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June 30, 2007


No matter what the reviews said, I was bound to see Evening. I don't miss Meryl Streep's movies, ever (a statement that is not inconsistent with the fact that I have not seen all of them). And I was hugely curious about her daughter, Mamie Gummer. What would Meryl Streep's daughter be like? A lot like her mother, is the answer. A lot. Glenn Close as a forbidding matron was too delicious to pass up. I've become a fan of Claire Danes lately, too. Toni Colette, Natasha Richardson, and Eileen Atkins were all icing on the cake. A Newport wedding in the Fifties. How bad could it be?

It took longer than I thought it would for me to like the movie. That's probably because it wastes no time on exposition: you have to figure out relationships as best you can. Once you do - for me, the moment came in the scene where Lila dances with Harris on the night before her wedding - the movie becomes tender and poignant. Whether or not it really makes sense is a question for afterward, when the film is over. That, I find, is when too many people make up their minds about movies. They sit in a café and try to make sense of what they've just seen. If they can do this easily, they're happy about the film. If they can't - if questions about character, motivation, or sheer plausibility begin to sprout, they will feel confused, and probably decide that the film wasn't all that good. That's why I believe that you can't really make up your mind about a movie until you've seen it a second time. Until then, I try to hold on to what I felt in the theatre. What I felt in the theatre was my handkerchief, with which I was constantly wiping away tears.

(Of course, I cry during previews if they're done right.)


June 29, 2007


Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind came out with a truly vulgar remark during the debate about AB 8590, the same-sex marriage bill that passed in the Assembly (it will not be considered anytime soon in the upstate, Republican controlled, Know-Nothing Senate).

If we authorize gay marriage in the state of New York, those who want to live and love incestuously will be five steps closer to achieving their goals as well.

Hasn't Assemblyman Hikind learned anything from the Nazi art of tribal slurs? The "five steps closer" is a truly gratuitous - meaningless - whack. The connection of homosexuality and incest is ludicrous.

David Pasteelnick, who writes Someone in a Tree, talked to the Assemblyman before the debate, and was all the more shocked by the remarks in the debate because Mr Hikind had been quite decent on the telephone. David wrote this linked letter, which ought to be read by everyone with a sound mind. Having noted that the Assemblyman claims that he would vote against the bill even if his constituents were for it, David muses on his hypocritical sense of representative democracy.

Putting that argument temporarily to the side, if you would govern as your faith dictates, why have you not put forward legislation that outlaws the sale of non-kosher products in the State of New York? I am sure a majority of your constituency would strongly support such a measure. Is it because while your district would be in favor, the majority of the citizens of this State would be against it? If you respect the majority in that regard, even though it flies in the face of a core belief of your faith, why is same-sex marriage any different? Recent polls show that a majority of the citizens of New York support, if not marriage, some type of formal recognition of same-sex relationships that offers them benefits on par with traditional marriage. Is your opposition to this equal treatment because, when it comes down to it, you just don’t like gay people? Or worse, you might even be afraid of them? Do you consider them, or rather us, a threat? Less than human?

My adoptive mother was quite vocal about the "fact" that blacks were "less than human." She felt that homosexuals were "sick." She didn't talk much about these views, however, because she was too preoccupied by her florid anti-Semitism. Sometimes you just have to wait for toxic generations to die out. Although that does seem a lot to ask of good people.

Sex Appeal Sarah

Just did a Google search for "Dzegs abbidle Dzeedldra." No returns. Thought I ought to amend that.

Not that I mean to be mysterious. It's Boudledidge for "Sex Appeal Sarah," a music-hall song from between the wars (or maybe earlier). Diana Mitford used to invite her much younger sister to interpret the song, with the juvenile lasciviousness of which only the English upper classes are capable, in front of (doubtless shocked) boyfriends. Boudledidge, in case you need reminding, was the "secret" language spoken by Unity and Jessica Mitford - and, just possibly, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (Debo to you). How I omitted this gem from my writeup of Hons and Rebels is beyond me.

It's proof of the lamentable decline in English letters that "Dzegs abbidle Dzeedldra" does not show up at Google. Until now!

Ken Auletta on the Murdochs and the Bancrofts, in The New Yorker

The New Yorker is stuffed with good stuff this week. There's an article about the folly - well, that's what I think it is - of fMRI-based lie detection. There's a neat piece on hedge-fund simulation at bargain prices that I didn't quite catch the first time around. Joan Acocella writes brilliantly about the Waughs. But the indispensable piece is Ken Auletta's "Promises, Promises," an fair-minded report of Rupert Murdoch's courtship of The Dow Jones Company. For a link to the story and my two-cents' worth of Friday Front, click below.

¶ Ken Auletta on the Murdochs and the Bancrofts, in The New Yorker.

June 28, 2007


We had a power blackout here on the Upper East Side yesterday afternoon. It didn't last very long, but as luck would have it I was on the ground when it happened. I have long wondered if I'd be capable of climbing the seventeen flights to our apartment. It would appear that I am.

I had been at the doctor's, for the second of four Vitamin B-12 injections. (I think they're making a difference, but it's too early to be sure.) I walked up to JG Melon for a late lunch afterward. Then I stepped into a taxi, noticing that it seemed about to start raining. We drove up Third Avenue and turned onto 86th Street. I leaned forward, as I always do at this point, and told the driver that I wanted to go to a driveway on the far left of the intersection with Second Avenue. But the driver stayed in the right lane. I was beginning to be annoyed when the combination of his deceleration and a screaming siren made me realize that something was up. Almost instantly, I noticed the chaos at the intersection. And the blank traffic signals. Oh, no, I thought.

The problem with power failures is that nobody has any idea when they're going to be fixed. Had someone told me that power would be restored within forty minutes - well, I'm not sure that I'd have believed it. I am haunted by end-of-civilization nightmares, where things just break down permanently. Cities like New York no longer bustle with new growth so much as they totter on ageing infrastructure, which, as everyone knows, is boring to maintain. (It doesn't help that the city wasn't built with easy repairs in mind.)

Unaccountably, I'd left my cell phone charging by my bedside. I begged the doorman on duty to let me use his, and he somewhat reluctantly agreed. We had no idea how extensive the blackout was, and I wanted to connect with Kathleen as soon as possible. In the event, I was shaking too badly to press the numbers, so the doorman did that for me, too. The call failed.

Two things propelled me upstairs. I will leave one of them to your imagination. The other was the land line, which was probably not affected. Peering down the corridor to the fire stairs, I saw light. So did an older woman from the fourteenth floor who seems to know everyone in the building but has only just decided to acknowledge my existence. (How do I know she's older? Her "Vassar '48 reunion" sweatshirt. I was born in 1948.) She was intrigued by the backup lights, which are new, installed since the last blackout, in 2003. Like most residents, she couldn't believe that the management had actually done something useful, and in fact the note of scolding persisted, as if the management were still guilty of the reprehensible offense of having failed to do install the backup lights sooner.

I decided to follow her up the stairs as long as I could. What she could climb, I ought to be able to climb, even though she bears many signs of the former athlete. We went up seven flights before she paused. I paused. We stood for about a minute, I'd say. The stairwell was a site of some chaos. All the way up to the sixteenth floor, I'd witness ongoing episodes in the drama of a mother whose two year-old boy was trapped in one of the elevators, with his baby sitter. The last I saw, a handyman and the mother were trying to pry open the elevator door at the sixteenth floor. You may be sure that I counted my blessings. Coming home ten minutes sooner, I'd have been in there with the kid, but I don't want to go there.

