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April 30, 2007


The end of April - already?

In local news, the Claremont Riding Academy has closed "for good." I am not an equestrian, and I don't remember even passing by the Claremont, but it reassured me to know that the stables were there, proof that anachronism is viable. Well, apparently not. It seems that it's not much fun to ride horses in Central Park anymore, what with all the dogs and baby carriages.

A nutcase who suited up as a fireman and tied a coworker up in her Chelsea flat for thirteen hours is pushing the envelope of "neurolaw" in his defense. He doesn't deny doing what he did. He just claims that, because of bad brain chemistry, he never intended to do it. In the unlikely event that this argument persuades the jury, I will not join the chorus of commentators who will undoubtedly bemoan the end of personal responsibility. Our legal system, advanced as it is, rests on a folk wisdom about human nature that is increasingly out of touch with what we are beginning to know about ourselves.

I was thinking about this over the weekend, thanks to Robert Wright's Op-Ed piece, "Planet of the Apes."

We may more often have to resist the retributive impulse that worked fine in the environment where it evolved but now often misfires. We may have to appreciate how our moral condemnations - which can help start wars - are subtly biased in self-serving ways that, in some contexts, no longer serve our selves.

We may have to cultivate our moral imagination, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who hate us. The point wouldn't be to validate the hate, but to understand it and so undermine it. Still, this understanding involves seeing how, from a certain point of view, hating us "makes sense" - and our evolved brains tend to resist that particular epiphany.

I am going to work on my moral imagination to see why it "makes sense" for moms pushing gigantic strollers to hate me because I radiate the longing to banish them to the suburbs. The occasional kid is cute. The current plague of infants threatens to take the "Man" out of "Manhattan": Kinderhattan.

"Walking Spanish down the hall"

It's difficult to be brief about Joshua Ferris's superb novel, Then We Came to the End. I never say that I look forward to re-reading a new book unless I mean it, but I'm rarely as sure that I will re-read it as I am in this case. Books this delightful to read don't generally pose sticky moral questions. So light is Mr Ferris's touch that it's possible just to enjoy the ride and shrug off the doubts that it raises about the health of corporate life even at its most creative. I dare you to try!

April 29, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Tomato Soup

There's nothing to it - just a few chopped ingredients, simmered gently for a few hours. Then the work begins.

Tomato Soup.


April 28, 2007

La Doublure

After the movie on Friday, I went to Jacques Dowtown for lunch. It's on Prince Street, and very charming. I didn't get there until the bartender had gone on lunch break, so I had to be content with Sancerre. Memo to self: if movie starts late - the first showing of La Doublure (The Valet) at the Angelika was at noon - come back uptown for a croque.

La Doublure (The Valet)

April 27, 2007

Rudy the Red

Fossil Darling and I agree: a Giuliani Administration is about the only thing imaginable that would be worse than the Bush Administration. We don't worry about it too much, because true-red conservatives don't like Rudy Giuliani any better than we do. The man is a thug who has, over the years, become seriously addicted to adulation. There isn't anything he won't do to get it, wherever he can get it. Now he's back-tracking on all of his formerly moderate-Republican views, which he more or less had to espouse when he wanted to be mayor of New York City.

On 10 September 2001, he was a widely detested public figure here in Gotham. His my-way-or-the-highway manner had become grating. The city employed more, not fewer, workers, contrary to his campaign promises. There was a very embarrassing divorce. Then came 9/11. Despite all of the incompetence - not least of which was the uselessness of that second-story "bunker" at 7 World Trade Center - the day was glory time for Mr Giuliani. If I had suspected him of more foresighted cunning, I'd have demanded an investigation into his terrorist ties.

We pray that, in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr Giuliani will be found to be "too New York." This is one time when I'm actually hoping that the country will reject the City.

Wall Street Joke

What with the Dow passing 13,000, Wall Street jokes are blooming like crocuses. They're not as wicked as they used to be, back in the bad old Eighties, but they're still fun. Here's the latest from Fossil Darling.

A lesson to be learned from typing the wrong email address!

A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day.

The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realizing his error, sent the email.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband's funeral. He was a minister who was called home to glory following heart attack. The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted.

The widow's son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject:  I've Arrived
Date: January 13, 2007

I know you're surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I've just arrived and have been checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.

Your loving husband.

P.S. Sure is freaking hot down here!

Friday Fronts: Prison Rape

We grow up thinking that prisons are where the others are, the others. The criminals, the crazies. The bad people who deserve it. We grow up thinking, in short, that the American prison system is more or less okay.

In fact, it's proof that we're not okay.

David Kaiser on Rape in Prisons, in The New York Review of Books.

April 26, 2007

Deke by Daylight

Guantánamo Blues

Guantánamo - if I have written very little about the detention of alleged terrorists there, that's because I don't understand the Bush Administration's vindictiveness. It's like waking up in a foreign country, only a foreign country more alien than I've ever visited. What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave the way they do?

On the surface, it seems easily enough explained. The Bushies opted for a "get tough" stance on "terrorists," and screwed it up, comme d'habitude. Then, being the bullies that they are, they couldn't relent, couldn't "lose face."

Now, in a move that seems a lot weirder than anything on Star Trek, they want to reduce attorney access to the detainees. The arguments, at least as retailed in the Times, make no sense whatever. And they are utterly what I would call un-American.

Who are these people? And I don't mean "the detainees."


The news this morning is that I woke up with the sense of having had a very strong and interesting dream, but the dream was actually a novel - Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End. I read it yesterday. I had expected the book to be a fun read, and it was, but it was so much more. I'll probably spend the rest of the day trying to squeeze out a few semi-literate paragraphs for Monday. For the moment, all I can say is: The Great Gatsby. Mr Ferris's novel is that good. Or so it seems, the morning after.

April 25, 2007

What Winthrop Sargeant Actually Said

For years, I've been carrying around in my head something that Winthrop Sargeant, late music critic at The New Yorker, wrote about Emmanuel Chabrier's Souvenirs de Munich. As I remembered it, he called it "the funniest piece of music." In fact, Sargeant put it (18 March 1972) rather more concisely.

Now, this bit, which is made up largely of quotations from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, given a music-hall touch by Chabrier, is one of the most hilarious musical satires ever written.

Every week, it seems, I am driven to consult The Complete New Yorker in order to clarify some dim recollection or revisit some once-important story. After all, I've been reading The New Yorker for nearly forty-five years. My brain has turned most of what I've read into a dense fog that now, at last, can here and there be cleared. I'm still surprised, well over a year and a half after the DVDs appeared, that it's possible to search the magazine's archives at home and without any special machinery. (Once, in college, I was moved to see what kind of coverage the Abdication of Edward VIII got, and for years I kept a printout of Janet Flanner's Letter from London on the subject. I do believe that this was the only time that I had anything to do with microfilm.) I used to keep boxes of clippings, although it was pointless to do so, because the morass of stapled pages was practically unsearchable. From time to time I'd throw everything out.

I still rip off and save the magazine's covers before chuting the rest. You can't print covers from The Complete New Yorker, no sir.

April 24, 2007

In the Book Review

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

This was a tough week. Only one novel made it into Yes, and I've doubts that it deserved the placement. I used the word "crap" for the first time, because, Jesus, Erica Wagner really deserves it. With the worldwide democratic electorate proving itself incompetent on every side, it's no help to read her stupidly self-indulgent reviews of barely passable books. I would have put Hunk City among the Maybes (at best), but I needed some good fiction. I have no idea where the editors found this week's titles. Under a bridge somewhere, I expect.


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

Hunk City, by James Wilcox. Mark Sarvas, author of the blog The Elegant Variation, gives this novel a good review that I can't quite understand, but I catch its enthusiasm. There's a lot of storytelling, and I can't tell whether the book is a romp or a memorable novel. Mr Sarvas inclines me to give it the benefit of the doubt.

As in his prior novels, Wilcox's narrative, which skitters like a stone thrown expertly across a country pond, delivers a high quotient of whimsy...

Easter Everywhere: A Memoir, by Darcey Steinke. I didsn't much care for Stephen Metcalf's exhaling review. I was also unhappy with the photograph of the author, who bears an elaborate, flaming tatoo on her right shoulder (I am against tatoos, largely because, yes, indeedy, they're "cute"). But the review makes it clear that, as a book about the possibility that adult unhappiness may be attributable more to the lack of reasonable authorities in life than to childhood dysfunction, Easter Everywhere may be a pivotal memoir. And yet I did find dysfunction in Ms Steinke's story, even if she's not exploiting it. The daughter of a lukewarm Lutheran minister more interested in the poor (and jazz) than in "theodicy,"  and "a former provincial beauty queen who attached too early to the local minister's son," Ms Steinke is clearly the product of a mésalliance. I wish her luck with the tatoo.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande. Paulene Chen (herself also a physician), is enthusiastic about this book, which might have been given more space. "Gawande, a surgeon, manages to capture medecine in all of its complex and chaotic glory, and to put it, still squirming with life, down on the page."

Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World, by Liza Mundy. Polly Morrice has her reservations about this report on the latest in fertility enhancement, but she is clear that the field needs Federal regulation.

[Mundy] suggests that the government should limit how many embryos can be transferred - indeed, that it should finally start regulating the free-for-all fertility industry, which is now so unfettered that companies producing the sugar-and-protein soup that nurtures human embryos aren't required to divulge its ingredients. State oversight would also promote controlled studies of what reproductive science has wrought, perhaps resolving the question of whether in vitro babies are different in unwelcome ways from infants created naturally. Such issues certainly deserve our attention, whether or not they are really the results of a revolution.


The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, by William Dalrymple. Tobin Harshaw indulges in a great deal of storytelling in his negligently favorable review of this book about the last non-British ruler of India before 1947. He does manage to engage with the book for an instant.

Dalrymple excels at bringing grand historical events within contemporary understanding by documenting the way people went about their lives amidst the maelstrom [of the Mutiny]. His coup in researching The Last Mughal was his uncovering, deep in the National Archives of India, some 20,000 personal personal Persian and Urdu papers written by Delhi residents who survived the uprising.

The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet, by Kate Teltscher. This book, about Warren Hasting's attempt to open up the China market via a Tibetan back door, gets a favorable review from Tristram Stuart. He shows how the author's thinking has evolved since a 1995 book about India that was heavily influenced by the anticolonialism of Edward Said. "Even while working for an unjust colonial machine, many individuals fostered similarly paradoxical relationships that became the channels for mutual cultural exchange." Fat lot of good it did, though: China would be "opened" not by diplomacy but by the Opium Wars.

