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February 28, 2007

Mme de Pompadour on TV5

I've no way of knowing how many North American Pompadourians tuned in to the second and final episode of Jeanne Poisson, Madame de Pompadour on TV5 this evening, but I hope that we'll all connect. It was a preposterous soap opera, not because it was wildly unfaithful to the facts - it wasn't, not wildly - but because it would have bored the Marquise to death. All that royal family contumely! Who knew that the dauphin (Damien Jouillerot, in a supremely unendearing performance) was such a pain in the ass? Until this show was made, he was simply a cipher who predeceased his father, making way for Louis XVI. Now he's someone to detest! In Jeanne Poisson, art and politics take second fiddle to tirades out of The Queen.

Hélène de Fougerolles turns out to be a magnificent Pompadour. You don't think so at first; she's much too easygoing and, in the American sense of the word, fresh. But she ages into the part, so to speak. She does her best with impossible lines and ridiculous, silent-movie situations. She manages to honor the woman she's reincarnating while playing to a gallery of people who have no idea of Pompadour's singularity. The best joke comes at the end, when the credits name the lady's surviving mansions. Dont, as the French say - in their abominable conceit considering it a complete sentence - the official residence of the French Président, Le palais d'Élysée. Imagine old Bushois, dying to get out of a house rebuilt by a woman. I mean young Bushois.

When I say that Charlotte de Turckheim is also fantastic, as Marie Leszczyńska - Louis XV's queen - it's quite as though, what with all these aristocratic names, the very court had come back to life to impersonate itself. Happily, there is Vincent Perez as Louis XV. M Perez is quite above the aristocracy - and abysses below it. I have never seen royalty played with such conviction. An extraordinarily handsome man (as Louis XV certainly was) puts more faith in his God than in his looks - now, that's sincerity! I don't know how M Perez kept a straight face, but perhaps it was remuneration in ducats.

The only thing wrong with Jeanne Poisson is that Joan Crawford isn't in it. Well, she is in it, somewhere, motivating the actors to do their best with ridiculous material. The show a raté les Énarques - precious few genuine locations were made available for filming. Les BCBG decided that the project was beneath them. It was - and their disapproval matters. Jeanne Poisson gives us a Pompadour whose primary legacy was the screwing up of a happy family, and the humiliation of a king who let himself be advised by a woman. I suppose it's not insignificant that TV5 is operated by Le Figaro. They'll let Catherine Deneuve sing the praises of France's second greatest arts patron (Pompadour would have been the first to hail Louis XIV). But when they address her life, she's just a powdered pute.

Which is wrong. 

In the Book Review

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

There are three excellent fiction review this week. Liesl Schillinger's cover story, a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder, is a joy to read: it's just what I've been waiting for. This favorable, sympathetic review lets me know in no uncertain terms that Remainder is not a book for me! The things that she likes about the book are things that I have no patience for - and, hey, that's just me. Others will conclude that Remainder ought to be the next title on the reading list. This is how the Book Review's reviews ought to work.

There were too tough call on classification, and in both cases I erred on the side of mercy. Walter Kirn's review of David Mamet's book talks about "crackpot theories," suggesting that the newsworthiness of this particular new book by an eminent writer ought to be covered in another part of the newspaper. Similarly, Thomas A Repetto's Bringing Down the Mob seems like a book for Mafia buffs. I may have been hard on Howard Norman's Devotion, but Emily Barton's review didn't give me much to work with.

There are two reviews by experts in their fields, both somewhat problematic. Why not ask an expert to assess a book? Sounds like a great idea! In practice, however, the expert does not speak your language, and he will be helplessly bothered by trifles that won't concern you.

Another bit of good news, though: William Grimes's Essay, "Rediscovering Alexander Herzen," is just the sort of thing that ought to appear in this space ever week. Herzen is in the cultural news because of Tom Stoppard's monumental trilogy about nineteenth-century idealists and revolutionaries, The Coast of Utopia. Mr Grimes transforms Herzen from a "do I have to" writer to a stylist worthy of The New Yorker. Adam Gopnik's name is never mentioned, but the comparison is unavoidable.


It has occurred to me that I defer to the editors of the Review with regard to full-page reviews of poets. Not nearly as literate in poetry as I ought to be, I am unwilling to dismiss any poet as insufficiently indispensable (all these negatives!) I haven't heard of Ellen Bryant Voigt before, but Sven Birkerts assures me that she "has been a serious inside presence in the literary world for decades." As always, I'm flummoxed by the conceit of writing ten or more words of criticism to every word of Ms Voigt's verse. What's more important? Not a question.

Liesl Schillinger's review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder is, for the moment, my textbook example of a favorable, sympathetic review. Ms Schillinger likes the book - that's the favorable part - but she also enters into its spirit - the sympathetic part - and by doing so she highlights aspects of the book that would certainly prevent me (for example) from enjoying it.

But McCarthy's superb stylistic control and uncanny imagination transport this novel beyond the borders of science fiction. His bleak humor, hauntingly affectless narrator and methodical exposition on his theme make Remainder more than an entertaining brain-teaser: it's a work of novelistic philosophy, as disturbing as it is funny.

There are so many red flags in Ms Schillinger's praise that I won't bother to enumerate them; this isn't, after all, about me. It's about the usefulness of this kind of review, and, by implication, the uselessness of the negative, unsympathetic - nasty - review. The accompanying photograph of Mr McCarthy is also useful. The author presents himself as a scruffy man-child, slouched on the floor against an artfully disheveled array of books.

Stacey D'Erasmo is just as warm about André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name, a book that I loved.

But what André Aciman considers, elegantly and with no small amount of unbridled skin-to-skin contact, is that maybe the heat of eros isn't only in the friction of memory and anticipation. Maybe it's also in the getting. In a first novel that abounds in moments of emotional and physical abandon, this may be the most wanton of his moves: his narrative, brazenly, refuses to stay closed. It is as much a story of paradise found as it is of paradise lost.

With a book as highly-styled as Call Me By Your Name, however, I think that more substantial quotation is called for. Some readers are certain to find the book too rich for pleasure.

Paul Gray's review of Louise Dean's This Human Season, a third fine review this week, is so persuasive that it tempted me to lift my embargo on books about the Troubles:

But she doesn't simply work factual details into a gripping story; given such powerful raw material, many competent novelists could do that. Instead, Dean dexterously highlights the telling advantage that fiction has over journalism and history, portraying the inner realm of thoughts and feelings. With remarkable even-handedness, she evokes the day-to-day struggles of English and Irish, Protestant and Roman Catholic, as they try to get on with their lives while the world around them goes insane.

Turning to nonfiction, we have Madison Smartt Bell's Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. Adam Hochschild, the reviewer, is the author of Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, and therefore something of an expert in the field of colonial uprisings of the type that Toussaint Louverture came to lead. Commissioning experts to review their colleagues' books is a practice that I have come to find questionable. Certainly the expert is in a position to assess the value of the book - but is this really what's wanted? The Review is not addressed to specialists, but rather to general readers. Mr Hochschild's favorable review is not particularly useful, because it approaches the book from a specialist's purview and neglects the general reader's concerns. Noting the paucity of documentation about the Haitian leader, Mr Hochschild regrets that Mr Bell does not make more use of related materials (contemporary diaries) that, while not on point exactly, "flesh out the world" of Louverture. "Still, this is the best biography of Toussaint yet, in large part because Bell does not shy away from the man's contradictions." We've got to take Mr Hochschild's word for it. I might add that expert reviews are the most likely to drag and niggle in tedium.

Much the same can be said of John Lewis Gaddis's review of Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan. (Why am I certain that Ms MacMillan had nothing to do with that subtitle?) Mr Gaddis is a Cold War authority, and his review either storytells Ms MacMillan's story or it niggles with her omissions and repetitions, before concluding that "Still, there is more than enough to admire in MacMillan's book." Not very helpful.

Walter Kirn's sharp review of David Mamet's Bambi vs Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business is full of the reviewer's characteristic brio, but if his subject were not so eminent a figure in American culture - and if I did not hold Mr Kirn in such high regard - this paragraph would be appearing under the rubric of "Maybe." The review is far from nasty, but it's not favorable and it doesn't appear to be sympathetic.

Given his achievements in the movies, Mamet has our respect from the outset in these essays, but his insistence on coaxing yet more respect from us through a combination of lofty locutions, abrasive pet theories and brawny folklore causes one to wonder after a while if he's a tough and disgusted as he makes out or if he's putting on an act. As books like this one have proved through the decades, a Hollywood writer is only an old hand when he gives the moguls his middle finger.