My near neighbor and I climbed another two flights, and then paused again. That was our pace.  As we approached the fourteenth floor, she graciously  asked if I wanted some water. If I'd felt the least bit unsteady, I'd have accepted, but I declined with thanks. My heart was pounding, but not scarily, and I didn't feel any particular discomfort. I soldiered on up the four remaining flights in a single go.

The first thing I did after I'd let myself in was to strip down and jump in the shower. There was still plenty of it; we weren't fifteen minutes into the blackout. The water in tall buildings is supplied by wooden water tanks situated on the roof. The tanks in turn are supplied by pumps in the basement. The pumps go out in a blackout, of course, but it takes a while for the tank to empty. In addition to the shower, I filled the pasta pentola, just to have water for cleaning my hands. By the time I gathered up all the stuff that I thought I'd need and taken a seat on the balcony - I didn't want to heat up the cool rooms with my presence, and, besides, I can't stand still air - I was soaking again.

I was still shaking too badly to dial the one phone that still worked. With the cell phone, dialing wasn't the problem; the overloaded circuits were. At 4:30, I heard a news report on WINS about the blackout. I was delighted to learn that only a small part of the city was affected. By now, I could see that the traffic signal at 87th and First was working, but I assumed that that was backup power. I finally made contact with Kathleen, who was of course unaffected, although she told me that she'd noticed a surge in the power a while back. We agreed to talk in an hour. I went back inside for something, and saw immediately that the power had come back on.

I took another shower. 

June 27, 2007

In the Book Review

This week, I've added a much-needed page at Portico, "About this feature." The feature in question is the weekly review of the Book Review. As I approach the second anniversary of slogging through the Book Review every week and reporting on the quality of the contents, I find I've developed a few rules of the road, and at least one term of art, that are not quite self-evident. I hope that I've explained them sufficiently well. I've tried to link to the page from all the likely points of departure. 

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Star Search," is about the growing importance, faute de mieux, of the Jewish Book Network, and its annual "audition" of writers who believe that there books would be of interest to audiences at synagogues and other Jewish centers. I say "faute de mieux" because publishers are cutting back on book tours. But note this, from the Department of No Surprise: "Authors routinely say audience members seem less interested in their books than in marrying them off." Even if they're already married. 

In a Lonely Place.

June 26, 2007

I Square the Circle


I present to you the world's first Bear Angertwink. Father Tony - call home!

Up on the Roof


A week ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a "members' preview" at the Roof Garden. I asked (among others) LXIV, who said that he couldn't go that night but we happy to go on a Friday evening, when the Museum is normally open late. That sounded good, and we agreed to meet on Friday, at six. Before heading up to the roof, we took in a couple of special exhibitions, including the strange Clark Brothers show, about which more in a moment.

We stepped out onto the terrace atop the Museum at just the right time: the line for the bar was only a few people long. By the time we were served, the line stretched back for quite a long distance. We would discover a similar line at the other bar. What slowed things down, certainly, was the martinis, even though they'd been pre-mixed. But by the time we left, near eight o'clock, I wondered if the official occupancy capacity had been reached. That we were standing about eight floors up, overlooking one of the finest views that New York has to offer, beneath a suggestive evening sky - none of that meant anything to the people at the cocktail party on the roof, all standing in little knots talking to one another just as they would in some dark club. It would appear that the Roof Garden is the happy hour destination for every Upper East Sider without a weekend place. That was LXIV's opinion, anyway.

Stephen (1882-1960) and (Robert) Sterling Clark (1877-1956) were two of four brothers who inherited an immense Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Stephen was active at the MoMA, while Sterling, fearful of nuclear attack, situated his collection out of harm's way in Williamstown, Massachusetts. They seem to have thought little of each other's collection of Impressionist and Early Modern painting, although they both liked Renoir. An exhibit of pictures and other works from their collections is on view in the André Meyer Galleries at the Met. It's very odd. The regular André Meyer Collection has been shipped off somewhere else. The special exhibition space at the southwest corner of the building has been closed off. I wish they'd tell us about these things ahead of time. It's very upsetting to have the André Meyer Galleries in disorder, even if they're far from my favorite part of the Museum.

June 25, 2007

God Is Not Great

A funny cartoon has already appeared in The New Yorker. Man walks into his apartment with a bolt of lightning stuck in his back. Wife reminds him that she warned him against reading "the Hitchens book." The joke, of course, is that the man is still walking. He may have to see a specialist about removing the lightning bolt, and he may even experience some pain. As a killer, however, the lightning bolt is a dud. What the cartoon captures perfectly is the idea that it's not nice to be disrespectful about religion.

Christopher Hitchens is not nice.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

June 24, 2007

Shrimp Timbales


Here's the recipe that I promised a few weeks ago. I wasn't entirely happy with the results. This time, I followed the instruction about the buttered foil (duh!), and I used the big Cuisinart instead of my little Kitchen Aid to purée both the timbale mixture and the sauce. Beaucoup plus satisfactory.

(I also used yellow peppers exclusively, contrary to the recipe I've given.)

Shrimp Timbales with a Pepper Sauce.

June 23, 2007

You Kill Me

When you look at the list of movies that Téa Leoni has made since Flirting With Disaster (1996), you have to decide between the following propositions: (a) Ms Leoni has a terrible agent, (b) she exhibits unguessed-at tics that make her hard to work with or (my favorite, c) they don't know what they're doing in Hollywood. Even Lucy at her sassiest couldn't deliver lines with such deadly, you're-probably-too-dumb-to-diagram-this-sentence aplomb.

Finally, she's got a part that she deserves, falling for a hit man played by Ben Kingsley. In an early scene, she smiles beatifically, but as a rule she doesn't look amused when she's cracking jokes. As romantic comedies go, You Kill Me is, if not dark, then very grave. These are real people we're talking about - or so it seems. So it really seems. I myself don't go to the movies in search of real people. I live on 86th Street, and there are plenty of real people right outside my front door. I have been known to find the "real people" effect mightily tedious in the theatre. So there's a extent to which I like You Kill Me despite itself. Always a funny feeling.

Just thinking out loud, but I wonder if I ought to have a rating system. Oh, not to measure what I thought of the movie. But rather to suggest how enthusiastically I'd recommend it, and to whom. Knocked Up, for example, is a slam-dunk example of a movie that everybody in this country ought to see (and elsewhere, too). Le Valet is the perfect movie for anyone who likes Gallic farce - and that's a lot of New Yorkers. You Kill Me is the sort of picture that garners every shade of appreciation and dislike.

There's no getting around the really strong performances, though. Ben Kingsley has effectively acted his way into a stratosphere beyond criticism. I hope that someone will give Téa Leoni the chance to do the same.

June 22, 2007

Nix to the Niqab

Jane Perlez's front-page story about British Muslim women who have taken to wearing the niqab, in today's Times, got my blood-pressure going. I can't decide whether arrest and deportation would be my response to this hateful affectation, which is a frightful insult to all grown males, or whether I would just urge people to ignore, utterly and totally, the wearers of such garments, even if they were writhing on the pavement. A woman who ventures forth hidden behind baleful robes has elected to take advantage of the community while refusing to join it. It's not on.


Courage has never been a virtue that I thought I possessed, much to my chagrin. But maybe I'm a little more courageous than I thought. Earl Shorris is certainly right in this: being courageous improves all the other virtues that you might have.

Sometimes, yes, I've learned, it's important just to soldier on even through the worst anxieties. "Anxieties." Did anyone with real courage ever use that word?

Earl Shorris on The National Character, in Harper's.

