" /> Daily Blague: May 2007 Archives

« April 2007 | Main | June 2007 »

May 31, 2007

Mr Chatterbox - en français!

I spent last evening in a warm, Francophone hum. First, I watched Arsène Lupin. Then I read Le Prix de l'Argent, the latest installation - and a half-installation at that, to be continued, if you please! - of Largo Winch's adventures. (Well, it's not the latest, I see. It was,  though, when I put it in my shopping basket!) The two pastimes went together very well.

Jean-Paul Salomé's 2004 adaptation of the Arsène Lupin stories was never released in the United States, and therefore no DVD was produced for the North American Region. Having finally purchased a DVD player that reads discs from all regions, however, I can now order DVDs directly from France - or from anywhere! - as long as I want to watch them in the bedroom, which is where the special player is installed. Even before I hooked up the new machine, I had a few DVDs that wouldn't play on a regular American player. Le chat, for instance. I have no idea why this classic study of marital discord, starring Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret, has not been reissued by the Criterion Collection, much less overlooked entirely. I bought a copy of Keeping Mum while it was still in the American theatres - what a moron. Had I but waited... And there's a Spanish film in the new-disc basket that I don't even remember ordering. You know how that is.

But Arsène Lupin justifies the new DVD machine as no other movie could. I can understand why it was not released here, even though it stars Romain Duris, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Eva Green. It is a very good film, of its type, but that's the problem. The type that it belongs to could best/most misleadingly be described as "Gallic Indiana Jones." You're right: at the end of the day, "Gallic Indiana Jones" just does not compute. It will take me weeks to be more articulate, but for the moment I'll just say that Arsène Lupin is, from an American marketing perspective, toxically melodramatic. (You'll find something about Arsène Lupin here.)

And then there are the subtitles.

There are subtitles.

But they are in French. In French only. Thank heaven! Because I would never have been able to follow the story without French subtitles. I'm not entirely sure that, even with their help, I did follow the story. But I think I did. Let me tell you: it was GREAT FUN to watch Kristen Scott Thomas underplay a semi-supernatural villainess out of Edward Gorey. If nothing else, Arsène Lupin taught me that Ms Scott Thomas was put on this earth to enact all the great Gorey roles, even if, being for women, they are rather brief. But La chauve-souris dorée - how magnificent she'd be! And the original Gorey title is already in French! (It means - and, really, the humor of the thing totally hangs from the difference between the music of the French title and the brutal English - "The Gilded Bat." There's something about that "Bat" that's like an insect smashed on a windshield.)

And yes, I did say "underplay." The lady is exquisite.

Monsieur Duris, on the other hand, rivals Johnny Depp for swashbuckling, although he is not the least little bit camp. This movie was made before his "breakthrough" (I'm not sure that it was), De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, but it's an enormous vote of confidence, and he tackles the part with the self-assurance of Cary Grant. Eva Green, who stole my eyes, if not my heart, in Casino Royale, gets to play the innocent girl, and, being Eva Green, that means that she makes innocence interesting.

A costume historian would have a field day attacking the outfits. The gowns are almost willfully anachronistic. Ms Scott Thomas's character appears to favor 1910 for daytime wear and 1885 for the evenings. Major hoot. You think the French don't know what they're doing? About couture?

As for Largo Winch - the wonderful thing is that I can really read Largo Winch now. Only rarely do I have to look anything up, and even then I don't, really; I've caught the sense. This evening, I had to look up "comparaître" and "surenchérir," among a very few other words. For those of you who've never heard of this series of bandes dessinées - comic books for grownups - Largo Winch is a hunky blond who inherits a vast conglomerate, which he thereupon tries to run on idealistic lines, while treating décolletée ladies with the most thoroughgoing chivalry. On one level, it's Playboy fantasy. That is, not only are the babes stacked, but the "article" is worth reading! On another level, the series idealizes a certain fantasy of American life. Creators Jean van Hamme (writer) and Philippe Francg (drawings)* have clearly expensed a lot of quality time on this side of the pond, looking and listening, and the Largo Winch series almost reads like an American cartoon that has been translated into French. In that sense, the series is the complete opposite of Arsène Lupin. In the end, though, only a French (all right, Belgian) writer would come up with the hero's totally super name. Largo Winch! Is that studly or what? The one invention that I can find in these books is the headquarters of Group W, a tower on Central Park West, next to the Dakota. Everything else is scrupulous. Le Prix de l'Argent, for example, will tell you what the Waldorf-Astoria looks like, and how far it is from the Helmsley Building at the bottom of Park Avenue. Better than a photograph, I assure you!

In Le Prix de l'Argent - the story is completed in La Loi du Dollar - Largo is upset to find out that a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary in his vast holdings has fired all its employees and moved its operations to the Czech Republic. How could this happen? Cooked books and stock options, of course! I expect that many Continental readers will pick up the ABCs of executive enrichment from this book's very plausible plot. There's lots of action along the way, because - did I forget to say this? - Largo Winch went to the James Bond School of Management. He is forever being shot at and handcuffed. I know; I said "Playboy fantasy." I meant - and what's probably the selfsame thing - "B School fantasy." If only quarterly meetings were like this!

* I probably have these accreditations completely backward. Pardon!


May 30, 2007


With Memorial Day behind us, I have the empty feeling that nothing is going to change very much on the political front until Labor Day is also behind us. The Democrats may have recaptured Congress last November, but I can think of nothing that has changed since then. The Bush Administration continues to be arrogant and out of touch, and the Iraqi misadventure slogs on. Rudy Giuliani is consolidating his candidacy, while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue their kabuki. Why, when poll after poll shows that most Americans want an end to the war, does it persist? The other day, I wrote about the problem with polls, but even assuming them to be trustworthy there would still be something missing. What? Paul Krugman put his finger on what's missing in his column on Monday.

Democratic Party activists were furious, because polls show a public utterly disillusioned with Mr. Bush and anxious to see the war ended. But it’s not clear that the leadership was wrong to be cautious. The truth is that the nightmare of the Bush years won’t really be over until politicians are convinced that voters will punish, not reward, Bush-style fear-mongering. And that hasn’t happened yet.

Here’s the way it ought to be: When Rudy Giuliani says that Iran, which had nothing to do with 9/11, is part of a “movement” that “has already displayed more aggressive tendencies by coming here and killing us,” he should be treated as a lunatic.

When Mitt Romney says that a coalition of “Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda” wants to “bring down the West,” he should be ridiculed for his ignorance.

And when John McCain says that Osama, who isn’t in Iraq, will “follow us home” if we leave, he should be laughed at.

But they aren’t, at least not yet. And until belligerent, uninformed posturing starts being treated with the contempt it deserves, men who know nothing of the cost of war will keep sending other people’s children to graves at Arlington.

Americans need to be roused to their better selves. Ideally, the Republican Party would act responsibly and stop manipulating anxieties for purely political purposes. Perhaps the Democrats could persuade a plausible presidential nominee to sit this election out and spend the campaign denouncing the fear-mongerers as such.

In the Book Review

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

There are few well-conceived reviews this week. Siddhartha Deb on Lydia Davis is about it. Frank Rich is eloquent about Falling Man, but his piece belongs on the Op-Ed page. Thomas Mallon writes very well about Juliet Nicholson's survey of England in 1911, but he storytells to distraction, and eclipses the book itself.

When I sorted the books preliminarily, Marco Pierre White's memoir was among the Yeses. Actually writing up the review, I was moved to move it to the Maybes. Yes, David Kamp likes it, and he makes it sound like a good read. But he fails to make the case that the book belongs in the Review. On the point of noting, just a moment ago, that William D Cohan's book about Lazard Frères belongs in the Business section, I realized that Mr White's book belongs in the Dining In/Dining Out section. (Imagine the following in caps: Just being a book does not destine a title to Book Review coverage. There are other places in the luxuriant spread of the Times for such notices.) That's the first time that a book has dropped from Yes to No, via Maybe, since I began organizing the Review review as I do.

If both The Lizard Cage and The Sea Lady are the magnificent novels that their reviewers claim them to be, then surely the editors ought to have provided more room. Both reviews feel jagged and peremptory, and talk too much about current affairs.


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

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel is as close as it gets to required reading, so perhaps there's no need for a review, and it doesn't matter that Frank Rich's essay in the Book Review doesn't function very well as one. Mr Rich writes about 9/11, about Mr DeLillo's career - especially his record of highly predictive fiction - and he storytells the new novel. But none of this gives us a chance to assess the power of Falling Man. On the contrary, it stands in the way.

The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly. Lorraine Adams's review claims that this novel about political imprisonment out-Orwells Orwell:

Connelly's novel accomplishes something Orwell never managed: it gets inside the head of that "conscious man." Her prisoner's innermost self is laid bare in the pages of The Lizard Cage - even his most unbecoming moments. Unlike Wei or Mandela, who wrote for a public that had enshrined them as heroic figures, Connelly's fictional character has no constituency, no reputation to uphold. Through him, she shows us what autobiography usually veils: the human spirit not at its most defiant and brave, but as it really is and can only be.

Too much of the review, however, is taken up with collateral issues, such as the recent history of Burma (the novel's setting).

The Sea Lady: A Late Romance, by Margaret Drabble. Paul Gray's review seems almost grudgingly favorable. The author's career is rehearsed, in relation to British politics of the time. About the book itself, Mr Gray is something of a tease. It may be necessary to withhold information so as not to spoil the reader's fun, but teasing is warranted.

A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories, by Primo Levi (translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli). Jonathan Rosen doesn't take issue with this book's subtitle: these stories have never been translated into English before. He notes that Levi's stories read like joint projects of Ray Bradbury and Kafka, and he praises the translation. Then thumbnails the stories that interest him the most, pontificating reverently throughout on the Holocaust and human degradation at every opportunity.

Varieties of Disturbance: Stories, by Lydia Davis. Writing of a story about two scholars arguing over which translation of Proust is better - and Ms Davis has translated Du côté de chez Swann - Siddhartha Deb summarizes Ms Davis's art:

We have read three passages about circular walks, which may sound indulgent. In fact, the deceptively simply story becomes a palimpsest in which the current experience is seen to be a rewriting of other, previous experiences, and Proust's memory of a childhood already vanished at the time of writing comes alive in the evening walk of two middle-aged scholars adrift in a foreign university town. Haunting, dreamlike and yet indisputably real, "The Walk" perfectly illustrates Davis's exceptional skills as a writer. Her belief that language is both the subject and the medium of fiction has not led her, as we might expect, into solipsistic echo chambers, but into new worlds.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver. As we understand the contemporary food supply as it really is, lucid alternatives, such as Ms Kingsolver's "locavore" experiment (eating only her own produce), make for compelling reading. Corby Kummer claims that this book provides exactly that, with "some lovely food writing" thrown in for extra pleasure.

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier. Toward the end of his favorable review, Steven Pinker faults the author for resorting too often to clever-sounding analogies that do not lead to greater understanding. His theory of metaphor is surprisingly literary, but surely his objections on this point merit no more than a sentence or two, not three paragraphs. Mr Pinker notes that Ms Angier is true to her subtitle, and does not get involved in cutting-edge scraps.

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, by Ali A Allawi. Mr Wong complains that Mr Allawi's very interesting portrait of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is unmatched by his descriptions of other leading actors in the rending of Iraqi society, but he does praise the author for unpacking the work of Ali al-Wardi, a psychologist and an historian, for Western readers.

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, by Juliet Nicholson. On the whole, Thomas Mallon likes this book, written by the granddaughter of, among other things, a novel called The Edwardians, Vita Sackville-West. He disagrees, however, with its thesis that England was undergoing a transformation on the eve of World War I. Mr Mallon sees nothing but a death wish. As often with Mr Mallon's highly articulate reviews, there is too much storytelling, which is always particularly objectionable in the context of histories. What did Mr Mallon know before he read 1911, and what will the reader find in it.


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

Flight, by Sherman Alexie. Tom Barbash's enthusiastic review is downright confusing, at least to this reader, because its jumble of vivid terms - "high-concept extravaganza," "narrative stripped to the bone," "hyperactive mind" - don't add up to coherence. Is the following supposed to be praise?

Reading Flight is a bit like falling through the sort of nightmares you might have after too much late-night television and spicy food. Or like being asked to close your eyes and listen to a series of visual clues.

My Holocaust, by Tova Reich. David Margolick's review can only be called "choking."

At a time when morons and bigots say the Holocaust never happened, or that it wasn't such a big deal if it did, the business of publicizing and exploiting the mass murder of European Jewry for political, financial, or institutional gain is something we Jews would rather not discuss, except among ourselves. Reich has taken this taboo and built an entire novel - wickedly clever and shocking, tasteless and tedious, infuriating and maybe even marginally constructive - on it.