I'm sure that Mr Kirn is right - but that's cheating.

William Boyd writes a very interesting review of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah, a very interesting book (to say the least). The reviewer notes a certain flatness to the descriptions of violence, such that "it's the reader's imagination that delivers the cold sanguinary shudder, not the author's boilerplate prose.

It is a vision of hell that Beah gives us, one worthy of Hieronymous Bosch, but as though depicted in primary colors by a naive artist.

However, perhaps this gives us a clue to the nature and effect of these terrifying African conflicts.


The unbelievable violence and dread, the blood and death, seem - if this does not appear too awful an oxymoron - somehow guileless and innocent, random, unpremeditated. Is that what fundamentally disturbs us about these African conflicts?

Peter Keepnews's review of George Gershwin: His Life and Work, by Howard Pollack, strikes the very note that's wanted: in his view, the book

is not the ideal book for the casual fan or the musically unsophisticated. Pollack has not written a dry treatise, but neither has he simplified things for general consumption. At the same time, it is hard to imagine even the casual fan not having fun at least thumbing through it. And it is equally hard to imagine that anyone will write a more thorough study of Gershwin's music anytime soon, if ever - or that anyone will feel the need to, now that Howard Pollack has had his way.

A 'book for the ages," then! Who could ask for anything more?


Emily Barton's review of Howard Norman's Devotion is pure muddle. There's a lot of storytelling. There are complaints about the novel's details - the chronology, it seems, isn't right. "These lapses of authorial attention stick out, in part, because Norman's prose can be so vivid." What's that supposed to mean? That the novel is both careless and overwritten? Classify this with the "favorable but unsympathetic" reviews.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes that Yael Goldstein, author of Overture, "is a young writer of great emotional precocity." I smell an oxymoron: no one is emotionally precocious; some people simply achieve wisdom sooner than others. Mr Lewis-Kraus claims that the novel avoids "the fashionable archness typical of many young writers," but he nevertheless conveys the impression of a highly contrived fiction. Contrivance also seems to be a problem with Measuring Time, by Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, if Hari Kunzru's report is at all reliable. "Measuring Time itself gives discomforting hints of being part of a larger project."

In the end the book meanders to a halt, as if overwhelmed by its own despondency. But this somehow seems a fitting end to a melancholy narrative of a fight against decay, a struggle for hope in a cynical world.

Flower Confidential, by Amy Stewart, is a book about the cut-flower industry. Interesting topic, but Constance Casey's review fails to give a reason why it deserves book-length treatment for general readers. The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism From 1600 to Modern Times, by Tristram Stuart, seems to have gotten a lot of attention, probably because it's full of curiosities about Newton's diet, &c. Edward Rothstein's review jumps right in and splashes away at the facts. There is an interesting thesis in this bloated book: the obsession with purity common to so many vegetarians inclines them to every manner of purge, including the sanguinary kind. This is a matter that Joan Didion might have disposed of, indelibly, in twenty or thirty pages at most.

Books about the Mafia. Bringing Down the Mob: The War Against the American Mafia, by Thomas A Repetto, appears, in Vincent Patrick's review, to be a book about RICO, the revolutionary federal statute that required "a decade of proselytizing before prosecutors would employ it." This is probably a book for Mafia buffs (so to speak), and I'm tempted to line it up with the "Buffyverse" book below.


Is it necessary to go beyond merely stating the title of The Physics of the Buffyverse, by Jennifer Ouellette? What is this book doing here? J D Biersdorfer's review claims that the book "makes an earnest effort to introduce the laws of physics to couch potatoes in a relatively painless way." Voilà! Couch potatoes don't read the Book Review.

February 27, 2007

Vivaldi at Zankel

On balance, last Thursday's two hours of baroque music, most of it by Antonio Vivaldi, was just a tad excessive. It didn't help that I couldn't see. No more seats on the side of the mezzanine for me! (The boxes on the main level are great.)

The good thing about the length of the concert was that Ms NOLA and I didn't get to the Brooklyn Diner until minutes before ten o'clock, which is when the restaurant begins offering late-night Eggs Benedict. That's always just what I want.

When dinner was over, we walked to the subway station alongside Carnegie Hall, Ms NOLA to board the Q and I to wait for the first train to come along on the other track. I got home minutes before Kathleen did. 

February 26, 2007

Books on Monday: Ten Days in the Hills

I remain puzzled by the dust jacket that adorns Jane Smiley's new novel, Ten Days in the Hills. It suggests that the book is more focused on watching movies than on making them. And there is no couple that corresponds to the young kissers. (There's no young white woman at all, and the only young woman is in a semi-sibling rivalry with the only young man; she probably would never let him make love to her under any circumstances.) So I continue to look for a solution. I could have asked Ms Smiley about the dust jacket the other night, when, for the second time in my life, I lined up for her to sign a new book. But I make it a policy not to query or quibble with writers at signings.

The reading-and-signing took place at 192 Books, a small but neat bookshop that is very, very far from home. To wit, it's at 192 Tenth Avenue. Tenth Avenue is not really on my map, or wasn't until recently. You can almost see the Hudson River - from street level. The quickest way to get there from here is to change trains at 51st Street, and take the E to 23rd Street. I chose to come and go by the L connection, walking all the way from Eighth Avenue and Fourteenth Street. It wasn't too bitterly cold.

Ms NOLA told me about the event a day or so before, but happily I had the foresight to investigate on line, because reservations are necessary. A gentleman stood at the door and checked names off a list.

I was very sorry about the pathetic size of my acquaintance afterward. I knew only two people who lived anywhere nearby, and they were so unlikely to be free that I didn't bother them. I retraced my steps, and dined alone at the Japanese pub across the street. From home, that is.

Ms Smiley entertained questions (mine was the first taken). Someone wanted to know how fame and fortune had changed her life. Her laconic answer: "I own more horses than I ever thought I would."

Read about Ten Days in the Hills at Portico.

February 25, 2007


Last night, at the Blarg Hop, I was a complete gent, and home in bed long before midnight (actually, I watched Rififfi for the first time - fantastic - that long, quiet heist scene is amazing!). Today, however, I went fishing with Fossil Darling and LXIV. I was in bed even earlier. Much earlier.

February 24, 2007

Music and Lyrics

I'm all for formulaic movies, so long as they've been sanded down here and there and stamped with loving cleverness. Music and Lyrics is such a movie. Mass audiences will enjoy the romance, and savor the comedy of then-and-now pop styles. Sharp viewers will treasure the profusion of coherent details. Everybody's happy.

Take One.

February 23, 2007

Alternative Delusions

Jenny Diski, one of the great voices of the London Review of Books, reports on Second Life. If you are a regular reader of this site and the host of an avatar at Second Life, the time to speak up is now.

Ms Diski runs a moderately agreeable blog. She doesn't post very often, but when she does, the news is news. How about a red-brick university's taking To The Lighthouse off the syllabus because it's "too difficult"?

You're right. It's my generation that's supposed to be shot. Don't shoot me!

February 22, 2007


Anyone in search of that good, old-fashioned French-movie atmosphere ought to make a point of seeing Gabrielle, a film made two years ago by Patrice Chéreau. Based on Joseph Conrad's story, "The Return" (which I've now got to dig up), the film concerns the end of a marriage. A woman leaves her husband for a man whom she loves, but turns around on her way and comes back, not because she has changed her mind about her lover, but because she fears that, after years of stunted life with her husband, she won't be able to love him back. The husband, meanwhile, comes home early from work and reads the now-unnecessary note. He goes through every range of reaction, from rage to tears to bland acceptance.

The story has been given hieratic treatment. Jean (Pascal Greggory) staggers through his huge town house (part of the Gare de l'Est?) while Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) floats in resigned desperation. There are the couple's worldly guests and there is also a flock of housemaids and kitchenmaids. Yvonne (Claudia Coli) is a sort of head housemaid (although she's a young woman) with whom Gabrielle has obscure conversations. Every now and then, an immense title card is superimposed on the action, announcing a dramatic statement ("Restez!"). Fabio Vacchi's portentous score promises melodramatic developments that tend not to materialize. This would be annoying if it were not for the hypnotism practiced by the filmmaker and his cast.

Gabrielle is not a long movie, but uninitiated American viewers probably won't make it through - so you'll have that satisfaction.


When Kathleen told Dr A (her fantastic therapist) that Miss G would be bringing home a boyfriend, for the very first time, for dinner on Sunday, Dr A had Dr A-worthy advice.

She said: "The whole point of the first meeting is to have a second meeting."