June 21, 2007

Big Night


As everyone knows, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index - known familiarly as the S&P 500 - celebrated its fiftieth anniversary recently. The birthday fell in March, and the celebration fell last night, at the Metropolitan Club. About three hundred financial types gathered to hear what a panel of index experts had to say, mostly about the past and present and, wisely, very little about the future. Ringers included at least two parents, which just goes to show that you're never too old for a school play, especially when the other kids on stage include John C Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, Yale economist Robert J Shiller, Times financial columnist Floyd Norris, and S&P indexer-in-chief David Blitzer.

And at least one spouse. That would be me.

Where to go for dinner after the reception? I suggested La Goulue, which was more or less around the corner, even though we didn't have a reservation. Amazingly, they seated us after the briefest of waits, during which we loitered by moviemaking trailers parked in the street. After dinner, I made bold to ask a passing professional about the project. All I can tell you is that Sigourney Weaver is in it.

There was a question about noise. Kathleen thought that La Goulue might be too loud for her parents. So we ran a sound check before we were seated. It was much too noisy from any objective standpoint, but it was not too noisy for my mother-in-law, nor for my father-in-law. Both were fascinated, in the original sense of the word, by the restaurant's Paris-in-New York rumble. Think Le Grand Colbert (Something's Gotta Give), but with more din. Great food, though.

Since Kathleen is essentially remarkable, I can't say that she said anything unusual in the panel discussion. She doesn't dazzle, but she does something much nicer. I would tell you what that is but she has trademarked the name and she doesn't license it. Her parents, who heard nothing but warm and glowing appraisals of their daughter from everyone they talked to at the reception, could not have been prouder.

June 20, 2007

Vitamin Deficiency

Doubtless I ought to be happier about New York Mayor Michael R Bloomberg's departure from the Republican fold in what many observers regard as the run-up to a presidential candidacy. I do believe that Mr Bloomberg would make a Great American President. He's very good at getting a grip on problems and convincing everyone that they must be dealt with. On the constructive side, his record is less impressive, but he seems to know when to give up on unpopular (bad) ideas. And there is a strange modesty to the man, an instinctive dislike of hot air. Which is all that his attention-hogging predecessor has to offer, in my humble opinion.

But the doctor tells me that I've got a serious Vitamin B-12 deficiency, even though I swallow an enormous B-complex horsepill every day. I'm scheduled for an injection at one-thirty.

In the Book Review

This week, there are four fiction titles and eight nonfiction titles. I've broken them down into six Yeses, five Maybes, and one No. Now that the Review reviews appear at Portico, where the passage of time has nothing to do with the architecture of the site, I'm giving serious thought to writing an "About What I'm Doing Here" page, in which I explain the considerations that guide me when I go through the Book Review each week. Only to the most ingenious reader is it likely to be readily apparent that I'm working in two dimensions, judging both the reviews as reviews and the merits of including the book in the Review at all. That's how it's possible for a well-written review to wind up in the Noes, and for poorly-written reviews to head the list of Yeses.

Thomas Agonistes.

June 19, 2007

Poiret at the Met


If you happen to find yourself at the Metropolitan Museum of Art between now and 5 August, make sure that you don't miss the Poiret show. It's on exhibit in what I believe is the only special-exhibitions space on the first floor. It's tucked in between the Greek and Roman Antiquities Galleries and the Petrie Sculpture Court.

This is not just another fashion show. First of all, the costumes are in magnificent condition. It's hard to believe that clothes made nearly a century ago have held up so well. But what's more important is the nature of the couture. Paul Poiret (1879-1944) was a draughtsman, but he could not sew. Perhaps for this reason, his designs are structurally quite simple - simple, that is, in the way that it takes great genius to arrive at. There may be a riot of detailed embroidery, lace, or cutwork, but the shape of his gowns and coats is elemental. Much of it looks strangely up-to-date.

And then there are the colors. Poiret's saturated colors, often presented in remarkably edgy contrasts, simply have to be seen. (This is especially true of linings. The coat above is lined in an arresting turquoise satin.) The bold luxe of Poiret's work is probably easier for the average man to like than is usually the case at the Costume Institute.

The show offers two hypnotic graphics, presented on scrims mounted in front of mannequins. In each case, the construction of the dress or coat in question is shown in fluid animation. In the first of these, a long oblong of cloth is folded and puckered and turned inside-out until, without cutting of any kind, a coat suddenly emerges, as bewilderingly as any rabbit out of a top hat.

June 18, 2007

Falling Man

As a New Yorker keeping a Web log not without literary pretensions, I felt more or less obligated to read Falling Man, even though I couldn't stand the one other book by Don DeLillo that I've read, Underworld. Let's just say that this extremely lengthy and, to put it generously, comprehensive novel did not spend a lot of time in my library once I'd done with it. It does give a frisson of sorts to recall the dust jacket: the Twin Towers seen through the bell tower of a small church - a bell tower rather like the one that was destroyed by the collapsing buildings, although belonging to a church rather farther away.

Years ago, I picked up a remaindered clothbound copy of White Noise, and I've always meant to read it. Falling Man is, in any case, the very opposite of Underworld in the length department. It reads like a full novel but it doesn't outstay its welcome. It's engrossing rather than taxing.

Don DeLillo's Falling Man.

June 17, 2007

Ear Worm

For years, Kathleen has had a compilation CD called Fire Island Classics/DJ Michael Fierman. She puts it on sometimes when she's organizing her closet. I've always liked the first cut, "The Whistle Song," by Frankie Knuckles, and the penultimate one, Sunscreen's "Looking at You." Yesterday morning, while we were both doing stuff in the bedroom, I noticed that Kathleen went to the machine to skip through one cut; I didn't know which. Later, I listened to the CD while I was tidying the room, as I do on Saturdays, and I heard the song that Kathleen cut through. It was "Hold On To My Love," by Jimmy Ruffin. In the album notes, it is described as an "anthem," and I can see why. It's a simplified, disco-fied version of "Unchained Melody." I listened to it about twenty times. Now it's an ear worm.

What a good, Twenty years after the rest of the world is so over a song, I get it. 

June 16, 2007

Away From Her

If I'd known how good Away From Her is, I'd have made a straight shot for it this morning. But I've been dopily wondering why anybody would want to cast Julie Christie as an Alzheimer's victim. That's as stupid as wondering why anybody would want to cast her as a drug addict.

In any case, I gave Ocean's 13 a try. I went to the Dopiplex on Third Avenue, known to the general public as the AMC Orpheum. Where for three showings in a row they screwed something up. This time: the movie that started after all the dopey credits was Pirates III. Nobody knew which auditorum Ocean's 13 was playing in. I was so disgusted that I actually demanded my six dollars back.

Then I collected myself and proceeded to have a tonic afternoon. I walked down Third Avenue and had a BLT at JG Melon. Pricey, but not ridiculous - and fast. Two more blocks, and I was ensconced in a much better-run AMC theatre. I even walked home afterward. A very tonic afternoon.

Away From Her.

June 15, 2007


This week, I've been under the weather most of the time. The good thing is that I've done a lot of reading. I've polished off Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. (I don't know quite how I think about it, or rather about its inevitable awesomeness.) Lots of periodicals, too, of which the article that I've written up for Portico (see link below) struck me as the most interesting. I wonder what Martha Nussbaum's book is like - a philosopher writing about political economy! Pankaj Mishra, however, is unfailing absorbing.

Pankaj Mishra on Martha C Nussbaum, in The New York Review of Books.