City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor. Gershom Gorenburg never comes out and calls this book tendentious, but he does point out that the author's viewpoint is pro-Palestinian, and that the book first appeared in the UK. "City of Oranges is an engaging, well-constructed book, even if its characters are more colorful than complex."

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, by Nancy Goldstone. Megan Marshall makes it clear that this is not a serious work of history but a book of wonders: four sisters married princes and kings and ran Europe through their husbands. Poppycock. "Goldstone repeatedly asserts that one episode or another showed the Berenger sisters influencing events, but her evidence doesn't always support her claims."

The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical Americans Are Winning the Culture War, by Dan Gilgoff. Jacob Heilbrunn aims his vaporizer at this book, but doesn't shoot. He notes that Mr Gilgoff is a "dispassionate" reporter of his material. As for that subtitle, though:

But as Gilgoff also says in his rather perfunctory conclusion, the religious right remains bedeviled by factional disputes... Despite this book's striking subtitle, the culture war seems to be petering out, with the religious right far from victory. It may now be demonstrating not the exertions of a virile new political species, but the thrashings of a dinosaur that can do a lot of damage in its final throes.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg. Jill Lepore's generally favorable and engaged review suggests that Ms Isenberg ultimately fails to make her case.

The problem is, it's hard, even after reading Fallen Founder, not to agree with Burr's enemies that he was a bit of a schemer, probably a traitor and at least some kind of fiend. Surely we would understand the founders better if we followed Isenberg and put a little more flesh on their bones. But Aaron Burr has a little too much on his.

The Rose Café: Love and War in Corsica, by John Hanson Mitchell. It's possible that The Rose Café is a quiet but concentrated jewel of a memoir, in which the author waits out the Vietnam War in spicy territory. If so, reviewer Alida Becker has completely failed to convey the rapture that would flood from such a book.


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

A Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef, by Marco Pierre White, with James Steen. David Kamp compares Mr White to "future rock stars who lost their mothers young," and he says that Mr White's book is "a moving, unaffected, delightfully honest book. At times, it's almost sweet." The chef's very physical responses to impatience are not overlooked. Whenever the nominal author writes with the assistance of a professional helper, however, the review ought to give some idea of the success of the ventriloquism.

The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co, by William D Cohan. Richard Parker writes,

In many of its details, The Last Tycoons" will captivate those closest to the industry. ... But for a general audience, there is little that will seem new after two decades of Enrons, Worldcoms and Milkens - all tales of similarly motivated me, the Masters of the Universe.

In other words, this book belongs in the newspaper's Business Section.

May 29, 2007


There are two stories in today's Times that got me thinking about nationalism, which is nothing but tribalism on a large scale, and the wicked fairy that curses democracy. Estonians are having problems with the ethnic Russians that Stalin planted in their country. Isn't it funny that these "Russians" don't want to go "home"? And we, of course, are having trouble with illegal immigrants, or at least with figuring out how to deal with the "problem." Isn't it funny that the nation that won't shut up about the glories of free markets lurches with cartoonish ineptitude in vain attempts to seal its borders to would-be workers? Yes, it's very funny. Ha ha.

But I'll let you think about it instead. I've been distracted by a fragment from a story in the Metro Section, "Car Crashed Into a Restaurant, Injuring Six." There's no byline, so I can't toast the writer/reporter who surveyed the damage at a Hamilton Heights branch of Popeye's, and noted,

An unfinished meal of fried chicken sat amid the wreckage, and tire tracks showed the path the car took from the street into the restaurant.

"An unfinished meal of fried chicken sat amid the wreckage" - it's pure poetry.

May 28, 2007

On Chesil Beach

Most of the first chapter of Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach - it will come out in the US in June - was published in The New Yorker last year. The story of a newlywed couple headed straight for sexual disaster was as horrifying to read as The Silence of the Lambs. You wonder what on earth can happen next. A beautiful novel is what happens next. It is Mr McEwan's most moving novel so far. Until now, I've always had a hard time picking one McEwan title to recommend to readers unfamiliar with his work. No longer: On Chesil Beach is the place to begin.

In the accompanying essay (see link below), I have refrained from looking past the first chapter, because I wouldn't want to spoil the story. Someday, when I decide that everyone has read it who is going to read it (if you know what I mean by that absurdity), and the novel has acquired a settled reputation, I will explore the fifth and final chapter, which is thrilling rather than horrifying, and then quite elegaic.

For those of you who like audiobooks, Mr McEwan has recorded his text unabridged. I may just have to hear it.

On Chesil Beach.

May 27, 2007

On Blogger Hill

UPDATE: I am immesely proud to be part of this picture. It's the first collective photograph that I've ever belonged to with my heart and soul.

For some time, I've had plans to get together with the Ganome when he came to New York for the GB:NYC4 meetup on Bear/Blogger Hill in Central Park. In other words, today. The Ganome called just before noon, from the Port Authority. We agreed to meet at the Met, which is, among other things, not too far from Central Park, being in it. He arrived with his boss, the Butter Monkey. The Monkey is a few years younger than the Ganome (ie our children's age), but smart as a whip and extremely pleasant to talk to.

When we'd finished our lunch, I asked my friends if there was anything that they wanted to see in the museum before heading out, because I could probably take them straight to it. I am so abominably conceited about my familiarity with the museum's layout. But I didn't get to show off today, because what they really wanted was directions to the Sheep's Meadow. I was only too happy to walk them there. I didn't yet know where Bear/Blogger Hill is, because I hadn't planned to attend one of Joe's weekly retreats. But I know how to get to the Sheep's Meadow, and we walked all the way round it - a complete circuit! - before finding that the Hill is very near the Naumberg Bandshell, which we'd passed earlier. But we did find it. I was privileged to introduce the Ganome and the Monkey to Joe. I met a few people and nodded to a few others whom I'd seen at other gatherings, but, having just met the Ganome and the Monkey and gotten to know something about them in person, I wasn't taking in much new information. One of the farmboyz took a picture of the group while I was there, and I'm in it, I suppose.

For the most part, I watched the rollerbladers at the base of the hill. There were very gifted dancers, such as Disco Grandma, who performed as if they were Olympians on the ice. There were character dancers, like Bladey, wearing loud costumes (I got to see Bladey's arrival on his clownish bicycle, announced by its throaty klaxon). There was a wonderfully chunky middle-aged woman who had no moves at all. She just huffed her way up the gentle slope and stood still on her skates coming down the other side. My favorite act was Bottle. Bottle is a very graceful and well-built black man who, in addition to his skates, wears only a pair of very exotic harem pants and two wristbands. He's called Bottle because he likes to glide along with a liter of bottled water standing on his head, but unattached to it in any way. If he could find a more artistic vessel, he would look like something out of the old Ballets-Russes. He and Bladey danced together a few times, side by side. I applauded a few times, although that generally wasn't done.

So there I was in Central Park on a Saturday afternoon, surrounded by interesting guys and overlooking an appealing spectacle. The weather was perhaps a trifle warm, but there was a lovely breeze, and I was comfortable enough.

At about four-thirty, I said goodbye to all and went to catch the Third Avenue bus. As packed as the Park was, the Upper East Side was empty. Neutroned! We've entered the Hamptons season. 

May 26, 2007


I hadn't expected to see Waitress. The trailer was a bit hyperglycemic for me. All that pie! All those Southern accents! Waitresses working in a diner-like restaurant. And Keri Russell is really just too pretty.

But there I was, casting around for something to see last night. Ordinarily, of course, I see movies on Friday morning, as early as possible, but yesterday I had a very important engagement elsewhere. I thought I'd look for something in the later afternoon, but by the time that came around I was a bit tired and wanted only to go home and read.

Kathleen, however, instead of working until ten o'clock, scheduled a facial for seven. She was out at a little past eight. But even though she went back to the office to tidy up some things, she wanted to go to the movies. I was in no mood to leave the neighborhood by that time, but I was confronted with unusually limited choices. Across the street, they're showing Shrek III in all four auditoriums. At the Orpheum, a further four theatres have been dedicated to showing off Johnny Depp. So, in the end, Kathleen and I met at Burger Heaven at nine and strolled over to UA East at ten.

(I rarely complain about movie theatres because I rarely have any reason to. But conditions were poor at the UA East. The women's bathroom had overflowed shortly before our arrival, and the auditorium felt airless and almost-too-warm all the way through the film. Boo!)


May 25, 2007

Elizabeth Kolbert on Silent Spring, in The New Yorker

One fine day in June, 1962, I screwed myself up to my full height (6'4½" at that time) and bought a copy of The New Yorker. I was fourteen, but carrying The New Yorker around convinced me that I could just skip the rest of adolescence. Which turned out to be not so hot an idea. But with a few occasional lapses, I would be a regular reader of the magazine for the next forty-five years (next month).

I bought the issue for June 16, 1962. I know this because The Complete New Yorker tells me so. I remember the cover - a bevy of brides drawn by an illustrator who would become very dear to me (as a reader), Abe Birnbaum. The Complete New Yorker also confirms my recollection that the first installment of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring ran that week. I did not read all three installments all the way through - I had nothing like the stamina necessary to swallow such adult fare. And I wasn't all that into nature or corporate shenanigans. I was into the idea of founding my own version of The New Yorker, which I would call The Quill, and not facetiously, either: I was trying to learn to write with quill pens at the time. You do things like that when you decide that you can skip adolescence. And quill pens are certainly better for the environment.

Elizabeth Kolbert on Silent Spring, in The New Yorker.

May 24, 2007


The original Oxford English Dictionary goes straight from "socialistic" to "sociality." No "socialite." The Random House Unabridged Dictionary dates "socialite" to 1925-1930. (Where is Lighter when we need him?) It's a dreadful word, and I can't imagine that anyone relishes its application to herself.

(Most "socialites" are women, or, more specifically, wives or widows of rich men. Martha Stewart started out as a junior socialite, but nowadays she could go to every benefit in creation and still not qualify.)

"Real People Meet Real Design," is the unfortunate title of Penelope Green's story, in the Times, about rounding up four individuals from different walks of life for a tour of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Javits last weekend. The idea behind the story:four totally ordinary people, surrogates for you and me, cast their gimlet eyes on furniture with an attitude. But where do reporters find ordinary people? Mark Crispin Miller, NYU media scourge, was one of the quartet. I'm looking forward to meeting him at a book event at McNally Robinson in June, but I doubt that I will ask him about this faintly embarrassing exposure. Tony Shellman, an entrepreneur, and Leah Levy, a ninth-grader, were also part of the team. But what caught my eye was the billing that Frances Hayward got. "The Socialite." Ms Hayward is presumably the person most likely to buy, or to decide not to buy, the goods on offer at the Fair.

Would the fact that Ms Bayard is the tenant of Grey Gardens have anything to do with her Q? Perish the thought. 

In 1906, just over a century ago, Edith Wharton wrote, "The American landscape has no foreground, & the American mind no background." This is still,


Things aren't going well up here in Yorkville. A phone message that I never heard was thrust in my face. People who probably don't mean it hurt me big time. I'm angry and lost, and, if it weren't for Kathleen, I'd also be stupid. But Kathleen is in my life because I knew that she would understand everything that I'm up against, and I was right. Kathleen rocks/rules.  

Which is another way of saying that, even though I'm a man who has loved his wife without incident for over twenty-five years, I do not have the gift of friendship. I don't, actually, have any friends at all.

Well, I have Fossil Darling, with whom I was thrown into a room by a prep school in 1963. But FD is famous for forgiving everybody. One of these days, he is simply not going to forgive me for the terrible things that I say to him, and then I'll be Tilt.

But here I am, about to be sixty, with no friends. Which is to say that there are two. Everybody else is a friend of Kathleen's. (And I love Kathleen's friends.) There's George and there's Susan. Well, of course there's Fossil Darling, but he's the guy I got stuck with in boarding school, n'est-ce pas, as am I for him.

Enough about my arid landscape. You have more friends than I do and I advise you to treasure them. Make sure you understand why you like them. And don't get mixed up with couples - never, ever, short-circuit your relationships. You can't like two different people in a way that each would like, so give up in advance.

Find your friends, and, if necessary, ditch your responsibilities. God knows I'd have liked to.

May 23, 2007


The new Rufus Wainwright album, Release the Stars, arrived yesterday. I listened to it while I was tidying up the blue room. I liked it, but nothing really grabbed me, until the penultimate song, "Sanssouci," which I listened to no fewer than thirty-three times. I even got the yodel down.