That is so effing true. Just staying friendly enough to see one another again really is the outcome every sane potential father-in-law ought to have in mind. And thanks to a message on the machine that talks about getting together soon, I think we achieved the objective. 

There are drawbacks. My mother-in-law, who takes her inspiration from Lady Bracknell, was quite upset that Kathleen couldn't tell her either The Beau's age or the name of his alma mater. "What do you mean, you didn't ask?" she railed. Kathleen, armed with Dr A's fortitude, bore the contumely in patience. I was spared. Sort of. Ms NOLA and M le Neveu were delighted to learn that we plan to have them on hand when next we next meet Ms G and The Beau. "You're going about this all wrong," said M le Neveu. How, I asked. "Because they'll tell us." he larked.

You have options in this life. You can feel empty about the meaningless of existence. Or you can have babies whose diapers need to be changed. One of the great things that happened during my lifetime, unquestionably, was that men took up changing the diapers. That's why I'm still here.

February 21, 2007

Almost Spring

New York, New York: what a contradictory town. Elsewhere, the driven snow stays pure until it melts. Here, it takes on a color not found in nature: the color of carbon emissions.


How nice, during a storm, to have street sheds to walk under. They're protection against debris that might fall during the repointing of the city's apartment buildings' trillions of bricks. Melting snow, however, turns them into erratic showerheads. Having taken the picture of the filthy snow, I had to dodge the droplets.


Walking out of Barnes & Noble, which I visited for another pair of reading glasses but where I ended up buying three terrific but quite unnecessary books, I decided to take a walk down to the river, to see which way it was flowing. It felt miraculous to be alive in New York City, just a few blocks from the East River (which is not a river but a strait - hence the change in the direction of the flow). The end of February is hardly spring, but there was a caressing mildness in the air that made staying outdoors seem like a good idea - not a statement that could have been made during the past weeks.


It was great fun to watch the dogs in the big-dog run. Antics galore. I also enjoyed the grandparent's pleasure of not having to take care of any of them. I moved on to what in a few months will be a hypnotic view. Stay tuned.


Better yet, visit Carl Schurz Park. Just take the Lex to 86th Street and head downhill. Don't hesitate to ask directions; you may very well find that you're asking me, as I'm on my way, in the other direction, to the Museum.

In the Book Review

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

It's been quite a while since I was first pricked by the sense that I've done what I had to do with this Review review gig. If I soldier on, it's because I know that a lot of literate readers have problems with Sam Tanenhaus's management of the Book Review. The other day, I encountered Scott Esposito's entry on the problem at Conversational Reading; by all means, follow his links to The Literary Salon and Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant. That Mr Tanenhaus is out to produce "journalism" appears to be not only misguided but unfulfilled, as the Review has almost nothing to say about the business of book publishing.

Instead of reporting on what's going on, the critics at the Book Review ought to make the news by judging the best books for the national conversation of critical readers. These readers don't need to be entertained by facetious illustrations (Patrick Thomas's for The Writing on the Wall) or books about penis length (Ron Jeremy). They don't need the anointment of past masters' latest titles (the new Paul Auster). They need to know about a handful of indispensable nonfiction books, and they need expanded access to the actual writing of fiction and verse. Nobody can read everything, but readers ought to come away from the Review reliably assured about books that will engage them.

I was unpleasantly surprised to see that Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City is briefly reviewed in Andrew Ervin's Fiction Chronicle. By most other accounts, Chang is an important Chinese writer whose discovery in English is overdue. She certainly deserves more space than Rachel Donadio gives, in her Essay, "Literary Agent," to the pulp fiction of E Howard Hunt.


Mayra Montero is a Cuban writer who lives in Puerto Rico; her ninth novel, Dancing to "Almendra" (translated by Edith Grossman), is about the gangs-and-glamour atmosphere of Havana before Castro. Jim Lewis has lots of good things to say the book, but in one sentence alone he sells it:

Her writing is swift and agile; it dances like a tough kid in a good suit - well pressed but never boring, and never calling attention to the strength that lies behind it.

Paul Muldoon is an Irish poet of increasing renown whose latest book of poems, Horse Latitudes, appears alongside a critical work, The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures. Langdon Hammer's favorable review of both books is not particularly helpful to the uninitiated. There are no sustained excerpts - unforgivable in a poetry review. Feel free to puzzle over this particular passage:

Here as elsewhere in The End of the Poem, Muldoon is undoubtedly writing about his own motives as a writer. But the intricate verse forms in Horse Latitudes tend to keep those motives - the hand he reaches out to us - at a careful distance.

It sounds very good, but I've no idea what it means. Joseph Lelyveld gives Family Romance: A Love Story, John Lanchester's memoir, a favorable but unsympathetic review. He tells us all about the big family secret - Mr Lanchester's mother had been a Roman Catholic nun before marrying his father, and she suppressed this fact, going so far as to fake a passport posing as someone ten years younger - but does little to illuminate the book beyond complaining about "soggy sentences."

Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays is a collection of Joan Acocella's criticism, most of which appeared in The New Yorker. Kathryn Harrison's review sets forward a Credo for critics:

She is a celebrant of art, not blind to the flaws of what she admires nor so inclusive in her praise that she fails to discriminate between the lesser and greater novels of, for example, Saul Bellow, but a creitic whose enthusiasm is infection. Clearly, she reviews only what she finds worth her time to review - work she loves.

Would that the Book Review were conducted along such lines. Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn has written a book of philosophy, The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe. Jim Holt spends a lot of time distinguish realism from idealism, thereby shortchanging his thesis.

Philosophers these days rarely write fat tomes taking on the whole gamut of philosophical themes: space and time, language and truth, determinism and free will, consciousness and the self. But this is what Frayn has done, with immense erudition (especially linguistic) and more than a dash of wit.

This proposition is never unpacked, and it's meaning never becomes clear. Götz Aly's Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State (translated by Jefferson Chase) ties Nazi success to the distribution of plundered goods. Dagmar Herzog resists this monotonal explanation but never actually argues against it. Anatol Lieven is sharp but supportive about John Mueller's Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats.

He is, in my view, too complacent both about the inexorable spread of the technologies of mass destruction and the spread of extremist ideologies, especially among the Muslims of Europe. These threats need to be taken extremely seriously. Where Mueller is quite right, however, is in arguing that all too many of the responses to terrorism adopted by the Bush administration have ranged from the pointless to the disastrous.


If Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium is as jejune as Sophie Harrison's review makes it out to be, then perhaps it's time to stop reviewing everything that the writer produces simply because of his authorship. Jennifer Egan's favorable review of Peter Ho Davies's The Welsh Girl, in contrast, fails to make a case for the novel, focusing instead on "interesting" historical events that underlie the plot.

Bill Gifford's Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer seems, in Candice Millard's account, to more a curiosity than a history; John Ledyard (1751-1789) seems to have failed at every undertaking, dying of illness in Cairo only to be buried in an unmarked grave. Mr Gifford, we're told spent four years following his subject's footsteps (into Siberia, among other places), and Mr Gifford tells his own tales as well as what can be learned of Ledyard's, an approach that Ms Millard judges to have yielded "mixed results." French Seduction: An American's Encounter With France, Her Father, and the Holocaust, by Eunice Lipton, seems to baffle Caroline Weber, who has lately become the Review's default reviewer of all books French.

Yet while Lipton emphasizes the French people's "deep distaste for Others," she fails to explain in any fully coherent way why she chooses to live in their midst.

Luc Sante complains that Patrick Anderson, author of The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction, "never delivers on his subtitle."

When Anderson generalizes about the thriller, however, he engages in politicking. He tells us that Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is as interesting a character as “Bellow’s Herzog or Roth’s Zuckerman” and suggests that Connelly, Lehane and George Pelecanos are as deserving of the National Book Award as Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer. And well they might, but Anderson does not bother to make his case. He can only assert it, again and again, in various tones and pitches, as if the reader were hard of hearing. The sour and aggrieved note in his voice, with all the appeal of a member of Congress arguing that his district is the one most deserving of pork, damages his cause more than his vigor assists it.

Why does such a failed project deserve a review? Lawrence Downes is almost snarky about What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America, by Tavis Smiley (with David Ritz).

However Smiley’s story strikes you, as a tale of stellar achievement or a physics lesson in the buoyancy properties of limitless self-regard, he is without doubt a natural at what he does. Incessant talkers often reveal far more of themselves than they mean to, and silent readers of this book can fill in a lot of gaps. When you add up all the boasting, the relentlessly upbeat bromides, the breathless celebrity encounters and the earnest litany of injustices suffered and hurdles overcome, you get an entirely plausible, unwittingly honest portrait of a natural-born talk-show host, and how he got that way.

