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January 31, 2007

In the Book Review

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

This week, I'm going to try something new. Instead of following the Book Review's distinction between fiction and poetry - a distinction confined to the table of contents, I'm going to group my assessments of this week's reviews under three headings: Yes, Maybe, and No. These groupings reflect my judgment as to whether a given book ought to be reviewed in the Book Review at all. As far as possible, it does not indicate my judgment of the reviews themselves, but as the reviews are all I have to go on, in many cases, a poorly-conceived review may so badly misrepresent a book that I conclude that the book itself is unimportant at best.

I hope that the new distinctions will bring out the multi-dimensional nature of this project, which, I must say, I've been slow to discover. When I began, almost a year and a half ago, I rather lightheartedly approached the reviews as a target: did the review sell the book to me or didn't it? In time, this came to seem beside the point, the point being this: was the Book Review doing its job? If a review didn't sell me, that is, was the book or the review to blame? Thanks to a few authors who wrote to me, asking me to reconsider, I not only enjoyed some great reads but came to see that reviews appearing in the Book Review could be much more misleading than I'd thought. They say that any publicity is good publicity, but given the price of books and the time that they take to read, I don't think that the maxim applies to publishing.


New additions to the Library of America are per se worthy of Book Review coverage - so far, at least. According to William Logan, the Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Hart Crane (edited by Langdon Hammer) "contains more of Crane than most readers will ever need," but he adds that

Crane still makes young men want to write poetry - his best lines are extraordinary, even if there are few major poems, or even very good ones.

Mr Logan provides a lively mini-biography of this ultimately disappointing poet, but he does not quote enough of the verse. What the Review ought to offer in connection with coverage of the Library of America, at least where poetry is concerned, is a page of complete poems or substantial excerpts.

Roy Hoffman's review of Andy Catlett: Early Travels, by Wendel Berry, is largely sympathetic. It begins, "In this tender, slender, fictionalized memoir, Wendell Berry adds another chapter to his continuing account of rural life in Kenturcky." He does, however, occasionally find the book to be "dyspeptic" and "cantankerous."

Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, gets a favorable and sympathetic review from Christopher Hitchens.

Has there ever been a more obviously foredoomed military escapade (for once one can employ the word accurately) than the dispatch, for the second time in a quarter-century, of a British Expeditionary Force to protect Belgium and France from German expansionism?

Mr Hitchens takes care to let us know that this ripping story, which reminds him, somewhat ironically, of Agincourt, is well served by Mr Sebag-Montefiore, although more quotation would have been useful.

Michael Oren's Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present has been garnering a good deal of favorable reception, and Max Rodenbeck joins the chorus. Having made it clear that Mr Oren's history is for the most part articulately neutral, he does take issue with Mr Oren's conclusions about our misadventure in Iraq.

Such subtle reinforcement of America's self-image as an innocent among Middle Eastern sharks mars an otherwise exemplary work. This is a pity, since, as Oren amply illustrates, it is America's failure to be clear and honest about its own motives, as much as it serial failure to interpret the Middle East, that has so often befuddled relations with the region.

There are two biographies of literary figures, one of them briefly more famous than the other. That would be the subject of John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man, by John Heilpern. Ian Jack notes that this book, authorized by Osborne's widow, "is, insofar as such a thing is possible, a sympathetic biography of an unsympathetic man." That's about all that he has to say about it, though; the rest of the review is an unpleasant capsule biography of a seminal and once-celebrated playwright. There is no assessment of Mr Heilpern's critical treatment of Osborne's four most famous plays, of which Look Back in Anger (1956) had a permanently explosive impact on British theatre. I'd expect better of the editor of Granta, Mr Jack.

Thomas Mallon does not commit the same mistake in his review of Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy.

Tomalin herself examines the novels with the confident judgments of a critic, not the hedged and sometimes overawed appraisals of a scholar. Appreciative of Hardy's genius, she still finds his body of fiction "exceptionally uneven."

Scrupulously following Ms Tomalin's account of Hardy's life, Mr Mallon's review is admirable in every way.

Finally, there is Kieran Healy's Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs, which gets a favorable review from Virginia Postrel. Ms Postrel complains that Mr Healey doesn't cover the living donors of kidneys who benefit two-thirds of all transplantees, but that would appear to be a conscious limitation, not a "shortcoming."

As an economic sociologist, Healy adds important dimensions to the intensifying debate over organ procurement. He reminds both advocates and opponents of markets that commercial transactions are embedded in social structures ad as likely as other exchanges to have social meaning. To succeed, incentives must show sensitivity to those meanings.

(Mr Healy is a contributor to the Web log Crooked Timber.)


There are three novels this week that receive inconclusive reviews. Karen Olsson clearly wants to like The Virgin of Flames, by Chris Abani, more than she does, which is why she calls its defects "the missteps of an ambitious writer with an original perspective." She makes the novel's story sound disagreeably weird, and the book worthy of no more than roundup coverage. If Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park is as angry and hackneyed as Lucy Ellmann's review makes it out to be, then it probably doesn't deserve coverage in the first place, but I suspect that a more sympathetic reader might have been able to give a clearer picture of this novel about British suburban anomie. As for A Tale of Two Lions, by Roberto Ransom (translated by Jasper Reid), Alexander McCall Smith tries to be favorable but is clearly unsympathetic, finding the book "whimsical" but lacking in "meat." His review suggests that he has more actual experience of lions than Mr Ransom does; perhaps that's what got in the way of a clear review.

In nonfiction, we have Dragon Sea and Something in the Air. Dragon Sea: A True Tale of Treasure, Archeology and Greed Off the Coast of Vietnam, by Frank Pope, may or may not be a trivial book about a case of marine archeology in which a lot of pretty porcelain is recovered from a five hundred year-old wreck (give or take) and then squandered ineptly on eBay. Holly Morris's review makes the most of the story's interest but fails to convey a sense of its quality at book length.

Dave Marsh's review of Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation, by Marc Fisher, is a fine example of what I'd call the competitive review. Mr Marsh presents himself as equally, if not better, informed about Mr Fisher's subject. He strongly disagrees with Mr Fisher's thesis, and he devotes his review to a critical rewrite of details that, in his view, Mr Fisher has bungled. The book gets lost in the process. The world is not improved by such one-sided shouting matches. 


Of the two titles that I've dropped into "unworthy" bin this week, I'm not entirely sure about Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface, by David Standish. Joshua Glenn's review is largely favorable, and easily rides the kook factor of the book's topic. But then he quotes from the book to devastating effect.

But his efforts to explain the popularity of hollw-earth-ism ... are weak. Standish rather lamely suggests it "can be seen as a sort of ultimate metaphysical retreat to the womb." As for the proliferation of hollow-earth fiction from the 1870s on, it can be chalked up to the fact that writers needed "somewhere to set improbable romances now that formerly remote, unknown corners of the earth were becoming less believable as settings the more they were explored." Ho hum!

As for I Am Plastic: The Designer Toy Explosion, by Paul Budnitz, it's a good example of the sort of pop-culture tome that signals the end of intelligent life as we know it. Art director Steven Heller approaches the book's bizarre subject as if he were covering cutting-edge rock bands. We are unhappily familiar with such meretricious gravitas. I should have thought that it would be easier, however, to describe "designer toys" than it is to capture the sound of music in words. Mr Heller means to be facetious, but I take him at his word:

Originally conceived by the New York design school graduates David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, the Uglydoll line has grown into a monstrous franchise with dozens of iterations, collected (ostensibly for their kids) by baby boomers, like me, who have yet to fully embrace maturity.

The very best thing in this week's Review is Jim Harrison's Essay, "Don't Feed the Poets." I don't know what the title refers to, but the essay that follows is a beautiful appreciation of Karl Shapiro's The Bourgeois Poet, a collection of prose poems that Mr Harrison came upon and loved "when I was decidedly not bourgeois." Mr Harrison touches, with a poet's concision, upon an amazing variety of topics within his short space, from the dilapidations of his Michigan farmhouse to the "subdued but relentless hurly-burly in academia that swallows up discretionary time" to the sting borne by the very word "bourgeois."

It should be remembered that bourgeois was a volatile word in the '60s, frequently an insult. After our horrid winter I ended up teaching at Stony Brook on Long Island, where I occasionally noted professors in bell-bottoms with long hair saying, "All power to the people," whoever they might be. Obviously our workday clothing is also a costume signifying who we wish to be, and professors at the time could be nervous about being bourgeois. Only a Republican would wear a clean trench coat.


January 30, 2007

Nancy Staub Laughlin


On a recent Saturday, Kathleen and I descended into Chelsea, to attend an the opening of a show at the Noho Gallery. The artist whose work is on exhibit there is Nancy Staub Laughlin, the sister of one of Kathleen's most ancient friends (and a friend in her own right). We have owned two of Nancy's pastels for almost twenty years, and it has been great fun to follow her career. We were very taken with her new work at the Noho, and if money (but mostly wall space) were no object, we know which picture we'd be bringing home.

An even more ancient friend of Kathleen's was there, as expected, and he and Kathleen soon fell into a good gossip. I didn't even try to listen, but I watched for cues to laugh or nod. That's what you do when you're standing in a noisy room and you're almost a foot taller than your interlocutors. This time, though, Kathleen took notice. "You can't hear a thing we're saying, can you?" she asked me. I could hear that.

January 29, 2007

Books on Monday: Forgetfulness

Ward Just is one of my favorite writers, despite everything. "Everything" encapsulates books about laconic, stoic American men. I usually can't bear them. But Mr Just makes them attractive in a way that owes nothing, ultimately, to Hemingway. Founded so dramatically in 1776 and 1789, the Unites States is surprisingly fond of men who don't talk. Ward Just is their modern chronicler.

In The Good Shepherd, there's an amazing line about how everyone but the WASPs are "visitors" in the United States. Mr Just's fiction resonates to that tonality without being at all dismissive. Once upon a time, this was a country in which the spawn of proletarian Protestant professionals could rise to the top, as if on the strength of a Skull and Bones handshake. They knew they were the only people who mattered, and, until women knocked down the gates, all the other guys in the country were happy to let them rule.

Sometimes, being an American is like being a detective, examining a case in which something terribly sordid has taken place in a preacher's bathroom. 


January 28, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Washing Up

Every now and then, the dishwasher is empty when one of my dinner parties begins.* We're talking blue moons here. My Miele dishwasher, which I love, is set to run a perhaps needlessly thorough cycle that takes nearly two hours to complete. I cannot operate it at the same time as any other high-amp appliance, such as the water kettle or the microwave. This means that, in order to use them, I have to pull the dishwasher open. Quite often, I forget to close it again, and the dishes drip midcycle for a while. As a rule, when one of my dinner parties begins, the dishwasher is stuffed with bowls and utensils that I've used to make dinner, and I've just turned it on. And just because the dishwasher is full of pots and pans doesn't mean that the stove and kitchen counter aren't as well.

That's why, when I clear the table between courses (often just an entree and dessert), I take the plates out onto the balcony, where they usually sit until the next day. Here's how I clean up after a dinner party.

When everyone has gone, if I still have the energy, I empty the dishwasher (which would be easy enough if it didn't involve putting everything away), and fill it up with whatever's dirty in the kitchen. If there is any extra room, I clear as glasses and the dessert plates as the kitchen stuff leaves room for. I turn the dishwasher on and tidy up the kitchen. Then I go to bed.

The next morning, I empty the dishwasher and clear whatever's left on the table. Only when the dining area has been completely straightened up do I bring in whatever's out on the balcony. If I've had a big dinner, with more courses or more guests, the dishes from the balcony will fill the third load to run after the dinner.**

In a nutshell, my cleanup begins near the dishwasher and works outward. I must confess that the process can take several days. I've got a blog to write!

* For quite some time now, my only dinner guests have been Ms NOLA and M le Neveu, but I hope to broaden my reach in 2007. We did have Fossil Darling and LXIV last Sunday.

** Silver is washed by hand, as are certain fancy plates that I don't use too often. I also hand-wash what's left of my mother's wedding crystal. I think we've broken two stems over the years, which is amazing.

January 27, 2007

El Laberinto del Fauno

Yesterday, I saw the movie that I wanted to see last week, but didn't because of the 12:30 starting time. (I wanted to go to the Museum afterward for lunch and a look.) In other words, Guillermo del Toro's El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth). It was an instance, not common for me, of seeing a film against my "better judgment" and being very grateful that I've done so. As a rule, I've found Spanish films something of a stretch, and Laberinto's fantasy elements looked to be somewhat off-putting. I didn't read the reviews when they appeared, but slowly caught the very favorable buzz: this is a movie that everybody wants to see. It will keep us all chattering for years to come.

El Laberinto del Fauno tucks a strange and dark fairy tale into a brutally realistic episode from the Spanish Civil War. (It is presumably fictional but not far from the awful truth.) A girl who is absorbed by fairy tales accompanies her pregnant mother up into the Pyrenees so that the expected child can be born at the camp of its father, Capitán Vidal. The captain, whose vicious ruthlessness feeds on fascist narcissism, is in charge of a major assault on a band of recalcitrant holdouts. The movie forces you to confront the brutality of the Civil War by killing off most of the characters in which you've invested some care: don't expect anyone in particular to survive. Suffice it to say that the captain's campaign is something of a losing battle.

Ofelía, the girl, soon finds herself attended by pixies (they morph from long, scary-looking beetles) and led into an ancient labyrinth near the captain's HQ. Here she meets the Faun (I don't think I'd have called him "Pan"), a friendly figure who tells her that she must undergo three ordeals in order to find out whether she embodies the spirit of the underworld princess from her favorite story. Many viewers, I'm sure, will conclude that Ofelía is deeply deluded, her mind broken by severe environmental stress (for starters, she certainly doesn't care for the captain). That's one way of resolving the tension between fantasy and realism. I'm happy to let that tension vibrate: perhaps the fantasy is as real as anything. What makes Laberinto so powerful is the degree to which the captain's dreadfulness is matched by the terror of Ofelía's ordeals. The tone of the film is, for the most parts, uniformly grueling, but many moments of intermittent charm keep it fresh and engaging.

The four principal actors are superb. Ivana Baquero is a wonderful Ofelía, with an open, tenderly pretty face that recalls Kate Beckinsale's in Cold Comfort Farm. Sergi López, whom I could swear I've seen in something, is magnificent as Capitán Vidal, a man of demented pride who can set his face at an almost wrinkle-free repose. Maribel Verdú plays Mercedes, the captain's principal servant, as a woman onto whose face the dolorousness of the Civil War has been etched. Doug James, who hails from Indianapolis and who apparently is no stranger to prosthetic costumes, acts the part of the Faun, which I assume to have been dubbed in Spanish. Adriana Gil and Alex Angulo are also very good as Ofelía's mother and the local doctor, respectively.