June 14, 2007



Sad to say, this is my favorite picture of me. I am so blasted. About a drink away from blacking out. But I am happy and easy. I am in my off-campus apartment at some point during the third year of law school. There is a party underway, although nothing big. Why I am wearing a windbreaker in my own house is something that only alcohol might explain. If you didn't know better, you'd take me for a shallow frat boy. (Sigh.) How nice it would have been to be the surprising frat boy who turns out not to be shallow. Alas, I overshot.

Can someone tell me: is that a "popped collar" that I'm wearing? Or just a mess? I went to school too early for jargon and theory. I do know that the windbreaker was commissioned by a coal company that my father's operation bought sometime in the Seventies. The seal is obscured by the turned-back front. It was called the Youghiogheny and Ohio coal company. Pronounced (according to Dad) Yahkah-gayny. "Youghio" is obviously the aboriginal form of "Ohio." Have you ever heard "Ohio" spoken by a Frenchman? It's "O-yo." How cool is that?

I thought it was very cool because having lived in Texas was a blight that it would take years to overcome or outlive, whichever came first. For just seven years I'd lived in Houston, but you'd think! "So you're from Texas?" people would say. It was wrong on so many levels, even though it was right, technically.

About the fingernail: the previous summer, when I was in New Hampshire clerking for my uncle (great forbearance on his part!), I slammed a car door on my finger. That took a long time to outlive, too. I'd have completely forgotten the colossal suffering that I felt for a few hours in the summer of 1979 if it were not for this souvenir.

June 13, 2007

In the Book Review

With this entry, my reviews of the reviews in The New York Times Book Review move to Portico. This completes the articulation of the two sites, making long entries at the Daily Blague a thing of the past, which they already were in every other respect.

The title of the review to which this weekly entry links will be taken from the cover of the issue in question. Thus "Tabloid Princess," for Caroline Weber's review of Tina Brown's The Diana Chronicles.


There are no Noes this week. And there are more than twice as many books in the Yeses than in the Maybes. And about half as many books in all, for which I'm grateful, after last week's load.

Rachel Donadio continues her "Backstage with Literature" series (my mockery) with an Essay, "Get With the Program," that's all about the hacks that geeky novelists (or novelists with geeky friends) have used to make generally available software useful for the plotting of novels. It made me wonder if Richard Powers will eventually mature into a novelist who knows how to conceal his art. Or is the science?

¶ Tabloid Princess (10 June 2007)

June 12, 2007

Equal Protection

In his column today, "The Young and Exploited Ask for Help," Clyde Haberman writes about what looks to me like an equal-protection problem. Or, rather, a problem that ought to be an equal-protection problem, but isn't, because laws protecting immigrant children from sex traffickers don't, ipso facto, apply to American children. Underage prostitutes, if they were born here, are not victims but criminals.

The thing is that if Ms. Waters and Ms. Smith were Thai or Russian and were turned into teenage prostitutes after arriving on these shores, they would be legally judged the victims of sex traffickers. But they are in effect penalized by being home grown, deemed to have committed criminal acts under New York law and subject to arrest and prosecution.

Before I cry "Injustice!", however, I reflect on another column in today's Times, David Brooks's. In "The Next Culture War," Mr Brooks distinguishes between educated individualists, who may be liberal or conservative, and "neighborhood" Americans, who tend to support nationalist and community values. Mr Brooks is also writing within the context of immigration, as it happens, and his discussion helps me to understand how it came to be that where you were born will determine how our legal system will treat you if it catches you selling your body. Thai and Russian girls are of no interest to neighborhood Americans, who will probably never encounter any. Therefore it's easy for cosmopolitan elitists to stand up for them without facing any opposition. American girls are quite something else, at least in the eyes of neighborhood Americans.

It's funny that Mr Brooks thinks that he's writing about the next culture war.

June 11, 2007

Books on Monday: The Queen of the Tambourine

The other day, I was getting ready to pay for a book at Crawford Doyle Booksellers, on Madison Avenue near the Museum, when I saw a copy of Jane Gardam's Old Filth on the counter. "Now that's a terrific novel," I said. The bookseller shot back that the store had some new/old titles in stock. Old Filth may be Ms Gardam's most recent novel, but she's already written about a dozen, none of them available in the United States until recently. Why on earth this should be so is a great mystery, given that Old Filth has sold very well (I'm told) on the Upper East Side. The book's crisp British humor and sly penetration into well-concealed irregularities give Ms Gardam's work something of the iffy thrill of Ruth Rendell's. But her characters (on the basis of two books) are all sane, well-brought-up types whose delusions are not dangerous.

I added The Queen of the Tambourine to my pile. Give yourself a treat and do likewise.

The Queen of the Tambourine.

June 10, 2007

Approaching Wharton


The end is in sight. I've reached the antepenultimate chapter of Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton. The books is nothing less than formidable, for the simple reason that its subject was one of the most formidable women ever to achieve fame. Shy and generally wretched as a girl (at least when she wasn't reading or "making up"), Edith Jones grew up to be an almost furiously organized great lady, with houses and gardens and a motor, who also wrote first-class fiction. There are times when you almost feel that she took herself too seriously. But then you see that what she took seriously was enjoying a meaningful life. She was very impatient with with anything that got in her way, and she had nothing but contempt for inferior amusements. Although she was a genuine Lady Bountiful to the needy and the distressed, her snobbery rose like Brünnhilde's fire as the position of those she dealt with approached her own. But she had no use for "society." She seems never to have made a connection based purely on title or celebrity. In a way, she carried herself as though she herself were at the apex of Creation, and there's something fine as well as grand about her manner.

And exhausting. How did she do it all? Of course she had servants who relieved her of everyday petty cares. (That's why she was so organized: once she had set something up, she didn't want to have to think about it.) But her literary output alone would have been entirely beyond, say, me. Her gardens benefited from sedulous attention, (You can see her gardens outside of Paris on Google Maps, by searching for Rue Édith Wharton, St Brice-sous-le-forêt, France; they stretch over five or six acres to the south of the road.) She was always entertaining one or another of her small band of select friends, most but not all of them accomplished men.

And then there was love. What would Wharton have been like if she'd known requited love early and long? She fell into rather insufficiently requited love late, and for not quite two years, with a somewhat dodgy and emotionally passive-aggressive man. When it was over, she was in her late forties, and losing her handsome but not beautiful looks to age. The rest of her 75 years were spent making do with friendships. And a very full schedule.

In 1919, when a Yale University professor called the novels of Wharton and Henry James "aristocratic" rather than (suitably American) "democratic." Wharton was very annoyed, and wrote to a friend,

How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be 'American' before (or in contradistinction to) being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, and having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries? 'Our' shortcomings should not be dressed up as 'a form of patriotism'.

As I consider the thousands of highly educated Americans who will soon be gathering before their flat screens to watch the conclusion of a soap opera that they've persuaded themselves is worthwhile entertainment, I feel how little has changed since Wharton's day.

I've become quite fond of the dust jacket photograph, which I'd never seen before, even though it inspired the drawing on the cover of R W B Lewis's 1975 biography.

June 09, 2007

The Exquisite Wit of Preston Sturges


The following exchange always stops me cold, coming as it does atop the sizzlingly funny Cinderella spoof in which Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) plays shoe clerk to Eve Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck. Then the two of them rejoin Eve's father (Charles Coburn).

Col Harrington: Ah, there you are. Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.

Eve: I'm lucky to have this on. Mr Pike has been up a river for a year.

Then the Colonel has the nerve to apologize for his daughter's ribaldry.