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben. Lance Morrow writes a favorable review of this book even while he contests its efficacy. Sure, we can all pitch in on the environmental effot. But

To attempt to alter the world by increments of local improvisation and conservation is to fight against a mighty tide. The world is flat, all right. It is also a toxic mess. Minds are usually changed on a mass scale only by some dramatic event - Pearl Harbor, say: Americans, isolations before Dec 7, 1941, pitched wholeheartedly into the war thereafter.... Right now, with the tsunami, Katrina, global melting, the world is cruising along - somewhere around Munich and Czechoslovakia. 


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

Way More West: New and Selected Poems, by Edward Dorn. Ordinarily, poets get a Yes pass from me. But poet August Kleinzahler's review seems inverted.

But that's Dorn. Throughout his career, he was the least endearing, domesticated or predictable of poets, always determined to go his own way, no matter what anyone thought. And if he hadn't been that way, American poetry would be a lot less vital and interesting.

That's the sort of thing we're always being told about difficult writers, but Mr Kleinzahler ought to have set out to prove his thesis, instead of ending an inconclusive review with it.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid. I can't make head nor tail of Karen Olsson's review. It is almost entirely storytelling - summarizing the plot of the novel - and wholly lacking in judgment.

The novel begins a few years after 9/11. Changez happens upon the American in Lahore, invites him to tea and tell him the story of his life after the attacks. That monologue is the substance of Hamid's elegant and chilling little novel.

This paragraph, which I have quoted entire, ought to be engraved in the Enchiridion of Book Reviews: How Not To.

Black & White, by Dani Shapiro. Erica Wagner ought to stick to writing novels. She makes a complete hash of reviewing Black & White, largely because she's so taken with her own literary-arity. This is how she begins:

To whom does a novel belong? There is is - an object of a certain size, shape and weight, its title, its author's name on the cover. So there can be, you would think, little doubt. Black & White, this one says, "a novel by Dani Shapiro." So this novel belongs to, is made by, Dani Shapiro. So far, so good [sic!!!!!]. But when I read Shapiro's words, she is not with me. I have only her words, black marks on white pages, thought in this novel her title should be taken to refer, of course, to the photographic images that have made its protagonist a celebrity, albeit an unwilling one. But art exists just as much in the mind of its creator.....

Good heavens, woman, whither thou goest? There may be a venue for this sort of self-celebratory crap, but the Book Review is not it.

The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall. This novel has been the object of much recent buzz - so much so, in fact, that I now find myself in the middle of reading it. Misgivings sprouting like mushrooms, I read Tom Shone's review with inordinate interest. It is very negative.

How all of this will read in 20 years, or even two, is hard to say, although one suspects that what seemed so vertiginously modern will ultimately seem like so much cyber-age psychedelia - as depthless and woozy as paisley-patterned shirts. Hollywood, needless to say, has taken the bait... But I would advise producers to tread cautiously: we could be in for a replay of The Beach, by Alex Garland. Novels so in hock to the movies have a habit of evaporating by the time they get to the screen.

Unfortunately, none of this disposes of Mr Hall's novel.

Coal Black Horse, by Robert Olmstead. Roy Hoffman's column-length review of what is clearly a complex Civil War novel fails to do justice not so much to the book as to the job of reviewing. Mr Hoffman is ultimately dissatisfied with the book, but I'm pretty dissatisfied with his review.

A callow youth, a mystical horse, a Civil War landscape - Robert Olmstead uses these familiar elements to fashion Coal Black Horse, an exciting if periodically overwrought coming-of-age novel. They are all brought together at Gettysburg...

The review goes downhill from there.

Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley. Jane and Michael Stern, of all people, have "harrumph!" to say about this book, in which ageing boomers are offered "incentives" to "transition" (ie commit suicide in order to spare the health system the expense of caring for them.).

As in so many of the feature length films based on SNL skits, the caricature that is comical in small doses gets stale fast. Perhaps you find it amusing that the billionaire's motor boat appears on the cover of a publication called Vulgar Yacht Quarterly and his sailboat is named Expensive, but page after page of such cloddish comedy can be wearying. Then again, maybe we missed the obscure irony in lines like "When the going gets tough, the touch get blogging," or "In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream."

Jane and Michael Stern, our most literate vernacularists, are improbable reviewers of Mr Buckley's mandarin humor.

The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman, Edited by Stephen Pascal. A celebrity book: everyone you've ever heard of went to Leo Lerman's parties. Is that a reason to read his journals? Certainly not. Liesl Schillinger, alas, doesn't come up with anything better. Her review is dissociative at points.

For more than a decade, Pascal deciphered and edited his former mentor's journals with Foy's help and privy knowledge, and hunted down hundreds of Lerman's letters. In The Grand Surprise, Pascal resurrects and imposes order on a dazzling life in the scene-stealing language of the man who lived it. "How different writing is from thinking, even from planning what one is to write," Lerman wrote in a morose journal entry in 1978, after spending the day with Lincoln Kirstein and his wife and sister in Connecticut. He went on blackly to complain: "I balloon with words. I grow lardy with words. I am fat - hideously fat - with words." Pascal has reshaped Lerman's reminiscences into a heroic physique, and given his subject the posthumous consolation (would that he could have known it) that a hope he confided to himself late in life, in a notebook he did not know would be found, was true: "I did do something extra. I lived. I will live."

If we're supposed to applaud Mr Pascal's transformation of his subject into Auntie Mame, then please say so.

The Lady Upstairs: Dorothy Schiff and The New York Post, by Marilyn Nissenson. This ought to have been a Yes, but Jennifer Senior's review is persistently negative. She applauds the author for thorough research but faults her for a reluctance to pause and synthesize. In short: a dizzy and dizzying book. There is naturally a great deal of storytelling in this review of a biography of Katharine Graham's feistier sister.

Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations, by Simon Rich. Henry Alford's review makes Simon Rich, the son of Times pundit Frank Rich (whom I admire no end), sound a bit on the idle side, for all his endearing good humor.

The microscaled, high-concept humor piece seems to be in vogue with all the cool kids... You'd think that a current Harvard senior and former president of The Harvard Lampoon might serve up a hipper-than-thou shivaree of pop culture or highbrow allusions. But aside from the occasional nod to the Bible or a movie... Some of them could have been written 50 years ago.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Gregg Easterbrook's review is a textbook example of the narcissism of small differences. Mr Easterbrook clearly shares Mr Taleb's interest in the frailty of predictions (the books title refers to the kinds of unexpected developments that we don't foresee.) Having said that The Black Swan "has appealing cheek and admirable ambition," Mr Easterbrook proceeds to pick at it in a niggling sort of way, so that in the end you wonder what Mr Taleb's publishers were thinking. It would have served everyone better to suggest why Random House - Mr Taleb's publisher - must have decided that it had a good title on its hands.


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

Mergers & Acquisitions, by Dana Vachon. I find that I want to know more at the same time that I want to know nothing about this book, which appears to be an enormous moon of nostalgia for a decade that the author spent in his crib. D T Max is almost savage.

Quinn and his father shop at Brooks Brothers and he and his friends eat at Smith & Wollensky and Le Bilboquet. They do cocaine in bathrooms as if the world stopped in 1983. They talk on Motorola Razrs when the guys selling fake watches on Fifth have them. Socially the '00s may be the '80s all over again, but even so, no book purporting to bring us cultural news should be set in an M&A division in 2007.

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, by Richard Preston. This is a book about people who love and must conduct their lives atop Sequoia Sempervirens. It is a niche book if ever there was one. Kate Zernike gallantly tries to give it some general relevance, but when she writes,

Oddly, in a book of vivid characters, Sillett, the protagonist, is the least vivid

the game is up.

Positively American: Winning Back the Middle Class Majority One Family at a Time, by Chuck Schumer, with Daniel Squadron; ...And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress, by Charles B Rangel with Leon Wynter. These two Chuck-lheads are important figures in my part of the world, and, on the whole, I admire their political achievement. Why on earth I or anyone else would want to read their personal testaments, however, is beyond me. Eric Alterman praises Mr Rangel's prose and damns Mr Schumer's, but aside from stylistic differences the books don't seem that different. These men are actors, not thinkers; it's for others to judge and analyse their actions.

As Wrong As Murder

It seems that we are all in agreement about murder: it's wrong. How to punish it may be unclear, but murder has no defenders.

Why then, are we in such disagreement about handguns, which have only one purpose: murder. ("Self-defense" is a delusion. As Adam Gopnik observes in The New Yorker this week, "If having a loaded semi-automatic on hand kept you safe, cops would not be shot as often as they are.) And yet, according a poll reported in today's Times*, 64% of Americans are opposed to a ban on handguns.

Surely there is no stronger evidence of the failure of American, and Democratic Party, leadership. If Americans cannot be persuaded that the civilian possession of handguns is as wrong as murder, then I don't much see the point of democracy in America.

*Not as of this writing online, but appearing on page A22 of the Late Edition.

Orpheus at Carnegie, with Gil Shaham

For a few more weeks, WNYC will make it possible to listen to last week's Orpheus concert. I hope that you'll find the time to hear it. It certainly doesn't sound like Carnegie Hall on the computer, but you'll get some idea of what I've been raving about for years. I wish I knew how to make a permanent recording!

Here's what I thought.


April 23, 2007

Here and There

As predicted, the second round of the French presidential election will be a Ségo-Sarko contest. Because I nursed apparently quixotic hopes for François Bayrou, I'm disappointed. The good news is 84% of France's electorate showed up to vote. When was the last time anything like that figure was realized here?

Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg has issued a blueprint for making New York City greener. The proposal that has gotten the most attention would charge "congestion pricing" for weekday automobile commuting. If New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer supports the Mayor on this, it has an actual chance of getting through the Legislature. It's not what I have in mind, though. What I have in mind is putting tolls on all Manhattan bridges, not just some of them (all tunnels are tolled), and banning overnight street parking in Manhattan. In this city of sky-high real-estate, it's amazing to me that thousands of car owners are given fifty square feet of what ought to be sidewalk for free.

The Pile: an Update

Here's how my reading is going these days.

The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, by Robin Lane Fox. It didn't take long for me to realize that I haven't read an overview of classical antiquity since the sixth grade. I'm familiar with almost everything that Mr Fox writes about, but not in anything like this extensive context.

There are two ways to approach a book of this kind: read it all at once, to the exclusion of all others, or peck away at it deliberately by reading a chapter a day. I'm trying the latter. The book is divided into six parts, three for the Greeks (Archaic, Classical, Alexandrian) and three for the Romans (Republic, transition, Empire). I've reached the third of ten chapters about the Hellenistic world.

