing this homeless-person sort of garment over an elegant gold shirt, just as he did at our party last week - I didn't really attend to dinner with true gastronomic fervor. There was a lovely winter-vegetable soup to start. It had the slightly chalky texture of vichyssoise, but it tasted, deliciously, of parsnips, and I'd like to try to approximate it. I remember that the galantine of duck was very good, but nothing more specific; I must have been talking too much. The filet de boeuf Périgourdine was just as delicious as it was the last time I had it, but I just gobbled it up instead of doing it justice. Thin slices of bûche de Noël, however, made an impression. One slice was filled with chocolate buttercream, while the other was pale and liqueur-soaked. Miam!

Having assigned myself the job of selecting the wine, I chose what turned out to be a fine Brane-Cantenac. But I did have a couple of martinis at the beginning at the end of the meal. I had unaccountably run out of gin at home! When we got back to the apartment - PPOQ had a cab ready for us the minute we stepped outside, which was amazing, given the schmutzy weather - I had a finger of Laphroaig while I got into my sleepies. I remembered what the baby-sitters used to say - "He's a very good boy - when he's asleep" - and I wanted to be a very good boy. I was out by ten-thirty. Merry Christmas!

Chamber Music At Two Venues

Two weeks ago, during a busy week, I had back to back chamber concerts, first at Zankel Hall and then at the 92nd Street Y. They were very different evenings, but almost equally enjoyable.

On the Tuesday, I heard Ton Koopman lead the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra in two works by JS Bach, the Musical Offering and the Coffee Cantata. Something, in short, for everybody. The cantata is a sort of chamber opera in which a grumpy old papa tries to get his fetching daughter to abandon the (then burgeoning) coffee craze. After numerous threats, she at last concedes - but it's a sham concession, since her new husband is going to have to allow her to drink all the coffee she wants. As such, it's a domesticated version of the very popular buffa plot exemplified by La serva padrona, and about the only instance I can think of of Bach's following fashion. Klaus Mertens sang the part of the father in a heroic basso, while Bettini Pahn as the daughter showed a lovely soubrette voice. Tenor Otto Bouwknegt, as the fiancé, sang with a strong but pleasant voice.

As for the Musical Offering...

Continue reading about chamber music at Portico.

December 25, 2006

Epiphany

This is to wish you a happy holiday, and to thank you for visiting the Daily Blague. It's also to remind you that my birthday falls on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and that what I really want this year is to hear from you about how you think the DB, Portico, and Good For You are - well, good for you, or not. You may comment on the DB or write to me privately, whichever suits you better.

There are days when I think that I know what I'm doing here (beyond simply writing a lot of stuff), and then there are days when I feel quite fatuous and dim for even imagining that I know what I'm doing. What I do know is that nobody has done this before. I also know that I've made, particularly in the past nine months, a lot of choices that have narrowed the scope of the project. Or you might say that it's more focused. Either way, I wonder if I have made good choices. Only you can tell me.

Thanks again for fitting me in to your busy life!

Measuring the World

American readers may be forgiven for expecting a novel translated from the German to be anything but funny. Thanks to the oeuvres of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, they may well expect all novels written by Austrians to be tedious or distressing. So before I say anything else, may I declare (!) that Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World (Knopf, 2006)is richly funny. It's a lot of other things as well, but, for the moment, I recommend it to you as a funny read.

Mr Kehlmann's subtle humor has been adroitly captured by Carol Brown Janeway's translation. I know this because I was lucky enough to show up at a severely underattended event in NoLIta at which the author gave his first reading in English ever, and it was clear that the laughs and the smiles were right where he expected them to be.

The gendarme wanted a passport.

There was no way he could know, said Eugen, but his father was honored in the most distant countries, he was a member of all Academies, had been known since his first youth as the Prince of Mathematics.

Gauss nodded. People said it was because of him that Napoleon had decided not to bombard Göttingen.

Eugen went white.

Napoleon, repeated the gendarme.

Indeed, said Gauss.

The gendarme demanded his passport again, louder than before.

Now, if that passage doesn't make you smile; if you miss the slapstick ineptitude of Gauss's expecting a Prussian policeman to be favorably impressed by the high regard of Napoleon, then perhaps Measuring the World is not for you. This novel has plenty to teach, but a certain comfort with history, or at least a ready willingness to consult Wikipedia, would appear to be a prerequisite.

Continue reading about Measuring the World at Portico.

December 24, 2006

At My Kitchen Table

¶ Proposed Rules of Thumb for a Sunday Afternoon Gathering in Manhattan at Holiday Time.

.5. Know where the vases that you might have to use are.

1. Unless your guests arrived in wheelchairs or on the arms of attendants, they will have been out doing something the night before, and they are probably planning to do something else when they leave your house. Because these doings will probably involve alcohol, your friends are likely to be unaccountably abstemious chez vous, so don't bother stocking up for a rout. A few magnums of a good house wine that you'll be happy to drink yourself will do the trick. Ditto beer. Even soda may not be in much demand. What might be nice are individual bottles of sparkling spring water and a pitcher of New York's finest, accompanied by tumblers, ice, and a bowl of cut-up limes. Clear away the bric-à-brac and set up the bar where it belongs, on the sideboard. You will not always have a balcony.

2. Do your friends take good care of themselves? If so, then offer no more than one variety of cheese for every four guests, plus one extra wedge. Explorateur and reblochon are always popular, as is Parrano Gouda. Nobody is going to eat blue cheese, even if it's Maytag, but don't forget chèvre. Toothpicks with labels, identifying each variety, will turn out to be handy. Observe this rule by taking care of your guests even if they don't.

2.1. Grapes? Just enough for a garnish for the cheese platter. Don't forget the Bremner crackers! A bowl of Clementines will look jolly, but you may be the only person to eat them, obliging you rather rudely to run off to wash your hands the second someone finishes telling you an anecdote, or maybe sooner, and causing you to hurt your friend's feelings. Clementines may be easier to eat than oranges, but they're still juicy enough to stick up your hands.

3. Hors-d'oeuvre plates and cocktail napkins are all that is required. What were you thinking, getting out those buffet dishes? Discus?

3.1. Unwrap FreshDirect's lovely crudité platter - actually a wooden cratelet - and behold a composition that is almost, but not quite, too beautiful to eat. Put the accompanying dips into proper bowls.

3.2. Pinwheel sandwiches? These may get mixed reviews. Many will be consumed, but at the family post-mortem strong protests may be lodged. Of course, family members prefer your cooking, or they wouldn't come over so often. But your repose is essential. Stick with the pinwheels or order something else that does not require flatware.

3.6. Don't forget the dessert platter. The time to bring it out is when the tray of pinwheel sandwiches begins to look ratty. Otherwise, the table needn't be rearranged.

3.7. If a guest has brought an assortment of cookies from St Ambroeus, ditch the dessert platter and serve the cookies. The cookies will be devoured!

7. There is no point in serving coffee and tea on the coffee table in the Blue Room if guests are unaware that there is a Blue Room. You will be drinking a lot of tea, though, so keep that kettle bubbling!

8. You will forget to fill a bowl with Smartfood, and you will be grateful.

December 23, 2006

The Painted Veil

John Curran's The Painted Veil is a great big conventional movie about romance and reconciliation set against a dramatic background, and as such it will be dismissed by filmgoers who prefer edgier fare. Its story, from a novella by W S Maugham, is sheer opera: having discovered his wife's infidelity, a British MD serving as a laboratory scientist in Shanghai blackmails his wife into accompanying him into the heart of a rural cholera epidemic (the year is 1925). On her remote hillside, the wife grows up, volunteers at the orphanage, and eventually wins back her husband's love, but of course it is Too Late. The movie is shot with the cinematic equivalent of big Verdi arias, and anyone who likes grand old Hollywood dramas will fall in love with it. The sugarloaf mountains of the Guilin region of Guangxi Province provide China's most picturesque scenery. Diana Rigg, as a French nun, is almost as craggy and every bit as beautiful. Edward Norton is very fine as the cuckolded doctor; there are things in this film that the actor has not done before. Liev Schreiber is droll as a suave cad, and Toby Jones demonstrates that he can be terrific even when he's not impersonating Truman Capote. The movie belongs, ultimately, to Naomi Watts, and for the same reason that Up at the Villa belongs to Kristen Scott Thomas and Being Julia belongs to Annette Bening: Maugham wrote great women's stories. They're period pieces now, but they still work. They were notorious for their sexiness when they were new; now they're simply and easily adult. Ms Watts is, perhaps for the first time, wholly adult. She's young and foolish but she is not a girl. This is a movie for grownups.

Speaking of adult, I saw The Painted Veil at the Angelika. As I was walking back to the subway along Bleecker Street, I saw a grotesque advertisement on the side of a building. Between the cellphone and my palsied hand, I couldn't hope for a clear picture, but this is clear enough. The legend reads "Happy Holidays from Adult Swim." Those huge mouths, full of too many teeth, are fascinating and monstrous.

AdultSwim2.jpg

December 22, 2006

After the Holidays

After dinner (a pizza), I decided to call our great law school friend who lives in Western Connecticut. She was home, and Kathleen was home, and we all had a great chat. Our friend adopted a Chinese baby girl a few years ago, as a single mom, something that, according to the latest news, is no longer going to be doable.

Our friend is our age, or at least Kathleen's, and having a small child in the house can be really, really tiring once you've passed fifty. What she's really tired of, as it happens, is being asked if her daughter is her granddaughter. But there's no doubting that age brings a certain distancing wisdom. Children are preposterously astute in the know-your-audience department, and I doubt that the adopted child of thirtysomethings would have dared announce, as our friend's daughter did recently, that she was so dissatisfied with the current arrangement that she planned to return to China - "after the holidays." We're talking about a four year-old. She isn't leaving before Santa Cauls.

And then I ruined our lovely evening. I overstate. I wanted to write a few Christmas cards, but couldn't for the life of me remember where I'd put them. A senior moment. Now that everything has worked out well, I see that I must learn to stop being angry with myself for these lapses, simply because, once they've flared, I'm all too willing to pour them on to Kathleen, and make her, if not the responsible party, then the person who ought to have been responsible. As conflicts go, tonight's was a mere burst of flame followed by the darkness of all's-well. I ran around for under ten minutes exclaiming that I couldn't be expected to remember everything and that I could use a little help &c,  even if it did mean following me around the apartment and taking note of where I put every little thing. (Shades of Bringing Up Baby?) While I was declaiming operatically, though, my memory was working: I remembered one thing, and that led to remembering where the cards were. I apologized profusely. I sat down at the desk and wrote the cards while Kathleen, exhausted by the ordeal, went to sleep.

She forgave me, but I am going back to China after the holidays. I'm too ashamed of myself not to.

In The New Yorker

The New Yorker never fails to surprise me. I'd have expected to see Orhan Pamuk's "Nobel Lecture" in, say, The New York Review of Books, but it sits very nicely in this year's fina issue of The New Yorker. As it's online, you ought to have no difficulty accessing and reading it. It happens to be an excellent introduction to the writer's themes, but it also makes an important declaration: Istanbul is the center of the world.

Having been lucky enough to visit Istanbul, I have no trouble going along with this proposition (which Mr Pamuk intends to be taken figuratively, as we'll see). Istanbul is a socket from which both the West and the Middle East swing. A Turkish, quasi-secular, quasi-Islamic city today, it has left many traces of the West uneffaced. There are, of course, the great Byzantine remains, most notably Ayya Sofia. There are also the souvenirs of more recent Western influence, dating back to the nineteenth century and the final decades of the Caliphate. The fact that Turkey's modern capital sits at Ankara has had a preservative effect on Istanbul as well - if too often, as Mr Pamuk points out in his book about the city, in the form of neglect. To a greater extent than any other city that I have visited (and I have never been to Rome), Istanbul appears to exist on several time-planes at once. Some of the bizarre things that theoretical physicists say about the world feel a little less unlikely by the banks of the Bosporus.

When Mr Pamuk was growing up, in the Fifties and Sixties, Istanbul happened to be about as backwatery as it is possible for a major city to be. No longer acknowledged by the rivals who begat it, the city limped along with a rudimentary, somewhat embarrassed cultural life. To be a Turk, one crossed the water to Anatolia. To be a writer, one went to Paris. Mr Pamuk's father, an amiable bon viveur who invested his inheritance in a string of failing enterprises, spent some youthful time in Paris, where he filled up notebooks with "poems, paradoxes, analyses." Two years before he died, the father gathered up his notebooks, put them in a suitcase, and delivered them to his son, in whose success as a writer he had never had any doubt, going so far as to predict that Mr Pamuk would win the prize that occasioned "My Father's Suitcase." The idea was that, at his convenience, the son would go through the notebooks, and see if there was anything that might - and this was left wide open.

