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March 31, 2007

After the Wedding

This week's movie was Susanne Bier's Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding), starring Mads Mikkelsen, with Rolf Lassgård, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Stine Fischer Christensen. After the Wedding is a deeply affecting film about family and regret, and about the natural limits of benevolence.

It's also impossible to say more than that without giving away the plot, so stop here if you want to be surprised by the movie.

After the Wedding.

March 30, 2007

Gotham Wishes

The Daily Blague extends the heartiest happy birthday wishes to Brooke Astor, who turns 105 today, although who's counting? (She almost certainly, sadly, isn't.) We also do our best to conceal our ghoulish anticipation of the lowdown, written, if we're lucky, by Dominick Dunne, about her son's financial stewardship, which was stripped from him in December.

And while we're wishing, let's hope that the front-page story, "Testimony by Giuliani Indicates He Was Briefed on Kerik in '00," together with an oddball but completely that's-our-guy accompaniment, "In His White House, Giuliani Says, His Wife Might Have a Very Visible Role as Adviser," put a big hole in the hull of the former mayor's presidential candidacy.

His third wife, let's not forget. Not that I'm scolding. Mrs Astor had three husbands, too.


Louis XVI, Benedict XVI... can we arrange a switch? Louis was actually a good old boy who was true, in his way, to his school. Benedict is not so worthy.

March 29, 2007

Clean Sheets

Kathleen and I have dried our tears; we are ready to get on with the day. We cried ourselves silly over Joyce Wadler's piece in today's House & Home section, "It's Not You, It's Your Apartment." New York is a tough town. You're good-looking, you're successful, you don't ask your date to help pay the bill - what could go wrong? Well, you could stop by your house to pick up an umbrella and, getting a little distracted, lead her up to your bedroom in the attic. Innocently, of course!

"We walked up three flights of stair to the attic," she says. "It looked like a teenager's room. The computer was up there and the twin bed, his clothes were all over the floor. I was like, uuuuuh-huuuuh. He didn't even seem sorry that he lived in a 12-year-old boy's room, this was like normal behavior. It said to me, this person is not grown up yet. It was frightening. He's lived his whole life in the attic."

But it wasn't the stories of home-decor disaster that reduced us to tears; it was Ms Wadler's excellent writing. The extract just quoted comes from a section headed, "There Is a Reason Nice Buildings Are Not Named for Norman Bates." Even better:

Spring is here and the restaurants will soon be filled with anxious and hopeful couples, ordering wine, dusting off their most luminous lies, thinking they might finally have found love. Then they will see their dates' homes for the first time. And suddenly some of them will realize that they cannot be with this person a moment longer..."

There are some real characters, as we say in Gotham, in Ms Wadler's menagerie of I'll-do-it-my-way Martha Stewarts - most of whom, by the way, are men. There's Albert Podell, the well-to-do septuagenarian lawyer who has somehow managed to preserve cartoon-themed bedding for nearly forty years. (I know the secret, but it's too disgusting to repeat.) There's Bob Strauss, happily smiling as he holds up the stuffed baby seal (not a toy) that he inherited from relatives in Miami. Most touchingly, there's Evan Lobel, the modern-furniture merchant who thought that what his boyfriend would really like when he got back from a Peace Corps stint was a $2.4 million loft with a $25,000 chandelier.


"He said, 'What is this? I can't live in a place like this. I was just around people who were hungry and dying'," Mr Lobel says. "In the end we were breaking up. For a while I regretted even buying that apartment."

Thank goodness he got over the regret!

Taking Stock: Reading Turgenev and Stone

What I'm reading these days is Virgin Soil, Ivan Turgenev's last novel, and A Hall of Mirrors, Robert Stone's first. They are very unalike. Turgenev's social comedy - which, I expect, is not going to be so funny by the end - is dry and understated, prone to refrain from judgment while making it impossible for the reader to do the same. His characters are offspring, legitimate or otherwise, of the upper classes; some are richer than others but all would pass, in the England of the time, as gentlefolk.

A Hall of Miirrors takes place in a New Orleans that is unlikely to inspire nostalgia. For the down-and-out characters whose alternate stories twine through the opening of the book, New Orleans is anything but the Big Easy. It's a gritty, unwelcoming burg at the end of the Illinois Central tracks. Rheinhardt, now a drunk, was at one time a promising clarinetist at Juilliard. Geraldine's face is nastily scarred - car accident, she says. She'd like to get a job as a waitress, but prospective employers have another line of work in mind.

Somewhere in Virgin Soil - I haven't come upon it yet - a character gives the aristocracy another thirty years. In the event, they had forty, which is close enough. Everybody in the book seems to believe that some sort of fundamental change is inevitable; something like a revolution lies ahead. In A Hall of Mirrors, the revolution has already taken place. The air giddy expectation that colors Virgin Soil are replaced by the shut-down self-protectiveness of A Hall of Mirrors.

There is a streak of wild black humor in A Hall of Mirrors.

He tried to think who it was that had developed the surrender theory - and remembered Bruce, the stage Englishman with whom he had worked at WLOX in Chicago. One sad cold night, Bruce had walked into the bar of the Redcliff Hotel, where the radio studio was, and, with his overcoat draped dramatically across his narrow shoulders, announced that he was going to kill himself. He was quite eloquent about it, but the customers of the bar, Rheinhardt among them, had affected not to believe him. The Redcliff regulars sensed the remote possibility that something at last might happen around the Redcliff Hotel and did not want to spoil it. Some of the others perhaps realized that in dissauding a man from suicide they would be taking on a grave and probably improper moral responsibility for him; and that moreover, to dissuade him it would be necessary to listen to him talk at some length. The bartender was in some financial difficulty with the police and declined to sound any alarms. So Bruce, hiccoughing slightly, walked out into the properly snowy January night with a wild oath and an Old Vic flourish of his coattails.

Then, it was told, Bruce staggered across the Clark Street bridge to the Loop, had another Scotch and decided he might yet buy his life with surrender. So he sat down in the snow on the corner of State and Van Buren resolved to offer public surrender to the first authority, vehicle or private person that should happen by. Since it was the coldest of January nights with a blizzard well underway, Bruce waited for some time. But at length, there passed a two-hundred-fifty pound Mississippi cotton picker who had just debarked penniless and fighting mad from the last bus out of Dixie, who, on encountering Bruce asleep on the curb and incapable of voicing surrender, creased him over the top piece with a mail-order blackjack and stole his suicide note and wallet. Somewhat later, the Van Buren Street bus also encountered Bruce and ran over his left foot.

Some people said Bruce subsequently died of influenza. Some said he became a Trappist monk of saintly renown. Other said he had entered the Federal Civil Service. There was a further story to the effect that behind a friend chicken parlor on the South Side, the Chicago Police discovered the mysteriously dead body of a fugitive Hines County stomper - a man of little education and violent background, whose pockets yet contained a suicide note reflecting the most refined and subtle sentiments and concluding, remarkably, with whole passages from Oedipus's farewell speech in the temple at Colonus. In any case, Rheinhardt thought, Bruce had proved the impossibility of surrender on anything like acceptable terms.

I'm sure that several monographs have been written about the Subotchevs - Fomushka and Fimushka - who provide the entertainment in Chapter 19 of Virgin Soil. This elderly couple has never quite moved into the Nineteenth Century. These souvenirs of the ancien régime - the time when it seemed that Russia just might progress peacefully beyond autocracy - have preserved their Queen of Spades style of life, as much as the decay of their fortunes permits. They're both polished and dim. (The translation is Constance Garnett's.)

Then Fomushka began talking of the French of to-day, and expressed the opinion that they must all be very wicked!

"Why so, Foma Lavrentyevitch?"

"Why, only see what names they have now!"

"What, for instance?"

"Why, such as Nozhan-Tsent-Lorran (Nogent Saint Lorraine), a regular bandit's name!"

Fomushka inquired incidentally, "Who is the sovereign now in Parks?"

They told him "Napoleon," and that seemed to surprise and pain him.

"Why so?"

"Why, he must be such an old man," he began, and stopped, looking round him in confusion."

I'm also reading essays by Montaigne, but they deserve their own entry. I haven't read Montaigne since school; now, I feel old enough to appreciate them.

March 28, 2007

Out of Bed

The title of Elaine Sciolino's story, "Typical French Town Is Split Over Elections," is misleading. Ms Sciolino's report is all about voters who can't make up their minds about "Sarko, Ségo," or the self-styled Third Way, François Bayrou.

The indecision cuts across class and ethnic lines, uniting workers, merchants, union leaders, students, bureaucrats, the children of immigrants and the unemployed. Even voters who have chosen a candidate confess that their support is shallow at best.

Everyone Ms Sciolino talks to appears to have surrendered to a certain realistic cynicism: none of the candidates, if elected, will fulfill campaign promises.

Has Jacques Chirac's careerism been so corrosive as to undermine the French electorate's faith in representative government? Or does a Yoplait worker, Jean-Pierre Bertin, put his finger on the problem when he says, "France is always complaining. We always complain. But we never take action."

France today is like a guy who's sleeping in. He's very comfortable - oh! so comfortable. He would like to stay where he is forever. Trouble is, he has to pee. Five more minutes, he says. And keeps saying. Until finally he sweeps the bedclothes away and lurches to his feet. He knows that there's no point in going back to bed; that delicious comfort has been lost forever. Life goes on.

France has been dawdling in a bed of bloated public-sector employment and stringent job-protection regulation. It would seem that everyone in France must have a family member who works for the government, or who holds a job thanks only to laws that make it difficult to fire employees. Why, in other words, would anyone outside the functionally excluded pool of magrebin children want to change the system? But the system must be changed - who knows how.

Charles DeGaulle was the last man truly to lead the French, and even the slightest glance at his character and competence makes it painfully clear that there is no one like him on the scene today. French voters are probably going to have to learn to make do without magisterial authorities. They - the voters - are supposed to be the ultimate authorities. They're the ones who will have to decide to get out of bed - who ought to be making that decision now. Democracy goes on.

In the Book Review

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

What is Leni Riefenstahl doing on the cover of this week's Book Review? The same thing she always did: looking great. She was a beautiful and industrious filmmaker. These are not criteria of greatness, however. If Riefenstahl holds any interest for us today, it's in her long success at shrugging off her Nazi past - and that's not a very nice story. Riefenstahl is one of those absurdly irritating figures who thrive, even posthumously, in any kind of attention.