Coming out of the theatre, I could only think of what would happen had this film been set during World War I, in Turkey - the time of the Armenian genocide that official Turkey finds it impossible to acknowledge. El Laberinto del Fauno is unflinching about the atrocities that brought Francisco Franco to power and kept him there until his death. In the space of a generation, Spain has joined the rest of modern Europe, but Laberinto reminds us that nothing turns the coal of fear into the diamond of beautiful insight more predictably than ardent oppression.

January 26, 2007

In The New Yorker

Interestingly, there are two articles in The New Yorker this week that feed the same thought, a reflection on human nature's preference for stable calm over rule of law. The longer is Michael Specter' indispensable survey of civil freedom in today's Russia; the shorter is a review, by Caleb Crain, of Matthew Warshauer's Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law (Tennessee, 2006).

Last October, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed in her Moscow apartment building. A month later, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, died of polonium poisoning. Both were critics of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent himself who has decided, it appears, that Russia does not need critics at the present time. In his Letter from Moscow (not available on-line), Mr Specter notes recent adulatory coverage in the the Russian press of Leonid Brezhnev's centenary and Augusto Pinochet's recent death. Both are thought to have made their countries "stable and strong." 

Putin, who has called the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," clearly agrees. Sick of the lines, the empty shops, and the false promises of Soviet life, Russians looked to the West - and particularly to the United States - to provide an economic model. What followed was an epic disaster: the sell-off of the state's most valuable assets made a few dozen people obscenely rich, but the lives of millions of others became far worse. The health-care system fell apart, and so did many of the social-service networks. Russia became the first industrial country ever to experience a sustained fall in life expectancy. Russian males born today can, on average, expect to life to the age of fifty-nine, dying younger than if they were born in Pakistan or Bangladesh. It is not surprising, then, that by the time Putin became President most Russians were only too happy to exchange the metaphysical ideas of free speech and intellectual freedom for the concrete desires of owning a home and a car and possessing a bank account. They also wanted to feel that somebody was in control of their country.

The curious thing is that, according to publisher Alexei Volin and broadcaster Aleksei Venediktov, most Russians don't care about newspapers or TV news. They're even less important in Russia than they are in the United States, where hoi polloi do a magnificent job of keeping themselves ill-informed.

The imposition of martial law in New Orleans on December 16, 1814, on the eve of a Battle of New Orleans that would mean nothing, because the what we call the War of 1812 was officially over before it was fought, was unconstitutional, and Andrew Jackson was fined a thousand dollars for the offense. In 1844, his campaign to have the fine refunded finally met with success. The refund implicitly ratified Jackson's action (without making it any less unconstitutional), and it appears to have been the precedent for Abraham Lincoln's suppression of habeas corpus in 1863. And so on. But the Battle of New Orleans was the making of Andrew Jackson, and he became the first President to exploit his countrymen's love of a bold and robust, if occasionally ruthless, leader. When a big guy can get the job done, Americans will look the other way rather than hold him to account for misdeeds. In "Bad Precedent," Mr Crain writes,

The evidence certainly suggests that it has always been difficult to find a reliable base of support for habeas corpus in America; it's a vulnerable right, especially during emergencies and when a charismatic leader is involved.

Ironically, the only American branch that has the power to suspend habeas corpus - the Congress - has twice supported the expropriation of this power, first by refunding Jackson's fine and then, last year, by ratifying President Bush's suppression of habeas corpus at Guantánamo Bay. Mr Crain quotes F-X Martin, a New Orleans judge who went on to write a history of New Orleans. As an appeals-court judge, he had declined to penalize Jackson for imposing martial law; he argued that he lacked the jurisdiction. Later, in his history, he would write, "In free governments, dangerous precedents are to be dreaded from good and popular characters only."

In The Nation, Columbia historian Eric Foner reviews The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, by James Oakes (Norton, 2007). Mr Foner's review (also not on-line - yet) is favorable, but what caught my eye were the two opening paragraphs, which I think that everyone ought to read closely, because they explode some very widespread myths about the Civil War, and do so quite neatly.

The abolition of slavery in the United States appears in retrospect so inevitable that it is difficult to recall how unlikely it seemed as late as 1860, the year of Abraham Lincoln's election as President. Slaveowners had pretty much controlled the national government since its inception. The 4 million slaves formed by far the country's largest concentration of property (their economic worth exceeded the value of all factories, railroads and banks in the country combined). Racism was deeply entrenched in the North as well as the South. Blacks, free as well as slaves, had few rights anywhere, and abolitionists were a despised minority.

Obviously, Lincoln's election and the civil war it triggered made emancipation possible. But Lincoln campaigned for President pledging to prevent slavery's expansion into the Western territories, while insisting that he had no intention of interfering with the institution where it already existed. It was by no means certain when the war began that it would become a crusade to destroy slavery.


January 25, 2007


It was very good news to learn that The Girls Who Went Away was nominated for a Nonfiction award by the National Book Critics Circle. It's good just to know that Ann Fessler's book appeals to a general audience. I read it with mounting obsession, but, then, I'm an adopted child.

The ball is in my court on the reunion front. I've received the "non-identifying" information that the New York Foundling Hospital could release, and I've been notified by the New York State Department of Health that when each of my parents registers with the Adoption and Medical Information Registry, then we can all get in touch.

I'm sorry, but that's profoundly unacceptable. The state has no business here. One of my parents is supremely unlikely to be alive - he would be one hundred ten years old - while the other is in her late eighties, living who knows where. Thanks to The Girls Who Went Away, I no longer believe that the State of New York had or has the right to hand me over to biological strangers while denying me access to information about my birth family, which may, as it happens, include as many as three half-siblings and their children. My daughter has a right to know her not-so-distant cousins.

That's why I'm happy about the nomination. The success of The Girls Who Went Away will be a step toward the repeal of New York State's inhuman adoption-records statute.

January 24, 2007

Help and Support

I'm back from a brilliant lunch with an old friend, and I have to share our findings. We discussed the difference between Help and Support. No etymology was involved, and you may switch the definitions if you like. We decided that, while Help and Support manifest the same behavior, they engender contrary expectations. When we Help, we look for positive results that reflect our efforts (change). When we Support, we risk a sort of no-questions-asked enabling. Much of the pain of life is attributable to the tremendous difficulty of deciding which to offer (Help or Support), and, just as important, how much of either we can afford.

In the Book Review

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

Groan! This week's Book Review is all but overwhelmed by a huge essay about Norman Mailer, Lee Siegel's "Maestro of the Human Ego." From the title to the last sentence, I found it hard to follow Mr Siegel's thinking. He writes with a lot of transcendent-sounding terms about Mr Mailer's transcendent achievement as a writer.

To not cohere to received axes of fact - magical phrase! [??] - to approach life novelistically, is to make connections between the visible and the invisible world, and to transfigure the commonplace. We now are drowning in mind-numbing literature of the commonplace: tipping points, hive minds, "freakanomics," "bobos in paradise" - it is all lifestyle trends, marketing techniques, cheap behavioral psychology and glib social-pattern-spotting. This flood of minutiae makes one long for Mailer's heroic attempts to invest experience with a higher meaning, no matter how far-out or unacceptable some of his connections between seen and unseen might be. Even if such notions offend household pieties, they have the effect of making you return fully awake to first principles that had begun to make you snore. And when Mailer's connections work, they are beyond good.

In response to Mr Siegel's complaint about "mind-numbing literature of the commonplace," I would argue that it reflects a widespread aversion to literary heroics, a shared notion that perhaps we are not very good judges of ourselves when we leave facts and figures behind. The final sentence is empty cheerleading. Mr Siegel goes on to give an example of a connection - from Marilyn.

"Since sex is, after all, the most special form of human communication, and the technological society is built on expanding communication in much the same way capitalism was built on the expansive properties of capital and money, the perspective is toward greater promiscuity." If you are seeking an explanation for why pornography takes up most of the Internet, there it is.

Sex is "the most special form of human communication" - what on earth does that mean? Mr Mailer must find it exhausting, given his background, not to be "'a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn'."


As a review of The Castle in the Forest, Lee Siegel's monster tribute to Norman Mailer is evasive. Mr Siegel kicks up so much dust with his breathless and not always lucid praise that the new novel shifts in and out of view. We're told that it's about the early days of Adolf Hitler and his family, that it's narrator by an SS officer who is actually the Devil, and that Mr Mailer strips his characters of their self-regarding delusions. It's also hinted that readers in search of a good story ought to keep moving: "...Dieter is, for one thing, an awful storyteller." 

Lorraine Adams's review of The Bastard of Istanbul, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak's second book in English, is somewhat disappointing, because it postpones judgment until the last paragraph, having spent much of its time discussing the semi-official bigotry that motivates the Turkish inability to face up to the Armenian genocide. Ms Adams has some interesting things to say about the role played by a conservative attorney, Kemal Kerencsiz, but when we read "Shefak may be a writer of moral compunction but she has yet to become - in English, at any rate - a good novelist," we might well wonder why Ms Adams didn't tweak her material into an Essay for the back page. Books written by writers judged not to be "good novelists" simply don't deserve coverage in the Book Review.

Liesl Schillinger is even more disappointing about Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer. She tells us what the novel is about, more or less, but she fails to convey the flavor of what might or might not be a very depressing read.

It's a testament to the incantatory power of Doyle's writing in that earlier book that Paula's valiant will to glorify, not horrify, her past and to survive her present overshadows her husband's campaign to crush her.

I'm not sure that I understand that sentence. As to the new book, the closest that Ms Schillinger comes to judgment is not quite literate. "In a word, yeesh."

One supposes that Walter Mosley's Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistentialist Novel gets a review at all because of the critical success of Mr Mosley's Easy Rawlins detective stories, but that is not good enough a reason for including a book that reviewer Charles Taylor describes as "a frankly pornographic novel." It's that simple.


Alan Wolfe, ordinarily genial and moderate, pulls no punches in his review of Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.

So let this "decent" liberal make perfectly clear how thoroughly indecent Dinesh D'Souza is. Like his hero Joe McCarthy, he has no sense of shame. He is a childish thinker and writer tackling subjects about which he knows little to make arguments that reek of political extremism. His book is a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible.

In a sense, this is not a book review, there being no "book" to review. It ought to have been published at the newspapers Op-Ed page. Better still, the Book Review could provide regular reports on the book business wherein among other things the trade-off of sense for sensation could be lamented.

Just how important good journalism is to the national health is the implicit subject of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Raymond Arsenault's urgently favorable review traces the consequences of Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 observation that "the future of race relations ... rested largely in the hands of the American press."

The Race Beat is very much an insider's account. Roberts and Klibanoff are sensitive to the details and challenges of journalistic practice: the complex relationship between editorial and news divisions; the politics of newsroom assignments; the strengths and weaknesses of competing wire services; the placement and longevity of news stories; the impact of libel laws and the legal oversight of newspapers; the role of management and financial constraints; the differences among print, television and radio coverage; and the significance of having correspondents on the scene.

This review could easily have been a tangle of storytelling. In fact, it is never disengaged from The Race Beat. It's the best review this week.

Scott Stossel's review of Sarah E Igo's The Averaged Americxan: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public appears at first to be favorable.

...Igo chronicles the emergence of a "mass society" and the transformation of the American consciousness along statistical lines. In telling this story, Igo does for social statistics what Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club did for American pragmatism, providing a narrative intellectual history of the field.

At the end, however, Mr Stossel seems to dismiss the subject, if not Ms Igo's book, with the claim that we learn more about ourselves from great fiction than we do from numbers. This is inconsequent.

Roy Blount, Jr's review of Letters of E B White: Revised Edition. Originally edited by Dorthy Lobrano Guth. Revised and updated by Martha White is loaded with hidden agenda. Mr Blount used to worship Mr White, but he got over that, and came to regard White as "well, white, for one thing, but also cozy." "My old hero was a hothouse flower." If the review is to be judged favorable, then it is the most grudging good review that I have ever read, and not only because Mr Blount sprays his ambivalence upon every sentence. He refuses to give us an extract from the correspondent in context. Why else does the general reader turn to old letters, but for their élan?

There is nothing that Amy Bloom can find to say about False Self: The Life of Masud Khan, by Linda Hopkins that persuades me that this book deserves coverage. The subject was a somewhat charlatanesque psychoanalyst trolling the upper reaches of midcentury Britain.

Hopkins's biography is thoughtful, thorough and insightful. But I never felt the tragedy she asserts, and only Bruce Jay Friedman or Irish Murdoch could have done justice to the [comedy].

The final titles this week make me queasy. The first is an inspirational story (very funny, though, if Ada Calhoun's review is accurate), and the last thing I want to do is to say anything unpleasant about a handicapped writer. The second is a collection of raunchy personal ads, and the next-to-last thing that I want to do is to convey the impression that I'm a humorless prune. But neither The Best Seat in the House: How I woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed For Life, by Allen Rucker, nor They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads From The London Review of Books, edited with an introduction by David Rose (and reviewed by Henry Alford) belongs in The New York Times Book Review. We are surely in the Convenience Store Era of the Book Review's evolution.

January 23, 2007

Diaspora in America

Hrant Dink may not have died in vain. The assassination of the Armenian-Turkish journalist by a seventeen year-old "nationalist" has prompted massive outpourings of grief, not only in Istanbul, where one might expect it, but elsewhere in Turkey as well. The government is all but patronizing a big-deal funeral. Denial of the Armenian genocide isn't the biggest problem that Turkey faces (Kurdist separatism is), but it is the major obstacle to the final step of Turkey's secularist reformation: union with Europe. I wish I could join the crowds for this particularly sad but generally joyous observance.

Clear up one problem and another will appear in its place, as is shown Times coverage, "Armenian Editor's Death Leads to Conciliation," by Susanne Fowler and Sebnem Arsu. 

Turkey calls the loss of life a consequence of a war in which both sides suffered casualties, and has suggested that a group of envoys from each country analyze the history. Armenia has expressed a willingness to participate but insists that the border must first be reopened to trade.

But many Armenians living abroad hold a much harder line and are lobbying the United States and European governments to deny Turkey entrance into the European Union until Ankara recognizes the killings as genocide.

I know that not all of the Armenian "expats" (many the grandchildren of emigré refugees) live in the United States, but a lot of them do, and they are among the hardest of hard liners. They have plenty of company: Irish-Americans who have supported Sinn Féin, Cubans who have plotted against Castro, and American Jews who have "settled" the West Bank - just to name three groups of powerful quasi-diasporans. The basic idea seems to be that you get thrown out of your homeland for one reason or another and come to America, where you prosper. But you do not forget the Old Country, for vengeance is yours!

The sad fact is that we all live locally, whether we want to or not. People living in California gradually cease to be Armenians, not because they abandon traditions but because actual Armenians, the people who live in Armenia, come to have different experiences, and probably don't see "tradition" in quite the same way as their collateral exiles. The very lack of an overall American "sentiment," or national feeling, makes it possible for newcomers to feel at home within a short space of time, but it also encourages them to hold on to and fetishize the more portable aspects of the culture they have left behind. The rest is money for guns. 