In the event, Mr Pamuk did not find anything that might conceivably appear anywhere but in his father's notebooks. Reading them appears to have been a very unpleasant experience, because Mr Pamuk loved his father deeply but could not pretend that his writing was not that of an amateur. Early on in "My Father's Suitcase," Mr Pamuk writes,

By this time, I had been working as a writer for twenty-five years, and his failure to take literature seriously pained me. But that was not what worried me most: my real fear - the crucial thing that I did not wish to discover - was that my father might be a good writer. If true and great literature emerged from my father's suitcase, I would have to acknowledge that inside my father there existed a man who was entirely different from the one I knew. This was a frightening possibility. Even at my advanced age, I wanted my father to be my father and my father only - not a writer. 

But, knowing what I know from Mr Pamuk's work, that "real fear" concealed a real hope. I expect that the contents of the suitcase were bitterly disappointing, because they were the work of a provincial writer, someone working far from the center. A writer without faith.

Orhan Pamuk has made Istanbul the center of the world by taking its complexity as seriously as possible and trying to set it in prose.

... for the past thirty-three years, I have been narrating its streets, its bridges, its people, its dogs, its houses, its mosques, its fountains, its strange heroes, its shops, its famous characters, its dark spots, its days, and its night, making them a part of me, embracing them all. A point arrived when this world that I had made with my own hands, this world that existed only in my head, was more real to me than the city in which I actually lived. That was when all these people and streets, objects and buildings seemed to begin to talk among themselves, interacting in ways that I had not anticipated, as if they lived not just in my imagination or my books but for themselves.

Equal parts courage and obsession, Mr Pamuk's identification as a writer of Istanbul constitutes exactly the commitment that every great writer makes to what we call his "material." His belief in its importance transcends argument; it even transcends love. And it signifies that, however familiar the writer may be with Dostoevsky or Kafka, he is not a provincial who wishes that he could write about Paris or New York, where the "real writers" are. The real writers, he knows, are wherever they believe in what they're writing about. There is nothing easy about this faith, because it is essentially a faith in one's own creative powers. Mr Pamuk doesn't write about Istanbul, he creates it. He displaces the physical city with the literary city, which is a thousandfold more accessible. It is a miracle that writers writers of his caliber conjure out of bravado and hard work.

The question remains: does accepting the greatest literary prize that the West has to offer make Orhan Pamuk a "Western" writer? Don't look at me. It's a litmus-test sort of question, its answer pre-determined by the prejudices of the inquirer. In a way, all writers whose work reaches the Swedish Academy's attention are "Western" writers, toiling in that capacious and cosmopolitan tent in which capturing life in words is the only real project. At the same time, the grain of Mr Pamuk's outlook is distinctly "foreign" - Turkish. That's the most important part of his faith: that he write as a Turk. Not as someone who, like his father, ran into Sartre in the streets of Paris. I expect that, at least to all fearful and ungenerous minds, Mr Pamuk will appear to aspire to both titles, "Western" and "Turkish," and to be unworthy of either.

December 21, 2006

Rethinking Parties

Last Sunday, there was a gathering at my house. I hesitate to call it a "party" because it was so sober. Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God was there, as were the Farmboyz. Édouard, of Sale Bête, arrived with his copain, as did PPOQ - who as of this writing remains blogless. M le Neveu and Ms NOLA were on hand, too. Kathleen talked with everybody while I basically watched what happened happen. Never have I - all right - given a party that required so little fuss - no fuss, in fact. Never has giving a party been so satisfying or so agreeable. So sane! It left me in a trance. While entranced, I tried to take note of the epiphany. The results as published, I hope, have been optimally de-gassed.

By yesterday, I had recovered my composure, only to find myself restless. I had an appointment at three-thirty, so I headed off to the Met for lunch, in the cafeteria. I have been to the museum so often this season that I couldn't think of anything that I wanted to see, so I headed over to the American Wing with a view to tracking its mazes. The American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art would make a very fine museum on its own. In addition to the conventional picture galleries and the period rooms, there is the Henry Luce Center for the Study of American Art, a kind of glazed attic, with racks and shelves of old chairs and china, and a few curios, such as the ivory pagoda, with its own pyramidal carrying case. There's a Childe Hassam, not behind glass I'm happy to say, that deserves a more prestigious mounting. There are even a few Sargents! But most of the paintings are portraits of venerable ancestors, many of them, unlike the sitters on the rack of Gilbert Stuarts, unidentified. The Luce Center is the Met at its barniest. I wouldn't want to fail to mention John Vanderlyn's panorama, The Palace and Gardens of Versailles. It's very woo-hoo.

Leaving the museum, I walked down Fifth Avenue in the watery, late-afternoon sunlight. It was rather gloomy, really, and very black-and-white. I felt old. How I wish that I could turn forty on my birthday, in two weeks, instead of fifty-nine. That's the bittersweet of discovering, in early antiquity, that my life makes complete sense. I'd have done so much more with my Forties if I'd known that! And I'd have known, it too. I think that I should have learned it from blogging just as quickly at a tenderer age as I have in fact.

What are you reading these days? I'm reading two books by authors appearing in From Boys to Men - a book that was much discussed and passed around on Sunday afternoon - Through It Came Bright Colors, by Trebor Healey (a novel), and You Are Not The One, by Vestal McIntyre. They are both absorbing books, but the latter is somewhat better-written than the former. More on that later. I'm also stalled at the beginning of Ward Just's new book, Forgetfulness.

December 20, 2006

Dyspeptic Mr Isherwood

Am I the only reader puzzled by Charles Isherwood's dyspeptic take on The Little Dog Laughed and Regrets Only?* Of Julie White's Hollywood agent in Little Dog, he writes,

At the performance I recently attended, virtually every one of those [homophobic] lines got a laugh. As they were meant to. For the character’s noxious vocabulary isn’t meant to mark her as a bigot. The epithets, generally employed in acerbic monologues addressed to the audience, are meant to establish her as a funny gal, if maybe a little soulless. It seems for most people they do.

"Funny gal"? I don't think so. "Shameless" would be more like it. The audience laughs because Diane's promiscuous insults reflect impatience, not malice. They're funny pretty much in the same way that Archie Bunker's insults were funny. They tell us that Diane's bloodstream runs with iced vodka.

Is Mr Isherwood unacquainted with the glee of slipping perfectly horrid remarks into everyday conversation? With the right friend, of course.

As for Regrets Only, Mr Isherwood is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I've promised not to discuss the plot of that show here, but I can say that "clever antigay jokes" appear to be the last thing on Paul Rudnick's mind. I should have said that the play demonstrates the importance, to everyday life in affluent Manhattan in any case, of hairdressers and florists, many or most of whom just happen to be gay. Does Mr Isherwood think that it's shameful to be a hairdresser? That hairdressers per se reflect badly on gay men? The longer I look at his essay, the more that seems to be the case.

In the film Flannel Pajamas, the mother-in-law says to the husband, "I want you to know that I believe every negative stereotype about the Jewish people." This zinger comes out of the blue, and I was not the only person in the theatre who laughed, even though there was nothing funny about the context. What an outrageous thing to say! And how gratuitous! The humor runs very deep: the Jewish husband has been very naive about the consequences of marrying a Catholic girl, and this is his wake-up call. (He sleeps through it.)

* "Anti-Gay Slurs: The Latest in Hilarity," in The New York Times, 17 December 2006.

In the Book Review

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

Excuse me? It's the week before Christmas. Is that an appropriate time for a "Books on War" issue?

It would seem that the purpose of a "Books on War" issue would be to capture the interest of readers who do not otherwise focus on military history. War is as human an activity as there is, unfortunately, but military history (not that I've read a great deal) seems either dishonest ("war is grand") or detached. We may like detachment in a surgeon at the operating table, but writing about "armies" is creepy: we are not ants. That's why writing about war has to be special in order to hold the general reader's attention.

Fiction & Poetry

On the cover this week, we have Brad Leithauser's very good review of Robert Fagles's new translation of Virgil's Aeneid. A fine poet himself, Mr Leithauser notes that the translator's most fundamental choice is between iambic pentameter, the standard English long line, or the Latin hexameter; he also tells us that Mr Fagles's has opted for "free verse, with the ghost of hexameter serving as loose armature. Having compared a few passages from the new book and from the last important translation, by Robert Fitzgerald, in 1983, Mr Leithauser concludes,

Yet if the blazing moments belong to Fitzgerald, there's a capaciousness to Fagles's line well suited to this fast story's ebb and flow. Aeneas is a storm-tossed man - the epic opens with shipwreck on the coast of Africa - and Fagles renders the pilgrimage in cadences that are encompassing without feeling cluttered.

(Mr Leithauser neglects to advise readers to read the epic aloud, so I shall do so.)

This week's lone novel is Jane Kuntz's translation of Lydie Salvayre's "deliciously dark little desk drama," Everyday Life. Julia Scheeres calls it a "commentary on today's cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throw the entire office ecosystem out of whack." (So that's what they mean by "NSFW.")

Nonfiction

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein spends a good deal of her long review of Robert D Richardson's William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism: A Biography on storytelling, but eventually she engages with the biography and finds it wanting.

It is in using the life to grasp the philosophy that Richardson's book disappoints. Too often the philosophical positions themselves come out wrong, the emphasis cockeyed, the subtlety subtly missed.

Curiously, the reviewer's examples inclined me to side with Mr Richardson. There is no getting round the fact that James was a profoundly complicated man whose longing to be manly as well as lucid kept him from mastering the fashion of his own thought as well as his brother Henry mastered his.

Tom Shone writes an unhelpful review of John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide. He does not say so, but Mr Sutherland is a dean of Trollope studies, and apparently a very gentlemanly gentleman. Perhaps it would have been wiser to assign his book to someone who did not go by a nickname. In any case, it is clear that Mr Shone is not temperamentally inclined to like, or even to try to understand, How to Read a Novel. This becomes crystal clear at the end, when he refers reader to the writings of Nick Hornby (another nickname). Mr Sutherland's book may be as unprepossessing as Mr Shone claims it is, but his claims don't sound very reliable.

War

Fareed Zakaria writes almost sheepishly about War By Other Means: An Insider's Account, by John Woo, and Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties, by Bruce Ackerman, as if trying be "fair and balanced" about two dangerous books. The writers under review believe that the United States, as presently constituted, cannot deal with the threat of terror, and both condone a presidency untrammeled by the claims of civil rights. It takes Mr Zakaria quite a while to widen the scope of the discussion to include the "weapons" of diplomacy and foreign aid.

The United States is fighting a strange war indeed, one that is, in some fundamental ways, an extended campaign of public diplomacy against ideologies of extremism and violence. This campaign is not simply a matter of battling on the air waves with Al Jazeera across the Arab world. It is a matter of reaching into communities. The best sources of intelligence on jihadi cells have tended to come from within localities and neighborhoods. This information has probably been more useful than any we have obtained from waterboarding or sleep deprivation.

The thinking in this passage ought to have informed every sentence of the review, but in fact it appears after Mr Yoo and Mr Ackerman have been permitted to state their cases - permission that implicitly validates their shrunken, fearful points of view.

I have read another, longer review of Max Boot's War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today, and, like Josiah Bunting's here, it suggested the book in question is excessively schematized, history cut to fit a preconceived pattern. Mr Bunting states Mr Boot's thesis at the beginning of the review and follows with a book report that makes it fairly clear that Mr Boot has written a book in which only generals are entitled to respect as human beings.

Dangerous Nation, by Robert Kagan, gets a cagey review from Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Mr Kagan's thesis is that interventionism of the sort that we have engaged in in Iraq is as American as George Washington, if not apple pie. If the thesis was ever credible, that moment has passed, as Mr Wheatcroft all-too-gently hints. "Will it be surprising if America soon, and at least for a time, turns inward and aloof once more?" Less theoretical and correspondingly more realistic is Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran - at least on the evidence of Michael Goldfarb's mordantly amusing review.

On page after page, Chandrasekaran details other projects of the CPA's bright young Republican ideologues - like modernizing the Baghdad stock exchange, or quickly privatizing every service that had previously been provided by the state. Some of these ideas would have been laudable if they were being planned for a country with functioning power and water supplies, and that wasn't tottering on the brink of anarchy.

But how could these young Americans have known what life was like for ordinary Iraqis since they never left the Green Zone? Instead, they turned the place into something like a college campus. After a hard day of dreaming up increasingly improbable projects, the kids did what kids do - headed for the bar and looked for a hookup. As for the Iraqis, they were conspicuous by their absence.

Presiding over this unreal world was the American viceroy, L Paul Bremer III, who comes across in this book as a man who has read one CEO memoir too many, a man who knew his own mind and would not have his decisions changed by the inconvenient reality of Iraqi life outside the blast barriers. All of this would be funny in a Joseph Heller kind of way if tens of thousands or Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers weren't to die because of the decisions made by the CPA, the Pentagon and the White House.