Erica Wagner's Essay, "Call Me, Ishmael," only half-humorously proposes that the cellular phone will drive dramatic irony from the novel.

And that's another insidious aspect of mobile telephony: its retrospective ability to make even a relatively recent novel look quaint. While it's true that the peculiar bunch of students in Donna Tartt's Secret History would never fit a common model of contemporary behavior, it's hard to believe that the murdered Bunny wouldn't have a cell, and his disappearance might be just a bit less mysterious. But the novel was published in 1992, which counts as the olden days now.

In the center of the issue, Rachel Donadio profiles book dealer Glenn Horowitz, the man behind some very rich sales of books and literary archives. The piece ends up trivializing literature by showing Mr Horowitz as just another purveyor of luxury goods.


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengetsu. Rob Nixon gives this novel about a displaced Ethiopian who keeps a small grocery in Washington, DC, such a strong review that I ordered a copy on the spot.

In Mengetsu's work, there's no such thing as the nondescript life. He notices, and there are whole worlds in his noticing. He has written a novel for an age ravaged by the moral and military fallout of cross-cultural incuriosity. In a society slick with "truthiness" - and Washington may be the capital of that - there's something hugely hopeful about this young writer's watchful honesty and egalitarian tenderness. This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.

That certainly made me sit up and pay attention!

Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, by Andrew Cockburn. Jacob Heilbrunn is just the man to review this partisan book. It is clear that he shares Mr Cockburn's dim opinion of the former Secretary of Defense, but he raps Mr Cockburn's knuckles all the same for overstating a few cases. 

The European Economy Since 1945: Coordinated Capitaliism and Beyond, by Barry Eichengreen. Sheri Berman's favorable review is also a good one. Mr Eichengreen, she writes,

reminds us that economic development calls for much more than simply the unleashing of market forces; it demands institutions capable of generating the resources, skills and relationships necessary to handle the particular economic challenges a country has to face at a particular time. And by demonstrating how institutions helpful in one era can become counterproductive in another, Eichengreen has important lessons about the future to teach both policy makers and publics.

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch. Jonathan Rosen's largely favorable review of this account of, among other things, the decoding of the cuneiform tablets that traveled from Mesopotamia to the British Museum in the Nineteenth Century, ends on a sour note.

Damrosch's eagerness for universal themes leads him to stumble awkwardly in his coda, where he compares Saddam Hussein's first novel, which draws loose inspiration from Gilgamesh, to Philip Roth's Great American Novel, which features a baseball player named Gil Gamesh.


It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

Christine Falls, by Benjamin Bright. Kathryn Harrison's review of this crime novel by John Banville writing under a pseudonym begins on a very positive note. "More than a seamless performance in fulfilling the demands of its genre, Christine Falls is executed with what feels like authorial delight." The last word in the next paragraph, however, is "perfunctory." Toward the end, the review becomes outright unfavorable.

Because Quirke and his supporting cast are types rather than fully realized characters, they're immune to the kind of analysis, or significance, imposed on a Moses Herzog or a Rabbit Angstrom or, for that matter, a Freddie Montgomery, the protagonist of John Banville's novel The Book of Evidence. But it's hard to dismiss what emerges as a particularly insidious strain of misogyny in Christine Falls - insidious because it masquerades as Quirke's concern for the fate of unwed mothers and their babies.

If that's a fair characterization of Christine Falls, then the review doesn't belong in the Review, even if a noted novelist wrote it.

Winterton Blue, by Trezza Azzopardi. Liesl Schillinger devotes two paragraphs of her favorable review to Ms Azzopardi's prior two novels, something that ought to be a matter of course in the Review. Nowhere, however, does Ms Schillinger actually issue a judgment about the new novel as a whole: the favorable nature of the review is more a vibration than an expression.

Lost City Radio, by Daniel Alarcón. Sarah Fay wants to like this novel more than she does. Having just judged the second half of the novel as "marred by dull descriptions ... that lapse into sentimentality," Ms Fay interrupts herself:

Still, there's enough here to confirm that Alarcón is talented - and wise - beyond his years, that he remains intent on challenging himself and his readers.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this in the review.

Inheritance, by Natalie Danford. It's difficult to tell from Ligaya Mishan's review whether Inheritance is a genuinely literary novel, with characters on whom "significance" may be "imposed," or just a high-end beach book with a nasty betrayal at its core.

When an Italian asks Olivia to explain the difference between the English words "story" and "history," she's stumped. "History," she ventures, is "bigger and involves more people - like the history of a country, or a way, or a revolution. Story is smaller." This deceptively slender novel belies that distinction.

An ambiguous remark.

Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, by Steven Bach; and Leni Riefenstahl: A Life, by Jurgen Trimborn, translated by Edna McCown. Clive James's essay about Riefenstahl insists that even great artistry does not neutralize complicity in political wrongdoing, and he suggests that Riefenstahl's artistry was not great. Mr Davis argues persuasively that Riefenstahl lied about her unawareness of the dark side of Fascism, and that she was able to shrug off culpability with the help of time and "her histrionic abilities."

Luckily for her, she had feminine wiles to burn: until she was old and gray, she met few men who didn't fall for her on the spot. It could be said that she had looks and energy but no real brain. The evidence was overwhelming that she didn't need one.

Beyond pointing out which of the two books ostensibly under review has the better pictures (Mr Trimborn's) and which has the better text (Mr Bach's), Mr Davis has almost nothing to say about either. Mr Davis condescends to the readers of the Review no more graciously than he condescends to a celebrated filmmaker's feminine wiles.

Virgin: The Untouched History, by Hanne Blank. While there's nothing essential oddball about virginity, it seems to spawn a lot of kooky ideas. Alex Kuczynski passes a few of these along in her storytelling review. Of the book itself, she writes that it is "a useful, if sometimes clumsy, antidote to our confusion." For starters, who can name the five types of hymen?

Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, by Alex Halberstadt. Divorce specialist Raoul Felder's brother Jerome did indeed have an unlikely life, but I'm not persuaded, at least by Alan Light's review, that unlikelihood merits book-length treatment. Jerome had polio as a child and was disabled by it; developing an interest in the blues, he became a noted singer before writing the lyrics to some pop hit classics, such as "Teenager in Love." Mr Light tells the story but engages with the book only glancingly.

Halberstadt, a freelance writer, never met Pomus, but he vividly links the melancholy and yearning in these songs with Pomus's own personal and professional frustrations while never overplaying his hand.

Tales From the Torrid Zone: Travels in the Deep Tropics, by Alexander Frater. Christopher Benfey's very favorable review did not convince me that this is an important book, but I am no connoisseur of travel writing, and I gather that Mr Frater is pretty good at it.

As a child of the tropics himself, born into a family of Presbyterian missionaries in the New Hebrides, Frater has written a book that is part memoir, part travel yern, a hymn to solar lands where people "wear their shadows like shoes. ... While most of his "tales" are set in the South Pacific, Frater takes as his province all the "70 or so warm, wet countries" he has visited between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. As a result, Tales From the Torrid Zone feels both wide-ranging and a bit disjointed.


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

Billy the Kid: the Endless Ride, by Michael Wallis. T J Stiles writes,

Wallis's account, though solidly reliable, is not always so compelling. He sometimes steps on his own storytelling, referring to events he has yet to narrate and garbling what should be dramatic scenes. He attempts to add flavor with goddurn-it, get-along-little-dogie lingo, turning a hanging into a "neckstretching," shouts into "hollers," and murderers into "mankillers." A heavy salting of clichés proves at least as distracting: in this book, a "leader of the pack" who "called the shots" might bully "working stiffs" on "the straight and narrow."

Mr Stiles concludes that "to understand [Billy] is to glimpse something of the making of modern America." That is really a quite monumentally fatuous thing to say.

All God's Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families, by Rene Denfield. Tara McKelvey writes,

All God's Children is both fascinating and flawed. Denfield describes, in a factual and sometimes choppy manner, searing brutality ... and extremem egoism .... But even murderers can evoke sympathy - or at least seem human - in a well-constructed book. In Denfield's, they don't.

Off the Record: A Reporter Unveils the Celebrity Worlds of Hollywood, Hip Hop, and Sports, by Allison Samuels. Baz Dreisinger writes,

Actually, those looking for plain old journalism might also look elsewhere: Off the Record is not so much journalism as meta-journalism - a journalistic account of journalistic accounts.

He concludes:

The moves celebrities make during interviews are, to an eager journalist, like the events of a dream to a devout Freudian: revealing, but subject to overreading. Sometimes a random remark is just a random remark - and sometimes even a veteran reporter gets dazzled by fame.


March 27, 2007

A Dipolmat teaches Humility

Rory Stewart is a young British diplomat who is redefining what it means to be a "British diplomat." A former soldier, he is now very much a man of peace, overseeing the reconstruction of civil society in the Kabul region. He was reluctant, he writes in an Op-Ed column today entitled "What We Can Do," "to help re-establish ceramics, woodwork and calligraphy and restore part of the old city of Kabul." But he found that these were objectives in which Afghans were keenly interested, and thriving markets emerged, at least according to him. He modestly asserts that there are many more successful projects running throughout Afghanistan.

My experience suggests that we can continue to protect our soil from terrorist attack, we can undertake projects that prevent more people from becoming disaffected, and we can even do some good. In short, we will be able to do more, not less, than we are now. But working with what is possible requires humility and the courage to compromise.

We will have to focus on projects that Iraqis and Afghans demand, prioritize and set aside moral perfectionism; work with people of whom we don't approve; and choose among lesser evils. We will have to be patient. We should aim to stop illegal opium growth and change the way that Iraqis or Afghans treat their women. But we will not achieve this is the next three years. We may never be able to build a democratic state in Iraq or southern Afghanistan. Trying to do so through a presence based on foreign troops creates insurgency and resentment and can only end in failure.

"You are saying," the politician replies, "that we ought to sit back and do nothing." On the contrary I believe we can do a great deal. But ought implies can. We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do. 

In other words, as has been clear to me since before the Iraqi misadventure was even undertaken, the problem lies not in the Middle East but in arrogant, apparently faith-based ideologues in Washington: the people who agree about "ought" implying "can" but who believe in the moral obligation to undertake the impossible. Especially the impossible. "Bring it on!"

Orpheus at the Temple of Dendur

Bach and still more Bach: this time, played by Orpheus at the Temple of Dristan. That's what visitors to the museum used to ask to see - perhaps they still do. Another mass solecism: "Where are the Oscar Mayer Galleries?" (It's André Meyer.)