Out & About: Rupert Everett in Union Square


Last Wednesday, I tootled down to Union Square to attend a book event at Barnes & Noble. A very sophisticated and lighthearted book event: Michael Musto, the Voice columnist, interviewed Rupert Everett, author of Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins: The Autobiography (Warner Books). According to IMDb, Mr Everett will turn forty-eight in May, which makes the writing of an autobiography seem a tad premature, but what's in a name? A book by Rupert Everett would be just as funny by any other. The paragraph that you are reading was massively stalled by a premature opening of the book, which is not what I am here to talk about.

The performance space, so to speak, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble is capacious, but it's also the venue of choice for the most popular events, or so it seems to me. I had no idea what kind of a crowd to expect, so I left the house at ten to six and reached the fourth floor of the branch half an hour later. There were still plenty of seats, but because of my size I am miserable in anything but an aisle seat toward the rear, preferably blocking no one's view. Happily, there was one. Since I was alone, I had to sit in it for forty minutes, which was something of a drag, but I'd brought along The New Yorker and the London Review of Books. A minute passed. And then another minute. By ten to seven, every seat was taken. Very shortly after seven, there was a sort of commotion on the other side of the room as Mr Musto and Mr Everett approached. The latter was all but poleaxed by a gaggle of photographers. I had never seen such a shoot before, and it seemed very silly. It was for that reason that I somewhat priggishly declined to take a snapshot of the event with my cellphone.

I had heard about Mr Musto, but never seen or heard him before; my, what an insolent and impudent piece of work he is! Which is another way of saying that he's a brazen old queen. Mr Everett is a gay guy, not a queen, and a stylistic dissonance was soon humming from the dais. (Mr Musto actually promoted his own forthcoming book, La Dolce Musto, which certainly made me squirm.) There were plenty of laughs, but the mood of the evening relaxed considerably when the discussion was opened to questions from the audience.

Rupert Everett is a past-master at playing blithely irresponsible rakes and cads on screen; in life, he's clever but thoughtful. Asked about his response to 9/11 by someone who apparently knew that he was in Manhattan that morning, Mr Everett remarked on the strange passivity of people in the street, "before the wailing." At first, before the enormity of the incident could hit home, the sight of the towers in flames really just seemed to be another computer-generated image, another special effect. This made him think about the terrible desensitization that has been wrought by "life in a media age," as another questioner put it. "We're all too entertained," Mr Everett said, and, speaking as an entertainer, he wanted to find ways of restoring the vitality of experience. For a moment, he sounded as though he were contemplating another career entirely, but any fears of that were wonderfully dashed by his announcement that "at the end of next year" (next season? 2008?), he's going to play Henry Higgins in a West End production of Pygmalion that, if successful, may come to New York. If I were Michael Musto, I would regale you with the excited response to this news of my plumbing.

The evening was a lot of fun, and it dislodged me from the blue doldrums that had kept me in bed for too much of the morning. I came right home and, knowing that Kathleen would be at the financial printer until close to midnight, I calmly set about making a dish of spaghetti alla carbonara while watching Deceived By Flight. I'm watching all the Inspector Morse episodes, in alphabetical order. It is very much the thing for this time of year.

January 22, 2007

I ♥ New York

Kathleen, whose office is at Wall Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan, received the following "Media Advisory" in intra-office email:


Can't wait to see the movie.

Institutional Bullying

For a bookish person, I'm perhaps unusually averse to spending time in or making use of public libraries. It's partly because I find it very difficult to focus on books when I'm in a crowded room (a crowded moving vehicle is something else). But it's also partly because of what Ellen Moody, in her entry about the Library of Congress, calls "institutional bullying." One of the most shameful things about the United States is the unwillingness of so many of its citizens to understand that the staffs of public institutions ought to be among the most highly-compensated workers in the land.

Books on Monday: Mothers and Sons

At the top of all the smartest reading lists this season is Colm Tóibín's Mothers and Sons, a collection of short stories that puts the author in a class with Alice Munro (whose latest book, The View From Castle Rock, is also up there on the lists). As a rule, I give Irish fiction a very wide berth, because so much of it is blighted either by the after-effects of colonial misrule or by the provinciality enforced by the Catholic Church. Mr Tóibín's fiction transcends both limitations without ignoring either. As a very gifted gay man, he gives us an Ireland entirely devoid of Lucky Charms, and he beautifully crumples the impression that I got from driving across Ireland with my father in 1977: "All the smart ones left." Not so. (Although, come to think of it, he did spend an awful lot of time in Barcelona.)

Read about Mothers and Sons at Portico.

January 21, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Herbed Pecans

What are your thoughts about amateur cookbooks? I'm talking about the publications of Junior Leagues and Women's Associations. I've gotten rid of most of the ones that I inherited or accumulated; I simply don't have the room to keep them. Even if I did, I wouldn't consult them. I'm not looking for new ways of doing things - not anymore. I'm looking for more classics to do regularly, and the classics are best represented in the professional cookbooks - of which I don't have a great many as it is.

Nevertheless, there are two recipes that I got from the first Noteworthy, a series of cookbooks (perhaps there were only two) put out to benefit Ravinia, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's summer venue. One of them is for dilled green beans, and it's quite refreshing in the summer. The other one is for Herbed Pecans. These nuts are great with cocktails, and they're no trouble to make.

Herbed Pecans

6 tablespoons butter

4 teaspoon rosemary

1/8 teaspoon dried basil

1 tablespoon salt

cayenne to taste

4 cups pecan halves

Preheat oven to 325o. In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Add the rosemary, the basil, the salt and the cayenne and stir. Remove the saucepan from the heat, and toss in the pecans until well coated. Do not break the nuts. Turn the nuts into a jelly-roll pan and spread them out evenly. Scrape any remaining herb mixture onto the nuts.

Bake the nuts for 15 to 20 minutes, or until well browned, stirring gently two or three times. Drain in a colander and store when cooled.

In my experience, it takes a lot longer than twenty minutes to brown the pecans, and throw in a whole stick of butter.

Do you read cookbooks, leafing through them more for entertainment than for dishes that you would actually prepare? It is probably a very good thing to do, but I can't seem to swing it. I have enough trouble reading the books that are in my piles to have the time to wade into cookbooks. I rarely look at cooking magazines anymore, even the ones that I really like, such as Saveur. It's sign, perhaps, that my skill in the kitchen has outstripped my interest in cooking.

January 20, 2007

Night at the Museum

You wouldn't think that Shawn Levy's Night at the Museum would be a difficult film to appraise, but in fact I'm going to have to see it a few more times before I can tell just how worthy it is of being bracketed with Galaxy Quest (1999). Galaxy Quest appears to be a satire of Star Trek, but its real target is American entertainment in general, and all of its brainy details show up, in one way or another, the brainlessness of mass showbiz. Night at the Museum is not a satire, and its details are not exactly brainy. But it builds on its jokes quite cleverly, and its goofiness is disingenuous. You can tell that (the uncredited) Owen Wilson was involved. Bullshit is hauled offscreen before it can pile up.

The story is simple enough. Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is an failed entrepreneur whose son, Nick (Jake Cherry), can't bear the disappointment that his Dad has become. Finally without options, Larry swallows his pride and looks for a job. He lands the night watchman slot at the Natural History Museum, a failing institution on Central Park West (only on the outside to be confused with the American Museum of Natural History). During his first night on duty, he discovers that the creatures on display come alive at night. Keeping the mayhem from getting completely out of control is so exhausting that Larry almost quits. On the second night, Larry shows up prepared, but it turns out to be a mistake to give the Neanderthals a cigarette lighter, and in the morning he is almost sacked by the museum's director, Dr McPhee (Ricky Gervais). Given one more chance, Larry decides to share the wonder with Nick, whom he smuggles in at closing time. At the appointed hour, nothing happens, because the three daytime security guards (Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs) have stolen an Egyptian plaque bearing the curse that keeps things lively. I can't for the life of me remember what happens next, but all hell breaks loose. The next morning, the director is appalled by television reports of a T Rex footprint in the snow in Central Park and of the Neanderthals waving torches from the museum's cornice, but changes his mind about firing Larry when he discovers that attendance is way up.

Night at the Museum abounds in stellar cameo performances. Anne Meara (Mr Stiller's mother) is kindling-dry as a skeptical employment agent; Paul Rudd is maddeningly unctuous as Nick's stepfather. Mr Gervais is a sort of British Nathan Lane, with Brylcreem for blood, and he splutters through his part with unsmiling glee. The girls - Carla Gugino as Rebecca, Larry's girlfriend-to-come; and Mizuo Peck as Sacajawea - aren't given very much to work with, but Ms Gugino is savvy and Ms Peck knows how to make her character's grave composure funny. My favorites were Mr Wilson as Jedediah and Steve Coogan as Octavius. This duo is a pair of warring diorama figurines who spend every night trying to break into one another's window. Jedediah belongs to a display about the transcontinental railroad, which is just what you'd expect to see next to the Roman Forum, and his raving macho is beautifully matched by Mr Coogan's visible agony - oh, how he hates his Roman drag, especially the plumed helmet. I have a feeling that some of the ersatz Hunnish lines spoken by Michael Gallagher as Attila are going to creep into those crevices of society  already receptive to Animal House. The character played by Robin Williams almost throws a monkeywrench into the machinery when he confesses that he is really a wax dummy from Poughkeepsie and not Teddy Roosevelt, but by the time Rebecca is getting help on her dissertation from its subject, Sacajawea, most viewers will have forgotten the slip.

There should be no need to state that Ben Stiller has a ball. 

January 19, 2007

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit


I stood in front of the painting until I was afraid that I would either weep or get down on my knees. Never has a painting reached out and caressed my heart as this one did. I had always loved the image, but, seen on the canvas, over seven feet square,* John Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) has the mysterious power exerted by great religious paintings upon pious Christians and venerators of Renaissance painting. It is my Mona Lisa, my top-of-the-heap picture. And I saw it this afternoon for perhaps the last time. When Americans in Paris, the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, closes at the end of the month, it will go back to Boston.

Sargent's composition is extremely eccentric, and the setting extraordinarily spacious. There is a lot of empty room on view. That, oddly, is what gives the picture its vigor. It conveys the sense of walking in on children at play. The third daughter, standing to the left, might very well have been discovered on the right a few minutes ago. The oldest girl, leaning against the great vase, will probably sit down in a moment and try to pretend that she is a grown-up lady. The baby is too young to be expected to stand for guests.

Where are we? Old masters posed their figures against fanciful obscurities that were not intended to represent real-world interiors. Here, we can tell that we are in an actual apartment. The glass over the mantelpiece shows us the windows in the adjoining room. And yet the absence of tables and chairs makes it impossible to say how the space is used by the family when the girls are not playing.  The broad carpet and the imposing porcelains, in conjunction with the fact that there's nowhere to sit, suggest the occasional arrangement of palatial chambers; if chairs are wanted, lackeys will bring them. But for all the backward glancing toward Velásquez, the painting may appeal to us now more than ever because a century of abstraction has made us comfortable with large volumes that lack "pictorial" significance. We're unlikely, for this reason, to be irritated by the warped red screen.

Sargent's way with textiles is always a surprise. From a distance, the brushwork seems orderly enough, but, up close, it becomes riotous and haphazard. (The same thing is true of many of Fragonard's pictures.) Stand near the canvas, and the pinafores are shown to be anything but white. The baby girl's smock breaks down into abstract squiggles, something that beautifully offsets the careful modeling of her face.

And it is her face, I concluded today, that is the center of the picture. It is the part of the painting that draws and holds our attention with strange but pleasurable insistence. Eventually, we may come to feel that Sargent has replaced innocence of a child with something like unearthly wisdom. The older sisters are being polite. They know that they're being looked at, and their expressions are guarded when not simply averted. Only the baby really sees us. It may be mere curiosity; she may simply want to know what we think of her dolly.

Finally, there is what we know about the lives that awaited the daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Just as religious paintings illustrate scenes and events with which the viewer is expected to be familiar, depending for their expressive power upon the viewer's pre-existing associations, so the enchantment that hovers over these girls deepens when we reflect that not one of them would ever marry.

*The painting is a quarter of an inch wider than it is tall.

In February's Harper's

Now that the White House and the Pentagon are pushing for a "surge" of additional American troops in Iraq, it may be too late to mastermind a massive redistribution of Edward N Luttwak's "Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice," which appears in the February issue of Harper's.* Before reading this article, my resistance to the Iraqi misadventure was strong but intuitive. Taking the tack of failing to see any good reason for invading the country spared me the obligation to analyse my conviction that the invasion couldn't succeed - not in the long term. The dots were all there in my head, but I didn't bother to connect them.

Mr Luttwak has connected them for me, however, and now I know why I believe that our military undertaking in Iraq can never succeed - not, that is, so long as we remain a modern Western democracy. Our national commitment to humanitarianism means that we cannot continue to save villages in the only way that we know - by destroying them. We have tied one hand behind our back, and I am fairly certain that any attempt, by the president or anyone else, to untie that hand would rouse very considerable public outrage.

Forty years ago, we were naive enough to think that it might be all right to kill Vietnamese in order to halt the spread of communism. If I have not heard anyone suggest that we are killing Iraqis in order to stop terrorism, that's probably because we're not doing most of the killing. As Mr Luttwak shows, however, we would have to start doing a lot more killing in order to quell the insurgency. We would have to exterminate the inhabitants of entire towns, or shoot randomly chosen children until their elders gave up insurgents. In short, we would have to out-terrorize the terrorists.

That is how the Ottoman Empire could control entire provinces with a few feared janissaries and a squadron or two of cavalry. The Turks were simply too few to hunt down hidden rebels, but they did not have to: they went to the village chiefs and the town notables instead, to demand their surrender, or else. A massacre once in a while remained an effective warning for decades. So it was mostly by social pressure rather than brute force that the Ottomans preserved their rule: it was the leaders of each ethnic or religious group inclined to rebellion that did their best to keep things quiet, and if they failed, they were quite likely to tell the Turks where to find the rebels before more harm was done.

The Turkish blueprint for empire is obviously out of the question for Americans, but the Administration has given parts of it a try, at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Such attempts, however hateful, have been furtive and almost half-hearted. We're not Turks; our digestions are far too delicate. 

After close study of FM 3-24 DRAFT, the "counterinsurgency" manual recently revised under the aegis of, among others, General David H Petraeus, Mr Luttwak finds an unrealistic dependence upon intelligence and counterintelligence. Weapons can't be used until we know where to shoot. Where is this information to come from? As Mr Luttwak knows, ordinary Iraqis have no reason to provide it, and many reasons to withhold it.