A Hall of Mirrors, by Robert Stone. This is Mr Stone's first novel, published in 1964. It is not an appealing book. It's about the gritty lives of Rheinhardt, a gifted but sodden DJ, and Geraldine, a sweet girl with a slashed face. It is set in a New Orleans that no tourist has ever visited. Most of the time, A Hall of Mirrors seems to take place in another century, but there are moments of immediacy.

The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall. What prompted me to buy this book? It's the sort of thing that I wouldn't order from Amazon in a million years; there had to be a stack of books on a bookseller's table, calling out to me, "Hey, handsome, read me and you'll be cool."  I am such a sucker! This is why I avoid bookstores.

Two impressions - suspicions, really - one much worse than the other: the title sounds a lot like the way an Englishman might say "Rorschach Test"; and, having reached the midpoint, I'm horrified to think that what I'm reading is just a high-concept version of The Da Vinci Code. Noooo! Do I put the book down now or see it through?

Peasants and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Constance Garnett). I'm reading these stories because James Wood, in his essay on Virginia Woolf (in The Broken Estate, which I've pulled down from the shelf), claims that Woolf's writing changed after she read them, in 1916 or so. The book is a NYRB reprint of a Doubleday Anchor edition of 1956, introduced by Edmund Wilson.

Books on which I have made no progress lately include The Label, Gary Marmorstein's book about Columbia Records, and The Ambassadors' Secret, by John North. Books that I have not begun to read include Voltaire's Mahomet le prophète, Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton, and Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End. I'm dying to read the last.

April 22, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Tomato Soup

It's a beautiful day, and I'm going to take it off. What I am not going to do (probably) is purée this mixture of tomatoes, apples, onions, broth, and seasonings.


What was I thinking, making a vat of tomato soup in April? They do say, though, that it's going to get chilly in the middle of the week. I'll have the soup ready by then.

April 21, 2007

The "I'm in New York" Moment

I have lived in Manhattan for the past twenty-seven years. I was born on the West Side and I grew up in Westchester. Aside from a Texas exile between two stints at Notre Dame, and a misguided - in retrospect - experiment in Litchfield County living - I have spent my life here. But every so often, New York feels like a place I've just arrived in. Early this afternoon, I had one of those "I'm in New York" moments.

Then again, it may just have been spring fever.

The Hoax

The other day, after lunch with a friend, I crossed the street to see when the next showing of The Hoax would be starting. In five minutes' time, it turned out. So I bought a ticket, acquired all the necessary accoutrements, and took a seat in the back of the theatre.

This meant that I did not travel to the Angelika yesterday to see The Valet. That will have to wait until next week. Maybe not next Friday, though.

The Hoax.

April 20, 2007

On the importance of literary criticsm

The news this week has been, to say the least, demoralizing. Everything that I know about the Virginia Tech massacre I know from the Times and from the few Web logs that I've read that have mentioned it. There is really nothing to say that hasn't been said in response to other recent American disasters.

It was fun, sort of, to read the excoriating editorial about the Attorney General, "Gonzalez v Gonzalez," in today's paper. But then it stopped being fun. That such a doofus could rise to a position of eminence is proof that our political culture is both corrupt and demented.

So pardon me while I take refuge in my ivory tower.

¶ Cynthia Ozick on critics; Siddhartha Debs on Roberto Bolaño, in Harper's.

April 19, 2007

Pleasanty surprise of groping

Do you think that it's possible to engage with the Internet in a reasonable manner? Or will we always surrender to pings and possibilities, no matter what we're in the middle of? Or will I, that is; I only care about you if you're doing better. Heaven knows, I'm a shambles. Once I have decided to write something, I'm all discipline, and only take breaks when it's useful to do so. But when I get the work done, I sit at the computer like a zombie, clicking on links without rhyme or reason. And if it's incoming email!

I don't get as much email as I'd like to get. Not nearly. This is not because I don't send email myself. I send plenty. That is the problem. Allowing for all the dumbing down of the Twentieth Century, I think that I can proclaim myself the Henry James of email. The late Henry James of email. I never met two sentences that I didn't prefer to join with a semicolon. I get "raising the bar" a lot from friends who want to excuse themselves from the burden of replying in kind. It appears that my correspondence is an infliction.

(On at least two occasions, one affable friend has actually checked out of Gmail in order to check my chat. I want to say to this friend that it's not necessary to take such drastic action, but then I think, why should this person trust me? I'm not sure that I have the gift of the gab, but I sure have the gab.)

I appear to be coming out of a period during which most of the people on my affinities list (doctors call it "the blogroll" - and does anyone out there still get the "doctors call it..." joke?) have had other things to do than write blog entries. Two of the Paris blogs, for instance, are showing signs of life after long hiatus*. Michael Smith has promised to write more. Ms NOLA is finding time to write, despite a harrowing schedule (M le Neveu moves his digs this weekend.) All of this is good, because I was beginning to feel like the only one.

When will I start following political blogs again? I haven't looked at a political blog in over a year. Part of me gave up on the politics of the United States in 2004, and even the Democratic recapture of Congress has done nothing to recapture me, probably because I am never going to believe in the Democratic Party again; the Democratic Party is like a philandering spouse whom I have forgiven for the last time and who has then philandered.

And when will the Virginia Tech story go away? I ask this abstractly; it's still pretty fresh and awful. But it will linger into staleness. Such stories always do. Such is the degraded state of the American spectatorate that reality horror is the preferred entertainment. It's frightening, but it's also inconsequential. There's nothing to do about what happened at Virginia Tech, except perhaps to reconsider gun control (the NRA would have liked the victims to be armed, so that they could shoot back - what a great idea!). Kathleen and I both believe that the most decent response to the massacre is to stop tuning into it. Talking about it is one thing; "reliving" the nightmare is ghoulish. Kathleen says that, if she had a child who had been killed at Virginia Tech, the last thing she'd want is protracted media exposure. As a parent, I have to agree. I would hate to see Ms G's photo plastered everywhere simply because she'd been unlucky.

You might be wondering what this entry's title means. It's taken from an ad that was reported in Tuesday's Times - an ad from China. What it's supposed to mean, according to a caption that translates the accompanying Chinese characters, is "Find something new and be pleasantly surprised," which, even though it makes literal sense, strikes me as pretty inscrutable. Why would anybody say such a thing? If the US and China are fated to be coadjutant superpowers, we're looking at a long future of linguistic disasters. Both nations - China for ancient reasons, the United States for novel ones - top the list for diplomacy failure when it comes to understanding other cultures.

Meanwhile, I stagger from blog to blog in a disordered haze that, even when no drinking is involved, must be called "alcoholic." Whipsawed every day by the unique offerings du jour, I waste countless hours playing FreeCell just to restore some sense of equilibrium. (I never play FreeCell for fun.) I was discussing soft-boiled eggs with a British friend not too long ago. We agreed that tapping the egg in a pretty little egg cup, opening it up, and then managing to eat it - as opposed to cracking the contents into a bowl - is something that one is "bred to." You grow up knowing how to do it, or you never learn the trick of it. I shudder to think that the same is true of the Blogosphere. Having grown up in a blogless world, I'll never develop a smart way of responding to the huge variety on offer - when it's on offer.

* Thank you, Wheelock. (É, are you reading?)

April 18, 2007


Father T over at Perge Modo is having a lot of fun with Benday dots. Go have a look at his Sol LeWitt!

Honor vs Decency

According to a story by Martin Fackler and Choe Sang-Hun in the Times, "Japanese researchers" - name, please - have finally challenged the conservative government's denial that military officers, during World War II, had played any role in the "comfort women" system, in which the residents of occupied territory were forced into prostitution.

However, Japanese political analysts said the documents would not sway conservatives, who had stepped up efforts to deny the war tribunal's conclusions, calling them victors' justice.

This, to my mind, is one of the biggest problems that democracy faces. It happens everywhere. Elected officials take on a personal responsibility for the sovereignty that inhibits reform, because to press for reform is to acknowledge the unworthiness of the nation one heads. Or so it must seem to leaders who can't, for the life of them, apologize for wrongdoings that date back decades, that, in the case of Turkey's denial of Armenian genocide, occurred long before today's leaders were born. Canada has not apologized for shanghaiing an Inuit tribe on Ellesmere Island. Israel pretends that the very concept of apology does not exist, or, that if it does, it, Israel, is by definition on the receiving end. The Vatican has the chutzpah to protest the claim that Pius XII accommodated the Nazis.

It's tempting to say that "nations" don't say that they're sorry. But in each case, even that of the Vatican, it is an elected human being who is doing the denying. Clearly, democracy lacks a mechanism for protecting itself from a nasty human weakness.

In the Book Review

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

"Fiction in Translation" is this week's theme. For some crazy reason, three of the nine authors don't figure in the cover illustration; nor do their photographs appear in the "Up Front" column. Maybe they're shy.

With a cover review of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives by James Wood, the Review clearly means to aim high, but it's business as usual within this issue's pages. There are two resounding Noes, books of which their reviewers think so little that it's hard to know why they were reviewed at all. (Make that three, if you include Elfriede Jelinek's Greed.) Fiction in Spanish is preposterously overrepresented - understandable, but regrettable. A few of the books seem to have been chosen because they're weird, as in "foreign = ".

Even Mr Wood's review is far from his best work; like the rest of us who don't have literate Spanish, he's new to Bolaño and his thought has not had time to ripen.


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

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (Translated by Natasha Wimmer). James Wood's review of this newly-translated novel by the late Chilean author cannot be favorable or sympathetic enough, and it's as good as things get in the Book Review. It is too dense for quotation. Between extensive storytelling and a boggy fastidiousness about getting across the details of Bolaño's life - the Anglophone publishing world, at least in the United States, is running around its bedroom as if in the middle of the night, scurrying to get dressed in order to respond to the sudden appearance of, and urgent need to explain, Roberto Bolaño - the review is considerably flatter than Mr Wood's best work. There is one sentence that I found totally inscrutable: "The terror of the MacGuffin always hangs over Bolaño's work." I catch the reference to Alfred Hitchcock but have no idea what the sentence means.

Nada, by Carmen Laforet (Translated by Edith Grossman). Here we have a newly-translated novel from 1945, set in Barcelona. Fernanda Eberstadt's review suggests that it may replicate the sensation that the book made in Barcelona when it first appeared.

Nada depicts on the one hand the sordid collapse of a family whose fratricidal hatreds mirror those of the Civil War, and on the other hand the struggle of its youngest member for simple freedom. What gives the novel its unlikely freshness is the contrast between the melodramas to which Andrea is witness and humorous restraint of her narration.