I feared that the adamantine surfaces of Dendurland would make hash of Bach's counterpoint, but the music sounded lovely. I happened to pick a seat on the aisle that the musicians used to come and go - one of the neatest things about Orpheus is that the musicians walk on all at once, like a wave of commuters at Grand Central, only carrying instruments. I got to take a good look at many half-familiar faces.

Orpheus at the Temple of Dendur.

March 26, 2007

Fake Story

What planet are these people from? I'm talking about the people who have a problem with John Edwards's continued candidacy.

Mrs Edwards's health has been a prime topic of discussion for the past few days among American debating whether Mr Edwards, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, should continue to pursue his political ambitions. Some critics have suggested that he might try to exploit her condition to win votes.

That's Patrick McGeehan, a Times reporter whose byline I don't recall seeing before. I don't know whether I'm angrier with him or with his editors. This "debate," these suggestions about exploitation - who is having this conversation? Nobody I know, that's for sure.

What we have here is yet another instance of No Right Answer. Faced with a partner's catastrophic illness, some people throw themselves into their professional lives with redoubled vigor. Others retire. Neither course is inherently praiseworthy, and neither can be called "selfish." Different people create different relationships between home and work. This isn't to say that some people put work ahead of relationships. Rather, some people bring work home, while others don't. For some couples, particularly high-achieving ones, careers are part of the marriage itself, not distractions from it. The Edwardses would appear to have such a marriage.

If there's No Right Answer, there's No Wrong answer, either.

The Edwards story reeks of media manipulation, and if the Times is going to take it up at all, that is what it ought to be covering.


Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La Télévision has been in my pile for an unconscionably long time. It wasn't until I bought Jonathan Stump's English translation that I made real headway, but I did read the novel in French. 

(From the Department of You Learn Something Every Day, there's this, said of a sandwich purchased outside a museum: Je n'avais pas fait une affaire." Come again? "It was no bargain.")

In either language, Television is a great read and, because it makes you feel about television instead of just asking you think about it, it's an important book.

March 25, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Risotto

Risotto has a somewhat intimidating reputation, but I can't for the life of me think why. Of course, I say the same thing about the soufflé. Both dishes require a certain focused attention at one or two steps of the production, but that's it. If you make sure that your egg whites are absolutely free of yolk before you beat them, and if you incorporate the beaten whites into the yolk mixture with a gentle hand - and if you resist the temptation to open the oven door to see how the soufflé is coming along! - your soufflé will be spectacular and delicious. Those aren't big ifs, in my view.

With risotto, you have to find the right setting for your burner. You want medium-low heat - just as you do for macaroni and cheese. As the rice heats up, it absorbs broth, swelling greatly in size. If the heat is too high, the rice will scorch and the broth will boil off. Once you've got the temperature down, all you need is a good sauté pan,* so that you won't have to stand over the risotto, stirring constantly. That's because risotto won't stick to a good pan.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say that risottos are as handy for using up leftovers as soufflés are, the chances are that you have the fixings of an interesting risotto somewhere in the fridge. All you really need is a bit of onion and reasonably fresh arborio rice. (If you haven't made a risotto in years - as was the case chez moi - just throw the old rice away and start over.) Last night, I made a shrimp risotto that I'd been dreaming about. It came out very well. Kathleen almost always praises whatever I put on the table, but she waxed quite extravagantly about the dish.

*Julia Child once remarked - over lunch at the Cirpriani in Venice, as I recall reading - that all a good cook really needs is a good sauté pan and a couple of good knives. I'd phrase it differently. I'd say that even the best cook can't get by without them.

March 24, 2007

Reign Over Me

On the strength of Anthony Lane's rather strong review, a 10:15 showtime, and sheer proximity, I went to see Mike Blinder's Reign Over Me yesterday. I expect that it's going to be a very big hit. It's not often that I like a picture that would also entertain the staff at a trading desk, and I can't wait to talk about it with people who have seen it.

Reign Over Me.

March 23, 2007

Exploding the Myths of Neoclassical Economics

Barry Schwartz in the London Review of Books, writing about Avner Offer's The Challenge of Affluence:

Offer points out how much we care about what he calls 'regard,' how we look to others. Status or regard can be derived from many things: virtues of character, occupation, acts of kindness or charity and of course wealth. In a society in which efforts are concentrated on increasing GDP, and life is oriented toward consumption, wealth becomes an increasingly important yardstick of status, and other things recede into the background. Thus the treadmill: how much wealth is enough? The answer is: more wealth than your neighbours. A rising tide that lifts all boats doesn't change your own relative position; you may be a better car, but you won't get more status. The result is a kind of arms race of wealth acquisition that thrives on inequality but leaves no one better off.

Exploding the Myths of Neoclassical Economics.

March 22, 2007

My Inner Stalin

The disgust roused in me by this morning's House & Home story, "The Year Without Toilet Paper," is as visceral as the most rabid homophobe's response to the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Act (a bill that I support). I have an overpowering desire to exterminate (why beat around the bush?) preening and precocious urban environmentalists like Michelle Conlin and Colin Beavan, who ought to be thrown out of their Lower Fifth Avenue building for keeping a composter in their apartment.

Someday, I'm sure, the post-consumer life that the Conlin-Beavans are trying to lead will be forced upon all of us, but I expect an industrial, not a Thoreauvian, solution. That is, we will finally apply our enormously sophisticated technology to the task of minimizing its own impact. What the Conlin-Beavans are doing is a retrograde, autarkic form of playing house.

Those who did not experience the folly of the Sixties seemed doomed to repeat them. "If I was a student," Ms Conlin tells Penelope Green, "I would march against myself." The more telling quote is Mr Beavans.

Like all writers, I'm a megalomaniac," Mr Beavan said cheerfully the other day. "I'm just trying to put that energy to good use."

The far more urgent task is ridding Manhattan, and perhaps the entire Metropolitan Area, of diesel trucks.

The sere before the spring


A gloomy day was yesterday, but I had a nice walk just the same, and, what's more, I needed it. More at Taking Stock.

March 21, 2007

Gnashing of Teeth

The news that Upper East Side ZIP Code 10021 will be broken up did not reach me in time to invest in Dempsey & Carroll, or any of the other stationers who will make a bundle between now and July, when the change goes into effect. Joe mentioned it yesterday - he'll still be "in the two-one" after the switch - but, according to this morning's Times, the story broke in Monday's Sun. Do you know anybody who reads the New York Sun?

The new ZIP Codes will be 10065 (60th-69th Streets) and 10075 (76th-80th Streets). The sloppy fingerprints of underpaid, inexpert bureaucrats are all over the move. The tripartition ought to have been vertical, with 10021 running its current length while stretching from Fifth Avenue only as far as Lexington. Few millionaires would be complaining in that case. The third ZIP Code ought to have been reserved for the New York Hospital/Rockefeller University complex along the river.

But that's not how it's going to work. Thousands of upstanding New Yorkers are going to be de-cacheted.

"The truth is, there are some people whose whole identity is their ZIP code," said Michele Kleier, the president of the real estate brokerage Gumley Haft Kleier.

"I don't think that everybody is going to move out of 80th Stree, but obviously this is the most famous and most desired ZIP code in the city and in America," she said.

[Gay] Talese said, "The first thing you think of is your stationery. "

Well, he is a writer.

Those who worry that their property values may plummet when they're exiled to 10065 and 10075 may just have to think outside the box. Outside the house, anyway.

In the Book Review

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

There are many doubtful books this week, which is not surprising, given the streak of oddball topics that runs through the issue. I'd have put several of the Maybes in with the Noes, but people might think I was stuck up. There are two or three books that I'd have put in with the Yeses, but the reviews weren't strong enough. Dispiriting, overall.

I almost bought Then We Came to the End a couple of weeks ago, when I was loitering at the Hunter College branch of Shakespeare & Co. The opening pages read very well. But my backlog of unread books didn't permit my venturing a novel about which I'd heard, at that point, precisely nothing. Of course I'll get it now.


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris. James Poniewozik gives this novel about paranoid cubicals in the spasms of late-stage corporatocracy a review that's as good as it is favorable. He tells us bits and pieces of the story, but for the most part he looks at Mr Ferris's writing, which is, of course, the issue with any major novel.

Ferris, who once worked at a Chicago ad agency, is fluent in the language of white-collar wordsmiths under siege. His characters even concoct their own vocabulary for the layoff process. Being fired becomes "walking Spanish down the hall," a phrase with origins in pirate days borrowed from a Tom Waits song about an execution.

Surveillance, by Jonathan Raban. The other worthy novel in this week's issue also seems to focus on American malaise. Bob Shacochis's passable review suggests that Surveillance is a novel of ideas, but he adds, "The characters also bloom into their bodies, lives and loves." Because he does not describe this blooming, however, we have to take it on faith.

Biography: A Brief History, by Nigel Hamilton. Scott Stossel manages, in the course of a glib and condescending review, to convey the impression that this book is worth reading. The review is a tissue of storytelling; whether Mr Stossel is an expert in the history of biography or is merely cribbing from Mr Hamilton's book without giving credit remains uncertain. Less uncertain is the possibility that Mr Stossel has reframed the arguments underlying the book and then faulted the author for failing to reply to them.

Still, while Hamilton is right to contend that the best biographies have a novelistic feel, the unpardonable sin - from the historian's perspective, certainly - is the failure to acknowledge the point at which knowable fact has given way to fiction. On this, Hamilton is mostly silent. Does this mean he has concluded it isn't a sin at all.

The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman. "Like other successful duos," writes James Campbell, "Wordsworth and Coleridge were temperamentally dissimilar..." He concludesthat the book

is fascinating, and might have been even more so if the author's prose had the zip of that of, say, Richard Holmes, who has covered the lives of both poets in his own Coleridge biography and other books.

What, I ask, is the point of such a lopsided comparison? "Zip"?


It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

Next Life, by Roe Armantrout. Stephen Burt gallantly sings this poet's praises, but cannot conceal what appears to be a blanketing negativity.

Armantrout's dissonant still lifes, unsettling meditations and uncomfortable domestic interiors will not suit every taste. Her poems reject almost all the consolations we expect literature to contain: they do not tell us that love (or anger) will endure, they do not say that our lives can satisfy us, and they never advise us to trust our instincts. The poems give, instead, the invention, the wit and the force of a mind that contests all assumptions as much as it can: they say that no matter how much we doubt ourselves, at least one poet has doubted us more.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver. This novel, about the alternative lives that a woman might live if she leaves her husband or stays with him, has garnered a lot of attention, perhaps because its author is a fetching young woman, but more likely because Ms Shriver won the Orange Prize two years ago for We Need to Talk about Kevin. Julia Scheeres's review is characteristically unilluminating. Ms Scheeres lays out the story but does not engage with the writing except to fault it.