The words are somewhat kinky (this is, after all, Rufus), but the tune is primo pop. I just want to be where this song is.

The Truth About Parthenogenesis

Science tells us that the Y chromosome, carried by most men, is shedding jeans. Typical! Researchers are looking into how long it will take for the chromosome to become totally clueless. In the event of which, need I say, the patriarchy will come to and end.

Along with the rest of humanity, you say; but not so fast! Five dollar word to the rescue: parthenogenesis! "Female Shark Reproduced Without Male DNA, Scientists Say."

Parthenogenisis has nothing to do with the Parthenon, but it is a reminder of how the goddess honored by that temple was born: without mating. As everybody knows, Athena was born from the head of Zeus, but not without mating. Zeus screwed the Titaness Metis, only then to learn from an oracle that, if Metis had a second child, it would be a boy who would displace his father.

Therefore, having coaxed Metis to a couch with honeyed words, Zeus suddenly opened his mouth and swallowed her, and that was the end of Metis, though he claimed afterwards that she gave him counsel from inside his belly. In due process of time, he was seized by a raging headache as he walked by the shores of Lake Triton, so that his skull seemed about to burst, and he howled for rage until the whole firmament echoed. Up ran Hermes, who at once divined the cause of Zeus's discomfort. He persuaded Hephaestus, or some say Prometheus, to fetch his wedge and beetle and make a breach in Zeus's skull, from which Athene sprang, fully armed, with a mighty shout.

There is nothing like Robert Graves's The Greek Myths before you've had your first cup of coffee in the morning.

Men in a nutshell: the species that won't be relieved to hear that it's unnecessary for reproduction even though it's vaguely annoyed every time it makes some woman pregnant.

The "without male DNA" construction is pretty cute, too.

In the Book Review

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

What's in the water? I seem to have gotten very permissive this week, with more Yeses than Maybes. Even with all the worthy subjects addressed this week, however, the editors managed to squeeze in two wholly undeserving books, one a bit of raunchy ventriloquism about Mickey Mantle, the other a "historical" action book about the move of the Knights of St John from Rhodes to Malta.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Point of Order," is about Robert's Rules of Order, which, it may interest you to know, remains copyrighted, if eminently knock-off-able. It interested me to learn that the rules are traceable back to Thomas Jefferson. Aside from the fact that they appear between covers, it's difficult to know what Robert's Rules are doing in the Book Review. What's next? Hoyle's?


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

Fellow Travelers, by Thomas Mallon. Michael Gorra finds this novel about the McCarthyite gay witch hunt "appealing," written in "crisp, buoyant" prose. As an example of mish-mashed storytelling, however, his review is hard to beat.

The Gentle Axe, by R N Morris. Liesl Schillinger compares this book favorably to some successful recent historical novels.

Admirably, Morris doesn't overhandle the language. Unlike, saay, Caleb Carr in The Alienist or Iain Pears in "An Instance of the Fingerpost," he doesn't hit false notes in tone or affect baroque accents.

Ms Schillinger also writes that the novel, which follows up the subsequent career of the examining magistrate in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, seems "less like a modern tribute to Dostoyevsky than a translation of an overlooked novel by one of his contemporary imitators."

In the Driver's Seat: Stories, by Helen Simpson. Maile Meloy likes some of these stories much better than others, but her praise outweighs her disappointment. She does quote nearly enough to convey a sense of Ms Simpson's rhythms, alas. Her conclusion:

In the Driver's Seat contains some wonderful stories, and if it seems rushed and uneven, I still sided with Simpson's practical-minded characters - like the one who gets a furtive kiss from her 9-year-old son in full view of his school - for whom the good moments, sometimes achingly perfect, make up for the rest.

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, by William Langeweische. Jonathan Raban admires this book, which traces the all-too-surmountable obstacles facing a terrorist who wished to attack the United States with nuclear weaponry, praising its "cool, precise, and economical reporting." But he regrets that more of an effort was not made to translate a series of Atlantic articles into a proper book.

The Clarks of Cooperstown: Their Singer Sewing Machine Fortune, Their Great and Influential Art Collections, Their Forty-Year Feud, by Nicholas Fox Weber. Debby Applegate doesn't think much of Mr Weber's storytelling skills, but she suggests that the book's interest lies in its handling of the art collecting indulged by the third generation of the Clark family.

Instead of evoking a dramatic family saga, he structures his book as a series of meandering and repetitive biographical sketches that muddle the plot and tax the reader's patience. All the same, art lovers will be intoxicated by the sheer abundance of masterpieces. Here, Weber is at his best, describing art in a vivid, straightforward manner, free of pedantry. And he has a gift for breathing like into styles now out of vogue.

Although the book might not be ideal, the review makes it clear that its subject is rich in more than mere art talk.

The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade, by William St Clair. According to reviewer Caroline Elkins, this book about the portal between Africa and slavery, "brings to life the small crew of expatriates - rarely more than 50 along the entire coast - responsible for the castle's operations."

Though death loomed large, the castle bustled with activity, Africans, mulattoes, the occasional European woman, livestock, voracious ants, poisonous snakes, exotic birds, even a declawed leopard created a carnival-like atmosphere that seldom hinted at the otherwise grim business at hand.

Ms Elkins believes that Mr St Clair would have done better to "venture further into the interior" of Africa, but that is clearly what the historian determined not to do.

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson; Einstein: A Biography, by Jürgen Neffe (translated by Shelley Frisch). Corey S Powell reviews two new biographies of the iconic genius.

Both authors justify themselves in part by incorporating recently unearthed bits of Einsteiniana, including a trove of personal letters released by Hebrew University last year. At a deeper level, though, these books owe their existence not to new scholarship but to an old frustration. A half-century after Einstein's death, his theories and the mind that spawned them remain as baffling as ever.

According to Mr Powell, Mr Isaacson's Einstein is a "resilient humanist," while he's a "naive idealist" to Mr Neffe.

Ralph Ellison: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad. Brent Staples calls Mr Rampersad "uniquely qualified to examine the Ellison case," a writer's stretched out failure to follow an incandescent first novel with a second novel of any quality. It is clear from Mr Staples's review that Ellison's idea of "the epitome of Negro psychological and even spiritual ingenuity in response to white terror" is worth looking into.


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

The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Joanna Kavenna's somewhat dissonant review talks up the harrowing things that happen to Ms Hemmings's protagonist, but also speaks of the book as a "comedy." The quoted passages might well come from a comedy, but they just as well might not. A confusing review.

The Secret of Lost Things, by Sheridan Hay. Meg Wolitzer likes the parts of this novel that are set in a Strand-like used bookstore . She does not like the parts that take place in the Nineteenth Century.

Although Hay tries to turn Melville and his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne into real characters through extensive quotations from their letters, these sections only intermittently crackle with life.

Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, by David Talbot; Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F Kennedy, by Vincent Bugliosi. There are two distinct reviews here, presented on facing pages, each written by someone who agrees with the position taken by his author and therefore in both cases sympathetic. Alan Brinkley cheers Mr Talbot for continuing to dig out the conspiracy behind Lee Harvey Oswald, while Bryan Burrough praises Mr Bugliosi's tenacity - even if it does lead to a book of 1,612 pages.

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989, by Michael Beschloss. Mary Beth Norton begins her review by wondering just when "presidential historians" emerged from the pack of general historians. She doesn't say so, but her remarks made me think of books such as Mr Beschloss's as variants of books about hot chief executive officers in the world of business. Ms Norton goes on to suggest that a book cautioning "his readers to be wary of presidents whose actions could lead the nation in the wrong direction" would have been more useful.


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

The Religion, by Tim Willocks. By the time I got to the end of Susann Cokal's review of this swashbuckling novel, my jaw was flapping against my sternum. What was this book doing in the Review? Ms Cokal remarks at the end that the book has "few pretensions to high literature," but unless I'm missing something in her review, it doesn't have any.

7: The Mickey Mantle Novel, by Peter Golenbock. Ihsan Taylor is withering about this book, which, even had it been good, belongs somewhere else in the Times. Set in heaven, the novel posits that Mickey Mantle wants a tough sports journalist, Leonard Shecter, to make him confront his demons. Instead, the switch-hitter goes into frat-boy mode. My favorite line from the review is in the parenthesis:

The raunch piles up, and we forget that 7 is supposed to be about Mantle's soul-searching. (Shecter turns out to be a "hard-nosed" journalist in the same sense that Wile E Coyote is a predator.) Save for a few mawkish moments in the final pages, Mantle is a puzzlingly useless guide to his own emotions.

Mr Taylor wraps up his review with a modest list of better books for anyone interested in the Mantle mystery.

May 22, 2007

He blogs every day

When you figure out Benedict Carey's story, "This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)", in today's Science Times, let me know.

Have you ever heard someone tell his life story in the third person? This is supposedly the healthy approach. Similarly, you're a more outgoing and generous person if you alienate your struggles, converting internal problems into "black dogs" and then vanquishing them.

All of this sounds like those studies showing that intelligence and self-estimation are inversely related. The smarter you are, the more likely you are to think that you're not smart (enough). Dumb people think they're geniuses.

Is health good for you?

Barcelona, at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium

The music season is nearly over, which means that it's time to order tickets for next year. Last year, owing to the general unsteadiness of domestic affairs (Kathleen was looking for a new job), I didn't get round to ordering tickets until the fall, and so I didn't get everything that I wanted, and when I did get tickets, they weren't always the good seats that I prefer. I aim to do better this year; why, only yesterday, I renewed our Orpheus at Carnegie subscription. We've had seats T1 and T3 in the "prime parquet" - the orchestra - for years, except for two seasons when we were exiled to T5 and T7, as a penalty for having renewed very late. I'd like to move up a few rows, but I think that some sort of charitable donation will be required. T is fine, though, and we're on the left-hand side of the auditorium, which is always very important, as you can't see a pianist's hands if you're sitting on the right side.

My system, as it were, is to start with what I most want to hear and work my way down the list. I like to have one evening in Avery Fisher Hall - that's enough. I'm very fond of Zankel Hall; this past season, I attended baroque concerts there; next year, I'll be looking for something different. And then there's the Met, which has the advantage of being in the neighborhood. If there's something compelling at City Opera, I'll get a pair of tickets. I've only been to Alice Tully Hall once in my life, or maybe twice. It ought to be clear from this that, while I like to hear music in concert or recital, I don't want to do so too often, because overexposure is a terrible danger. I want every concert to be special in some way - special for me - and by and large that's what they are.

Ordering tickets last season, I decided that it was time to encounter the Jordi Savall phenomenon. Mr Savall is a Catalonian viola da gambist, which means he plays a cello-like instrument (only slightly smaller) that he supports on his legs. Most Europeans abandoned the instrument in the Seventeenth Century, but the French remained attached to it well into the following century. Mr Savall sometimes brings his early-music ensemble, Hesperion XXI, to town when he comes, but this year his brought only two colleagues, under the banner "Barcelona." I got a pair of tickets to the second of his two concerts at the Met, which finally came round the week before last.

Kathleen, busy as ever, was in no mood for a concert, but she decided to go anyway, just for the sane-making break; she has learned, moreover, that I don't get tickets for her if I doubt that she'd really enjoy the evening. (For this reason, I enjoy a lot of German chamber music by myself.) And she really did enjoy the evening - more than I did, in fact. I'm not sure why. I could tell that something quietly extraordinary was happening on stage, but I couldn't feel it. I'd love to say that I'm open to a wide variety of musical experiences, but it wouldn't be true. When I don't get something, though, I just leave it. There is no point in trying to figure out why you don't get something - because you don't get it! You might as well ask why you don't find a given popular movie star truly attractive. There's nothing wrong with the star and there's nothing wrong with you. Everybody can't like everything. I'm hammering at this because it's so obvious, and yet so hard to learn, and to accept.  

Barcelona, at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.

May 21, 2007

Not an Issue

From Sarah Lyall's story in today's Times, "Gay Britons Serve in Military With Little Fuss, as Predicted Discord Does Not Occur":

Some Britons said they could not understand why the United States had not changed its policy.

“I find it strange, coming from the land of the free and freedom of speech and democracy, given the changes in the world attitude,” said the gay squadron leader, who recently returned from Afghanistan. “It’s just not the issue it used to be.”

Ms Lyall notes that Britain was forced to adopt tolerance of gays in the military by the EU. Similarly, American courts have led the way toward implementing civil unions and gay marriage. What this suggests to me is that while voters may reject a progressive legislator, they don't get worked up about progressive developments.

What's that about? It's a matter - or mystery - of perception. Our judgments are heavily dependent on context. Voting for a pro-gay representative implies that the voter is also pro-gay (although Republicans are famous for their "hold my nose" discipline). Living next door to a gay couple doesn't imply anything.