Delirium, by Laura Restrepo (Translated by Natasha Wimmer). Although he calls this novel of Colombian dysfunction "disconcertingly lovely," Terrence Rafferty is disappointed that it "trickles to something like a happy ending."

But by the end it seems a fair description of Delirium, which is both sweeter than you'd expect and less nourishing than you'd hope.

I've got no idea what that's supposed to mean. Or, rather, I do, and it's nonsense. Books are not food.

The Story of the Cannibal Woman, by Maryse Condé. According to Elizabeth Schmidt's review, this novel, set in South Africa but written by a native of Guadeloupe, is a successful blend of "the fragmented interior monologue and the psychological thriller."


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

All Whom I Have Loved, by Aharon Appelfeld (Translated by Aloma Halter). Liesl Schillinger is fundamentally unhappy with this book. Unfavorably comparing it to Louis Begley's Wartime Lies, she writes,

Like Maciek, the character of Paul Rosenberg has been created by a mature author whose own thoughts and images inform his portrait. But because Appelfeld relays his story in Paul's immature voice and with his stunted understanding, the book suffers from Paul's limitations. How can the reader analyze Paul's feelings and religious leanings when Paul can't do this and the author won't?

Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino (Translated by Rebecca Copeland). Sophie Harrison's review made me wonder if she has read much modern Japanese fiction.

The murders themselves are dealt with only obliquely, through hearsay and court reports: the narrative concentrates instead on the victims' school days and their subsequent murky careers with a thoroughness that promises explanation but instead provides mere information. Yuriko's diaries document her transformation for teenage nymphomaniac to haggard streetwalker in the most matter-of-fact way; Kazue's journals detail her life as an office worker and prostitute, but again we're given little understanding of why her life took this turn.

I've always found the information-without-explanation one of the charms of the novels of august writers such as Tanizaki and Abe. 

Greed, by Elfriede Jelinek (Translated by Martin Chalmers). If it weren't for the Nobel Prize that Ms Jelinek won in 2004, I'd place this book, on the basis of Joel Agee's review, among the Noes. Mr Agee has almost nothing good to say about it; indeed, he makes the reading of it sound positively penitential.

Instead you will find the purely rhetorical life of a language engaged in a program of perpetual derision and snide deprecation. It does not help that Jelinek's style displays verbal dexterity, that she juggles high diction together with low dialect and jargon, erudite reference with wordplay and puns. Every witty turn comes with full marching orders. There is no freedom in this play.

This is the kind of massively unsympathetic review that we don't need. If the book is really that bad, then who needs to hear about it?


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

Depths, by Henning Mankell (Translated by Laurie Thompson). Lucy Ellmann's dislike of this book is incandescent.

What Mankell seems to know least about is something you can research without much effort: women. Though he gives his two female characters oddities that distinguish them somewhat, and awards them the moral high ground too, their lives are airless and dull, their only recourse for excitement being announcements that they're pregnant. For Tobiasson-Svartman [the protagonist], if not Mankell, women are big ballooning blanks, their motives and meaning more opaque than any fog at sea. But why? Women are right here to be seen and understood. It's infuriating when male writers make such a mystery of them, which is always ultimately a mockery.

That last needs to be said until the murky mythologizing stops. At the same time, the book appears to be utterly unworthy of mention in the Book Review.

Ice, by Vlladimir Sorokin (Translated by Jamey Gambrell). Ken Kalfus writes,

Ice is much less a satire than a single monstrous vision: human beings are no more than "meat machines," a race unable to communicate on a truly intimate scale and unworthy of continued existence. Purity lies in a universe without thought or language. In his frigid antihumanism, Sorokin parts company with Russian satirists like Gogol, Bulgakov, Yuri Olesha and, more recently, Viktor Pelevin.

Not to be philistine, but who needs this?

April 17, 2007

Bad News

Reading about the shootings at Virginia Tech this morning generated two distinct waves of misery. The first, of course, was about the event itself. I'll have to own up to a certain Schadenfreude, though, given that Virginia's gun laws are a total disgrace. I was not as unhappy about the shootings as I might have been.

The second wave of misery was much worse, because I was the wounded party. Wounded by whom? How was it possible that I sat at my computer for a few hours yesterday and yet didn't see anything about the shootings? I received an RSS feed from Joe.My.God at 4:57, but I wasn't paying attention to feeds. I was having a "reading day" and staying away from the machine as much as possible. Fossil Darling knew all about the massacre, of course - traders always have the latest news. I was curt with him this morning because he hadn't called to tell me. But I don't really believe that I ought to be depending on him.

Is it ironic that I was telling M le Neveu, yesterday, that my plans for a new blog have been inspired not inconsiderably by the recognition that I am not cut out for journalism?

Our Leading Lady, at MTC's Stage II

At MTC the other night, a cell phone went off in the first act. The ringtone was strange, feathery and ephemeral rather than percussive. The thing was, nobody moved. Everybody in our part of the audience looked at everybody else; the play sailed on; eventually the ringing stopped. It was horrible.

At the interval we were all subjected to the firmest inquisition that the management would dare inflict upon patrons. Nobody fessed up. I was terrified that we'd be asked to produce our phones. Mine was on. I usually don't turn it off, because I can silence it before it rings, thanks to preliminary vibrations. (I used to wonder rhetorically who on earth would be calling me, but wrong numbers are not confined to land-lines.)

It's against the law to allow an electronic device to disturb a play or a concert.

Our Leading Lady.

April 16, 2007


Joshua Bell's bout of busking in the Washington Metro is old news by now, but a friend sent me the link to the WaPo story by Gene Weingarten, and I thought back to Mr Bell's Mostly Mozart concert last summer, and how thrilling it was to hear him and his friends play Mendelssohn's Octet.

Somewhat more to the point, however, I remembered the cellist who was playing one of Bach's cello suites - every bit as demanding, I should think, as the Chaconne that Joshua Bell played in the Metro - in a passageway in the West Fourth Street IND station. I was on my way to lunch with Édouard, the week before last. I heard the cellist long before I saw him, and by the time I saw him I recognized that he was playing very, very well. I walked past him but stopped at about ten paces. I doubled back. I grabbed all of the singles that were in my pocket and dumped them in his instrument case. I walked away hurriedly; I'd be just on time if I didn't dawdle. So far as I could tell (what with my immovable neck), the cellist never looked up. I didn't look at him, either. I have no way of knowing whether he regretted having to play in the subway as much as I did.

I'm not a fan of music in the subway. The acoustics are all wrong; in tiled expanses, music reverberates painfully. And then there is the (sad) fact that most of the musicians, all of whom have auditioned before some sort of MTA panel, are usually okay at best. All right: they're good. But good isn't good enough, not in this town. I always feel like the Penelope Wilton character in Woody Allen's Match Point. How long do you keep trying at something before you accept that you're not cut out for it?

The cellist at West Fourth was definitely good enough. I'd have paid to hear him perform. So I did pay to hear him perform. Maybe someday I'll get to enjoy his music-making in a more congenial setting.


I have thought of myself for years as someone who would read Turgenev with pleasure  - without actually reading any Turgenev. When I was a student, it seemed more important to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Turgenev's country-house comedies, highlighting the fecklessness of high-minded landowners, seemed a little depressing in substance. But two weeks ago, I was reading a piece in The New York Review of Books - a review of a new life, I believe - when a wave of shame deluged me. Virgin Soil was the first book that I could get my hands on.

Virgin Soil.

April 15, 2007

Foie de veau Robert

It's curious. I was an unusually adventurous diner when I was a boy. I liked all sorts of things that children are well-known for hating. Chief among these was calf's liver. The reason for my liking it was simple enough: I was getting the real thing. Every Sunday night, we had dinner either at the country club that my parents belonged to or at the Hereford House, a steak restaurant at the bottom of the old Gramatan Hotel, right across from the railroad station. Neither kitchen would have dreamed of serving subprime liver.

What's curious is that I've lost my culinary curiosity. Or is it?

Foie de veau Robert.

April 14, 2007

Year of the Dog

Yesterday, I went down to the Angelika to see Year of the Dog, Mike Smith's eccentric but very funny movie about a woman whose life is undone by the loss of a dog. I don't think that I've ever really noticed Molly Shannon before, doubtless because I haven't watched Saturday Night Live since the late 1970s.

But it was Peter Sarsgaard who stuck in my mind. What a protean actor he is! In Jarhead, I thought he must be Kiefer Sutherland's younger brother. His interesting drawl, I suppose, is the legacy of a childhood in southern Illinois. When I got home, I had to see something else with him in it, and I hit upon The Dying Gaul, Craig Lucas's extremely powerful romantic triangle, with Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott. I think that it's Mr Sarsgaard's finest performance. He makes grimness unusually interesting.

As long as I was in the neighborhood, I went to McNally Robinson on Prince Street and bought Hermione Lee's new biography of Edith Wharton. I had intended not to, at first. I read R W B Lewis's biography when it came out in 1975, so I know the story. But the rave reviews reminded me how much I'd enjoyed Ms Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, another book that I thought somewhat unnecessary when it appeared. And I realized that over thirty years have passed since the Lewis book was new.

I also yielded to an impulse and bought Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts. I don't know that I'm going to like it, but I've bit into it. The book in my pile that I really want to read is Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, but I'm saving it as a treat.

April 13, 2007


Ah, "Kurdistan." American interests in Iraq are about to run into what was always the most foreseeable obstacle to the realization of their Iraqi dreams, Turkey. Putting an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein may have been noble, but it unavoidably battered a hornets' nest. Boosted by their alliance with the Americans, Iraqi Kurds are flexing their muscles and inspiring their Turkish compatriots. Roughly half of all Kurds live within Turkish borders, comprising 20% of the Turkish population. The Kurdish quarter of Turkey, moreover, lies on the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, where the Turks have built important hydroelectric dams. An integral Kurdistan, formed by subtractions of territory and sovereignty from Iran, Iraq, and - massively - Turkey is not going to happen without strenuous opposition from one of the world's most cold-blooded military organizations.

Yesterday, Yasar Buyukanit, the Turkish chief of staff, announced "that he was prepared to conduct operations in northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels hiding there, according Sabrina Tavernise's story, "Leader of the Turkish Military Says He Is Prepared to Attack Kurdish Rebels Hiding in Iraq." Because Iraqi Kurds are the only people in Iraq who don't object to our presence there, Washington is not happy. European elites, which have been straining to encourage Turkey to assimilate more fully to Western ways, are not happy - neither with Turkey nor with the United States. It's a pickle.