Shriver stumbles across provocative themes - the private erotic fantasies of long-time lovers, unplanned pregnancy in middle age, the sexuality of anger - but doesn't dwell on them long enough to enliven her characters or her story. If the book spurred one emotion in me, it was hatred for snooker.

That's quite unhelpful, really. If the characters are not "enlivened," then what's the book doing in the Review?

You Don't Love Me Yet, by Jonathan Lethem. David Kamp suspects that this novel about a rock band dates from the author's hardscrabble twenties, which he spent in California. "The band members," he writes, "are little more than thin constructs with identifying tics..."

As they say in the rock magazines, this new release is worthwhile for the Lethem completist, but perhaps not for the first time buyer.

The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution, by Pagan Kennedy. Mary Roach spends most of her review on telling the sad story of Laura/Michael Dillon, but she praises the author's immense tact.

If you read this book, you will not gawk or laugh at Michael Dillon.

Ms Roach claims that her favorite character is the plastic surgeon who made the sex-change operations possible, and perhaps if Ms Kennedy's book had been centered on him, it would less questionably merit its place in the Review.

Villains' Paradise: A History of Britain's Underworld, by Donald Thomas. Andrew O'Hagen gives this book a very favorable review, calling it "a thrilling and thoughtful encapsulation of a national fascination." But the few quotations do not suggest a very exciting read.

Poor People, by William T Vollmann. While Walter Kirn sees a certain documentary value in this book's reportage about poverty around the world, he questions the author's philosophical ambitions.

Poverty presents a host of challenges, but knowing it when we see it isn't one of them. Vollmann writes as if it were, though. He acts as if he were the Louis Pasteur of poverty, identifying its forms for the first time through the lens of some sociological microscope. "And so I came to wonder," he reflects during one of the philosophical interludes that undermine and dilute the stretches of portraiture, "whether one characteristic of poverty might be surrender to defeat."

Mr Kirn goes on to point out that Mr Vollmann's impoverished interlocutors attribute their condition to other causes, such as fate and guilt. What on earth is "surrender to defeat" - aside from a vaguely GOP-sounding formulation?

Waiting For Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, and Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother, by Peggy Orenstein; and Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, by Rebecca Walker. Personally, I don't know what these books are doing in the Book Review. Alexandra Jacobs isn't very impressed by Ms Orenstein's book, and she has no use at all for Ms Walker's. The latter claims that realizing that she would have to give up recreational shopping when her baby arrived "was like walking into an airplane propeller." Ms Jacobs retorts,

Not to begrudge the author such luxuries, but there was no need to make the world privy to them. Orenstein's interrogation of her own profiteering pregnancy comes across as a welcome, even necessary exposé; Walker's merely a paean to pampering.

Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, by Gayle F Wald. Laura Sinagra calls this a "short, absorbing biography" of an important if unlikely progenitor of rock-'n'-roll guitar playing, a woman more famous during her lifetime as a Gospel singer. Ms Sinagra also praises the author for her "taste for the messiness and necessary creativity at the margins of American cultural life."

Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life, by Ralph Pite. Mr Pite's book has the misfortunate to follow closely in the wake of Claire Tomalin's biography of the great novelist, and, according to reviewer Brenda Wineapple, it suffers by comparison.

But because Pite more or less confines his research to Hardy's two-volume [auto-] biograpny and his published correspondence, the result is a rather airless psychological study, undertaken without corroborating evidence.

The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino, by Alec Wilkinson. Gary Kamiya's review points up the difficulty that even a New Yorker writer like Alec Wilkinson will have when writing a genuine oddball, one who, in this case, crossed the Atlantic on a raft and devised a football play "which would work only in a laboratory," not to mention many other strange resume items.

Neutrino's story screams "Tell me!" - it is ragingly picaresque, filled with larger-than-life adventures and unexpected plot twists, and its sheer weirdness is fascinating. On the other hand, there is something utterly enigmatic about Neutrino, something that resists all definitions and categories. He is not just a psychological puzzle but an epistemological one: since we have almost no knowledge of anyone like him, he goes in and out of focus.


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

The Terror, by Don Simmons. Terrence Rafferty can find nothing good to say about this account of the doomed Franklin Expedition (in search of the Northwest Passage), except to praise the author's perseverance; the book is nearly eight hundred pages long.

When the Light Goes, by Larry McMurtry. According to John Leland's review, this latest installment of Texasville fiction is about Viagra and "sexual instruction videos."

March 20, 2007

Letters to the Editor

It's not something that I'm proud of, but I rarely read the Letters to the Editor in the Times. (Lately, I haven't been looking much at the editorial page itself. I'm in agreement with most of the positions taken by the Times editorial staff, but that's just it: what's new?) Today, however, a passage from a letter from Daniel J Callaghan, of Manchester, New Hampshire, caught my eye. 

The administration began this war four years ago with inadequate planning in Iraq and disregard for those who would serve. As a result, the war has become a quagmire in Iraq and more than a million veterans have returned home to face insufficient care and services.

I looked up and saw that Mr Callaghan's was one of six letters gathered under the rubric "On the 4th Anniversary of the War." I read them all and agreed with them all. Ita Hardesty Mason, of Kingston Spring, Tennessee, writes, "We have more enemies now, not friends." Meg Hillert, of Dallas, reminds us that "If America were in Iraq's shoes, we would fight to the death to protect our country, families, and way of life." Cy Shain, of San Francisco, regrets that "We are paying a heavy price for our haste to invade Iraq without having a full appreciation of the fatal consequences and painful complications or our actions." Judy Brewton, of Stamford, Connecticut, lashes out at the President. "From the outset of this falsified war, George W Bush has used America's soldiers cheaply - almost as if they were poker chips."

But if I had to choose only one of these letters to endorse as my own, it would be the one written by Rick Armstrong, of Brooklyn.

Frank Rich reveals that 71 percent of sampled Americans supported the war on March 19, 2003. He also mentions that on March 17, 2003, NBC cut short its news coverage to show "Fear Factor" because it knew that was where the ratings were.

Both of these examples show that in the end, American citizens deserve the blame for this war because politicians respond to perceive voter approval.

The buck stops here.

New York Collegium at St Vincent Ferrer

As I was taking a break during the interval at last week's New York Collegium concert, I overheard someone complain that a program consisting of three Bach cantatas was "a bit much." Not for me, it wasn't. These works have a bottomless appeal for me. I don't like them equally - I don't even know most of them at all, or well - but their relentless transformation of liturgical utility and formal complexity into the most seriously delightful music ever written never ceases to amaze me.

When I got home, I thought I'd check out the library to see if I had any recordings of the the three works, BWV 22, 23, and 75. And what do you suppose I found? I found that these three connected cantatas have all been recorded together as Volume 8 of the impressive Bach Collegium Japan series on BIS. I bought a lot of these back in the late Nineties, all at once, so it's no wonder that I never got round to knowing this recording. I have to wonder if it inspired Mr Parrott's programming.

Sadly, the program announced that the Collegium, which has been somewhat strapped for funding recently, will not offer a subscription series next season. That's an awful blow. Where are all those hedge fund zillionaires?

March 19, 2007

Citations and Dismissals

Interesting legal developments reported in today's Times:

¶ Citations from law reviews are down. Law Reviews, as you may know, are the scholarly apparatus of the legal academy. Professors write learnedly on fine points of law, while diligent students compile useful overviews of such things as the laws of inheritance in all fifty states. Traditionally, law reviews have provided the American legal system with its intellectual ventilation.

Lately, however, it seems that critical theory has infected the law-school professoriat. Reviews have multiplied, and the Internet has put an end to their indispensability. "Law reviews, by contrast, feel as ancient as telegrams, but slower," writes Adam Liptak.

¶ It is a commonplace to say that US District Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, who can dismiss them at will. What the president cannot do, however, is obstruct justice. Adam Cohen, on the editorial page, outlines four possible violations of 18 USC 1505 and 1512. Noting that the Attorney General's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, is in the hot seat, Mr Cohen writes,

Let's take the case of Carol Lam, United States attorney in San Diego. The day the news broke that Ms Lam, who had already put one Republican congressman in jail, was investigating a second one, Mr Sampson wrote an e-mail message referring to the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam." He said it made him think that it was time to start looking for a replacement.

As they say in human resources, you can fire somebody for no reason, but you can't fire somebody for the wrong reason. I thought everyone knew that.

Books on Monday: Whoopy Rupi

Isn't Rupert Everett a little young to be issuing an autobiography? Not so much, as you'll discover if you read it, and I strongly advise that you do.

Do you have a favorite Rupi movie?

March 18, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Welsh Whatever

One of the most savory of savory dishes is Welsh Rabbit. It's also great comfort food that can be varied to suit a wide range of tastes. Give it a try.

March 17, 2007

I Think I Love My Wife

It's nearly two, and I've just come back from breakfast across the street, where we watched stragglers from the St Patrick's Day parade drift down 86th Street. The parade terminates at Lexington Avenue these days, not Second, so we're spared most of the drunks and detritus, not to mention the motor coaches and traffic barriers. Kathleen will give me an eyewitness account of the moraine when she gets to the office. When we parted after breakfast, she headed for the bank and the subway, right in the thick of things.

Ordinarily, I'd be dusting and vacuuming and listening to one of Bach's Passions, but I'm feeling sheepish about not having seen the Eric Rohmer film, L'amour l'après-midi, known here as Chloe in the Afternoon. The movie that I saw yesterday, Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife, is said to be a remake. I don't know why I've seen none of Mr Rohmer's films aside from L'anglaise et le duc, but I've not always been as enthusiastic about French movies as I am now. In any case, that's what I'm about to do - see L'amour l'après-midi.


Watching L'amour l'après-midi, a grave, talky, but extremely interior film, I wondered how it had ever held the interest of a brash American comedian, much less inspired him to remake it as a comedy. And what a fascinating remake I Love My Wife is! If you set aside the interpolations that make it funny, the newer picture is remarkably faithful to the original in terms of scenes, sequence, visual details, and, not least of all, dénouement. But the result of this fidelity is to emphasize the vast difference between the respective protagonists' romantic adventures, as well as the gulf between French cinematic sensibility thirty-five years ago and its American counterpart today.