La Môme (La Vie en Rose)

It has been interesting to watch the face of Pascal Greggory, a major supporting actor in French film who often has leading roles in ensemble pieces, change with age. He used to have good looks of a very distinctive nature; in certain shots, he looked vaguely monstrous. Nowadays, he looks a lot like a finer-featured Bruce Willis. He exudes the same wary weariness. He is one of the many top-notch stars who make Olivier Dahan's La Môme a solid achievement as well as "a major motion picture."

The genius of this film is that it presents a true diva, in a scenery-eating role, that nonetheless never slights the other actors. Mr Dahan makes sure that you know that Édith Piaf did not live in a vacuum of egotism. Marion Cotillard, in the title role, may be at the center of every scene, but it's only the center that she occupies. There's plenty of room for the others.

The narrative line of La Môme is rather complex, and if I were truly diligent I would see it again before writing about it. When I acquire it on DVD, I promise to revisit it.

In the men's room of the Angelika, after the movie, some geezer in a stall was actually singing "Je ne regrette rien." His command of the lyrics was not commendable.

La Môme (La Vie en Rose)

PS: I think that A O Scott's review in the Times is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I hope that what I've had to say about the movie will counter his hastiness.

June 08, 2007

James Fallows on Chinese Manufacturing

For decades, James Fallows has been providing readers of The Atlantic with outstanding journalism on two fronts: business and cultural reportage from Asia, and personal computing. This month's cover story is his. Interestingly, the title on the cover is not the title in the magazine, and I somehow doubt that Mr Fallows is entirely happy with it. Written in the contrarian vein so popular at The Atlantic, it reads, "Why China's Rise Is Good For Us." Mr Fallows talks about growth in manufacturing capabilities, not a "rise" in the world-power sense. And he is careful to note that, while the current situation may be working for both China and the United States at the moment, there are aspects of it (such as our dependence on Chinese investment in our debt) that can't go on. Mr Fallows's more sensible title is "China Makes, the World Takes."

As always, Mr Fallows's piece is stuffed with interesting information. Did you know that there are (probably - it's difficult to count) more manufacturing jobs in Guangzhou Province alone than there are in the United States? (Guangzhou is the populous heartland of "Cantonese" culture.) Did you know that the laptop assembly lines make heavy use of barcodes and sensitive scales, to make sure that the proper part has been installed at each step of production? Did you know that workers live in subsidized dormitories and eat at subsidized cafeterias, something that allows them to bank a great deal more of their earnings than American workers can? Read the article.

James Fallows on Chinese Manufacturing, in The Atlantic.

Gone Fishing

In celebration of the good news this morning, I'm going fishing. Catch you later.

June 07, 2007



At the moment, I can't do the experience justice. Spending the midnight hour, two nights in a row, in a midtown conference room with Kathleen, while she participated in the morning sessions of an ETF conference held at the Marriott in Kuala Lumpur, wasn't rest-oriented. It was cool, though.

There were a few technical problems the first night, which was a last-minute affair. I had dinner with her beforehand and then walked her back to the office, where neither of us knew what to expect. Kathleen was assured that the head of IT would be there with her for the forty-five minute speech that she had been asked to deliver on the second night, which was set up the moment the KL people heard that Kathleen wouldn't be able to come in person. I was planning to stay home - until I heard from Kathleen that the head of IT had had a personal emergency and wouldn't be able to be on hand. I hopped in a taxi and was at her office within twelve minutes.

Eleven o'clock - the scheduled time - came and went without the teleconference call's coming through. Not to worry; they were running late in Malaysia. In fact, they had just broken up for a tea break. A lawyer who chatted with Kathleen while we waited told us that, at tea breaks in KL, "copious amounts of food" are de rigueur.

A bit before 12:30 AM our time, Kathleen was re-introduced to the conference (about three hundred people). We got home a little over an hour later. I did not go right to bed.

June 06, 2007

Notes on the New Rufus 1.01

A friend has pointed out me that the ending of "Between My Legs" quotes that of the title song from The Phantom of the Opera. A little more research digs up an entry on a Rufus message board that helpfully points out that the Phantom recites lines much like the ones that I've copied. Of course: the river underneath the town that only I know all about is the sewer of Paris.

What is Rufus up to?

Special Election

As it happens, Joe and I live in the same New York State Assembly district (the 65th). Yesterday, I asked Joe whom he'd be voting for in the special election triggered by the elevation, if that's what it is, of the longtime incumbent, Pete Grannis, to the Department of Environmental Conservation. Joe thanked me for reminding him of the election, and said that he'd be voting for the gay candidate. I voted for the Democratic candidate. And our man won, Micah Z Kellner.

Mr Kellner is 28. It was perhaps premature, and definitely fatuous, of him to crow, "I think it's clear people understood that I've been fighting hard for this community for a long time." I wish him well, though, as I'm sure does Joe.

I got to the polls at about three in the afternoon. "What's the turnout been like?" I asked. I was told that I was the forty-sixth voter to use the voting machine. There are several polling places within the district, each of which has a number of machines. But I would venture that hundreds if not thousands of people would be using that machine if everybody turned out to vote.

In the Book Review

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

It was my intention to move the Book Review review to Portico this week. And maybe I will.

As you know, The New York Times publishes books reviews daily, in its Arts Sections. These reviews, written by a handful of Times reporters, are completely independent (or appear to be) from the operation of the Book Review. This means that, in theory at least, the newspaper can disagree with itself. And that's what happened in practice when Michiko Kakutani's cluelessly unsympathetic review of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach ran in the paper a day before Jonathan Lethem's rave in the Book Review reached home-delivery subscribers.


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

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. Jonathan Lethem's review is unquestionably the best that I have read in the Review since I began reviewing it. There are great, generous quotations from the text, which Mr Lethem then comments on in interesting ways. Having noted that Mr McEwan has absorbed, and not felt challenged by, the narrative challenges to the novel that are posed by psychoanalysis and cinema.

In fact, McEwan may in retrospect be seen as the quintessential example of the recent integration of scientific interest into fiction, precisely because in McEwan (as opposed to, say, Richard Powers) such matters cease to be in any way remarkable.

A Day at the Beach, by Helen Schulman. Sarah Waters praises this 9/11 book as "finely wrought, deeply felt and mercifully funny," but indulges in eclipsing storytelling.

The Speed of Light, by Javier Cercas (translated by Anne McLean). Natasha Wimmer is persuasive in a short space about this Spanish novel set largely at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

In The Speed of Light, Cercas demonstrates that sophistication and sentiment are not mutually exclusive, and that history demands emotional engagement. At the same time, he proves (to his readers and to himself) that it is possible to delve into the tricky question of success without succumbing to hopeless narcissism.

Contested Water: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, by Jeff Wiltse. Dick Cavett winds up this sympathetic review with characteristic modesty.

I fear I lack the art of book reviewing. I don't know how to convey the sweep of the social history of this book, or its emotional color. At the end, Wiltse laments the passing of the great romantic pools and recalls his own experience of one in Seattle. They're his most cherished childhood memories. Finishing Contested Waters, I felt I'd had a good course in America. All its traits, fine and lamentable are found here - the most vivid being our stinking racism.

Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, by Lucy Morris. Judith Warner indulges in excessive storytelling here, but she does call the book "marvelous."

Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe that Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign, by Stephan Talty; The Sack of Panama: Captain Morgan and the Battle of the Caribbean, by Peter Earle; and The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard. Candice Millard makes the case that these are all serious and intelligent looks at the most mythical figures of modern times.