Mark Atwood Lawrence gives an interested but ultimately inconclusive review to Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary, by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali. Mr Lawrence notes that the book is "deeply researched," but he complains that "Fursenko and Naftali never really say whether the Americans, if they had recognized Khrushchev's basic interest in peace, might have been able to strike a deal to end the cold war - or at least ease it drastically." Evan Thomas, in contrast, praises Ian W Toll, author of Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, for his "grasp of the human dimension of his subject, often obscured in the dry tomes of naval historians."

Historian Taner Akcam can't be planning a visit to his native Turkey anytime soon, having just published A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. According to reviewer Gary J Bass, "This dense, measured and footnote-heavy book poses a stern challenge to modern Turkish polemicists, and if there is any response to be made, it can be done only with additional primary research in the archival records."

Finally, there is Barry Gewen's War Chronicle.

Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy, by Frederick W Kagan. "Kagan contends that the American military successfully transformed itself after the humiliation of Vietnam with the all-volunteer Army and upgradings of personnel and weapons, but then fell captive to dreams of dominance through technology alone, losing sight of the human component of warfare."

The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America, by Walter Borneman. "It will not displace Fred Anderson's sweeping and magisterial Crucible of War, but as its subtitle suggests, it demonstrates just how important the war was in configuring the world we inhabit today."

Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style, by Elizabeth Pond. "Currently a correspondent for The Washington Quarterly, Pond could never been described as a stylist, yet she is extraordinarily knowledgeable, and after a while the sheer volume of her information begins to cast a hypnotic spell."

The Occupation, by Patrick Cockburn. "He describes, for instance, a conference in London in 2002 for liberal, secular Iraqi exiles, the kind of people Washington hoped would be the country's future leaders. But very few of them wee smoking, even though tobacco is a way of life in Iraq. This, Cockburn says, revealed how out of touch the exiles were.

¶  Annihilation From Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations, by Fred Charles Iklé. "... in many ways a deeply eccentric, and flawed, book. ... But his warnings about the dangerous conjunction of nuclear proliferation and terrorism are unassailable and point to a future much like the present."

In lieu of an Essay, ten writers on war, ranging from Barbara Ehrenreich to Anthony Swofford, pick two indispensable books on the subject, ranging from Thucydides to (Margaret) Mitchell.

December 19, 2006

Elfin

My Pittsburgh correspondent (She Who Never Comments) whiled away a long afternoon today by playing on the Internet. The appropriation of my image was involved. Kathleen finds the results "a bit scary," but I think it's jolly. It's rather sweet to be normal-sized for a moment. 

Regrets Only, at MTC's Stage I

Last week was a busy one, with two concerts and a play. The concerts were both very satisfying, but the play was such an outstanding delight that I shall try to tell you something about it now. I don't want to give away the plot, because a great part of the fun is anticipating, if only by minutes, the direction in which it goes. And I shall try not to re-tell any of the fifteen or so drop-dead jokes.

If I did tell one of the drop-dead jokes, you might not find it all that terribly funny - or, in the case of the Donna Karan joke, you might not get it all. But the New York audience at MTC's Stage I the other night didn't miss a thing. Expectations were high - Christine Baranski and George Grizzard in a Paul Rudnick play!!!! - but they were met and then surpassed. It was obvious from the start that the show was going to be funny, possibly very funny. What was not so obvious was the show's very satisfying ending. So often, comedies turn into overtired three year-olds as the finish approaches: they don't want to end, but they can't quite keep going, either. So they fuss, and when the curtain comes down the audience is simply grateful. Not so at the end of Regrets Only. The play's final moments are just poignant and sweet enough to give a dash of Der Rosenkavalier. Just a dash.

For years if not forever, Paul Rudnick's humor has operated on the assumption that gay men and women - but mostly gay men - already control the world. It is a brave, whistling-in-the-dark way of dealing with a society afflicted by patches of stolid homophobia in which gay men are occasionally beaten to death. In Regrets Only, the playwright lets his postulate off the leash and permits it to rule, if not the world, then the second act of his play. This duplex fantasy, playing on the surface but also shoring up the foundations, is the perfect catalyst for transforming pointless, empty lives into magical ones. 

Continue reading about Regrets Only at Portico.

December 18, 2006

Two That Got Away

In the past week, I've read two books that held my attention, moved me, and yet left me feeling that I have nothing very useful to say about them. I can point to them, and urge you to read them, on a "take it from me" basis, but I can't criticize them. I don't believe that I fully understood either of them. I do believe that the limitation is mine, not theirs.

Continue reading about two books that got away from me at Portico.

December 17, 2006

Sunday Morning

Comments are re-enabled, thanks to the persevering diligence of MovableType's fantastic support desk. Why did it take so long? Stuff happens, that's why. The manual is often useless, sad to say. But the site "works."

Which way to go? Should I tell you how awful the past couple of days have been - or at least the days until I convinced MT that I still had a right to Support (a different matter from the quality of the support once you're recognized!)? Or should I tell you how excited I am by today's blogmeet, here at my house? I've given a jillion parties over the years, but this one is hands down the most interesting-in-advance.

It's a sign of the New Me that I kicked aside any gastronomic ambitions and relied on FreshDirect for the comestibles. That said, I am totally ye of little faith. I shall insist that the three other bloggers review the afternoon's culinary offerings in pitiless detail. (And I'll translate Édouard's contribution into English myself, unless he insists.)

Bless me, Father Tony, for I have schemed. Let Joe and PPOQ form a fast friendship, and unite in healthy, if merciless, "criticism" of me.

***

Here I am, an hour before the party is to start. In a little while, I'll get dressed, but there's not much else to do ahead of time. I expect that I'll be brewing coffee and tea all afternoon, even though I may be the only partaker. There's enough wine to refill the Caspian Sea, plenty of beer, soda, and juice. I probably ought to have bought some sparkling water.

The platters from FreshDirect arrived nice and early this morning. Pinwheel sandwiches - check. Crudités - check. Chocolate-and-berries - check. Cheese -

All I'm going to say about the cheese (for the moment) is that I threw on a windbreaker and marched down to Eli's, where I spent the fortune that I had tried to save by going through FreshDirect. Because, of course, I didn't just buy cheeses. I bought holiday candies, miniature croissants, and two bunches of grapes. And, just to be sure, a few boxes of Carr's Table Water crackers. I wasn't very adventurous with the cheeses: Explorateur, Reblochon, Mimoulette, Camembert, Maytag Blue and Parrano Gouda, the kind that tastes like Parmesan. There's no way even half of it will be consumed, but the idea is to give everybody a choice. Food is very important at parties. It gives everyone something to do.

I haven't enjoyed the prospect of giving a party so much in years. I hope that everyone has fun.

December 16, 2006

For Your Consideration

Not in the best of moods, I set out yesterday for the movies without being absolutely sure where I was going. It was ten o'clock. If I could find a cab, I'd cross town to see For Your Consideration, a film that Kathleen forbade me to see without her but which I wasn't willing to wait for DVD to see, at 10:30. It was playing across the street from here on Thursday, but then it disappeared (Friday marks the changing of the guard). If I couldn't find a taxi, then I'd see Borat, which I really don't want to see at all, at 10:10. If, thanks to looking for a taxi, I was too late for Borat, I'd go to Casino Royale at 10:15. I don't want to see Casino Royale in the theatre, either. Although I'm a big fan of Daniel Craig, I have no use whatever for James Bond.

These options simmered right up until ten past ten, when, at the corner of 86th and Third - right across the street from the AMC complex where Borat and Casino Royale were showing, I spotted a free cab. So I got to see For Your Consideration after all, at the AMC complex at Broadway and 84th.

Boy, did the critics screw up on this one! Lavishing mostly tepid reviews, they failed to see what I was in fact expecting, an even stronger distillation of the essence of parody that Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy have been producing in a remarkable string of films, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. Every moment of For Your Consideration is electrically amusing. Filmmakers have been making fun of Hollywood for years, but never before, I think, has a movie focused, as this one does, on the eagerness with which Hollywood's victims surrender to its ministrations. Nobody fights back. Nobody goes home, worldly-wiser, in the way that Lynn Bracken returns to Arizona at the end of LA Confidential. All one can say of Marilyn Hack, the character at the center of For Your Consideration, is that it's a pity that she's still alive at the end.

Catherine O'Hara is beyond brilliant as Hack, so painfully good that she appears to have crucified her face for the sake of the story. It's the kind of story that Americans hate: crazed by the promise of fame, a more or less well-adjusted person goes off the rails. Hack is an instant-coffee version of Norma Desmond, and although Ms O'Hara is much funnier than Gloria Swanson, she is no less serious. In another totally remarkable performance, Parker Posey allows her face to be more conventionally lovely than it has ever been before - this is to say, more blandly beautiful. And then she lets us drink this face in as it drinks in the awareness that, in Hollywood, pretty faces are a dime a dozen. And, finally - because I can't praise everyone in the show; we'd be here all day - I want you to know that, if you think that you have seen Jennifer Coolidge do airhead to perfection before, you are mistaken. While I hope that Hollywood will eventually make it up to Ms Coolidge by letting her play the Nobel Prize-winning operator of a particle accelerator or, in the alternative, the editor of The New Yorker, I think that the bimbos that she has impersonated for Guest & Co are as delicious as a box of treats from the chocolatier, Belgique. And while we're talking about nailing roles for life, nobody, but nobody is a bigger asshole than the assholes that Fred Willard plays. His hairstyle, in For Your Consideration, deserves its own billing.

Do not miss this movie!

December 15, 2006

In The New Yorker

First, the good news. An Australian Army officer and anthropologist, David Kilcullen, has an office at the US State Department, where he works on a strategy of "Disaggregation" that might prove as useful in the "war on terror" as the policy of containment was helpful in the Cold War. Item number one on Lt Col Kilcullen's list would presumably be to ditch the phrase "war on terror," and replace it with "effective counterinsurgency." The basic idea is to isolate potential jihadi hot zones from one another and to deal with each one individually, paying particular attention to local needs and complaints. Localizing insurgents makes it far easier to undermine them; just about the worst thing that you can do is lump all the bad apples together into something really dumb, like the "axis of evil." Henry Crumpton, Lt Col Kilcullen's boss, says,

It's really important that we define the enemy in narrow terms. The thing we should not do is let our fears grow and then inflate the threat. The threat is big enough without us having to exaggerate it.

The bad news is that this new way of dismantling insurgency - which is not very new at all - probably won't be taken seriously until the current incumbent is no longer President of the United States.

George Packer's report, "Knowing the Enemy: Can social scientists redefine the 'war on terror'?", does not, unfortunately, appear online at The New Yorker's site. It is very worth rustling up. For one thing, it's encouraging, and we can all use a little encouragement on the war front.

As an example of disaggregation, Kilcullen cited the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, after the 2004 tsunami, a radical Islamist organization tried to set up an office and convert a local separatist movement to its ideological agenda. Resentment toward the outsiders, combined with the swift humanitarian action of American and Australian warships, helped to prevent the Acehnese rebellion from becoming part of the global jihad. As for America, this success has more to do with luck than with strategy.

As always, the moral of the story is to ask "What would George do?", and then do the complete opposite.

December 14, 2006

No Comment

Temporarily, comments have been disabled - by my Web host, not by me. It seems that I've got to take some anti-spam action in order to reactivate comments. Let's hope it doesn't take forever!

Trying to comply with the host's requirements has landed me in the soup. I thought that I might backtrack, but I can't, it seems, and now I'm dependent on the folks in Support at MovableType - very capable (and intelligible) people. That I haven't heard back right away doesn't surprise me; the host appears to have taken pre-emptive action and disabled the comments file on every MT site that it serves. It's annoying to have to think about this stuff, but I'm happy to find that I'm in no hurry to have comments reinstated. Oh, the site ought to work properly! But, to tell you the truth, I prefer private email to public comments. After two years of blogging, and finding out what sort of site I've got, I see that long comment threads are not only unlikely but unwanted. I don't write the kind of entries that stir up a chorus of responses. There are days when I wish that I did. Not days, just moments, when someone else's busy blog has made me a bit envious. The moments pass.

In any case, please feel free to write to me: pourover at mindspring.com. You probably have no idea how welcome your letter will be.

10:08? Nah, it's 10:10

Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of watches displayed in advertisements are set to 10:10? Being "a noticing sort of person," I did, about a million years ago, and, ever since, I've had great fun spotting the dissidents. Yesterday, Kottke.org came across a Wikipedia entry on the subject (thanks, Jason), and I share with you even at the risk of robbing you of your innocence in case you weren't aware of this undoubtedly Kabbalistic protocol.