These reasons ought to be familiar to anyone who has seen a gangland film, where nobody cooperates with the police if he wants to keep his business and his family intact. The only thing going for the police is gang rivalry: the bad guys kill one another off. There's plenty of savage rivalry in Iraq, too, as the Shiite majority avenges itself on the Sunni minority that, propped up by the Turks, cornered most of the available goodies, giving it the head start that it needed to continue to oppress Shiites after Iraq's severance from the Ottoman Empire. But it would be hard to say that this rivalry is working to our advantage. The civil war that our leaders predicted would begin upon premature troop withdrawal is already under way, erasing the only plausible reason for maintaining any military presence in Iraq.

*Not, as of this writing, the "current" issue. Online, we're still in January.

January 18, 2007

Taking Stock: Never a Believer

This idea of taking stock on Thursdays is all very well, but it's the entry that drives me crazy week after week. Reviewing the Book Review can be like pulling teeth, but at least I know what I'm supposed to be doing. I had absolutely nothing even to work with - no, that's not true, but you don't want to know how desperately unattractive my fallback was - until I passed a few minutes at Sale Bête, where Édouard had just posted a nice new piece and, helpfully for me, some photographs. Dont celle-ci:

 If this is not a Roman Catholic church, I'll be very surprised. It bears the unmistakable stamp of a Catholic church in New England, striving with its pointed Gothic windows and doorways to remind the working-class parishioners of the glories of the True Faith - and to substitute a little pizzaz for the rectangular formality of the Meeting House. The façade is Orvieto in yellow-painted pine. and the squat tower a campanile, not a spire. There is also the fact - fact! and known to Édouard I'm sure - that no pristine Congregational church would be interfered with by so many power lines. There is, finally, the stunning lack of verdure. Well, at this time of year, of sere branches.

Besides, Édouard goes on to tell us that he attended a celebration of the Epiphany here. With clowns. Case closed.

Connecticut and Rhode Island (the church is in Westerly, Rhode Island) are home to arguably the largest population descended from immigrants from Portugal, Italy, and Quebec in the United States. I used to wonder how people from sunny Mediterreanea could survive in dour New England, but then I remembered Homer, and the fact that "sunny" is a recent innovation in those old countries. Life is hard everywhere, and, on balance, not quite so hard here, where there's no class structure.

Or where the class structure is elastic. Because there certainly is a class structure. Looking at this church, I feel once again the terrible shame that I would feel at prep school when I went down to Blairstown for Mass at the pathetic little church at the wrong end end of town and sat through imprecations hurled out by the wild Irish priest who'd have been happier as a Baptist, had he but known that. Or the church that I'd attend (rarely) with my aunt and uncle, in New Hampshire - the church from which my uncle was buried two years ago. What were they thinking, trying to do Gothic with planks of wood? Trying to imitate the glories of the Quattrocento in chromolithograph terms? These churches are temples of hideosity.

I suspect that everybody knows this, and that it doesn't matter.

It didn't, ultimately, matter to me. I never believed. I comb through my earliest memories, and I can remember not a single second in which, say, I hoped that my prayer would reach the Blessed Virgin Mary, or understood that Jesus was the Son of God. I think that, when I was a small child, I expected that I would eventually understand virgin birth and redemption; I'm quite sure that I wasn't a little critical thinker. But I was a born materialist, and revelation never came. There are so many things about life that I don't understand. Religion and sports would be at the top of the list, if I cared very much about either.

January 17, 2007



If I'm not mistaken, this item is called a "canterbury." The prototype was designed to make it easier to transport large music scores from the episcopal library to the cathedral. Now canterburies are mostly used to hold magazines. That's certainly what this one is going to be doing. It's a lot bigger than I expected it to be. The side panel comes up to my knee, and the handle reaches about six inches higher than that.

If could sit still in a quiet room - indefinitely, which Pascal assures me I cannot - I could read all the magazines in the canterbury. My brain might liquefy and drip through my nose, but I'd stop feeling guilty about not getting to The Nation every week.

I bought the canterbury from a Levenger sale catalogue, if you're interested.

In the Book Review

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

There are two really terrible reviews this week, both of novels. William T Vollmann and Richard Lourie are the perpetrators. Trashing books is loutish and always indefensible; I can guess why the editors of the Book Review publish them, but I can't excuse it. While it may be thrilling to see how far a critic will go to express his disappointment and distaste, it is an uninformative pastime. The book is gored and savaged because the critic doesn't think that it's worth explaining. But surely a book that's unworthy of explanation does not merit a thousand words of comment. Mr Vollmann is particularly guilty of spraying dismissive summaries that we must take or leave on faith. I hope that he runs into the former Marine some night in a dark alley.  


Liesl Schillinger nabs this week's cover story, giving House of Meetings, by Martin Amis, a favorable but measured review. Does gender alone explain her two-sentence coverage of Zoya, the wife a gulag prisoner and the obsessive desire of his brother? Male reviewers have been quick to hawk this detail.

Apart from one or two splashes of heat ... this is a fire at which nobody could warm himself. The narrative's true romantic lead is Amis's fact-fed fantasy of slave-camp life, which, as intricately and faithfully as he presents it - plausibly animated in all its cruelty, pain, ordure and boredom - will never been Natalia Rostova in a ball gown.

Bliss Broyard gives Him  Her  Him Again  The End of Him, by Patricia Marx, the review that I wish I'd written. It registers the same complaints but makes the book sound like a lot much more fun.

Even so, Marx's novel made me laugh so hard that I kept trying to read lines aloud to my boyfriend, who - looking up from The Magic Mountain - wasn't persuaded.

That's it exactly. I felt like Ms Broyard while reading the book and like her boyfriend while writing it up. Neil Genzlinger's review of Tim Sandlin's new novel prompted my first act of outsourcing: Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty takes place in an assisted-living community. It also takes place in 2022, which sounded like a long time from now at first but in fact is only fifteen years away. I telephoned my favorite (if only) aunt, the very happy resident of a community in New Hampshire. and asked her to read the book and tell me what she thought. She readily agreed. I hope I haven't done the wrong thing.

Maybe there really are people who have done nothing but debate whether it's "keep on trucking" or "keep on truckin'" since the first Nixon administration. If so, we need to find them and either shut them up or ship them up, to Neptune or thereabouts.

Maggie Galehouse's review of Isabel Allende's historical novel, Inés of My Soul (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) is what I'd have to call a modified not-rave.

Too often Allende's book reads as if she is assembling a plot around places, dates and historical figures. Slow to start, the narrative acquires an events-driven tunnel vision that can get in the way of character development.

Richard Lourie gives Leslie Epstein's The Eighth Wonder of the World a nasty and unhelpful review.

"This is a cacophonous barn of a restaurant" ran the opening line of a recent review in a London magazine. I blessed the critic and read no further: he had fulfilled the function of filter admirably well, at once killing my interest in the subject of the review and in the review itself. I wish to render the reader of this review a similar time-saving favor.

This is disgraceful but not unuseful: it brazenly exposes the dreariness of reading the Book Review, a chore to be relieved, with luck, by "time-saving favors." Otherwise, the review is wrong on many levels. Even if the consumption of dinner were comparable to the reading of books, reviews of the two have little in common. Restaurant reviews are geared to protecting readers from misspending their money on the dissatisfaction of an indifferent meal. People in search of sustenance will eventually dine somewhere, but book reviews are as far as most of us get in the thick of literary life. And book reviews are literary objects themselves. Not that you would know this from what the Book Review puts out. Adding insult to injury, Mr Lourie attributes Mr Epstein's ability to write well in part to his father's contribution to the screenplay of Casablanca. The review is full of itself and empty of the book that it's supposed to discuss.

Mr Lourie is positively positive, however, in comparison to William T Vollmann, whose review of Anthony Swofford's Exit A makes it very unlikely that I will be picking up one of Mr Vollmann's arch books anytime soon. The piece is so deeply unsympathetic that I'm going to link to it here, so that you can see for yourself what I mean by "unsympathetic" and why I find unsympathetic reviews so useless. Mr Vollmann tells us that he went back and read Mr Swofford's Jarhead and found that the memoir deserved its acclaim. He must be very proud of his diligence. He makes Exit A sound like a terrible book, but he cannot quite squelch the possibility that this first novel might be a work of exploration, and that its prose, which Mr Vollmann says "befits a Harlequin romance novel," might signify a macho man's daring.

I don't mean to defend Exit A or to patch Mr Swofford up after a nasty bruising. I do mean to point out that reviews such as Mr Vollmann's make no attempt to reach readers who might get something out of reading the book that they trash. "Swofford's ability to create character is vastly inferior to his capacity to describe reality as he himself experienced it." That's easy to say, and it certainly sounds critical. But in the end it's beside the point, because Mr Vollmann ought to be describing the novel's characters, not judging their aesthetic persuasiveness. (That's our job.)  He ought to be quoting passages that will allow his readers to judge for themselves whether Mr Swofford's grasp of character is tenuous, and not pre-empting discussion with sweeping remarks. In short, the piece embodies the literary rot of the Review.


Peter Stevenson's review of About Alice, Calvin Trillin's memoir of his late wife "and muse," is very hard to judge, because its subject is hard to judge.

When About Alice appeared in shorter form in The New Yorker last spring, people couldn't wait to tell their friends to read it. Trillin had written about a marriage in which neither partner seems to have done any grievous or even subtle harm to the other. It was as if he had traveled out beyond a familiar territory and brought back a moon rock, something worthy of preserving.

So, there's that, the book's enormously "special" feeling. Then there's this: 

If the marriage as described seems somewhat formal, that may be because Trillin, now 71, came of age at a time predating the supposition that a man will enter a relationship armed with the daggers and consolations of psychological insight.

This is the sort of review that looks sympathetic but that really isn't feeling much of anything, but just being brightly pious.

Caroline Elkins's review of Rachel Holmes's African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot Venus, a new book about the South African woman who was exhibited to the English upper crust in the last years of the Regency, indulges in a fair amount of storytelling but eventually gets round to the book itself:

At pains to place Baartman's behavior and life in a framework of feminist and psychoanalytic interpretation, Holmes presents a narrative overladen with theory, however deftly disguised. This approach does more to undermine than strengthen the story.

Robert Pinsky is troubled by an aspect of Barbara Ehrenreich's Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. He claims, not without justice, that ecstatic crowds cannot be rigidly distinguished from hysterical crowds. Carnivals and cobblestone-throwing riots differ in degree, not kind, and Mr Pinsky feels that the line that Ms Ehrenreich draws between the two is artificial. In short, she does not, even as a matter of style, sufficiently honor the dark side of Dionysus.

This pop athropology lacks fizz. There's a yearning, wistful gap between Ehrenreich's celebration of inebriated dance and her term-paper prose. In that yearning, she disregards the double, ambiguous nature of Dionysus, the deity she calls "the first rock start." Possibly, her writing indicates a flinching, less than complete apprehension of that shape-shifting Lord of Misrule.

Aside from that he likes the book... Glory in a Line: The Life of Foujita - The Artist Caught Between East and West, by Phyllis Birnbaum, has been getting interesting reviews everywhere, apparently because its subject has been forgotten enough to be exotic. Watch out for the storytelling! Judgment waits at the end.

The details of Foujita's fascinating life left me wishing for more: more on his summer with Modigliani, more on his friendship with Desnos, more on his sojourn in Cuba. "His story will always be a riddle," Birnbaum writes in this brisk and stylishly written book, but she has only begun the process of solving it.

Sara Dickerman calls Danny Meyer's Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business "a memoir-cum-business-manual, and makes her preference for the former over the latter perfectly clear. .

Meyer is more persuasive and interesting, both as a storyteller and as a business adviser, when he sticks to concrete examples from his working life instead of spinning them into catchphrases that might work in a Power-Point presentation. He has built his business not on food or service alone, but on the value of a colorful story - especially the ones that his clients tell to his future clients: the wallet lost in a cab and tracked down by Tabla's manager; the personal call from Meyer before a big anniversary dinner; a superb frozen custard on a sunny day in Madison Square Park. When Meyer slips into generic business-speak, that all-important narrative gets lost.

Is there call for the Book Review to cover books by or about Fox personality Bill O'Reilly? Because I don't happen to think that there is, I have difficulty scolding Jacob Heilbrunn for his very unsympathetic review of The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O'Reilly, by Marvin Kitman, and Mr O'Reilly's Culture Warrior.

Kitman maintains that O'Reilly is a potent (and welcome) antidote to the pap served up for decades by the television industry. What Kitman really ends up revealing, however, is that O'Reilly's struggle isn't about conservative ideas. It's about parading his seething personal resentments in order to become the very thing he purports to despise: a celebrity.

Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington, by Peter H Stone, gets a goodish review from Norman J Ornstein, who hails the book as "concise and lively" but then regrets that its focus on Mr Abramoff eclipses "the broader context" - the system of which the lobbyist was just a big part. "It will take a major reform effort, and steely resolve, to change a town virtually awash in money."

According Richard B Woodward's review, The Girl With the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market, by Lindsay Pollock, favors the art dealer's relationships with her clients and slights relations with her artists.

I'm not sure how one writes about 20th-century art in New York without once mentioning Picasso. But Pollock has done it.

Mr Woodward goes on to wish that Ms Pollock had spent "another year or two" working on her book.

I was hard put to follow Ligaya Mishan's review of Houshold Gods: The British and Their Possessions, a book about home decoration, I think, in the nineteenth century. It reads like the remnant of a much more comprehensive piece, one, say, in which only every fifth paragraph has survived the blue pencil. 

Henry Alford's totally trivial Essay, "Books on Broadway," begins with a hypothetical lyric from Middlesexy! The Jeffrey Eugenides Musical and stays downhill from there.

January 16, 2007

Don't Wait Until Christmas to Give a Water Buffalo

If only life could always be this simple.

Please watch this video. It packs the wallop of a feature film in an eggtimer of minutes.

And, by the way, if violinist Robert Thompson comes to New York to give a recital or a concert, I am there!

Thanks to Jason Kottke, who got it from Tom and Eric.

Out & About: At the Blue Note

On Saturday night, Kathleen and I went down to the Blue Note, on West Third Street, to hear The Crusaders. Kathleen was already a big fan of The Crusaders when I met her nearly thirty years ago, and she was eager to catch them in their first appearance at the club since 1986. She made reservations for the second set, which was scheduled to begin at ten-thirty but which, in the event, started much closer to eleven. By then, we were wedged into tight seats in the corner nearest the bar. We'd thought that getting to the club at 9:30 or so would net us a good spot in the first-come-first-served line that's the unavoidable downside of an outing to the Blue Note. The sidewalk is less than capacious, and the weather is usually unpleasant. It wasn't too bad on Saturday night, but we arrived at 9:40, and were well back in the last quarter, perhaps the last fifth, of the line. (We had never been to the Blue Note on a Saturday before.) Hence the lousy seats. We both ended up standing alongside our chairs.