The topic of this week's Friday Front is beaucoup plus mundane.

Nick Paumgartner on Commuting, in The New Yorker.

April 12, 2007

Le diable noir

I don't mean to make a habit of posting links to YouTube, but this short film by Georges Méliès is a treat.

(Thanks to Digsummer.)


Although I've never listened to Don Imus on the radio, and have no intention tuning in, I believe that NBC's bow to the forces of political correctness is a terrible mistake. Mr Imus may make racist remarks, but the simple fact is that those remarks have an audience. So long as the entertainer's remarks steer clear of the imperative mood, openly urging listeners to act on their prejudices, market forces ought to be allowed to determine whether his show is viable. By acceding to the likes of Al Sharpton, NBC executives are showing that they don't know their own job, which is to keep the airwaves open to a diversity of voices.

This isn't to say that Don Imus oughtn't to be sanctioned. Banishing him from the airwaves for a couple of weeks - I've no problem with that. His fans need a time-out, too. Mr Imus said a bad thing, and he deserves to sit in the nuisance corner for a while. And then he deserves to be forgiven. To drop his show is to brand him with a permanent (or semi-permanent) stigma; it is to withhold forgiveness. And for what? For being rude and insulting. To say what he said about the Rutgers basketball players was uncivil and nasty. But it was not "racist." Quite the opposite! Can't anybody see that the remark was a lame attempt to sound like a bro'? If there's an issue here, it's low-grade Afro-American misogyny.

Don Imus is, on the evidence, a jackass. And so are his listeners. So are all the middle-aged white men who misguidedly cling to their youth by affecting the styles of the young, which they will never really understand. Hurt feelings aside - and I must say that I am very tired of living in the era of Hurt Feelings - Mr Imus's comment was what in the law is called a "harmless error." There was no real damage. To banish the talk-show host from MSNBC - to refuse forgiveness - is both childish and infantilizing. Taking Don Imus off the air is not going to raise anybody's consciousness. He ought to be on the air until, like me, no one listens.

Five Fruit Cakes

On Tuesday afternoon, I got up from the computer, left the blue room where I spend my days, and turned on Radio RJ. It was time to do something about the kitchen closet.

The kitchen closet is not in the kitchen, largely because the kitchen is a closet, almost (I've certainly been in larger closets). The kitchen closet is on the other side of the entrance hall, or "foyer" as entrance halls are called for some very strange reason. It is actually half of a clothes closet. We keep winter coats and light bulbs in the other half.

I wouldn't dream of publishing a photograph, even if I could take an intelligible one. But this story isn't about the kitchen closet. It's about how I felt the energy to clean it out. After a year or more of staying out of the kitchen as much as possible, I've let most of what's stocked in the kitchen closet get too old to use. I may continue to stay out of the kitchen as much as possible, but at least I'm storing much less garbage. I threw away old nuts, pasta, grains, crackers, and - five fruit cakes. I was able to distinguish the most recent fruit cake, received this past holiday season. I opened it up and enjoyed a slice. It tasted very good. I will enjoy the rest of it in coming weeks. Next year, I might even put the fruit cake in the kitchen when (and if) it arrives - and not in the kitchen closet.

A few exotic bottled sauces got the heave-ho, too. I have become a very unadventurous eater.

The music was glorious. Among the bigger pieces were the "Rach III," Schubert's Ninth, and Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus, furiously sung by Nathalie Stutzmann. Also lovely to hear was Fauré's Masques et bergamasques. It was warm enough to crack the balcony door.

Cleaning the kitchen closet was something of a holiday. How weird is that?

I know that kitchen closets are a dreary topic. But I'm sure you'd much rather read about that than hear about my exciting time at the dentist's yesterday afternoon.

April 11, 2007

Fry & Laurie on "Language"

Don't miss this.

Does anybody know whom Stephen Fry is lampooning?

They're so young. The clip must be over twenty years old. (Thanks to JJB at New Yorker Comment.)


Politics isn't everything. At Brigham Young University, many students feel that Vice President Dick Cheney's character is defective, and they want the school's invitation to speak at Commencement to be withdrawn.

Some of the students and the 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, who are overwhelmingly Republican, have expressed concern about the Bush administration's support for the war in Iraq and other policies, but most of the current protest has focused on Mr Cheney's integrity, character and behavior. Several students said, for example, that they were appalled at Mr Cheney's use of an expletive on the Senate floor in a June 2004 exchange with Senator Patrick J Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

That's from Martin Stolz's story in the Times.

I find myself experiencing grim satisfaction these days. The Bush Administration is sinking into a disrepute that has little to do with political affiliation. As its ruthless opportunism is exposed by its bizarre incompetence, Americans of all stripes are learning to scrutinize the accountability of politicians. We've had it with the Bushies' "Trust Us" exhortation. Never has an administration been less trustworthy. And that, in a way, is a part of the Bush team's incompetence. There's something genuinely stupid, in the end, about Dick Cheney's massive contempt for opposing voices.

In the Book Review

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

Why isn't Clive James on the cover? His is probably the one book covered this week that everybody ought to buy. The Derek Walcott review is, in contrast, a quiet disaster, a snuff job really. Who is this William Logan, may I ask?

Natalie Angier's review is this week's strongest. As my uncle used to say, she knows her onions. And she knows how to assure us that David Sloan Wilson, author of Evolution for Everyone, knows his onions, too.

A few of the category calls were tough. It feels wrong, somehow, to list a volume of Derek Walcott's poetry in the Maybes, and there's much in Madison Smartt Bell's review of Erica Wagner's Seizure that suggests a work of emotional sensationalism. If you're unhappy with my final choices, feel free to reverse them. I'm probably with you.


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

Seizure, by Erica Wagner. I have come to regard the reviews of Erica Wagner with confused dread: I know that I'm never going to make sense of them. According to Madison Smartt Bell, however, she has written an absorbing novel about two unmoored adults who discover a deep connection. The story is absorbing, in fact, that Mr Bell storytells it, praising Ms Wagner now and then but rarely quoting her "dense, expert writing." The story sounds exceptional nevertheless.

The Long Exile: The Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, by Melanie McGrath. According to Elizabeth Royte, this book has a grisly tale of official mendacity to tell, and "wickedly talented" Ms McGrath "writes as if she'd lived in the Artic for years." It would appear that anyone who reads this book will be shocked and dismayed that the Canadian government has still not apologized to Inuit families whom it resettled for Cold War purposes.

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History, by Clive James. This is a Big Book, and Liesl Schillinger is duly thoughtful. She places Mr James for those who might not know who he is (an Australian, expat "comic public intellectual") and then explains what he does. This leads to contradictions.

In this book, James means to present seriously the lives and ideas that 21st-century students ought to know about as they set out to educate themselves.


Each chapter is not so much a biography of the character in its title as a catchall for the fertile associations the author brings to the name. Thoughts of W C Fields provoke a broadside against censorship; praise of Duke Ellington leads to censure of bebop. [&c]

Not too serious, then.

Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, by David Sloan Wilson. In her sympathetic and favorable review, Natalie Angier fastens on a key aspect of Mr Wilson's "decidedly refreshing" explanation of Darwinism.

As he sees it, all of life is characterized by a cosmic struggle between good and evil, the high-strung terms we apply to behaviors that are either cooperative or selfish, civic or anomic. The constant give-and-take between me versus we extends down to the tiniest and most primal elements of life.

Ms Angier notes that Mr Wilson considers himself to be an optimist, but that's no reason not to read his apparently engrossing book.

The Road to Disunion: Volume Two. Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861, by William W Freehling. Eric Foner, writing a largely favorable review, believes that Mr Freehling is perhaps too interested in his colorful cast of political operatives, and writes in a "forced" popular style. Nevertheless, Mr Freehling makes the case (according to Mr Foner) that divisions within the South made the actual Civil War that took place anything but inevitable.

Inventing Human Rights: A History, by Lynn Hunt. The concept of human rights is roughly as old as the modern nation-state, and that's the problem that Ms Hunt seeks to explain in a "tour de force of compression," according to Gordon S Wood's favorable review. If we don't yet understand the implications of universally established human rights, it may be because we haven't been at the task for very long.


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

Selected Poems, by Derek Walcott (edited by Edward Baugh). William Logan is a tough critic - which may or not mean that he's a good one. He finds Mr Walcott's new book so uneven that one hardly knows what to think. "He's a better poet when just mulling things over, in a louche beachcomber-ish way - when he talks politics, the taste seems bitter in his mouth." He also accuses one poem of "scenery-chewing."

Few poets have been lavished with greater gifts that Walcott; but much of his later work has been unadventurous (and undistilled), full of stock passages and stale opinions. He arrived at a few views when young and has trotted them out ever since.

Knots, by Nuruddin Farah. Christopher de Bellaigue's unhelpful review wanders from storytelling to disappointment. Mr de Bellaigue complains that this book is not as good as Mr Farah's last, From A Crooked Rib.

Doris Lessing once described Farah as "one of the few African men who write wonderfully about women." In Knots we see this only fitfully.

A Model Summer, by Paulina Porizhkova. Alex Kuczynski tries hard to prop up this novel, comparing it, in her last paragraph, to Kafka's The Castle. She has undermined this comparison, however, by writing, "A Model Summeri would be as dark and violent as the direst of de Sade if it weren't for Porizhkova's gee-whiz, chick-lit tone."

Changing Light, by Nora Gallagher. Dennis Overbye's review of this novel, which is set in New Mexico during the undertaking of the Manhattan Project, cleaves very closely to its scientific aspects, especially its relation to historical fact, and observes that "her description of the manufacture of bomb molds has the dry precision of a lab notebook." Mr Overbye ends up making Changing Light sound like the sort of novel that requires a pre-existing interest in a field.

Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination, by Daniel B Smith. I read an article about the phenomenon of auditory hallucination recently, one much longer than Peter D Kramer's review but shorter, perforce, than Mr Smith's book. The bottom line is that not everybody who hears voices is crazy, and there is much to learn about neurobiology. I already knew the second part, and the article was amply informative about the first. Books about diseases (as distinct from the people who suffer them) do not belong in the Book Review. For what it's worth,

Smith's strongest interest in in hallucination as inspiration. He provides a fascinating account. ...

After St Theresa, poets either celebrated the loss of "aurality" as a triumph of Christ over the oracles or mourned a loss of direct inspiration.

The Mistress's Daughter, by A M Homes. Ms Homes is a gifted writer with a strong following. Katie Roiphe writes, for the most part, very favorably about this new memoir. Toward the end of the review, however, she becomes puzzling.