Another puzzle: what would I have thought of L'amour l'après-midi if I hadn't seen I Think I Love My Wife?

March 16, 2007

Critical Education: Andrew Delbanco in The New York Review of Books

What exactly is critical thinking? There's a Wikipedia entry that suggests an approach to understanding the matter, but it's written at a fairly high level of abstraction. What it boils down to in my view is a corrective for the natural virtuosity at self-justification that accompanies average-to-superior intelligence. Most of "what stands to reason" generally doesn't, for the simple reason that reason hasn't been applied.

In The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco reviews six books about the "Scandals of Higher Education." Which is worse, madly skewed admissions policy or the failure to educate the lucky ones who get in?

This week's Friday Front.

March 15, 2007


Our moment of spring here in New York is coming to an end as I write, with temperatures dropping and rain predicted to turn into snow. Happily, there's the extra daylight.

When I stopped in at McNally Robinson last Friday, to buy novels by Turgenev on a whim, I picked up a schedule of the bookshop's coming events. My heart sank when I saw that they'd be presenting their first francophone event ever on Tuesday (two nights ago), an evening for which I had grand tickets to hear the Russian National Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall. Even though I didn't know the first thing about any of the Quebecois writers who would be reading from their work, I thought I really ought to go, and so did Kathleen and Fossil Darling and Ms NOLA.* Getting rid of the tickets was a pain; I ended up handing them over to a young German couple on the 6 train. I hope that they realized that, if they were going to use them - the woman seemed very eager, the man not so much - they'd have to find a train heading in the opposite direction.

McNally Robinson was fairly overflowing with people interested in participating in a francophone event.** I would find out afterwards that lots of those one hand were francophone only to the degree that I am - very roughly, in other words. I will write about the readers and their books as I get to them - the books, that is. For the moment, I can say that I'd had a lubricating Manhattan before heading downtown, and my comparable disinhibition meant that I jumped right in speaking French, however badly. I also joined in a conversation that several guests were having with the extremely affable Quebecois cultural attaché, M Jean-Pierre Dion.

Did the evening mark a change in my life? Since Ms NOLA began supplying me, about two years ago, with interesting dates around town, I've been to more book events, mostly by myself, than in all the prior years of my existence. But this time, I gave up a very good concert in order to do so. I was very torn about the decision, and still regret not hearing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto the Prokofiev Fifth - not to mention my favorite Stravinsky, the Scherzo Fantasque. Next to that familiar, beloved music, the reading at McNally Robinson was new and different, and far more demanding. But that's just it. It didn't have to be more demanding. I could have just sat there. But I was determined to interact. This determination to interact isn't exactly new anymore. But it didn't trump a concert until Tuesday.

* NB: Had Kathleen been able to go to the concert - and we knew by the weekend that she wouldn't be - the dilemma would never have arisen.

** All three books were promoted in English translation; only one was also available in the original.

March 14, 2007

In the Book Review

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

On the whole, an attractive range of good books; even the iffy ones appeal in one way or another. Tony Judt's excoriation of David Burleigh's Sacred Causes suggests that there needs to be what in my kindergarten class was called the nuisance corner. Mr Burleigh would appear to be a nuisance, and it's useful to have that pointed out. Execrable books - books that ought to be avoided - could be reviewed in periodic batches, and very, very briefly. Mr Judt is a top historian and critic, he knows Mr Burleigh's field. Perhaps he could be accommodated on the Op-Ed page some Sunday.


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

Heyday, by Kurt Anderson. Geoffrey Wolff's gee-whiz review is not very helpful. He retails the plot outline of Mr Anderson's historical novel but does not quote very extensively from it. It's not unlike carnival barking.

Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A Lerner. Pete Hamill delivers a favorable review of this account of the havoc wrought by Prohibition on New York City. He indulges in a lot of storytelling, though, and when he does engage with the book, it's to point out the topics that aren't explored.

But Lerner's book is a serious work, suggesting that there are still lessons to be learned from the 13 years, 10 months and 18 days of a utopian American delusion. There remain a number of Americans today who are filled with similar angry visions, hoping to make them into law.

Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline, by Lisa Margonelli. Ted Conover's review is exemplary. He conveys, by quotation, the flavor of Ms Margonelli's writing, and he makes it clear that Oil on the Brain is a solid book.

The specialized knowledge of those who deal with oil is mainly what Margonelli sets out to channel in these pages. ... Her approach is quirky but comprehensive, informal but rigorous: Margonelli has a facility with humbers and an easy way with questions of policy, and the narrative passages here, lightly first-person and often funny, help make accessible the facts of our dependence on oil.

My Father's Secret War: A Memoir, by Lucinda Franks. According to Dorothy Gallagher, this is a book in which the author comes to terms with her subject. She is modestly favorable about it.

A child's reconciliation to a parent is not small thing, but one wishes that Franks's overbearing questioning of an old man added a little more weight to our understanding of the horrific war he fought, the genesis and ramifications of which contsumed more than half of the 20th century.

At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches, by Susan Sontag (edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump). Pankaj Mishra gives this collection a very favorable review. He is acute about the power of Sontag's work:

Sontag asserted a uniquely American privilege by embracing multiple European traditions, and she used a word prone to much abuse - "spiritual" - often and remarkably precisely to make a higher consciousness appear imperative for political as well as artistic engagements with the world.

Curves and Angles: Poems, by Brad Leithauser. David Kirby gives this collection, which, he suggests, owes a great deal to Borges, and even something to Lorenz Hart, a favorable review that's a bit too subtle and evocative. 


It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

The Weight of Numbers, by Simon Ings. I hadn't gotten very far into Erica Wagner's review of this novel before I found it difficult to follow and glanced up at her byline. Of course. I can never make sense of reviews produced by the Times of London editor. She makes Mr Ings's plotting sound preposterously complicated. She might be right the the author "has many talents, but lacks in this book the control to make them serve his purpose," but her review suffers from a similar lack of control.

Fed Up: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong, by Barry Glassner. Times food writer Kim Severson concludes:

It's too bad The Gospel of Food is so uneven, because we do need to approach what we eat with a side dish of skepticism and a dose of clearheaded thinking. Too often, though, Glassner commits the same sin he sees in others - taking the pleasure out of food.

This belongs in Wednesday Dining In/Dining Out section.

Don't Stop Me Now: Stories, by Michael Parker; and Lately, by Sarah Pritchard. Tom Barbash declines to offer a reason why these two collections of short stories share a review. He talks about one book, and then he talks about the other, noting only that, while Mr Parker's characters act out their emotional distress, Ms Pritchard's suppress theirs. He seems to like them both well enough, but short story collections require more pointed - and personal - enthusiasm.

Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth, by Brigitte Hamann (translated by Alan Bance). Do we need a book about the dreeadful daughter-in-law whom Richard Wagner did not live long enough to meet? Geoffrey Wheatcroft calls Ms Hamann's offering a "remarkable biography," but he fails to suggest why his own book review doesn't contain all the information that one would want.

And as gripping as the book is, it's not pure pleasure to read 500 detailed pages without a single likeable or admirable character, at least among the main players.

Finn, by Jim Clinch. According to Ron Powers, Finn is a re-imagination of the world of Huck Finn (the title character is Huck's father), as worked through the lenses of Cormac McCarthy.

It shows up in the nihilistic, uninflected murder and cruelty that seem inextricable from the harsh riverine terrain - or from McCarthy's terrain.

Doesn't sound like fun.

When You Catch an Adjective,  Kill It: The Parts of Speech, For Better and/or Worse, by Ben Yagoda; and The Fight For English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left, by David Crystal. Patricia O'Connor likes these books, but she doesn't make the case for either of them; they seem, in her review, to be somewhat trivial magazine articles that have swollen into books. She thinks that Mr Yagoda is wrong to urge us to adopt the sexless third-person plural (as in "does everybody have their book?"), and she nods to Mr Crystal's account of the unpredictable orthography that crept into English with the advent of printing. 

The Solitude of Thomas Cave, by Georgina Harding. If Steven Heighton's review is accurate, then this novel is an environmental "parable," based on "a bit of historical hearsay." It tells the story of a sailor who, in 1616, wagered that he could survive a solitary winter at an Arctic whaling station. He emerges from this ordeal with a packet of suspiciously current ideas about man and nature.


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror, by Michael Burleigh. Tony Judt's review makes this book out to be a tendentious white-washing of the role of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the Jews.

And there is more than a hint of something truly nasty in his five-page rant against the "greedy and mean-spirited" Irish, or those historians (unnamed, but perhaps Jewish?) who are silent about Protestant backing for Nazism because "conservative Protestant Christians are stalwart supporters of Israel." Politico-religious zealotry is a timely topic, but anyone seeking a dispassionate account of it should look elsewhere. Sacred Causes is an ugly instance of its own subject matter.

In short, it oughtn't to have been reviewed.

"Trying to Meet the Neighbors," by Dave Itzkoff. I'm he didn't mean to do so, but in this piece, the Book Review's science fiction editor all but disconnects his field from that of literature. The essay isn't about science fiction directly, but about Seth Shostak's SETI research (think Contact). Mr Itzkoff quotes Robyn Asimov, daughter of the famous Isaac.

"His major thrust, and I think Seth's and SETI's as well, is to get people interested in science, and doing something about it, and then handing the baton over to the next generation. It's an almost egoless outlook, because the intellectual curiosity is what takes priority."

Insert the name of your favorite science-fiction author in place of Shostak's in the previous quotation, and I think her formulation still holds true.

Science fiction, then, is pedagogical; it gets readers to be interested in science nonfiction. Put it in the science section.

March 13, 2007

Brian Friel's Translations, at MTC

Brian Friel's Translations - I'd rather forget it than write it up. It bored me deeply, as do most plays - and novels and movies and whatnot - set in Ireland's past. "Let it go!" I want to shout. It's a horrible past, okay! The Irish are always beautiful dreamers; the British, monsters of arrogance.

Conundrums abound, but they're not interesting conundrums. They're like the thing stuck between your teeth that you can't keep your tongue from palpating. And they swamp the very possibility of drama, because everything is utterly foregone.

March 12, 2007

At Least It's Not a Crotch Grab


Fossil Darling, who forwarded this photo, writes: "The only man in the world whose HEART is in his STOMACH!!!!

Anyone want to hazard a guess as to the location of his brains???????"