In the three centuries that have passed since pirates and privateers struck fear in the hearts of every ship captain, passenger, and crew member, these scoundrels have somehow become popular symbols of bravery and daring. But the appalling too of their predations leaves little room for nostalgia. What these three books offer, beyond rip-roaring adventure stories from a distant past, is an opportunity to understand pirates as they truly were - and to be grateful that the worst of them, at least, are gone.

The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific, by Julia Whitty. Holly Morris calls this a "quietly ambitious, if sometimes meandering book.

Whitty’s prose is supple and scientifically informed (a rare and graceful mix), and her intimacies with the ocean’s curiosities captivate. The less charming and more sobering subjects — say, the atrocities of cyanide fishing; or an island nation at 12 feet above sea level that is quite literally drowning in the juggernaut of global warming; or France’s vast atmospheric nuclear testing in Polynesia (which caused birth defects in newborns and turned reefs into nuclear waste dumps) — provide a visceral understanding of humanity’s relationship with the oceanic world.

Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family, by Alexander Waugh. This book, by the famous novelist's grandson, looks back a generation further, to Arthur Waugh, who much preferred his other son, Alec, to Evelyn. According to Christopher Hitchens, Mr Waugh has a truly "Wavian" eye.

About Alec’s children he adds: “He was friendly and polite with them, he did not argue with their mother and seldom disciplined them. Once he picked Peter up and hurled him out of a window, but that was an aberration and he felt guilty about it for the rest of his life.” The deadpan tone here shows Alexander to be a true and worthy descendant of the line. The genius of Evelyn Waugh, apart from the combination of “faith and frivolity,” was his ability to be hilariously heartless. (One thinks of the risible injustices he inflicts on his characters, from Paul Pennyfeather in “Decline and Fall” onward.) Alexander Waugh has a good eye for the real-life version of this trope. In one single paragraph he has his grandfather referring to his dyslexic fifth child, Harriet, as “my dud daughter,” and poisoning another child’s pet rabbits with vodka during the Christmas festivities. When his son Auberon was horribly injured while serving as a soldier in Cyprus, Evelyn chose the moment of his hospitalization to cut off the young man’s allowance. His belief in original sin mutated into a campaign to make sure that life was understood, and indeed experienced, as unfair.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution, by Thomas McNamee. Patric Kuh's review convinces me that this is not just another book about cuisine.

If Chez Panisse transformed American dining it is thanks to the passions of the people who have been part of it, particularly Waters. Because of her openness to the personal side of cooking, her ability to embrace it whatever confusion might result, Waters forced gastronomy down a more modest path. For the first time in this country, cuisine could mirror one’s own life and beliefs. And that would be the new way.

From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter With the American City, by Nathan Glazer. Kevin Baker present this book as an indispensable look at something not so funny that happened on the way to the Forum: modernist architecture, despite its highly visionary quality, rarely worked in cities.

Glazer argues that “the architect today ... aims at seeing himself as an artist, as he indeed always did.” But Modernist architects by their very nature refused to be bound by tradition. “They were all too ready to wipe away what existed and start with a clean slate,” and therefore “failed to explore just what it is people find attractive in areas and buildings.” Freed from any past, they give us public monuments that seem meaningless, housing projects that take no account of community, works that constantly favor artistic bravura over any sense of a pleasing, sustainable living environment.


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

After Dark, by Haruki Murakami. Walter Kirn tries to praise this book but can't come up with anything compelling. He complains, moreover, of "disruptive and distracting" dream episodes.

The Big Question, by Chuck Barris. Neil Genzlinger's surprise at finding Chuck Barris to be "an excellent juggler, deftly creating an assortment of eccentrics and misfits who find themselves on paths that converge in "The Big Question" greenroom. Well, who would know better from game shows? "If Barris, like his bigoted alter ego, is in fact a bitter old man, he's a darn funny one."

Right Livelihoods: Three Novellas, by Rick Moody. Liesl Schillinger tries her best, but you can hear the air leaking out of her final paragraph, as she writes about one of the novellas that this book comprises:

“K&K” may lack the pathos that would make it bloom, but it’s still rich in arid humor and has the indestructible, if potted, vitality of a cactus on a receptionist’s desk. Even here, Moody never puts a foot wrong; he just sends his character down a path that’s too well worn. It’s his own fault — and accomplishment — that we’ve come to expect him to break a new path every time he invites us on a journey.

Summer Reading, by Hilma Wolitzer. Anne Mendelssohn wants to speak highly of this book about a book-club in the Hamptons, but from the moment she applies the words "pastel-shaded mode" to it, its literary quality is left in doubt.

The Best Place to Be, by Leslie Dormen; and Tourist Season: Stories, by Enid Shomer. Alex Kuczynski. Ms Kuczynski likes these books, and she finds Tourist Season "a more ambitious literary attempt" than The Best Place to Be, her review is rather easygoing.

The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander. Will Blythe starts off his review with nearly reverential tones, but by the end he has exposed a problem with this novel, which is set in Argentina's Dirty War. It would have made more sense to begin with the problem and then to answer his own questions one way or the other. Here's the final paragraph:

Doesn’t the larger-than-life quality of the fable employed here make the disappeared disappear again, not into the sea but into a fairy tale of redemption and continuity? Englander softens the jagged edges of history too much; the Dirty War becomes a stage set for explorations of identity. Beautifully written, “The Ministry of Special Cases” nonetheless presents a conundrum. Englander does in fiction what his absent God cannot: create a world. And then he peoples that world with characters that he treats better than history ever would. Such decency is not a large failing in a young novelist. If only the junta had been half so kind.

April in Paris, by Michael Wallner. Joseph Finder suggests that this novel about a German in wartime Paris is Alan Furst lite. "Like its protagonist, adrift between two worlds, it can't quite decide what it wants to be." That's not very helpful to anybody.

Inglorious, by Joanna Kavenna. The problem with this novel, according to Sarah Churchwell, is that it is trapped by its subject.

Without a doubt, Kavenna successfully renders depression. What’s less certain is whether successfully rendering depression renders a novel successful. Change and conflict provide a story’s oxygen; without them, it chokes.

Unless I missed something, Ms Churchwell nowhere suggests how this book ends.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Lisa See's review tries to have things both ways. The book is ambitious; it is also easy to read. Storytelling takes the place of examination; the grain of Mr Hosseini's writing is not conveyed. And what is one to make of this? (Notice the opening "Yet."):

Yet Hosseini succeeds in carrying readers along because he understands the power of emotion as few other popular writers do. As he did in “The Kite Runner,” he uses a melodramatic plot to convey vividly the many aspects of love and the ways people sacrifice themselves for those they hold dear. With “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” Hosseini has shown that he doesn’t intend to be a one-hit wonder. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season, by Jonathan Eig. The story of Branch Rickey's carefully calculated introduction of a gifted black player onto the roster of the Brooklyn Dodgers is an important story in the history of American race relations, but, according to Jay Jennings, Mr Eig's "analysis and prose are hit-and-miss.

Ingrid: Ingrid Bergman: A Personal Biography, by Charlotte Chandler. Howard Hampton warns film buffs that this book is "useless as an artistic overview," but goes on to say that it "gradually uncorks some enjoyably incidental oral history." Nothing could define a "Maybe" book better than good film gossip without intelligent film commentary.

The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader. What am I thinking? Surely this book deserves to be among the Yeses? And yet A O Scott's review is not the first one that I've read that recommends reading Kingsley Amis in lieu of reading Mr Leader's diligent but "bland and bloodless" portrait of the author as an industrious sensualist.

Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image, by Bennetta Jules-Rosette. Kaiama Glover seems to like this book, but the snippets that she quotes are charged with the dreaded jargon of Theory.

Ruffian: A Ractrack Romance, by William Nach. Eric Banks argues that this isn't just a book about a horse, but one about a shift in the culture. The grim end of Ruffian's career at Belmont in 1975 appears to have marked the beginning of the long decline of New York's racetracks.

In looking back at that halcyon year with Ruffian and its horrific denouement, Nack is ever a sensitive observer, and by 1975 he knew something had changed in the sport. (Match races will have that effect: they are the sport at its most atavistic, with the all-out head-to-head competition akin to that of an 18th-century blood sport.) The breeding industry had emphasized speed over stamina — “These were the termites in the walls of the breed. Ruffian was not without her own nest of them” — with a resulting rise of fatal breakdowns. Watching the ministrations to a dying gelding, he writes, he began to see not “the old romantic notion, shaped by those summers” in Chicago “and all that reading I had done in college,” but “a picture framed by cannon bones and inked in darker and more somber hues.” When he witnessed the stricken Ruffian, in shock and pain before being euthanized, that ink had fully dried. Some might scoff at describing the demise of a horse (and all she symbolized) as a tragedy, but Nack’s requiem — for the animal, for his feelings — summons nothing less.

Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty. Danielle Chapman admires the poet Mark Doty, but feels that this memoir, covering events memorialized in fine poems, trivializes them.

It’s no surprise, really, that a poet’s memoir about his dogs would turn into a book about mortality. Nor is it surprising that events that seem quite ordinary from the outside would be felt with this degree of intensity by a poet. But with its breathless aestheticizing of dog life, its melodrama and its rehashing of old material, “Dog Years” often comes dangerously close to parodying Doty’s best work. While one never doubts the authenticity of Doty’s love for his dogs, one does doubt the wisdom of attempting to turn all of this into the stuff of high tragedy.

It doesn't seem to cross Ms Chapman's mind that Mr Doty might be trying to widen his audience, to include folks who just don't read poetry.

Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries and Deadly Games, by Tennent H Bagley. Evan Thomas's review is something of a mess, because it tries to follow Mr Bagley into the funhouse mirrors of counterespionage. The accompanying photograph of James Jesus Angleton is mystifying at best.

Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, by Chris Salewicz. Robert Christgau's extremely insidery review of this book about one half of the team that produced the best songs in the repertoire of the band, The Clash. His appraisal of the book is far from enthusiastic.

I’ve paged through music biographies far klutzier than Salewicz’s and gratefully come away with what I needed. But for a labor of love, this one’s a serious struggle. When I referred back to Jon Savage’s Sex Pistols-centered punk history, “England’s Dreaming,” my eye was caught by the clause “the slow death by suffocation that is all too often the emotional experience of living in England.” While this well-put truism is hardly the crowning moment of Savage’s excellent book, not once had I encountered prose as striking in Salewicz. Then I looked for the kind of interview quotes that clutter “Redemption Song” and found, not to my surprise, that Savage’s were sparer and briefer. A quick check of music bios I admire — of Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Sun Ra, Janis Joplin, Sylvester — revealed that not one used supporting quotations even as much as Savage.

If you think that's bad, just wait a paragraph, where Mr Christgau follows up the suggestion that Mr Salewicz ought to have relied a bit less on quotations with this corker: "But then he would have been compelled to share more of his own thoughts, and they are not his strength."

Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, by Andy Letcher. Dick Terani writes that this book is so engaging that he went out and tried to find some psilocybes. He doesn't claim to have ingested any, but then neithere has Mr Letcher, whose principal objective seems to be clearing away a lot of the suppositious mythology about the use of "magic mushrooms" in ancient history.

Considering Doris Day, by Tom Santopietro. Reviewer (and singer) Nellie McKay is clearly a big, big fan of Doris Day. She doesn't have much to say about this book, unfortunately. She calls it "sympathetic" and "knowledgeable," but she doesn't care for his overuse of pat phrases. It would be tempting to mistake her enthusiasm for Mr Santopietro's subject as a vote for his book, but, on balance, intuition suggests otherwise.


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

Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk. Field Maloney writes,

Even his admirers may be disappointed by “Rant.” As a project, it has a dialed-in, flabby air. The sci-fi conceits are derivative and give the plot a hoary implausibility (and I’m not even addressing his “Michael Crichton for the Utne Reader set” conspiracy theories about Henry Kissinger, AIDS and Africa). Palahniuk has always been more sensation artist and cultural vacuum than storyteller. His characters aren’t developed so much as given colorfully grotesque and morbid mannerisms and back stories. Sometimes he gets away with this by force of an assured voice and a febrile imagination: “Fight Club” had a cold stylish gleam; at some level its fantasies seduced. Take that away and all that’s left is shock as shtick.

The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, the World's Greatest Racehorse, by Lawrence Scanlan. Bill Barich's review suggests that this book is more about Shorty Sweat, Secretariat's "devoted groom," than it is about the famous thoroughbred, but adds that Mr Scanlan "doesn't bring Sweat to life."

It's Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks, by James Robert Parish; and Rickles' Book, by Don Rickles, with David Ritz. These books may be much better than Liz Brown's review suggests, her praise notwithstanding. They come off here as gift books for curmudgeonly convalescents.

June 05, 2007

Notes on the New Rufus 1.0

"Between My Legs," the fifth entry on Release the Stars, starts out as a driving rock song with a motif rather than a tune, and the sardonic iteration of its title. The thrust of the verse seems to be that the singer and the person whom he is addressing are out of sorts, mismatched, never in the same place at the right time. Rufus's tone is world-weary but his singing is fairly straight.

Then comes the puzzling chorus, which promises that, when the world comes to an end, all the addressee has to do is to call Rufus, who will arrange an "exit as it all is happening." The language of the chorus is far more poetic than is that of the verse, and it is set to a series of rising phrases that also suggest a hymn, even though the insistent rock beat continues unimpeded. Arpeggiated chords suggest a playful halo, and backup singers contribute a gospel note.

There is a second verse, and a second chorus, and then the song opens up into something completely different. Rufus describes his exit strategy thus:

'Cause there's a river

Running underground.

Underneath the town towards the sea,

That only I know all about.

On which from this city we can flee.

The music to which this is set is exalted and anthemic, even though the first three lines are accompanied only be noodling guitars and reverberation. On the word "sea," the driving rhythm recurs, utterly transformed by the new atmosphere. In the background, trumpets and horns flourish regally. As if all of this weren't far enough away from the song's beginnings. the actress Sîan Phillips - Reverend Mother in David Lynch's Dune - recites the exit lines with unabashed staginess, as if to faux-scare little children. When she gets to the last line, Rufus sings it overhead. The ending, scored to sound something like a carousel organ, and swinging majestically and uncomplicatedly between tonic and the augmented fifth, is as massive, in its way, as the finale of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.

What it all means, I have no idea. But what interests me is the way that Rufus has of transforming songs by taking them off in unforeseen but absolutely convincing directions. The most brilliant of such songs is "Memphis Skyline," from Want Two: when the main part of the song is over, a dissonant note on the piano heralds the shimmering apotheosis of the Orphic lyrics. Here in "Between My Legs" as well, the songwriter strikes the note of apocalyptic metamorphosis.


The other day, Jason Kottke posted an entry about the word "embiggen," calling it a "cromulent" word.

I had to look up "cromulent." I don't remember what it means, but I know that it comes from The Simpsons, a show that, like almost all televised entertainment, I have never seen.