But this book veers toward the sentimental, concluding with an unusually straightforward tribute to her inspiring adoptive grandmother. Here the reader cannot help thinking of the ferocity of Homes's fiction: the suburban house going up in flames, the gunshots in the mall. Normally, she is not one to reach for consoling niceties, for flourishes of redemption and images of human endurance. How can the ruthless author of Music for Torching and The Safety of Objects allow herself this easy way out of a story that can have no easy way out? It feels false.

Well something certainly feels false. I have no objection to straightforward tributes - and that's just it. Why does Ms Roiphe think that there's anything "sentimental" about praising a grandmother? She does not explain herself, irremediably discounting the value of her review.

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin Butler. Pamela Paul assesses Mr Barber's book as an extremely lightweight production, written at the level of a college textbook and narrowly researched. "Marginally relevant filler ... pads the text , seemingly to generate book-length proportions." Ouch! It gets worse. 

Barber, who apparently aspires to the life of a public intellectual, with its talk show appearances and lecture circuits, could serve as the anti-Thomas L Friedman, offering a decidedly less rosy view of the life behind the Lexus wheel. If only he wrote a book half so well.

Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis - and the People Who Pay the Price, by Jonathan Cohn. What could be more serious than this country's health-care crisis? (It's debt?) And what is American Enterprise Institute "resident scholar" Sally Satel doing reviewing Mr Cohn's book, even if she is a doctor and even if she calls the book "important"? Although she says that Sick is "an edifying primer" on how the crisis came about, she faults Mr Cohn for failing to assess the range of proposed solutions. Ms Satel is most definitely not a sympathetic reviewer, even when she says nice things. 

Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections), by Jeffrey Feldman. Eve Fairbanks is almost appalled by the noted blogger's book, which in her view simply advocates liberal use of the techniques of Gingrich, Rove & Co in order to "reframe" political discussion.

This approach radiates cynicism. That's the most amazing - and insidious - thing about this book. Feldman presents himself as a bulwark of democracy, dedicated to promoting "a healthy American political culture filled with more voices and more points of view." But his vision of politics is profoundly undemocratic. To believe that the "enemy" frame is impossible for us to resist - that our behavior as citizens flows, robotlike, from the way we are manipulated by buzzwords - is to see us as Shakespeare saw those laughably malleable Romans in Julius Caesar: they are inspired first to hate Caesar by Brutus's speech and then to love him by Antony's, in the space of minutes. This scene is terrifying because it reveals that even though Caesar has just been assassinated to preserve the Republic, the Republic is already dead. Its people are unfit for it. So, too, with us if our minds are governed by keywords.

Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, by Zbigniew Brzesinski. Mr Heilbrunn appears to think well of this book overall, but his doubts highlight the extent to which this is just another former National Security Adviser's tendentious, self-graded report card. For example, Mr Brzezinski praises the president whom he served for brokering the Camp David accords, but overlooks Mr Carter's "hapless response" to the fall of the shah. Such a book is of interest only to historians and political insiders.

The Label: The Story of Columbia Records, by Gary Marmorstein. As it happens, I am reading this history of my favorite LP label - the one that was guided by at least two great minds (John Hammond and Goddard Lieberson) - at the moment, and I can tell you that John Rockwell is right to judge that Mr Marmolstein is "defeated" by "the dizzying diversity of the tales he is trying to tell."

And yet, and yet: there are great stories here, and a great story, and great music too, all dimly discernible through the breezy clutter of Marmorstein's prose. Maybe someday, someone will tell that story with the elegance and insight it deserves.


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

Eye of the Archangel: A Mallory and Morse Novel of Espionage, by Forrest DeVoe, Jr. Charles Taylor spends most of this review pointing out how inferior Mr DeVoe's detective series is to Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise books. The book is evidently high-toned pulp.

April 10, 2007

Sex Before Breakfast

You have to love social science. From the Tierney Lab at the Times:

Similarly, according to the study, a 5-foot-0 guy would need to make $325,000 more than a 6-foot-0 man to be as successful in the online dating market. A 5-foot-4 man would need $229,000; a 5-foot-6 man would need $183,000; a 5-foot-10 man would need $32,000. And if that 6-foot-0 man wanted to do as well as a 6-foot-4 man, he’d need to make $43,000 more.

Is it Valentine's Day? Or is there some other item in the calendar that I'm unaware of and that prompted the editors of the Science Times sections to barrage readers with several feature articles about Topic A?

¶ "Pas de Deux Of Sexuality Is Written in the Genes," by Nicholas Wade.

Several advances in the last decade have underlined the bizarre fact that the brain is a full-fledged sexual organ, in that the two sexes have profoundly different versions. This is the handiwork of testosterone, which masculinizes the brain as thoroughly as it does the rest of the body.

My spell-checker is unhappy with "masculinize." Otherwise, what's new?

¶ "Birds Do It. Bees Do It. People Seek The Keys to It," by Natalie Angier.

Studies have indicated, for example, that women are likelier to fantasize about sex, masturbate, initiate sex with their mates, wear provocative clothing and frequent singles bars right around ovulation than at any other time of the month. Women obviously can, and do, have sex outside their window of reproductive opportunity, but it makes good Darwinian sense, Dr Wallen said, for them to have some extra oomph while they are fertile.

That's what I want: a PhD in Oomph.

¶ Funny man John Tierney claims that his work on the Flaw-O-Matic, first published in 1995, is corroborated by recent studies of speed-dating. The Flaw-O-Matic is the neural mechanism that accelerates the recognition that the person you're talking to isn't good enough for you.

Being able to make this distinction in a four-minute speed date, the researchers write in the April issue of Psychological Science, "suggests that humans possess an impressive, highly attuned ability to assess such subtleties of romantic attraction. In fact, the need to feel special or unique could be a broad motivation that stretches across people's social lives."

Three words, ending in "Sherlock." Who is funding this research? The people in Ms Angier's other piece, "Search for the Female Equivalent of Viagra Is Helping to Keep Lab Rats Smiling"? Jane Brody writes about "obsolagnium," the technical term for waning sexual desire. And there are three entries in the weekly column, The Claim:

¶ According to studies, timing and sexual position do not influence the sex of the baby.

¶ In studies, about 15 percent of women report having experienced multiple orgasms.

¶ Most men to not report any decrease in satisfaction as a result of circumcision. [There are studies here, too.]

What these articles take for granted is that sex is interesting to read about. I'm in no position to dispute that axiom; I did read most of these articles before picking up the first section of the Times and getting down to the serious business of saving civilization. I'd like to know, though, why sex is interesting to read about, when there's really nothing that can be done about it. Only Ms Brody's article contained useful information, and it was really too obvious to need reiteration: if you want to continue to have a sexual life in your later years, you have to stay fit and alert. Otherwise, your sexuality is not yours to fiddle with. You are stuck with it. You can only hope that it will not send you to prison or land you in a snuff film.

I suppose that sex research serves the useful purpose of dismantling the supports of traditional, patriarchal views about sexuality. Here's another nugget from Ms Angier's principle piece:

The results suggest that having a good set of sexual brakes not only dampens the willingness to commit rape or sexual abuse, but the desire as well, giving the lie to notions that "all men are the same" and would be likely to rape their way through the local maiden population if they thought they could get away with it.

What interests me is the sheer variety of sexualities, which mark us as individually as our tastes in music and habits of speech. "Individualism" has taken on a dark connotation recently, as if it were a belief in "me first." In fact, individualism is the accommodation of unique - intrinsically different - persons by a cohesive social whole that, ideally, has no agenda of its own, i e that has not been commandeered by one or more powerful groups of people who, to some extent, have suppressed their individuality.

The message conveyed by all of this writing is simple: There's nobody quite like you. Good luck finding a mate. Or even a date, for that matter.

April 09, 2007

Code of Conduct

Blogs on the front page of the Times! What will they think of next?

"A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs," by Brad Stone, directs readers to O'Reilly Radar, where Tim O'Reilly has proposed a code of conduct for blog owners that, among other things, carries their responsibility for what appears on their sites so far as to include comments. The lawyer in me found the code hopelessly vague and ad hoc, but that's precisely what good manners always are.

There's no ambiguity, however, about Article 3 of Mr O'Reilly's code. "We connect privately before we respond publicly." All well-brought-up people know that it's best to give someone whose behavior or appearance may be out of line a quiet word on the side. If you see a guy whose fly is open, you don't (if you're well-mannered) expostulate and point. You tap him on the shoulder and whisper. The fewer people who notice an error, the better. That's in the real world. It ought to be the same in the Blogosphere, but for some reason the very opposite idea seems to have taken root. The more people who notice an error, this thinking runs, the healthier the Internet will be. Pointing out typos and offering factual corrections in comments, however, doesn't so much improve the reliability of blogs as it discredits erring bloggers - to the extent that it doesn't poison the atmosphere with self-righteous aggression.

I had to laugh, though, at the bit about Six Apart diva Mena Trott, whose talk on civility at a Paris conference was disrupted by real-time responses to her speech that were posted on a screen. Ms Trott "lost it." What's ironic here is that Six Apart has refused to equip its MovableType software with meaningful defenses against noxious comment spam. That's why I'll be abandoning the platform at some point later this year.


Kathleen and I have been arguing about going to Rome for years. She has wanted to go. I've had other priorities. Rome is so, well, Roman. "Eternal City" my hat. It was a pestilential swamp during most of the Middle Ages, and the presence of the Vatican City, astonishing as the great basilica of St Peter's might be, is hardly endearing.

Jake Morrissey's book about the rivalry between and respective careers of Franceso Borromini and Gianlorenzo Bernini changed my mind. I've got to go.

The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome.

April 08, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: The Truth About Eggs Benedict

When I wrote the "Eggs Benedict" page for Portico, it never occurred to me to look elsewhere than my old Larousse Gastronomique for the derivation of this wonderful dish. Perhaps I ought to have been cued, however, by the very different nature of the concoction given in the French encyclopedia. "Pound some cod" - ? And nothing about sauce hollandaise, either. I did wonder a bit, but I didn't investigate. Lazy me.

In the City section of today's Times, there's a lengthy piece about the invention of Eggs Benedict as we know it, "Was He the Eggman?," by Gregory Beyer. Benedictine monks have nothing to do with this story; genteel New Yorkers by the name of Benedict do. We know that Lemuel Coleman Benedict really existed. He wore raccoon coats and carried a whisky-flask walking stick to football games at Princeton when his nephew was studying classics there. In 1894, suffering from a hangover, he went to the Waldorf Hotel (then standing on the site of today's Empire State Building) and ordered up toast, bacon, poached eggs, and hollandaise. The maître d', an operator known as "Oscar of the Waldorf," was impressed enough to put the results on the menu. But he changed the toast into an English muffin, and the bacon into Canadian bacon. And then he completely failed to take credit for this invention, in later self-promoting articles.