Another story in today's paper, Adam Liptak's column, "Positive He's a Killer; Less Sure He Should Die," highlights the huge difference between the general and the particular. Americans are broadly (if lamentably) in favor of the death penalty - as a principal. But juries have been sentencing convicted criminals to death in greatly dwindling numbers. When it's up to you to decide whether somebody will live or die, your mind works differently. You might say that it works.

Thus the inherent worthlessness of polling. Calling up people at home is itself a problem. At home, people are "themselves," "relaxed," more likely to say the first thing that comes to mind. In other words, polling occurs in a context that incompatible with the deliberation required by participatory democracy.

More to the point, asking general questions about matters of no immediate concern might yield interesting, "disinterested" responses, but the answers are unlikely to to indicate what the responders would actually do if doing something were necessary. I'm reminded of the old joke about how the man in the family makes all the important decisions - who's president, how to fight a war, and whether taxes are too high - while his wife takes care of the little stuff - where the family lives, what it eats, and how it's clothed.

"It's just not the issue it used to be."

Self-Made Man

Not too long ago, I bought a copy of Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, because I thought that Kathleen ought to know how ordinary men behave when there aren't any women around. I ended up reading the book first, and in one captivated day (I did nothing else). I expected a book about the adventures of passing as a man, but that's not what Ms Vincent wrote. As she herself says, passing was the easy part. The hard part was learning how tough life is for most guys. The alleged power and privilege of belonging to the dominant gender seems to be nothing more than smoke; in actuality, men are crippled by stoic homophobia on the one hand and the unrealistic expectations of women on the other. Ms Vincent was very surprised to find where her sympathies lay, and, when she recovered from the experiment, she was very happy to be a woman.

Self-Made Man.

May 20, 2007

Movie Star

This evening, battling flattening fatigue (I had to pry Kathleen from her fleece nap blanket at five-thirty in the afternoon), we very irresponsibly took a taxi all the way down to Chelsea for a housewarming. Our friend, Rob, moved into his studio in January, but almost immediately went on one of his South American junkets, including a quick trip to Antarctica, and didn't even start to unpack until about a month ago. The apartment has great views of the towers of Wall Street. Five floors higher, the building's roof offered even better views, and in three hundred sixty degrees. The weather was perfect, and we wished that we'd brought our cameras. The Razr, trust me, didn't do the views justice.


That was cool. But what was really cool was meeting a movie star. Okay, maybe not a star star. But a very nice guy, the Uruguayan actor Marcos Cohen, who landed an interesting small part in Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, the Guatemalan planter, Dr Ibanez. You will recall that Dr Ibanez's plantation is devastated by CIA-launched beetles in order to punish the man for his independent stance. Marcos was still buzzing from having landed the part, which made him big news in his native country. Kathleen asked him about working with Mr De Niro, and Marcos's answer was very positive, although he did say that the famous actor is "shy."

Kathleen also wanted me to tell you how great Rob's studio is. And it is great, so far. He has painted the main room almost exactly the same deep blue shade that gave our blue room its name in 1983, and his foyer, in a tribute to our apartment, is painted teal (although we're closer to evergreen). The only thing that remains is to furnish the place. We advised Rob to start off with the purchase of a good comfortable upholstered armchair.

After the party, we even more irresponsibly took a taxi to the Brasserie. We will never get over the original Brasserie, but it must be acknowledged that the current incarnation offers truly excellent frites. Kathleen discovered this at a recent birthday lunch. I only wish that I could have eaten them all. But the accompanying burger was enormous.

Here's hoping that you had a nice weekend, too.

May 19, 2007


As a rule, I stay away from horror/slasher flicks. Who needs to have all that gore sloshing around in one's imagination? I'm familiar with the argument that these films provide young men with a ritual opportunity to display their unflinching bravery while girlfriends burrow into their shoulders with awestruck admiration. I'd have flunked. I well remember going to the men's room seven times (at least) when I saw Alien, in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1979.

But Severance attracted me for two reasons. One, Toby Stephens. Mr Stephens is the son of Maggie Smith, but I didn't know he existed until I rented a video about the late Princess Margaret, The Queen's Sister. Mr Stephens plays Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon. I've since read that he prefers the stage to the screen. If that's actually the case, then his participation in Severance is hard to explain.

Or perhaps it isn't. Severance is a first-class satire that is long on menace and short on actual horror. If it were a porn movie, you wouldn't see anybody's privates. A great deal is left to the imagination, which, in my case, certainly rose to the occasion. I was glued to my seat, however, because the movie is also very funny.

The second draw was basic: an eleven-o'clock screening at the Angelika. Once I leave Yorkville, the Angelika is the easiest theatre to get to in all of New York. (The 86th Street East, across the street from my apartment, is showing Shrek III on all four screens. What's one to do?)

I still can't believe that I went to see Severance.

May 18, 2007

Idiocracy Update

This just in.

NEW YORK - a public school teacher was arrested today at JFK International Airport as he attempted to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a set square, a slide rule and a calculator.

At a morning press conference, the Attorney General said he believes the man is a member of the notorious Al-Gebra movement. He did not identify the man, who has been charged by the FBI with carrying weapons of math instruction.

"Al-Gebra is a problem for us", the Attorney General said. "They desire solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents in search of absolute values. They use secret codes names like 'x' and 'y' and refer to themselves as 'unknowns', but we have determined they belong to a common denominator of the Axis of Medians with coordinates in every country

As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, "There are 3 sides to every triangle."

When asked to comment on the arrest, President Bush said, "if God had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, He would have given us more fingers and toes." White House Aides told reporters they could not recall a more intelligent or profound statement by the President.

(Thanks, Fossil Darling.)

Michael Tomasky on the Hope for Political Discourse, in The New York Review of Books

Until yesterday afternoon, I was going to write about Peter Hessler's immensely intriguing article about "The Great Wall of China," which, it should come as no surprise to anyone by now, is a Western construct. There is no "Great Wall." There are walls, here and there, but they are not continuous. What most people think of as "The Great Wall" is properly known as "The Ming Wall," because it was built by that late-medieval dynasty to protect Beijing, where the Ming emperors were installed in the Forbidden City (the Ming carried Chinese xenophobia to new and startling heights).

There is no body of academic scholars anywhere devoted to studying the Ming Wall. It has been left to amateurs, the most eminent of which - unbeknownst to many of the Chinese who also study the wall - is an American, David Spindler. Spindler, in the mid-Nineties was awarded a Master's Degree from Beijing University for his work on an ancient Chinese philosopher, Dong Zhongshu; after that, he went through Harvard Law and then worked for McKinsey & Company in Beijing. Now he just walks the wall. Quixotists will want to know about him. (Mr Hessler's piece is not on-line.)

Then, however, I read Michael Tomasky's piece in the current New York Review.

Michael Tomasky on the Hope for Political Discourse, in The New York Review of Books.

May 17, 2007

Best of Luck to Richard Snow

I always knew that Richard Snow would do something interesting. He was by far the cleverest kid in the class during my three years at Bronxville School. He wasn't a friend, exactly, but the friend of a friend, and I saw a fair amount of him. He was the first genuinely witty person that I ever knew, and I learned early to keep my own mouth shut when Richard was around. It was difficult to avoid his intentions entirely, however, as I was already one of the tallest guys in the class and he among the shortest.

Of course, I wish I'd found out what Richard has been up to all these years in happier circumstances. It appears that American Heritage, the Forbes publication that took on Richard in 1965, in the mail room, and of which he is currently the editor, is about to suspend publication. That's sad news, especially as the magazine has as many subscribers these days as it has ever had, if not more.

He said he was still unsure of his own fate, but if need be he could go back to writing historical novels. "I've written four," he said. "Two were loathed by everyone who read them, but two actually got published." And no matter what happens, he has worked out a crucial point in his severance. He gets to keep his Royal manual typewriter.

"That was the typewriter that I was assigned to in 1970, and it will follow me to the gave," he said, and he added, "I wish this were more a sign of granitic stability, but in fact it's a sign of my computer incompetence. I use it just to type labels, but it works beautifully. Every year somebody comes in and cleans in. I don't think he's paid by Forbes. He's some spectral presence who just turns up."

Good luck, Richard!

May 16, 2007

In the Book Review

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

Dr Jerome Groopman is everywhere these days, even writing this week's Essay, "Prescribed Reading." Dr Groopman teaches a literature class to undergraduates at Harvard College, and the syllabus includes a number of books that, in the doctor's view, have strong Biblical resonances. The astounding final sentence of the final paragraph is really very depressing, although Dr Groopman certainly didn't intend it to be so.

Some of the students will go on and become doctors, others journalists and teachers, mathematicians and financiers. All will one day be patients. They will then consult clinical textbooks or the Internet to learn about their disease, and some may also turn to self-help books. But it is in literature that they will find the sharpest revelations about the dilemmas of physicians and the yearnings of a patient's soul. And, for believer and atheist alike, the Bible should be a book to turn to.

If there's one thing I have no use for, it's the wisdom the ages in general and the wisdom of the Bible - a very nasty book - in particular. See God Is Not Great, below.


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

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon. Terrence Rafferty's enthusiastic review keeps the storytelling under control while writing extensively about the novel's literary qualities. About the novelist, he writes,

He has in recent years become a zealous proselytizer for a more genre-inflected and plot-friendly sort of literary fiction, a rabbi of the sect of Story. I think, though, that for him plot is like chess, no more and no less that a beautiful game, something to be played as scrupulously and passionately as you can, but warily - with an eye to the danger that the game could start playing you. When that happens, and you find yourself in that forced-to-move trap, the sensible thing is to knock the board over.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens. Michael Kinsley, declaring his own non-believer status, praises this book for its passion as well as for its lucidity. "He has written, with tremendous brio and great wit, but also with an underlying genuine anger, an all-out attack on all aspects of religion." Marveling that Mr Hitchens's rightward drift has not culminated in his being born again, Mr Kinsley concludes.

Speaking of foxes, Hitchens has outfoxed the Hitchens watchers by writing a serious and deeply felt book, totally consistent with his beliefs of a lifetime. And God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him as an adult.

Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, by Cullen Murphy. Walter Isaacson praises this bold attempt to scare Americans into acting sensibly. Whether the book will be read by the Americans who need scaring is open to question, as Mr Isaacson indirectly suggests. 

Occasionally Murphy seems to overstretch his analogies or to treat America as if it were a society as distant and curious as ancient Rome. His erudite book occasionally feels like something written from the aloof perch of the Boston Athenaeum Library, which it indeed was, rather than from firsthand observations of a Rotary Club meeting in the Midwest or an American Army base in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Murphy's arguments, even when they fail to be convincing, are thought-provoking.

John Donne: The Reformed Soul, by John Stubbs. Thomas Mallon calls this book a "vivid new biography" in his second paragraph and then pretty much forgets about the book until the final paragraph, telling instead the interesting story of John Donne's career. What he does say about the book seems helpful.

[Stubbs] sets a lively, plausible scene and sustains a high level of exactitude and style in his phrasing. His book has juice and, best of all, a kind of fearlessness in approaching the "frequently convoluted" emotions of a poet who possessed, if not English literature's greatest imagination, quite possibly its greatest intellect.


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

Some of Tim's Stories, by S E Hinton. Stephanie Zacharek's review has me stumped. Take this passage, for example:

In a series of interviews that make up the second half of the book, Hinton explains that the "Tim" of the title is the writer of these stories. "Mike" is Tim's thinly disguised alter ego, a guy who can't stop punishing himself for the ways in which he might have failed his cousin. 

What is meant by "the second half of the book"? Are the interviews fictional? How might "Mike" have failed his cousin? Ms Zacharek gets lost in a long view of Ms Hinton's career, and if it weren't for the fact that "Mike" is a bartender, one might even wonder if this book is aimed at the younger people who are Ms Hinton's customary readers.

The Big Girls, by Suzanna Moore. Stacey D'Erasmo's review gets off to a bad start with the claim that "The women-in-prison genre, even at its most blatantly exploitative, can't escape the political." It is very hard to get a sense of Ms Moore's fiction within the review's social-problem orientation.

Imposture, by Benjamin Markovits. Jess Row writes somewhat condescendingly about this historical novel, which centers on a doctor who "passes" for Lord Byron. Mr Row is unexcited by the novel's treatment of the alter ego, and writes, "It captures the morbidity of Polidori's fascination with Byron but not the thrill of being in the poet's presence, which is like reading Kurt Cobain's diaries without ever having heard the first four chords of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'."