What we need to find out next is the name of the genius who hit on 10:10 as, manifestly, the most attractive time of day on an analogue watch face. And how long has this been going on?

December 13, 2006

In the Book Review

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

This week's Review is as good as last week's was awful. Last week's list of the year's hundred best book is whittled down to ten titles, of which I see that I've read three, all of them novels.

Fiction & Poetry

Once again, Joel Brouwer and Eric McHenry team up to fill slightly less than a page and a half of the Book Review  with reports on nine volumes of poetry. They say that any publicity is great publicity, but it's hard to believe that these thumbnail sketches in this Poetry Chronicle will attract many new readers, or any at all who aren't already vigorously breasting the poetry swim. What's wanted is verse and comment: an entire poem, preferably, or an intelligible excerpt, followed by an appreciation in which the reviewer highlights the poem's workings. For the time being, sadly, we're stuck with blather. Here follow the salients, first from Mr Brouwer's five:

Ooga-Booga, By Frederick Seidel. "I can't decide whether Seidel has more in common with Philip Larkin or John Ashbery."

A Form of Optimism, by Roy Jacobstein. "...when he does kick off the sensible shoes of the "anecdote + reflection = insight" school, he shows himself capable of some truly fresh and vivid writing."

Lions Don't Eat Us, by Constance Quarterman Bridges. "But any such complaints are more than offset by the captivating narratives and hard-earned insights to be found in this elegantly constructed collection.

Ruin, by Cynthia Cruz. "Lovely and evocative lines like 'A desert city strobing in the distance like sex' and 'I was kneeling in the willow/When the sun fell back into its crib of poison' lose some of their luster when you realize Cruz might as easily have written 'Sex strobing in the distance like a desert city' or 'I was kneeling in the poison/When the willow fell back into its crib of sun" without doing any perceptible harm to her meaning."

Logorrhea, by Adrian C Louis. "Louis's conversational style and salty language can bring Charles Bukowski to mind, but Louis is less prone to self-pity, and his indignation is more righteous: 'We cannot tell you why we spent/a lifetime crawling when we/had wings that were strong,/supremely brown , and so holy'."

Mr McHenry's four:

Black Box, by Erin Belieu. "Belieu is scrupulous enough to find room in her poems both for blind rage and a recognition of rage's blindness."

God of This World To His Prophet: Poems, by Bill Coyle. "If some of the poems that precede 'Aubade' seem, by contrast, a little too much under his control, offering the mastery without the mystery, well, there's a lot to be said for mastery."

Where X Marks the Spot, by Bill Zavatsky. "His strengths, which are considerable, disclose themselves slowly over whole poems - pacing, proportion, the faithfully reproduced movements of a likable mind."

Splendor: Poems, by Steve Kronen. "Kronen's skill with the figurative allows him to borrow figures from familiar sources (the Old Testament, classical mythology), apply them to familiar objects, and still produce something original.

There are three books of stories in this week's Fiction rubric, two novels, and four authors. Alice Munro is the author of two of the short-fiction collections.

More than any other writer, Alice Munro reminds me of the gnomic line from Wallace Stevens's "Credences of Summer":

                             This is the barrenness

Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

I do wonder why the Review's editors approved Andreas Ventura's portrait of the artist, which resembles nothing so much as a snapshot that a child has rather nastily scribbled over. A O Scott's joint review of The View from Castle Rock, a book of new stories, and Carried Away, an Everyman's Library selection of older ones, suggests that Ms Munro's fame may have reached its apogee.

There's no doubt that one of these days some contrarian punk of a critic will chase a bit of momentary glory by arguing that Munro is overrated, but that critic won't be me. The first task in executing such a takedown would be locating a Munro sentence that was sloppy, dishonest, unnecessary or dull. The chances are roughly equal to those of finding a mango tree bearing fruit in a field in western Ontario in the middle of winter. If there were such a tree, in any case, Munro would already have found it, and would moreover know who planted it and with what eminently sensible, or crazily impractical, purpose in mind.

Jeff Turrentine gives The Lives of Rocks, Rick Bass's new collection of stories, a glowing review.

In 20 books, many of them nonfiction, Bass has earned a reputation as a passionate, poetic advocate for sound environmental stewardship. But this collection is a reminder that in addition to being a tireless voice for wildlife and forests, he's also one of this country's most sensitive and intelligent short-story writers, adept at capturing people during those moments when they first realize they are indeed component parts of complex organic systems: parts of nature.

As for the novels, Kevin Baker gives Peter Behrens's The Law of Dreams a heartily good review. Of this first novel, about the Irish potato famine and its consequences, Mr Baker writes, "If Behrens's story is plausible, it is because it is harsh, but if his story is harsh his writing is seamless, and often gorgeous." Uzodinma Iweala is a bit harder on Yvette Christiansë's Unconfessed, another historical novel, this one about an incarcerated South African former slave.

 Rather than locking us in Sila's world, the half-step toward insanity bars us from gaining access to her emotional core. As a result, we remain distant, unable truly to feel Sila's destabilizing sadness and rage. She becomes merely an object of pity.

Nonfiction

In his review of The Brotherhoods: The True Story of Two Cops Who Murdered for the Mafia, by Guy Lawson and William Oldham, Bryan Burrough passes up the chance to indulge in entertaining storytelling in order to write a solid review. Instead of talking at length about the exploits of Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito, retired cops who remain in prison despite vacated convictions, Mr Burrough analyses the apparently ill-digested report that Mr Lawson, a crime reporter, and Mr Oldham, a detective "who helped break the case," have given us.

One suspects that within this overstuffed, ultradense 511-page anvil is a lean, nimble, 275-page claw hammer yearning to swing free, a sequel to breezy underworld page-turners like Howard Blum's Gangland. It's not just that Lawson and Oldham throw in the kitchen sink. Like Gambino soldiers gleefully raiding a Canarsie warehouse, they haul out a refrigerator, 18 microwave ovens, 82 dinette sets, 994 Viking ranges and, still feeling a tad light, the entire inventory of the New Jersey Turnpike Ikea.

Jim Holt is rather impatient with Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness, and he doesn't spend much time talking about it. "Like de Botton's previous books, this one contains its quota of piffle dressed up in pompous language." Isaac Chotiner is hardly more sympathetic to The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond, by Simon Winder.

Bond fans can (and do) debate these particulars endlessly, but it would have been useful to get more insight into what now seems the most relevant question regarding Bond: why do millions of people, many of whose homelands were once British colonies, still love to watch a British spy save the world?

Claire Messud might have been somewhat more scrupulous about storytelling in her review of Leonard Woolf: A Biography, by Victoria Glendinning, but she praises the book as "comprehensive and eminently readable." The difficulty of reviewing a biography is the burden of "selling" the subject to readers. It doesn't matter how well Ms Glendinning writes if Leonard Woolf was essentially a stick. Ms Messud shows that he was not a stick, but storytelling obscures her sources: how much of this did she know before she picked up Glendinning's book? .

Edward Lewine clearly wants to think more highly of The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. He calls John Grisham "a major talent." But:

In The Innocent Man, however, he has shackled himself to facts that are less intriguing than he imagines, and he fails to use his creative gifts to help matters along.

***

Instead, he never gets the plot up to a decent boil. Rather than focusing tightly on Williamson, he meanders through Fritz's trial and yet a third murder case, whose details are instructive but not enough to merit the damage all this digressing does to the book's forward motion. With so many crimes and trials, the cast swells to an unhealthy number, and few of these characters emerge as fully drawn people.

Alexandra Fuller is full of praise for Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Old Way: A Story of the First People, pointing out that while the book is primarily an account of the forced resettlement of the Kalahari Bushmen in the 1970s, it is "also a reminder that we ignore our biology and our environment at our peril."

It's possible to readd this by turns heart-breaking and gorgeously observed book without feeling the weight of Thomas's scholarship. The Old Way is not only a timely work, but also a timeless one - a last look back before we decide how to go forward.

Josef Joffe notes that James Traub, author of The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power was given extraordinary access to his subject, and writes almost as much about the former as he does the latter.

Traub, always the dispassionate analyst, neither condemns not condones. His is a melancholy tale, beautifully written and meticulously researched - about a hero who was not so much flawed as indecisive, whose clout could never measure up to his lofty purpose.

In Leap Days, Chornicles of a Midlife Move, Katherine Lanpher chronicles her exchange of a somewhat banal and neglected life in Minnesota for stardom on Air America in Manhattan. Eve Conant savors Ms Lanpher's ambivalence about the swap.

Lanpher's loving descriptions of Minnesota make it seems that perhaps New York was a mistake. Two years on, she still doesn't know if the move was worth it.

This leaves two inherently silly books that ought to have been beneath the Review's attention. If you think that The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness could possibly be worth reading at book length, then you illuminate my feeling of emergency. Ben Sisario assesses Steven Levy's book as "so enthusiastic it sometimes reads like an advertisement for Apple Computer." Scott Veale is somewhat more enthusiastic about The Smart Money: How the World's Best Sports Bettors Beat the Bookies Out of Millions: A Memoir, by Michael Konik, but toward the end of the review he predicts that "By this point, most readers will share his disgust and exhaustion..."

In addition of Cynthia Ozick's slightly baffling encomium to Rabbi Leo Baeck, author of Romantic Religion (a book that she claims had a transformative effect on her life), there is Rachel Donadio's Profile of Helen Vendler, the doyenne of poetry in America. Among other interesting details, the Profile reveals that Ms Vendler was all but Minister for Poetry at the Book Review in the Sixties and Seventies. Now 73, Ms Vendler remains a great authority, but she "seldom reviews poets under 50, since their 'frames of reference' ... are alien to her."

December 12, 2006

Constructive Murder

Off the top of my head, I'd have to say that I've never had anything good to say about President Bush, not ever. His impact on events is, in my view, purely negative. It's only now, though, as the depths are being sounded by writers such as Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind and James Risen, that I'm getting a sense of how negative that impact is, and it surprises me that I am surprised. Suspecting that someone is up to no good is very different from finding out the ways in which someone has been up to no good. Mark Danner, reviewing books by each of the authors I've named in a very long essay, "Iraq: The War of the Imagination," has shaken me in a way that I didn't expect to be shaken. One passage in the review just won't go away. Both excerpts below appear on the same page of the current New York Review of Books.

Irresistible as Rumsfeld is, however, the story of the Iraq war disaster springs less from his brow than from that of an inexperienced and rigidly self-assured president who managed to fashion, with the help of a powerful vice-president, a strikingly disfigured process of governing.

Woodward tends to blame "the broken policy process" on the relative strength of personalities gathered around the cabinet table: the power and ruthlessness of Rumsfeld, the legendary "bureaucratic infighter"; the weakness of Rice, the very function and purpose of whose job, to let the President both benefit from and control the bureaucracy, was in effect eviscerated. Suskind, more convincingly, argues that Bush and Cheney constructed precisely the government they wanted: centralized, highly secretive, its clean, direct lines of decision unencumbered by information or consultation. "There was never any policy process to break, by Condi or anyone else," Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, remarks to Suskind. "There was never one from the start. Bush didn't want one, for whatever reason."

Yes, I thought as much - except that I didn't. The anatomy of the Administration's recklessness is a truly shocking sight. "Unencumbered by information or consultation" - what a phrase! For the sake of such convenience, thousands of people have died in Iraq, many of them GIs. I remember, years ago, comparing the Bushies to teenagers too young and unseasoned to drive the family car, but Mr Suskind's analysis is more devastating. Teenagers don't listen. Mr Bush and his cronies deliberately silenced the inputs.

Talk of impeachment is back in the air, and I won't be surprised if it gets positively noisy by the beginning of summer. I feel more strongly than ever that impeachment is the wrong way to go, because it mixes up the office of the presidency and its incumbent. I should like to wait until the government of the nation has passed to other, unavoidably more capable, hands before pursuing Mr Bush, preferably in a state with the death penalty, for the first-degree murder of several thousand American soldiers. There is no statute of limitation on murder, and I am convinced that a plausible case can be made. The president's reckless disregard for human life, amply hinted at during his governorship of Texas, is implicit in every Iraqi failure, from the decision to invade the country without a plan, to the de-Baathification program (for which no one currently takes final responsibility), to the shoddy state of our military's body armor - to name only three of the more egregious mistakes to which Mr Bush's willful ignorance has committed us. He has worked the levers of government without a shred of diligence, and brought deep shame upon his country.

Ever since the election of 2004, I've found it more useful to contemplate the electorate's seriousness than to fret about the Administration's incompetence. The more recent election, and the return to reality-based journalism that's ever more in evidence, didn't change my thinking. But Mr Danner has.

December 11, 2006

From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up

From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up, an anthology edited by Ted Gideonse and Rob Williams.