Only two of the original Crusaders are still in the band, pianist Joe Sample and sax player Wilton Felder. Nils Lundgren has come on board to play the trombone, along with drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Nicklas Sample (the pianist's son). So far, so good. These capable musicians were all very evidently on the same page. The surprise was the appearance of Ray Parker, Jr, on the guitar.

Some other time, I'll tell you why I think that "Jack and Jill" is the greatest pop song of the Seventies. It initially appeared on Raydio, Mr Parker's first album, along with the amazingly transgressive "Let's Go All The Way" (every teenaged girl's father's worst nightmare). A very gifted blues guitarist, Mr Parker wasn't an obvious fit, and he didn't get to do much, either. I wondered, in fact, if this might be the Ray Parker, Jr Rehabilitation Tour, with the musician being grateful just for the chance to appear on stage. He wasn't given a solo until the penultimate number, "X Marks The Spot," and by then I was pretty impatient to hear him let it rip. Let it rip he did, however, and for the first time that evening I found that I had simply fallen into the music.

The houseful of serious Crusaders fans got what it came for, an hour or so of bluesy jazz that pulled off the neat trick of being brightly assertive and laid-back at the same time. Wilt Felder and Nils Lundgren turned in a series of bravura solos that drew enthusiastic applause, while Joe Sample attacked his keyboards with untiring vigor. I think I might have had a better time without the distraction of waiting to hear Ray Parker, Jr.

I know that I'd have had a better time, as would almost everyone in our quarter of the room, without the distraction of a couple of dateless young women, one of them a willowy blonde, who lost interest in the music early and required a massive hushing from the surrounding tables to remember where they were. I wish I could say that such bad behavior at the Blue Note came as a surprise.

January 15, 2007

Books on Monday: Him Her Him Again The End of Him

As earlier noted, I spent Friday moaning in bed and reading Him  Her  Him Again  The End of Him, by Patricia Marx. It was good, but I expected it to be better. I was, however, moaning in bed, and perhaps that complicated my reaction. I suppose that the book is, to some extent, chick-lit. That's a horrible thing to say, but the novel is so infused with narcissism, both open and covert, that I have to ask, who but a romance-obsessed young woman could read this book without a certain low-frequency impatience?

Read about  Him  Her  Him Again  The End of Him at Portico.

January 14, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: My Ragù


My ragù. Miam! No - umami! And I swear it's not hard to make.

Freeze a tub of it if you like, but leave the rest on the stove, bringing it to a simmer every couple of days. It will get earthier and earthier.

Read how to make my ragù at Portico.

January 13, 2007

Bob le flambeur


This afternoon, I watched Bob le flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 marvel, starring Roger Duchesne. More varied in tone that Touchez pas au grisbi, a film that Jacques Becker made the year before with Jean Gabin, it is equally saturated by the taciturn, American swagger of its leading men - both of whom drive big American cars. Bob is so American-accented, in fact, that it's difficult to believe that Humphrey Bogart wouldn't have remade it had he a few years longer.

I wonder if an American who hadn't seen very much French cinema would see what I'm talking about. In France, "taciturn" means three or four words for every one that an American gangster would utter. And everyone is very well turned out. In his first scenes, Bob is heading home after a night gambling, and he looks pretty rumpled, but from then on he's always sharp. His hair is perfectly combed, his ties are beautifully knotted, and he glows with well-being even when his fortunes take a turn for the worse. Most of his colleagues, such as his partner, Roger (André Garet), and his friend le commissaire Ledru (Guy Decomble) are scruffier, in a Gallic way, but they're never grubby or oafish. Nobody is overweight.

Then there is the pace of the film, which betrays a tie with the silents that Hollywood had put completely behind it twenty years early. The pacing is slightly too fast; dialogue is exchanged with the brio of a tennis match, even when it is not at all witty. It's as though the characters don't stop to think what they say. The soundtrack is also, from an American standpoint, nothing less than bizarre, shifting schizophrenically between the tinkling gaiety of Montmartre's boîtes to portentousness worthy of Bernard Herrmann, and with a dispatch that, for anyone not actually watching, sounds deranged. It took the French cinema longer to abandon the old idea that every movie ought to have something for everyone.

But it is pretty easy to see the American dreams that this film must have hinted at to French audiences. Bob is free with his money, but quietly, always for generous and never for ostentatious purposes. He cares very much - more than he ought to, perhaps - for his protégé, Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), and for Anne (Isabelle Corey), the streetwalker whom he takes under his wing but releases without protest when Paulo takes an interest in her. In a very American way, Bob is too disciplined and mature to get mixed up with women in any complicated way, and one suspects that, if he did have a girlfriend, it would one along the lines of Max's well turned-out American in Grisbi.

The climax of the film is not what you're led to expect. In a touch that might have inspired Ronald Neame's wonderful Gambit (1966; inexcusably out of print), the big heist that Bob has planned is presented "as he expected it to go" - in other words, without a hitch. This scene is not labored, however, and it turns out to be a rehearsal of nothing. Instead of the heist, we have Bob at the Deauville tables, raking in winnings and still more winnings - on this fatal night, his luck has changed. The inconstant mood of the film gives no real assurance as to what sort of ending to expect (id est, dead or alive), and I don't want to spoil the movie even if I can't imagine why anyone would be reading this without having seen. I'll just say that the last three lines are increasingly droll, and the last one downright clever, a genuine touché!

I put off watching Bob le flambeur for years, thinking that it must be just another gangster movie with a bloodbath at the end. But it's not. It's a fascinating appropriation of American possibilities by French manners.

January 12, 2007

A Sea of Wine

Last night, I went out for drinks and dinner with friends. It was altogether impromptu. We met at the bar at The Modern, the restaurant attached to the Museum of Modern Art. It is a small, loud, and somewhat amorphous space. I resolved to stick to wine. Unfortunately, I stuck to a lot of wine. The evening was delightful, and I remember every minute of it, but this morning what ailed me felt like nothing less than pancreatitis. (I know about pancreatitis because it is induced by my allergy to a drug that, owing to my not having bothered to request the transfer of medical records, I tried not once but twice.) I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so awful.

I spent the day in bed, reading Patricia Marx's Him Her Him Again The End of Him. I couldn't read two pages without dropping the book on my chest and falling asleep for a moment. Shortly after five, I picked up the massive collection of Joan Didion's nonfiction that Everyman Library recently published. I read "Goodbye To All That," the valedictory essay with which she bid adieu to her youth and also, as she thought, to the New York in which she had passed it.

There were certain parts of the city which I had to avoid. I could not bear upper Madison Avenue on weekday mornings (this was a particularly inconvenient aversion, since I then lived just fifty or sixty feet east of Madison), because I would see women walking Yorkshire terriers and shopping at Gristede's , and some Veblenesque gorge would rise in my throat. I could not go to Times Square in the afternoon, or to the New York Public Library for any reason whatsoever. One day I could not go into a Schrafft's; the next day it would be Bonwit Teller.

I know what she means. And then, as I'm sure Ms Didion found out, living in the City again, you get over the disappointment of realizing that even Shangri-La can be repetitious and predictable. You forgive that. It's not hard, because you are no longer young, and no longer teasing dreams out of stone.

January 11, 2007


Fossil Darling (né PPOQ) just called from the desk with the following "question."

Johann Sebastian,

How long is your passion?

This was followed up by the brilliant, music-lover's query, "Is the St Matthew Passion long?"

Did I ever tell you that Fossil is deaf? Yes, he is.

Taking Stock: No Stick

No more walking sticks!

How'd I forget to mention that last week? I've stopped carrying a walking stick. I don't remember when I began taking a walking stick with me whenever I left the building, but it was more than five years ago. The stick was very reassuring, because I was afraid of tripping on uneven pavement. I felt very weak and vulnerable for a few years; in fact, I was sick with osteoarthritis. I didn't know that until the symptoms were relieved by Remicade, beginning in the spring of 2004. It didn't take long to realize that I no longer had to worry about tripping and didn't need the cane, but by now I had acquired a very beautiful stick from Paris.

When the beautiful stick from Paris snapped in December - a freak accident - I tried using other, shorter sticks that I'd collected, but they seemed more bother than comfort. The last time I used one was on Christmas night.

I will replace the beautiful stick from Paris the next time I'm in beautiful Paris, which doesn't look to be anytime soon. (I don't foresee any travel until Thanksgiving.) But I won't, at least not immediately, go back to carrying a stick whenever I leave the building. It's very inconvenient, you know, to carry a stick. It ties up one hand completely. When it rained, I had no free hands.

At the same time, I still can't quite believe that I'm stickless when I cross Second Avenue. And nobody offers me a seat on the bus or the subway any more (not that I ever accepted). And one of these days I'm going to curse under my breath when I miss an elevator because I didn't have a stick to wave in front of me - sticks are very good for that, now that most elevators are equipped with motion detectors that keep doors open. The trick is to thrust the stick only so far, so that it doesn't batter an unsuspecting passenger.

And here's a Homeland Security question: why would anybody permit a big guy to get on a plane with a long stick of ebony? I'm sure that I could knock somebody out from behind. Maybe even kill! Doesn't get much blunter and simpler. But no - they're worried about gels...

January 10, 2007

Just Saying

Remember when homosexuals in government were regarded as a threat to national security, because they could be blackmailed by secret agents into sharing classified documents?

Well, now we know how it really works. Homosexuals can blackmail the government into keeping their activities a secret. And they don't even have to ask. A report on the Foley scandal by Gail Sheehy and Judy Bachrach, in last month's Vanity Fair, shows a Congressional leadership determined not to take action against the creepy page predator - whom everybody on the Hill, it appears, knew was gay. There were complaints and fulminations behind closed doors. but Speaker Dennis Hastert appears to have kept a lid on it.

The sordid episode reminded me, as it must have reminded you, of all those American Roman Catholic bishops who made a habit of treating priestly pederasty as an "internal matter," in the name of protecting the apparent integrity of the Church. In Poland, the same mind-set has inspired a rather extensive cover-up of clergymen who collaborated with the secret police during the Communist regime. Many of the alleged collaborators have risen in the ranks; one of them, Stanislaw Wielgus, went all the way to the top of the Polish Church. Not for long, though. He announced his resignation at what to have been his consecration.*

Polish Catholics are divided. Conservatives rationalize the collaborative acts and complain that liberals are making a fuss about nothing. Liberals, of course, are sticklers for truth and transparency. Many Catholics feel doubly betrayed by the Church, just as they did in the United States. First, you go and do something wicked, then you cover it up. Or, rather: first, an individual does something wicked, and then the institution covers it up. But the "institution" is of course a fiction; in actuality, it is other individuals - bishops - who compound the problem by taking action to protect the reputation of the organization that they lead.

Did you know that the Roman Catholic Church is the world's oldest corporation? 

* Click here for a list of stories, many filed by Craig S Smith, in The New York Times.


The author of A Flickering Light has decided to take a break - and possibly permanent leave - from blogging. That's to be regretted, because few if any bloggers have his range of interests or can write so intensely about them. Sometimes, life takes big turns, and new people are involved. Or it may just be a new place - and W- is soon to be moving from Geneva to Singapore. Wasn't it about this time last year that the author of Journal d'un Vrai Parisien retired? He was quite open about his reason: he had fallen in love. Kids can fall in love in public. With older folks it's likely to be awkward, and you can take it from me that the new loved one is probably not going to be keen on the new crowd of virtual friends, all of whom know how you liked last night's dinner.

I often regret having started the Daily Blague at such an advanced age. But reflection and experience suggest that I may be just old enough.

In the Book Review

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

I found myself pondering, this week, the existential significance of the book review - or at least the kind of book review that appears in the New York Times Book Review. What is it for? I no longer believe that it is necessarily meant, at a minimum, to be informative about books themselves. Week after week, reviewers shove the books aside and mount their own pulpits. Hatchet jobs are far from unknown. Unsympathetic reviews - which make so sense to me at all, now that I've thought bout it for a while - fail to provide readers with any direction. And because of constraints of time and space, not to mention the prospective, rather than appreciative, nature of the reviews, the pages rustle to the tune of marketing more than that of literary criticism.

There is a role for the Book Review, but I don't think that the current management is doing a very good job of playing it. I don't expect it to resemble the New York or London Review of Books. Those publications are more serious, but they're also more demanding, and somewhat delimited in their selection of titles. The Book Review ought to cover books of broad cultural importance, with more fiction coverage and fewer extraneous features. I'm all for amusing reviews - the Review could use a lot more laughter - but I'm finding "funny" Essays irrelevant and jejune. There ought to be a feature that talks candidly about buzz. That, after all, is what everyone in publishing talks about. Readers ought to be told more about how manuscripts are bought and promoted, and it wouldn't hurt to get the names of a few powerful editors out into the public discourse.

Reviewers ought to be chose much more carefully. Two consistently good reviewers appear this week - novelist Walter Kirn and Paul Gray - along with Times columnist Clyde Haberman, who used to be a foreign correspondent for the newspaper and who is therefore not entirely unqualified to write about Palestinian problems. As I've noted below, John T Edge gives us an ideal review, one that identifies the flavors of a book so precisely (and economically) that readers can quickly tell whether or not they'd find Wrestling With Gravy an enjoyable read.

To do that, Mr Edge has to have read Jonathan Reynolds's book sympathetically, whether he liked it or not. No reviewer can sympathize with every author, but I daresay few authors lack for sympathetic readers, and sympathetic readers alone can write usefully about books. If the editors of the Book Review can't do a better job of matching books with sympathetic readers, they ought to resign.


It's hard to know what the editors of the Book Review are thinking about fiction this week. There is a belated literary curiosity from Cuba, and a novel from India that prompts the editorial title, "Gangsta Raj." Then there are two books by women that seem a trifle mass-market for the Book Review. At least they have literary aspirations. The two novels by male Americans are simply crap.

We'll dispose of the last in roundup format.

Next, by Michael Crichton. "But Crichton seems intent on confusing his readers, pummeling them with a barrage of truths, half-truths and untruths, until they have no choice but to surrender." - Dave Itzkoff.

Vicious Circle: A Novel of Complicity, by Robert Littell. "Littell cannot seem to decide whether he means the rabbi and the doctor to be real human beings, emblems of the broader conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or simply caricatures of religious extremist. He settles for an awkward mix of the three, as Vicious Circle lurches between tragedy and satire." - Alex Berenson.

Lauren Collins files a very disappointed review of Jody Shields's historical novel about maxillofacial surgery for British casualties, set in 1915,  The Crimson Portrait.

The recycling of existing subject matter isn't, in itself, the problem with The Crimson Portrait. But Shields's novel leans less toward riff than rehash.