Angelica, by Arthur Phillips. Andrew Sean Greer's review begins by labeling this novel a "pastiche." He doesn't say what he means by that, however, and unless he means to be a synonym for hommage or imitation, he's got me stumped. All I can make out is that Mr Greer's pastiche is always weaker and less arresting than whatever inspired it. To this muddle he adds some garbled storytelling. It's as though he couldn't tell whether his review ought to be longer or very much shorter. Mr Phillips deserves better.

The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine; illustrated by Leanne Shapton. Liesl Schillinger seems to like this book, which would appear to be largely about pet dogs, but she refers rather fatally to its "paper-doll characters." Noting that Ms Schine's previous fiction has been anchored on strong central characters, Ms Schillinger writes,

But here, her characters - with the exception of a brother and sister who share an apartment - are an unconnected group of people who have been nudged into a herd by one another's pets, and are striking chiefly in their unremarkableness. Not particularly good at playing with others, they are socialized by four-footed companions that serve as fairy godmothers to these contemporary Cinderellas, who may not clean up too well but still deliver a fair shake.

Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott. Christopher Benfey writes favorably, overall, about this "mesmerizing first novel," but he pretty much nullifies his prase by calling it "upscale pulp" and making references to The Da Vinci Code.

How I Became A Nun, by César Aira (translated by Chris Andrews). I'm still scratching my head over Jascha Joffman's review, which states that the principal character in this Argentinean novel is a six year-old girl trapped in the body of a boy, also named César Aira.

On another level, though, César's ambitious delusions seem imposed by the author. Despite Chris Andrews's clear translation, Aira's prose seems hesitant, his imaginative flights clipped by the 6-year-old mind he is trying to inhabit. As a result, these perplexing episodes don't quite add up to a credible story.

A Handbook to Luck, by Cristina García. This book about three alienated characters in different parts of the world strikes Louisa Thomas as "jarring" and, evidently, uneven. Ms Thomas's storytelling only adds to the confusion.

One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, by Rebecca Mead. Jodi Kantor believes that Ms Mead has gotten carried away.

Though she speaks of the entire wedding industry, Mead actually doesn't seem interested in celebrations like mine - which was on the tasteful side, if I do say so myself. Mead is so outraged by the gilded picture presented by bridal magazines that she overcorrects and gives us a book full of tawdry, tacky affairs, where the dresses are ill-fitting, the officiant is a hired gun, and the couple flushes away more than they can afford. ... In other words, Mead has reduced the American wedding to its cheesiest and most venal elements, and then written a book about how cheesy and venal American weddings are.

Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors, by Lisa Alther. Katherine Dieckman's review is notably unsympathetic. Of Ms Alther's genealogical effort, she writes,

This should be fascinating, but Alther is too besotted with the vagaries of her own experience, and her attempts at cleverness fall flat. Her frequent readings from outdoor church signs ("Come On In and Join Out Prophet-Sharing Plan") grow as wearisome as her antsy digressions. Occasionally there's the verve of her earlier prose, but clunkers abound. "This project, undertaken with such enthusiasm, is proving as never-ending as Cher's farewell tour.

(More about Melungeons here.)

East Wind Melts the Ice: a Memoir Through the Seasons, by Lisa Dalby. Dana Goodyear's review makes it difficult to imagine why anybody would want to read this book.

As a writer, Dalby makes similarly improbable and attention-getting choices. "I would rather skin a dead raccoon than shove a sharp hook up the anus of a pitifully thrashing Lumbricus terrestris," she writes, when what she means to communicate is that she dislikes using worms when she's fishing.

Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, by Robert Dallek. Mark Atwood Lawrence writes generally favorably about this doorstopper, but in one paragraph suggests to me that I'd do best not to add it to my pile.

Dallek's attention to personalities makes Nixon and Kissinger remarkably engaging for a 700-page study of policy making. But this emphasis also underlies its chief weakness: the implication that the foreign policy devised by Nixon and Kissinger lacked intellectual coherence. Curiously, Dallek fails to describe at any length the rapidly shifting geostrategic landscape that confronted the Nixon administration as it entered office in 1969 - above all, the relative decline of American power due to the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union's attainment of nuclear parity with the United States.

Put another way, this sounds like dumbed-down history, all personality and no context.


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

American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate, and Beyond, by E Howard Hunt. From the final paragraph of Tim Weiner's severe review:

E Howard Hunt's work is in a long tradition of arrant nonsense. In short, this is a book to shun. It is a small blessing that its author has been spared the burden of answering for its publication.


May 15, 2007

Or More

Today's Idiocracy Prize for Journalistic Ineptitude goes to a story in the Times's Metro Section, "Where Beachcombers Should Proceed With Caution," by Jill A Capuzzo, who must share the award with her editors. This is a story about Jersey beaches that will be opening over the Memorial Day weekend, thank God, because the Army Corps of Engineers has dug up all the explosives. Hopefully.

"We've always discouraged deep holes; nothing will change," Mayor Huelsenback said. "Kids can use their shovels and pails. As for metal detectors, we would discourage people from trying to look for these things."

Explosives, you ask? Why are Jersey beaches littered with explosives? Here's the one-sentence explanation, which I think merits a pie in somebody's face.

Believed to have been dumped off the sides of ships sometime during World War I, the discarded military munitions lay on the ocean floor for 90 years or more, according to Mr Follett.

It's the "or more" that had me calling for the nurse. This sentence is the story. Who the hell was dumping "military munitions" off "the sides of ships" off the coast of New Jersey "during World War I"?

In the meantime, I encourage everyone with a metal detector to head for Surf City ("there's a person named Eunice?") and try out for a much more prestigious award than I can bestow: the Darwin.

Blackbird, at MTC's Stage I

For quite a while, I'd been looking forward to Blackbird, with Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels. Our MTC subscription seats us toward the end of each run, which is fine with me, because I believe that actors, if they do anything, simply get better over the course of a run. And I don't mind waiting. But I do feel a tad silly being the last person on the block to write things up.

Blackbird, at MTC's Stage I.

May 14, 2007


Take a look at this, from the front page of today's The New York Times. Kathleen was so upset by the ghoulish ring of photographers that she didn't even notice the hot-pink sheets. The hot-pink sheets excited my conspiracy-theory gland. What kind of hospital/morgue pays for hot-pink sheets? 

Below the fold is the story that made my Monday. It's about Alexandra Hai, a woman of Algerian/German background who has won the right to dance the forlana, or at any rate to pilot a Venetian gondola. The first gondoliera ever! In actual Venice! Reading the story, I savored a missed literary delight: the "Letters From Venice" that The New Yorker ought to be commissioning, at this cardinal time in the history of the Serenissima, from Donna Leon.

The Last Mrs Astor


Here is a dust jacket that seduced me. I didn't give in without a slight tussle. After all, The Last Mrs Astor might turn out to be what Kathleen and I call a "hairdresser" book, all tease and supposition. The photograph of the new Mrs Astor, which turns out to have been taken by Cecil Beaton, no less, suggested that the project was authorized at some point. My doubts were resolved when I noted that the author, Frances Kiernan, wrote a book about Mary McCarthy. But not, as I erroneously concluded, the one that I've read, Carol Brightman's Writing Dangerously. In the end, I had issues, but the issues had issues, which made for an interesting read.

I found myself wondering what, in her prime, Mrs Astor sounded like.

The Last Mrs Astor.

May 13, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Bell Peppers &c

Last night, I tried out a recipe from Gourmet's In Short Order that came out very well, but not well enough. I want to give it another try before passing it along with my little changes. Hint: the principal ingredients are shrimp and ripe bell peppers.

I used orange bell peppers. The recipe calls for a mix of red and green, but Kathleen and I can't stand green peppers. It seems to be a class thing. We know lots of people who can't stand bell peppers of any color. I didn't care for red peppers when Kathleen introduced me to them, but I came round, probably because I was doing everything I could think of to make myself attractive to her at the time. Eventually, I really liked them. And yellow ones and orange ones, too. But not green. Green peppers are, and taste, unripe.

I did take a series of snapshots with which to illustrate my forthcoming treatise on the grilled cheese sandwich. The Internet is the perfect location for this study, because I keep improving my method. And I wonder, all of a sudden, what parmesan and pancetta would taste like. Toned down, of course, by a thick slice of gruyère.

On my to-do list: the bread that requires no kneading. I've got all the equipment; now I just have to remember to do it.

May 12, 2007

Georgia Rule

Leaving the theatre after watching a movie for the first time is a highly variable experience. Having seen Avenue Montaigne, for example, at the Angelika, in Soho, and then walking out on to Mercer Street toward a favorite bistro for a croque monsieur, I felt that the only difference between the film's world and mine was the local language. Walking out of the Orpheum, right into the heart of Yorkville, after George Rule - now, that was as traumatic a shift as anything short of a plane crash can be. Let me just say that George Rule is very much set in the mountains of Idaho. There are few spots on the globe that seem as distant from my little neighborhood.

Had I been out of my mind to pay to see something starring Lindsay Lohan? In the struggle for sanity, I began writing the film up right there on the sidewalk, and I had worked out a lot of what you'll find at the other end of the following link by the time I'd walked the long block home. To answer my question, no, I had not been out of my mind.

Georgia Rule.


May 11, 2007


When I studied the history of science in college, we were taught that Ancient Greek and Roman technology was long on theory (and concrete) and short on machinery. This turns out to have been a provincial misconstruction of an admittedly spotty archeological haul. In 1900, fisherman recovered the remains of an elegant little planetarium, a construct of fine-toothed gears that, almost seventy years later, I would learn couldn't have existed.

John Seabrook on the Antikithera Mechanism, in The New Yorker.

May 10, 2007


Today's weather: A grey day full of grey news from the Grey Lady. The Pope, Gonzalez, Cuba, the Cold War, even - sheesh! Doesn't anybody ever clean this place up?


Prince Street

Last night, I took the 6 Train down to Bleecker Street. It was a beautiful evening, clear and just cool enough for a windbreaker. I love coming out of the subway at the corner of Houston and Lafayette Streets - it's so far from the Upper East Side where I live. Why, there's even a gas station! Walking down Lafayette Street, I can see the old police headquarters and the federal courthouse. At Prince Street, I turn left, and it's just a few steps to McNally Robinson, the lovely independent bookseller. I feel miles from home, but I've only walked, in total, three blocks.

Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan has just come out in paper, and he and his Random House editor, Daniel Menaker, had an open conversation about their working relationship in McR Café, at the east end of the bookshop. We learned Mr Shteyngart's daily routine. He is served breakfast in bed at about eleven. Then he boots up his laptop and - still in bed - writes until four, when he heads uptown for an hour of shrinkage. Then he gets together with friends and drinks to excess. One day a week, he substitutes teaching a creative writing class at Columbia for the shrinkage. (At least one of his students had come downtown for the event.) We learned that the writer went to college at what he called the Oberlin Institute for Special People. We learned that New York is really the only place where Mr Shteyngart does not feel that people are trying to kill him. At a recent reading in Houston, for example, the audience was very frosty about his take, in Absurdistan, on Halliburton, which is called "Golly Burton" by the novel's more ambitious prostitutes. Might Mr Shteyngart have chosen to provoke the irritation of Houston? Mr Menaker surmised as much.

Gary Shteyngart is a very funny guy - funnier in person, if you ask me, than he is on the page - and I advise you to seek him out if he comes to your town. Do not try to kill him.

Oh, almost forgot: the next book. We learned that Mr Shteyngart's next novel will be set in New York City. That's the good news. The bad news is that almost everyone will be illiterate, confined to grunts and gestures. And some people will be immortal. Sounds like great satire.


Come to think of it, I went to an event at McNally Robinson last week, too. Then it was to see Alain de Botton, whose The Architecture of Happiness has recently appeared. Instead of reading from his book, Mr de Botton gave a PowerPoint presentation of most of the illustrations in his book. Speaking with easy wit, he summarized the major points of the book so well that, when I looked at it later, I found much of the material to be familiar. The author was a delight to listen to. Relaxed, unflappable, he shared his interest in and thoughts about architecture with such a casual air that no points were driven home. Like all of Mr de Botton's book, The Architecture of Happiness has one main purpose: to coax you into paying attention to the world around you. While he spoke, I couldn't help looking past him, out the bookshop's windows, at Old St Patrick's, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in New York. Unlike most cathedrals, it is tucked away on side streets, and it is certainly smaller than most cathedrals. But it's a vital monument to the determination of a widely-despised faith to build a diocese in hostile territory. One has only to compare it to the cathedral in Baltimore (Maryland was initially a Catholic colony) to grasp the relative poverty of diocesan coffers in the early Nineteenth Century. I wondered what Mr de Botton would have made of it; I'm not sure that he even knew that it was there, standing behind him.