The Simpsons challenges my sense of humor. I know that it's supposed to be funny, but I disapprove, massively. I am a complete prune on the subject of The Simpsons. Never having seen the show, I don't know what it is that I disapprove of, but that's not important. As my mother once said, when all my sister and I were doing was burning incense, "I'd know the smell of marijuana anywhere!"

As far as I'm concerned, the only constructive thing that the Federal Communications Commission could conceivably do would be to stop television altogether. That's right - no more TV for anybody! Given my draconian perspective, I didn't really give a damn about the Second Circuit's rejection of an FCC ban on "vulgar" language. The deck on the Times story, though, was amusing. "If Bush Can Blurt Curse, So Can Network TV."

When I got up this morning, the cable service was out. When I tried to place a call on the cell phone, the screen told me that I had an "unregistered SIM card." Both problems have been cleared up. The cable service came back on after a while, and rebooting the phone (if that's the way to put it) cleared up the registration problem. But I'm feeling a bit fragile.

To put it another way, I'm in no mood for cromulence.

June 04, 2007

Not that tired.

Had I not fallen apart last week, there would be nothing to read here today. I'd have posted an entry over the weekend announcing a few days' hiatus, while I visited a friend in the country and took a break from blogging. Kathleen, meanwhile, would have arrived at Kuala Lumpur by now. But on Friday morning, the alarmed internist advised against any travel for either of us.

Yesterday morning, I woke as bright as a morning glory. Paging through the Times, I was almost alarmed by the number of interesting stories that I might comment on. This morning, considerably wearier, I looked through the same section in vain. Most of the exciting pieces had so completely lost their lustre that I passed over them all unawares. The few that I recognized no longer promised to yield interesting commentary.

Such swings sound a lot like the shift from mania to depression. But in my case they happen very quickly and, in retrospect, are fully explicable in terms of fatigue. The sad fact is that, instead of taking it easy over the weekend, I not only tidied up the household but dealt, as I wrote yesterday, with numerous "messes" - piles of books, piles of mail, tote bags full of who-knows-what, and other litter. These messes accumulate because - that's right! - I'm usually too tired to deal with them. Keeping up with what I want to do each day is hard enough.

If only someone would customize David Allen's Getting Things Done for me. The hardest thing about all of this is wrestling with the moral question. To what extent am I responsible for being a better manager of my own resources? How expert am I supposed to be about pacing myself when all the evidence suggests that I can't trust my own feelings. My warning systems, if you will, don't work, if they're in place at all. Is that my fault, or just the way I'm made?

Although not at my best this morning, I'm far from last week's worst. I've got enough spunk to be angry about the Supreme Court's Ledbetter decision last week, which, as dissenter Ruth Bader Ginsburg complained, overlooked the fact that most employees are in no position to know whether they're being discriminated against when it comes to paychecks. The majority is re-imposing the pro-business formalism that emasculated so much progressive legislation at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It's appalling! But I've got enough spunk, too, not to mistake the decision for the end of the world. I'm tired, but I'm not that tired.

June 03, 2007



The building's air conditioning came back on last night, but until then the blue room*, with its new window unit, was the place to be. So I tackled a lot of messes, mostly by exporting them to other parts of the apartment. Among the things I had to deal with was a colorful South American tote bag that held a miscellany of photograph albums. One of the handles had finally unraveled completely, so the bag had to go. In the process of clearing it out, the snapshot above fluttered to the ground.

Lord! I thought. All that hair is so hot! And not in the good sense of "hot." And so red! I've grown very fond of my silvery grey hair. I'm in every way more comfortable with myself today than I was when the picture was taken (believe me!). Youth is so totally wasted on the young.

The lady in the picture is, of course, Miss G. Isn't she cute? She's even cuter now.

* The blue room is our apartment's second bedroom, which I use as a library/writing room. It has been painted some shade of blue for the entirety of our twenty-four year occupancy.

June 02, 2007

Knocked Up

Perhaps the clearest way of announcing my substantial recovery from Thursday's crisis is my essay on Knocked Up, Judd Apatow's new hit. It could not have been written by a depressed person or a psychotic person or even a drunk person. It did take too long to write; I'm far from the top of my game. While I feel well enough, Kathleen tells me that my face looks drawn, and I'm sure that she's right.

But for Paul Rudd (who was also in Mr Apatow's first movie, The 40 Year Old Virgin), the actors were unknown to me before I saw the film. That's very unusual for me, and I'll sometimes avoid movies whose stars are unknown, not because I demand name brands but because unknowns are so often the best that an indifferent project could attract. 

Knocked Up.


Many thanks to everyone who has worried about me. I'm immensely moved - and that's why the concern can stop. If I were really disturbed, I wouldn't care. And for a few hours yesterday morning, I didn't care. But I see now that not caring was a sound response to a bad circumstance. The hurling myself in front of a train part wasn't sound, I admit. But the shut-down was very wise. It was, after all, a shut-down that concentrated not on local subway stops but on getting to the therapist's at 12:30.

The fractious computer didn't bother me for the usual reasons - I want my MTV! - but for my own. Introducing long and, occasionally, thoughtful essays with short and punchy lead-ins on the blog has become What I Do. And let me tell you: spending most of your free time on a learning curve in your late fifties is not something that I recommend to anybody. It's Arctic. Almost everybody you talk to is half your age. Or - and this is a compliment to you, bub (meaning me) - gay* Or gay and half your age.

Anyway, I got caught. The a/c was out and my computer wasn't working, and now I'm not going to Connecticut for a week of R and R and Kathleen's not going to Kuala Lumpur for some important career development. There was a time when I'd have wondered if I'd stage-managed things to keep Kathleen from traveling, but I know that we're not there anymore. I just broke down: heat and Microsoft are the culprits. Or rather, my fatigue after whistling in the dark for over a year.

The phone rings. It's nearly one in the morning. It's Kuala Lumpur. What if they teleconference Kathleen?

That is so wow.

*And wonders about you. As if you hadn't.

June 01, 2007


The complex personality that is me seems to be falling apart.

Yesterday morning, I was happy enough when I awoke. But the computer had shut down again during the night sua sponte. And there was the threat of unpleasantly warm weather. Something snapped. I wasn't just put out. In fact, I never even raised my voice in protest. I just dreamed of throwing myself in front of a subway train. It was the opposite of anger. I wasn't bustling with outraged emotion. I didn't feel anything. The meanings in my life had all been effaced.

Not erased, as I first thought. Meaning revived as the day went on (thanks hugely to Jane Gardam, by the way), and I began to care again. But now, about to go to bed, I feel the emptiness of the recovery more than the recovery itself. If "life had no meaning," I wouldn't, obviously, be writing here, and I'm writing here with a passion. But the rest of life, the life that I live among other corporeal beings - all right, bodies - that's hard to take. Why do I take up so much space, and why, despite so much evidence to the contrary, do I feel that nobody wants to be anywhere near me? 

We all know that I'm massively overtired, trying to do at fifty-nine what I barely carried off at thirty-five, and failing. But I'm going to the doctor this morning anyway, just in case there's something organically wrong. (My therapist wondered if I mightn't have had a small stroke.) It throws everything up in the air - Kathleen's trip to Kuala Lumpur, my time-out in Connecticut. I'm on something like a suicide watch.

Thanks for reading. I mean it.

Humanist Economics

What if our economics was humanist instead of "scientific"?

Has anyone ever even talked of a humanist economics?

If not, I claim dibs.

John Lardner on Uchitelle, Bogle, and LeRoy, in The New York Review of Books.