The first chapter is "lumbering"; a central character muses "unconvincingly." If there is an audience for this book, the Book Review isn't going to be of much use. The same goes for Everybody Loves Somebody: Stories, by Joanna Scott. Sarah Saffian complains that

Scott overuses this brink-of-disaster device. As the collection progresses, her ominous tone, initially tantalizing, becomes a tedious tease.

In their different ways, these four reviews all pour cold water on the idea of running out and buying any of the books under consideration. That seems to be their sole purpose. Nobody who picks up the Book Review expects a novel by Michael Crichton to be favorably reviewed; arguably, nobody who picks up the Review would read Mr Crichton's more recent work. Mr Crichton does not, in any case, need any kind attention from the Times. I cannot believe that the editors couldn't have found four flawed but interesting novels that might otherwise get lost - and that very well may get lost. Why take up my time with books that the reviewers didn't find deserving?

Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra, gets a favorable review from Paul Gray, who once again writes a good review as well. Here's how it wraps up:

By paying homage to both Ian Fleming and James Joyce, Chandra risks alienating the constituencies of each - of writing a thriller that's too serious and a serious novel that's too much in thrall to an absurd story. But in the post-9/11 era, madmen intent on blowing up all or even a small part of the world don't seem quite as unrealistic as they once did. If you keep that in mind, you may find Sacred Games as hard to put down as it is to pick up.

(The last remark alludes to the book's 916-page length.) Of The Initials of the Earth,  by Jesús Díaz (translated by Kathleen Ross), Terrence Rafferty writes,

It's appropriate that the first appearance in English of Díaz's ambivalent epic is a university-press edition. The book needs all the scholarly apparatus it can bear because its value is more documentary than literary; it's less interesting as a novel than as an act of self-revelation. ... But in the world outside Cuba (this part of the world, anyway) The Initials of the Earth is an academic curiosity, and there's an awful message-in-a-bottle poignance to that. Díaz set out to be exemplary, to write the scripture of his revolution, and wound up with something more like a shaky priest's confession - a desperate attempt to persuade himself that his faith isn't heading for the rocks.


This week's cover story is Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, by Robert Stone. Walter Kirn is enthusiastic.

Erudite but blunt, both tender and hard-boiled, the part-time tabloid hack turned novelist knows how to stick a sentence. He knows how to fly down the high road of ideas, then suddenly crank the steering wheel of style and take us for a rough ride along the ditches. He's great on people - on joining their abstract insides to their outsides - and he's even better on places, both when they're populated, like New Orleans, and when they're almost deserted, like stretches of the Pacific coast of Mexico.

For what it's worth, this book is on my list.

George Johnson's favorable review of The Scientist as Rebel, by Freeman Dyson, left me a bit confused.

It's debatable whether anyone's book reviews - even those as thoughtfully discursive as Dyson's - belong embalmed between covers, but The Scientist as Rebel can be perused for a sampling of his iconoclastic takes on a science that sometimes seems to be turning into an establishment of its own.

But almost every sentence in the review portrays Mr Dyson as a patient "brick layer," more interested in new tools than in new ideas. He seems anything but rebellious. Polly Morrice is ambiguous in a different way about The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (and Learning to Tell the Truth About It), by Patty Dann. According to Ms Morrice, this book, which recounts the course of author's husband's fatal brain cancer from the perspective of helping her three year-old to cope, is "grounded in a familiar discussion of how hard it is for Americans to come to grips with death." Memoir or self-help book? You decide. 

There are three books about the Middle East. First, former President Jimmy Carter's Palestine Peace Not Apartheid gets a polite bruising from Ethan Bronner.

This book has something of a Rip van Winkle feel to it, as if little had changed since Carter diagnosed the problem in the 1970s. All would be well today, he suggests, if his advice then had been followed. Forget Al Qaeda (the name does not appear in this book), the nuclear ambitions of Iran and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Also about Palestine is The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, by Rashid Khalidi. Clyde Haberman praises Mr Khalidi for wondering where the Palestinian leaders have been, but he also asks where ordinary Palestinians have been.

Images of West Bank celebrations after the 9/11 attacks hardly bolstered international confidence in the Palestinians' moral compass or political wisdom. The same may be said about their election last year of a government led by the radical Islamic group Hamas, which refuses to accept Israel's right to exist.

From the other end of the region - perhaps beyond it - comes In the Line of Fire: A Memoir, by Pervez Musharraf. In his review, which is a lot more favorable than I expected it to be, Fouad Ajami declares that the book is "written for American readers," and goes on to note the importance of Kemal Ataturk in the Pakistani leader's formation (his father was a diplomat posted to Istanbul).

There is a measure of Kemalism - its style, its irreverence in the face of the nation's culture - in Musharraf. Pakistan today is not the Turkey of Ataturk, it is a more lethal place, and Musharraf stops well short of Ataturk's unyielding secularism. But in his swagger, his eagerness to pull Pakistan into the West orbit of power, he is reminiscent of the legendary Turkish leader.

Moving to the United States, we have American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, by Chris Hedges. Rick Perlstein moves to disarm Mr Hedges's alarmism, noting that it has been a long time since "evangelical Christians" have indulged in violent protests or acts of terrorism.

Hedges is at his worst when he makes the supposed imminence of mass violence the reason the rest of us should be fighting for the open society. We should be fighting for it anyway.

Allan Sloan turns in a droll review of P J O'Rourke's doubtlessly droll repackaging of an allegedly unreadable classic, On "The Wealth of Nations."

...this book is well worth reading. You'll pick up a few good lines, you'll see a primo stylist at work. And you'll see why Adam Smith is so often quoted but so rarely read.

The problem with this review is that, by his own account, Mr Sloan has not read The Wealth of Nations, even though he has been a "business writer since 1989." And yet he asks me to trust an eminent spinmeister's digest of an economist whose theories are far more ambivalent than conservative thinkers have made him out to be. What were the editors thinking?

Ronald Spector's review of Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945, by Evan Thomas, suggests that Mr Thomas's focus on the personalities of the commanders blocks "other considerations that are at least as important in forming a judgment about these four individuals." Nonetheless he declares the book to be "engaging and thorough" nd "based on extensive research."

William F Buckley praises the two volumes of American Speeches - Political Oratory From the Revolution to the Civil War and Political Oratory From Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton - that Ted Widmer has edited for the Library of America, as "useful, and sometimes powerful ignition points for hot flashes of indignation, contempt, rage, veneration and yearning," but he regrets the absence of background materials that would put the speeches in context.

John T Edge observes that Jonathan Reynolds, author of Wrestling With Gravy: A Life With Food "is at his best when purposefully entangling libido and linguine." This is the kind of good review that's so conspicuously missing from this week's fiction coverage. I myself never think of lovemaking while I am eating my dinner, and I don't much care for mixing sex with seconds, but I know that many people do and do, and Mr Edge has obliged by helping them find a book that they'll like - while saving me a dead-end.

The selection of books in Matthew Price's Nonfiction Roundup is all but brain-dead. There are two books about nothing:

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird, by Andrew D Blechman. "Blechman wittily traces the history of this gentle, intelligent, misunderstood bird - pigeon hatred, he shows, is a recent phenomenon - and journeys into its obsessive subcultures."

Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game - and How It Got That Way, by Phillip E Orbanes. "Parker Brothers bought the game in 1935, and it became a global Depression-era smash, with versions to tailored to various markets. Italians of the Mussolini era, for example, enjoyed "Monopoli," which featured a "Via del Fascio," while the British could bid on Bond Street." That's been going on, then, longer than I thought.

And then there are two books of a scholarly cast:

Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America, by Thomas A Foster. "Zeroing in on the Bay State, Foster uses sermons, newspapers and court testimony to uncover a frank, often viciously witty discourse on male sexual behavior."

There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meaning for America, by William Julius Wilson and Richard P Taub. "In this compact study, the esteemed sociologist Wilson and his colleague Taub gauge these changes in an effort to highlight "a major national challenged: the development of intergroup harmony in an era of rapid ethnic change." It's a noble goal, but their findings aren't terribly encouraging (and their academic prose - these are essentially research papers - can be a bit mind-numbing)."

And - to round things out? - a "brief, solid introduction, more an essay than a full-blown biography, to one of  the 19th century's great realists,

Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins, by William S McFeely. "Unfortunately for McFeely, his book arrives in the wake of two major books on Eakins published in the last few years."

Neal Pollack, I gather, is a very hip writer. Perhaps I've even read something of his. But in Elissa Schappel's review of his new book, Alternadad, Mr Pollack comes off as profoundly fatuous.

The alternative style of parenting and his wife, Regina, subscribe to is built on the desire to raise a kid - a totally deck kid - without actually having to change, or give up any of, your pre-baby lifestyle.

Polymath Richard Powers's Essay, "How to Speak a Book," discusses the virtues of dictation.

Not that efficiency has always been dictation's prime selling point: in dictating his own last few baggy monsters, Henry James perfected such fluid elocution that, according to Edith Wharton, he couldn't even ask directions without releasing a torrent of "explanatory ramifications."

January 09, 2007

Birthday Loot


The exchange of gifts at holidays and birthdays has become a thing of the past in my circle. We are all getting older, and realizing that the future presents problems of deaccessioning. We all buy what we want when we want it, and confine gift-giving to those rare occasions when we're dead certain that the recipient is going to be either very interested or very amused by something.

But with PPOQ there are no rules. I make them up as we go along; then I shred them. You have to understand that my old friend has spent most of his life in a state of low-grade exasperation, brought on by the capricious demands of near and dear ones. At present, sadly, I am the only one en vie. I have to work overtime.

When the four of us - PPOQ, LXIV, Kathleen, and I went to the Metropolitan Museum on Boxing Day, we had lunch, toured a few shows, and then bid farewell at the Gift Shop, which I didn't even think of dragging Kathleen into. I did remember, however, that I'd meant to buy a sale book, an enormous and heavy collection of aerial photographs of Italy. Then I had a brainwave! I'd impudently demand that PPOQ buy it for me, as a birthday present, and - I didn't work this part out right away - do the heavy lifting and bring it to our place.

Well, I never did work out the delivery scheme, and on Saturday night I had to schlep the book from LXIV's to Jules and back home, but as both of those relays were taxi-borne, I cannot really complain about the dislocated shoulder that voyage by subway would have guaranteed.

I've cropped a small part of the photograph on page 259, showing Trinità dei Monti atop the Spanish Steps. It all looks rather small, doesn't it? Delicate and small. The drama of the scene is completely effaced by the aerial angle. At least, I take it to be. I myself have never set foot in Italy. The possibilities of a trip there are so boggling that I can't even think about it. Rome is not even on the list of my top-ten Italian destinations, and neither is Florence. It's the North that I want to see: the Po Valley, the lakes, and the Veneto. (If I were a Northern Italian, I'd be rallying for the Lega Nord and "Padania.")*

For the time being, though, I'm happy to feast on the extravagantly beautiful pictures in Italy From Above (White Star, 2005). Antonio Attini and Marco Bertinetti are the photographers; Alberto Bertolazzi provides the (pretty minimal) text. There's a forward by Giuliano Urbani, and a preface by none other than Franco Zeffirelli. I don't recall how steeply the price of the book had been reduced, but on sale it was no longer an expensive item. Get one while you can! 

And thanks always to Fossil Darling - as I've decided to rechristen PPOQ. Uni - got it? - laterally.

* Regular readers know that, as a New Yorker, I already advocate separate-state status for the Metropolitan Area and its watershed. At a minimum!

January 08, 2007

Books on Monday: Girls of Tender Age


Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir came out early last year, but I didn't hear about it until the middle of December, when a publicist at the Free Press contacted me with the suggestion that the forthcoming paperback edition "would be of interest to you and to the readers of Daily Blague." It was certainly of interest to me. Although there's an awful crime at the center of the book, and a lot of other stuff that it would be difficult to be thankful for, Girls of Tender Age is a very funny book. Ms Smith's affection for her family and for the other people she grew up with beautifully tempers her indignation about some very unjust social contracts. Girls of Tender Age is a book to love.

Read more about Girls of Tender Age at Portico.

January 07, 2007

Birthday Party


If I've had a better birthday, I'll shave off my beard and repent. What a night!

The usual suspects gathered at LXIV's Union Square apartment, where I had to tear myself away, repeatedly, from the window. It was such fun to watch all the passers-by, so different from and more interesting than the folks in Yorkville High Street. PPOQ was already there when we arrived, a tad early - oops. Chivalry forbids me to state just why I thought we were going to be seriously late, but, chronically punctual, I assumed that we wouldn't get to the party in good time, and completely overlooked the dispatch with which the 5 train whisked us to Union Square. "Don't worry," pooh-poohed PPOQ at the door. "He's been ready for hours."

It has been a long time since I've been in a flat as stylish as LXIV's, if, indeed, I've ever been in one. The edible treats were just as sophisticated. I worried at first about saving room for dinner, but then it occurred to me that, as it was my birthday, I could do as I pleased and damn the consequences. As it happened, I wanted very much to keep my head, so although it meant disappointing LXIV, who had looked forward to shaking up a few martinis (which he, however, wouldn't dream of drinking), I stuck to a very nice graves. Ms NOLA and M le Neveu arrived before too long, quickly followed by Miss G, who had been out on the town the night before. She had evidently recovered nicely. Owing to the bizarrely temperate weather, Ms NOLA was able to look fetching in one of those little black dresses that you can't ordinarily wear in January without making everyone around you shiver.

When it came time to head to Jules, the bistro in St Mark's Place, Kathleen and I decided to take a cab while the others chose to walk. Poor PPOQ went home, prudently enough. He wasn't feeling very well, thanks to an office cold that had finally nabbed him, and we all agreed that he'd been very gallant to come downtown at all. I don't know what kind of a time he'd have had at the restaurant. It was very noisy as usual, but he would have found the young men at the table next to ours most interesting. (Trust me; I've been out with him many times, and discretion, at least insofar as sharing his designs with me is concerned, is not his middle name.) They looked too young to have real jobs, but they were all wearing jackets. Miss G found the wearing of jackets on a Saturday night in St Mark's Place highly suspicious, and both she and Ms NOLA, who sat to my right, regarded the "pack" as an all-too-familiar bore. PPOQ, in contrast, might have found an extra seat amongst them, and ventured to offer career counseling.

The traffic on 14th Street was terrible, and the traffic on Second Avenue was unimaginable. Both were clogged by taxis. I realized that I had never been downtown on a Saturday night before. When we finally arrived at the restaurant, I got out my cell phone and started to dial Ms NOLA's number, but she and the others walked in before I could press the Call button.

My dinner was a classic: half a dozen oysters, steak-frites, and crème brulée. I damned the consequences when it came to the wine, and we went through three bottles of Domaine Chèze St Joseph. The waiter actually shook my hand when I signed the receipt.