A few months ago, when From Boys to Men appeared, I bought a copy, because it's a print breakthrough for Joe Jervis, the author of Joe.My.God. But I was in no hurry to read it, and it languished on a shelf until just the other day, when I heard a clip of Joe talking about the book on Sirius Radio. I pulled it down and began at the beginning. I was hooked immediately. 

It's important to note that this is not a collection of coming-out dramas. The stories told here are more delicate, as each writer attempts to trace the journey from childhood ignorance to adult self-acceptance. There are common themes, of course - coping with being called "faggot" in the schoolyard, surreptitious play-dates with Barbie, and no end of unrequited affection - but they are played with amazing variation. Eric Karl Anderson, in "Barbie Girls," uses the doll to characterize his utterly asexual relationships with middle-school classmates, cultivated solely to secure him a place among the cool kids. After a spellbound moment at summer camp, the young Mr Anderson "knew that these weren't the right friends anymore" when he went back to school. Aaron Hamburger, in contrast, always knew that he was interested in other boys, but he broke his own heart anyway, with assiduously-maintained friendships with boys who rarely gave him more than the time of day.

To what extent is this material dated? Will little boys always be warned away from homosexual leanings, even after most people understand that choice is not involved? Will beautiful gay boys ever arrive at their young triumphs with the heedlessness of their heterosexual brothers? Will we ever know where the "homosexual" ends and "being different" begins? So much of the pointless pain inflicted on the contributors to From Boys to Men seems to have been motivated by a fear of alien-ness. So much of it seems peculiar to ill-educated, lower-middle class America in the second half of the Twentieth Century. (Although in Tom Dolby, whose contribution is entitled "Preppies Are My Weakness," we have one alumnus of Hotchkiss.) The life of secrecy endured by so many of the writers here must surely have been somewhat deforming, even if only privately.

Good fathers are in extremely short supply here, something that suggest to me not a causal relationship between lousy parenting and homosexuality but the possibility that a broken or unloving father will create an atmosphere full of problems for his son to write about later. The unhappiness of living with an unsympathetic stepfather suffuses Jason Tougaw's "Aplysia californica," perhaps the most conventionally literary contribution to the project. Mothers, as you might expect, appear both more to the fore and in greater variety. There is the sweet slut of Michael Gardner's "The Competitive Lives of Gay Twins," and there's the clueless loyal wife of Trebor Healey's "The Upshot." For me, the most harrowing piece is David Bahr's "No Matter What Happens," which features two moms, Sadie, the writer's biological mother, a disturbed woman incapable of nurturing a child; and June, his foster mother, who turns on him after an aborted sojourn with Sadie. Lee Houck's "Inheritance" presents an instinctively hostile grandfather, a man who can somehow see that his grandson is queer. Remarkably, nobody reports extensive beatings or other serious abuse.

From Boys to Men offers a catalogue of narrative strategies. Blogger Francis Strand writes about himself in the third person in "Five Stories about Francis," and this alone makes his piece a little bit funnier than it would have been otherwise, by accentuating the "drama" of the boy's reactions and resolutions. Viet Dinh's "A Brief History of Industrial Music" poses as a learned note about a pop genre to which the author has appended footnotes devoid of scholarly apparatus but crammed with intimate snapshots. In "Peristalsis," Mike McGinty offers a suite of droll thumbnails taken from years five through seventeen. Raymonde C Green switches among moments from his past to delay the impact of his high-pitched self-discovery. Two stories, "Guide," by Austin Bunn, and "The Boy with the Questions and the Kid with the Answers," by Horehound Stillpoint, focus more on troubled older boys than on the authors. Michael McAllister begins his fragment, "Sleeping Eros," with a moment of sexual awakening, but the moment quickly fades into the remarkable story of his parents' divorce. In this, he's in a sad but altogether normal position; it's his parents who have discovered that they are gay.

Vestal McIntyre, in "Mom-Voice," and E M Soehnlein, in "The Story I Told Myself," show how their own creative work as adolescents led them to self-discovery. In "Dick," in contrast, Alexander Chee gets creative as soon as he makes that discovery, at the age of eight. D Travers Scott, in "Growing Up in Horror," took a little longer, perhaps, but the results are not only funnier but more concrete - I wonder if he still has the film. Todd Pozycki's "The Lives and Deaths of Buffalo Butt" project an amiable figure whose homosexuality is something like the relieving resolution of childhood OCD.

I've saved Joe Jervis's "Terrence" for last, because, since I know Joe somewhat, his contribution has a VistaVision intensity that puts it in a class by itself. Perhaps the piece would be vivid even if I didn't know Joe, because the star of this story is the title character. With his dyed-brassy hair and his southern-belle gestures, he is the most exuberant queen in From Boys to Men. I call him the star because, like the sun, he illuminates and nourishes life. When the story begins, Joe is in an interesting place, actively but discreetly gay. He has not yet come out to his mother. As it turns out, Terrence has nothing to do with the eventual change in status on that front, but it is Terrence who teaches Joe first the shame of trying to keep his sex life apart from his daily life, and then the pride of uniting them with brio. Still a discreet gentleman - that's just who he is - Joe has found his own way to be proud of himself. Who knew that that pride would make him into a published writer and one of the most popular bloggers in the 'Sphere?

In a perfect world, there would be a companion volume, entitled From Boys to Men: Straight Men Write About Growing Up. Books such as the gay version subtly suggest that straight men have an easy time of growing up, but the only ones for whom that's true are assholes. Everyone else has to figure out a series of moves that will take him from latency to manhood. Unfortunately, our culture encourages men to forget each step of the way as soon as it is completed, giving rise to a bad faith that has filled the land with sour Gary Lamberts. Gary's creator, novelist Jonathan Franzen, has been critically roasted for sharing his missteps and compromises; in The Discomfort Zone, Mr Franzen violates the code of omertà that silences discussion of adolescent insecurity. Once you make it into the world of salaried heterosexuality in our world, you're expected to bluff your way onward with phony bonhomie. This may be why I've encountered so few engaging straight male blogs.

From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up, an anthology edited by Ted Gideonse and Rob Williams.(Carroll & Graf, 2006)

December 10, 2006

At My Kitchen Table: Grilled Chicken

Outdoor grilling is fun - except when it's not. And it's not fun after dark. You can't see what you're doing! Given our tendency to eat after dark, even in the summer, I came to find grilling a royal pain in our weekend-house days. It's generally illegal in Manhattan - open fires must be kept at a functionally impossible distance from any structures - but of course people break the law all summer long. I am not tempted.

The broiler in a gas oven - basically a rack set beneath the fire - is not an effective substitute for an outdoor grill. You can't see what you're doing! Unless, that is, you keep opening the broiler and letting heat escape. But broilers are perfectly good for grilling meats. Top-quality steaks require no more than a dusting of salt and pepper, but most meats taste better if marinated for a few hours ahead of time.

Here's a tasty way to grill chicken. Combine about a half-cup of canola oil, three tablespoons each of sesame oil and soy sauce, and the juice of one lime. Blend very well. Fill a gallon plastic bag with thighs, drumsticks and wings. Pour the marinade into the bag, seal the bag well, and turn the bag several times to coat the chicken. Stow the bag in the refrigerator for at least three hours. When it's time to fix dinner, open the bag and set aside as many pieces as you intend to serve; store the rest in smaller bags of three or four pieces each, and freeze it.

There's no point in stipulating a cooking time. You'll just have to rely on the good old chicken-doneness test: when the juices run clear, the chicken is ready to eat. With practice, you'll be able to tell from the degree of burn on the chicken skin. Sometimes, when I'm unsure of serving time, I bake the chicken in a 350º oven for twenty minutes before running it under the fire. Either way, if you cook the chicken properly, it will be succulent at the table.

Gas oven note: the temperature in a gas oven is controlled by a sensor that shuts off the flames when the desired temperature is reached. The fire, in other words, is not like that on a stove ring - adjustable. It's either on or it's off. For temperatures below broiling, this alternation is called "cycling." Time was, when gas ovens did not cycle when set to broil: the fire stayed on until you turned the oven off. My newer oven, though, cycles even during broiling, and I find that I have to crack the oven door to keep a steady flame. If you're stuck with an electric oven, you've got my deepest sympathies. 

I am too sophisticated

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The other day, I went to Laytner's, to buy a shower caddy. You know, one of those doodads that hangs from the shower head and holds the shampoo. Right, as if I needed shampoo.

Anyhoo, at the checkout, I saw this refrigerator magnet and misread it. Wow, I thought, they've put Arianna Stassinipoulos on the icebox!

No, RJ; it says "guy." Not "gay." Down, boy.

So now what do I do with the stupid magnet?

December 09, 2006

History Boys

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As announced, I went to see History Boys yesterday. I saw a slightly later showing, though. Arriving at the M66 bus stop near Lexington Avenue, I saw that the block between Lex and Third was blocked off by construction. It was far too cold to hang around for the (unlikely) possibility of a bus, so I sped to Park, where I took the first cab I saw, even though it was going uptown - the wrong direction.

In the taxi, I called my friend Nom de Plume. She had a hard day in front of her, stuck at home waiting for gas and cable to be installed in her new-to-her Brooklyn apartment. When she answered the phone, though, it was with a joyous note that told me that the gas and cable people had come and gone. I offered to wait for the next showing of The History Boys, if she was still interested in seeing it. I would simply hang out at the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble. It sounded like a plan.

I didn't even have to buy a book, because I was carrying Andrew Tobias's Grief. Up and up the escalators I went to the café. I'd have taken a snapshot of the interesting view, looking over the tops of Juilliard and Avery Fisher and up into a cold blue sky through which small white clouds were scudding in a southeasterly direction, but a photograph, even if I'd been able to take a decent one with my phone, would simply have shown the dirt on the windows. Isn't that interesting - the things that we overlook in real life but can't get beyond in a picture? It suggests that different areas of the brain are involved in the two kinds of viewing. Grief, by the way, is short but serious.

Eventually I was viewing The History Boys, which, as announced, I'm not going to write about until the DVD comes out. By then I hope to have a copy of the play as well. The two shows are amazingly different - amazingly, when you consider that the actors are the same. Richard Griffiths (Hector) and Jamie Parker (Scripps) are two of the actors whose presence I felt to be more vibrant onstage, whereas Dominic Cooper (Dakin) was incomparably more intense onscreen. Frances de la Tour (Mrs Lintott) and Clive Merrison (Headmaster) were interesting to see in close-up. I can't speak for Stephen Campbell Moore, because he was off the night that we saw the show, and Jeffrey Withers ably took the part of Irwin. I can, however, see that Mr Campbell Moore was born for the part, at least on film.

When it was over (when, oh when, will we able to listen to Rufus Wainwright singing "Bewitched" at home? - he made the Rodgers & Hart staple sound like something he'd written himself), Ms Nom and I headed to Fiorello's, where we talked the hours away and I limited myself, historically, to one martini and two glasses of pinot grigio.

Ordinarily, I would have come home via public transport. But the wine, if it didn't make me sleepy, inclined me to seek comfort, so I hopped into another taxi. The driver, sensing my impatience with traffic jams, suggested taking the Drive through Central Park, and that made for a pleasant ride, even if we did get stuck behind a parade of horse-drawn carriages at one point. Talking to my ostentatious bond trader friend as Fifth Avenue whizzed by through the bare trees made me feel very plush.

December 08, 2006

In The New Yorker

The one article that you have to read this week is "Walled Off," John Lanchester's review, in The New Yorker, of The River of Lost Footsteps, by Thant Myint-U (FSG, $25). If you know anything about Burma, it's probably that a ruthlessly corrupt but notably incompetent military junta rules the country along severely isolationist lines, and that Aung San Yuu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has lived under house arrest for years because of her commitment to democracy. And that's all correct. What you probably don't know anything about is the peculiar nature of Burmese nationalism, a toxic hormone that responds to international sanctions with a troublesome vibrancy.

One of the subtlest things in The River of Lost Footsteps is the connection Thant charts between Burma's current predicament and its colonial past. A deep sense of humiliation gave rise to a curdled nationalism that eventually made the military dictatorship possible. The great British experiment in regime change created a Burma that was, in Thant's words, "entirely different from anything before, a break with ideas and institutions that had underpinned society in the Irrawaddy valley since before medieval times" - a Burma "adrift, suddenly pushed into the modern world without an anchor to the past."

Hmm, might something similar have happened with all the post-World-War-I regime change in the Middle East? At least Burma is geographically Burma, notwishtanding its imperial pretensions. (Yes!) Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were all wrenched untimely from the womb of an Ottoman Empire that was too old to be giving birth; they are all profoundly bogus nations.