May 09, 2007



Sigh... If I were a cool New Yorker, I'd get this racy postcard in the mail. Jean-Claude Baker, the proprietor of the restaurant Chez Josephine, will be sending it to thousands of people next week. It's not inconceivable that I'm on the list. I have been to the restaurant several times, and I know from experience that Jim Dwyer is quite right to say that Mr Baker is "unburdened by excess modesty." There is no one to whom Mr Baker will not shill his boîte.

USPS objected to the - well, you know. Mr Baker proposed a compromise: a banner reading "Censored" in the place of a soutien-gorge. When that didn't fly, he called in the press.

The post office has a long and not terribly successful history as a guardian of shifting notions of morality and decency. In Mr Baker, it faced an adversary with a long and very successful history of self-promotion.

"In the end," writes Mr Dwyer, "all parties agreed: Under part 601-12.11, 'Unauthorized Decisions by Postmasters,' the breasts could show."

How many recordings of "J'ai deux amours" have you got?

In the Book Review

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

Another themed issue this week: "Bad For You." First you shudder, then you collect yourself and join the party. It follows that very little of the nonfiction under review is at all demanding, and the reviews are all crowd-pleasers. Smoking, drinking, dieting, and misspending one's youth are all covered. So is the Esalen Institution. I knew that Esalen was weird and narcissistic, but bad for you? How can a backrub hurt you?

The Bad-For-You theme is emblematic of the common uncertainty about popular culture that it ought to be the Book Review's job to clear up. The editors are smart, but they're hip, too. They're serious readers - about non-serious topics. Working hard to have it both ways, they're looking a little too old for hip-hop outfits.

So, get yourself a drink and nibble a few hors-d'oeuvres. Abandon all hope of literary satisfaction. Well, perhaps not all hope. There are two nice-sounding novels, and an interesting-looking book about medieval Hebrew verse. But as you contemplate the death's-head target on the cover - bone white, blood red, and nightmare black - bear in mind how utterly inconceivable this issue would have been not so very long ago - before Spy Magazine, say. Everybody's afraid of being earnest.

Starred books are deemed by the editors to fit in the "Bad For You" rubric. 


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

The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry From Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, Translated, edited and introduced by Peter Cole. Eric Ormsby is favorably impressed by this improbable book, in presents medieval Hebrew poetry, revitalized by contacts with Arabic verse in Spain, in modern English. Of a line from a vaguely homoerotic poem, "My heart is pure, but not my eyes," Mr Ormsby writes,

The sentiment may be "Platonic," as Cole claims, but there is a delicate, and very Andalusian, uncertainty to the verse; it manages to be at once chaste and erotic.

Later, at the Bar: A Novel in Stories, by Rebecca Barry.Danielle Trussoni links this book, which she likes very much, to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.

Although Later, at the Bar acknowledges Winesburg, Ohio in both form and tone, placing it firmly in the tradition that centers on ordinary Americans living extraordinary lives awa from the manias of the city, it also pays tribute to Anderson's saturnine sensibility.

Because A Fire Was In My Head, by Lynn Stegner. Julia Scheeres gives this book a very enthusiastic review.

How refreshing it is to have a female protagonist who is as egotistical and ruthless in her pursuit of pleasure as any of her male counterparts! The poetic detail of Stegner's sentences - not to mention her wanton protagonist - is reminiscent of the novels of John Updike. An old-fashioned wordsmith, Stegner is a writer who isn't particularly interested in postmodern gimmickry, preferring simply to concentrate on telling a good story. If there's anything to quibble with in her writing, it's that at times her description s can seem too dense, overpowering the narrative meat with a bit too much spice.

Shakespeare's Kitchen: Stories, by Lore Segal. Sue Halpern writes warmly of this "novel disguised as a book of short stories."

And so it's crucial that the book doesn't move in a straight line. The same people who are good are not good. The bad guys sometimes do decent things. The truth - surprise! - is nuanced, and so is the story, which doesn't end the way it seems to be heading.

* Send: the Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. This book really needs no review; anyone who would use it has certainly heard of it by now and may very well have a copy (I do). Whereas those who need it... Dave Barry's review is enthusiastic, which is nice, and funny, which is no surprise.

If I had read Send this would not have happened. I would have checked the address one last time, and I would have caught the error, and Mr Orifice would never have received that email from me. Although in the unlikely event that he is a reader of The New York Times Book Review, I want to state here, for the record: Sir: you are exactly what I said you are.

* Thick as Thieves: A Brother, a Sister - A True Story of Two Turbulent Lives, by Steve Geng. Satirist Veronica Geng dies of cancer almost ten years ago. Her wastrel, addicted brother, with whom she was not on speaking terms when she died but who had adored her from childhood, has written a memoir with a difference.

Thick as Thieves does not, to Geng's credit, propound the false heroics of addiction and recovery so popular in the media these days. It just shows us how lies destroy love - no solutions, no wisdom.

* Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss - and the Myths and Realities of Dieting, by Gina Kolata. Emily Bazelon faults this book for putting too much weight on the genetic predisposition to weight gain, but remarks that it is an up-to-date survey of weight-control issues that, instead of sounding alarms about obesity, urges attentiveness and good sense.


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

Jamestown, by Matthew Sharpe. The contours of the early Seventeenth-Century story about England's first successful New World colony is applied to a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Susannah Meadows writes, "The talent is there, but the story is a less than worthy cause."

*The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America, by Allan M Brandt. Jpnathan Miles believes that the only thing missing from this thick book is an attempt to understand the allure of smoking.

Yet the essential conundrum, succinctly state in a 1961 tobacco-industry memo, will remain: "There are biologically active materials present in cigarette tobacco. These are a) cancer causing; b) cancer promoting; c) poisonous; d) stimulating, pleasurable and flavorful."


*The Joy of Drinking, by Barbara Holland. Robert R Harris calls this "a carefree history of our long love affair with drinking," and his review is as "winsome" as he says Ms Holland's book is. That makes it hard to tell just how serious the fun is. One quoted sentence struck me as somewhat overheated: "In the metropolitan haunts of the highly sophisticated, the cocktail is no longer an instrument of friendship but a competitive fashion statement, or one-upsmanship." Not that I would know.

* Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, by Jeffrey J Kripal. Diane Johnson's review teeters between amusement and bemusement - but then, she actually spent a short stay at the place (with Alison Lurie - what a cackle they must have had!). Reading between the lines, I conclude that she finds this book somewhat ponderous.

It is in relation to Murphy's work and his own general thesis that Kripal may lose some readers. A history of Eesalen is one thing, but this long book also advances its own theory that Esalen and New Age culture more generally are furthering the evolution of religion in America, and perhaps worldwide, toward "no religion," by which he seems to mean not secularism so much as a sort of transcendental fusion of Eastern and other religions to the negation of all existing ones and a resolution to the Cartesian mind-body split.

* Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. Benjamin Kunkel's review makes clear why he hasn't listened to this band much lately.

But such a voice is hard to sustain in another sense: it is difficult to hold on, from year to year, to all the strength and pain of being young. It is also difficult to remain quite so completely confused. Yet there is honor in confusion - since figuring out how you feel usually means abandoning one of your truths. And the adolescent, like the artist transformed into a commodity, is right to be confused: right to want to be popular; right to be contemptuous of popularity; right to hate the faults in himself that make his popularity undeserved; and right also to hope that winning a deserved popularity might actually redeem, for a time, the entire category of the popular.

Mr Kunkel has some quibbles with this book, but he doesn't dwell on them. He's too busy writing (and writing well) about the band.

* I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon. Tom Carson makes the case that what's wanted is not an oral biography of the late songwriter but a collection of his witty remarks.

Nonetheless, while 450 pages makes for plenty of wallowing, the gems aren't other people's insights; they're Zevon's own quips. Told that his presence added cachet to a television show, he answered "Cachet - isn't that like panache, but sitting down?"

* Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, by Jon Savage. Camille Paglia mashes up review and critique here - "critique" is one specialist's itemization of all the lapses in another's new books. As a result, when she writes that Teenage eventually "becomes compulsive reading," the likely response is, "Maybe for you, since that's your field!"

* The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, by Leslie Bennetts. It takes Eugenie Allen a while to get round to the drawback that is mentioned in every review of this book, but eventually she arrives.

More troubling - or perhaps telling - is that her sample captures a narrow spectrum. Most of the women she interviews live in the Northeast and Midwest and work (or used to work, or are married to men who work) in the fields of law, media and finance.


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

Little Pink Slips, by Sally Koslow. According to Penelope Green, this book is short on payoff, "too upbeat to be social commentary and too far from the action to work as a salacious guide to the actual Rosie sage."

* Bigger Deal: A Year on the New Poker Circuit, by Anthony Holden. Susan Casey is enthusiastic about this book, a revisiting of scenes covered in the author's earlier Big Deal. Still.

* The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong: A History of What Really Makes Us Happy, by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Alison McCulloch makes this out to be a deeply silly book, full of palaver about how the image of Princess Diana helps with "psychological work," and the "symbolic associational meanings" of shopping choices at the mall.

* Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, by Darren Wershler-Henry. If I read Joshua Glenn's review correctly, this book is crammed with Theory. The author regards touch-typing as a kind of imprisonment. Writing on a computer is different because "computing is a discourse whose rules are determined by the functioning of software and networks." But we were asking about typing, not computing.

May 08, 2007

Le Parking


This afternoon, I had occasion to try out the new parking thingies. Once upon a time, there were meters. You put in quarters and turned a dial to the desired amount of time, and it was that simple. Now it's even simpler. You stick your card in a slot, press a button to reach the desired amount of time, and voilà, your card is ejected and a slip of paper pops out of the machine. You place this scrap on your dashboard. The maximum extent is an hour - two dollars.

Then we went to lunch at Jacques. I spilled an almost untouched martini. Lunch went uphill from there, and we were back at the car in plenty of time.

Now I know how New York works! Another anxiety overcome.

"Liberal"'s Just Another Word For "Gay"


(Straight from Joe.My.God.)

Orpheus at Carnegie: The End of the Season

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra presses onward with its demonstration that conductors are perhaps unnecessary. Listening to the orchestra play Schumann's Second Symphony, a serious if idiosyncratic entry in the catalogue of Important German Symphonies, was about as exciting an experience as I could stand in a concert hall - or anywhere else, for that matter. It was odd, odd, odd, to hear the music and not to see a conductor. How was it happening? What if someone went astray? What if someone led a whole section astray?

I wanted Kathleen to attempt a description of violinist Janine Jansen's gown, but she's not here, so I'll have to essay one myself. Ms Jansen is a pretty, fit, medium-tall young woman, and she plays with her knees (so to speak). Her gusto brought the hem of her voluminous tulle skirt to the floor fairly regularly; ordinarily, it hovered at her instep (she was wearing highish heels). The bodice of the gown was like nothing so much as a Roman breastplate, but without the shoulders. A serious fashion statement, and definitely not your standard concert-artist couture. Oh, and she played the Mendelssohn e-minor really well, too. 

Orpheus at Carnegie Hall.

May 07, 2007


Beyond what I've read in the Times over the past ten years or so, I don't know anything about Gérard Mortier, but I know that I don't like what he stands for. The incoming head of New York City Opera represents everything that makes me sorry I'm alive today, when theatre directors don't trust composers and librettists to have been sufficiently "creative." There is nothing to do with, say, Così fan tutte other than to follow the notes and the stage directions. City Opera's current production of this Mozart opera succeeds not because of the sophomoric staging and set design but because the singers are gifted and fit. For the most part, they look and sound like lovers. (The opera's subtitle is "La scuola degli amanti" - the school for lovers.)

I was off M Mortier the moment I heard that he did not intend to fight for a new home for City Opera. The New York State Theatre, like the other buildings in Lincoln Center, ought to be torn down. Why do Americans not only make but insist upon denying having made such terrible mistakes? Vietnam! Iraq! Lincoln Center! I could go on... If City Opera is to complement the Metropolitan Opera, it ought to be small - or smallish. A house of fifteen hundred seats, say. With a thrust stage for the singers and the orchestra backstage. Minimal props - nothing to get in the way of fine singing. No conductors, no directors, no lighting designers - none of that crapage! Just opera.

Some days, I am very tired of life.