That's the Lemuel Benedict story, more or less as reported in The New Yorker in 1942. I was not reading The New Yorker in 1942, because I was not yet born. In March 1978, Bon Appetit published a story about Eggs Benedict that attributed the invention to a Mr and Mrs LeGrand Benedict, and claimed that they asked for it at Delmonico's, not the old Waldorf. I was not reading Bon Appetit in 1978, because I was in law school.

Mr Beyer's piece is mostly concerned with the efforts of one Jack Benedict, a collateral descendant of Lemuel, to establish his relative's claim to fame beyond a reasonable doubt. One of the obstacles that Jack B seems to have been unable to surmount was the reticence of "Oscar of the Waldorf." Why didn't Oscar boast about having invented Eggs Benedict?

Here is my thinking. Oscar Tschirky, a Swiss from Neuchatel, arrived in New York on the day before the Brooklyn Bridge was opened to traffic, in 1883, and secured a restaurant job the very next afternoon. I assume that he already knew something of the culinary arts. I assume, further, that he knew of the rather icky dish that Larousse Gastronomique describes. If he thought about it at all, he would have known that it would never go over in New York. Along came Mr Benedict (LeGrand or Lemuel, take your pick - the LeGrand Benedicts do not appear to have left any survivors to toot their horn) with his peculiar breakfast order. Oscar had a brainwave. Eggs Benedict became a hit. But Oscar knew better to take credit for inventing "Eggs Benedict." He had, indeed, re-invented the dish, with a patron's help. But it was one thing to claim, as he did, to have dreamed up Thousand Island Dressing, which had no Old World roots, and quite another to get creative with a venerable French recipe.

Before he became "Oscar of the Waldorf," by the way, Tschirky was Oscar of Delmonico's.

April 07, 2007

Black Book

It seems that I go to nothing but foreign movies.

It's a good thing that I went to see what's advertised here as Black Book on Wednesday evening, because there wasn't time on Friday for going to the movies. I had the house to clean. Later today, we're heading across to Hudson for a gathering of Kathleen's cousins, three of whom (sisters to boot) will be in the same place for the first time in a while. Tomorrow, I'll be cooking and then serving.


Update: Owing to illness in New Jersey and extreme fatigue here, we won't be going anywhere today, but one of Kathleen's cousins has come into the city and will stop by for a visit, with her daughter and her niece, both of whom were children when I saw them last. One of them I haven't seen since she was a very little girl indeed. Now she's taking a college tour with her mother.

April 06, 2007

Off the Rails

Yesterday, I had lunch with my francophone friend and fellow carnetier, Édouard, at the Cornelia Street Café. I asked Édouard how he sustained his interest in politics, and he very lucidly explained that he's not so much interested in the wrongdoing of the Bush Administration as he is in the impact that a waspish Blogosphere is having on both Congress and the media ("the media" meaning, very largely, The New York Times). It is certainly true that Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo is a national hero, slugging away at such malefactors as Randy Cunningham and, now, Alberto Gonzales. But the feeling that American politics has altogether gone off the rails dispirits me greatly. If we have a system, it's broken. (My choice-du-jour of culprit is Buckley v Valeo). When I read this morning that the President has just resorted to three recess appointments of conservative clowns who would never be confirmed by today's Senate, I feel more than ever that I'm living in something that ought to be called post-America.

A big donor to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth will be our ambassador to Belgium. A vocal critic of government regulation will head the Office of Management and Budget. Andrew Biggs will be deputy commissioner of the Social Security Agency, whose services he would like to privatize. "All three are extraordinarily bad appointments," opines the Times, "- and all three more reminders of how Mr Bush's claims of wanting to work with Congress's Democratric leadership are just empty words."

Presidential shenanigans, however, are really nothing to worry about, compared with the resistance to doing anything about global warming.

Behind Global Warming: John Lanchester in the London Review of Books.

April 05, 2007


Having survived my bout with dentistry yesterday, I was consumed by a need - to go to the movies! Specifically, to go to see Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, which is playing at Lincoln Square. The film got an exceedingly snarky review in yesterday's Times. But I still wanted to see it, partly because Sebastian Koch, one of the stars of Das Leben des Anderen, is in it. I noted that, in a trilingual movie, Mr Koch spoke only German. (He spoke a little English, but no Nederlands.)

Going to the movies early on a weekday night was interesting - there was an audience! I came close to being unable to join it. I blithely took a taxi over to the West Side. It was only as I approached the box office that I examined the contents of my wallet: $22. How did that happen? It was enough to buy a ticket, and, more importantly, a tub of popcorn and a soda. But it meant that I'd be going home on mass transit.

Mass transit - hmmm. A taxi is so much nicer when you're going home! After the movie (which is, indeed, a tiny bit cartoonish, but very taut and exciting; plus, Carice van Houten, the star of the show, channels the platinum blonde of the Thirties with astonishing acuity) I called Kathleen, but she was already in her pyjamas. She said to ask the doorman to pay the taxi fare, on the understanding that I'd repay him in the morning. In my view, that's something that ladies can get away with far more easily then galoots the likes of me. Then I called Fossil Darling, because I was right outside his building. But he didn't answer. I figured that he'd already gone to bed (he was visiting neighbors, he tells me this morning).

So I took the 1 train and the M86 bus home. Ho. Hum.  

Don't miss Ralph Blumenthal's story, "Unusual Allies in a Legal Battle Over Texas Drivers' Gun Rights." The liberal/conservative polarity doesn't work in the context of this issue. The fight is, rather, lawful vs free (a/k/a "lawless").

April 04, 2007

Rainy Spring

In an hour, I'll be at the dentist's. A tooth at the back of my mouth has crumbled. Fortunately, I've felt no real pain, although my tongue is unhappy - the tooth has become rough rubble. It's a new experience, this falling apart of a tooth. The novelties of growing old are not amusing.

I had lunch with my friend Nom de Plume. We hadn't seen each other in a few weeks and we had much to catch up on, despite email and IM. We could have talked for another hour, easily. But we'll talk again; nobody's going anywhere.

The skies are grey and wet today. It rains in every season of New York's year, but spring rain is different (perhaps we New Yorkers are different). There's a gentle quality to spring rain that makes it welcome even when a gust of wind blows raindrops on your neck.

If I were to bottle my idea of New York City, it would be called "Rainy Spring." There's something about standing at a corner, waiting for the light to change, and watching a little Mississippi course by below the kerb on its way to the nearest drain that always makes me feel that the city is all mine. That this is where I'm from in every sense of the word. Even though, to my undying disgrace, I grew up in the suburbs (albeit the closest one in), and then had to live in Houston for a spell.

Well, of course I didn't have to live in Houston. I just lacked the gumption to make my own way in the world.

Rain is very forgiving, did you notice? And I forgot to tell you: I am going somewhere: Kuala Lumpur at the end of May!

Raw Power

It's odd, but the phrase nouveau riche hasn't been bandied about much in recent years. And yet the phenomenon is as common as carrots these days, what with income inequality exploding into editorial proportions. Richard Conniff, author of The Natural History of the Rich - a book that I haven't seen, much less read - writes about the nouveaux riches in an Op-Ed piece this morning: "The Rich Are More Oblivious Than You and Me." Although he doesn't distinguish between new-rich and old-rich, his remarks brilliantly lampoon the former while saying nothing about the latter.

The researchers went on to theorize that getting power causes people to focus so keenly on the potential rewards, like money, sex, public acclaim or an extra chocolate-chip cookie - not necessarily in that order, or frankly, any order at all at once - that they become oblivious to the people around them.

Indeed the people around them may abet this process, since they are often subordinates intent on keeping the boss happy. So for the boss, it starts to look like a world in which the traffic lights are always green.

The key words in this extract are "getting" and "starts."

Being born to wealth and privilege presents a different set of problems, among which obliviousness of other people figures only very rarely.

In the Book Review

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

Nancy Cunard was made for the cover of the Book Review as it is edited today. She was fascinating to look at, at least when she was young; she had plenty of money, at least before she went through it; and she slept with a lot of famous writers and artists, at least until she settled down with Henry Crowder, an African-American musician, and took up the cause of Negro equality (as she would have called it). She also drank herself to death. The sometime mistress of Eliot, Pound, and Beckett, she is a modernist reading man's poster girl, which may be why we get not one but three photographs of her, one by Man Ray and two by Cecil Beaton. I waited for Caroline Weber's review to unearth something truly compelling, as distinct from "interesting," about Cunard, but she seems to have been famous primarily for her demons. 

In this week's Essay, "The Genius of Grover's Corners, Jeremy McCarter praises Thornton Wilder as an underappreciated and misunderstood playwright whose work is darker than is commonly supposed.

If Wilder had moped around in black, drunk himself into oblivion or - if you're feeling romantic - hanged himself like Simon Stimson, people might not have so much trouble finding that note of radical despair amid the bathos. But like Alfred Hitchcock (for whom he wrote the unmistakably Wilderian screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt), he confounded the popular image of the genius as a tortured, self-destructive soul.

The essay is occasioned by the publication, in the Library of America, of Wilders Collected Plays & Writings on Theater.


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

Ripple Effects: New and Selected Poems, by Elaine Equi. Floyd Skeet writes enthusiastically about this collection.

Her poems examine and enact the phenomenon of attentiveness. In doing so, they encourage readers to see anew the everyday things that fascinate the poet, showing us how "in brine daylight/thought becomes brimmed/Fraught with sudden,/steeped in listening.

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, by Giles Tremlett. According to Sarah Wildman's review, Mr Tremlett is "linguistically and socially integrated into Spanish life." She has some quibbles about dated sections, devoting a long paragraph to things that have changed since the books was published. She would do better to complain of the preposterous delays that keep British books from appearing in the United States.

Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life, by Sari Nusseibeh. Leon Wieseltier's lengthy favorable review of this well-born Palestinian philosopher's meditations on the state of his homeland rattles with Agenda.

Yet there is nothing mean or heartless in Nusseibeh's writing about Israel. And there is much in his account of Israel's policies of occupation that should make Israelis and their supporters squirm. Since, insofar as one can believe in countries, Israel is one of the countries in which I believe, this book certainly made me squirm. The futility and the brutality of some of Israel's actions beyond its borders are abundantly clear. Not all of them, to be sure: though hideous as a matter of symbolism, the fence is effective as a matter of safety. But almost the entirety of the Israeli settlement of the West Bank has been a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions; and whereas it is difficult to gainsay the use of force against terrorists, the sowing of southern Lebanon with cluster bombs in the final hours of last summer's war was an act of genuine malignity.