Miss G took the photos, using my phone. I asked her to take one of the people sitting at the table outside, looking for all the world as if it were May. Because New York comes in two temperatures, cold and please turn on the air-conditioning, I had never noticed that the doorway area at Jules can be cleared out nearly to the dimensions of a garage door.

After dinner, LXIV walked Ms NOLA and M le Neveu back to Union Square, where they all had a drink before the latter two headed back to Park Slope. We walked Miss G around the corner to her apartment and then hopped in a taxi, which sped right up First Avenue to 86th Street and home - where I permitted myself a martini. And so to bed!

At My Kitchen Table: Making Bread


I used to make bread all the time, but now I rarely do. Like all forms of baking, it's something that I'm willing to do only if I know that the results will consumed in short order. But I thought that I had better test the recipe for the cardamom bread shown above.

Read more about making bread.

January 06, 2007

Happy Birthday to me


This is still my favorite bit of ego-rub. 

At the Movies: Venus

Venus, the new film directed by Roger Michell and written by Hanif Kureishi, is not the soft and sweet movie promised by the trailer. I don't believe that a fully honest trailer would have done anything but unnecessary damage to this honest and beautiful film. After all, it's one thing to be lured by a spry Peter O'Toole to a movie about ageing and facing death, and quite another to be lured by ageing and facing death to see any movie whatsoever. In the second case, there isn't going to be much of a lure at all, and trailers are designed as lures. Sometimes the only alternative to a misleading trailer is no trailer at all - unthinkable. In the case of Venus, no harm was done.

Peter O'Toole, born in 1932, is not really an old man yet, so unless he has suffered a premature decline, his performance in Venus is a great piece of acting. At the beginning, Mr O'Toole's character, Maurice, is in somewhat better shape than his pal, Ian, also a elderly actor (Leslie Phillips, b. 1924), but in the middle of the story Maurice undergoes prostate surgery, and then insists on leaving the hospital before he has quite mended. Equally befuddling is his intoxication with Jessie (Jodi Whittaker), the daughter of Ian's niece, a girl who has ostensibly come down to London to take care of him. Ian, who doesn't seem to like women, can't bear Jessie once she arrives - and no wonder. She eats snacks and drinks beer (and stronger) more or less without interruption, a regime at odds with her objective of becoming a model - a conflict that the film declines to explore. Indeed, Venus does not take its title character (Jessie) very seriously. She is more flawed goddess - but then what goddess wasn't? - than real girl. Curiously, this approach works better than the alternative would have. Mr Michell and Mr Kureishi, by putting us in the place of an ageing man who knows that he's submitting to Eros for the last time, give Jessie an integrity that she mightn't have had otherwise. Maurice knows, and we know, that his interest in Jessie is essentially carnal, and when Jessie bats off his advances, demure as they are, we share Maurice's guilty knowledge that he is something of a vampire, feeding on Jessie's youth. Being a goddess, moreover, means that Jessie is not averse to well-behaved, strictly regulated adoration. A more ordinary young lady might be helplessly revolted by Maurice's attentions.

The early scenes of Venus are droll; there is almost nothing from the second half of the movie (as I recall) in the trailer. Ian is a fusspot, and given to elaborate exchanges of insults with Maurice, who, one gathers, always had the bigger career (he's still working). One suspects that it would kill Ian to laugh. The other two people in Maurice's life are sunnier but still very bracing. There's Donald (Richard Griffiths), who's very good at ego-deflation, and Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave), Maurice's ex-wife. Maurice and Valerie have arrived at being on good terms, but she never lets him forget what a shit he was to leave her, decades ago, with three children under six. He cannot deny that he always put his own pleasure first. At their last meeting, Valerie divines that Maurice is aflame again.

It's in the post-surgical scenes that Maurice falls apart. His decay is presented with the lightest of hands. All we need is a glimpse of his catheter bag to know how dreadfully his freedom and dignity have been compromised. There are a few crashes and breakages, but Maurice's condition is expressed primarily is slow, stiff movements, and facial expressions clouded by pain. Sometimes the scene is simply hard to read. Mr Michell favors underlighted sets in this picture, and he makes them work for him. There are gorgeous moments when Jessie's face appears to loom out from Vermeerian shadows. Maurice may be impotent and incontinent, but his longing for Jessie only burns more brightly. 

The crisis occurs when Jessie tries to introduce her own proper boyfriend (Bronson Webb) into the picture. Actually, the boyfriend is anything but proper. He's a scowling man of few words who smokes a lot and affects disdain. In fact, he can't even provide Jessie with a place where they can be alone. So he has the bright idea of getting Jessie to ask Maurice for the loan of his flat - would he mind going for a long walk? Besieged by a chaotic chorus of voices from shows that he has done, Maurice returns to the flat perhaps a tad too soon, and one thing leads to another. This time, the crash is not funny at all, but a sickening, humiliating racket.

The last ten minutes of the film teeter between the predictable and the new, finally coming down on the side of the latter with a marvelously evocative scene that shows us just how much - and it's a lot - Jessie has learned from Maurice. It is the kind of learning that only a love affair, consummated or not, can confer. It is more than learning how to pose like the Rokeby Venus. It is learning to feel the erotic tides that surge through Velásquez's great painting, a masterpiece that, in its quirky, shambling, candid way, Venus lives up to.

January 05, 2007

In Vanity Fair

There are two must-read pieces in the current issue of Vanity Fair. After years of condescending dismissal, I've broken down and subscribed. As a devoted reader of Spy and a longtime (but no longer) subscriber to the New York Observer, I can tell myself that I'm just following editor Graydon Carter's star. As it happens, I'm in the middle of Spy: The Funny Years, by George Kalogerakis, with assists from Mr Carter and co-editor Kurt Anderson (Miramax/Melcher Media). Reading this handsome production is more than funny: it's a trip across time. The magazine's trademark was a wicked but attentively proofread mischievousness, and month after month it made me howl with laughter. I find from the newly published retrospective that it still can. Here's the weather squib from the top of a New York Times parody dating from 1992:

New York. Today, Sunny. High 85. Tonight, mostly dark, low 72. Tomorrow, canicular heat burns through early diaphanous clouds; aestival breezes expected. High 80. Yesterday, Tuesday. Details, page B14.

Observe that the piece is not immediately funny in any way, and doesn't have to be, because the seasoned reader of Spy loves to be lulled into thinking that there aren't any creatures under the bed, only to be transported into ecstasies by the sudden attack of a tickle-monster. The blend of fine writing, banality, and sheer irrelevance is sublime.

And before Spy, there was Esquire. Frank DiGiacomo's piece in the current Vanity Fair, "The Esquire Decade," sketches the steps that Harold T P Hayes took, once he became managing editor in 1960, to make Esquire the edgiest magazine going. I didn't come to that particularly party until it was half-over, but I remember the excitement with which the "Dubious Achievements" issue was greeted every year. Who could forget something that went like this:

oh, we thought it was at six oaks for the thousandth time.  Mickey Rooney got married for the sixth time at his home in Thousand Oaks, California.

The simple genius of the "Dubes" was to print the comic reaction to a story before the story. Talk about pre-emption! Mr DiGiacomo writes,

As Nora Ephron says, Esquire and the 60s were "the perfect moment of a magazine and a period coming together - not trying to say the period was something other than what it was, but telling us everything about it." And though the decade climaxed in violence and hysteria that no monthly magazine could stay ahead of, Harold Hayes and his troops at Esquire not only cracked the code of the new culture but also engineered the genome for the modern magazine. Traces of its DNA can still be found in today's magazines, including this one.

I have the October 2006 issue of Esquire before me. Beneath a not-very-flattering picture of Brad Pitt (but that's the point, of course), there's a lot of print about "The Esquire 100." This is what George W S Trow might call "the format of no format." It permits a jumble of items and photographs on every level of importance (and unimportance), presented in apparently random order. "No 038: Omega-3's: The New Fluoride." "No 039: Misguided Expert of the Year: The Dog Whisperer Should Just Shut Up." It's hip, sort of, I suppose. But it isn't funny. There's an earnestness the writing that is almost desperate. Just as the writers of the old Esquire and Spy behaved like ace eight year-old cutups, today's young journalists aspire to the gravitas of greybeards. (And don't go blaming boomers. Esquire may have shaped the intelligent boomer's sensibility, but it was not at all shaped by it.) Esquire and Spy both demonstrated, moreover, that high humor lies not in particular subjects but in the way even the most ordinary subjects are handled. Spy, for example, specialized in insulting but not inaccurate Homeric epithets. If Homer's sea was invariably wine-dark, Spy's Shirley Lord was always a "bosomy dirty-book writer." It didn't stop there. Here's a gem from 1988: "... all across town there was voiced astonishment at just how dirty a dirty-book writer the bosomy dirty-book writer is."

As you can imagine, I hope it won't be long before someone with half a brain realizes that there's money to be made in DVD packages along the lines of the (amazing!) Complete New Yorker. I've spent a lot of my lifetime laughing at funny magazines, and I that nothing else makes me half so nostalgic.

The other must-read is "Ruthless with Scissors," Buzz Bissinger's report on reasons why writer Augusten Burroughs (né Chris Robinson - did you know that? I didn't) might be worried about landing in deepish doo-doo. A looming court case may Frey the memoirist alive. Members of the Turcotte family - the original's of the Finches of Running With Scissors - feel humiliated by the book, as well as grossly misrepresented. The author's claim that it is they themselves who have outed themselves is severely undercut by one little detail:

It was so easy to figure out who the Finches were that Burroughs himself, in a 2003 interview with the online publication Bookslut, essentially told reporters how to do it. "The doctor was notorious in that area, absolutely notorious, so I always felt it was laziness on the part of reporters to question [the veracity]," he was quoted as saying. "All you have to do is search western Massachusetts doctors in the '70s, in North Hampton [sic] - how many psychiatrists were there - and you can access a lot of stories, lots and lots of stories. In September of 2002, the real name of the family was used in a People magazine profile of Burroughs. When I interviewed Burroughs, he said that he had not given People the name and has never revealed it publicly.

Hmm. Mind you, I'm not going to get very worked up about that "veracity" issue. While I can't say that I'm indifferent to the truthfulness of a self-proclaimed memoir, I'm going to take the wilder and more entertaining ones with a grain of salt and wait for the inevitable fallout that sooner or later blankets frauds. At the heart of Running With Scissors there is an abandoned child, or a child who felt abandoned. The antics of the people around him, which may or may not be true, help us get the depressing story down. If Mr Burroughs projected his own misbehavior onto the Turcottes, as their complaint appears to suggest, that wouldn't be the strangest thing that I've ever heard of about a dysfunctional childhood.

If you want to watch a decrepit old dinosaur rattle off a squeak instead of a roar while grimacing with a mouthful of missing teeth, don't miss Christopher Hitchens's profoundly witless column, "Why Women Aren't Funny." For shame, Mr Carter; this is the sort of trash that Spy would never have published.

January 04, 2007

Getting Out


On Tuesday, the last day of Kathleen's winter break, I went over to the West Side to have lunch with her at Café Lalo. Kathleen has spent some pleasant half-hours at this palace of sweets, and she wanted to introduce me to it. When she told me that the tables were "very small," I ought to have known better. Well, I did know better. But I wanted to indulge her, frankly. So even when the tables turned out to be smaller than small, and the menu turned out to be so not a me kind of menu (at least for lunch), I was a good sport and didn't complain. Now I can say that I have done Café Lalo, and henceforth leave it to the high school students who keep it busy in the middle of the day.

This afternoon, I treated myself to a croque monsieur at Restaurant Demarchelier, one of three neighborhood croqueries. I'm fondest of the ones that they serve at Jacques, on 85th Street, but when I was there last week they weren't making croques, for a reason that remained veiled to me despite persistent questions to the waiter. I like Demarchelier very much, but does sit athwart Park and Fifth Avenues, and I'm happier with a slightly scruffier clientele.

Sometimes I'm restless, and I simply have to go out, but it doesn't happen often. Neither today nor two days ago was it the case. What drove me outdoors was a sad truth that has percolated through my dura mater in the two and a half years that I've been reading Édouard's Web log, Sale Bête: I need to get out more. From his lair in the Village, Édouard ranges far and wide, frequently engaging in interstate travel, and he always has his camera handy. I have observed, although not to Édouard himself, yet, that while I always photograph New York scenes from the sidewalk, Édouard shoots from the middle of intersections. I pray that this will not lead to an untimely demise, but it does make for better pictures. Inspired by his example, I took this picture of Demarchelier while standing on the double yellow line in the middle of 86th Street.


Taking Stock on Thursday: New Packaging

For reasons that I still can't go into (stay tuned!), 2006 was not what I would call a fun year. But progress was made on several fronts, not the least of them my personal appearance. Without trying, I lost fifteen pounds. (There were times when I just went hungry instead of snacking, but even that didn't rise to the level of "trying.") I stopped wearing shorts all the time. (They were nice shorts, and I had them dry-cleaned and pressed, but still...) I discovered that Polo/Ralph Lauren was making the kind of clothes that I wore when I was a teenager, before Houstonian impecuniousness. So I resumed trying to look sharp, in a preppy sort of way. I've never been a slob, but I'd gotten a bit too casual.

And I fell in love with a watch, which I never take off except to shower. And I really don't have to take it off then, either, because it's a Hamilton Khaki Navy Automatic, waterproof to depths of two hundred feet. (Or is it meters? I don't need to know!) When I bought it, I didn't know what "automatic" means, and I was dismayed when the watch stopped working a few days after our return from Puerto Rico, where I bought it. Then I figured it out: there has been a name change. When I was growing up, I was given a "self-winding" watch that had been my grandfather's. (I have it still, but the case is broken in such a way that a band can't be attached. I haven't found a jeweler who can be bothered, in other words.) If I thought that "self-winding" was neat, I regard "automatic" as positively virtuous. In our far more fuel-conscious times, an automatic watch seems absolutely green. Even if it didn't, I'd get a kick out of realizing that the watch is being powered by me. Initially, I wore it just to keep it going. Never in my life have I been a man who wears a watch as a matter of course. My watch was always the first thing to come off, even before a necktie, when I came home from work. No longer. That's why I was so tickled, at Thanksgiving in St Croix, to discover, when I was about to take a shower after a walk along the beach, that I'd acquired a most unexpected tan line.

2006 was also the year of reading glasses. The ophthalmologist wrote a prescription, but told me that 1.75 magnification glasses would work just as well, and Barnes & Noble sells Foster Grants for $15. 

By the end of the year, you see, the Daily Me came in a somewhat different package.

In other developments, I learned that my birth parents were roughly ten years older when I was born than I'd been told they were, decades ago, by my adoptive father. I'd always known that my birth father would be unlikely to be alive, but that small uncertainty was crushed by the news that he'd actually be about 110. Not impossible, but so improbable as not to be worth thinking about. More problematically, my birth mother went from being 77 to being 86. Where to go from here is a question rendered all the more tantalizing by the discovery that my birth father was the divorced father of three children when I was conceived. Did he even know about me? If he didn't, my half-siblings wouldn't - would they? But I'll have more to say about all of this in coming weeks.