Books on Monday: Zip

Perhaps because I'm convalescing from spring fever, I don't have a new book page at Portico to link to. I'm still in the middle of too many books, and the two books that I did finish last week left me with nothing much to say. Robert Stone's A Hall of Mirrors first appeared forty-three years ago when I was sixteen, and I can only wonder what I would have made of it then. Much of it would have gone right over my head. Set in New Orleans at the beginning of the Civil Rights decade, it It was difficult for me to follow the action. The geography of cheap hotels, a soap factory, a warehouse transformed into a media center, and a "Sports Palace" is rendered with a slightly surreal incompleteness; the narrative is smudged as to time as well. As a result, A Hall of Mirrors very effectively simulates a nightmare, and I had the laborious sense of reading a thriller in a foreign language. Some of it still went right over my head.

I've already re-read the other book, Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story, and I still don't quite get it. The book is billed as an "elegant fable" by the publisher, and it is that. A man who might or might not be dead turns out to be - dead. Having gone to sleep in Amsterdam (and apparently died there), he wakes up in Lisbon, which is, it gradually emerges, the point of departure for the Underworld, which lies up the Amazon. I overstate, perhaps. This is the sort of fiction that makes me feel stupid, because I don't get it, and when someone explains it to me, I can only respond with a thick-witted "And?" There are modes of existence that my mind cannot, or will not, encompass.

Edith Wharton is far more agreeable, but I've only begun it. Herrnione Lee acutely underlines all the points of decorous if provincial punctilio that Edith Jones learned as a girl and never set aside. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, for example, she did not so much as mention two women who were very friendly to her as a girl. Why? Because she respected their privacy. As women of private life, they were entitled to be known only to their acquaintance. This is beyond tact. Wharton developed a robust public persona very quickly as she became a successful writer (and not just a novelist), in her forties; she was not about to demolish it with a tell-all memoir.

As for Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, I have reached Part Four at last: "The Roman Republic." This republic is already the principal power in the Mediterranean, having subdued two of the three post-Alexandrian kingdoms, in Macedon and the Levant. as well as Italy and Sicily. Carthage has been thrashed but not destroyed. I have a hard time grasping the distance between the theory and practice of the Roman constitution; an air of polite fiction always seems to hang over pre-imperial arrangements. Then the fiction becomes less polite, but the realities are easier to size up.

What are you reading?

May 06, 2007

Sole Ma Femme

Last Tuesday, I was feeling expansive and somewhat idle. I offered to make dinner for Kathleen if she would promise to be home by 10:15. "What would you like?" I asked. Wrong question. Kathleen's mind, her clients ought to be happy to note, was elsewhere.

I pulled down one of my most valuable cookbooks, Gourmet's Quick Kitchen (Condé Nast, 1996), a collection of recipes that yield two servings. Since I was cooking for Kathleen, I knew that I ought to do something with fish, and that the fish ought to be lean. Sole, for example. I found a recipe next to picture of an attractively sauced filet. Chopped olives were a distinct plus, and when I read the recipe and saw that it called for lemon juice, I was sold. Kathleen was going to love this. And indeed she did.

Sole with Citrus and Olive Sauce (Sole Ma Femme).

May 05, 2007


Sometimes location determines which movie I see on Friday, but I'm very glad that it did today, or I'd have missed Fracture. I had no idea how gripping it would turn out to be - and how interesting. Ordinarily I give lawyer-movies a wide berth. Aside from Anatomy of a Murder, there's nothing duller than courtroom scenes, and although the law is presented more realistically now than it used to be, it still necessarily omits the COLOSSAL TEDIUM that the practice of law entails. Fracture avoids each and every pitfall of the genre. And yet it has a comfortable familiarity about it that both promises and delivers certain satisfactions. And, I have to say, Ryan Gosling's performance is every bit as impressive as Anthony Hopkins's.

Ignorant of all this wonderment, I chose the movie because it was showing on 86th Street. I wanted to go to the Met afterward, for lunch and another look at the new Greek and Roman Antiquities Galleries. For that reason alone, I almost went to see Lucky You, because it began at eleven. Fracture didn't start until an hour and a half later, and I actually took a taxi to the museum to be sure that I'd get there before the cafeteria stopped serving cheeseburgers. I actually considered such offerings as Disturbia and The Invisible. Every now and then, it's important to see something that's off your charts - in the wrong direction.

I looked at a lot of Greek pots, some of them rather lewd. Satyrs often sprout erections - you can tell that they're satyrs because of their pony tails and their squished, unheroic profiles - but there's a late pot in which a tumescent gent is actually approaching a couched female.

I also took another look at Gentile Bellini's portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul. The portrait belongs to the National Gallery, London, so I'm trying to drink it in. The sultan's nose is so aquiline that you might miss the irregularities of his mouth, partly concealed as it is by his beard. His eyes manage to be both "humanistic" and sinister.

This season's Roof Garden installation, which opened the other day, is a show of large sculptures by Frank Stella. One wonders how they got these mammoth bits of welding up there. Then one looks out of the spring-green carpet of Central Park's treetops, soaking up the brilliant sunshine. Then one walks home.


May 04, 2007

Is that all?

In an editorial, "Dirty Tricks by Phone," there appears the following,

Congress has been considering legislation that could ban such calls by limiting voter intimidation by any means, including the phone.

"Limiting"? Just "limiting"?


One of the very few antiquities that our legal system has abolished is something known as the "form of action." This was a requirement that a legal complaint set forth the specified elements of an offense. That may sound reasonable, but we're talking about an era that knew nothing of "emotional distress" or even much of "negligence." In order to be actionable - sue-able - a case had to follow the playbook. If something was missing from a complaint, the defendant could ask the court to find a judgment of "nonsuit." Nonsuit meant not only that the complaint had left something out, but barred all future litigation on the matter. The case was out and beyond appeal. You got it right the first time or else.

Nonsuiting was obviously an injustice to the poor and the progressive. We were right to get rid of it. But Roy Pearson makes me think that we ought to bring it back. Even though his $65 million case against some nice Korean dry cleaners in Northwest Washington, DC, claims to be based on a literal interpretation of the District's consumer anti-fraud protections, it is OBVIOUSLY de minimus - beneath the attention of the law. Forget about disbarring Roy Pearson. We need to get rid of the judge who failed to quash these proceedings at the start.

After all, without those pants, Mr Pearson as much as admitted that he was nonsuited!

Friday Fronts: In the current Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair for June arrived only yesterday, and already it has bowled me over with three characteristically punchy pieces on the tattered state of our political fabric. Cullen Murphy sounds the alarm on privatization, Kipling Buis takes a look at Americans through the eyes of Frances Trollope, and Michael Wolff muses about the improbable candidacy of Rudy Giuliani.

Three American Pieces, in Vanity Fair.

May 03, 2007

Note on Scandal

As a rule, I regard David Brooks's presence on the Times's Op-Ed page as something of a Trojan Horse. Instead of Greeks, his column is often full of plausible conservative arguments that upon examination - examination by me, that is - turn out to be more clever than sound.

Today, however, I'm in complete accord. "Wolfowitz's Big Mistake" goes straight to the heart of what's literally maddening about the Bush regime, it's ironclad determination to cooperate only with itself. Mr Brooks points out that even though the World Bank staff is composed primarily of people who vote Democratic, it would have been easy for Paul Wolfowitz to win support, if only he had made nice. But he "forfeited that opportunity by being aloof." Then Mr Brooks goes on to the nature of scandal itself.

The conflict of interest charge is out of proportion to the hubbub. But scandals are like that - they are never about what they purport to be about. The Clarence Thomas scandal wasn't about a hair on a soda can. The Larry Summers scandal wasn't about comments at a conference. Most scandals are pretexts for members of an establishment to destroy people they don't like.

In most scandals, people adjust their standards of rectitude, depending on whether they support or oppose the person at issue. The subjects enemies whip themselves into a fever of theatrical outrage, and the subject's defenders summon up fits of indignation at the lies of the accusers. Scandals are playgrounds for partisans, and everybody gets to play the rose of the junior high school bully, ganging up on whoever seems weakest and most alone. 

Although I have very little good to say of the American electorate, I wonder if it isn't scandal-fatigue that has rendered it so inattentive. I myself cannot get worked up about various eminence's awful but entirely incidental misdeeds - not, at least, while genuine problems, such as the debt balloon and the abrasion of our regulatory structures, go utterly unchecked. Is "popular culture" to blame for the normalization of junior high school behavior?

Although I agree with everything that David Brooks has to say today, I don't agree with some of his silences. I suppose I ought to be happy that he doesn't include the very real Alberto Gonzales scandal in his list. In an adjoining essay, "He's Impeachable, You Know," Frank Bowman writes,

The president may yet yield and send Mr Gonzalex packing. If not, Democrats may decide that to impeach Alberto Gonzalez would be politically unwise. But before dismissing the possibility of impeachment, Congress should recognize that the issue here goes deeper than the misbehavior of one man. The real question is whether Republicans and Democrats are prepared to defend the constitutional authority of Congress against the implicit claim of an administration that it can do what it pleases and, when called to account, send an attorney general of the United States to Capitol Hill to commit amnesia on its behalf.


Taking Stock: Checking the Date

At about six o'clock yesterday evening, I received an email from a friend who is closing off one Web log and setting up another. He had a few things on his mind, but even before I got past his second sentence, I decided to write back to say that I would have to wait to answer his letter until tomorrow - today - because I was "off to the theatre." The moment I wrote that, I felt a little chill. So often, it seems, I have only to announce plans in a letter or an entry for the plans to fall apart.

It was only after I'd gotten dressed for the evening that I rooted out the tickets in the ticket drawer. The ticket drawer is a bordel at the moment, but I found what I was looking for: two seats at MTC for Blackbird. Because of that chill that I'd felt before dressing, I forced myself to search out the date. And the date was not yesterday's date. It was next Wednesday's date.

Kathleen, who had taken an unscheduled day off - she had finished one of many projects and decided to celebrate by doing something about her exhaustion (ie, sleeping), was delighted. She had not started to get dressed. I got back into regular clothes as quickly as I could and was soon back in my chair, reading Robert Stone's A Hall of Mirrors. I suppose I ought to have gone to my desk and read my friend's email, but I somehow shared Kathleen's sense of reprieve. A night off!

I don't feel as foolish as I might. Assiduous readers will recall the night last August when I thought we had tickets for The Drowsy Chaperone. It was only when I got to the seats and found them occupied that I checked my dates. I was a week early then, too - so much better than a week late. That was the night that I surprised Kathleen by a) not having a fit and b) insisting that we check out nearby theatres. We ended up laughing the evening away at Avenue Q.

May 02, 2007


Much as I'd love to write about Maureen Dowd's report that six former CIA officials have written in protest to George Tenet, asking that he give at least half of the profits from his new book, At the Center of the Storm, to "wounded soldiers and the families of dead soldiers," or Rupert Murdoch's bid for The Wall Street Journal, or David Leonhardt's piece about Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating, I simply don't have the time. I'm totally taken up with making the arrangements for my twenty-martini lunch.

Have a gray date!

My own private idiocy suffering

Les cérises sont très beau, non?

Les cérises sont très beaux, oui?

Les cérises sont très belles, oui?

Je ne suis pas Énarque, non?

In the Book Review

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

Lots of good books this week, including important biographies of Edith Wharton, George F Kennan, Lincoln Kirstein, and Gertrude Bell. Oh for the time to read all of them! I'm not entirely sure that I'd have bought Hermione Lee's Wharton book if I'd read Claire Messud's review first; although she's enthusiastic about the book, Messud finds an air of effort in the production, something that she rightly declares to be missing from Ms Lee's Virginia Woolf. In other words, I can no longer expect a Wharton completely refreshed from the magisterial treatment of R W B Lewis in 1976, as Ms Lee refreshed Woolf from such portraits as Quentin Bell's.

Sandor Marai's The Rebels has the air - all unread - of Major International Fiction.

Henry Alford's Essay, "Genius!", concerns "misblurbing." Yes, Virginia, there are still people who rely on blurbs. Apparently. I'm shocked, shocked to read of the fiendish things that marketers do to get boffo quotes for their dust jackets. Thank you, Mr Alford, for this TIMELY! report on a VITAL! and FASCINATING! matter.  


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

Halflife, by Megan O'Rourke. Joel Brouwer's appreciation of Ms O'Rourke's verse is infectious, and he quotes plenty of it. Of the first poem's opening line, "My poor eye," Mr Brouwer writes,

In fact, the sentence neatly encapsulates the central drama of O'Rourke's poems: the tremendous difficulty of writing clearly and adequately ... about things longed for but never seen ... and things so terrible they should never have to be seen.

A Far Country, by Daniel Mason. Matt Steinglass considers this novel to be even better than Mr Mason's well-received The Piano Tuner. The "simple plot" concerns the attempt of a country girl, probably Brazilian, to find her brother in "the city." 