Where Mr Downes's piece belongs is in the paper's Saturday Arts pages. Harriet A Washington's Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present would appear in its title to be an important book, but Ezekiel Emanuel's lengthy review all but trashes it.

Documenting the history of medical research involving black Americans is a necessary and worthy project, but a book as rife with errors and confusions as this one will neither help reduce health disparities nor protect against future exploitation.

Rich Lowry is not impressed by John Patrick Diggins's attempt to present Ronald Reagan as a great liberal president, in Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History. Mr Lowry, who edits The National Review (a periodical of the Right), concludes,

If Diggins’s account of Reagan is ultimately unpersuasive, both liberals and conservatives will find it challenging. And if the repetition and poor organization of this book sometimes keep it from being enjoyable reading, it is nonetheless a sign that across the political spectrum we are beginning to agree that Ronald Reagan was an important, even admirable, figure. What liberals and conservatives will probably never agree on is why.

But Mr Lowry is surely the wrong man for this review. A liberal or centrist critic would have produced something upon which more reliance might be placed. Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia professor of economics and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, seems both too interested and too big a gun to bring to bear on The Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face It as an Enemy, by Will Hutton.

The question, then, is whether, the Chinese Communists will be able to make the necessary accommodations, justifying the optimism of those Sinologists who have been predicting a “resilient authoritarianism.” Or will China’s leaders dig in their heels, suppressing dissent and opposition and possibly precipitating political and economic chaos? It’s anybody’s guess; and Hutton is not particularly helpful on this matter.

Having said that, Mr Bhagwati might have ventured his own opinion. He must certainly have one. His silence suggests that the whole affair is of no pressing concern to him.


Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, by Jennifer Baumgardner gets what it deserves from Norah Vincent.

Which, incidentally, is why I take issue with Baumgardner’s emphasis on the political all-importance of who is sleeping with whom, which resembles the religious right’s equally absurd obsession with the genitalia of people who want to wed. Less, not more, is what’s called for. We will have won the battle against puritanism in America not when sexuality is run up the flag pole, but when it is irrelevant.

An even surer way of making Ms Vincent's point is to overlook books such as this. Jane and Michael Stern are certainly the perfect reviewers for Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz, by Ron Jeremy (with Eric Spitznagel), but the confessions of well-endowed porn stars do not belong in the Book Review. Some other acreage must be made available for them - why not Business on Sunday?

February 20, 2007


Catching up with blogs today, I was very moved by a long entry by Jenn Mattern at Breed 'em and Weep, about sadness. So were most of the commenters, nearly a hundred as of this writing.

Jenn does not attempt to explain her sadness, but seems more concerned about how to live with it a way that does not burden her daughters, Sophie and Hannah (aka Hattie Belle). Some of the comments, inevitably, counsel medication. Some commenters feel isolated in their sadness, and thank Jenn for assuring them that they're not alone. But almost all of the comments treat sadness as an inescapable in the lives of young mothers.

I resist theorizing, but I'm certainly taking note.

Angela Hewitt at Grace Rainey Rogers

At Angela Hewitt's recital last Thursday, Ms NOLA stayed in her seat during the interval, and when I came back from my customary errand she told me that people had been walking up and staring at the piano as if they'd never seen one before. Well, I told her, they haven't. I certainly hadn't. Emblazoned on the side of the box, instead of the usual lyre and "Steinway," was FAZIOLI. I've read about this magnificent upstart piano manufacturer, located north of Venice, but I've never heard one of its instruments.

In a word, Wow.

Angela Hewitt was no slouch, either.

February 19, 2007

Books on Monday: Fire in the City

Anybody with an interest in history will know "who Savonarola was," but what does this mean? Yes, he's the "Bonfire of the Vanities" guy who inspired Florentines to burn their gewgaws at Carnival - an improvement over the regular custom of throwing rocks at people. But thinking about Savonarola means trying to think fifteenth-century thoughts - trying to see the world without our far more reflective and knowingly psychological habits of mind. In his new book, Fire in the City, Lauro Martines does a very good job of teaching us how to do pull this off.

Read about Fire in the City at Portico.

February 18, 2007

At my Kitchen Table: A "Simple" Dinner


In a little more than an hour, Miss G will arrive with her beau.

It's to be a simple dinner, but the rolls are rising, and about to go into the oven, where the potatoes are already roasting. A stick of butter has been chopped and frozen. Whatever for, do you think?

At three pounds, the hunk of cow straddles the fence between steak and rib roast. I'm terrified of overcooking it.

February 17, 2007

Three Coins in the Fountain

Now I can't recall where I read it. Somebody remarked that a movie that had come up in conversation was his mother's favorite film - along with Three Coins in the Fountain. I really couldn't remember a thing about the movie, but I knew that I'd seen it, a million years ago. Not when it was new, certainly - I wasn't really going to grown-up movies in 1954. (Yes, I know; it's hard to believe. A couple of years later, though, I'd stay in my seat after the kiddie matinee and watch the first ten minutes of High Society. That was how long it took my mother to hiss her way down the aisle and extract me.)

February 16, 2007


It's so bitterly cold outside that I "forgot" about going to the movies this morning until I'd missed all the first showings. I almost went to see Breach, at 1:50, but at the last minute I did not feel like dragging myself to 72nd and Third. Too far! Then I asked Fossil Darling if he'd see Avenue Montaigne with me at 5:50, but he has out-of-town guests. So I have resolved to stay home and master, for once and for all, the dispute between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.

Governance, the Joke

My Front Page piece this week, about the nonsense that "corporate governance" has become, concerns a New Yorker article that isn't available online. Sorry! The issue has a two-week span, so you'll be able to find it long before it disappears.

Kathleen did a lot of work for Barclays Global Investors when they were setting up their ETFs. She has been very sorry to hear about Pattie Dunn's cancers.

February 15, 2007

This Entry Was Authorized By All Concerned


In a phone conversation last Sunday, Miss G all but blurted out that when she came to dinner the following weekend, she would be bringing "someone." I was told the young man's name, and then, almost as an afterthought, his dietary preferences (happily identical to M le Neveu's). That was it. A name and a steak.

Today, I received a note from Miss G, retailing a few welcome basics, facts that will make it unnecessary to appear to grill our guest on Sunday. Questions such as "Where are you from?" "What do you do?" will not have to be asked. Everyone assures me that these things just come up on their own, but I don't have to count on that unlikelihood anymore. There was also a snapshot. I'd love to post it, but I'll have to ask permission for that, and permission will have to be asked in person. Let's just say that I've got two great smiles beaming out at me from a silver frame on my desk.

Man, am I happy!

February 14, 2007

Let It Snow

Finally, it's snowing. Since I don't have to leave the house, shovel a sidewalk, or drive a car, I'm quite content. I can enjoy snow the way children do. What I love most about snowfall is the deep quiet. Even in Manhattan, noises are hushed. Only the occasional gust of wind makes a sound.

I sit reading, half-listening to recordings of Bach cantatas. I know about twenty, perhaps thirty cantatas well, but there are over two hundred in all. Some of them are very short, it's true. I've probably listened to twenty or thirty just once, because, say, they were on the other side of the LP. When I was young, and didn't have many records, I listened to the other side of the LP whether I was crazy about it or not, but later on this wasn't necessary. Now I rarely hear anything new. The other day, though, I ordered two CDs, Volumes 24 and 25 of the BIS series of recordings of the cantatas by the Bach Collegium Japan, led by Masaaki Suzuki. Each CD that I ordered features a favorite cantata (BWV 8 and 78), and yesterday I got round to listening to them.

And now I can think of nothing else but the alto aria, "Wie furchtsam wankten meine Schritte," from Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 33. "How fearful were my steps; but Jesus heard my prayers and showed me the way to His Father." The tune is more an arabesque than a melody, centered on octave jumps and syncopation. The muted violins play it in unison, while the rest of the strings pluck the harmony. The singer starts out with it but soon wanders off into contrasting material. Cadences seem to resolve themselves before I'm quite ready for them to do so. The aria is as hushed as the snowfall. I've never heard anything like it.

I've been listening to the Bach Collegium Japan's recordings of the Passions, on alternating weekends, while doing the dusting. Last Saturday, I thought I'd try something different and pulled down Herbert von Karajan's 1973 recording of the Saint Matthew Passion. I bought the CD twenty years ago at least, and in those days it wasn't so old. Now it's hardly listenable. I almost took it off during the opening number. It's so slow! So ponderous! So allmächtiger Bach! But the singers are glorious, and I got into the swing (or lack thereof) eventually.