I used to be a big believer in sanctions. Just cut people off from the advantages of participating in the international community until they cry "uncle"! It seemed to be working with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, especially given the no-fly zones, under which certain cities prospered in peace. Mr Lanchester's essay suggests that I may have been simplistic (how American!). What one really wants to do, he points out, is to create a middle class, using whatever works.

A middle class. More and more, we recognize this property-owning but non-elite class as the binding force in any civil democratic society. But even in English, the "middle class" is contemptible for reasons having nothing to do with the care and feeding of civil societies. Anyone in a governing position has undoubtedly been subjected to an anti-bourgeois bias in the course of his or her education. We come back to a familiar Western conundrum: nobody from any background - aristocratic/plutocratic, bourgeois, or proletarian - can tolerate a "middle class" after a first-class education. It may be nothing more the crazy legacy of poets who romanticized the well-mannered ancien régime, but it clings like kudzu. Westerners have had a genius for creating middle classes. Why is it something that we understand so poorly that it's the last thing we think of exporting?

December 07, 2006

Early Evening?

Yippee! It's a quarter past eight, and Kathleen's on her way home!

Returning last night from a weekend conference in Phoenix, Kathleen was on Mountain Time this morning. I couldn't rouse her. Eventually, she came to at eleven, claiming that she hadn't heard my play Ella Fitzgerald's recording of "Guys and Dolls" at a healthy volume. I suspect that she will not be able to stay up for a video, which is a shame, because Scoop just arrived, and if you think that Scarlett Johannson was good in Match Point, wait till you see her second Woody.

I've grown up a lot this year. I bought a reasonably serious (mid-three-figures) self-winding automatic watch that I never take off except to bathe. I sent most of my Bermuda shorts to Goodwill and never wear the ones that I kept outside of the building except in extremely warm weather. (I don't even wear them at home unless I'm doing something manual, such as wielding a feather-duster.) I don't roll my shirtsleeves up anymore. But I cannot make use of my Filofax. To be sure, I only got it out of envy. I didn't even get it myself, actually; I got Kathleen to give it to me for my birthday two years ago. She has one. PPOQ has one (and is so ostentatious about it!) For a while, I tried printing up things on special Filofax paper, but it's a headache. So the thing just sat there, indignantly indigo. Finally, my shame generated an idea. I would use the Filofax as a "project organizer" for my Web sites. Instead of keeping all that information - books to write up, long-term projects (the Ishiguro re-read, for example) - on clever computer pages, something I'm equally bad at, I would write it all down with a pencil in the Filofax. The calendar would be a log of upcoming posts. I would even simulate "creative meetings" by doodling on blank pages. It all sounded terribly thrilling.

Of course, I did nothing right away. That would have been rash. Stuff piled up around the writing table: I'm working on this, I'm working on that, what the hell are these papers? THROW THE DAMNED BOOK REVIEW AWAY! It was last Sunday's mammoth Book Review that finally prompted action. To work with it, I had to clear the table, littering the rest of the room with inscrutable piles. These will now be organized and deposited - somewhere, but not at my desk. I will count on the Filofax to remind me of matters outstanding!

Do you smell electrical fire? Cerebral RAM getting toasted?

What to do, for example, with the Playbill for History Boys? We saw the show in August. I was taking the month off, so I didn't write anything about it soon enough to be fresh. Then I told myself that I'd see the movie, which, most remarkably, stars the very same people! I'm going to keep the Playbill, of course; I keep 'em all. But does it have to be out? Is it a work-in-progress thingy? No it is not, I decide. I'll write about it when the DVD comes out, unless the film, which I plan to see tomorrow (join me at Lincoln Square at 11:05 if you're interested), turns out to be awful, which I certainly don't expect it to be.

So, pardon me now while I do inventory.

Paraphernalia

If you have read The Eustace Diamonds, the second of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, then you'll have waded through Mr Dove's opinion on paraphernalia. You'll have learned that "paraphernalia," far from meaning "stuff," describes the property that a widow can hold on to as her own after her husband's death. The central plot point of the novel is whether, indeed, the eponymous diamonds are paraphernalia, and therefore no-better-than-she-should-be Lizzie Eustace's property to dispose of as she will, or whether they're heirlooms, personal property that must be returned to the family of her late husband, Sir Florian. Mr Dove is of the opinion that the diamonds are heirlooms, and it is well-known that Trollope secured a genuine opinion on the matter from a genuine barrister, his friend Charles Merewether. The first time I read The Eustace Diamonds, I was thrilled by the absolute pedantry of Mr Dove's opinion. Many of my classmates went to law school because they wanted to be Perry Mason. I wanted to be Thomas Dove.

Mr Thomas Dove, familiarly known among club-men, attorney's clerks, and, perhaps even among judges when very far from their seats of judgment, as Turtle Dove, was a counsel learned in the law. He was a counsel so learned in the law, that there was no question within the limits of an attorney's capability of putting to him, that he could not answer with the aid of his books. And when he had once give an opinion, all Westminster could not move him from it, - nor could Chancery Lane and Lincoln's Inn and the Temple added to Westminster. When Mr Dove had once been positive, no man on earth was more positive,. It behoved him, therefore, to be right when he was positive; and though, whether wrong or right, he was equally stubborn, it must be acknowledged that he was seldom proved to be wrong. Consequently the attorney's believed in him, and he prospered. He was a thin man, over fifty years of age, very full of scorn and wrath, impatient of a fool, and thinking most men to be fools; afraid of nothing on earth - and, so his enemies said, of nothing elsewhere; eaten up by conceit; fond of law, but fonder, perhaps, of dominion; soft as milk to those who acknowledged his power, but a tyrant to all who contested it; conscientious, thoughtful, sarcastic, bright-witted, and laborious. He was a man who never spared himself. If he had a case in hand, though the interest to himself in it was almost nothing, he would rob himself of rest for a week should a point arise which required such labour. It was the theory of Mr Dove's life that he would never be beaten. Perhaps it was some fear in this respect that had kept him from Parliament and confined him to the courts and the company of attorneys. He was, in truth, a married man with a family; but they who knew him as the terror of opponents and as the divulger of legal opinion, heard nothing of his wife and children. He kept all such matters quite to himself, and was not given to much social intercourse with those among whom his work lay. Out at Streatham, where he lived, Mrs Dove probably had her circle of acquaintance; - but Mr Dove's domestic life and his forensic life were kept quite separate.*

When I got out of law school, my record was so mediocre that, far from being put on the Dove-track at, say, Sullivan & Cromwell, the best job that I could find was that of a paralegal clerk in the Enforcement Division of the New York Stock Exchange. (I would get a decent job out of it eventually.) When I look at the picture below, taken while I served in that position, from the very partition of my non-cubicle, I suppose that I can see that those whose day jobs involved sizing up legal talent could tell that, while I might possess a few of Mr Dove's talents, I altogether lacked the crucial ones.  

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* The Eustace Diamonds (Oxford, 1983), pp I : 225-226.

December 06, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Ach, it's the "Holiday Books" issue, bursting with titles. To keep the feature from eating up the next few days of my life, I'm going to cover stand-alone reviews only, ignoring the roundups even if they contain only one title.

The amount of storytelling in this issue is astonishing. When I described storytelling to someone today, he replied that it sounded like "the old fourth-grade strategy for writing book reports." Yes and no. Fourth-graders are really not equal to book criticism, and their reports are intended simply to prove that they have actually read a given book. For literary professionals to adopt the same summary technique is, given the experience and critical faculty that somehow got them the assignment in the first place, totally spankworthy. 

Fiction & Poetry

Farrar, Straus & Giroux has issued the Collected Poems of John Betjeman, to accompany its publication of A N Wilson's Betjeman: A Life. Charles McGrath spends most of his review on a thumbnail biography of his own. We get a little on the poetry,

Betjeman's taste in poetry overlapped with his taste in architecture: he had no use for the modern. He was actually a friend and former prep school pupil of T S Eliot, but he turned his back on Eliot's revolution and clung instead to the model of the Victorian poets who had shaped him in his youth.

and not much more about Mr Wilson's book:

Wilson's book, the latest to come off his seemingly nonstop assembly line, is a typically Wilsonian product - swift, efficient, and a little glib at times. It's not un-fond of its subject, but is more judicious in its claims than [Bevis] Hillier's overstuffed version, and, with access to some family correspondence that Hillier never saw, it's franker and more gossipy about the ironies and oddities of Betjeman's personal life.

I suppose that a review that assumed familiarity with the poet, still beloved in England, would have completely misfired. But Mr McGrath's reluctance to move beyond the story of Betjeman's life eloquently betrays the disinclination, not only of the Review but of the Times generally, to treat its readers as educated people.

Marisha Pessl's unfavorable review of Leanne Shapton's graphic novel, Was She Pretty? might at first sight seem reason enough to buy the book, but her conclusion seems to be intelligent.

One could argue futility is the point, that a book, devoid of plot, exploring jealousy, should inevitably lead us down a dead end, thus imitating its inventory of defunct affairs and fruitless emotions. If this is the case, if I have to choose a graphic novel, I'll be curling up in a chair not with stomach pain, thank you, but with Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. His monsters tell us more about love, our darkest fears and what it means to be - like Jerry, Dennis and all the exes, no matter how tragically hip they might seem from a distance - human.

Ms Pessl is not to be blamed, I think, for failing to provide a view of two facing pages of Was She Pretty? That was the editors' job. Graphic novels vary greatly in their balance of image and text, and the reader of reviews has the right to expect a representative sample. They acknowledge as much further on in the issue, offering  shots of the cover and four sets of facing pages of Ivan Brunetti's An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories. David Hajdu's review makes the case that this is the must-have book for anyone looking for an overview, however idiosyncratic, of the blooming hybrid of "art" and "literature."

Now going under the name graphic fiction, no doubt temporarily, the comics are all grown up, and this anthology represents the most cogent proof since Will Eisner pioneered the graphic novel and Art Spiegelman brought long-form comics to early perfection. What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff?

Carl Hiaasen's Nature Girl gets a largely favorable review from John Leland. For the most part, the review is an egregious piece of storytelling. For those of you who arrived recently, let me define this term of art. "Storytelling," in a book review, is the redaction of the contents of the book under review in the reviewer's own words. Storytelling thus obscures the author's writing style while replacing assessment with summary. If there's one thing that I've learned in over a year of carefully reading the Book Review, it's that reviewers who storytell serve no purpose other than providing lazy people with sketches of books that they're never going to read. Chiming in with all the other reviews that I've come across, Mr Leland sings Mr Hiaasen's praises but adds, "What's missing here is an indelible and defining local depravity of the sort that a veteran South Florida journalist would have on file. ... Surely Hiaasen can do worse than this." Useless.

Dave Barry is a colleague of Mr Hiaasen's at the Miami Herald, but he grew up in Armonk (not far from me), and he has written a lightly fictionalized memoir of his early adolescence there. Henry Alford's review of The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog storytells right up to the penultimate paragraph. Then he judges. "Barry is playing to the heartland here," he writes, going on to suggest that the book may be just right for readers who find David Sedaris's humor a tad too strong.

Ask the Parrot, Richard Stark/Donald E Westlake's latest book about "his antihero Parker" gets an unaccountably long review from James Wolcott. Perhaps what's unaccountable is the review's high quality. Mr Wolcott clearly aims to assess the book in terms of the author's other work, under the Stark name and otherwise, and even to place it in the world of crime fiction generally.

Where most TV and movie crime dramas seem to unfold in a luxury brochure of glittering skylines, tones flesh and high-tech toys, the novels by Stark/Westlake stick to the back roads. Parker and his temporary crews take down scores in the drab, rundown sockets of the country that progress and prosperity have bypassed.

Mr Wolcott is scrupulous about keeping storytelling to a minimum.

Today's younger readers can be forgiven for not knowing that, long before the Giant Peach and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl was a master of heartlessly acute fiction for grownups. Erica Wagner, not my favorite reviewer, comes through for once with an intelligent appraisal of Dahl's short stories, which have been published in Collected Stories, edited and introduced by Jeremy Treglown.

Treglown remarks that the claim of misogyny "has to contend with the fact that while there are some awful women in the tales, there are still more awful men, and his most technically accomplished plots involve victories by wives over bad husbands. This is fair enough, and yet his women, even when sympathetically portrayed, seem a monstrous, alien regiment, their sexuality voracious and threatening.

Nonfiction

Jay McInterney's review of John Hailman's Thomas Jefferson on Wine is a thoroughgoing piece of storytelling. Regrettable as storytelling is where fiction is concerned, it is intolerable in reviews of nonfiction, because the reader cannot distinguish what the reviewer is drawing from the book from what the reviewer knows from other sources. There are only two sentences in the full-page review that address Mr Hailman or his book. William F Buckley, Jr's review of Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, by Martin Geck (translated by John Hargraves), is even more self-indulgent: it's all about him. He does manage this rather dismissive comment: "Geck's biography prompts the reader to surmise, reasonably, that there is not much left to say on the subject of Bach's musical life." Indeed.