January 03, 2007

In the Book Review

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

The reviews this week were largely responsible, and the books covered deserving. There was one book that I had already purchased, on the strength of the cover story, by the time I read the second review. As of this writing, I've read the first four of the eight stories in Mothers and Sons, and I have to take issue with the judgment of reviewer Pico Iyer, that Colm Tóibín is "more interested in emotion than in action or community." I see quite the opposite, at least so far.  Mr Tóibín's characters seem determined to keep emotion - unruly emotion, at any rate, at bay, and community nosiness bothers them far too much to allow the writer's interest in community to be deprecated. 

Fiction & Poetry

Keith Waldrop's new prose translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, The Flowers of Evil, gets a favorable review from Joshua Clover. One might have wished for the translation of one complete poem; instead, Mr Clover gives us a crash course in the whirlwind of mid-nineteenth-century Parisian culture. Considering its irrelevance to a prose translation, Baudelaire's strictly conventional meter gets more attention in this review that seems warranted. It is, as always, jarring to be reminded that the first of the Moderns died in 1867.

The cover story is Pico Iyer's thoughtfully enthusiastic review of Mothers and Sons, Colm Tóibín's new collection of short stories. Here's the paragraph that sold me:

Yet the very continuity of tone and theme - even of lighting - that Tóibín sustains across many worlds is part of what makes this book less a collection of pieces than an organic whole. We meet a woman with a drinking problem and then, when we meet another with the same problem, eight stories later, each makes the other richer. The sudden explosion of gay desire that comes out in one piece haunts the simmering of the same impulse two stories later. When Tóibín introduces us to a "great emptiness" in the first, six-word sentence of the book, the word "emptiness" tolls with mounting force as it recurs throughout the story. And then we feel something like epiphany when it comes back with new resonance in the second half of the final piece.

Throughout his review of Tyler Knox's Kockroach, Matt Weiland struggles with the ghost of Kafka, the famous author of a famous story that Mr Knox has undertaken to invert. (A cockroach wakes up as a human, and, not only that, but in Times Square in the Fifties.) Surrender is inevitable.

In the end Knox has less in common with Kafka that with sharp young comic novelists like Chris Bachelder and Lydia Millet who work in the wide shadow of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, George Saunders's stories and The Simpsons.

And guess what. "Knox isn't as funny or fine a writer as Bachelder or Millet, nor as acute in his criticism."

Madison Smartt Bell's sketch of the plot of Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name left me wondering if I'd find the book interesting or just odd. "Finally we understand that Clarissa's mother is acting out a refusal to be a victim of her history." What, in terms of a novel, can this mean? Terence Rafferty is similarly bewildering about Hannibal Rising, Thomas Harris's "pre-quel" to certain well-known horror stories (and due to open next month as a major motion picture!).

What this young-cannibal story describes is a process by which desire is reduced to mere appetite, and it suggests, provocatively, that the function of taste is simply to make that desire-free appetite a little more interesting. That's a sad thought.

I'm sorry, but trying to process "desire-free apetite" has brought down my motherboard. In contrast to the foregoing, Andrew O'Hehir's review of Tales of the Out & the Gone, by Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) stimulated my curiosity about the famously rebarbative writer.

Baraka is a poet down to his bones, and the wildly uneven stories of Tales of the Out & the Gone, which veer from broad, Pyncheonesque satire to pointed science-fiction parable to jazz-infused Joycean linguistic games, are unmistakably poet's prose. One might be tempted to argue that Baraka lacks the skills required to write conventional, magazine-style short fiction, but as he demonstrates in the erotic horror story "Norman's Date" (published in Playboy, of all places, in 1983), that simply isn't true. He writes crisp, punchy sentences and has a fine ear for dialogue, particularly of the masculine, in-joke variety. He just can't be bothered, most of the time, with beginnings and endings. Reading Baraka's fiction is all about enjoying the journey, and never mind the destination.

Finally, there is Todd Pruzan's Fiction Chronicle.

Alligator, by Lisa Moore. "It's hard to think of a more uncomfortable pleasure - or maybe a more pleasing discomfort - than good, strong black comedy."

Not Enough Indians, by Harry Shearer. "Yet Shearer's onscreen poker face belies his insecurity as a storyteller; on the page, he flails for endless rimshots."

Third Class Superhero, by Charles Yu. "More often Yu maintains a cool, disrespectful distance from the worlds he creates, writing in such tediously clever formats as mathematical problems and disjointed field notes."

The Blue Taxi, by N S Köenings. "The Blue Taxi spins with the languor of a dusty ceiling fan: nobody in [the fictional East African town of] Vunjamguu is in a hurry to conduct their daily lives, much less to resolve their mounting tensions. Köenings examines the minutiae of her endearingly flawed characters in slow motion and at high, exacting resolution."

Newsworld, by Todd James Pierce. "We're clearly in George Saunders territory here, and Pierce's stories suffer in comparison. What separates Newsworld from Saunders's wicked absurdism, though, is its abundance of sympathy."


Steve Coates makes it clear, in his review of new biographies of Julius Caesar and his grand-nephew, Augustus, that he regards the dissolution of the Roman Republic as a Good Thing. He judges military historian Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus to be "an authoritative and exciting protrait not only of Caesar but of the complex society in which he lived." Anthony Everitt, author of Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor, "is clearly not as steeped in classical studies as his fellow Briton Goldsworthy."

Try as he might, Everitt fails to give the emperor an appealing face, or even a convincingly human one. His truly sympathetic figures turn out to be those who were in some way victims, either of Augustus himself or of his new dispensation.

(It would seem that Mr Coates didn't hear A N Wilson call Augustus the Widmerpool of classical antiquity.) At the other end of the seriousness scale - even if one of the figures is ultimately decapitated - is A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings, by Stella Tillyard. Stacy Schiff's review is a piece of unadulterated storytelling, devoting only one paragraph in a full-age review to the quality of Ms Tillyard's account - which she finds, at times, to be "inert."

Gary Rosen's review of Modern Liberty: And the Limits of Government, by Charles Fried, notes that Mr Fried is more libertarian than conservative - and more humane than libertarian.

More interesting, because less predictable, is Fried's discussion of property. In echoes of Rawls, the great philosophical advocate of welfare-style redistribution, he concedes that many epople, for reasons largely beyond their control, lack the most basic material resources. "Humiliated" and "dependent," they deserve public support, Fried believes, in the name of their unrealized individuality.

This is perhaps the best piece in a generally good issue: Mr Rosen is fully engaged with Mr Fried's book and undistracted by axes of his own.

Robert Leiter's brief reivew of The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, by Kati Marton, claims that the book "deserves a special place on bookshelves alongside Budapest 1900, by the much undervalued historian John Lukacs." Mr Leiter is nevertheless uncomfortable with the conferring of "world changing" status to photographers and filmmakers  - at least in the company of physicists.

Caleb Crain storytells his way through a review of Emma Lazarus, by Esther Schor, generally oblivious of the actual book. The piece is chock full of historical goodies: Lazarus's father was a wealthy sugar merchant, and he came from a family that had been in the United States since before the Revolution. Lazarus's best known poem, "The New Colossus," was not read at ceremonial unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, and in fact was forgotten until the 1930s, when many people just have thought that Lazarus herself was yet another immigrant hailing the Statue from the decks of a liner. Mr Crain pauses now and then to suggest that Ms Schor is overly ambitious on behalf of her subject.

This week's other biography, Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, by Amanda Vaill, is reviewed by John Rockwell - along with two existing books, by Deborah Jowitt and Greg Lawrence. No storytelling here! Mr Rockwell, if pressed, would probably recommend Ms Jowitt's book over the other two, but he very gentlemanly suggests that dance aficionados will want all three.

Robbins lived in a world of like-minded collaborators, most his age and Jewish and New Yorkers and leftist and, among the men, gay. Being any of those things in a straight, WASP-y, cynically patriotic world posed its own strains, and Vaill's wealth of anecdotes illuminates that world, its shining moments and darker corners.

Anthony Julius, the English solicitor-advocate polymath with a sideline in art, appears to be sympathetic to the views of critic and New Criterion founder Hilton Kramer, at least so far as dismissing post-modernism goes. Mr Kramer's The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World 1987-2005 seems to be saddled with a paradox in its title, unless he means that modernism has triumphed in the pages of his journal. (The dates mark the span of years within which the essays in the book were initially published.) There is a bit of knuckle-rapping toward the end of the piece, however. "In this book there are perhaps too many 'easy, unargued assumptions' (for example, in Kramer's criticism of the work of the art historian T J Clark.)"

There are two famous boomer albums at the center of books this week: Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones, by Robert Greenfield; and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs By Derek and the Dominos, by Jan Reid. Alan Light's review makes it plain that both books are upholstered with personal gossip but musically rather threadbare. Boxing fans would doubtless look for Budd Schulberg's pre-posthumous Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage whether reviewer Gordon Marino liked the book or not. Mr Marino, apparently assuming that Mr Schulberg's work needs no introduction, begins his piece of storytelling by lamenting the passage of boxing writers from the popular press.

Gary Wills continues to insist that he is a Catholic, but with What Paul Meant, in which he claims that both Jesus and Paul were killed by religion, he steps closer and closer to an almost-anabaptist reformed church. Relying on current Biblical scholarship, which holds that Paul's epistles predate all of the Gospels, Mr Wills uses Paul to sketch a faith that is less doctrinal and more improvised than anything the Vatican is likely to countenance anytime soon. Theocon-turncoat Damon Linker hails Mr Wills as "one of the most intellectually interesting and doctrinally heterodox Christians writing today."

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Bio Hazard," explores the icky-poo relations of South African novelist Nadine Gordimer and Ronald Suresh Roberts, her erstwhile authorized biographer.

January 02, 2007

Così fan tutte at City Opera

In the middle of November, just before flying off to St Croix for Thanksgiving, Kathleen and I took in a performance of Mozart's Così fan tutte, which, as everyone must know by now, is my favorite opera. I don't see it often, though, because it's so easy to screw up. The plot still makes people uncomfortable - which just shows you how prim and pious Americans can be about romantic comedy. Here is my take on the story: vacationing in Naples, two ladies from Ferrara meet two young officers and, in somewhat creaky but more recent parlance, start going steady. They don't fall in love at all; they're like middle-school students going through motions they don't entirely understand. All of this happens before the opera begins, but it is implied by every detail of the opening scenes. The young lovers are shown to be silly kids, now florid about their "perfect" mate, now necromantic. Their cynical old friend, Don Alfonso, decides to show them how just how silly they are. He makes a wager with the officers that, if they pretend to go off to war, and then show up in exotic costumes, they'll have no trouble each winning the other's girl's heart. The officers accept the bet with alacrity, to show the old misery just how wrong he is.

But of course he's not wrong. The boys come back in their Albanian (Turkish) outfits, and throw themselves into love-making with great vigor. It is unlikely that this was how they won the ladies originally. Their overtures are initially repulsed, of course, but this only redoubles their zeal. The long and the short of it is that the girls eventually fall in love, genuinely this time, in response to such ardor. And eventually the boys stop acting. Why do people overlook this? Why do the boys appear to forget which side of the bet they're on? When Ferrando makes his last-ditch effort to conquer Fiordiligi, he's in earnest. Winning a bet is the last thing on his mind, and, if you can't hear that, you're deaf.

So there is no real confusion at the end. Even though the libretto does not specify who ends up with whom, the music, if only people would listen, is unambiguous. Even Guglielmo, who claims to wish that he were toasting his friends with poison, is more genuinely engaged by the final arrangement than he was at the start, when all he could do was make preposterous claims about his lady-love's fortitude. Even though the final-scene marriages are a sham (officiated by a housemaid in drag), they represent the ultimate couplings.

Continue reading about Così fan tutte at Portico.

January 01, 2007

Books on Monday: Vestal McIntyre's You Are Not The One

It gives me great pleasure to start off the New Year with a page about Vestal McIntyre's 2004 collection of short stories, You Are Not The One (Carroll & Graf). This is the first book  by a contributor to From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up that I've read, and it's a very auspicious beginning.

I wrote to Mr McIntyre when I added his book to the Books on the Side list at Portico, and he wrote back, telling me that he's finishing up a novel set in his native Idaho. He writes so brilliantly about New York City that I couldn't help feeling a little bit disappointed by this news. But the setting doesn't really matter, because the writing is sure to be absolutely top-drawer.

Read about You Are Not The One at Portico.

You Speak the Truth, My Faithful Indian Companion

Happy New Year! Another decade begins to close.

We had a very tranquil New Year's Eve. The treats came first: icy Moët & Chandon White Star and an ounce of sevruga caviar. We listened to Blossom Dearie's first recording, made fifty-one years ago, when Kathleen was three years old and I was eight. I've known about Blossom Dearie for years, but I haven't really listened to her until recently. One of the songs on the first album that I'd never heard before is called "Comment-allez vous?" Kathleen misheard this as "Come on, tally-hoo!" Ms Dearie seems to go out of her way to sing with an American accent, but the song has a period charm. Once upon a time, it was very sophisticated.

It may have been the last of the sevruga for a while. This Saturday, which will be my fifty-ninth birthday, we're going to see how the American product is doing. It's a lot cheaper, and it's not bad. You may think that caviar is exotic and expensive, and perhaps even repellent (fish eggs!), but I read in the Times yesterday that sixty percent of the world's caviar is consumed in the United States.

For dinner, we had Veal Scallops in Apple Sauce - which has nothing to do with applesauce - and for dessert we had lemons stuffed with sorbet. There is really nothing quite so lemony as this Italian production. We had a very nice wine from Chile that a friend hard brought us, Piedra Feliz I believe it's called. Soft and velvety.

Because it was getting late, I started Radio Days before tackling the dishes. I don't know when we began the tradition of watching this 1987 Woody Allen film on New Year's Eve, but it may have been as long as fifteen years ago. The movie ends on New Year's Eve, 1943 or 1944 (I used to know), shot in what is actually the King Cole Bar in the St Regis Hotel. The St Regis is currently being reconfigured as a condominium, and I wonder what will happen to the bar, with its Maxfield Parrish murals. At dinner, Kathleen and I had tried to figure out the difference between a night club and a cabaret. Without success.

In the morning, I had a nightmare. Kathleen was very angry with me for having had way too much to drink and misbehaved. It was very convincing, and I was horrified. No more of that! Waking up, I woke her up, and begged her to assure me that I'd been dreaming. She was happy to do so. Perhaps she was anticipating breakfast in bed. In any case, you'll be happy to know that the $25 stollen from Eli's was pretty good.