Actually, I made a second discovery yesterday, sort of. For months now, I've had Angela Hewitt's recording of the Partitas in the changer (along with the keyboard concerti and - a very nice match - a CD of the Brahms violin sonatas that a friend burned for me). I can't remember what I was doing, but suddenly I was entirely engaged by music that resisted familiarity. I'd "heard" it dozens of times, but now I was almost badgering it, as if I were tonguing a loose tooth. The music never went where it seemed about to go, and to call it "hesitant" would be an understatement. Eventually I grabbed the jewel box and discovered that I had just made personal acquaintance with one of Bach's big-time masterpieces, the Sarabande from the Sixth Partita.

Tomorrow night, Angela Hewitt won't be playing any Bach, at least according to an article in the Times today. Kathleen will be stuck at the printer, so Ms NOLA's going to accompany me. Can't wait!

In the Book Review

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

The one book in this week's review that I'm certain to read is The Unbinding, by Walter Kirn. I don't know whether I like Mr Kirn's fiction better than his criticism; I hold both in high regard and enjoy reading them. Unlike reviewer Matt Wieland, I remember "what happens in Up in the Air." James Fenton's poetry seems worth looking into; I like Mr Fenton's criticism in The New York Review of Books, and at least the review showed me what he looks like. There ought to have been a picture of David Matthews to accompany the review of his memoir. Google him and you'll see why.

It may seem that I've dismissed the books about Pete Maravich simply because they're "about sports," but that's not so. When a review says that the most exciting thing about a book is the index of videos that one can turn to, then the book doesn't deserve a review in the Review. I will admit that Bill Elliott would have had to write an extremely good book, with plenty of general interest, in order to surmount my immense disdain for NASCAR.

Field Maloney's Essay, "Cover Stories," is not an essay at all, but an analysis of something called "the big book look" - ie, dust jackets.


Will Blythe's sympathetic review of Jim Harrison's new novel, Returning to Earth, begins cleverly, with a summary of what Mr Blythe takes to be Mr Harrison's credo. ("Welcome animals into your life.") Most of what follows is a book report that mentions but never addresses the novel's cosmology, one in which bears play a leading role. There is no attempt to measure the no-doubt considerable depth and power of Mr Harrison's writing. It's not enough for a Times reviewer to tell us that a book is worth our time.

Stephen Metcalf makes a strong case for the importance of James Fenton's Selected Poems, a surprisingly thin and inexpensive volume.

References to the shattering reality of violence abound in Fenton's poetry, but they rarely disturb its surface, itself often a peculiar combination of prosodic virtuosity and slangy, almost contemptuous nonchalance.

Matt Weiland reviews Walter Kirn's new novel, The Unbinding, with sympathy and insight.

But machinations of plot have never been the main reason to read Kirn's novels. Like his criticism, which is among the finest of any contemporary writer uncollected between hard covers, Kirn's fiction is marked by mean wit, sharp prose and clever insights into American folly.

This review will tell you whether or not The Unbinding, which began as an open-ended, heavily-hyperlinked page at Slate, is for you. Uzodinma Iweala gives Andrea Levy's Fruit of the Lemon a brief but sympathetic review.

Though Levy writes specifically about black Jamaican Britons and their struggles to be acknowledged as full members of the larger society, her novel illuminates the general situation facing all children of postcolonial immigrants across the West, from the banlieue of France to the Islamic neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

The review also praises, but declines to quote, Ms Levy's writing.

Bliss Broyard's favorable review of Ace of Spades: A Memoir assumes that I know something about David Matthews, which I don't. I take it that there's more to Mr Matthews's than being the son of a black journalist who, thanks to a "phenotypic fluke," is able to pass as a white man. Nor is there any mention of the fact that the reviewer's father, Anatole Broyard, had the same good fortune. As a meditation on race as a social construction, however, Ace of Spades would seem to be an important book.

Finally, Richard Brookhiser drily praises A J Langguth's Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence, holding it up to the formidable example of Henry Adams's massive account of the war.

At 2,700 pages Adams also demands a major commitment. Union 1812 offers to give readers who are not ironmen all they want to know about America's second major war.


It's hard to tell from Alexandra Jacobs's review whether Bridie Clark's Because She Can is an edgy and absorbing entrant in the "assistant lit" subgenre - it does for Judith Regan what The Devil Wears Prada did for Anna Wintour - or a piece of trash. Ms Jacobs is not clear, although she does suggest that all the laughs are generated by one character - never a good sign.

Elizabeth Schmidt's review of Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route gave me little idea of what sort of book was under discussion. Ms Schmidt likes the book well enough, praising its scholarship as well as its writing. But she also makes it sound like an uncomfortable marriage of personal memoir (nobody in Ms Hartman's family will talk about the slavery of their ancestors), journalism (neither will present-day Ghanaians), and research (into what, I'm not sure).

By the end of her stay inn Africa, Hartman faces the fact that she hasn't found "the signpost that pointed the way to those on the opposite shore of the Atlantic."

The mission seems murky. As for Allan Shawn's Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life, you may wonder why I've placed it with the "Maybes." Surely a book by the son of longtime New Yorker and well-regarded composer must be important. James Campbell's review, however, raises a gigantic caveat.

The decision to parade the personal only to the extent that it provides insight into the medical is taken on grounds of tact, but most readers seek more from a book than self-therapy.

A book that's really just about phobia? How sad! Jay Griffith's Wild: An Elemental Journey seems to suffer from a related disorder, according to Elizabeth Royte.

... but Griffiths can be a little intense - the sort of person you might want to avoid at a cocktail party. An immersionist, she wants to let her blood course into the earth, to lie naked in the sun, to feel the tides flood her body, "inside and out." Fine, but Griffiths bracing prose is too often stoked with anger, with a hair-trigger contempt for anything that epitomizes the bridled world, including indoor sex, clean fingernails, golf ("greenery made stupid"), missionaries and the measurement of land, money or time.


According to Geoff Nicholson, Heart-Shaped Box, the debut novel by Joe Hill - Stephen King's son - isn't a very good novel. Rather, it's written by someone who "seems to know his audience" - in other words, its a brand, not a book.

The two books about the late basketball player Pete Maravich - Maravich, by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill; and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, by Mark Kriegel - are out of bounds, because for reviewer Jay Jennings, "the most exciting part of either of these books for me was in an appendix to Maravich under the 'Selected References'" section, titled 'Video'..." Heave-ho!

As for US Guys: the True and Twisted Mind of the American Man, by Charlie LeDuff, Allison Glock's ew-inspired review concludes thus:

In the end, we only learn a whole lot about the true and twisted mind of one American man. Who happens to believe he's Everyman. And it that's the case, then LeDuff help us.

No, No, No

The presence of Awesome Bill From Dawsonville: my Life in Nascar, by Bill Elliott with Chris Millard, in the pages of the Book Review would be offensive if it weren't so preposterous. Books about unusual walks of life are not self-validating; they must ground themselves in the common ground of personal reflection, not in the peculiarities of an exciting career. (This might explain why so many of the best memoirs are written by writers.) Reviewer Dana Jennings suggests that Awesome Bill has a fatal heart condition:

Saddest of all, Elliott confesses to how little pleasure he took in his long, bright career.

February 12, 2007

Music at the Met

After Friday night's concert at the Met (our Met, the museum), Kathleen and I skittered in the cold to a trattoria on 84th near Madison, the Caffe Grazie. After a while, I realized that the couple of the next table had been to the same performance, and I ventured a remark. We were soon in deep conversation about the evening. I was assured that Edward Arron, the Artistic Coordinator of MMArtists (whom we'd just heard), is the son of the late Judith Arron, the great director of Carnegie Hall before her untimely death of cancer. I'd been hoping that he was just a nephew; what a load it must be to know that there's a beautiful performing space in Manhattan that was your mother's idea, and that that was supposed to be named after her - until a couple of richnicks came along and bought the naming rights to Zankel Hall.

Here's my report. Op. 34 is worth your time!

Books on Monday: Prime Green

Robert Stone's Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties has made me look back to the most troubled decade that I have lived through. Having recovered from the Depression and World War II, the nation proceeded to fall apart, and it has been falling apart ever since. What folly! To found a New World of Hope and Promise - upon the scripture Hebrew Bible! It could never work, and it hasn't. One day we will grow up and do something about it. For the moment, we seem to be stuck in a jam, between those for whom the Sixties revealed what we might be, and those for whom the Sixties was the end of a cherished order. I wish that I could be as good-humored about the period as Mr Stone is. He has written a dandy memoir, more about the times than about himself, and more than once it brought the very smell of the time back with a rush. 