Alex Kuczynski's review of French Women For All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes and Pleasure, by Mireille Guiliano, can only be characterized as resentful.

With its many descriptions of what sounds like the world's most idyllic childhood, French Women for All Seasons is like drinking a glass of good Champagne: light and bubbly, a brief and mildly invigorating tonic for the mind and soul. But eventually the bubbles dissipate. You're left with some very good recipes and some lively, if sentimental, prose.

She's also cross that Ms Guiliano doesn't provide diagrams to illustrate her scarf-tying instructions.

Luca Turin, the subject of The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr (2003), has written his own book, The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell. John Lanchester reviews it well, noting the issues on which Mr Turin disagrees with the majority opinion among biologists about the nature of smell - he believes it to be a matter of waves, not molecular shape - but concluding that

The general reader can't adjudicate this kind of scientific dispute; though we're likely to root for Turin, not least because it would be corking good fun if one of the great mysteries of science were solved by a nutty professor with a sideline in perfume criticism.

Thomas Mallon storytells his way through Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand, by Benita Eisler. "This is a likable book, but it badly needs to slow down" is not an enlightening observation. What I had to say about Charles McGrath's piece on Betjeman at the beginning of this entry applies just as well here, so I won't say it again. Bruce Handy is much better at reviewing Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler. There's still too much storytelling - the piece is unnecessarily lengthy - but there's far more engagement with Mr Gabler's actual book.

If Gabler's Disney can seem both elusive and the trim sum of a few neon parts, maybe that's because the scope and impact of the achievement are so broad while the protagonist himself is frustratingly narrow. A problem with the book - and it's Disney's fault, not Gabler's - is that Disney, the man, isn't the best companion for a 600-plus-age marathon. Largely friendless, moody, impatient, not much interested in sex or acquisition, increasingly unpleasant and imperious as he grew older, he was a workaholic and not, it seems, much else.

What this passage suggests is that Mr Gabler might better have written about the Disney enterprise, not its initial genius.

Richard Schickel's review of Simon Louvish's Mae West: It Ain't No Sin looks like a piece of storytelling at first glance, but it's actually not. Writing about Mae West as an actress, which Mr Schickel does, is the sort of thing that Messrs McGrath and Mallon fail to do when they scant their writers' (Betjeman's and Sand's) work.

The character she created was completely of her own devising. Even the industrious Louvish cannot find anyone else who significantly aided her in its creation.

Mr Schickel writes that the biography is "demonically researched," but also that "West's true sexual nature" eludes Mr Louvish. One comes away mildly amazed that anyone remembers the somewhat freakish actress.

Yet more storytelling: Joseph Dornan doesn't actually review Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theatre in America until he has given us a crash course on the subject. Then this: 

Stefan Kanfer, a former writer for Time magazine, has put together a kind of mash note to the Yiddish theater that also manages to take on many of its qualities, good and bad. It's written in a crowd-pleasing style that ladles on the irresistible anecdotes (many of them taken from Lulla Rosenfeld's superior history of the theater). ...

Despite this, Kanfer's book solidly conveys the excitement and impact of Yiddish theater, not to mention its long shadow.

Question: Is Ms Rosenfeld's book the one to read? Of Tunney: Boxing's Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey," David Oshinsky writes,

Tunney, by the veteran sportswriter Jack Cavanaugh, is an entertaining if worshipful account of the boxer, crammed with vivid descriptions but rarely moving outside the ring.

The rest of the page is pure storytelling. There is no way to know just what "outside the ring" matters might have been of any importance.

There are a few books about conquest this week, and I'm tempted to overlook this depressing subject. As Felipe Fernández-Armesto notes in his Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, Captain Cook confessed to seeking "the pleasure of being first." Laudably, Candice Millard's review rarely strays far from the book

Few scholars are as qualified as Fernández-Armesto to write a history of exploration. A professor of history at Tufts University, the editor of The Times Atlas of World Exploration and the author of an array of books on enormous subjects - from Civilizations to Millennium to Truth: A History - he has the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding necessary to do justice to so formidable a topic. The result is a brilliant and readable book.

I'd have liked, though, to have a better idea of Mr Fernández-Armesto's attack. Does he discuss the Crusades, for example? To what extent is "exploration" something that Western countries pursued but China abandoned? Is there more to it than that? Well, those are my questions, undoubtedly of limited interest.

There's yet another new book about Scott of the Antarctic. I wish that I understood the appeal of this topic, except I don't. I oughtn't to complain; I've never read a review of any book about the doomed expedition, and now that I have, I see that there is a question of apportioning blame: how much of what went wrong was the fault of the Royal Navy's way of doing things (which was outrageously Luddite), and how much can we attribute to Scott's poor judgment. Here is Jonathan Dore on Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy:

But there is a fine line between a Romantic sense of fate and a mechanistic determinism that sees outcomes as being predetermined by upbringing and cultural background, and for such an atypically intellectual naval officer, the question must be asked why Scott was unable to overcome his background enough to see, as Frederick Jackson did, that his time would have been better spent, and his men better served, by learning to drive dogs properly than by taking the dogs' place in harness. For all the many attractions of his book, David Crane offers no answers that convincingly exonerate Scott from a significant share of responsibility for his own demise.

There you have it. Mr Dore's review is fully engaged with Mr Crane's judgment of the case. I daresay that John Rothchild's review of The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing's Greatest Generation, by Clint Williams Willis, and No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks, by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, is a good one, because I learned rather little from it. More than any other reviewer in this issue, Mr Rothchild jumps into a lively discussion of issues raised by both books, Times Literary Supplement style, to the extent that he doesn't put a date on Climbing's Greatest Generation. Apparently it's ongoing, as both Chris Bonington and Mr Viesturs are written about in the present tense.

Constance Casey, a professional gardener, gives a favorable, if somewhat insidery, review to The Passionate Gardener, a book written in 1938 by Rudolf Borchardt but only now for the first time translated into English by Henry Martin. Ms Casey places Borchardt and his work very nicely, notes the density of his prose, and sums the book up nicely:

No matter what manipulations we contrive - excluding or accepting aliens, ordering or imitating nature - there's no going back to Eden. The gardener's longing Borchardt speaks of is, as he says, unappeasable.

Here's Ben Yagoda, a journalist who has written about The New Yorker, on Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life, by Linda H Davis:

...the main problem with this biography is that Davis seems to have been seduced by his one-liners, three marriages (all of them, astonishingly, to women who resembled Morticia Addams) and thousands of dates, including Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, and Jackie Kennedy. The art gets lost in the gossip.

Mr Yagoda ends the review by urging interested readers to access another, out-of-print book.

Is this the first time that the Buckley writers père et fils have appeared in the same issue of the Book Review? It's the first time that I've noticed it. Christopher B's review of Spy: The Funny Years, History by George Kalogerakis;edited with an introduction and annotations by Graydon Carter and Kurt Anderson, is a handsome piece of work, generously admiring the ultra-sophisticated humor of the funniest magazine of the Twentieth Century and praising Messrs Carter and Anderson for running a shop in which writers outdid themselves writing hair-raisingly rude journalism. Nobody who delighted in Spy during its heyday has to be told who the "short-fingered vulgarian" is, but it's sweet of Mr Buckley to repeat the phrase with a clinching ID. "Something that much fun was of course doomed not to last." Isn't it the truth! There comes a point at which everyone sees how it's done, or perhaps only the writers see how it's done - what inspires them, how their minds do funny - and then it just isn't fun anymore. I'm hoping that my favorite Spy expose, a preposterous assessment of easy colleges for dumb, rich kids that ranked institutions by using a dense but fact-based equation, is included in the anthology.

Perhaps the one indispensable book in this week's review is Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by eminent nature writer Barry Lopez. Robert Sullivan's extremely favorable review of what amounts to a glossary is eloquent:

Literature, or something like it, hovers over the project like an impending storm, the perception of nature being tied up with writing especially since Thoreau, who is referred to on numerous occasions, naturally. But the sharpest writers have the John McPhee-like ability to let the specifics of the landform take care of the poetics, or, if point-blank poetry is required, to let poets who have already trod the particular territory lead the way, as Robert Hass does in his entry for horizons, which quotes Wallace Stevens:

Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped

On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres

Of sea and sky.

Mr Hass must have been talking about Key West.

Assassinating Shakespeare: The True Confessions of a Bard in the Bush, by Thomas Goltz, is a book that I've been hearing about for a while, because a friend of mine knows the author well and helped out as a reader during the gestation. Perhaps for that reason I'm prepared to forgive Alan Riding for - you guessed it - storytelling his way through a very favorable review. Mr Goltz has achieved some note from his three books about the troubled Caucasus, the Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Georgia Diaries; the book at hand may explain how he came to be someone who regards civil strife as, first of all, lively. In search of his brother, Eddy, Mr Goltz found himself without any resources but the volume of Shakespeare that he carried with him (he had hoped for a more Thespian career), and he used this to entertain the indigenous population.

Occasionally expats invited him home. In Zambia, in exchange for hospitality, Goltz performed in an insane asylum for adolescents, an audience that reacted to Macbeth's dagger scene "with half the assembled kids (those with no physical handicaps to slow them) clawing at the doors to get out, waiting in terror in a dozen tribal languages while the other half hid under their shirts, sobbing or crawling after their more mobile fellows." His host seem satisfied. "Good show," he remarked.

Vintage Goltz, I assure you - and I thank Mr Riding for the inimitable quotation.

This week's essay is by listomane Ben Schott, "The Bibliognost's Handbook. Profoundly trivial, it includes a list of "Odd Book Titles," chosen annually since 1978, by something called The Diagram Group. My favorite, which doesn't really seem so odd if you think about it, is Versailles: The View From Sweden (1988).

Smile

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Instead of writing the Book Review review, I'm staring at the Estée Lauder ad on the back cover of last week's Sunday Times Magazine. "Home For the Holidays," it says, over the brand name, right across the red-and-black (-green?) hostess skirt that Gwyneth Paltrow is wearing. She has also got on a somewhat elaborate but basically mannish white blouse, and she's carrying an impossible bundle of holly - her hand would be cut to ribbons if it weren't for serious floristic intervention. Mostly, however (reading, contrary to what Lisa Carol Fremont has to say in Rear Window, from bottom to top), Gwyneth Paltrow is wearing her dazzling smile, open face, and cascading blonde hair. The photograph would be terminally WASP if one didn't recall her assertion that, through her father, the late television producer, Bruce Paltrow, she comes from a long line of Lithuanian rabbis. It is a pity that Saul Bellow did not live to deal with this phenomenon, this Lithuanian/shiksa Gwyneth.

My Gwyneth Paltrow problem is totally geeky. I've dreamed that I could somehow, notwithstanding my - well, why don't we just stop at "age" - notwithstanding my age, that I could really interest the lady and get her to want to know me better. I buried this longing during the Brad Pitt period - Gwyneth was not worthy. Now that she's the mother of two, you'd think she be even less, er, interesting, but she's not. I have a hot desire to find out what her repartee is like, and to see where repartee might lead. One of the nice things, though, about being as old as her late father (if not older) is that my fear that I would fail to hold her attention is almost overwhelmed by the fear that she would fail to hold mine.

And where would all of this go, in an "ideal world"? Let's say that Gwyneth and I "made a connection" over cocktails at - well, not the Royalton, but somewhere like that. What then? I happen to adore my wife. I adore Gwyneth Paltrow, too, but, gee, not quite so much. It would seem that my interest is basically - and basely - conquistadorial. I want to be able to say, at least to myself, that - &c.

In the end, I'm shot by a twisty stroke of vanity. I reflect that my daughter is as good looking as Gwyneth Paltrow, if not in quite the same photogenic way. But then, all too evidently, neither was Ms Paltrow's mother, the beautiful Blythe Danner, who was never exploited by a major perfumer. No matter how you cut it, life just isn't fair.

December 05, 2006

Jeremy Denk and Orpheus at Carnegie Hall

The second concert of Orpheus's season at Carnegie Hall, on Saturday night, featured pianist Jeremy Denk, a musician whose Web log I have followed for some time. At the last Orpheus concert, I buttonholed Mr Denk and introduced myself. So I was hoping to be very impressed by his performance. Good intentions, however, were swept away by the excitement of hearing him play the most substantial of JS Bach's solo concertos, The Concerto in d, BWV 1052. I listen to this work every day, it seems, but on the CD that is parked my carousel, Anton Heiller plays the harpsichord. Mr Denk's fingers spun the twanging glaze of the solo part into beautifully etched phrases that tumbled sometimes with, and sometimes against, the string orchestra. The pianist commanded his instrument with something like the nonchalance of a great jazz pianist. He can't have been unaware of playing in Carnegie Hall, but he appeared to be as comfortable as if he were playing for friends at home. And, again like a jazz musician, he made it all look easy. Jeremy Denk's playing is about the music, not about the difficulty of the music.