But even more discomfiting than Nusseibeh's picture of the Israelis is his picture of the Palestinians.

Mr Wieseltier expressly insists that Mr Nusseibeh is not a "good Palestinian" - someone fundamentally sympathetic of Israel. He emerges from the review, however, as a genuine cosmopolitan.

In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons From the Life of Mohammed, by Tariq Ramadan. If Sari Nusseibeh's book explores a very local problem in Islam, Mr Ramadan's is global, proposing a global ethics, but Agenda rattles on. Stéphanie Giry, an editor at Foreign Affairs, gets caught up in the argument about the sincerity of Mr Ramadan's writing in Western languages. (He is Swiss, but no translator is credited. He has been accused of saying rather different things in Arabic.)

Muhammad may not have been as sober and sensible as Ramadan writes, but why take issue with this portrayal if it can help reconcile Islam with Western liberalism today? The project that Ramadan states is his own is worth pursuing even if, for some, Ramadan himself cannot be entrusted with it.

Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, by Cait Murphy. Aha! you cry: a baseball book in among the Yeses! Well, this does seem to be the rare book about a sport that does anthropological justice to the game that, as Marilynne Robinson's beautiful Gilead suggested, ever able-bodied American male used to be ready to play at the drop of a hat. Perhaps it's George Will's very enthusiastic review.

Murphy's book is rich in trivia - not that anything associated with baseball is really trivial. Did you know, for example, that when the Yankees were still the Highlanders (they played at the highest point in Manhattan)[which can't be true] they adopted their interlocking NY lettering "based on the Tiffany design for the Police Department's Medal of Honor?"

How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman. I don't want to know how doctors think. I want to know how doctors decide to prescribe. As somebody who owes his continued existence to medical resources that didn't exist thirty years ago, I see doctors as chemists, not diagnosticians. (Perhaps because what's wrong with me is not very mysterious.) Michael Crichton, a doctor himself once upon a time, surprises with a sensibly favorable review. Dr Groopman's pieces appear regularly in The New Yorker, and I never read them. I've got enough medicine in my life.

Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham, by Carolyn Brown. Nicholas Fox Weber's review of this account of working with two of the most iconic figures in experimental American dance approaches the reverential. I don't mean that in a bad way. An arresting paragraph about Merce Cunningham's agility is excerpted in full.

Only another dancer could capture Cunningham's extraordinary physical prowess, dexterity and deliberate emotional abandon. And only someone with Brown's intrinsic personal modesty and generous spirit could be so trenchant about the man who has enchanted but plagued her from then until now.

Mr Weber notes that Ms Brown is stronger and more interesting about dance than she is about painting, but if this is a failing, it's the most natural one in the world.

A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence e in America, by David Griffith. Christopher Sorrentino praises this "meditation on the Abu Ghraib photographs."

To Griffith, such images should "have the power to obliterate all other circumstances of the day." It is the fact that we have "taken them into our heads" so utterly, so imperturbably, that concerns him. His objective in this, his first book, is to understand the sodden familiarity of the evidence of what took place at Abu Ghraib, and to grasp what he sees as our impoverished response to that evidence.

The review as a whole is ambiguous, faulting Mr Griffith for his arguments about postmodernity but in its very gravity suggesting that A Good War Is Hard to Find is a very important book that deserves bigger coverage.


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

The Second Child: Poems, by Deborah Garrison. In her ultimately unsympathetic review, Emily Nussbaum writes,

But even poems that seem clever the first time around dissolve, upon rereading, from simple to merely obvious. In "Sestina for the Working Mother," she salutes her own busy day, layered with a brief, sentimental fantasy of what it would be like if she stayed home - more NPR, more volunteerism.

Astrid & Veronika, by Linda Olsson. Ann Harleman writes,

By the halfway mark, it's the characters' voices that are keeping Ohlsson's readers going, not her irritating attempt to create suspense. And when the crucial revelations arrive, they're disappointing. ... Yet Astrid & Veronika survives this potential derailment because the braiding of the two women's voices is simply so beguiling.

The Art of Losing, by Keith Dixon. Natalie Moore's favorable review does not make it clear whether Mr Dixon's novel is strong genre fiction or a serious literary fiction about crimes and cons. In other words, has it been hauled out of the ghetto of the "Crime" column, or is it more a bleak morality tale?

Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist, by Lois Gordon. Caroline Weber's slightly breathless review is a big piece of storytelling that engages with the book only long enough to announce that "Gordon does not editorialize." While I have no doubt that Cunard's story is important in the context of Women's Studies, its placement in the Book Review reeks of celebrity high-jinks, not scholarship.

Radicals For Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, by Brian Doherty. David Leonhardt writes,

Unfortunately, the movement's steadily increased influence makes up only a small part of the story he hells. Most of the rest deals with minor figures and faction fights. Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, acknowledges that he has written "an insider's history," but it is also a sloppily written history.

The Red Parts: A Memoir, by Maggie Nelson. Eve Conant doesn't know quite to make of this memoir-at-one-remove. An attempt to terms with the murder of her aunt (she herself hadn't yet been born when it occurred), and then with the trial of an accused man thirty-five years later, The Red Parts alternates "between a narrative of the trial and a rambling exploration of her own life."

Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, by John R Bowen. Mitchell Cohen spends quite a lot of his review posing French counterarguments to Mr Bowen's assessment of French secularism. His unsympathetic review ends up being unhelpful. 


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

The Cheater's Guide to Baseball, by Derek Zumsteg. Jim Bouton asks,

How does a book like this occur to someone in the first place? Once again, a clue can be found in the acknowledgments. "Thanks are due," Zumsteg writes, "to my agent, Sydelle Kramer, who was willing to help me figure out which book idea I could do well with, whip up a good proposal and find it a home."

Stacked: A 32DDD Reports From the Front, by Susan Seligman. From Ada Calhoun's review:

Seligson is likable, if for no other reason than that she's absolutely dizzy with admiration for her assets. The book's superficiality actually makes her point well: it's not just construction workers who are distracted by large breasts.


April 03, 2007


Surely the greatest difference between the Vietnam War and the Iraqi misadventure is the realignment of the military's symbolism. The armed forces no longer provide a banner that only conservative supporters of the war are likely to wave. "Support the troops" has become profoundly ambiguous, as much an anti-war slogan as pro-. My primary objection to what we're doing in Iraq has always been the outrage of invading a country in order to effect regime change, but my concern for ill-equipped and poorly-trained soldiers is a very close second.

Robert Wright writes today about how growing up on Army bases informed his liberal outlook. ("My Life in the Army.") He also discusses the love that good officers have for their troops - a love that has been constrained by political interference in Iraq.

Sending people into battle isn't something a good person does with detachment. Before the Iraq war, when the Army chief of staff, Gen Eric Shinkseki, testified that the postwar occupation would require hundreds of thousands of troops, he was showing not just prudence but devotion. He didn't want his soldiers needlessly imperiled.

As a reward for his devotion, General Shinseki was disparaged by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Rumsfeld wanted to show how cheap war can be, and now our soldiers are paying the price. I wish some people on the left had a deeper respect for the military, but lately the left isn't where the most consequential disrespect has come from.

The crowning indignity was Abu Ghraib, an outrage that was initiated by civilians high in the Bush administration and has stained the US military's hard-earned honor, strengthening stereotypes that I know are wrong.

In the Vietnam era, I would not have been likely to sympathize with the perpetrators of such an outrage, but now I regard the soldiers who ended up taking the rap at Abu Ghraib to have been no less victimized than the unfortunate prisoners by a situation in which remote corporate interests had placed them.

Abu Ghraib comes up in the Times's Science section as well. Claudia Dreifus interviews Philip G Zimbardo, the social psychologist who devised the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 - only to call it off when a colleague complained to him, "It's terrible what you're doing to those boys." Dr Zimbardo more recently testified on behalf of Sgt Chip Frederick, a soldier who was ultimately sentenced to an eight-year term as a prisoner himself. When asked if his was not, in effect, absolving Sgt Frederick of personal responsibility, Dr Zimbardo explains that

"... human behavior is more influenced by things outside than inside. The "situation" is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you're not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it. 


Montaigne in the Park


Yesterday was pretty raw at first, dark and grey, but in the late afternoon the sun came out and I went for a walk. The forsythia was in bloom. Forsythia always looks best from a distance, as a vague yellow cloud. Up close, it becomes very unruly. I don't think that there's a flowering plant that looks more normal to me. When I was growing up in Westchester, it was everywhere.


I sat on the Finley Walk by the River and read two essays of Montaigne, "On liars" and "That no man should be called happy until after his death." Ovid, Lucretius, Macrobius, and Seneca are quoted in the latter. It was the quotations that wowed me when I was a boy. Imagine having all of that Latin verse on the tip of your tongue! The beauty of Montaigne's essays is that the quotations don't seem pedantic at all. They are pearls of granite wisdom, authoritative in their antique concision. In Montaigne's day, it was by no means taken for granted that contemporaries would ever write literature to rival that of the ancients. French, Italian, Spanish, English, German and the other languages of Europe were "vulgar tongues," unsuitable for serious thoughts. (Montaigne plays with this idea in every essay: writing in French, he rarely fails to announce the casual nature of what he's doing.) It was possible to be a learned man in the Sixteenth Century. There weren't that many ancient books to get through. There were very few unimportant books.


I wonder what Montaigne would have made of the East River, which, being a strait, flows sometimes north and sometimes south. When I got up to leave, the river and sky shared a rose complexion.

April 02, 2007

Do I Know You?

Once upon a time, everyone was born, lived and died in the same village, and everyone knew exactly to whom one was related and to what exact degree.

Then someone invented the wheel.

Now, there's DNA testing to help us get back that old-time familiarity.

The Unbinding

Walter Kirn's Internet novel, The Unbinding, has been published in book form. The links in the original version, which appeared at Slate, have been replaced by boldfaced type that, books being books, just sits there. The links are listed at a dedicated Web site. They are not gratuitous decorations. They must be followed for a full understanding of the book, but the story is comprehensible without the light that they shed. It is all somewhat more "interesting" than interesting.

The Unbinding.

April 01, 2007

I'm ready, Lord!

I'm probably crazy, but I feel a change in my bones: I am ready to keep a neat and tidy freezer. A freezer with plenty of empty space. A freezer so orderly that I don't even half to open the door to see what's inside.

But I'm not there yet.

My Freezer: the Dream.