What I'm reading now: Olaf Olafsson's Valentines - one story a day - and E M Forster's A Room With a View, for the third time. And, perhaps prodded by Prime Green, I'm finally opening up Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975.

Don't miss this hilariously mortifying study of how we civilians look to Tech Support. And be sure to check out some British writers' rooms. Only Beryl Bainbridge's desk doesn't face a wall. I need a room to look out into. (Thanks to Patricia for both!)

Read about Prime Green at Portico.

February 11, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Eating Healthy

Before I run off to Eli's to buy a chicken pot pie for dinner, I want to share a treat from The Atlantic, where, on page 102 of the March 2007 issue, Sandra Tsing Loh tells us about two women, friends of hers, who roam the frontier of sexual adventure.

Which is to say I speak to you candidly about some lesbians I know, two lesbians. They live in a suburb of Los Angeles. They're both a hair north of forty. One is a computer technician; the other, a hospital administrator. Physically, they are much as you might picture them. For the past twelve years, Teri and Pat have had a special Monday-night ritual. They order an extra-large cheese pizza (sixteen slices). While waiting - and I am not making this us - they settle in on the couch with large twin bags of Doritos. Each chipped is dipped first in Philadelphia cream cheese and then in salsa. Cream cheese, salsa. Cream cheese, salsa. Cream cheese, salsa. The Doritos are finished to the last crumb, and the, upon arrival, the pizza as well. For Teri and Pat, this night of a million carbs is, by special agreement, guilt free. Both feel that it is better than sex.

That salsa bowl can't be pretty.

I couldn't begin - or, rather, I could only begin to eat that much food. I seem to have left the delights of gorging behind. The problem that remains is my taste in food, which is limited to dairy products, smoked meats, and deep-fried foods. With an occasional piece of chocolate (no more). What about pasta, you ask, and my reply is that pasta is simply a delivery system for dairy products and smoked meats. I wouldn't dream of eating an unbuttered dinner roll. While I can eat most vegetables without revulsion, they don't interest me in the slightest anymore. As a child, I loved carrot-and-raisin salad (made with mayonnaise - dairy!), but now I can't be bothered to make it. Increasingly, I only want to eat what I really want to eat. Otherwise, I'd just as soon go without.

On the bright side, I lost my sweet tooth decades ago. I get all my sugar from gin.

February 10, 2007

Epic Movie


"Whoa, it's Stifler's Mom."

I'll see Jennifer Coolidge in anything. No one is funnier just standing still. The clip above does not come from Epic Movie, but can you tell me what she's saying?

Find out here.

February 09, 2007

In The New Yorker

We can't know what we don't know; we can just have a good idea of some matters that have got to be cleared up in a way that will add to what we do know. For the earlier millennia of human history, what was known and knowable was set in stone, and philosophers busied themselves with interpreting it. Ever since the Renaissance, however, we have lived with a bang of increased knowledge that bangs louder and more frequently every year, so that now, for most of us, it is just a staticky hum. Most pessimists will tell you that we still haven't learned anything about the real human mysteries, but there's reason to believe that those have only recently begun to be studied in a meaningful way, through neuroscience. Pat and Paul Churchland are philosophers who have devoted their careers to scrutinizing neuroscientific concepts and applying them to life outside the laboratory. Larissa MacFarquhar profiles them in The New Yorker.

I need a drink. My dopamine levels need lifting.

Read about the Churchlands at Portico.

February 08, 2007

Mr Deity

Yesterday, Joe posted a link to the Mr Deity videos at YouTube. Brian Keith Dalton's hugely funny shorts, which the Mr Deity site tells us are sketches for a half-hour comedy show, seem on the face of it to poke fun at Judeo-Christian beliefs. But that's not how I see it. I turn the telescope around and peer through the other end. What if Creation were the undertaking of some American corporation?

What if "God" were played by a dithering project manager, so beset by delusions of grandeur that the idea of accountability never crossed his mind? What if the Holy Spirit - "Larry" here - were the impatient, stressed-out, but ultimately sycophantic deputy actually responsible for making things happen? What if "Jesus" were an aimiable, team-playing lug who looked great with football greasepaint under his eyes? And what if Satan - "Lucy" - were the hysterical female executive, butting her head against the glass ceiling?

Now, go watch the clips again.

All four actors are superb, but there's something about Mr Dalton's high-pitched wheeze that's truly divine.

A Tale of Two Bistros

My friend, Diana Bradshaw, and I usually give each other lunch at home, on a rotating basis. It was my turn today, but there was no way that I could whip up anything smart at home, so I took us to the Café d'Alsace, where we both had croque monsieur. It was Diana's first. When we ordered, the waiter rather witlessly asked if we wanted to share one croque, and Diana was immediately concerned that there would be too much food on her plate. In the event, there was, but she took home the half sandwich that she couldn't eat, having delighted in the other. A gentle warm-up in the oven will bring what she took home right back to its creamy crunchiness.

And that would have been it for my day out. I came home and sat down to write. For one reason or another, writing did not go well. I wrote up a book so peremptorily that I was done in fewer than three paragraphs. I turned to another book, with better results. But when a friend reported a crisis, I insisted that she come for tea. I made a new batch of my ragù while we talked it over. By the time she left, I was in a thoroughly gregarious frame of mind.

So, even though I was "too sick" last night to go to Carnegie Hall to hear glorious Orpheus - featured tenor Ian Bostridge canceled due to illness, so I thought I might as well do the same - I dashed down to NoLITa for another reading at McNally Robinson Booksellers. Ms NOLA had dropped word of the event while I was struggling with one of my books, and almost anything, even braving the arctic cold, seemed preferable to struggling in front of the machine. It turned worth the trip to hear Olaf Olafsson talk about his new collection of stories, Valentines. I wished I'd looked as good as he does when I was his age - forty four.

Ordinarily, I'd have come straight home. Ms NOLA told me that she was going to "dash home" the minute the reading was over. But Kathleen complicated things a bit by insisting that I call her when the reading was over; perhaps we could get together for dinner. Okay - but where? Neither one of us knows NoLITa. In fact, we're aware of exactly three restaurants south of Fourteenth Street. I knew that Balthazar was not far from the bookshop, but there's always a crowd, and it's fairly grand for a routine weeknight dinner. Ms NOLA agreed to walk me there while she brainstormed about alternatives. Unfortunately, I obstinately walked us in the wrong direction, east instead of west, so that by the time we actually got to Balthazar I was perfectly happy with a forty-five minute wait, as long as I could stay warm.

I was exploiting Ms NOLA shamelessly. She was going to be the other half of my party of two until Kathleen arrived. But by the time Kathleen arrived - long after Ms NOLA and I had been seated; long before the duration of forty-five minutes - Ms NOLA had gently put the question of what I wanted her to do when Kathleen arrived. Exploitation was neither thinkable nor desirable. I asked the waiter to ask the maître d' if the table next to us, which was being cleared, could be held for a "friend" who would be joining us. When someone from the front of the house came to deal with my request, I updated my "friend" to my "wife." We were moved a few tables toward the center of the room, to a genuine table for four. Staff couldn't have been nicer.

I love Balthazar. The food is fine - the best steak-frites in New York -  but I could care less about that. I love the big, bustling room, because it's also the warmest busy restaurant that I've ever been to, warmer even than the Grand Colbert in Paris. French or not - and the waiters are wonderfully sérieux - it's Manhattan in its wildest dreams. Everyone, even the toughened regulars clustered at the bar, is faintly surprised that the scene is really happening.

The funniest thing was the view in the mirror. I was a pink and white head in a sea of tan and dark. There was no one in the room with remotely the same complexion. I still felt right at home.

February 07, 2007

In the Book Review

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

Fighting a cold, I haven't been very enthusiastic this week, at least about the Book Review.  The dispiriting cloud of dusty triviality was thicker in this week's issue than it usually is. Only one of the six novels seemed unmistakably serious, and almost a third of the nonfiction titles struck me as miscellaneous and lacking or failing to merit truly general interest. 

I did like Greg Clarke's very droll gargoyle, above, which illustrates Caroline Weber's review of Andrew Hussey's Paris: The Secret History. I've seen this book in the shops, and I agree with something that Ms Weber hints at: it could have been much more solid.


Kaiama L Glover's rousing review of Michael Thomas's novel, Man Gone Down, manages to make reading the book sound like elevating homework. She explores its many racial issues at the expense of explaining what sounds like a feverish plot.

One of the bigger questions posed by the novel is how to pursue the American and other dreams when the realities of race stand so mightily in the way.