One is easily inclined to think of jazz when listening to Bach's keyboard music, and vice versa. Where pleasing listeners is supposed to be important, Bach substitutes an obsession with the possibilities of inversion and variation. To play the music well, a pianist must share some of Bach's curiosity. Mr Denk went so far as to create the illusion of extemporization - quite a feat, considering the familiarity of this chestnut. My mind never wandered for even a moment.

The program opened with the first of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, and closed with the second. I seem to be hearing the Brandenburgs with some frequency these days, but I'm pleased to note that they are no longer baroque bon-bons suitable for aural wallpaper. Last year, I heard all six, played on one-voice-per-part lines. Orpheus's approach may have been more conventional, but the results were completely fresh. The horn players were so brilliant in the first movement of the First Concerto that I joined in the applause that burst out when the movement was over, a no-no that triggered pained and querulous glances from the ancient couple sitting in front of me. Ordinarily, I have to hope that the custom of waiting until a work is completely over to applaud is in good health, but the horn players' bravura was extraordinary. (The little variation for horns and oboes in the fourth movement wasn't quite so perfect.) The soloists in the Second Concerto were members of the orchestra, so of course they were terrific. I wish I knew their names. (I wish that Orpheus would publish a facebook at its Web site.)

Composer Stephen Hartke was on hand to receive the ovation that me the world premiere of his Brandenburg Afternoons - a work written for the same unusual forces that Bach calls for in the First Brandenburg. It may have helped that Melissa Mell, a cellist, indulged us with a bit of music appreciation in advance. I'm not sure how important it is to know that the violas and the cello in the first movement of this engaging piece represent boats bobbing in a marina, but if such tone-painting get people to pay attention, then it can't do any harm. I have no hesitation about describing the work's concluding saraband as darkly romantic. Mr Hartke's music may be tonally modern, but it remembers where it has been and known where it is going. I hope that Orpheus will record Brandenburg Afternoons.

December 04, 2006

Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson

Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson is an agreeable read, short enough for an evening's pleasure. The narrator, at least for the first two-thirds, is very engaging, an intelligent American of Irish extraction who finds herself actually in Ireland for the first time at the age of forty-three. We know that she is involved in some sort of excitement - some plot, perhaps a heist - and the details are intriguingly slow to emerge. But once we know everything (and we know it somewhat sooner than the narrator has finished telling us), the novel begins to seem both slight and contrived. Our narrator hasn't been so smart, after all. That would be all right if her lack of foresight hadn't seeped into the book itself, as if drawn, in the manner of opposites attracting, by the presence of an ineffable masterpiece of Western Art, the picture by Johannes Vermeer whose title Ms Weber has taken for her book. This presence, we realize, has effectually promised us that nothing incongruously gross or slapdash will occur in the course of the story. When the narrator finally figures out the nature of the man with whom she has been dealing, however, the change in her voice is gross and slapdash. Surely she ought to have foreseen the possibility of this shattering denouement - and taken steps to assure herself that it would not befall her. Excellent as Ms Weber's writing might be, the "Well, duh," with which we cover the final pages represents an inordinate letdown.

I tend to stay away from books about the persistence of Ireland's "Troubles," and The Music Lesson reminds me why. Although raised entirely in Boston, and currently living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the narrator has absorbed a full measure of the Irish South's rage against the Protestant British. It's impossible for me to be anything but impatient with such obduracy.

December 02, 2006

Flannel Pajamas

Jeff Lipsky's Flannel Pajamas is a study of the narrow but chaotic margin between self-realization and selfishness. The difference between the two can be just about impossible to discern, but in fact the first is ultra-conscious the second is, in good-hearted people at least, pretty dim. It's the pain that's carelessly, unconsciously inflicted that mortally wounds marriages.

Don't be fooled into thinking that this is yet another fly-on-the-wall movie in which self-absorbed characters like Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) chatter away about nothing much. The details may be banal, but they're also crucial, just as they so often are in real life. In the relatively crowded opening scene, we meet Nicole's friend, Tess (Chelsea Altman), who waltzes into a diner with a man who is neither her husband nor her fiancé (!). Stuart (Justin Kirk), who is the other half of Nicole's blind date, disapproves instantly of Tess's laxity. He makes this clear when the two are finally alone. It ought to be a dispositive signal that the two strangers face an uphill battle if they continue the relationship. But Stuart and Nicole are really taken with each other, and naively imagine that that's good enough.

Flannel Pajamasfeatures a lot of nudity in the first half, which makes the point that Stuart and Nicole are sexually compatible. That's important, because it's ultimately not enough, and when the nudity stops we know that the relationship is in trouble. And the trouble starts almost the moment that Nicole and Stuart get married. Driving back to New York from their honeymoon, Stuart overrules Nicole's request that they stop at a farm stand, on the grounds that he faces an early morning. The exit passed, he turns to her inquisitively and asks if she really wanted to stop. When you get to be my age, you know where this sort of heedlessness is leading. To reduce the couple's problems to a nutshell, Stuart says that he wants to protect Nicole, but she's not in any particular danger and it soon emerges that he wants to be the only person in her life. As he tries to cut her off from Tess and from her family, he gets rigid about an agreement, made before the wedding, that they wait two years before trying to have a child. Nor will he let Nicole get a Jack Russell terrier - he hates dogs. Nicole, for her part, deals with Stuart's domination in increasingly passive-aggressive ways. She does not speak up for her needs, but she's eager to express her resentment.

Things are complicated by differing backgrounds. Stuart is Jewish, and Nicole's Catholic family is overtly anti-Semitic. (Her mother (Rebecca Schull) tells him in one shocking scene that she believes every negative stereotype about "the Jews.") Not particularly religious at the outset, Nicole takes up elaborate bedtime prayers as her comfort with Stuart frays.

If it were up to me, every young couple would have to see Flannel Pajamas, because it presents a comprehensive range of the problems that most marriages must resolve in order to succeed. Stuart and Nicole are good-hearted people with no unsavory habits. Stuart is upright without being prim, and Nicole is generous and supportive, at least at the start. They can be forgiven for thinking that great sex and good intentions are all it takes to make a relationship work, but their failure is an object lesson for real lovers to learn from. Any man who comes away from the film thinking that it's not particularly worth talking about ought to be written off the list of any independent woman, and any woman who defends Nicole one hundred percent is certain to cause the average sensual man a great deal of grief. Mr Lipsky pulls off the neat trick of providing his principal characters with highly-developed individuation while endowing each with the more characteristic weaknesses or his or her gender. Stuart and Nicole aren't like anybody else, but they're not unusual, either.

If Flannel Pajamas has a fault, I'd say that it's the story line that concerns Stuart's brilliant but troubled brother, Jordan (Jamie Harrold) . Jordan is very unusual, and he threatens to cloud the otherwise limpid narrative. His departure from the scene belongs in a tonally different movie. (I expect that Jordan embodies some undigested life experience of Mr Lipsky's.) If nothing else, though, Jordan's antics show how legato the rest of the film is.

I walked out of the Angelika into a day that, thanks to a freakish warm front, might have been a rainy afternoon in the early fall. It was extremely melancholy, and I felt uncomfortably vulnerable, as if my marriage, too, were in trouble. That's how powerful Flannel Pajamas is. It is so not "just a movie."

December 01, 2006

George W S Trow

It's a bit creepy. The Wikipedia page for writer George W S Trow has registered his death, a couple days ago, of "natural causes." Why am I having such a hard time believing the cause of death?

There was a time when Trow was the coolest writer going, no question. "Within the Context of No-Context" came as  a bombshell.

In the New History, nothing was judged - only counted. The power of judging was then subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the preferences of a child carried as much weight as the preferences of an adult, so the refining of preferences was subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the ideal became agreement rather than well-judged action, so men learned to be competent only in those modes which embraced the possibility of agreement. The world of power changed. What was powerful grew more powerful in ways that could be measured, grew less powerful in every way that could not be measured. 

The piece appeared in the November 17, 1980 issue of The New Yorker, and I didn't really understand it. I had no idea that something called "popular culture" was going to occupy center stage in the coming decades. I thought that the Sixties were over. I didn't know that the Sixties were about to come back, in Living Dead format.

Looking at the essay today, I'm inclined to say that the old History is still vital in certain parts of the world, and that anti-Americanism is its hallmark. People still make momentous judgments there. Americans, in contrast, living in the New History, are almost ridiculous - and Trow was the first to show why. He sailed past the known poles of right and left, capitalist and marxist, to discover an awful new world, one in which the serious is relentlessly menaced by the inconsequential.

Shopgirl

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This evening's home movie (last evening's, actually) was Shopgirl. Although it's late and I'm lazy, the reason I don't pull down the books to get at the novel - it's triple shelved, way at the back - is because I'm still under the movie's spell, and the movie and scholarship even of this slightest kind are grossly incompatible. But! They changed the ending, no? As I recall, Mirabelle ended up with Ray Porter, not with Jeremy Whatsis. I remember feeling sorry for the kid, because the older man's advantages were so out of proportion. Shopgirl the book is one of the very first that I wrote up for Portico (way back in 2000!), but, typically - and I'm proud of this - it's useless in the Cliff Notes department. Tomorrow I'll excavate. At least I know it's there.

It's a beautiful movie, with a truly magical score by Barrington Pheloung. Beyond that, it had an extraordinary charge for me. I had expected to identify with Steve Martin's character - even though I'd stayed away from the film precisely because I think it's kind of creepy to write a bestseller and then star in the movie adaptation. But I didn't identify with Steve Martin at all (much as I'd love to be mindlessly rich). Instead, I wanted to throw him out of the house, because when Claire Danes wasn't busy looking like my first wife (especially when she wore eyeglasses in her pickup truck and tried to see where she was going), she was doing a fine job of acting pretty much exactly like my daughter. This conjunction of influences (mother/daughter) has never occurred before, and I'm more than a little shaken. But I like Claire Danes a lot more than I used to do.

For a very moving account of Shopgirl, don't miss MS Smith's essay at CultureSpace.

In The Atlantic

For twenty years at least, James Fallows's writing has been the best thing about The Atlantic (except, perhaps, during his year or so as editor of US News and World Report). An affable but rigorous humanist, the former Crimson editor, Nader's Raider, and speechwriter for Jimmy Carter unfailingly makes whatever happens to interest him at the moment a matter of genuine general interest. (The Wikipedia entry devoted to him recalls, as I'm sure everyone who read it does, his praise of Lotus's Agenda  in 1992.) When I tuned in, in the mid-Eighties, Mr Fallows was in Japan. Now he and his wife - this time without their now-grown sons - live in Shanghai. I expect Mr Fallows's dispatches from China to be among the most important sources of news and reflection on Zhongguo for as long as he produces them.

The first in the series, "Postcards from Tomorrow Square," appears in the current issue of The Atlantic. You might say that there are six postcards in all: four "cautions" and two "mysteries." The cautions are directed to the Japanese, loathed more than ever by young Chinese, and apparently incapable of adjusting official behavior in a more positive manner (ie by refusing to visit the Yasukuni Shrine); to Olympic athletes (the air pollution in Beijing, even after projected cleanups, may be lethal to more than a few strenuous exercisers); to Americans, who ought to be doing more to take advantage of what Mr Fallows finds to be a natural inclination among the Chinese in our favor, or at least in favor of the way we do things; and finally, to "Everyone." This last boils down to a suggestion that China's boom may be doomed by a combination of endemic corruption and a general failure to trust strangers. The mysteries are "How Skilled Is the Leadership?" and "What Is the Chinese Dream?" These are matters about which Mr Fallows intends to learn a lot more, and we are all going to be the better for his investigations.

In the same issue, a list of "The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time." The more I read of Rex Douthat's accompanying essay, in which he discusses methodology and the names that didn't make the cut, the more preposterous the entire undertaking seemed. Any list that identifies Bill Gates as influential, even in fifty-fourth place, is deeply suspect; Mr Gates may have benefited from gross miscalculation on the part of IBM, when it entered into its DOS contract with Microsoft, but it would be hard to say in what way Mr Gates has been personally "influential." He's just a good businessman (and not really a great one). To avoid such missteps, I would restrict the competition to Americans who have been dead for at least fifty years. Panelist Walter McDougall's assertion that "By definition, it would seem [that] the ultimate measure of influence is simply what sells" is gross beyond belief: consider the influence of Mabel Mercer upon Frank Sinatra and his entire generation of singers. (Neither makes the list.) In the end though, it's a start, this list. Interestingly, each of the ten panelists was allowed to work with his or her own idea of the meaning of "influence."