Ultimately, the debt A Far Country owes to Black Orpheus only testifies to the enduring power of its narrative in third-world life. The fear that animates Isabel's quest is the terror not of poverty but of being lost: stripped away from one's village, one's family, from anything one might call home.

The Rebels, by Sandor Marai (translated by George Szirtes). According to Tibor Fischer, this novel about a group of adolescents about to be packed off to World War I "fires on all narrative cylinders" and has been "gracefully" translated. Marai spent his later decades in the United States, but he doesn't seem to have made much of an effort to sell his work in English; that is being changed now, with a stream of praise-winning volumes, of which The Rebels is said to be one of the more remarkable.

Marai wrote only a handful of plays, but he injected a strong theatricality into many of his novels. His characters tend to be either laconic or torrentially talkative. Costume and pretense fascinated him, and the boys of The Revels stage an impromptu private performance in the city's theatre under the guidance of a sinister, itinerant actor, an evening that will cost them dear.

Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee. Claire Messud's lengthy and favorable review consists mostly of storytelling - as indeed do most reviews of biographies. It's as though the reviewer has taken on the burden of "selling" the subject's life story to benighted readers. Where the subject is a novelist of Wharton's eminence, one might expect more literary assessment than resume. The review ends on a cautionary note.

In the end, too, there is about Hermione Lee's remarkable biography a slight air of unfulfillment, as if for her biographer Wharton were ultimately more an admirable effort than a beloved subject. (It is an air, incidentally, completely absent from Lee's marvelous Virginia Woolf, a more thoroughly absorbing and affecting book.) Nobody has done Edith Wharton such careful justice as Lee, who has brilliant illuminated so many of the rooms in Wharton's vast interior house. But perhaps because these rooms are so fully furnished and their trappings so well rendered, it is at times difficult to see clearly, or indeed fully to embrace, the lonely innermost soul herself. Such detachment is undoubtedly the biographer's job, but it also reflects, as Wharton unflinchingly believed, what life is like.

The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, by Martin Duberman. This impressive life of a remarkable New Yorker, best-known for his founding role with the New York City Ballet, gets high marks from Dwight Garner.

Kirstein remains something of an enigma, a hollow man, at the close of The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, but it's hard to blame Duberman. Kirstein's personality ran to extremes; raging blowups were followed by acts of extreme kindness. His temper, which only got worse with age, confused even those closest to him. "One could be embraced on Monday, cut dead on Tuesday," Duberman writes. "Lincoln's gaze was tantamount to spinning the revolver changer for Russian roulette.

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell. Gertrude Bell was remarkable for insisting that she be allowed to take a major role in geopolitics; like so many accomplished women of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, she was not a feminist, and held most women in disregard. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, she shaped Iraq. Robert F Worth says that Ms Howell's books is "breathless, somewhat worshipful."

When it comes to Iraq, Howell accepts Bell's own views too readily, both about herself and about the broader British imperial vision. At one point Howell refers in passing to "the peculiarly British notion of public service free of corruption" as if it were an unmixed gift to subject peoples.

Troublesome Young Men: The Revels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, by Lynne Olson. Jon Meacham writes a favorable and helpful review. Calling the book "brisk, engaging," he goes on,

Olson, a former White House correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, has given us a fascinating snapshot of the Tory "rebels," as she calls them, who ultimately opposed Neville Chamberlain and helped elevate the then-unbeatified Churchill.

George Kennan: A Study of Character, by John Lukacs. In retrospect, George F Kennan may stand forth as the most eminent American of the Twentieth Century after FDR. Because he outlined a successful strategy for waging the Cold War, and did it so persuasively that successive leaders adopted it, he is the ultimate victor, the Wellington in a war without battles. James Traub's review is favorable but somewhat uncomfortable, given Kennan's WASPy disdain for people of other origins. (Indeed, the review reminded me of Matt Damon's character's breathtaking remark in The Good Shepherd, "We have the United States. The rest of you are just visitors.") But Mr Traub praises Mr Lukacs (who knew Kennan well) for including the full text of a Kennan speech delivered at Notre Dame in 1953 that denounced ideology of any kind.

The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire, by Alessandro Barbero (translated by John Cullen). This book, about the battle of Adrianople in 378 CE, in which Gothic forces obliterated the Eastern Empire's army, gets high praise from Steve Coates.

One of the many paradoxes in Barbero's elegant and pleasurable little account - what a joy it is to read about the ancient world in digestible portions - is that the Eastern empire learned from its experience and intentionally shifted its barbarians farther and farther toward the West. Despite being the site of the first irreparable crack in the imperial fabric, the East lived on as the Byzantine Empire and remained stable and strong long after the shell of the West had crumbled under the barbarian onslaught.

Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism, by Paul Starr. Michael Lind is quite enthusiastic about this book; I wish his review were somewhat more lucid, which I suspect it would have been had it been given a little more room. Mr Lind says many good things about the book, but can't begin to back them up with arguments of any complexity, and the review tends to read as a series of topic sentences. Through the fog, an important book seems about to emerge. 

A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life, by George Konrad (translated by Jim Tucker and edited by Michael Henry Heim). Alan Riding likes this amiable memoir by the sometime-underground Hungarian writer.

It is a story inescapably dominated by the Holocaust and a Communist dictatorship, but it is also very much a person story, one in which tragedy, fear, resistance and tedium are accompanied by humor, mischief, successes and a good deal of skirt-chasing.


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

The House on Boulevard St: New and Selected Poems, by David Kirby. Carol Muske-Dukes gives this collection a mordant review. It concludes,

Yet these poems have less to do with "inkpots" or memory or innovation that they do with "splattering the canvases." Kirby stretches his backdrop, then "paints with breath-long brushstrokes. It seems right that he's been immortalized in a Lichtenstein-style cameo. Like the cover, these poems may be too cool for words.

The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace. Francine Prose's review of this "post-apocalyptic" novel starts out on a neutral-to-positive note, but it ends rather dismally, wondering why "American primitives should sound like refugees from a Thomas Hardy novel," and faulting Mr Crace's unoriginality.

It's disorienting and a little disturbing - like some sort of odd déjà vu - to read about the hell of the future and feel that we've been there before.

Helpless, by Barbara Gowdy. Chelsea Cain clearly likes this book, but her remarks are confusing. She faults a nine year-old girl for not being "fully formed." Although she praises the book's lean, suspenseful writing, she fails to make it clear why this book about a sexual predator who tries to keep his hands off the child whom he has locked in his basement is worth reading.

The Miracle of Catfish: A Novel in Progress, by Larry Brown. I had never heard of Larry Brown before reading this review, and I'm still puzzled by Beverly Lowry's reverential review. It appears that the writer died and left an unfinished manuscript, which is this book, very lightly edited by Shannon Ravenel. The action takes place in and around Oxford, Mississippi, but Ms Lowry never gets round to placing the book on a continuum between Oxford's literary poles, William Faulkner and John Grisham. In the absence of an an extensive quoted passage, I'm inclined to regard Brown as an acquired, regional taste.

The Visible World, by Mark Slouka. Eva Hoffman likes this novel about growing up in Queens with haunted parents, but not the novel within the novel, which is the protagonist's attempt to understand his mother's past..

Unfortunately, the fiction the narrator invents is a tale of love and war so fantastically and at the same time conventionally romantic that it strains the modern reader's patience, rather than reinforcing imaginative conviction.

Too Close to the Sun: The Ambitious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton, by Sara Wheeler. The subject of this book, Florence Williams, "is best known for being a lover of interesting women," most notably Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen).

Everyone liked and many people loved Denys Finch Hatton. Few knew him well, and no one could ever fully understand him, certainly not his lovers, and, ultimately, not Sara Wheeler. But just as Blixen might have said, knowing him a little was worth the ride.

Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, by Dinah Lenney. The author's father led an interesting, if somewhat distant, life, but one that ended in kidnapping and murder. Tara McKelvey is not very sympathetic:

Bigger Than Life, which is part of Tobias Wolff's American Lives series, is an uneven, confused memoir, guided by emotional logic and a sense of entitlement. This may work in a therapist's office. ... Sadly, though, Lenney seems unable to process the trauma of her father's murder to the extent necessary for a memoir. 

The River Queen: A Memoir, by Mary Morris. Jennifer Gilmore wants to like this trip down the Mississippi more than she does.

Although her boating skills are never honed, it's to her credit as a writer that the river and its history never cease to provide apt metaphors for her own changing life.

That's very nice, but it's undercut by the suggestion that the book's structure works against its impact. I should say that Ms Gilmore needed more than a column to unpack her ideas.


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

The New American Story, by Bill Bradley. This mission statement only looks like a book. It is really a political pamphlet, devoid of literary value - and rightly so. Politicians, even when they're retired, are by nature tendentious, setting things out as they wishes them to be seen. Mr Bradley's contents may be better or worse than the norm, but nothing can persuade me that they belong between the covers of a book, intended to be read by a normal human being. Timothy Noah, incidentally, isn't impressed. He faults Mr Bradley for structuring his material in a way that "allows him to maintain senatorial decorum while enjoying maximum freedom to create straw men."

May 01, 2007

Les cérises


Les cérises sont très belles, oui?

After lunch, I went for a walk in Carl Schurz Park. Every year, I hope to get at least one really good photograph of the cherry blossoms, and I must say that I'm content with the photograph above, at least at full size.


I entered the Park at Gracie Mansion. Here we see a corner of the reception hall, which was built not too long ago, and the more recent brick wall, a sterling improvement over the cheap wooden palings that used to assure mayoral privacy. (Mayor Bloomberg, of course, has a much nicer townhouse in a ZIP Code to the south, and does not live here. Neither did Rudy Giuliani, after he screwed up his marriage to Donna Hanover.)


Here is a very poor photograph of one of the Park's most curious features, the circular cul de sac with a statue of Peter Pan in the center. I'm not even sure that it's Peter Pan, but I do know that some local kids uprooted it ten odd years ago and managed to haul it up to the John Finley Walk, from which they tossed it into the East River. Divers (FDNY? NYPD?) retrieved the statue; don't ask me how they saw what they were doing. I read not long ago that the East River is so long and capacious that it is not flushed clean by the tides. Instead, it just gets dirtier. A cheering thought.


On the John Finley Walk, some gentlemen were having a conversation at the top of their voices. That didn't bother the occupants of the squad car nearby though. Squad car? WTF! I made bold to ask the officer in the passenger seat what he was doing there. My I'm-not-really-as-big-as-I-look act must have worked, because he answered very cordially that "We're here!" Then he admitted that he's not with the local precinct. Heaven knows what they're looking for. Terrorists mining the FDR Drive? Phantom fellucas?


At the big-dog run, I followed the antics of this tongue-lolling pup, who loped around the enclosure like the adolescent goofball that he obviously was.


Finally the cherries. I know of nothing more opulent in nature than these feathery pink clouds.


Under the allée.


Patricia Cohen's very confusing story in today's Arts section, "Interpreting Some Overlooked Stories From the South," mistakes the more complete stories that young historians such as Jonathan Sokol (author of There Goes My Everything) are beginning to tell for a new and different story. There is no new and different story. There is simply the new testimony of moderate whites who, in Mr Sokol's telling, felt that the enfranchisement of blacks would be their jobs, and in the due course of time. These whites were shocked when blacks "acted up." No, that is not a new story at all.

A more interesting thesis posited in the article is this "The idea that the South is exceptional, a region apart from the rest of the country, is no longer true." I recoiled when I read this - but then I remembered how the sweet-natured carpenter who rebuilt our country house, a New Englander with a clear Down East accent, never listened to anything but country music on his portable radio. Nothing if not the Manhattan elitist, I found this regrettable, and although I never said a word, I'm sure that my distaste was communicated.

To me, country music is not music. It is political statement. It's hymning that I have to listen to. Its ethos is very definitely not my ethos.

So I understand the fervor of secularist Turks who have rioted in Istanbul largely because the wife of the proposed presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, covers her head. What's the problem, you ask. The problem is that the covered head bristles with a significance that, as with me and country music, is passionately rejected by people who refuse to wear their faith on their sleeve, or anywhere else. Your religion is not my business, and let's keep it that way.

Even though I lived in Houston to seven years, I can't really say whether "the South is exceptional." To me, it always seemed to be. But exceptional to what? The child of an affluent suburb almost as close to New York City as it is possible to be without getting to vote for the mayor, I'm inclined to believe that I'm the exception.


MMArtists at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium


The Metropolitan Museum of Art's MMArtists - Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert - closed their spring season with an interesting program of music by Schubert, Schoenberg, and Brahms. I wish I could get tickets for their next season, which will feature Beethoven, right now, because I know which seats to ask for.