Olaf Olafsson's Valentines (Knopf, 2007) is a collection of twelve short stories, one for each month of the year, in which men screw up their relationships big time but with a breathtaking minimum of fuss. The stories aren't linked in any narrative way, but as variations on a theme they develop force. "April" is one of the few perfect short stories that I've ever read: the inexorability that glimmers in the opening paragraphs takes over with the force of a gale, sweeping the protagonist into a failure that can never be made right. I read it haltingly, as if putting my hands over my eyes during a particularly painful movie.

For maximum effect, read one story a day for twelve days.

March 11, 2007

"More Books Than Sense"


There have never been so many unread books in the house. I blame it on Ms NOLA - she keeps me au courant. Not to mention the Blogosphere. Here you see three stacks of books, and, believe me, there's more where they came from. The books on the bedside table are the books that I am reading right now. The books reflected in the mirror are the books that I am going to read when I've finished with the books on my bedside table. It is understood that books bought between now and then may give this second pile a certain fly-in-amber quality. As for the Tower of Babel in front of the mirror, I can only say that it makes me feel as futile as a Soviet bureaucrat. There's no knowing when some burst of buzz will pull one of those books from the ziggurat, but that's probably what it's going to take for them - a burst of buzz.

I'm currently reading a serial-murder thriller, set toward the end of the reign of Henry II (the Becket/Lion in Winter king)  in Cambridge - there was no University at the time - that was sent to me by the good people at G P Putnam's Sons. It's called Mistress of the Art of Death, and it's by Ariana Franklin. The hero - "heroine" would be altogether wrong - is a female physician from Salerno who's even less insecure than Clarice Starling, but just as appealing. I call Mistress a "time-machine" thriller, because while the material historical details are correct, the characters talk in a way that you would find interesting. You may be sure that nobody in the late Twelfth Century actually did. I'm also reading Walter Kirn's The Unbinding. The mix is just right.

March 10, 2007

Avenue Montaigne

It was back to the Angelika again yesterday, this time for Avenue Montaigne. This time, though, I'd done a little homework. I'd recently learned that one of my favorite neighborhood bistros, Jacques, has a branch on Prince Street in NoLIta, so that's where I went afterward. While I enjoyed my croque monsieur, I read Diane Johnson on a new Turgenev biography in The New York Review of Books. I decided that it was time to read Turgenev, so on my way back to the train I stopped at McNally Robinson, where I bought two novels by the Russian author. I also bought something I've meant to get for a long time, the Penguin Montaigne. It seemed especially apt today.

March 09, 2007

Surging Democrats

No sooner do I write up two articles in the current issue of The New York Review of Books than I collect the mail and find the actual current issue there. I guess I'm running behind. Did I rewrite the beginning of my Friday Front? I did not. Like the President, I stay the course, decline to rectify mistakes.

Michael Tomasky tells us why Charles Schumer is the senator to watch, possibly the center of a new Democratic leadership. Peter W Galbraith shows that Lt Gen David Petraeus's record in Iraq, where he has already serve two tours, augurs anything but success for the Surge.

March 08, 2007


Don't miss this comment by author John Marks, whose Fangland was savaged by Joe Queenan in the Book Review this week.

On Wanting to Impress My Parents

Over the past few days, I have enjoyed a correspondence with a delightful woman who learned about my adoption quest at a forum and then wrote to ask me to clarify something that I'd written about it. Yesterday, she sent an email that posed an arresting question.

All children want to impress their parents though, don't they? Do you think it's different for adoptees?

I can't speak about anybody else, but it was certainly different for me. I hadn't gotten very far with my reply before I saw that I was really writing an entry. Here it is.

March 07, 2007

"We're All Basques"

Because I never read the paper yesterday, I breezed through it this morning and didn't read Nicholas Wade's "A United Kingdom? Maybe" until Eric pointed to it this afternoon. The article reports findings that the DNA of the English and the Irish doesn't significantly differ. The English aren't a "later" people who forced the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots into the hinterlands. What if there were no Irish or British "people"? As in "race"; as in "nation." What if the Gaelic tongue came to the Atlantic Isles as part of the agricultural division of labor package? Unaccompanied by a handful of farmers from the Continent?

I was reminded of a wonderful little book that I picked up at the National Gallery (DC) bookshop a few years ago. In The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton, 2001, 2003), Patrick Geary more or less explodes the idea pf great throngs of biologically related Huns, Vandals and Visigoths, sweeping out of central Asia and forcing the current occupants of Europe to find somewhere to sweep to. It is a nightmare concocted by Roman historians and Christian annalists as they grappled with the disorders that followed the collapse, very much from within, of the Roman Empire.

As the boundaries between Roman and Barbarian dissolved, what today is called "identity politics" became one means of organizing and motivating followers. New constellations claimed names of "ancient" peoples. Old polities vanished into the melting pot of Gothic, Hunnic, or Frankish lordship. Some were never to reappear. Heterogeneous groups of adventures and defeated enemies agreed to accept a common leader and, in time, a common identity. In other circumstances, opposition leaders, claiming to embody the ancient tradition of a people, might lead their followers to conquest and a new future or else to annihilation.

This is all a reminder that the Europeans who embarked on the Age of Exploration were already exponents of highly developed racism.

A century ago, the United States was not a nation in the traditional sense. Its inhabitants came from all over. Time seems to have clouded that distinction. Americans whose families have occupied this country for four generations or more think of themselves as more "American" than other people. (The same thing happened in the early Nineteenth Century, before the great influx of European immigrants.) I wonder how many kids today are unaware that the United States was not established when Noah's Ark touched dry land.

In the Book Review

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

As everybody knows, The New York Times operates two completely independent book-review operations. There are the Books of the Times, reviewed in every day's Arts Section. Then there's the Book Review. Really big books often get dual, conflicting coverage. When I say that a book doesn't belong in the Book Review, I don't mean that it's unworthy of critical attention. Sure, I put sports books in among the Noes as a matter of course, and yes, it's true that I have no interest in sports. But the Book Review ought to be a home for the humanities: literature, history, political thought (not theory!), and serious consideration of the pleasures of life. The Times publishes a daily Sports section. Why not review sports books there? The two Noes in today's Review review would fit comfortably in the Styles section; the latter would be apt next to the chess column. Lots of books, especially political biographies, are genuinely newsworthy; the Book Review ought to aim for the somewhat more timeless.

Ben Schott, the gent who's raking in the simoleons in his career as a miscellanist, notes in his Essay, "Confessions of a Book Abuser,"

It is notable that those who abuse their own books through manhandling or marginalia are often those who love books best.

I myself never write in books. I have a blog!


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar. This new novel about the nightmare of Libya under Qaddafi has been getting a lot of mention, and Lorraine Adams's review suggests why.

What can a child know about totalitarianism? In Hisham Matar's exceptional first novel, this question transcends the psychological to yield something rare in contemporary fiction: a sophisticated storybook inhabited by archetypes, told with a 9-year-old's logic, written with the emphatic and memorable lyricism of verse.

Ms Adams backs up the last assertion with more quotation than one usually gets in the Book Review, and she is careful to note that this is not another Kite Runner, a book that she faults for "cliché and padding." The review is so forcefully positive (but not browbeating) that I feel obliged to run across the street to buy a copy right away! An excellent review.

Ten Days in the Hills, by Jane Smiley. A O Scott's review is almost favorable. If I had not read the novel myself, I'd class it with the Maybes, because Mr Scott considers the book to be a failure - and if it's a failure, what's it doing in the Review, even if Jane Smiley wrote it. Having read the novel, I believe that he misread it. He asks the wrong question: "... how could this fail to be, at the very least, wickedly entertaining?" Now, just why should it be wickedly entertaining?

The shapelessness of Ten Days in the Hills is the result of a potentially interesting experiment in literary anachronism. What would it look like to bring an archaic, exotic model of storytelling into contact with the particulars of contemporary American life?

In this case, it looks like a very long dinner party, at which the reader is more an interloper than an invited guest.

If that's how he felt about it, Mr Scott ought to have declined to write the review.

Winterwood, by Patrick McCabe. According to Gregory Cowles, this novel by the author of Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, "is a Gothic ghost story, complete with branches tapping on windows and the smell of mildew signaling the devil's arrival." The review is shot with notes of disappointment, but Mr Cowles never comes out and says anything negative about the book. I feel equally grudging about judging the review to be, on balance, very useful. There is enough quotation for a reader to judge whether or not Winterwood would be a congenial read.

Adam Haberberg, by Yasmina Reza (translated by Geoffrey Strachan). Caryn James's review of this second novel by the well-known playwright is favorable and enthusiastic. The novel is about a day in the life of a disappointed writer (the title character), and not a full day at that. He spends most of it with an old classmate, Marie-Thérèse.

We feel for Adam without always agreeing with him. He sneers at Marie-Thérèse's vulgarity, snobbishly seeing her as devoid of depth or imagination. She does seem tragically devoted to her Krups coffee maker and her bread machine. But she is also kinder and wiser than she initially appears, a complication Reza allows readers to grasp even if Adam doesn't.

The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Tom Bissell. Joe Klein really likes this book, in which a thirtysomething journalist accompanies his troubled veteran father on a trip to Vietnam. Having just quoted a powerful exchange between father and son in which the latter tries to maintain conversational calm while the former "vents" about the stupidities of the war, Mr Klein writes,

It is a supreme act of authorly self-abnegation, and an utter relief from the solipsistic memoirs that clutter the shelves, that Tom Bissell allows his father to be a far more sympathetic character than he portrays himself to be. After a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, young Bissell insists on firing an AK-47 at a shooting range the Vietnamese have opened next to the museum, as if unaware that the very sound of the gun would raise horrific memories for his father. "'Now imagine,' my father piped up, 'that 20 guys are firing back at you, and people everywhere are screaming'."

A fine review.

The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, by Milan Kundera. Russell Banks's essay on this meditation on aspects of fiction is fit for publication in a book. It's sympathetic and favorable, but not blind to faults.

One has the impression that Kundera, at least on the page, is a fabulous talker and not an especially good listener.

Mr Banks notes that Mr Kundera largely overlooks American novelists, and has nothing to say about fiction written by women - not a surprise.

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ian Buruma has written extensively about the author of this book, in his A Murder in Amsterdam. That makes him an expert, and that in turn, in my developing view at least, disqualifies him as a reviewer here. Sure enough, Mr Buruma rehearses objections to Ms Hirsi Ali's anti-Islamic stance that he made in his book - he'd be inhuman not to. His review is favorable overall, and Mr Buruma indulges in storytelling primarily to point up the importance of the book. But there's no need to enter into the larger argument about diversity in Europe - not here.

Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, A Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage, by Pete Dexter (edited by Rob Fleder). Buzz Bissinger writes with awe about this collection of novelist Pete Dexter's muscular journalism.

Dester often throws punches of profundity at the end of his columns, and too often they miss. But I began not to care. Even two decades later, Dexter's writing holds up. It doesn't necessarily make him timeless, although I did find myself terribly nostalgic for the column he wrote in Philadelphia and for the way voice was once so coveted that reporters for The Daily News and The Inquirer used to strut about with swagger and pride.

Another win for the favorable, sympathetic review. Let me say it again: reviews are not for tearing books apart. Neither are they for selling books. They're for finding readers. What's that line about honey and vinegar? Some readers prefer vinegar.

Notebooks, by Tennessee Williams (Edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton). Edmund White makes these hitherto unpublished notebooks, which Williams stopped keeping in 1958, sound very appealing - largely by quoting extensively from them.

No matter how far he traveled, Williams remained true after his fashion to the fragile, vulnerable members of his family, who haunted almost all of his writing. What becomes clear in these notebooks is that Williams feared that he himself might sink into the same madness that afflicted his sister. His writing not only extended sympathy to the rounded of the world but also acted as a form of therapy to keep him sane.

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist. In 1910, two Great Northern trains were stalled by a snowstorm in 1910 and then walloped by an avalanche. Ninety-six people were killed. According to Louise Jarvis Flynn, Mr Krist tells his story well, although she thinks that he might have made it more exciting here and there. What she does not tell us is whether or not the author is as conscious is she is of the plus ça change aspect of the book. "Whether a hurricane is to blame or a blizzard...our outrage in retrospect seems matched only by our lack of foresight at the time."

Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away From Us, by Philip Rieff. Philip Rieff, who died last year, was a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He developed over several decades the conviction that his discipline needed to be informed by Christian values - the serious ones. Christopher Caldwell makes it clear that Charisma, although not polished, is a grave book of intelligent convservatism.

As Rieff shows in some magnificent passages of biblical exegesis, charismatics - those with charismata, or special gifts of grace - are the moralists in this system. But they do not work by bossing people around or seeking power; they work by submitting to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation. So, paradoxically, "renewal" movements tend to be reactionary, and even prophets are backward-looking - they are tethered to, draw their credibility from and seek to intensify previous revelation.

At the end of the review, Mr Caldwell touches on the impasse in Rieff's thinking: if we resolve to return to life under a religious covenant, we'll have no need of sociology whatsoever.


It is difficult to tell whether these books are as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

The Communist's Daughter, by Dennis Bock. This novel is based on the life of Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor who served Communist causes around the world. A prickly and difficult man, Bethune might have shown off better in a traditional, omniscient-observer narrative, and Nisid Jajari's review suggests that the epistolary form employed by Mr Bock - his Bethune writes letters to an infant daughter that the real doctor never had - makes this a hard novel to like.

It is hard to imagine that a man so evidently thoughtful and so capable, at times, of passion ... could also be as detached as Bock often makes him out to be. In exploring and underscoring his narrator's many contradictions, Bock loses some of the sympathy readers might otherwise have extended him. His Bethune is all to human, yes, but perhaps not sufficiently humane.

Fangland, by John Marks. This review seems to have no other justification that to give good old Joe Queenan an opportunity to be funny while playing rough. Having called Fangland "a Romanian Bright Lights, Big City with more blood, Mr Keenan writes,

Half satire, half vampire novel, but completely ridiculous, Fangland has an absurdly complicated structure and goes on far too long to support the journalists-as-bloodsuckers joke. Devised as a secret corporate memo that just happens to include Harker's diary, a producer's e-mils, a correspondent's therapy journal and some tried and true third-person reporting whose provenance is never established, Fangland constantly switches narrative voices. These days everybody does this ... but this doesn't make it any less annoying.

"Completely ridiculous" books have no place in the Book Review. Period.

The Mathematics of Love, by Emma Darwin. Susann Cokal begins her congested review by mentioning Possession, A S Byatt's big novel of love then and now. This is not propitious; Ms Cokal's disappointment with The Mathematics of Love is pervasive.

Darwin's two independent story lines suggest riches - the way the past and present, and sometimes even the future, can meet in artistic representation - that remain, for the most part, unexplored. Like her visual artists, Darwin plays intriguingly with light, shadow and perception, but her novel's overall picture isn't fully developed. Some equations remain to be solved.

The novel wouldn't have garnered coverage simply because the author is the great-great-granddaughter of You Know Who), would it?

The Art of Aging: A Doctor's Prescription for Well-Being, by Sherwin B Nuland. Joseph Epstein, who can trivialize anything, writes that Dr Nuland's new book is not up to his usual standard. Having noted that the author's surname at birth was Nudelman, Mr Epstein complains,

A sensible man, Dr Nuland, but I wish he had held his co-author, Nudelman, in firmer check. This Nudelman is a preacher, an amateur psychologist, a nudnik not above quoting Kahlil Gibran on the importance of love and work in enjoying the later years of life. This Nudelman writes gushing profiles of the actress Patricia Neal ... and the pioneering cardiac surgeon Michael DeBakey ... idealizing both doubtless interesting people beyond reality, as well as mushily sentimental portraits of more obscure older people who have managed to enjoy life despite having been smashed by serious illness. ... His interest in longevity has rendered him short of levity."

Ha ha.

Mississippi Sissy, by Kevin Sessums. Norah Vincent, who has become something of house expert at the Review on border crossings in genderland, is not impressed with this memoir of growing up gay in the South. She concedes that he had an awful childhood.

But these are facts, not merits, and they do little to shore up the unfortunate truth that while the author may have, as they say, a past, he does not have a voice. Most of Mississippi Sissy has the feel of someone reaching for material. ...

In his reaching, Sessums sometimes reaches quite low, as when he informs us, in true locker-room style, that his fellow sixth graders revered him for the size of his penis...

To put it in current lingo, this piece so belongs in Styles.

Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, by Michael D Tanner, and It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush, by Joe Conason. These books attack the Bush Administration from the both the Right and the Left - indeed, the review is illustrated with drawings of the President being struck by red and blue gloves. (The blue glove hits him from the right, though, and the red glove is left-handed. Hmmm...) Jacob Heilbrunn is another house expert, in this case on debunking political polemics. This is the one area where I approve of unsympathetic reviews, and Mr Heilbrunn can pulp with the best. First, Mr Tanner; then, Mr Conason.

What's more, Tanner glides rather easily from linking the corruption of the Republican Congress to big government. There is no necessary connection between the two. The fact that a Republican Congress looted the government on behalf of big business and itself does not discredit Social Security, Medicare and a host of other programs.

It's also the case that Conason's alarmism inadvertently buys into Bush and Cheney's own hokum by attributing a kind of implacable and infallible power to the administration. Whatever its intentions, however, the hallmark of the administration hasn't turned out to be Machiavellian cunning but sheer ineptitude.

(I'd remind Mr Heilbrunn that the Nazi regime, especially when it cranked into full throttle, turns out to have been fairly inept.)

Becoming Judy Chicago, A Biography of the Artist, by Gail Levin. Elsa Dixler's review is an awful piece of storytelling. It recounts the artist's interesting career without seriously engaging the book under review. Then she faults Ms Levin for being "so immersed in Chicago's writing that their perspectives seem nearly identical..." This piece belongs in the Saturday Arts section; it could pass for a report of the upcoming opening of the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where Ms Chicago's Dinner Party will be permanently installed.

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor. Ben Yagoda never comes out and says so, but his review suggests that this book is a miscarriage of Theory.

Another problem is the book's insularity. Barker, a former musician and songwriter, and Taylor, the author of The Future of Jazz, show no awareness that for a century or so, authenticity has been a crucial and highly charged word and concept in philosophy, psychology and aesthetics. If they had made use of Lionel Trilling's classic 1972 book, Sincerity and Authenticity.....

And does it really matter?


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

Sweet: An Eight-Ball Odyssey, by Heather Byer, reviewed by Danielle Trussoni; The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team, by Michael Weinreb, reviewed by James Kaplan. These are books about pastimes, but neither appears to be up to the standards of Izaak Walton. Ms Trussoni: "Like most talented women, she understands that to succeed at a man's game she must play by his rules, only better and in flashy shoes." Mr Kaplan: "The book vibrates with the energy of the outer boroughs."

March 06, 2007


For a slide show that only the Internet could have made it so easy for you to see, click here. I'll shut up; you look.

The Chabad center on Pico could be a building at my alma mater, Notre Dame. (Thanks, kottke.org.)


Nobody said the fight against AIDS couldn't be fun.

You may well ask why nobody dreamed up a condom applicator before, what with the Industrial Revolution and all.

MMArtists at Grace Rainey Rogers

There was plenty of whooping and hollering at last Friday's chamber recital at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Met. The occasion was the second of the MMArtists' three programs this season. The ensemble consisted of four men and one woman, and they had not quite worked out the dress code. Jennifer Frautschi wore a dressy dress and heels to match. She looked ready for a deluxe cocktail party, minus the jewelry. The men wore jackets but not ties, and, while they weren't quite scruffy, they were taking casualness to the point beyond which it slips into carelessness. I'm not sure whether we're in a transitional era or whether people are in a mood to experiment. There is a liberated, Sixties air. But there weren't any thirtysomethings playing Brahms at this level in the Sixties, I never heard them.

March 05, 2007

Colm Tóibín discusses Mothers and Sons

As promised, a word about the Tóibín reading Saturday night.

Books on Monday: An Amerrican Killing

Having discovered Mary-Ann Tirone Smith late last year, I looked up her other work and got a copy of her fifth novel, An American Killing. I read it in January and really liked it, but I had a pile of books to write up, and being physically the largest of them (if not the thickest), it stayed at the bottom. By the time it emerged, I had to re-read huge chunks of it in order to sound halfway intelligent about it - no sharp stick in the eye! The book's complicated but perfectly worked-out plot has far too many details to be remembered, so even though I knew how the story came out and who the bad guys were, the connections eluded me. I'll read it again sometime, and it will be almost new.

March 04, 2007

March Forth!

Today, we celebrate International Progress Day, although not very internationally, because the pun doesn't work in other languages. Happy International Progress Day!

In the event, I did not ask Colm Tóibín to say his name. While he signed the book, I suggested that The Master could be seen as a short-story collection, and I told him that the James work that it most reminded me of was The Awkward Age. Mr Tóibín graciously assented to both remarks. I looked at his signature. It was almost perfectly legible.