It's a bit numbing. A more intriguing, not to say appealing, tale of advance in America is told, if Warren Goldstein's review is to be trusted, by Stephanie Capparell's The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business. After World War II, Pepsi chief Walter S Mack, Jr, resolved to capture the "Negro Market" for his soda. He hired Edward F Boyd to run a team of twelve African-American salesmen.

More journalism than history, more inspiration than analysis, The Real Pepsi Challenge nevertheless deepens our appreciation not, as the author would have it, for the platitude "that diversity is good for business and that business should be good for diversity," but for the persistence and courage of those willing to break barriers and risk the consequences.

David Orr, writing about the Notebooks of Robert Frost seems more interested in alliances and enmities among American poets than in discussing Frost's notebooks; as happens so often in the Book Review, this is "poetry criticism" that reads like a Page Six for poets.

No, the point is that whenever we begin forming up teams in American poetry, we run into the problem of picking sides for such complex and hard-to-place poets as Frost, T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens (not to mention Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Lorine Niedecker.

Why, this problem often keeps me up at night. (The problem poets constitute their own team.)

David Oshinsky's very good review of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver, by Arthur Allen, tells of hope and wonder giving way to suspicion and benightedness.

The problem appears to be growing. As more children go unvaccinated in the United States, there has been a rise in vaccine-preventable diseases. Meanwhile, fewer pharmaceutical companies are no producing vaccines, citing the high cost of te4sting, diminishing markets and a fear of litigation. For Allen, a reversal of these trends will require something long overdue: a frank discussion of about the risks and benefits of vaccination. His splendid book is a smart place to begin.

Niall Ferguson is too complex a writer - and certainly too demanding a critic - for the pages of the Book Review. That's another way of saying that his work in this line is not fully intelligible to those who haven't yet read the book under discussion. This leaves the reader in a state of greater, not lesser, confusion. Even though I haven't read it, I believe that Rupert Smith's important book, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, deserves a heartier recommendation to general readers. 

Can we do better in future? Here Smith delivers less than I had hoped for.

Ben MacIntyre's review of Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, is more helpfully sympathetic - to the reader as well as to the writer.

Indian diplomats, academics, Hindu nationalists and makes of cow-dung anti-dandruff shampoo will not enjoy this book. Most others, I suspect, will relish even the more stringing appraisals it contains, for what comes through is a whole-souled enthusiasm for the place and its possibilities, an optimism that Indian democracy will always overcome.

Simon Blackburn is quite warm about A C Grayling's Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, but he spends his review on a thumbnail of the philosopher's life and work, and he has nothing to say about the book except that it "deftly conjures up the political and religious conflicts of [Europe], and brings to life those distant characters and events that began to shape modern Europe..." Mr Blackburn does not address the need for a new book about a foundational philosopher, and, for a philosophy professor himself, he oddly neglects to urge readers to read Descartes.


It is much easier to decide which nonfiction books are worthy of attention than it is to do the same for novels, because subject matter is so much less a matter of importance. One must rely on the very review that one is assessing. Thomas Mallon's review of Consolation, by Michael Redhill, is sympathetic, and, with a substantial excerpt, would have given a clear picture of the novel - insofar as it is possible to be clear about a pair of muddy stories about Toronto, photography, and excavation. One is left with a doubt that Consolation might be more curiosity than classic. Similarly, Ben Fong-Torres fails to lift Bich Minh Nguyen's Stealing Buddha's Dinner: A Memoir, above the taint of triviality that seeps from too much talk about food.

Christopher de Bellaigue writes of Skylark Farm, a novel about the Armenian Genocide by Antonia Arslan, that

Putting down this book, it's worth trying to separate Arslan the promising novelist from Arslan the iffy historian.

That's about as damning as one might inadvertently be. Indeed, the overall impression made by the review is that Skylark Farm is a rallying cry for the Armenian diaspora. Michael Gorra is somewhat more straightforward about Louis Begley's Matters of Honor.

It's an idiosyncratic voice - though only enough to irritate, not interest. Sam presents himself as a lens on Henry's life, an invisible witness to his eventual decision to cut whatever ties the New World has given him. But that lens keeps losing its focus.

This may be fun to read, but it's not good reviewing. Mr Gorra hints that Mr Begley has written this book before, only better. If so, it doesn't merit free-standing coverage.

Elizabeth Gaffney's review of Michael Lewenthal's Charity Girl is sympathetic; Louisa Thomas's review of Alice Hoffman's Skylight Confessions is not. Neither makes a solid case for including the book in the Review.

Simon Hussey's Paris: The Secret History seems, in Caroline Weber, to be a racy but not very diligent look at the underside of Paris, a raucous celebration of less privileged Parisians over the centuries that talks of the "Palais de Luxembourg" and neglects important related work by Michel Foucault and Robert Darnton.

I had to reread Blake Bailey's review of The Way It Wasn't: From the Files of James Laughlin, edited by Barbara Epler and Daviel Javich a second time, aloud, because I missed, the first time, Mr Bailey's single sentence about the book, which he says

is handsome, lavishly illustrated and cobbled together purely for the fun of it. It deserves a place on the coffee table or toilet tank of any discerning littérateur.

Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, the publisher of experimental and otherwise advanced American writing, kept an informal "auto-bug-offery" that now achieves posthumous publication. Mr Bailey devotes the bulk of his review to a recap of Laughlin's life. It's very beside the point.

Tom Ferrell's review of Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air, by Kathleen C Winters, says that the book is "pointed and modest," and "concerned almost entirely with Anne as a figure in aviation history." More curiosities!

Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality: A History of Dominant Ideas, by Ewen and Ewen (a husband-and-wife team of scholars) clearly addresses an important subject, but David Berreby's review is so unfavorable - almost hostile - that one wonders what the book is doing in the Review in the first place. A nosegay of incomplete sentences:

Dripping with unearned knowingness, indifferent to the factual debate. And just plain wrong.

My heart sank when I turned the page and saw Tara McKelvey's Nonfiction Chronicle. I thought they might have given up on this unsatisfying format, which is both too long and too short. If a book is not significant enough for a free-standing review, then it deserves no more than a sentence or two that notes its publication with the breeziest assessment. (John Leonard used to do this very well at The Atlantic, where Benjamin Healy and Benjamin Schwarz continue in updated style.) Stretched out over a long paragraph, a review is almost certain to lose focus, especially when Ms McKelvey, whose impatience with the format is palpable, starts out spaciously, in features-article style. I no longer see the point in evaluating these pieces. They're literary monsters, not meant to be.


Terry McAuliffe (with Steve Kettman) appears to have written a name-dripping memoir, What a Party! My Life Among Democrats, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and Other Wild Animals. Of McAuliffe on the Global Crossing scandal, Rick Perlstein complains,

You might say the more proximate wrongdoing was going on TV in an election year in which corporate greed was the Democrats' best issue and saying a company that had only not quite swindled millions of pensioners and individual investors was "great" - and then being so un-self-aware as to brag about it in your memoir.

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review, writes this week's Essay, "Beyond Criticism," a propos of the Library of America's publication of three Saul Bellow novels. The title says it all.

February 06, 2007

Vestal McIntyre at KGB Bar

It seems that I'm no longer on the mailing list. For several years, I would receive sporadic postcards inviting me to readings at the KGB Bar, on East 4th Street. I never went. It was too far away, on several dimensions. But when I heard that Vestal McIntyre would be reading there last week, I screwed up my resolve actually went, despite the frigid weather.

Ms NOLA had been recently and advised me to get there early, so aimed for six o'clock. That would have been overdoing it. I forgot the address, and had to call Kathleen from the street. (Bless you, Google.) Even so, six twenty was plenty early. There were three patrons and the bartender. I asked where the reading would be, and the answer was "here." I asked again, and the bartender pointed to a podium in the corner. I took a seat at the bar and hunkered down. For one reason or another, I didn't feel like reading. Nor was I inclined to strike up a conversation with the much younger men alongside me. I just sipped my martini and quietly marveled at the fact that I was perched on a stool in a dark little bar on the second floor of a walkup in the East Village. If I were twenty-one, I'd have thrilled myself into a heart attack. (KGB Bar wasn't open when I was twenty-one. Or when I was thirty-one. How about forty-six?)

The KGB Bar is only somewhat larger than our living room, which is just as well, because the microphone wasn't working and the readers had to speak up. A statue of Lenin graces the bar, and, as you can see in the photo, a Soviet flag hangs from the ceiling. The cupboards with stained-glass doors hold - well, I don't remember what they hold. The extra liquor, though, will be found in a locked compartment down below. Needless to say, KGB is a cash-only operation. By seven, the place was almost crammed.