The reading at 192 Books was my sole Saturday-evening entertainment. Kathleen could not rouse herself to leave the apartment, so we missed the Scissors Sisters concert. I wasn't about to go to that by myself! Readings given by writers I admire are much more my thing, even if the event requires a fifty-minute commute each way. (Tenth and 21st is a long way from 86th and Second, with at least one train change.)

I'm especially glad that I didn't miss Mr Tóibín. Something about his writing - or perhaps it was his soulful author photographs on dust jackets - led me to expect a dour, shy Irishman. Wrong! He was so charming and conversational that it actually hurt to turn away from him after the signing. I'd have given anything for an hour's conversation - a feeling I've never had before. He recommended that we all read Hemingway's "The Killers," in case we hadn't. He talked about how his new collection of short stories, Mothers and Sons, came to be, and revealed fascinating details of the backgrounds of a couple of the tales. More about that tomorrow.

Like a dodo, I left this week's Book Review at the bookshop. I was so involved with tying my scarf and turning the mobile back on that I abandoned it atop a stack of books, where, to be sure, it fit right in. The thought of having to buy another newspaper just to replace it was almost as irritating as not having anything to read on the voyage home. (I did have Mr Tóibín's book, but I'd read it, and it's really not suited to the MTA's clatter.)  I resolved to be resourceful. I'd haunt little room where the service elevator stops. That's where we do our recycling and leave our newspapers. Sure enough, I had a replacement by noon. 

Yesterday's burst of spring has drifted off, leaving wintry conditions in possession.

March 03, 2007


Gawd! It's spring! No scarf, no gloves - even my jacket seems a little heavy. On the whole, I'm sanguine about ageing. I know that I'm much happier and more centered now than I was whenever those waning faculties and interests were pulsing. Maybe because they're not. But one thing hasn't changed. I still contract rabid spring fever at the first meteorological enticement. My first thought: I want to take the day off! Just goof around. There are plenty of second and third thoughts, and presently order is restored. (Just what would "taking the day off" mean? Insofar as martinis were not involved, that is.) I will do the usual Saturday cleanup, changing the sheets and - by the way, there are no more handkerchiefs in the drawer, so would you please wake up and wash them? Tonight is beyond crazy. Seven o'clock: Colm Tóibín at 192 Books. Then the Scissors Sisters at Madison Square Garden, a venue of which I am innocent. Long story there. I asked the man at 192 when I was at the shop the other day for Jane Smiley if he knew how the Irish author pronounces his name. I plan to ask the man himself tonight. I'm finding it awkward to say "Col'm ToyBEAN."

Kathleen was too tired to go to the museum last night to hear the MMArtists play Brahms (it was wondrous; report on Tuesday). We did have dinner afterward around the corner, but what she did during the concert was watch The Last Waltz. This morning, she insisted that I see Joni Mitchell sing "Coyote." I love the song - I love Hejira, the album that it opens. But I was amazed by the singer's resemblance to, of all people, Katharine Hepburn. They're peas out of a pod! And when you think about it...

My heart broke a few minutes ago, because "Blarg Noir" left me on the cutting-room floor.

Don't mind me - it's spring fever.

Das Leben der Anderen, Idiocracy

Two movies. I saw two movies yesterday. I saw one in the middle of the other. I was up early and all that, and I'd narrowed the Friday Movies thing down to two movies showing in the hood, but I didn't want to see either of them. They were just convenient. That was Thursday night. In the morning, I felt a little stronger, a little more Angelika-prone. I reupped the Google. The Important Movie was showing at a good time. I reupped the Google during a bathroom break that I took in the first third of Idiocracy. Time to turn off the tape and boogie là-bas. Went to see The Lives of Others. I did my pathetic little Angelika block stroll: Being a visitor from the Upper East Side, get off the first car at Bleecker Street and walk underground to Broadway and Houston. Climb the stairs, cross the street, walk a block. When the movie's over, exit onto Mercer Street and turn right. At Bleecker - you're on the street now - turn right again, and keep walkin' 'til you find yourself with the strangest choice ever presented by the MTA: which entrance to the Uptown 6 is the right one? They are most suspiciously equidistant. Back at the manoir, I scoped the rest of Idiocracy.

Happily, our new doorman is an idiot, so when the Video Room people came for the one-night pickup, the DVD couldn't be found. Will Howard charge me? He didn't last time. The DVD was right there where it was supposed to be when we asked after it, and I brought it home. Then I thought: interesting scenes of the future for Kathleen to see!

And I was so right. She has been keeping herself going on coffee for really rather too long, and it seemed unlikely that she'd fall asleep comme d'habitude. Selected scenes from Idiocracy weakened her nicely. Afterward, reading Joan Acocella on Marguertie Yourcenar put her out.

Controlled demolition, man.

March 02, 2007

Taking Stock: The Blarg Hop

It seems that I haven't said much about last Saturday's Blarg Hop. That's because I was too busy incapacitating myself on Sunday (ably guarded by Fossil Darling and LXIV), and too incapacitated on Monday, to write more than a couple of sentences. I was so pleased with myself for my good behavior on Saturday night that I could do nothing all day Sunday - and I do mean all day - but drink martinis. Shaken, stirred, whatever.

I had therapy yesterday (in this building) and the doctor and I talked about the pub crawl. Now that I'm making friends via the Internet, a big door is opening, and almost everybody on the other side is gay. Why is that? I have a few theories, but theories are easy. Thanks to years of Fossil Darling's ways and means, I am perfectly at home in gay crowds, and I suppose I pass for an elderly bear. The bottom line is that the people who showed up for the Blarg Hop - I'm not overlooking Helen Damnation or Curly McDimple here - are interesting. We all, or most of us, have blogs, but for all sorts of different reasons. It was fun to discuss them.

Once upon a time, Kathleen was out of town and I went out on the town - and I lost my keys. It cost more than $400 to re-enter the apartment. So I took some precautions. I promised to leave when the group headed for the third bar on the junket, and I locked the lock that comes with the apartment, ie the one the doormen can open, if you're nice to them. In the event, there was no danger of intoxication. Buy the time you take your coat off and all that, and order a pint, you've got just about enough time to drink the damned thing before it's time to leave. I managed to lose my gloves (one was recovered) and my scarf (recovered after I left Phoenix and rushed out to me in the street by the blogger in the farmboyz family - "R J! I've got it!"). But I did not lose my wits.

Someone wondered aloud if he'd ever been before to the bar we were in. Headbang8 said that he doesn't go to bars. So it wasn't just me. I'm not sure how much of the blaring music I could have taken. Bars are not really very pleasant places. They're dark - as in dismal, not sexy - and underfurnished. Did I say "loud"? In the event, bothered about that lost glove, I left a bit early. Next year (if I'm invited), I'll stay longer, knowing that the worst thing that I'll develop is hoarseness. And I'll wear mitten clips.

I was indulged by FutureJunky and a few others whose names I never properly caught. (FJ gave me his card, but I'd figured out who he was anyway, because he said he was from Washington, and I'd read that someone from Washington was planning to join the party. Am I not Sherlock?) They listened appreciatively while I expatiated about my Book Review review. Now, there's a hot Saturday night topic!

I have a thing about eyes, so I recognized Michael's, of So I Like Superman, from a few yards away. I went over to him and thanked him for the hugely funny videos that he'd posted of him and his friends performing very witty skits about guys watching the Super Bowl. You must watch them all.

Preliminary sociological finding: gay guys aren't afraid to be nice guys in groups. Did I say that? I must have forgotten the "A-List" party that Fossil Darling took me to once. I've never felt more absolutely invisible. Guys stared right through me. Okay, then. Gay bloggers. Gay bloggers who show up at events organized by the inestimable Joe.

He really is, you know. Absolutely inestimable.

March 01, 2007

Drawing from Memory

Drawing from memory: have you ever tried to draw a map of the United States's frontiers from memory? Few things are more familiar to Americans than the outline of the nation, but reproducing it from memory gives an idea of how different reading and writing are. Forming letters is easier to learn than sketching maps, but to someone who has never tried it before, it's just as staggering to write "cat" as it is to draw the lower forty-eight.

¶ Now consider drawing a portrait of a city that you've seen only once. Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic man from England, is amazingly capable. (Thanks, kottke.org)

Very Big Deal


The Daily Blague is hardly the most confessional of Web logs, but I've always wanted to let readers have some sense of what my life is like. At the same time, I don't ordinarily find it difficult to be discreet. I've little inclination to write about things that can't be written about.

Kathleen's job change has been an exception. For quite some time, the two of us have wondered if and where Kathleen might find a partnership at a law firm capable of sustaining her growing practice. Moving from one law firm to another is an incredibly delicate process, but I have to say that Kathleen had an easy time of it. It could have been vastly disagreeable.

But from the inside, it has been wearying. There is the secrecy, which isn't really in our natures. (For a long time, we told no one.) There is the prospect, followed by the reality, of leaving a partnership of which Kathleen is very fond, and at which she has spent many happy (if overtired) years. Finally, there is the recognition that, after a certain age, change is almost as taxing as it might be beneficial, at least while it's ongoing.

I don't know how I should have endured the suspense and the anxiety - anxiety about Kathleen's getting enough sleep - if I hadn't had this blog to keep me busy. At the same time, I'm amazed that I was able to focus on it, and with an increasingly stable lens. I won't say that I've written bright and cheerful pieces while in the grip of black doubt - contrary to the expectations of friends and relations, it was never a foregone conclusion that Kathleen would find what she needed - but I have learned to work as hard as I can whenever it is possible to imagine being bright and cheerful. I have developed an almost grim attachment to the weekly Book Review review, even though it always feels like a new kind of hangover on Monday mornings.

I can take it.

Well, I wouldn't go that far. I've been very cranky, which wasn't exactly helpful to Kathleen, because I'm too profoundly bourgeois to adapt to uncertainty. As if she had nothing else to do, Kathleen has had to buoy up my spirits from time to time, and she has always done so with the bold assertion that, as SPDR Woman of Wall Street (which she really is), she would make something happen. At a minimum, this has reminded me that I have a page to write - I have to make something happen.

PS: Almost everyone, including lawyers familiar with Kathleen's practice who ought to have known better, has expressed the hope that Kathleen would be able to take some time off between jobs. If only. In fact, nothing could be harder to swing right now than a vacation, even a short one. This happens to be the busiest time of the year for Kathleen.