The reading was sponsored by Open City, which published Mr McIntyre's nonfiction piece about his hometown, Nampa, Idaho. Editor Joanna Yas introduced the readers, beginning with an odd question: how many people learned about the reading on MySpace? Or one of those sites. It seems that no one present did, which baffled Ms Yas. It appeared to me that another network had roped in most of the audience/patrons: the one that connects junior staff at publishing houses - young women, for the most part, who'd brought their boyfriends. Mind you, I could only swivel my stool far enough to see the podium, so I have no idea of the demographic, but it sounded extremely youthful to me. Which is very heartening.

The first reader was Rakesh Satyal, a writer from Cincinnati. Well, he studied writing at Princeton with a host of luminaries, including Joyce Carol Oates. Whether the novel from which he read is in the publishing offing or not I don't recall - now you see how abysmal a reporter I am when they don't hand out program notes - but I'm going to look for it. The excerpt was very funny, and it wound up with an ingenious and very satisfying twist. It was somewhat difficult to imagine the densely bearded reader playing with his mother's makeup - if playing is the word - but Mr Satyal's voice was apt. We all laughed heartily.

There was a short break, during which the bartender was very busy, and then Mr McIntyre read "The Trailer at the End of the Driveway." Although much shorter, it shares the bittersweet tone of "Mom-Voice," the writer's contribution to From Boys to Men; but it has nothing of the mordant grimness of "Sahara," the one Nampa story in You Are Not Alone. The humor takes the form of conversational offhandedness - raised eyebrows in print.

I liked her. If we met we would talk about how it was hard to be gay (or whatever she was) in Idaho. For me, it had been impossible.

It was just as quietly funny to hear as it had been to read.

Afterward, I lost no time in pressing my copy of You Are Not Alone into Vestal McIntyre's hands for an autograph. He could not have been more gracious.

I thought about downing another martini, and then thought better. I'd had a very nice time, and I wanted to leave it that way. Time for the dinosaurs to clear out. It was just past eight, and of course I beat Kathleen home.

February 05, 2007

En passant

Catching up on The Nation, I came upon a passage that had, for me, the effect of a bombshell in reverse: it created order where there had only been disarray. It's Terry Eagleton, reviewing Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Dancing in the Streets.

Sport is one of the most formidable adversaries of the political left, one that offers ordinary people a uniquely powerful alternative to political engagement: cherished traditions, camaraderie, strenuous competition, a glittering pantheon of heroes and heroines, factual erudition, aesthetic appreciation, technical prowess and a good deal more. It is all rather more entrancing that the average cell meeting. The bad news for baseball-loving leftists is that they are going to have to choose.

I try not to write about sports, because I have nothing good to say about the subject. Sometimes I think, grand-inquisitorially, that it's just as well that the circuses keep the hoi polloi distracted, because who knows what mischief they'd get up to if it weren't for Super Bowls. Another inversion: whereas as racists usually get on well with individual members of the despised group by treating them as exceptions, I have no strong feelings about the mass of sports fans out there but am disappointed and hurt whenever a friend tells me that he's just enjoyed a game. My antipathy has grown much worse in the current century, because I am convinced that American sports madness is a sine qua non for the election of types the likes of George W Bush.

Books on Monday: Call Me By Your Name

What with a lot of down-time due to illness, I've read a great deal lately, and the books are piling up at my desk. Rather stupidly, I've written about the last one first, André Aciman's beautiful Call Me By Your Name. I couldn't not. Other books in the pipeline: U.S.!, a genuinely political novel by Chris Bachelder; Ten Days in the Hills, by Jane Smiley; Prime Green, by Robert Stone; Fire in the City, a study of the Savonarolan republic in Florence, by Lauro Martines; and Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's An American Killing. Great reads all. But I didn't write them up the moment I was finished, and now I'm in big trouble.

What I'm reading: A Room With A View, one of my favorite Forsters. Les Bienveillants, by Jonathan Littell. The latter is not easy going; I cover about ten pages an hour. (I'm being unusually scrupulous about looking up words that I don't know, and the book's vocabulary is immense.) At dinner, the other night, I learned that Édouard is twice as far into the book as I am, and that got me to spend an hour with it on Saturday afternoon. We agree that Les Bienveillants (The Kindly Ones - due from HarperCollins in a year or two) is a very great book. Everybody will want to read it, and then there will be a shattering movie not directed by Steven Spielberg.

A small warning about my page on Call Me By Your Name: novelist Nicole Reader cautions readers who "like your literature censored" not to read it. She means it as a compliment, and so do I, very much, in the last passage that I quote.

February 04, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Food for Thought

On Thursday night, I went down to the West Village to have dinner with Édouard, of Sale Bête, and le copain. The latter, a very fit triathlete, expressed an understandable impatience with the idea of treating obesity as a disease, at least on today's broad scale. I asked him if he had read Michael Pollan's critique of nutritionism in the Sunday Times Magazine. He hadn't, and I did a very bad job of arguing its importance, in part because I couldn't decide which is worse, Americans' credulousness or their government's inaction. As a result, my comments were disorganized and inconsequent. I hope I've done better here.  

There's a line of thought in Mr Pollan's piece that I don't take up at Portico: the bad science inherent in premature findings. What we don't yet know about life in scientific terms stretches like an infinite dessert beyond the little that we do know, and most of what we know is reductionist, the study of discrete areas. We know just enough about nutrition, it seems, to confuse everyone. Once upon a time, for example, fats were fats. Now there are "good" fats and "bad" fats. We can be sure that there is much more to be learned, and "scientists" who draw sweeping dietary conclusions from what we happen to know at the moment are not doing their job.

We had dinner at the Hudson Street branch of Le Gamin. My roast chicken was delicious, but I was too interested in the conversation to be very assiduous about cutting it up. Perhaps Édouard will be good enough to remind me of the name of the very fine wine that the three of us drank two bottles of.

February 03, 2007

Because I Said So

What a situation! There were only three movies out there that I was thinking of seeing, and my first choice, Because I Said So, got an awful review in yesterday's Times. So did Factory Girl, my second choice. I even considered Epic Movie, at least until I discovered its MetaCritic rating, a perilously low 17. Although Factory Girl, the movie about Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, and - oops! - a Bob Dylan-like figure, scored a 37 to Because I Said So's 30 (how abysmal is that?), the latter movie won my admission, partly because it was showing at eleven, right across the street, and partly because I'm crazy about Diane Keaton these days. (She has really shed Georgia Mozell, the creepily self-absorbed sister in Hanging Up.) I wound up liking Because I Said So very much. It occurred to me that today's critics are unlikely to be the parents of grown children, and therefore unable to sympathize with Ms Keaton's overprotective mom. I knew exactly what she felt, even though I knew she was going to have to change her ways. (In the end, love of another kind changes them for her.)

Call it a "chick-flick" if you must, but Because I Said So very well may feature the breakout performance of Gabriel Macht, a boy from the Bronx who seems at times to be channeling George Peppard, who shone at a time when "boyish" meant anything but "immature."

Read more about Because I Said So at Portico.

February 02, 2007

In the New York Review of Books

William Pfaff's ought to be a household name in the United States. I believe that he reflects our best traits: pragmatic, clear-eyed, constructively self-interested, and - not a widespread trait, although it is not uncommon - able to understand how we might appear to others. Mr Pfaff does not see what he wants to see; he is not about to tell you what you want to hear. You wouldn't want your doctor or your lawyer to mislead you, however sweetly, and you ought to expect the same leveling from your political analysts.

Read more, or skip directly to Mr Pfaff's essay.

February 01, 2007

Taking Stock: Maladies Virtual and Otherwise

For over a week, I've been beset by two illnesses. A nasty cold morphed into something more gastro-enterological. Much discomfort, but nothing next to the plague of unknown spam that has created an uproar at my Web host. Don't ask me to explain, because it has something to do with MovableType and it can't just be MovableType because in that case I'd be reading about the scourge on blog after blog. Fortunately, I've found someone to give me a hand, but as I still don't really understand what the problem is, or how it happens, I'm far from content.

What I'm taking stock of this week, then, is my own vulnerability to maladies, corporeal and virtual. I don't really know which is worse. The physical illness is obviously more unpleasant, but the digital problems interfere with what I now regard as my professional life. Frankly, I'd rather have the intestinal cramps.

Light posting, at any rate, must be understood in these terms. I'm reluctant to write my customary swathes of prose if I can't promptly upload them. Lucky you.